The Great Divide

In reply to Alan Kohler's Quarterly Essay, The Great Divide: Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It.


Response to Correspondence 

Alan Kohler

Tackling Australia’s housing mess in a Quarterly Essay was a daunting task, partly because it’s a big, complicated mess, but also because everyone has a firm opinion on the subject and a lot of smart people have spent their lives studying it, and I’m not one of them. But the responses to the essay have been plentiful, informative and gratifying, including the ones from those who weren’t impressed with what I had written; as always, you learn more from those who disagree with you than those who agree. I’m grateful for all of them.

Brendan Coates and Joey Maloney at the Grattan Institute didn’t like my suggestion of fast trains to open up regional areas for viable commuting to the city, which they called an “unfortunate misfire” and Peter Tulip thought I overemphasised the impact of tax concessions. I want to deal in detail with each of these two responses because I learnt from them, and they get to the heart of the problem – and the solutions.

Brendan and Joey think I too easily dismissed the potential for densifying the suburbs – that is, building more medium-density housing in good locations that use existing infrastructure. They tell us that, going into the pandemic, Australia had 400 homes per 1000 people, among the least amount of housing stock per person in the developed world, and we have some of the least dense cities. The reason is simple, they say: the processes that dictate what gets built where are hugely biased against change.

The answer, they assert, is equally simple: “If the problem is not enough homes in established suburbs, surely any meaningful solution must involve building more homes in said suburbs?”

“Kohler misses the moment,” they write. “The political mood is changing. There is a growing groundswell of support for more density, and a growing awareness of the costs of locking up vast tracts of our cities from development.”

They are dead right that I’ve missed that. If there is a groundswell of support for more density, it has passed me by, which is clearly a failure on my part. Brendan and Joey say that I am unduly pessimistic, and they are also dead right that I’m pessimistic – about the capacity of Australian politics to deliver difficult solutions about anything, especially denser housing. Unduly so, as they assert? Time will tell. I really hope the men from Grattan are right and I’m wrong, because it’s quite true that “denser cities are more efficient cities,” and that by far the simplest solution to the shortage of housing and high prices would be more medium-density housing close to the city.

To drive home my misfire, Mark Walker persuasively explains the difficulties of fast trains:

It is the convoluted, contour-following nature of the original nineteenth-century track alignment that still largely dictates the speed of trains today. To speed them up, we need to spend big on upgrading the actual line of rail – the embankments, viaducts and cuttings on which the rails are laid . . . The problem is centrifugal force. The faster a train travels, the gentler must be the bends in the track, or the engines and carriages can tip up, and tip over.

So that seals it: fast trains are too expensive and they won’t be needed because the NIMBYs are in retreat. What I wrote in the essay is wrong, it seems, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Peter Tulip’s complaint is that I put too much weight on the impact of negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount introduced in 1999 – any weight at all, in fact. “There is no credible research supporting this claim,” he writes.

When I began this project, I decided to investigate and explain the housing problem in three steps: first, what happened to house prices; second, what the effect on Australia and its citizens has been; and third, when it happened. I thought the “when” would help explain the “why,” and all these things together would provide the solutions. The “when,” I thought, was evident from the two charts towards the front of the essay of house prices against both incomes and GDP. It obviously happened in 2000.

I admire Peter’s work and his expertise, and he says I should have used a logarithmic (log) scale, which would have told a different story: that “an acceleration can be seen [after 2000], but it is not dramatic and it begins before the tax change.”

Log scales are used to show exponential curves because they don’t fit on a graph. I’m not sure why a log scale is needed for house prices. Peter includes a log-scale chart of house prices in his response, which he says shows that house prices started rising before 2000. Well, looking at his chart, it’s clear that prices were broadly flat from 1972 to 1987, jumped sharply between 1987 and 1990, which was the rise “before the tax change” that Peter talks about, were flat again for ten years, and then from 2000 rose rapidly and inexorably for more than twenty years to the present day.

I’m sorry, but I reckon that rise in Peter’s log-scale graph is dramatic, and I just don’t accept that the jump in prices in the late 1980s – which was the property bubble and bust that produced the 1991 recession – rules out the tax reforms of 1999 as an important cause of rising house prices. If anything, Peter’s chart reinforces the point, even without including household incomes or GDP.

Graphs aside, house prices increased at 3 per cent per annum before 2000, the same rate as income, and 6 per cent after 2000, double the rate of income. So I stand by the proposition that the psychological effect of halving the capital gains tax with pre-existing negative gearing deductions had a big impact on demand for houses, and that removing those tax concessions must be an important part of dealing with housing affordability.

But I appreciated the generous efforts of Peter, Brendan and Joey to set me straight, and of course the kind words of many others, including those responses that couldn’t be printed for space reasons. I particularly valued Judith Brett’s historical insights, Nicole Haddow’s millennial viewpoint and Nicholas Reece’s local council perspective.

The process of researching this subject and then engaging with responses to my essay has confirmed that this is a subject about which a lot of people have been thinking deeply and expertly for a long time, and Australia is well served by them. It’s just a pity they are not listened to more. We are less well served by the politicians and bureaucrats whose job it is to do something about it.

Alan Kohler



Evan Thornley & Jane-Frances Kelly

Housing is an enormously complex subject, frequently misunderstood by experts and the public alike. Alan Kohler’s insightful analysis navigates through the historical evolution and policy complexities, rightly diagnosing that our challenges have been decades in the making. He is astute in his observation that it’s difficult for governments to act, as housing policy change generally creates losers as well as winners (in any given year, the number of home owners with an interest in high house prices is vastly larger than those trying to get into the market).

But the view that if only governments could muster the political courage to alter some policy settings, this could all be fixed is, sadly, wrong. We wish it were that easy.

The role of government incentives and interest rates can be overstated in their effect on house prices. Over the last twenty years, house prices have grown on average by just over 7 per cent a year, a $7.1 trillion increase. Government policy, in the form of preferential tax treatment and incentives for property assets, is often asserted as the main reason for this growth. However, the Reserve Bank of Australia has published estimates that the capital gains tax exemption and negative gearing combined account for less than 2 per cent of the multi-trillion-dollar recent growth in house prices.

Meanwhile, media commentary typically focuses on the role of interest rates. But property prices increased substantially during the thirty years of rising interest rates after World War II, as well as in thirty years of falling rates after 1990 (and as rates have increased more recently). While both interest rates and tax policies are relevant, they don’t explain most of the growth we’ve seen in Australia over many decades.

So, what is the biggest driver of the growth of house prices over such a long period? We think the single largest thing that is underplayed is the importance of land value.

Land has a significant and outsized role in house prices because it’s not like other things we buy. We all need a place to live, so land is different from the kinds of goods where, if the price gets too high, people can opt out of using it (hence, if necessary, people stop eating out in order to continue to pay their mortgages, rather than the other way around). And, crucially, there’s only so much of it – as Mark Twain put it, “They’re not making it anymore.”

The supply is doubly fixed, given that each parcel of land occupies a unique location. It’s often observed that Australia has an abundance of land. But well-located land – near jobs, public transport, services and amenities – is limited. This, of course, is where most people want to live.

This is a bigger challenge in Australia than elsewhere. Australia has unusually high population growth – only one other country in the developed world has such consistently high growth. Also unusually, Australians are highly concentrated in a few large, low-density cities. Between them, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane house half the population, the majority living in low-density areas between the CBDs and fringe greenfield developments.

This combination of high population growth and an unusual urban settlement pattern makes well-located urban land much scarcer in Australia than elsewhere. And when a good is scarce, we can expect its value to increase. In our white paper What Drives Australian House Prices Over the Long Term, we have calculated that, driven by land value, residential property now constitutes almost half of Australia’s total national assets.

So while many point the finger at various government policies or inaction as the principal problem, we think the problems are fundamentally structural, rooted in the role of land values. As such, no simple change in government policy can solve them. Given how hard it is for governments to act in this area, that is probably just as well.

On a parenthetical note, it is essential to distinguish between land value and building value. While buildings typically depreciate over time (as wear and tear erode their value, and desirability decreases relative to newer buildings), land, especially well-located land, appreciates due to its limited and scarce nature. Houses and other detached dwellings typically have the major proportion of their value consisting of land value, while high-density apartments typically have a low proportion. This distinction contributes to the varied growth profiles of different property types, with detached dwellings exhibiting the strongest growth, and higher-density apartments typically experiencing the lowest.

What to do? We think the creation of an Australian Housing Fund industry is the real solution.

To have any chance of working at the scale required, solutions need to run with the economics of the Australian property market, rather than against them. The role of land value described above makes Australia a high capital-growth residential property market. It is also, therefore, a lower-yield market, unlike, for example, the US residential property market, which in the main is characterised by higher yields. This means that overseas solutions, such as Build to Rent, which rely on good yields for their returns to investors, run counter to the economics of the Australian property market and are likely not to be attractive enough to make a significant difference.

But a high-growth market also constitutes an opportunity. At the moment, there are only two ways to benefit from the high capital growth available in Australia: owner occupation, and direct property investment through being a landlord. At the same time, high house prices relative to incomes make deposits ever harder to save, locking too many people out of home ownership. They are then stuck in a poorly performing private rental system which works for neither renters nor landlords (the former get poor tenure security and a poor experience, while the latter get poor average returns along with management and maintenance headaches).

The capital growth available in Australia’s housing market – driven by our population growth and settlement structure – means that large amounts of private capital could be mobilised to help solve these problems. In Mobilising Private Capital for Housing Solutions, we argue that a Housing Fund industry could be put to work by using investors’ money to solve two enormous challenges: to help people into home ownership through shared equity; and to give renters security of tenure and a better experience.

Shared-equity models can ease Australia’s housing affordability crisis by allowing homebuyers to purchase property with lower savings for a deposit in exchange for giving some of their home’s equity or capital growth to a third party. Housing funds would provide the capital for shared-equity providers to co-invest with eligible homebuyers. Governments are now offering shared equity in most jurisdictions but we will need private capital to meet needs that are an order of magnitude bigger than governments can fund.

This is particularly relevant for first homebuyers or those who have difficulty saving for the large deposit needed to purchase a home, including those who do not have access to financial assistance from the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Home ownership, even with a mortgage, is the best form of housing security in Australia, with no risk of residency being terminated by a landlord, and numerous protections from banks and governments to help financially at-risk households avoid foreclosure. Home owners also experience a higher quality of experience than renters, facing few restrictions around alterations or renovations, and aren’t subject to inspections, lease contract renewals or disrespectful treatment by poor property managers.

For those who cannot or do not want to own, housing funds would also invest in owning and managing large portfolios of long-term rental properties – a model long established in mainland Europe. These would provide tenants with a security of tenure not currently available in the private rental market, along with a significantly better renting experience. Housing funds could further differentiate themselves by giving tenants guarantees relating to safety, autonomy, flexibility and dignity. Multi-year rental agreements, interior alterations, maintenance request guarantees, high minimum standards on heating and cooling, energy retrofitting and minimum energy-efficiency standards would all be in the interests of the providers as well as tenants. Governments should ensure that the industry is regulated so that only reputable providers are able to operate – lessons should be learnt from the United States, where there is both good and bad provision.

It should be noted that current land tax policy represents a significant barrier to the development of institutional ownership in Australia. Other than in the ACT, under current settings the more land that individuals and corporations own, the higher their land tax rates. Since providers of affordable housing, who rent at a discount to the market, are exempt from land tax, the only current pathway for institutional ownership is as affordable housing providers. This is good for the provision of below-market rentals but means that households in the private rental system would not be able to access the tenure security and improved experience that institutional ownership would make possible.

The almost $10-trillion residential housing market and the growing scale of our housing crises mean that governments alone will never be able to fix them. The capital growth in Australian housing alone is roughly equal in size to the entire federal budget. But there could be a scalable solution through mobilising private capital.

The federal government recently announced a major push to work with superannuation funds to engage with Australian housing, as they currently have very little exposure to Australian residential property despite their substantial size and the magnitude of the asset class. Indeed, when discussing private investment in Australia, most of the discussion, and certainly most policy emphasis, is focused on institutional investors – notably large superannuation funds.

A much larger source of capital lies with landlords, where two and a half million individual property investors between them have over $2 trillion invested in over a quarter of Australia’s residential property market (and, in contrast to superannuation funds, have already chosen the asset class). And, because much of this capital is generating poor returns alongside daily problems for both landlords and renters, it is a capital pool that is ripe for redeployment for better housing outcomes. Corporate, family office and high-net-worth individuals also have an important role to play, particularly in seeding demonstration funds.

Our inspiration for these funds is the creation, forty years ago, of Australia’s superannuation funds, which have revolutionised our post-work lives. The role of superannuation funds is to provide secure dignified retirement. Given the opportunity, housing funds could become the architects of secure dignified housing.

Evan Thornley & Jane-Frances Kelly



Stephen Smith

Alan Kohler’s essay is an excellent summary of the key issues which have contributed to Australia’s housing affordability crisis. It is one of the few substantial, lucid analyses to comprehensively consider the contribution of poor policy to both insufficient housing supply and excessive housing demand.

Alan aims most of his rhetorical barbs at the political class – of all persuasions, and all three levels of government, over many decades. In Alan’s narrative, politicians are the primary perpetrators of the problem, as well as the custodians of the solutions.

Politicians do indeed carry a significant share of the responsibility. Alan expertly sets out the perverse political incentives which have discouraged policy change in areas such as tax, land release, zoning and public housing that would have helped to correct (or at least not exacerbate) the crisis. In this area of policy, politicians have had little reason to prioritise all of society at the expense of existing home owners.

But politicians are not wholly responsible. If they were, Australia’s housing pain would be a global anomaly. In some ways it is – Alan makes the point that each country’s experience is unique. But the unaffordability of decent, well-located housing for people of average means is an issue for many countries around the world. And housing is not the only asset class which has become “unaffordable” when using Alan’s preferred metric of price growth consistently and substantially outpacing income growth. From commercial property, infrastructure and the share market to art, wine and vintage cars, the prices of investable assets around the world have exploded over the past few decades. So much so that the phenomenon has in recent years been described as an “everything bubble.”

Why has that happened? It is worth stepping back for a moment to consider how an asset is priced. In financial markets, and with some simplification, the value of an asset is equal to the amount of income it can generate over time. For residential property, that income is the rent paid to the landlord (or the rent that would be paid, for property owned by the occupier). So, setting aside complications such as tax and other expenses, the value of a residential property should be equal to the total amount of rent it can provide the owner from now into perpetuity.

That sounds straightforward enough. But a dollar of rent today is not the same as a dollar of rent tomorrow. Or next year. Or next decade. To be compared with today’s dollars, future rent needs to be “discounted.” What discount rate should be used? Again, setting aside some complications, one relevant benchmark would be the risk-free interest rate, typically considered to be the interest rate on ten-year government debt.

That’s critical, because interest rates (on ten-year government debt, and more generally) have spent the last four decades charting a slow but steady course downwards towards zero. By definition, that downward trend in interest rates has caused the value or price of all assets – including residential property – to be regularly and consistently revised upwards.

The past four decades were special. A number of factors combined to put downward pressure on interest rates: demographic change, the rapid growth of China and other emerging economies with relatively high savings rates, more globally interconnected financial markets and a vast increase in international capital flows, technological change and more complex financial products. As a result, debt ballooned. In the 1970s, the world had borrowed $1.15 of debt for every $1 of economic activity. By 2022, that ratio had more than doubled, with the world having accumulated $2.38 of debt for every $1 of economic activity.

This is the “financialisation” of the economy that Alan makes several brief references to in his essay, but with little elaboration about how this has contributed to the housing crisis. Housing is a unique class of asset. As Alan notes several times, housing should be seen as a basic human right and not a source of wealth creation. Unfortunately, that ship sailed long ago.

What might come next? Interest rates temporarily reached zero during the pandemic. They may not rise substantially from here, but nor is there much room left for interest rates to continue to fall. That does not mean the “everything bubble” will burst. But it will inflate with less enthusiasm in the years ahead, giving aver- age incomes time to make up some ground on house prices.

Ultimately, this is all a matter of timing. Good timing, or bad, depending on your perspective and, quite likely, your age. The issue is not so much that millennials and gen Zs have been dealt a bad hand. Rather, it is that baby boomers (and many gen Xers) won the generational lottery. That may appear to be a false dis- tinction. The point is that the baby boomers are the first, and very likely the only, generation in which an individual of average means can retire wealthy – perhaps even a multi-millionaire – solely on the basis of having owned their own home. That wasn’t possible for any previous generation, and it probably won’t be possible for any future generation.

Just like a surprised lottery winner at the local newsagent, older generations don’t need to feel guilty. But they should at least recognise their good fortune and be willing to share the windfall profits they have accumulated via the tax system. Otherwise, the risk that existing intergenerational inequality morphs into a broader schism in Australian society, as Alan alludes to, is very real.

With interest rates no longer on a downward trend, their contribution to any further inflating of Australian property prices will be muted at most. That means that while politicians are not wholly responsible for the problem, they are wholly responsible for the remaining solutions.

No wonder Alan ends his essay on a pessimistic note. It’s hard to feel anything but.

Stephen Smith



Saul Eslake

Just over ten years ago, I gave a talk to a dinner organised by the Henry George League (a small but enthusiastic group dedicated to the ideas promulgated by Henry George, a nineteenth-century economist and journalist best remembered today for his advocacy of a “single tax” on the unimproved value of land), which three months later formed the basis for a submission I provided to a Senate committee enquiry into affordable housing. Both were titled “Australian Housing Policy: Fifty Years of Failure.” If I were to give the same talk again – or write a similar submission to yet another parliamentary inquiry – the only things I would change would be to update the numbers I quoted in it and change the title from “Fifty Years of Failure” to “Sixty Years of Failure.” Because that’s what the policies of governments of all political persuasions, at all three levels – federal, state or territory, and local – have been. An unmitigated failure.

Alan Kohler was kind enough to quote from that talk in his Quarterly Essay. Indeed, Kohler went much further back into history than I did – to the mid-1820s. After reading his essay, I could almost speak of Australian housing policy as entailing 200 years of failure – except for the three decades or so after World War II when, as Kohler documented, Australian housing policy did succeed in meeting its stated goals of increasing home ownership and providing an adequate stock of affordable rental housing for those unable to attain home ownership.

To my way of thinking, one of the valuable contributions which Kohler’s essay makes to the contemporary debate about Australia’s housing crisis is in drawing out the history which shows that governments can – if they make the “right” policy choices – ensure that people can afford to buy or rent a home, even when faced with more rapid growth in the population (and hence in the “underlying” demand for housing) than we have experienced over the past eighteen months.

That is what they did between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, when Australia’s population grew at an average annual rate of 2.2 per cent per annum (compared with 1.6 per cent per annum over the past twenty years), and the population of Australia’s eight capital cities grew at an average annual rate of 3.4 per cent per annum (because, in addition to the postwar “baby boom” and the massive immigration program, Australians were also moving from rural areas to state capitals in large numbers). Yet despite that, the average price of housing remained unchanged, as a multiple of average earnings, at about 3.5 times: and the home ownership rate rose by 20 percentage points – from 52.5 per cent to 72.5 per cent – between the 1947 and 1966 censuses.

That was possible because governments of both political persuasions, at both the federal and state levels, as well as local governments, focused on expanding the supply of housing and, beyond the bipartisan support for a big immigration program, refrained from adding to the demand for housing. Yes, as Kohler points out, there were ideological differences between the two major parties as to whether public housing should be sold to prospective buyers. But there was a bipartisan commitment to ensuring that the supply of housing matched the demand for it.

As Kohler goes on to show, that commitment began to waver, beginning with the introduction of the first program of cash grants to would-be first home buyers by the Menzies government in 1964. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the home ownership rate peaked at the first census after that and has been declining ever since. At the federal and state levels, governments of both political persuasions have increasingly favoured policies which have the effect of inflating the demand for housing; while at the state and local level, governments have increasingly favoured policies which have the effect of adding to the cost or the difficulty (or both) of increasing the supply of housing.

In my view, history amply demonstrates that anything which allows Australians to pay more for housing than they otherwise would – be it cash grants to first-time buyers, stamp duty concessions for first-time buyers, preferential tax treatment for residential property investors, government guarantees for loans to people who have difficulty accumulating the required deposit, shared equity schemes, lower interest rates, or easier standards for determining loan eligibility – results in Australians paying more for housing, and hence higher housing prices, rather than in higher home ownership rates.

Yet, despite the accumulation of six decades’ worth of history amply demonstrating that point, governments of all political persuasions keep doing the same things – and, echoing Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity – expecting a different result.
Another of Kohler’s valuable contributions is to point out why. As he says, “housing is a cartel of the majority, with the banks and the developers helping them maintain high house prices with the political class actively supporting them. Everybody involved in this game – homeowners, banks, developers and state and federal politicians – wants house prices to rise for their own reasons.”

I’d put the same point slightly differently. Over the past thirty years, there have been, on average, about 112,000 first home buyers in any given year. Up until the moment they sign their purchase contracts and draw down their mortgages, they (presumably) want governments to do things that would restrain the rate of increase in property prices. But at any point in time, there are more than 6.2 million households – which probably means at least 10 million individuals (out of 17.7 million on the electoral roll) – who own (individually or with a spouse or partner) the dwelling in which they live – all of whom have a vested interest in governments doing things that boost the rate of increase in property prices.

One thing that successful politicians can do is to count votes. And they know that there are far more votes to be had from people who want property prices to keep going up than there are from people who want them to stop going up, or even to go down. And that, I’ve come to believe, is the real reason why what Kohler calls “Australia’s housing mess” will probably never be cleaned up by government policies: because a majority of voters don’t want it to be cleaned up. And politicians know that.

Saul Eslake



Peter Mares

In his engaging, avuncular style, Alan Kohler lays out the drivers of Australia’s housing mess with admirable clarity and emphasises its profound implications for inequality and social mobility. I have already sung the praises of The Great Divide in a review for Inside Story. Here, I want to pick at one of the knots Kohler identifies: the challenge of “the missing middle.”

This phrase refers to the lack of medium-density dwellings – three- to four-storey apartment buildings that could offer a midpoint between the high-rise residential towers sprouting up in our city centres and the detached houses that continue their outward march on the urban fringes.

The concept of the missing middle can also be applied geographically to indicate the lack of significant new construction in middle-ring suburbs. This is evident in the Albanese government’s desire to see 1.2 million “well-located” new homes built over five years, where “well-located” is code for close to shops, transport, jobs and services. In other words, the federal government wants new homes to be constructed in established suburbs and to utilise existing infrastructure. Yet urban infill is easier said than done. The roots of the challenge lie in the fragmented pattern of land ownership set in place as our cities grew.

As Kohler writes, in the post-war decades, our cities spread rapidly outwards from their dense nineteenth-century centres as the combination of affordable cars, near full employment, mass migration and available land induced families to build freestanding homes on large plots. The great Australian dream was born and locked in a sprawling urban form that is resistant to change. Once you’ve constructed neighbourhoods this way, asks demographer Simon Kuestenmacher, “how do you add medium density?”

Kuestenmacher’s crucial question takes Kohler to “the problem of state and local governments and their control of housing supply through zoning.”

There is no doubt that planning and zoning regulations can be a barrier to building denser housing in established neighbourhoods. Principle 4 of the Brisbane City Council’s “Future Blueprint” is “protect our backyard,” yet the Queensland government’s vision for shaping south-east Queensland foresees that 94 per cent of Brisbane’s additional housing will come from “consolidation” within the city’s existing urban boundary rather than from “expansion” beyond it. The contradiction between these two objectives set by two different levels of government is glaring.

The problem is not confined to the Sunshine State. The aspiration in Plan Melbourne is for 70 per cent of new housing to 2050 to be constructed in established suburbs and just 30 per cent in expanding greenfield developments on the metropolitan fringe. Other capital cities have similarly ambitious targets for urban consolidation, and, like Melbourne, most are falling well short of meeting them.

There are inevitable tensions between local-level decision-making and an overarching metropolitan strategy. Existing residents can reasonably expect to have a say in the future shape of their neighbourhoods and to resist their leafy greenness being steamrolled to meet state planning targets. Yet hyper-localism can also thwart the rational reorganisation of our cities to accommodate growing populations, adapt to a changing climate and contribute to a low-emissions economy.

The conventional response to the pressing problem of the missing middle is to identify planning and zoning as barriers to building more homes, and to see their removal as the pre-eminent solution. The property industry consistently argues that deregulation is the answer to our housing woes because it will free up the market, allowing developers to increase supply and bring down prices. Yet as Kohler points out, developers only build when they can make a profit. In November 2016, a seventy-storey tower with a hotel and 488 apartments was approved on the block adjacent to my apartment in Melbourne’s CBD. Seven years later the only “development” has been that the site was sold for a massive capital gain. The City of Melbourne endorsed the new owner’s revised plans, and construction was supposed to commence in 2022. There’s still no sign of any work. Meanwhile, a five-storey building sits empty.

Planning constraints may inhibit construction, but their removal does not automatically prompt building. The longstanding quest to unlock residential development by streamlining regulation has so far generated meagre returns, with significant reforms to planning regimes making no appreciable dent on real estate prices. The response is to double down: if housing is too expensive, then that means there’s not enough housing being built, so our deregulation efforts are insufficient and we must deregulate even more. This relentless focus on housing supply blends out any discussion of housing distribution and distracts from other core issues like tax settings.

Still, planning reform now looks set to ramp up another notch as state governments threaten to override more local council powers and amend planning regimes. In future, proposals to replace free-standing family homes with rows of townhouses or to build granny flats to backyards are likely to get swifter, simplified approvals. While this will increase density, such piecemeal infill is likely to erode the amenity of established suburbs, without providing either the scale or quality of housing we need.

In October, at a webinar run by SGS Economics & Planning, SGS principal and partner Patrick Fensham argued that achieving a 70/30 split of new housing between existing suburbs and greenfield projects means building 600 to 700 dwellings per week within current urban boundaries. To date, where this type of residential construction has occurred, he says, it’s mostly taken two forms. First, there’s the conversion of former industrial land into housing – Melbourne’s Docklands is an example – but opportunities to redevelop such “brownfield” sites are becoming scarce. Second, there is residential intensification around “activity centres,” particularly major transport hubs and shopping centres. Melbourne’s Box Hill and Sydney’s Ashfield are examples, though, as Fensham says, these are high-rise clusters, not medium-density housing.

The opportunity yet to be grasped lies in the “greyfields” – the freestanding family homes and backyards of middle suburbia. Much of this housing is reaching its use-by date in terms of energy efficiency, thermal comfort and maintenance costs. It was designed in an era when a family with two or more kids was the dominant demographic typology. Today, with smaller families, and more single and couple-only households, we need different dwelling types. Fensham argues that the old suburban lot must be the building block for the future. It is on these “greyfields” that new, denser, greener and more affordable housing can be constructed. Yet this poses a fundamental challenge, because a single suburban lot is too small to accommodate the quality, midrise housing that constitutes the missing middle. If we are going to meet our 70/30 aspirations, we need first to overcome the fragmented pattern of land ownership established in post-war subdivisions.

In The Art of the Engine Driver, the first of his award-winning Glenroy series, novelist Steven Carroll chronicles family life on Melbourne’s edge in the 1950s as new suburbs were stamped out of farmland. Today Glenroy is middle ring and ripe for redevelopment – in fact, despite planning and zoning constraints, ad hoc redevelopment is already happening. In his webinar presentation, SGS’s Fensham used Glenroy to provide a compelling illustration of how established neighbourhoods might be reimagined, and the opportunity that will be lost if we continue our present trajectory.

Fensham took a sample block of twenty-six lots bounded by four streets. The original subdivision was characterised by detached houses with big backyards. Less than 20 per cent of the land was covered by buildings, an extensive tree canopy cooled the landscape and deep soils absorbed the rain. A first phase of redevelopment saw some of these freestanding houses replaced by single-level semi-detached villa units, two or three to a lot. Next came double-storey semi-detached townhouses, and more recently, rows of double-storey attached townhouses, with as many as five dwellings squeezed onto a parcel of land. If business continues as usual, then before long the block’s original twenty-six houses will have been replaced by ninety-one dwellings. This would constitute a significant increase in density, but at the cost of almost all tree cover and with the old backyards given over to buildings. What little open space remains will generally be buried under concrete.

Fensham offers an alternative vision for coordinated redevelopment in which those twenty-six separate lots are amalgamated into larger parcels of land to enable the construction of 165 European-style medium-density dwellings. This would achieve much greater housing density than piecemeal infill, yet the building foot- print would only take up about 40 per cent of the total land area, leaving plenty of open space for pocket parks, gardens and trees.

It is a much more appealing prospect for suburbia than the hot, hard, unforgiving landscape that will result from the business-as-usual approach to urban consolidation, in which houses are knocked down and replaced one by one. But achieving a denser, greener future will require, in Fensham’s words, “a much more interventionist role” for the public sector to assemble land, master-plan sites and, potentially, constrain developments that won’t achieve the desired densities or which would destroy the existing amenity of trees and open space.

So our key housing challenge is not to get government out of the way so business can get on with rebuilding middle-ring suburbs; it is for government to more actively assist developers to amalgamate sites and reconfigure entire precincts, while engaging with residents to allay their fears and realise their aspirations.

Planning should not be the barrier to building the housing we need, but the enabler.

Peter Mares



Pete Wargent

Alan Kohler’s Quarterly Essay, The Great Divide, challenges the assumption that Australians actually want to fix housing affordability and supply, given that a quiet majority arguably hold a vested interest in the status quo. Assuming we genuinely want to bring about changes which promote both home ownership and housing affordability, I argue that this should be tackled in the form of a regional renaissance.

Australia’s biennial intergenerational reports regularly prosecute the case for swelling the resident population to 40 million and beyond through ongoing net immigration. We’re on a course which, if pursued, realistically means that affordable homes in landlocked Enmore or Erskineville simply won’t be achievable. Logically, a change of focus is therefore required. The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly presented a remarkable window for employees to demonstrate the ability to work productively and flexibly from home, or closer to home. We should embrace this opportunity to create a broader vision for dynamic regional living.

Of course, economists will justifiably argue that the major capital cities have certain unique benefits in terms of economies of scale, concentration of skills, frequency of interactions, and the potential for serendipitous events. This is all incontestably true. But instead of trying solely to work out how we can cram twenty million people into Sydney, Melbourne and south-east Queensland’s narrow coastal strip, perhaps we should create a grander and more enlightened vision for dynamic and thriving regional cities?

Let’s start with, say, Albury-Wodonga, Bathurst, Dubbo, Orange, Port Macquarie and Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, as well as Ballarat, Bendigo, Mildura and Shepparton in Victoria. In Queensland we have Bundaberg, Cairns, Gladstone, Mackay and Rockhampton, for example, and in Western Australia Albany, Bunbury, Busselton and Geraldton. Add in Tasmania’s Launceston, plus the already-popular peri-urban conurbations within a two-hour sweep of the larger capital cities, and here we have several dozen regional cities and centres which can be the thrust and heartbeat of a dynamic, productive and prosperous Aussie economy. Where people can have space, quality of life and affordable housing.

Australia has been accused in the past of being lucky and lazy, of running face-less and fattened oligopolies, of enjoying the fortune of vast mineral resources, while being a relatively favoured destination for global capital and wealth. The Mittelstand economies of Germany, Austria and Switzerland have variously demonstrated how we may be able to promote geographical diversity, driven forward by growth in nimble and adaptive small-to-medium enterprise (SME) businesses with a global niche, and a focus on technology and excellence. The edge in SME businesses over the big end of town can be in faster decision-making and elite customer service, offering a more human experience.

Life can be challenging for small businesses in a high-cost economy, with Mittelstand economies sometimes encouraging cooperatives or partnerships. SME businesses can excel by doing one thing really well, while working collaboratively with innovative technologies and AI to deliver innovation, entrepreneurship, outstanding training and apprenticeships, and quality customer experiences, with strong regional ties. Craft trades, machinery, electronics, chemicals, automotive parts and a raft of services industries can all fit the bill for growth.

More years ago than I would like to remember, I had some experience of living in Germany when I studied there in the Oberstufe. Germany has had its own housing market and other challenges in recent years, fuelled in part by shifting migration trends and in particular a dozen years of ultra-low interest rates, although house prices notched a record decline in 2023.

My best memories of Stuttgart – today a safe and flourishing city of 600,000 people with its vast sporting stadium, outstanding universities and growing start-up culture – might broadly fit the vision. You can live in the hills five or six kilometres from the heart of the city, with suburbs and villages populated by small business owners and workers in sectors ranging from engineering to personal services. Granted, home ownership rates are not high in Germany. Tenant-friendlier markets lead many to actively opt for long-term leases, enjoying an outstanding quality of life, while taking pride in business expertise and excellence. There could be something worthwhile to learn from this.

There may also prove to be some productivity challenges associated with more Aussies working from home (or perhaps closer to home, in serviced office hubs and not always in the central business districts). Many of the key market players in realty have a material stake in the large commercial office towers, but ultimately floor space will fill up over time, given the projections for population growth.

In Australia, our respective levels of government will need to invest in regional infrastructure – perhaps funded via land value capture – including in transport, educational facilities and healthcare. Why can’t we live in Townsville or Toowoomba instead of cramming into Brisbane’s northside mortgage belt? We’d need to see more appealing employment options and shopping hubs; high-speed internet and connectivity; great schools; road, rail and airports; healthcare excellence; leisure; and attractive housing choices. We need to create a vison, buzz and excitement, and a sense that “Hey, something is really happening here.”

Incentives such as tax breaks and special economic zones can bring all the usual political challenges associated with the picking of winners, but why can’t the Gold Coast be our regional technology hub, with Adelaide specialising in healthcare R&D, and, say, the Pilbara firing up as a leading renewable energy region? Australia is set to experience an array of booming industries ahead, including in green energy and energy security, niche manufacturing, food, healthcare R&D, construction techniques, mining, IT and other modern technologies besides.

Immigration and labour market settings are hotly contested, especially following the snap-back in arrivals as the international borders reopened, but there should clearly be a focus on upskilling the incumbent population, as well as importing more people. In professional services, it has for too long been the case that managers and directors are often imported rather than homegrown. More apprenticeships and vocational training would be a welcome reform, with higher education teaching our required skills and vocations, and not functioning so much as visa factories for international students.

Zoning reform in the capital cities has a key role to play in the housing conundrum; but equally rezoning doesn’t fix everything. I recall living close to Newstead, in inner Brisbane, around a decade ago as a vast swathe of apartment towers began to mushroom out of the ground. The large oversupply of Brisbane apartments was even called out in the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Financial Stability Review as a systemic risk for the economy. The idea that only half a dozen years down the track we would be debating the need for rezoning due to there not being enough development sites would have seemed absurd at the time.

What happened? Concerned consumers stopped buying new apartments, developers put up the shutters and sold off their surplus development sites, and as advertised rents declined the vacancies gradually filled up. Today we are back in a shortage, but by 2026 or 2027 that will quite likely have reverted to a supply overhang. No doubt there could be short-term uplift from rezoning, and overall it would be beneficial to housing supply over time. But over the long run supply and demand tends to revert towards equilibrium, so rezoning is one part of the housing solution, not the miracle cure.

A contemporary example to illustrate the point might be Hamilton Northshore in Brisbane, which can potentially absorb up to 25,000 people in 14,000 apartments, being a large, flat strip of land, effectively ready for development. Why has this supply not all built through the past cycle? Because the cycle was killed by oversupply, high vacancy rates, sliding prices and presales drying up.

There is little speculative building in Australia, and generally speaking new housing will only be built when it is profitable and viable to do so. House prices reflect both demand and supply, and the equilibrium price will occur at the level that matches current demand to available supply. In the short run, supply is increasingly relatively inelastic, given that we have more medium-density construction in the capital cities these days, and that it can take several years to bring new apartment projects to market.

Fixing the rental market is another challenge to be overcome. Tenants’ rights have improved, but the other side of that coin is that there is less protection for landlords than there once was. Many private landlords would doubtless like to offer longer-term leases, but since it’s sometimes difficult to evict even the most problematic of tenants, we are likely stuck with six- or twelve-month leases as things stand.

The burgeoning build to rent (BTR) sector can be a part of the housing solution for the capital cities, but it is also not the whole solution. The UK experience, centred in London, has been mixed. Total returns for the sector over the past half-decade have been modest rather than compelling, even including capital growth. If we take the risk-free rate to be the ten-year bond yield, this has been tracking at around 4 per cent. In Australia we have been assessing BTR portfolios on compressed cap rates of around only 4 to 5 per cent. Will the BTR sector deliver affordable rents? It’s doubtful, given the institutional imperative and the required returns.

Overall, there are numerous challenges ahead for Australian housing market dynamics, dwelling supply and affordability. But with a relative shift in focus from the metropolitan melee to a regional renaissance, they needn’t be insurmountable. We’ve seen a rush to the regions during the pandemic “race for space.” Next, we need to champion a regional powerhouse campaign. The time to plan and invest is now!

Pete Wargent



Nicholas Reece

Alan Kohler’s Quarterly Essay, The Great Divide, makes an important contribution to the hotly debated issue of Australia’s housing mess. In an erudite and entertaining style, Alan navigates the history of policymaking and politicking that has led Australia, of all countries, to have a shortage of houses.

Alan’s analysis is at its best when exploring the economic drivers of the housing crisis and the role of the taxation system and misguided government grants programs. However, his analysis of the planning system and the critique of state and local government misses some key points and requires a response.

For the last six years, I have served as a councillor and deputy lord mayor at the City of Melbourne and observed closely the way the planning system, local politics and developer activity impacts on the housing market.

The “simple lie” being told is that the housing mess is caused by local councils pandering to NIMBYs by not approving new residential development. The “complex truth” is that many other factors cause the housing supply shortage.

Most local governments in Australia assess planning applications within the statutory time limits and are pulling their weight when it comes to approving new residential development. A recent study by SGS Economics found that, on average, the planning system in Victoria approved about 38,000 multi-unit dwellings for development statewide – more than enough to meet demand. Further analysis by the Municipal Association of Victoria shows planning permits have been approved for 120,000 dwellings, but construction has not commenced.

In the City of Melbourne, I often describe us as a YIMBY council. There are currently well over 100 residential development projects with 22,000 dwellings for which we have given planning approval but which have not commenced. This is the equivalent of half of all the new homes Victoria needs in the next year in one municipality.

Poor, politicised or dodgy planning decisions rightly receive a lot of scrutiny and criticism. There is certainly scope for improvement in planning processes. But that should not take away from the fact that councils effectively facilitate massive amounts of development every year. And they do this with high levels of community input embedded in the process. That community involvement is in turn an important factor in maintaining confidence in the system. I happen to think it also leads to better decisions, at least most of the time.

This highlights the real and complex causes of the problem. As Alan says so succinctly, in Australia “governments don’t build houses, developers do.” And developers will only build projects where they are confident they can make a dollar. In the current market, developers are not starting construction because building and materials costs are sky-high, interest rates are up, insurance costs are soaring, and a spate of building company closures is creating project risk. State governments around Australia have also embarked on a record-breaking infrastructure spend. To be fair, much of this is catch-up after decades of underspend. But they are trying to squeeze a thirty-year pipeline of new infrastructure into ten years. The result is major skills and labour shortages for the residential building sector and overheated construction costs. When developers run the numbers over a new residential project in Australia, they just can’t make it stack up. As a result, Australia is suffering from historic lows in new dwelling commencements, right at the time when demand is high and new supply is needed most.

Kohler also turns his analysis to the vexed issue of land supply and the locating of new residential development with good amenity, especially transport links to employment centres. He writes that “significantly increasing the density of housing within 10 to 30 kilometres of Australia’s CBDs – which is what is required – is going to be difficult, if not impossible.”

This overlooks the fact that most Australian capital cities have significant “growth areas” that exist relatively close to the CBD or along major transport corridors. Due to the good work of city planners in earlier times, Australia’s capital cities are blessed with large tracts of land that have been used for industrial, port, aviation, rail and other uses. These areas could be converted into medium- to high-density residential and mixed-use areas for millions of Australians.

In recent decades we have seen the conversion of old industrial areas into new residential suburbs, such as Docklands in Melbourne and Green Square in Sydney. In Melbourne alone, old industrial areas such as Fishermans Bend, Lorimer, Arden and Macaulay have been designated as “renewal areas” which will be transformed into residential and employment precincts. Add to this Port Melbourne, Footscray, Cremorne and in future years Dynon and Docklands (E-Gate), as well as former industrial areas in Brunswick, Preston and Coburg and other inner and middle suburbs. These areas could house up to 1 million extra people.

A second major opportunity is available along existing train and tram lines and, in some instances, even major arterial roads where there is a first-rate bus service. Rezoning of height and density limits along these transport corridors will provide the opportunity for large numbers of people to live in good locations that are well serviced by transport. The precincts around major railway stations within the existing rail network provide the perfect location for these new medium-density suburbs. Tram corridors close to the city also are well positioned to accommodate more residents along their routes. In Melbourne alone, another 1 million people could be accommodated in these “transport growth corridors” within the existing metropolitan boundaries.

Alan Kohler also flags the brave and sensible idea of utilising the land assembly powers by state and local government. Converting many low-density suburbs to moderate medium-density is hard. Currently we are seeing scores of large single suburban blocks being converted into rows of units with a gun-barrel driveway. Robin Boyd would be turning in his grave at this latest addition to the Australian Ugliness. From a design perspective, the outcome is hideous. Land assembly can help overcome this problem by aggregating multiple blocks, which can then be master planned and developed to deliver high-quality, well-designed medium-density housing. The land assembly activity should be focused on areas close to railway stations and transport hubs. The politics of land assembly is obviously challenging. But in recent times, state governments have proven to be very brave and very good at undertaking land assembly activities when delivering major new trans- port projects and hospitals. It is time to turn this activity to housing.

A final small but important idea. New design rules and thinking for housing could also deliver improved affordability. For example, apartments built for the investor market have a bathroom for every bedroom. But this is not needed for apartments where people are planning to live long-term. Design rules could also make better use of communal spaces, delivering smaller and more affordable apartments that have larger communal areas and features such as a shared laundry on each floor. Through clever design thinking we can cut the cost of housing construction while still delivering high-quality homes.

Nicholas Reece



Peter Tulip

Public discussion of housing policy suffers from undisciplined eclecticism. Too many commentators provide long, unstructured lists of multiple causes or conclude that the truth lies between competing explanations. This muddle reflects an inability or unwillingness to distinguish the important from the unimportant. Alan Kohler’s The Great Divide and the accompanying media coverage are examples.

Instead, let’s be clear. Housing costs are high and rising because growing demand interacts with unresponsive supply. This has been going on since at least the 1970s. Rising demand in turn reflects higher population, higher per-capita income and (since their peak in the 1980s) falling real mortgage rates. Taxes are not an important factor.

Unresponsive supply largely reflects zoning restrictions. If the housing market worked like other consumer goods markets, higher demand would have resulted in many more dwellings. Instead, restricted supply has resulted in soaring prices.

Alan Kohler gets much of this right. His analysis of the dimensions of the problem and how it is ripping the social fabric apart is readable and incisive. And his discussion of zoning restrictions is spot-on. As he notes, zoning is estimated to have raised the price of housing in our biggest cities by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those estimates are in line with an enormous body of research. (Full disclosure: Kohler cites my research on zoning approvingly.)

Kohler covers a wide range of other issues. I confine my comments to my biggest concern: his overemphasis of tax concessions. He argues that the interaction of negative gearing with discounted capital gains taxes is a major reason housing is unaffordable.

There is no credible research supporting this claim. On the contrary, good researchers have estimated the effect of negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions on housing prices using different approaches and repeatedly found this effect to be tiny. John Daley and Danielle Wood compared the revenue cost of the concessional treatment of capital gains tax and negative gearing to the value of the housing stock – and on that basis estimated that the tax concessions may boost the level of housing prices by 1 to 2.2 per cent. Gene Tunny, using a similar methodology and assumptions as Daley and Wood, found larger impacts of up to 4 per cent on house prices on average. The most detailed study is by Yunho Cho, Shuyun May Li and Lawrence Uren. In a micro-founded model, they found that removing negative gearing would reduce house prices by 0.9 per cent and raise rents 2.5 per cent. Deloitte Access Economics estimated the ALP’s 2019 policy of restricting negative gearing to new housing and reducing the capital gains discount would reduce established dwelling prices by 4.6 per cent and new dwelling prices by 3.6 per cent. Effects of only eliminating negative gearing would be smaller.

In summary, negative gearing and the capital gains discount are estimated to boost house prices between 1 and 4 per cent, while having a smaller negative effect on rents. Most of these estimates represent a long-run “one-off” effect that would have been incorporated into housing prices decades ago.

It does not require technical research to see that the tax concessions are unimportant. Kohler points to the acceleration in prices after capital gains were discounted in 1999. However, the logic of that argument would imply that prices should have fallen by twice as much following the introduction of capital gains tax in 1985. Instead, prices rose. Taxes on investor housing were much lower in the early 1980s but prices were lower.

The evidence Kohler provides for a large effect of the tax concessions is a chart showing housing prices accelerated after 1999. That chart uses an arithmetic scale, which exaggerates the change. If instead one plots house prices on a log scale – as is standard for variables subject to exponential growth – an acceleration can be seen, but it is not dramatic and it begins before the tax change.

Empirical studies of housing prices, such as my 2019 paper with Trent Saunders or more recent work by Peter Abelson and Roselyne Joyeux, attribute the faster recent growth to lower real mortgage rates and higher immigration. They give no role to tax concessions.

The fundamental problem underlying the housing crisis is that voters oppose more housing in their neighbourhood because they don’t know – or don’t care – about the harm this opposition does. That needs to be explained to them. Kohler’s discussion of zoning restrictions and their effect on Australian society is very good in this respect. However, public education also requires paying attention to the research and not being distracted by unimportant side issues.

Peter Tulip




Mark Walker

In The Great Divide, Alan Kohler correctly identifies a singular lack of mass public transportation, such as rail, as one of the reasons for the urban sprawl that blights our cities. He also questions why more of our regional centres have not developed as commuter cities, featuring more affordable housing, as is the case in Europe.

It is largely due to the well-known tyranny of distance that fewer rail lines were built either out of our major centres, or between secondary centres that were able to establish themselves regionally. Of those that were, many closed once motor transport became dominant, unable to compete with the speed and convenience of trucks and cars, which could utilise gearing and the grip of their rubber tyres to climb steep hills, whereas trains were limited to very gentle gradients due to the lack of grip between steel wheels and rails. This traction limitation required rail lines to closely follow the contours of the land, while budgetary constraints prevented them sweeping majestically across valleys on expensive viaducts, or ducking into even more expensive tunnels to avoid mountains, making them longer and more winding than is today ideal, and therefore much slower.

It is the convoluted, contour-following nature of the original nineteenth-century track alignment that still largely dictates the speed of trains today. To speed them up, we need to spend big on upgrading the actual line of rail – the embankments, viaducts and cuttings on which the rails are laid.

Why can we not simply purchase faster trains? The problem is centrifugal force. The faster a train travels, the gentler must be the bends in the track, or the engines and carriages can tip up, and tip over. Queensland Rail attempted to overcome this by using the famous “tilting trains” that use hydraulics to “tilt” the mass of the carriage towards the inside of the bend, thus enabling higher speeds and shorter travel times. But they are still limited to around 160 kilometres per hour, and only on a good day on a well-maintained track!

Very Fast Trains capable of 350 kilometres per hour, such as Japan’s Shinkansen and France’s TGV, require track with very low radius bends to achieve their much higher speeds. The track bed also needs to be utterly stable, which often requires specialist engineering, costly maintenance regimes or additional concrete reinforcing, especially in the acceleration and deceleration zones near stations.

Yet some countries have been able to establish a Fast Rail network that uses less expensive construction techniques and slightly slower rail stock. Spain, for example, with double our population yet only a tenth the area – with distances between major centres much shorter – has been able to develop Europe’s longest Fast Train network (the Alta Velocidad Española, or AVE) comprising 3200 kilometres of its total 16,000 kilometres of rail, servicing all its major cities. Spain’s AVE takes approximately three hours to travel the 450 kilometres between Madrid and Seville, equating to a six-hour trip between Sydney and Melbourne, using fully electric Fast Trains capable of 200 kilometres per hour. Had we similar Fast Trains – and straighter line of rail – here in Australia, it would be possible to commute from Sydney to Canberra, or Albury to Melbourne, in under two hours.

The other difficulty is that freight provides the main revenues for train line operators, not passengers, and the current thinking on this subject is to stick with diesel locomotives hauling double-decked freight wagons (as on the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail Project). A continuing focus on this methodology could preclude electrification, as the upper container on a double-deck wagon would foul the gantries holding the power lines for the single-deck passenger and bulk-freight trains.

However, there is an argument for the electrification of inter-city rail, as part of our commitment to meeting carbon emission reduction targets, that could, eventually, lead to both cheaper and less polluting freight transportation, as well as faster passenger rail, and to the revitalisation of regional centres. Road freight accounts for 16 per cent of our overall carbon emissions. Rail, by contrast, produces only 4 per cent of total emissions, and this while utilising existing diesel-powered trains. Ideally, we should seek to electrify our rail network, reducing emissions to near zero, then move much of the road freight onto rail, to further reduce carbon emissions from transport, and making the rail lines more profitable.

If rail was electrified, especially with renewable energy drawn from regional renewable projects, it might also make sense – as a “nation-building” exercise – to straighten, realign and reconfigure our major inter-city train lines to enable the faster point-to-point times that would in turn enable regional centres to develop as commuter cities, as so many have in Europe.

The only previous serious attempt at decentralisation, noted by Kohler, was initiated by the Whitlam government fifty years ago. The resultant “growth centres” pioneered in the 1970s are today thriving regional hubs, largely self-supporting in terms of industry, employment and (relatively) affordable housing.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit decentralisation – via rail realignment, electrification and implementation of Fast Trains? Such a policy would enable real population growth outside the major cities, putting downward pressure on housing costs nationally, while also achieving significant reduction of carbon emissions, enabling us to better and more quickly reach our emissions targets.

Mark Walker



Brendan Coates & Joey Moloney

Alan Kohler’s The Great Divide is a compelling account of Australia’s housing calamity and how it threatens to tear our society apart. Within living memory, Australia was a place where housing costs were manageable and people of all ages and incomes had a reasonable chance to own a home with good access to jobs. But the great Australian dream of home ownership is rapidly turning into a nightmare for many young Australians, while the growing divide between the housing “haves” and “have nots” risks returning Australia to the Jane Austen world of the late-eighteenth century.

Kohler correctly diagnoses the core driver of unaffordable housing: it’s too hard to build more homes in established suburbs where people want to live. But having done so, he veers regrettably off-course to propose solutions that have little chance of working, and which simply act to distract his readers from the main game of building more homes. Kohler misses the moment. The political mood is changing. There is a growing groundswell of support for more density, and a growing awareness of the costs of locking up vast tracts of our cities from development. With momentum building and much more still to do, Kohler’s misfire is particularly unfortunate.

Historically, Australia has not built enough housing to meet the needs of its growing population. Heading into the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia had just over 400 dwellings per 1000 people, which was among the least housing stock per person in the developed world. Australia had also experienced the second-greatest decline in housing stock relative to the adult population over the twenty years leading into COVID, and Australian cities are some of the least dense in the developed world.

The reason is simple. The frameworks and processes that dictate what gets built where are hugely biased against change. Older and wealthier residents of well-located suburbs – those who prefer their neighbourhoods to stay the same – get an outsized say. Prospective residents, who might live in new housing in desirable suburbs were it to be built, find themselves effectively unrepresented.

The result is “missing middles”: hectares of prime inner-city land, close to jobs and transport, rising barely taller than two stories. The flow-on effect is high prices and rents, a stagnating economy because fewer people can live close to jobs, and expensive and environmentally damaging sprawl into farmland and floodplains.

If the problem is not enough homes in established suburbs, surely any meaningful solution must involve building more homes in said suburbs? But Kohler is unduly pessimistic, arguing that more medium-density housing is “going to be difficult, if not impossible,” “won’t work,” and “will never actually happen.”

Kohler contends that addressing the supply problem directly is too hard, and instead searches for alternatives that have little prospect of succeeding. He does this because he judges that the obvious answer – building more housing in the inner- and middle-ring suburbs of Australia’s major cities where most Australians still want to live – is politically unworkable.

Kohler frames NIMBYism and heritage restrictions as “natural barriers” to greater density. But there’s no natural law that says we must let the aesthetic preferences of existing residents for Victorian terraces or Californian bungalows trump the needs of their fellow Australians to have somewhere to live. The restrictive zones in desirable suburbs are not unalterable commandments handed down like ancient laws. Building denser cities is a political decision, and Kohler misses that the political tide is starting to turn.

Until recently, supply-side reform was an obsession for a passionate few, but largely absent from broader political discourse. But in recent times, the political clout of renters has grown and the YIMBY movement has gained momentum. Sacred cows are slowly being slaughtered. The Minns government in New South Wales has plans to up-zone large amounts of well-located land, including overriding heritage controls where they conflict with more density. Victoria is aiming to build 800,000 homes over the next decade, with at least 70 per cent in established suburbs. The Albanese government has put $3.5 billion of federal money on the table, mirroring a Grattan Institute recommendation, to push the states to help build 1.2 million homes over the next five years. This isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. Similar shifts are taking place in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Kohler has misread the political winds.

Key to this change is the fact that most residents of Sydney and Melbourne actually want more density if it means being able to live in a better-located suburb. Denser dwellings – townhouses, apartments, etc. – made up 44 per cent of Sydney’s housing in 2016, and 33 per cent of Melbourne’s. Yet a Grattan Institute survey showed that residents say they actually want those numbers to be 59 per cent in Sydney and 52 per cent in Melbourne.

The weight of evidence is becoming impossible to ignore. Take New Zealand: in 2016, Auckland – a city of 1.5 million – rezoned about three-quarters of its suburban area to allow more intensive land use. Researchers found that this led to a doubling of the city’s rate of housing construction. Unsurprisingly, rents in Auckland are lower now – relative to inflation – than they were in 2016, whereas rents across the rest of New Zealand have gone up by 10 to 15 per cent over the same period.

Denser cities don’t just offer cheaper housing. Done well, they also bring amenity, vibrancy and walkability; certainly, much more so than a satellite suburb fifty kilometres from the CBD. Several cities with similar populations but higher densities – such as Vancouver, Toronto and Vienna – outrank Sydney on quality-of-life measures.

But Kohler argues land-use planning reform is too hard, preferring an alternative approach: run faster trains to peri-urban and regional areas, massively increasing the commutable distance to our major cities. This would be unfair, costly and ineffective. Allowing more homes in desirable suburbs would enable more young Australians to live, work and add to the social fabric of these communities. Spending billions on trains from somewhere else tells them they’re only wanted there for their labour, and the preferences of those who got there first matter more.

Denser cities are more efficient cities. The NSW Productivity Commission found it costs up to $750,000 less in infrastructure per home in established suburbs than on the urban fringe. Denser cities are also better for the climate – a sprawling, car-dependent city pumps more CO2 into the atmosphere. And denser cities are better for the economy – allowing more employers to locate closer together increases knowledge spillovers and gives workers more options.

More fundamentally, fast trains simply would not solve the problem in the way Kohler contends they will. To be fast, trains need few stops, and few stops along low-density corridors means longer trips to the train station for commuters. Cutting fifteen minutes off a train ride from Geelong to Melbourne isn’t much help if it’s a forty-minute drive to the station, and a race against the clock to find a park before the train leaves. And at the other end, Kohler appears to believe most if not all workers need to get to the CBD. But Grattan research has found that only about 15 per cent of jobs are there, at least in Melbourne. So even after a trek to the station at one end, fast trains to the city still leave workers with more commuting to do at the other end.

The fast-trains solution would leave workers heavily exposed to one service that takes them a hundred kilometres from home. The denser-cities solution offers workers diversity and options. Some people will walk to work, some can ride their bike, others take the tram or train, and inevitably many will drive. But the key point is that when jobs are closer, it is easier for families to organise their lives – easier for one parent to pick up a sick toddler from daycare, or for the other to take a new job opportunity without upending family arrangements.

Australia’s housing affordability crisis is needlessly compounded by muddled housing policy discourse. The heart of the problem is much simpler than many let on: housing costs are too high because there are not enough houses. Kohler provides an incisive critique of the political obstacles towards remedy. The political tide is starting to turn, but there is much more still to do. Distracting Australians with the superficial solution of building trains instead of houses is an unfortunate wrong turn.

Brendan Coates & Joey Moloney



Judith Brett

In The Great Divide, Alan Kohler excavates two of the historical roots of the current housing crisis in the nineteenth century. The first was the abundance of land with low-density suburbs of free-standing dwellings sprawling further and further from the services of the CBD and little medium-density housing. This was turbo-charged in the 1950s, as car ownership grew and the suburbs spread out into farmland and market gardens – and they are still growing. The second is that land and property speculation was early established as an easy way to build wealth. This came crashing down in the 1890s when the land boom went bust, but Kohler argues that the treatment of housing as an investment asset was already well established.

This, though, was only ever for a small number of wealthy people. For most people, owning a home was primarily about having somewhere secure to live and raise a family, “one little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours; to which we can withdraw, in which we can be among our friends, into which no stranger may come against our will.” This is Robert Menzies in 1943 in his radio broadcast to the Forgotten People, in which he used the home as an organising principle to enumerate the virtues of the Australian middle class. Menzies’ broadcast is now widely seen as foreshadowing the boom in home ownership which started in the 1950s. But it also looked back, to the aspirations of the land-hungry British immigrants who poured into the Australian colonies during the nineteenth century and the importance of home ownership in building a stable society and a functioning democracy. Home ownership was not just about individual amenity but about building a nation. The current panic over housing affordability which threatens to price many young people out of ever owning a home is not just a panic about individual life options but about the sort of society Australia is becoming, about the weakening of social cohesion as inequality increases and we lose our sense of shared fate. To understand this, we also need to start with the nineteenth century.

Australia’s post-war history has been so successfully periodised by journalism and popular history – particularly the decades of the 1950s and 1960s – that it can be hard to see more enduring patterns. The young couples forming their households and raising the baby boomers in the new post-war suburbs were fulfilling aspirations which had deep roots in Australia’s experience: first of the land-hungry gold-rush immigrants, and then of the suburban nation which developed in the long boom from 1860 to 1890, in which the yeoman’s longing for a plot of land and a cow was transformed into the aspiration for a home of one’s own and a garden. And it was a remarkable feature of Australia that this aspiration could be more readily fulfilled here than anywhere else in the world at the time.

For the most part, this aspiration was fulfilled in the suburbs of Australia’s capital cities. In comparison with crowded and expensive inner-city property, the suburbs offered affordable homes of one’s own in healthy, peaceful, semi-rural surrounds. Decency, good order, health and domestic privacy were at the heart of the suburban ideal; and by the late nineteenth century the combination of high wages and cheap, easily serviced land had made suburban home ownership more affordable in Australia than in Britain or most parts of the United States. Graeme Davison estimates that in the early 1880s, 45.5 per cent of Melbourne households were owner occupiers, which was exceedingly high by contemporary world standards. With a different history and a geography less hospitable to easy development, Sydney’s rate was lower, at 30 per cent. Observers were struck by the number of working men among the homeowners.

Home ownership quickly acquired political significance. The suburban ideology which developed during the land boom of the 1880s stressed the advantages of the settled life to woo restless immigrants from their wandering life and so build the white population. Property qualifications for voting had long linked the obligations of political citizenship to property ownership, and although the Australian colonies all had manhood suffrage for lower-house elections by the end of the nineteenth century, property qualifications remained for participation in upper-house and municipal elections. But the property qualifications, inherited from an England in which democratic rights were wrenched from the landed gentry and aristocracy, took on very different meanings in a settler society. In the new land of opportunity it was far more plausible to present property ownership as an indication of achievement and hence of the desirable citizenly qualities of independence, hard work and resourcefulness, than in the old world of hereditary wealth and social position. As well, property ownership became a sign of the property owner’s commitment to the future of the colony, their building of “a stake in the country.” The left has often interpreted the phrase “a stake in the country” to mean that property ownership was a conservative tool making one supportive of the status quo. But in a settler society like Australia, which needed people to settle – to commit their futures to the future of the colony and not to come, make a pile and go home again – the phrase had an additional layer of meaning. To build a house, a stake in the country, showed one intended to stay.

The depression of the 1890s ended Australia’s first long boom, “the glad confident morning” in which boundless resources seemed to offer boundless opportunities to new immigrants, and to promise a society free from the miseries and fixed class divisions of the old world. As the depression struck, people’s futures closed in and class divisions hardened. The failed great strikes of the 1890s and the formation of labour parties challenged colonial liberalism’s optimistic, nation-building individualism with the politics of class. When the good times came again in the long post-war boom, aspirations for home ownership on hold since 1890 were able to be satisfied, overseen by Robert Menzies and the newly formed Liberal Party, to whom the links between home ownership, character, citizenship and nation were self-evident. The home was a key site in the formation of the strength of character on which good citizenship and the future of the nation depended. Home ownership was not just a private good, but a stable site from which one participated in the wider public world. The Australian dream was never just about individual aspiration. But that is what it has become, as housing has come to be seen as an asset rather than a place to live and its cost is eating up more and more of people’s incomes.

Kohler graphically illustrates the divergence of house prices from income growth which began around 2000, and the wider impact this has had on the economy. Accompanying this has been an explosion of property investors, who see real estate as the surest way to build wealth – and not from rents but from price inflation. So as younger people have been priced out of home ownership, Australia has developed a rentier class, who are well represented in our parliaments. The halving of the capital gains tax by Howard’s government accelerated property investment. Kohler judges that Howard did more than anyone to make housing unaffordable, quoting him that no one ever complained to him about increases in the values of their homes. These words of Howard’s show that by the turn of the century home ownership was already losing its wider public and social meanings and becoming viewed primarily as an individual asset by the party that once saw it as the foundation of good citizenship.

But Howard was wrong to be so complacent. As Kohler shows, since 2000 the growth in house prices has so far outstripped wage growth that where once a house cost three to 3.5 times annualised average weekly earnings, it is now six to seven times and out of reach for increasing numbers of wage-earning Australians, unless they have access to family capital. Disconnecting work from realistic aspirations to home ownership is deeply corrosive of the values on which the Liberal Party was built: thrift, work, the desire for financial independence. And this is now evident in the way Kohler describes Australia as having had an egalitarian meritocracy. With talent and work, pretty well everyone who wanted to could buy a house. But now – why bother to work hard and save if you’ll never get a house? And why vote conservative if you have nothing to conserve?

Judith Brett



Joseph Walker

For many years, I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the canonical treatment of Australia’s housing mess. Maybe a young Aussie Robert Caro would emerge and take a microscope to every corner of what is becoming our most urgent public policy problem. Such an account would no doubt amount to the literary equivalent of urban sprawl.

The Great Divide is neither canonical, such is the nature of word limits, nor is Alan Kohler, after a long and distinguished career in finance journalism, a millennial. But his Quarterly Essay is sober, necessary and broadly correct in its conclusions; and perhaps its message is best conveyed by a baby boomer like Kohler, whose vision is anchored in memories of a more functional past.

It is a fact of life that the cost of the structures we live in – or, more accurately, the land under them – keeps going up, even as the prices of the stuff we fill them with keep coming down. Over the past twenty-three years, house price-to-income ratios have doubled, from 3.5 to seven. According to the 2023 Demographia report, Sydney and Melbourne are the second and ninth least affordable cities on Earth.

Something that should be a national shame is, judging by the popularity of real estate TV and the size of crowds at weekend auctions, actually a national sport. As a friend quipped to me: America is number one in the world in healthcare costs, and it’s a disaster; Australia is (almost) number one in housing costs, and it’s celebrated.

So, what started the party? Or at least: what set off the most recent boom? The capital gains tax discount, Kohler answers. On my podcast in 2020, I discussed this possibility with Nobel Prize–winning economist Vernon Smith. As Smith explained, the story in the United States was similar; he identified the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, Clinton’s act, which exempted from capital gains taxes the first $500,000 of any home sale, as the trigger for the US housing bubble.

Howard’s 50 per cent discount was even more investor-friendly. By sweetening the deal on the resale value of housing, the effect of the tax break in Australia, as in the US, was to shift perceptions of what could be achieved with property.

For all this, Kohler’s astute historical analysis bleeds into a dubious economic argument; he writes as if the CGT discount is one of the – if not the – most important drivers of prices at current margins – a separate and less substantiated claim (indeed, a claim incompatible with some of the other research he cites).

If the CGT discount lit the spark, what has been fuelling the blaze? Kohler gives a comprehensive if not complete accounting of the myriad factors that have been swelling demand or dampening supply (missing, for example, are foreign investors). Haunting his analysis of the demand side are Australia’s one-million-strong negatively geared property speculators.

Kohler does not, however, get sidetracked in circular debates about bubbles. This is just as well. Demand and supply are like the blades on a pair of scissors.

Prices are set not by one half or the other but by their interaction. A corollary of this basic economic insight is that even if demand-side changes have been the proximate cause of the price rises of recent decades, as they surely have, their impact can be absorbed by the supply side.

In principle, that is. In practice, Australia’s housing supply is chronically inelastic.

If Kohler’s essay has a flaw, it’s that he doesn’t prosecute his own argument vigorously enough. He outlines the obvious or first-order harms of high house prices, namely declining home ownership, a “lack of security” and, importantly, rising inequality. But beyond that, his treatment of the downside risks is cursory. Two pages are given to discussing the decline of pet ownership among renters – a sad trend, to be sure, but in that passage he spills as much ink on cats and dogs (552 words) as on three of the worst repercussions of housing unaffordability: crippled productivity, macroeconomic fragility and falling fertility (553 words). It’s worth underscoring these harms in turn (to say nothing of the many other ills of housing unaffordability, such as the misery of long commutes and the environmental damage wrought by urban sprawl).

First, high house prices in our major cities stunt national productivity. Cities are engines of entrepreneurship. They facilitate specialisation and the sharing of information (what economists call “knowledge spillover effects”). As Ed Glaeser puts it in Triumph of the City, “ideas cross corridors and streets more easily than continents and seas.” By pricing our fellow citizens out of our most productive places, we don’t just deprive them of better wages; we deny our country greater wealth.

Second, high house prices make us macroeconomically fragile. In particular, excessive household debt coupled with high house prices render the risk of a balance sheet recession – the nastiest form of recession – at least plausible.

Australia has the second-highest household debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. Most of that debt is tied up in residential mortgages. While much less of our mortgage debt is held by subprime borrowers than was the case in the United States, marginal propensities to consume out of housing wealth don’t approach 0 until closer to the top 10 per cent of the income distribution anyway, according to research by economists Amir Sufi and Atif Mian. That is, 90 per cent of income earners can still be expected to tighten their belts if prices collapsed. So, we’re not exempt from this risk, however robust our position may seem.

Third, expensive housing is preventing couples who want to have kids, or have more kids, from having them. Children usually need bedrooms, and every extra bedroom means a bigger mortgage.

At the individual level, this is frustrating. At the societal level, it’s disastrous. As Kohler notes, our fertility rate is already below replacement level. This seeds structural imbalances wherein fewer workers must support more retirees. It undercuts productivity: our best economic growth models imply that population growth drives technological progress (since more minds means more Einsteins). And it frays the thread connecting society to its future – a condition that, unlike the others, can’t be postponed by mass immigration.

High house prices are a plague not just in Australia but across the Anglosphere. Indeed, their consequences are both so perverse and so pervasive that housing advocate John Myers and economists Sam Bowman and Ben Southwood coined a term, “the housing theory of everything,” to explain how housing unaffordability undergirds so much of the deep dysfunction we observe in the West.

What can be done? The Great Divide is really an essay about three great divides, all of which have conspired to put solutions out of reach. The first is the titular divide, between those who own homes and those who do not. For most Australian homeowners, housing forms the greater portion of their wealth. Since losses loom larger than gains psychologically, this group resists policies that put their nest eggs at risk with a passionate intensity that can’t be matched by aspiring homeowners.

Proposals for reducing house prices that are not accompanied by compensation to these owner-occupiers for lost equity – however undeserved that equity may be – are unlikely to shake the “generational tyranny” of the boomers (or the resistance of younger people who have managed to buy into the homeownership club before prices rose).

The second divide is between local residents and would-be residents. Local zoning rules, such as they are, give cranky NIMBY residents effective veto rights over new construction in their neighbourhoods.

There is an imbalance. Locals have both the capacity and the incentive to block new development. They can coordinate easily because they’re both physically proximate and few in number. And their reasons for enforcing the status quo, ranging from risk aversion to heritage preservationism (sincere or otherwise), are powerfully motivating.

On the other hand, non-residents looking to rent or buy in a city area would hypothetically be YIMBYs, but how can they organise to express their preferences? They’re spread across a city, or outside of it, if they even think of themselves as potential residents of a particular area at all. Moreover, the housing affordability costs of any one development not getting built are thinly spread and provide inadequate impetus for these strangers to overcome their coordination problems. This entrenches a fallacy of composition that hobbles efforts to increase housing supply. Any one rejection of new construction by NIMBYs at the local level may be both comprehensible and negligible. But scaled up to the national level, all those local decisions sum up to a housing shortage.

The third divide is, as Kohler laments, between two political impulses. The housing problem has become an ideological Rorschach test, in which the left, with its focus on equality, blames demand-side greed, whereas the right, with its belief in markets, prefers supply-side explanations.

But there are signs that the third divide – and hence the second – can be bridged. There is growing recognition on the political left that zoning is inherently inegalitarian. In the United States, liberals such as Ezra Klein and Derek Thompson have begun pushing for a “supply-side progressivism,” wherein the left redirects some of its energies from the demand side of the ledger to the creation of goods and services; in Klein’s words, it’s the “stupidly simple” thesis that “to have the future we want, we need to build and invent more of the things that we need.” Above all, that includes housing.

This new “abundance agenda”, with its wide political promise, is instantiated Down Under in the bipartisan YIMBY groups that have recently sprouted in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, and in their new alliance to form the Abundant Housing Network Australia.

There are pockets of hope, but a broad will is necessary to transform the housing situation. Can such consensus be found? I sense a deep pessimism on Kohler’s part. Given the seeming irreconcilability of the three divides, such pessimism is understandable!

But if we’re bound to fail anyway, why not permit ourselves to fantasise a little? How about land value taxes, like the Georgists have long argued? Kohler dismisses these out of hand, but taxing the gains – or rents – of agglomeration could be a highly efficient way to redistribute revenue to, for example, the regions – to say nothing of its ethical justification. Speaking of the regions, why not found new cities – or transform Darwin into an Australian Singapore – as Ken Henry suggested to me in 2023? Or if that’s too audacious, can we not turn to the age-old saviour: technology? Just as trains and cars opened up effective supply in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, perhaps Zoom and virtual reality will do the same in the twenty-first. With the rise of working from home, can we convert office space into residential? To address the problem of the “missing middles”, why not allow street-level votes for gentle density, as has been proposed by YIMBY groups in England and Ireland – a win-win solution that can dissolve the second great divide? Or how about establishing home equity insurance markets, as Bob Shiller has proposed, to placate the NIMBY “homevoters”?

For Kohler, no solution is tenable until we purge ourselves of the belief that “house prices always rise and that housing is the best way to build wealth.” Ideally, we would engineer a flatlining of prices for the next eighteen years, until incomes catch up. A hard landing is off the table – wise, given the balance sheet recession risk.

Kohler is right that we must dislodge property from its pedestal, though this raises the question of whether the desired soft landing would be self-defeating. If speculators, already bleeding rental losses, then no longer expect capital gains, why wouldn’t they just try to sell – threatening a mass exit that could crash prices?

There is also the question of political will. Any attempted normalisation of prices by policymakers needs to be orchestrated with an heroic gradualism that outlives election cycles and the political temptations of pumping home equity.

But these nagging questions give way to a deeper one. Howard’s throwaway comment on ABC Radio in 2003 (“I haven’t had anybody shake their fist at me and say: ‘Howard, I’m angry with you for letting the value of my house increase’”) hints at a strange connection between our fixation on property and our lackadaisical attitude to productivity.

In an age of rising income inequality and stagnating productivity growth, have debt and equity become a palliative in Australia, as Raghuram Rajan argues they have in the US since the 1970s?

Thus, if solving our housing crisis requires abandoning the idea that property is a vehicle for building wealth, perhaps it also means embracing the notion that creating valuable ideas or companies is the most noble thing a citizen can do.

This would require a complete inversion of our national outlook. Under the tyranny of tall poppy syndrome, it’s as if property is the most excusable way to get rich in Australia: if you found a start-up, you’re long on yourself; but if you invest in property, you’re just long on Australia.

But we may not have a choice. For if pouring ever-larger piles of credit into unproductive assets is a sure-fire way of doing less with more, innovation has always meant doing more with less.

Joseph Walker



Nicole Haddow

In his essay The Great Divide, Alan Kohler defines my tribe, the millennial generation, as anyone who was born after Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was a number-one hit. Having entered the world just as 1982 made way for 1983, I consider myself to be an ageing millennial matriarch with first-hand experience of the problems highlighted in Kohler’s essay and therefore feel qualified to provide this correspondence.

Kohler observes that the year 2000 was the dawn of the “Great Divide” in housing. I turned eighteen at the end of that year and was far too busy enjoying the new freedoms that came with a driver’s licence and the ability to order a drink at the pub to be concerned with the matter of property. I intended to work hard, and the past had assured me that anyone who worked hard enough could buy a house when they were ready for such a commitment.

I was wrong. During the years that I heartily indulged in my youth and enjoyed the share house rite of passage, the market was shifting rapidly. By the time I moved out of my final share house on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, in 2012 – having handed over tens of thousands of dollars to landlords while trying to build my career – the median house price in Melbourne was about $530,000, more than seven times my annual salary at that point. And I was single, so buying solo felt impossible.

As Kohler explains, this has remained a challenge, with median house prices still at 7.4 times annualised average weekly earnings. In my case, cracking the property market meant making two critical decisions: moving home with my parents to do a “power save” at thirty, and ultimately purchasing an apartment at a price point that was significantly lower than the median dwelling price.

Kohler is right that the cost of housing is a serious problem in Australia, but more attention should be applied to what I believe is the biggest barrier to entry: saving a deposit. Most banks require a 20 per cent deposit along with additional costs. A 20 per cent deposit on the median $732,886 price that Kohler calls out is $146,577. And that’s just the deposit. Even if a first homebuyer or couple did manage to save that 20 per cent, once you add more than $39,000 in stamp duty, about $2000 in government costs, $1000 for conveyancing plus mortgage set-up fees, the would-be buyer(s) only have a 14 per cent deposit. Their loan-to-value ratio would be 86 per cent, making them a risky prospect as far as the bank is concerned; they’d therefore be slapped with a Lenders Mortgage Insurance (LMI) charge of approximately $9000, which protects the bank in the event of a default, not the customer. That “insurance” would likely be capitalised into the life of the loan, costing them a stack of additional interest for as long as they held the property.

In my view, the way that loans are structured is outdated and needs urgent review in light of the cost of entering the market. Kohler says that many young people may access the Bank of Mum and Dad to cover deposit shortfalls, but if you don’t have that (I didn’t), chances are you’ll cop the LMI rather than saving the full 20 per cent plus costs (this is what I did). I justified the LMI by putting a strategy in place that could benefit me in the long run. This meant buying an established apartment 25 kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD for about $300,000 with a deposit of less than 10 per cent in a red-brick block of just six. It was, frankly, pretty crap. But it was in a growing suburb, in a wide street full of nice homes, close to amenities. I hoped that it would rise in value over the course of six to eight years and enable me to take my next step into a freestanding home. Not in Melbourne, of course, don’t be ridiculous.

My second step up the property ladder came with a not-so-gentle shove from the pandemic. At the time, I was renting in the inner city and had a tenant in my property. They moved out during the first lockdown, leaving me covering both my own rent and a mortgage on an empty apartment. Thanks to a fortunate break in the form of a mortgage pause, I was able to sell the property and make a profit that would provide enough funds to purchase something larger. At that time, forty was looming and I wanted a permanent home. To secure one on a single income, I had to look beyond the city to regional Victoria, which was feasible only because I had the benefit of remote work.

I bought in Ballarat, 115 kilometres west of Melbourne. While I was proud to have finally made a successful offer on a weatherboard cottage, I was also moving away from family and friends. This was early in 2021. I knew no one. Snap lockdowns continued to hit throughout my first year there. I was desperately lonely, but this was the price I believed I needed to pay for my future security. Thanks to record low interest rates and wild demand for dwellings outside of the most locked-down city in the world, that price was high. My budget afforded me a property with a hole in the bedroom floor, some unplastered walls and one entirely inadequate heater for the frosty climate. But again, I bought with the dual purpose of secure accommodation and the potential for growth. I knew I could add value and make it an attractive asset if I ever needed to sell.

A year in, I’d painted and made several improvements, and for the first time in a long time I felt that I was finally getting ahead. And then, surprise! Thirteen interest rate rises. Cheers, RBA. I understood the emergency interest rates would eventually lift but never anticipated being hit this frequently this fast. Today my mortgage is about $1400 more than it was when I purchased the home. However, just as the hikes kicked off, I met the man who became my husband. He has not only made Ballarat home, he’s also enabled us to weather the cost-of-living battle together. Had our paths not crossed, I would be under extreme mortgage stress.

Kohler’s essay paints a clear and empathetic picture of the many struggles aspiring buyers and new entrants to the market face today. But the cost of property is only one piece of the greater social puzzle for millennials and the generations that follow. My husband and I are incredibly privileged to have two incomes, and that I managed to purchase our property at below the state’s median price in 2021. Our children are of the fur variety, and while we need to allow for food and occasional medical expenses, we do not bear the financial burden of paid care or education.

How can any young couple – without access to the Bank of Mum and Dad – not only save for a deposit, but then go on to cover the cost of a mortgage, bills, food and childcare? How do they manage costs when one parent must step out of the workforce for extended parental leave? Currently, parental leave is approximately $880 per week for just twenty weeks, and while parents will enjoy up to twenty-six weeks of paid leave by 2026, this small sum does not come close to compensating those shouldering the combined costs of early family life. The parent who takes on the primary caring role is also missing out on superannuation during that time, and potentially making this sacrifice intermittently for years, depending on the number of children they have.

Our support for young families is pitiful when compared with that in other nations. In Finland, each parent is entitled to 160 days of paid leave (more than fourteen months in total). The average across OECD nations in late 2022 was 50.8. Even when Australian primary carers do return to work, they must find a way to manage employment and care for their babies. Anecdotally, I know couples who are spending over $20,000 per year on childcare alone. The combined costs mean that raising a family is turning from a fairly reasonable dream into a luxury.

I believe many growing families will be forced to do what I did, moving a long way from their roots to the end of train lines and beyond for “reasonable” mortgages. If this trend continues, other social shifts must occur, including ongoing acceptance of work-from-home practices, strong employment opportunities and increased investment in outer-suburban and regional infrastructure, not just more housing.

Property prices are causing more than a great divide; there is now a cavernous gap between those who own their home and those who do not. I worry not just about our present circumstances but about how my generation will fare at retirement age. How will we accommodate everyone who was not fortunate enough to secure a home? A roof over one’s head should be a right, not a privilege. Yet, as Kohler points out, if most people have a vested interest in property prices rising for their own security, little will change.

The number-one hitmaker of 1983 was right when she sang, “Every now and then I get a little bit nervous / That the best of all the years have gone by.” Don’t those of us who were born at that time or in the years that followed know it.

Nicole Haddow


Response to Correspondence

Micheline Lee

Thank you to the correspondents, all experts on disability experience and/or policy, for their valuable comments on Lifeboat. The comments themselves are significant contributions and insights into the way forward for inclusion of disabled people and the role the NDIS should play in this. I would especially like to acknowledge the correspondence from Rhonda Galbally and the Minister for the NDIS, Bill Shorten, as they, alongside Bruce Bonyhady, were and continue to be instrumental in the development of the NDIS.

As the correspondents say, we are at a defining period for disability. The Disability Royal Commission Report and the preliminary findings of the NDIS review show that despite Australia’s policies and measures to recognise disability rights, Australia has not become more inclusive. Those who are in most need of assistance continue to live at risk of abuse. In fact, under the NDIS, group home segregated living has actually increased. Galbally was a Commissioner on the Disability Royal Commission. She found that it was segregation – being “out of sight and out of mind – that enabled abuse, violence towards and neglect of disabled people. Disabled people need to be part of the community, starting from early childhood. We need structural change so that all systems – health, housing, transport, education, employment, infrastructure – are accessible and inclusive.

The NDIS was to be an important part of that structural change. We are disabled by both our bodies and by the inaccessibility of society. We need individual supports and an accessible environment in order to participate. The NDIS was to provide the individual support to those with the most significant disabilities. It was recognised that this part, though vital, was just one part of the equation. Consequently, the NDIS was originally positioned within the broader context of tiers 1 and 2, or what is now being called “the ecosystem.” This was to ensure that those with less significant disabilities are supported by mainstream services, and that measures are taken to make society more accessible.

As the correspondents point out, after ten years of operation, however, the early promises of the NDIS have not been completely fulfilled. While the NDIS has benefited some, the scheme itself has been inaccessible and inequitable, particularly for some of the most disadvantaged, who need it most. And governments’ focus on the NDIS has resulted in a neglect of their duties to provide support within the community and to remove social barriers.

The NDIS is revolutionary, establishing a level of entitlement to individual supports that never existed before. However, the NDIS has not increased participation, and in some ways it has resulted in society becoming less inclusive. We need to examine why, without the fear that criticising the scheme will return us to the faulty old system that we don’t want repeated.

Several of the correspondents describe the problems associated with the NDIS’s reliance on a classic market system. As Robbi Williams says, “How could we think a market mindset would work for the NDIS? This demands not only the assumption that scheme participants are properly supported to make informed choices that miraculously shape a responsive impactful market, but also the assumption that social and economic participation can be accomplished by buying stuff. They aren’t, and it can’t.”

Robbi also points out how the NDIS has misunderstood what it means for disabled people to be included and participate in the community. The scheme counts participation by measuring time spent outside the home, which, he asserts, “is not a valid measure of social participation, and at best measures physical presence in the community – a guest appearance, a very different thing from being an active and valued community member.”

For Carly Findlay, the NDIS doesn’t reflect her lived experience of disability and of disabled people’s rejection of the medical model. “In the case of the NDIS,” she says, “disability equals inability.” She notes the administrative burden placed on the individual by the NDIS, and that “you need to prove how disabled you are: how much you cannot do.”

Member of Parliament Monique Ryan describes how the NDIS has become the “default” service and governments have defunded or removed supports in the community outside the scheme, resulting in disabled people having to be on the NDIS or get nothing. As a former paediatrician, she did as other specialists have reported doing in the absence of other available supports – she was “quicker to diagnose autism.”

We all agree that to correct course, an understanding of human rights is foundational. As Bill Shorten said, “there has never been a better time in our nation’s history than now to talk about the human rights of people with disability. In politics, to achieve real change, timing is everything.”

The challenge is how to translate the theory of human rights into the real-life steps that will lead to the actual exercise and enjoyment of those rights by disabled people. Sam Drummond observes that, “Perhaps the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of advocating for disability rights is that everyone says they support them . . . But when it comes to the crunch, will they willingly reach up to the top shelf to help us get an item? Will they support our right to lead as meaningful a life as theirs?”

Both Sam and Robbi acknowledge that, though essential, the mention of human rights can be obscure and a turn-off for many. Robbi suggests that a way through this is to “see a right as a code-phrase for a collection of values.” When enough people think the values are important enough, they are written down and encapsulated within the form of a right. We can rediscover the values that are implicit within a right, and by doing that, we have “a better chance of people finding a connection, be it intellectual, personal or emotional.” For example, education is valued because it brings knowledge, skill, empathy, personal development, finding your place in the world.

The difficulty people have is understanding how discrimination and disadvantage flow from society’s structures. Too many people still believe these are neutral, rather than built for a narrow conception of the autonomous, white, able-bodied, middle-class human. They think that equality is about treating people the same. People don’t really understand how these structures keep us shut out and how it is changing these structures and accommodating diversity that will bring inclusion.

Robbi’s suggestion of emphasising the value of education and employment is important. It shows the benefits of education to the whole community and I think everyone would agree to this. But it doesn’t explain that changing the narrow way education is delivered is foundational.

The No vote for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament was also a No vote for disabled people. Not just for First Nations disabled people, but for all disabled people who are disadvantaged by our narrow inaccessible structures. The struggle is in many ways shared. Waleed Aly comments that the best explanation he found for the No vote “comes from pollster Jim Reed, who concluded that Australians will vote to ‘award equal opportunities to individuals regardless of their attributes,’ but won’t vote for something that ‘treats individuals differently.’” Unlike the marriage postal vote (“equal love”), which was about treating people the same, the Voice to Parliament was about treating people differently. I agree with Waleed that in the end many Australians were unable to understand how different treatment was necessary to help achieve greater inclusion and equality.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that came into force in 2008 was formed through active collaboration with people with disabilities from all over the world. This collaboration forged a treaty that has gone further than any other in emphasising government’s responsibility to recognise structural or institutional discrimination. Just having rights was getting us nowhere – governments needed to take action to change the structures that were preventing disabled people from realising equal enjoyment of human rights.

At the heart of the CRPD is a four- dimensional understanding of equality. This conception provides a process and sets out the prerequisites for ensuring a reform or structure is likely to fulfil the right to equality. These dimensions respond to the reality of the experience of disability and disadvantage. They are not simple to understand, so I tried in Lifeboat to illustrate how these work through the telling of my and others’ experiences of disability and the barriers to inclusion. In a nutshell, the dimensions say that you can’t have inclusion without the real opportunity to pursue one’s own valued choices. For that, you need to have a voice to have real negotiating power; you need real options to choose from (for example, it is not real choice if you opt for segregated education because there are no reasonable alternatives available); you need to be valued as equal and there must be recognition of your context and actual capacities; and finally, transformation of social structures to accommodate different needs is essential.

Our challenge is to find an accessible language to communicate this multi- dimensional approach. I see already from some of the correspondents’ comments that differences can arise when it seems that we are emphasising one dimension over the other. As the CRPD emphasises, these dimensions are interdependent and all need to be satisfied.

Individual funding and the use of private providers can be beneficial; problems arise, as we have seen, when people see choice as the freedom to participate in the market without ensuring that the supports and the structures are there to allow disabled people to exercise real choice. We can’t ignore the fact that people are seldom the autonomous individual born with the ability to contract and opportunities there for the taking.

The market needs to be shaped. It is government’s responsibility to ensure that if it is going to use the market to deliver disability supports, then the market needs to be reformed to provide access and opportunity for all, consistent with a realistic conception of the human subject. We need a government that can counter unfettered self-interest and develop and embed the public values that are missing from the NDIS market approach.

We have seen the NDIS turning into a medical or individual model of disability support because governments have neglected broader social inclusion. Shorten calls on all governments to “commit to greater investment and effort to create inclusion: schools, transport, early childhood, community activities, advocacy, building regulations, community mental health by all levels of governments and the private sector.”

As Robbi Williams says, “we must demand courageous, values-driven leadership from the governments of Australia. We must see in them visceral outrage.”

When I encouraged my friend Frida to join the NDIS to get the individual supports she needed, she cried out, “I need a man.” This doesn’t seem so far- fetched to me if every reform such as the NDIS is treated as part of an ecosystem, and if, as Bill Shorten says, “the parts of the ecosystem are being brought together.” After all, being recognised as equals, loving and being loved back is what it’s all about. If Ann Marie Smith had had one friend in the world, the abuse she suffered over three years that finally took her life would not have happened.

Micheline Lee



Carly Findlay

Micheline Lee’s Quarterly Essay, Lifeboat, is essential reading. Her story of travelling for work to Byron Writers Festival is a deeply personal one, showing her vulnerability and demonstrating that inadequate disability support compromises her independence. It disables her.

Micheline decides not to take a support worker on the way there, to save the government money – but without a support worker, and very little help from airline staff plus a flight delay, the trip turns out to be frustratingly inaccessible – and frightening. She’s without her power wheelchair, which she pleads with the staff is not to be considered luggage. A flight delay means she’s unable to go to the toilet for hours. It’s scary, and deeply undignified – a long way from the choice and control the NDIS was designed to provide. But is the failure here just that of the NDIS or of wider society as well?

The NDIS is a difficult scheme to understand, and even more perplexing is the inconsistency in its application. It makes no sense that the NDIS will support a disabled parent to get showered and dressed, yet won’t support a disabled parent to care for their baby. Just as disability can’t be separated from identity, parenthood can’t be separated either. Prices of mobility equipment increase if the NDIS is involved, much like the wedding tax. And getting approved for the NDIS seems to depend on the case worker you get. It makes no sense and is very unfair.

Most people I know who are on the NDIS haven’t had a smooth ride. They talk about the cumbersome application process, how defeated they are to be rejected by a system that seems to know nothing about their disability, and how scary it is leading up to a plan review. The medical administration of being disabled is enormous; the NDIS adds more stressors.

The deficit model seems to be what keeps many of my disabled friends from applying. It is the main reason why I won’t apply for the NDIS (or the Disability Support Pension, either). You need to prove how disabled you are: how much you cannot do. In the case of the NDIS, disability equals inability.

Only it doesn’t. Disability doesn’t mean someone is unable. Disabled people have skills, hopes and dreams. And when barriers are removed, disabled people can better participate in society. And for me, disability equals pride, identity, community and culture.

The NDIS is supposed to be an investment in individuals, and Micheline writes that some plans reduce in cost with the ambitious goal of the NDIS helping people improve, making us less disabled. But many disabled people won’t get “better.” Many disabilities are progressive. Micheline writes of her own experience of her disability progressing, and the grief and adapting that comes with this.

In Stella Young’s seminal 2014 TEDx Talk, she spoke about how disabled people don’t overcome our disabilities, we overcome barriers. And these barriers aren’t overcome with positive thinking, they’re overcome with accessibility provisions. Stella said: “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never. Smiling at a television screen isn’t going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. It’s just not going to happen.”

As Micheline describes, while the NDIS has helped many disabled people, there is also a misapprehension that it has solved inaccessibility across the board. Micheline has observed that people working at services such as supermarkets and airlines have stopped helping disabled people, because it’s assumed that people will have a support worker. That the NDIS has “fixed” it.

The NDIS is not a catch-all. Only 480,000 Australians are on the scheme, and there are 4.5 million disabled Australians – probably more, because many disabled people don’t disclose or identify. And the NDIS should not replace everyday access provisions in the community.

“I don’t want the NDIS to take the focus off the need for society to be more inclusive. The NDIS has helped to minimise the individual effects of my condition. But it has not helped make society more accessible,” Micheline writes. “I don’t want to be confined to my own little lifeboat. I want my community to be open to all and inclusive.”

So do I. The NDIS decision-making process needs to be less arbitrary and more consistent. The medical model of disability needs to be replaced with the social model of disability – where barriers are removed; and it should acknowledge that disabled people’s conditions can deteriorate. As Micheline writes, there should be no shame in asking for help; the NDIS needs to be less punitive and more hopeful for participants.

Micheline Lee’s Quarterly Essay should be read by every support worker, policy-maker and NDIA staff member. The NDIS must be fixed, to deliver what was promised.

Carly Findlay



Robbi Williams

Micheline Lee’s article is a valuable read for anyone new or old to the issue of disability in Australia. She charts key events leading to the advent of the NDIS, followed by a compelling narrative of the scheme’s issues, punctuated by stories painful to read. It should rightly leave the reader wondering: how have we blown this so badly?

A key problem with the NDIS is it was pitched as a panacea, a nation-sized handful of magic beans growing an empowered disability community living in an inclusive Australia. However, just as the NDIS idea sat in the context of the National Disability Strategy and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), so the decisions and actions of the NDIA, the agency administering the scheme, needed to sit in the context of a broader government push to advance inclusion policy and practice. Alas, that has not been evident. Indeed, dialogue about the progress of the first version of the National Disability Strategy, along with its sparse and tardy reporting, was entirely overshadowed by public discourse about NDIS implementation, often with a focus on where accountability lies.

First, there was the business of resolving what each government should pay. The state and territory governments scrambled to find enough extra money to pay for their share of scheme costs, and a miserable consequence was the discontinuation of some government- funded programs and mechanisms important to the disability community. Worse, because there was not enough money down the back of the sofa, the government bilateral agreements included payments-in-kind. It wasn’t a watch or car keys that were pushed across the table along with cash; it was the occupants of state-run disability group homes, consigning them to even less choice than other NDIS participants. Astonishingly, funding agreements underpinning NDIS implementation included elements that preserved the types of service for which the NDIS was meant to be the antidote.

Second, there was the business of resolving which disability supports ought be scheme-funded and which ought to be covered by state and territory services in health, education, accommodation, transportation and the like. Ten years on, tensions remain at these interfaces, not least because of a default assumption that if disability is involved, it must be the responsibility of the NDIS. If you need support when admitted to hospital, the NDIS should pay. If you need support in education, the NDIS should pay. If you have accessibility needs on public transportation, the NDIS should pay. When all roads lead to the NDIS, it is little wonder this caused a stampede of diagnoses, most notably autism, so folk could be admitted into the scheme and access supports. Yet Australia’s obligations to the UNCRPD mean all governments of Australia should be making far greater progress on the accessibility and inclusion of their mainstream services. It is entirely possible the manner of the NDIS’s implementation has served to hinder the evolution of state and territory services towards inclusion.

This goes to a deeper issue about how our society responds to disability, where if we throw money at it – or at those who will deal with it for us – we have done our bit and can get on with our own lives. For as long as I can remember, not-for-profit disability organisations have engaged in fundraising activities to continue their work. Whether intended or not, such activities tend to portray the organisation as the hero and the disabled person as the patronised recipient. But such fundraising efforts maintain a longstanding narrative that the best way non-disabled people can contribute to the resolution of disability issues is by paying some money for someone else to take care of that business for them. On a grander scale, this is what has happened in the government’s funding architecture for the NDIS implementation. If you have a disability, you go to the NDIS because that’s where we’ve sent taxpayer money. And because of the volume of funds allocated to the NDIS, non-disabled Australians might conclude that the issue of disability is being taken of and nothing more needs to be done. But this very assumption sets up the NDIS for failure, because the NDIS needs the context of an effective disability strategy, and it is through the changed attitudes and behaviour of non-disabled Australians that we must measure the success of that strategy.

In the absence of context, the scheme’s implementation made such failure even more certain through a highly transactional approach to the business of funded disability supports, coupled with a delusional level of faith in the power of the market. How could we think a market mindset would work for the NDIS? This demands not only the assumption that scheme participants are properly supported to make informed choices that miraculously shape a responsive impactful market, but also the assumption that social and economic participation can be accomplished by buying stuff. They aren’t, and it can’t.

Markets are transactional, whereas the NDIS is meant to be transformational. Everything about the implementation of the NDIS has felt transactional, including the calamitous sequestering of the Local Area Coordinator (LAC) role to transact scheme business instead of its intended transformational purpose of connecting people to community resources and networks. The current NDIS market is shaped by what services providers choose to offer, at prices determined by the NDIA. The NDIS participant has minimal influence in this market, and instead has become a market commodity. This is nowhere more evident than in the housing part of the NDIS – Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) – where private investors combine with builders and disability support providers to build shared housing that vacuums up scheme participants with the right price tag on their forehead.

So what is it we are meant to be implementing? The scheme’s core values, as echoed in Micheline’s essay, include “choice and control” and “social and economic participation.” It follows, therefore, that the implementation ought to reflect these values. However, participant choice and control are largely absent from the current NDIS pathway, with participants having limited choice about what goes in their budgeted plan and how it might be used, and no choice of LAC. And the scheme has misunderstood the nature of social and economic participation, as revealed by the way it measures the success of this: counting the amount of time a scheme participant spends outside the home. This is not a valid measure of social participation, and at best measures physical presence in the community – a guest appearance, a very different thing from being an active and valued community member.

In addition to these core values, Lee points to the disability community’s unmet expectation that the scheme would be anchored in human rights, reflecting Australia’s commitment to the UNCRPD. I agree about the NDIS and the Australian Disability Strategy needing to be anchored in human rights, but ironically a narrative based on rights may not be the most effective way to win the day for an effective NDIS and an inclusive Australia. Part of the problem about the language of “rights” is that it is an intellectual discourse and can leave some people unmoved, especially those who have little or no personal experience of the issue to which the right relates. For example, there are plenty of men in Australia and elsewhere who remain disconnected from the importance of women’s rights, with the result that women continue to be oppressed, overlooked or assaulted. The same is true for First Nations people. Without personal experience and insight into the issues the right speaks to, a right can become synonymous with compliance, with perceived entitlement, maybe belligerence. I am not convinced there is even a common understanding among Australians about what a right is. Rights, though critically important, are not engaging, not a crowd-pleaser, and quite possibly a turn-off.

A way through this is to see a right as a code- phrase for a collection of values. These values are held to be sufficiently important by enough people to make it worth writing them down and saying everyone should have them. By exploring the values within a right, there is a better chance of people finding a connection, be it intellectual, personal or emotional. For example, there is a right to education because of the value of education. While we might readily accept the idea of a right to education and expect people to be able to access it, we do not seem to spend much time thinking about why the right is important, about the nature of its value. That value includes, for example, the value of knowledge and skill, the value of personal development, the value of lifelong learning, the value of developing empathy and networks, the value of community, and the value of education in helping you find your place in the world.

The problem with focusing on a right rather than the values that lie within is that a right can be met transactionally. For example, a jurisdiction can meet a person’s right to an education but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the education so offered will be effective. But, hey, we met our obligation, we provided an education: what more do these people want, for heaven’s sake? It is only by drawing out the values within a right and using those values as the explicit framework for our expectations that we can make real progress.

So what does this mean for the NDIS? It needs to move away from a transactional mindset to one that is values-driven and obsessively focused on investing in a true impact on authentic social and economic participation. That would be magnificent to see, but by itself it still won’t be enough to deliver an inclusive Australia. The bigger issue lies in the broader work of all our governments. We must see more courageous and determined leadership towards inclusion. There is plenty of research data illustrating how well-crafted inclusive education is far more effective than special education at equipping young disabled people for meaningful and fulfilling adult life. Inclusive education is manifestly better at delivering the values on which the right to education is based. Yet, counterintuitively, Australia continues to invest in special and segregated education for many disabled young Australians. This also happens in other key areas of life chances, such as employment, housing, health and transportation. We need from our government and community leaders a level of determination born not just of intellectual concern at the insufficient regard for rights but of visceral outrage at the continued exclusion of disabled people from the membership and rhythms of our neighbourhoods. Despite having heard many stories of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, the Disability Royal Commission’s recently released final report shows that commissioners were split in their view of the future of segregated mechanisms such as group housing, separate special employment and special education, and with timelines for change to segregation that in some cases, such as education, can be measured in decades. And the report by the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Commission earlier this year on the many instances where quality and safety have clearly been absent in group homes did not appear at any point to contemplate whether the group home model itself was fundamentally flawed. Where is the visceral outrage? Where is the manifest urgency to change things now, to dismantle these fortresses of exclusion?

To have any real chance of tackling the range of issues in Micheline Lee’s essay, we must demand courageous, values-driven leadership from the governments of Australia. We must see in them visceral outrage. Let us look for this in their response to the royal commission report and to the NDIS Review report. Hold them accountable for authentic, urgent, values-driven decisions that advance inclusion now, not later.

And let each of us hold ourselves accountable for being part of the solution, not simply through donating to fundraisers or admiring the amount of taxpayer funds going to the NDIS, but by the character of our own actions, as neighbours, co-workers, employers, club members and fellow human beings.

Robbi Williams



Sam Bennett

I had not read Micheline Lee’s work before but will be seeking it out in future. Her essay is a powerful and insightful combination of her internalised and deeply personal journey living with disability and a wider socio-historical account of evolving disability policy in Australia. Her essay lands us squarely in the present with a passionate critique of the issues she and other people with disability currently face with the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Lee takes aim at the highly bureaucratic and disempowering NDIS planning process, the deficiencies and limitations she sees as inherent in the marketisation of disability support, and the many failings which have resulted from those with lived expertise being shut out of implementation.

The independent review of the NDIS will hand its report to government at the end of October. This is the latest review tasked with the daunting prospect of charting a course ahead that ensures the NDIS delivers on its objectives while restoring the fractured trust of participants and the wider public. The other focus of the review is sustainability; Micheline sees no evidence of sustainability issues, but this is clearly vexing Treasury and National Cabinet.

Reports of provider sharp practice, fraudulent behaviour, uncontrolled cost growth and violence and abuse directed at people with disability in NDIS-funded services make for a particularly turbulent context. There is a palpable feeling that these compounding events and heighted tensions are building towards another defining period for disability in Australia.

Yet there is an optimism in Lee’s essay, stemming from the belief that mistakes can be corrected and there are strong foundations to build upon to further transform the attitudes that disadvantage people with disability in our society. Further, Lee’s confidence that the inevitable human experience of eventual dependence and vulnerability will ultimately bind us together more strongly than our differences separate us is a profoundly positive point on which to end. Given the many examples she recounts of how far we have still to go, her optimism shimmers even more brightly.

Lee offers a broad perspective on the issues that must be tackled to fix the NDIS, but steers away from the specifics of what needs to change, which is only implied. One surprising aspect for me was the comparison of the NDIS with previous state and territory disability systems to illustrate problems with the current state of play. This applies specifically to the government’s previous role as case manager and a provider of last resort, but also forms part of a broader critique of the government’s withdrawal from direct service delivery and the folly of adopting a posture of “steer, not row.”

The implication is that elements of the previous block-funded approach compare favourably, particularly the lack of reliance on markets to respond to low-volume/high-needs situations and the fact that participants were not previously weighed down by the label and sometimes burdensome reality of being seen as consumers. There is encouragement here for the NDIS Review to redress the balance, with reference to the government taking on more responsibility for commissioning and service delivery.

These are important debates and the analysis is thought-provoking. But when following this narrative to its possible conclusions, I start to get more than a little uncomfortable. The NDIS can be seen as part of a global evolution in disability policy towards self-directed funding as a pathway to greater independence, equity and inclusion. Lee’s piece is eloquent on this and how far the NDIS has fallen short of its goals. The market looms large in the why. But if you look at the international comparisons, which Lee herself references, you sees that contemporary disability systems are all characterised, to a greater or lesser degree, by participant-directed support within some form of market-based model.

There are good reasons for these shifts in policy, driven as they were by the conviction of people with disability that directly controlling funding would lead to more of it being used on the things they need to live a full life and less on the things they don’t.

The danger here is that old ways of thinking and working swept away by the NDIS reform find a foothold and a new language that supports their re-emergence in ways that those advocating change might not anticipate. Old habits die hard, particularly in government bureaucracies steeped in the persistent rituals of welfare.

Mine is not an argument for the status quo: the disability support market clearly needs better tilling and tending than it has been afforded, including in some of the areas Lee’s essay highlights. But a word of caution is warranted regarding the risks in swinging too far back the other way, towards government service delivery. Rather than winding back the clock, changes enacted from here should focus on what is needed to make the market more diverse and more accountable.

The absence of any clear vision articulated by governments regarding the shape of the disability market it wants to see is perplexing. That the NDIS embraces a market- based model does not mean governments should be agnostic to its development or that they should assume that consumer choice will on its own deliver desirable policy outcomes when it comes to equity and inclusion. Yet concerted forays into market shaping have been very limited to date, almost solely focused on the important issue of thin markets in regional and remote Australia.

Another focus for Lee is the miasma of bureaucracy that is the current NDIS planning process, which ties people with disability in knots and has embedded a fraught and adversarial negotiation around every item of support at the heart of the scheme.

Lee writes, “The plan is a big deal. If a support is not clearly covered by a plan or explicitly listed, then it won’t be funded” and “the planning process is notoriously disempowering.”

The reason for this is that NDIS planning is not actually planning at all. It is an administratively complex process of resource allocation that itemises a list of permissible expenditure. It does so because the plan is currently the NDIS’s primary cost-control mechanism, a task for which it has proved woefully ill-equipped.

Planning in the NDIS today involves more than 10,000 decisions a week, made using highly subjective “reasonable and necessary” criteria within increasingly short timeframes, as staff numbers have not kept pace with participant growth. The process invites conflict, dispute, inequity and inflationary pressure. And any scheme whose financial performance rests on the sum of thousands of decisions made by junior public servants working to vague instruction will always come unstuck in the end.

NDIS planning serves nobody well. This is not how individualised funding systems are supposed to work and conforms to no established principle of best practice. Which brings me to the final point that struck me reading Lee’s critique – her perspective that the issues with the NDIS are primarily those of implementation. While it is undoubtedly the case that all manner of things could (and probably should) have been better implemented over the first ten years of the NDIS, the critical issues outlined with planning and markets are fundamentally ones of design.

Thankfully, you don’t have to look too hard to get a sense of the better design choices available. The planning issues that Lee identifies could be fixed by adopting the common design features of other systems of self-directed support and personal budgets, such as in the UK. This would involve the separation of resource allocation from planning so that funding entitlements are transparently connected to a standardised process of assessment rather than the current line-by-line plan-build approach.

This would also breathe life into the prospect of real planning occurring in the NDIS for the first time. Participants under this model would be free to plan creatively and choose support from wherever they liked (for instance, their local disability organisation, which understands the community well), because planning does not have to be a task for the bureaucrats if it isn’t a process of government resource allocation.

Funding could also be used more flexibly by those with stable long-term needs, extensive codification of permissible expenditure not being required when the overall budget has already been deemed to be reasonable and necessary. This would also help the government by enabling a shift of finite staffing resources to the more complex end, with a more hands-on role in safeguarding and specialised planning where it is most needed.

Similarly, a more strategic and active approach to market intervention, drawing on design choices from other systems that have done this rather better, could address the supply-side failings Lee identifies, but this would need careful calibration. A good place to start would be the government working together with people with disability to develop a vision of the market the NDIS needs to achieve its objectives and a plan to bring it about, including where and how the government should directly intervene.

I would like to see this go beyond addressing traditional thin markets to breaking patterns of service provision which have so far proved impervious to transformation through the individual purchasing decisions of vulnerable and isolated participants. This would include phasing out the scheme’s dependence on group homes, as recommended by the Disability Royal Commission, and directly shaping a market of early intervention supports that follows the evidence and prevents participants and families being captured by providers of junk therapies.

These are some of the critical design choices ahead of us. It will be important that the government, whether steering or rowing, finds a balance in correcting major flaws in design without altering the intended destination of the NDIS as a world-leading scheme of self-directed support. They shouldn’t be looking too much to the past for their reference points in doing so.

Sam Bennett



Rhonda Galbally 

Lifeboat is a comprehensive analysis and valuable critique of where we have got to with disability in Australia and where we might go. More than that, it is a beautifully written and very moving account of Lee’s life as a disabled woman. Lee’s status as a compelling writer was established with her wonderful novel The Healing Party and this essay applies her honed skill of drawing on her internal voice so that her inner ambiguities and struggles are revealed. This is a generously revealing approach – weaving together the personal and political – and Lee has done this with great skill in analysing the NDIS, warts and all.

Lee begins by outlining just a few of her struggles with Australia’s lack of accessibility and inclusion. She wants to be polite and generous to people’s well-intentioned efforts to be kind, but she reveals her inner rage at charitable attitudes, with its object the poor cripple and she on the receiving end.

On receiving a free bar of soap as a gift from a shop owner, she writes:

I felt conflicted and embarrassed but didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

I approached and gave him a smile . . .

“Aren’t we just inspirational!” . . .

“He was just being kind . . . he’s better than most people,” my sister added.

“But it made you feel like a child, right?”


While being treated as brave, inspirational, vulnerable and needing protection might not sound too awful, it has led to awful treatment. Disabled people are segregated “for their own protection.” Yet, as I found as a Disability Royal Commissioner, segregation enables violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation to abound unseen, invisible – out of sight and out of mind.

At the Disability Royal Commission we heard that the alternative is to make all systems in Australian society accessible and fully inclusive – starting with early childhood, so that disabled children can interact with non-disabled children in all aspects of schooling as one of the gang. It is familiarity that leads to acceptance that in turn enables attitudes to change. And Lee agrees that all systems – state, federal and local – need to fully include disabled people – health, housing, transport, education, employment, infrastructure.

Meanwhile, into our inaccessible, excluding Australia, the NDIS was launched, opening its doors in 2013 after an outstanding campaign called Every Australian Counts. There were huge hopes for the scheme, but it was never envisaged that it would have to take responsibility for the complete lack of universal access and inclusion. Its job was to enable people at an individual level to decide what they needed personally to participate fully in the social, cultural and economic life of Australia. The NDIS packages were only ever meant to be the personal bit of the equation. The external world also needed to be transformed so that disabled people could participate.

Nevertheless, the NDIS was a revolution, in that for the first time ever disabled people could decide what they needed and wanted and what personal support might assist them to get there. Lee describes valuing her independence and privacy, so she gets to choose how, when and where she gets support. She also tells of trying to persuade her friend Frida, who has a psychosocial disability, to take a package by describing how that could support her to get back to work.

Frida rejects the suggestion to go onto the NDIS. “I want a man,” she says. Would, could or should a package have assisted Frida to go to places where she might find a man, or at least have a chance to make more friends that might lead to relationships? Frida did not have problems with physical access, but most places where we might meet people – disabled and non-disabled together – are completely inaccessible physically and socially forbidding to many people with disabilities, thereby excluding them.

Lee describes terrible cases of people trying to work their way through far too complex processes; dealing with inconsistent, unfair and irrational decisions; and trying endlessly to find what they need in undeveloped, thin markets. Do I detect, though, a slight hint of harking back to the old days when the states provided disability services with block funding, or am I being oversensitive? I regard the pre-NDIS service sector with horror: it was a time when disabled people had no choice or control – absolutely no say over what, how, who, when and if they would receive services, and certainly no say over the design of the specialist, mostly segregated services. And these segregated services were just as riddled with violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, but with the addition that hardly anyone received support in the first place.

While Lee focuses on the market for disability specialist services, there needs to be attention given to the completely undeveloped “market” for mainstream services and systems. This means, for example, that people need a disability support worker to drive them around because public transport is not accessible. Or an occupational therapist to help them negotiate a place in what should be an inclusive and welcoming setting, such as a junior sports group, or a speech therapist to coach them in subjects at school.

If I, as a disabled woman, decide that I’d rather learn computing or reading or numeracy or photography or art with non-disabled people, the venue is likely to be inaccessible and the teacher is also likely to be unwilling and unable to teach me if I am non-verbal, intellectually disabled, have high support needs or diverse behaviours.

When the mainstream is inaccessible, it is far easier to default to a segregated special school, sheltered workshop, day program and group house, where I live, learn, work and play with my own kind. This is, in effect, to be forced into a segregated life rather than for the outside world of community living, mainstream schools, open employment and recreation to accept and include and teach disabled children and adults. Is the NDIS inadvertently expanding segregation in areas such as group homes, day programs and sheltered employment? If so, this is a profound problem and certainly not a lifeboat for those living in those settings.

Alternatively, is the NDIS adhering sufficiently to the original design, to provide flexible personal budgets that encourage the non-disability specialist mainstream world to include disabled people?

Lee implies that expecting consumer demand to transform the mainstream world is unrealistic and I agree with her. Governments should be taking responsibility for making all systems accessible and inclusive, not just because it is a requirement of their commitment to the human rights of persons with disabilities but also because this would take financial pressure off the NDIS.

The NDIS was never expected or funded to deliver an accessible and inclusive world. But in the face of an inaccessible community, fighting to get a package is the only game in town and the packages must be large enough to compensate for lack of access and inclusion.

The reality for the sustainability of the NDIS is that we need disabled people to be able to lead lives out in the world. What is needed is the combination of NDIS support packages that assist people to join the wider community and governments at all levels, ensuring we have accessible and inclusive systems and settings that enable this. It is this combination which provides the lifeboat referred to by Lee in the title of her essay.

At the heart of Lee’s multilayered analysis of the NDIS, she grapples with the concept of individual/personal budgets. Personal self-directed budgets are a separate issue from market models or the consumer role. Lee herself is a self-managed participant and she outlines some of those choices that she makes – some of which work out and some don’t, but all are hers to make.

In being concerned that self-directed budgets with choice at their heart might lead to a neoliberal consumerist approach, Lee quotes Mark Considine, who seems to be suggesting that we might consider giving up choice for voice. This made my blood pressure go up very high. Voice without choice means no choice about when, how, who and what for our daily lives – no choice about whom you live with, who supports you, what you eat, when. No choice to be able to leave your segregated setting and live your life in the community. Voice would be meaningless without choice. I’m sure that can’t be what Considine would like to see, but I would guard the NDIS’s choice and control aspiration to my last gasp and promote self-direction and flexible budgets as empowering, enabling the transition to mainstream life. At the same time, I recognise that the mainstream has a long way to go to ensure inclusion of disabled people.

Lee’s essay is a call to arms to get the NDIS working much better. My hope, as a recent Disability Royal Commissioner, is that the NDIS, with its self-directed budgets enabling choice and control, will end up stimulating the demand by disabled people for an ordinary life in the mainstream. But this will only come to fruition if, as commissioners recommend, there is a commitment to the responsible phasing out of segregated models of housing, work and schooling. This would be properly spearheaded by governments at all levels agreeing to fully honour Australia’s commitment to the treaty we were one of the first countries to sign: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Rhonda Galbally



Sam Drummond

Micheline Lee describes working as a lawyer and being rejected by a client as soon as he sees her. “He told the manager that he needed a lawyer who would look the part in court.”

This is an all-too-common experience for disabled professionals. We’ve been told our whole lives that we should fit in, make ourselves useful: in Lee’s words, “deny and overcome.” Then, when we do, we find out there’s a certain view of what a successful person looks like – and it isn’t disabled.

Lee’s experience with a client highlights the unspoken reality disabled people face every day. We hear so often that Australia is the land of the “fair go,” but what does that actually mean? Does it mean that everyone should have the support they need to live a life they love? Or does it mean everyone gets treated the same, even when that means unequal outcomes?

Lee is sceptical of the whole concept – and who can blame her? It is with this scepticism that she analyses the current state of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Perhaps the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of advocating for disability rights is that everyone says they support them, from shelf stackers at the supermarket to politicians. Even in today’s polarised environment, it’s only someone right on the outer fringes who would say “I’m against disability rights” out loud.

But when it comes to the crunch, will they willingly reach up to the top shelf to help us get an item? Will they support our right to lead as meaningful a life as theirs? The reality is that people with disability can’t count on the answer to this question being yes. We strive for independence, but too often it is labelled as stubbornness.

It was with this doubt in our minds that we realised our humanity wasn’t enough to get the NDIS over the line. In our society, a life is not worth as much as others until there is economic output. And so we embraced an economic model.


Lee describes sector elder Bruce Bonyhady’s light-bulb moment talking to then deputy prime minister Brian Howe, who advised him to frame disability policy as risk insurance and investment rather than welfare. The spectre of Bonyhady looms large over Lee’s essay, like the Architect from the Matrix, who creates a system that keeps the machines powered and the humans at bay through the construct of choice. Lee invites us to sit with Bonyhady’s description of the choice faced by the scheme’s creators. “Insurance appeals to people’s self-interest in a way that human rights don’t,” he said. “Some people see human rights as something that a minority goes on about too loudly and so an emphasis on human rights might have risked rejection of the NDIS.”

Without Bonyhady, we may not have the NDIS at all. He worked with thousands of other disability activists to advocate tirelessly for this life-changing policy. The choice they faced was critical to its sustainability – tell the story of how every human is equal or sell the scheme as one of economic efficiency.

It took us decades of thinking about disability in new ways to get to the NDIS. We passed the word from person to person, any way we could, that the disadvantages experienced by people with disability are the barriers put up by society – a lack of ramps, inaccessible toilets, strobe lighting, a lack of plain-language information.

Julia Gillard called the NDIS “the greatest change to Australian social policy in a generation.” Yet to sell the social change to our neighbours, it was framed as an economic reform. As suggested by Brian Howe, it was called an insurance scheme.

Perhaps the existential problem the NDIS faces goes to the heart of insurance as a concept. You insure yourself against something bad happening – a crash on a road, a fire in your house, an unfortunate mishap with your pet labradoodle. Nobody said it better than the late Stella Young: “We have been lied to about disability. We’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. Capital B, capital T. It’s a bad thing.” You get insurance so a bad thing doesn’t happen.

People without disabilities bought the NDIS because they didn’t want the bad thing to happen to them. People with disabilities knew this. We’ve always known the risk that a fair go doesn’t include actual equality. This was the trade-off to lifting our standard of living towards that of the wider population.

Fast-forward to now and we are seeing the results of a human rights scheme built on sandy foundations that sidelined human rights. The economic imperative of the scheme’s structure has inevitably seen a retreat towards disability as a medical diagnosis – away from the social model of disability that informed its creation. It is a scheme we should be grateful for as a charitable act by the taxpayer.

I’ve heard the suggestion that the I in NDIS should be changed to Investment.

In my opinion, that too falls into the trap of seeing a person as a dollar figure. We are not people but consumers, left to the whims of providers. We are not contributors to a successful society but burdens on the taxpayer. Our independence is reduced once more to stubbornness.

The ultimate question that Lee’s essay asks is this: what is the future of the scheme?

It also asks: Is disability a normal part of what it means to be human? Is it something our society can embrace not for its economic opportunity (although Lee points out that the numbers do stack up) but for the fact that we are your friends, children, parents and neighbours?

While putting people with disability at the centre of decision- making is key – and is in fact required by international law – the burden of the answer must fall to people without disability. Compare Lee’s legal client to the woman she encounters at the airport. An airport security staffer tells Lee she should have a support worker with her to lift her bag onto the security conveyor belt. This situation clearly wouldn’t have happened before the NDIS. The woman behind Lee mutters, “Unbelievable,” and lifts the bag up.

The wider population can’t be bystanders waiting for people with disabilities to do the heavy lifting. It’s not on us to fix the holes that opened up because people without disabilities were assured the NDIS was in their self-interest. Yes, we need to fix the scheme. But human rights must be at the centre.

Lee writes that “it is through acceptance of our universal condition of vulnerability that the attitudes in our society which cause segregation are most likely to be changed.” To be human is to be vulnerable.

“Disability was something I had to deny and overcome,” Lee says. “This mindset influenced the way I tried to live right up until my twenties.” This rings true for so many people with a disability. We have already been on the journey of accepting this. It’s up to others to come on that journey too.

So, to those wanting to know how to fix the scheme: read Lee’s essay and be like that woman at the airport. Shake your head and mutter, “Unbelievable,” while lifting the NDIS to where it should be – with human rights at its heart.

Sam Drummond



Monique Ryan

One in six Australians live with disability. That’s 4.4 million people. To support them, ten years ago the Gillard Labor government established the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The NDIS has been life-changing for many Australians. For many, the supports it has provided have been essential to living an included life within our society – possibly for the first time – but the ten-year mark for this scheme coincides with a time of uncertainty and concern regarding increasing participant numbers and rapidly escalating cost. Micheline Lee’s Quarterly Essay Lifeboat is therefore perfectly timed, landing as it does at the same time as the report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability – all twelve volumes and 6788 pages of it – and the impending final report of the independent review commissioned by the NDIS minister, Bill Shorten, in October 2022.

The Australian Labor Party prides itself on Medicare, its universal healthcare scheme, established by the Whitlam government in 1975. The fundamental principles of Medibank/Medicare were equity, efficiency, simplicity and fairness in provision of a universal insurance scheme for healthcare provided under the shared auspices of the Commonwealth and the states and territories. The NDIS has never quite reached for or achieved those lofty ideals, but it has become a major part of our government’s social welfare system.

The NDIS was designed to give disabled individuals “reasonable and necessary” supports, over which they have choice and control as to how they want to live their life, and over who delivers the supports required to help them achieve this. Many current issues with the NDIS relate to its structure. It was established as an insurance scheme in the expectation that early investment in the capacity of those with significant disability would decrease the cost of their future care. The scheme was aimed primarily at Australians with permanent and significant deficits – so-called “Tier 3” individuals – who would be given personalised individual support packages. Similar packages would be provided to those with less severe disability where it was predicted that early intervention would significantly lessen their future support needs. Approximately 475,000 such cases were anticipated, and it was expected that community-based disability services – including education, health and vocational training – would support the remaining 3.8 million Australians with lesser disability (“Tier 2” individuals). Those in Tier 2 would continue to receive mainstream health, education and employment support via mainstream (generally state-based) services. The NDIS was never intended to cater for all Australians with a disability, or even for all of those with severe deficits: those over sixty-five were carved out, unless they entered the scheme before that age.

The reality of the NDIS as it stands now is very different. Almost from inception, the NDIS has become the back-up and default service for most children and adults with developmental disorders, delays and disabilities, as other disability supports and programs – particularly those funded by state and territory governments – have been defunded or removed. Vacation of the space previously filled by community-based block-funded services has left a void for those with milder developmental delay and physical deficits. Massive inequity has arisen; those on the scheme receive much more support than non-participants. The Melbourne Disability Service has reported that 90 per cent of people without NDIS funding are unable to access the supports they need. This renders current clients desperate to retain NDIS funding, and leaves others fighting to become eligible. Those with lower support needs have had to apply for NDIS funding when they might otherwise have accessed other programs, and paediatricians (like me) have been quicker to diagnose autism when that’s the quickest and easiest way to ensure that children can receive early intervention for their developmental delay. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking a lot like a nail. However, this has led to a situation where 11 per cent of Australian five- to seven-year-old boys and 5 per cent of five- to seven-year-old girls are NDIS participants. This is simply unsustainable. It demands change.

The NDIS was established as a classic market-based system; the thought was that participants would drive and shape the market – that with control over their own plans they would select the best providers, rewarding excellence with patronage and driving competition for their services. The Productivity Commission assumed that supply would be generated in response to increased demand for providers, but the reality is that there remain shortages of many allied health disciplines and other providers in the disability sector. Disability care is not akin to fast-food delivery; you can’t just call in a gig workforce of Uber drivers, although services such as Mabel have sprung up to attempt to fill the gap for lower-qualified workers able to provide less complex services. In many cases, the thin – and complex – market means that appropriately skilled providers often can’t be found or accessed. For instance, disturbingly, people with psychosocial disability in the Far West region of New South Wales use only 11 per cent of their plans. The market fails where participants need more specialised supports, which come at higher costs, and in areas where there are poor economies of scale. The federal and state governments have not monitored disability services to ensure that there’s back-up in regional or rural settings, that the services billed are actually provided, and that vulnerable participants are receiving not just services but also holistic care. There are no means by which people with disabilities can compare and rank service providers; and in any case their needs are individual and often complex. It can take a participant months to get to know and trust a carer; it’s not as simple as comparing a pair on a website and swiping right. Because of the shortages of providers, those in the market have been able to raise their prices to the maximum permitted by the scheme, to levels above those supported by other services – TAC, Veterans’ Affairs, Aged Care – so that individuals in those other schemes struggle to compete.

It’s not all clover for the providers. The policy and compliance framework can be challenging, screening processes for workers slow, and cashflow an issue when clients neglect to pay accounts or run out of funds. Not-for-profits caring for high-needs and complex participants have found it difficult to compete for staff and to provide their services competitively. Cost-shifting between the federal and state governments does not help. In August 2023, the Victorian government tried to cut funding for specialist visiting teachers working with disabled children in schools, backflipping only in the face of sustained outrage from parents, teachers and disability advocacy groups. During the pandemic, issues with NDIS-funded planners left hospitalised scheme participants ready for discharge waiting for an average of 118 days – ready to go home but waiting on funding packages and accommodation.

There are clearly significant inequities in how the NDIS is operating. NDIS participants are overwhelmingly young and male. Only 37 per cent of NDIS participants are women. This reflects the higher incidence of autism and related conditions in males, but it also reflects selection bias within the scheme; 49 per cent of people with disability aged under sixty- five years are female. Plan utilisation is higher for those in metropolitan than in regional and remote areas. Many participants describe inconsistencies in the size of support packages provided to people with the same disability or level of need. The quality of advocacy by planners and parents has mattered, disadvantaging those whose advocates argue less eloquently, those with less familiarity with bureaucracy, and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Lower levels of plan utilisation among Indigenous people with disabilities reflect difficulties with providing evidence of disability and an absence of whole-of-life case management in the NDIS for those who are dealing not only with disability but also with other social challenges such as homelessness and poverty.

Cost has been a perennial concern. The NDIS is a demand-driven scheme with no limits on spending. As of June 2023, the scheme has more than 610,000 participants, with numbers projected to increase to over a million by 2032. Fraud is an issue, as with all government systems, but the extent and prevalence of system abuse is unclear. Attempts to rein spending in under the Morrison government led to cost- cutting, and a 400 per cent increase in disputes over packages. We all know that the disability dollar is not unlimited. The NDIS is expected to cost $50 billion annually by 2024/25 – more than the annual budget for Medicare, or even defence, nuclear submarines notwithstanding. That figure, however, fails to take into account the original assumption of the scheme: that it would generate revenue and productivity by facilitating employment and engagement of people with disabilities, and by freeing up carers to return to the workforce. While employment of disabled people has not increased significantly in the past ten years, there is good evidence that the multiplier effect of the NDIS is significant – that every dollar spent generates an economic contribution of $2.25. It’s a service, not an expense.

As a paediatric neurologist, I interacted with the NDIS through the annual completion of support letters, which very often had to be rewritten as I’d not used the right key words to trigger maximal package size. I had to undertake yearly redocumentation of the permanence of genetic conditions. I had to do my best to convince assessors that NDIS funding was just as justified for individuals with lifelong, progressive disorders as for those with conditions more likely to respond to intervention. I had to apologise to parents for documents emphasising their children’s deficits, in the hope of attracting more support, rather than highlighting their engagement with therapy and their capacity for achievement.

As a member of parliament, I hear often from NDIS participants and their carers about their frustration and anger with the system. From the mother of a brain-injured adult in Supported Independent Living, worried about the potential for his 24-hour nursing care to be revoked. From the sisters of a disabled adult concerned with the increasing cost of his residential placement. From the guardians of a thirteen-year-old with autism and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, whose excellent Special Developmental School struggles to manage her behavioural outbursts and who can’t access inpatient psychiatric care where her medications can be safely adjusted. From consumers outraged that the NDIS is paying large amounts for behavioural therapy assessments of dubious value. From participants and parents unable to find affordable, accessible psychologists, psychiatrists, dieticians, speech pathologists or occupational therapists. Those engaged with the scheme were outraged by the comment of the previous CEO of the National Disability Insurance Agency, Martin Hoffman, that the NDIS “operates on the presumption that all people with disability have the capacity to make decisions and exercise choice and control.” That comment was made at a Royal Commission hearing into the death of Ann Marie Smith, a 54-year-old woman with cerebral palsy who died from septic shock, organ failure and malnutrition at the hands of an NDIS provider. It reflected a refusal to accept that the ability to exercise choice and control is often compromised in persons with a disability. Of course it is – how could it be otherwise? The NDIS’s remit must not only ensure support to help people exercise independence but also include a duty of care for those unable to do so.

As a member of the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS, I’ve had the honour of hearing from many providers and participants about their experience of the system. Some of those testimonials were really hard to hear; they were raw, confronting, sometimes heartbreaking. Our NDIS has the potential to be world- leading, but it has become adversarial. Participants are expected to justify why their static or progressive medical conditions are not improving. They’re forced to undergo annual assessments which engender uncertainty and anxiety, when there is often no good reason for such frequent reviews. They’ve had to take on review processes and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal without support or representation. We have forced disabled Australians – and their parents, partners and carers – to battle a system in which transparency and generosity have been sacrificed to red tape and mean-spirited bureaucracy.

So the question remains: how do we best support those needing help? We should, can and must do better than we have done to date with this life-changing scheme. Shorten sees the NDIS as “the only lifeboat in the ocean.” Bruce Bonyhady, the original chair of the National Disability Insurance Agency, has described it as an “oasis in the desert.” Rather than the individual supports provided by the NDIS, we have to offer a dual system, including both defined packages for those with more significant needs, and community-based programs for infants and young children with developmental delay, children with mild autism and neurodivergence, and adults with milder deficits for whom group therapy will not only result in better use of resources but might also promote inclusion. This model will be better aligned with the original NDIS design. It will also be more cost-effective. Politicians love a metaphor; I’ll offer an alternative. No man is an island, or an oasis, and no man should need a lifeboat. The NDIS should be a trampoline; a place for soft landings with strong external supports and limits, but also a launching pad for those able to take off. Around that trampoline should be the soft grass provided by support services which increase the range and nature of community and mainstream supports for people without severe disability, and which provide group therapy and services for all who are able to benefit from them. This model would need us to resile from the premise that all disabled people must self-manage their care, and that all should receive support individually. Some things are better done together – for efficiency, economy and enjoyment. The model would also mean that, as a society, we accept our responsibility to include and support all individuals, their variations and imperfections, and to create a context accepting of their varying capacities and needs.

Monique Ryan



Bill Shorten

Micheline Lee’s essay Lifeboat is beautiful. It felt like truth and it resonated. In life we occasionally have light-bulb moments. Micheline’s essay linked my gut subconscious understanding of life with a disability with my intellectual understanding of life with a disability. It is somehow both flattering and disconcerting that my analogy for the plight of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), as “the only lifeboat in the ocean” for people with disability, was used as a cornerstone of this important essay.

Micheline’s essay is an intensely personal lens on the individuality of people when we speak or do anything about disability. Her piece gives the reader a firsthand window onto the NDIS and the journey for access to equality in the world as a whole.

In my opinion, there has never been a better time in our nation’s history than now to talk about the human rights of people with disability. In politics, to achieve real change, timing is everything. We have just had the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, which Labor first called for in May 2017, hand down its final report, including 222 recommendations for change. And the NDIS Review, which I established soon after Labor came to government in 2022, will also deliver its recommendations.

The final report of the Disability Royal Commission challenges us to create a more inclusive Australia where individuals live with dignity, equality and respect, and can fulfil their potential. Volume four of the final report pertains to human rights. It recommends an “overhaul of Australia’s legislative policy and governance structures to protect the right of people with disability.”

We should seize the day for a horizon project across Australian society to ensure people with disability are able to be included, whether this be going to the school of their choice, making and meeting friends, studying, working, living or enjoying themselves and moving around with the form of mobility that works best for them. We can make a national decision to journey to the horizon of the most inclusive nation in the world.

The Albanese government has set up a taskforce to respond to the 222 recommendations, led by the very capable Amanda Rishworth, Minister for Social Services, who will provide a progress update early next year. I am very mindful of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities being used to underpin our efforts. While the NDIS Review is independent, I also have no doubt the human rights of people with disability will wash through every aspect of the important final report.

Micheline visits the scheme as a participant, family member, mother, friend, lawyer and formidable intellect. She navigates the world bringing these various perspectives, but also from a deeply personal, unique place. Most importantly, her essay reminds those of us with the privilege of power and the capacity to make change, whether basic or transformational, that we cannot make any meaningful impact without people with disability as co-design partners.

When I first became involved with the disability sector in 2007 in the Rudd government, “Nothing about us without us” was the anthem of people with disability in their campaign for the fair go. Since 2007, I have seen and been part of the campaign for a scheme that would provide universal and lifelong support for people who are significantly and permanently disabled. Alongside every person with a disability and their families and advocates, we won the right to establish the NDIS. In 2013 the dream became a reality for hundreds of thousands of Australians with disability.

The scheme was legislated by Labor and then piloted and rolled out by successive Coalition governments. From Opposition, nothing frustrated me more than watching the scheme being run down over nine years. On a daily basis I heard about the life- changing, positive changes the NDIS had brought for many, but also horror stories of how, for too many participants and families, navigating the NDIS was an inconsistent, opaque, dehumanising “second full-time job.”

While I didn’t know Micheline’s friend Frida, I believe the shocking, avoidable death of South Australian woman Ann Marie Smith in 2020 taught a similar lesson. Ann Marie’s passing was a pivotal moment in the collective realisation that the NDIS was not doing what it was supposed to; people were not being kept safe from harm.

After my election loss as Labor leader to Scott Morrison, I understood that the universe does not grant reruns. But the universe has a funny way of surprising. With every precious minute in the job as NDIS minister, I do feel I’ve been given a remarkable second chance to return to fix up the scheme I helped create.

On first being given the shadow NDIS ministry after the 2019 election and then seeking the important role of NDIS minister in the Albanese Labor government in 2022, I was given the chance to serve where I know I can repay the gift of faith and goodwill and lessons from Australians with disability. Now that I am in charge of the scheme, I have a bird’s- eye view of how the “choice and control” the NDIS was supposed to offer was being micromanaged by governments and bureaucracies which clearly did not think people with disability could make decisions about their own lives.

After ten years, the NDIS has the momentum to return to its original purpose, to be here to stay, to become “politician-proof.” That’s why Lifeboat hits a raw nerve, because it pinpoints the pressure the scheme has been under since its creation. Despite diabolical management, the scheme has remained a fundamental structure in Australia’s safety net ecosystem. As Micheline notes, there are now more than 600,000 Australians with disability who are NDIS participants, but they are part of almost 4.5 million people with disability across the nation.

Micheline writes almost hesitantly about the collective role of governments to provide support, choice and accessibility, as though the premise is built on a house of cards. I understand that fear, but I am with her all the way to help people with disability and the people who love them.

We must remember that the NDIS was only intended to be one part of a broader disability support ecosystem. But that ecosystem isn’t working as intended. It’s on all of us to commit to greater investment and effort to create inclusion: schools, transport, early childhood, community activities, advocacy, building regulations, community mental health by all levels of governments and the private sector. And there must be a discussion with states and territories about all of us lifting our outcomes in disability support. There is momentum for a better and more consistent deal. The parts of the ecosystem are being brought together.

The Disability Royal Commission was the culmination of four and half years of broad consultation. The 222 recommendations will be carefully considered; the report will not sit on a shelf collecting dust. I acknowledge that not every recommendation is automatically accepted; rather, the sum of the work is critical. Nor will the NDIS Review report sit on a shelf after it is handed to the Disability Reform Ministerial Council.

Too much of the NDIS’s ten- year history was left to be written by Coalition governments which, in my opinion, did not understand the human rights foundation of the world- first scheme. Successive governments ran down the National Disability Insurance Agency by imposing unreasonable staffing caps, resulting in a lack of capacity and a lack of capability. How could 4500 staff who serviced 150,000 participants at the start of the scheme be expected to give the same level of attention to the 660,000 Australians who now access the scheme?

Participants have been faced with the horrible situation of long delays in their package being approved and having to explain their needs to people who lacked knowledge about their disability or disease. We’re changing that, with the largest investment ever made in the NDIA. That funding means recruiting more staff and ensuring better training and systems so that the agency is fit for purpose.

We’re committed to co-designing policies with people with disability and making sure those with lived experience have a seat at the table where decisions are made. We have already made significant changes to the membership of the NDIA board and the agency’s senior management.

We’re recognising that one size does not fit all and we’re building flexibility into the way services are delivered, especially in remote and Indigenous communities.

And we are stopping the fraud and rorting that has seen money that was meant for participants line the pockets of crooks and dodgy providers that taint the reputation of many hardworking and decent providers. No more. That ends. We are locking the back door of the scheme that Coalition government left wide open.

I don’t dismiss any of the criticisms of the NDIS, nor do I think I can wave a magic wand and make it instantly perfect. But I can promise you that I am doing everything in my power to return the NDIS to its original intent. It is a life-changing scheme for thousands of Australians with disability and I want to make sure that is the reality for every person who is eligible and accesses the NDIS.

The underlying mission is to make the NDIS sustainable for generations to come of Australians with disability. To do that, we have to listen to current NDIS participants about where it has gone off the rails. Micheline’s essay gives us a chair’s-eye view. It perfectly encapsulates the human experience of disability. It uplifts because it reminds the reader impairment is a fact of life, not the problem. The problem is a lack of money and power and an inability to see past one attribute of another human. I thank her for sharing what is a deeply personal account.

Micheline mentions the great Professor Bruce Bonyhady AM a number of times in Lifeboat. Professor Bonyhady is co-chair of the NDIS Review, with esteemed former public servant and policymaker Lisa Paul AO PSM.

Bruce Bonyhady recently quoted the seventeenth-century English writer John Donne’s potent meditation, “No man is an island,” on the way all parts of society have the potential to intersect with the lives of people with disability. How we are all part of the “village” that supports and enriches our sense of community. In Donne’s famous meditation, the poet reminds us that each of us plays a role “because I am involved in mankind.”

We are all part of the rich tapestry of life. Better to do it together than alone.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.


Bill Shorten

Voice of Reason

Response to Correspondence 

Megan Davis 

Each of the erudite responses to my Quarterly Essay stands on its own as worthy and incisive commentary on the essay and on this historic moment that we are barrelling towards. I make only a few observations in response. Sana Nakata and Daniel Bray’s extraordinary contribution should be compulsory for all “undecideds.” It should be read by the multitudinous commentators prosecuting the idea that Australian democracy and liberalism require no adjustment and no reform, and cannot recognise “difference” in a way that won’t violate formal equality. If we set to one side that Australia is a nation that has enabled communities of different wealth to flourish because of a commitment to substantive equality, not formal equality, Bray and Nakata provide a sharp retort to those essentialists.

Their dialogue reminds me of the fascinating and sophisticated conversations that occurred in the First Nations Regional Dialogues. They were fierce and moving and messy and clever. Full of tears and anger and hope and covering the full spectrum of human emotion. For, you see, we were asked to talk to members of communities who are the end users of a billion-dollar industry that is so large and unaccountable that even the Productivity Commission can’t track it. And we rock up to talk about the constitution over three days?

When Aunty Pat Anderson went on ABC TV’s 7.30 to explain the dialogues, she spoke of the process as being just that – teary and angry – but the next day had a headline: “People were angry: Uluru Statement architect weighs in on dialogues amid ‘reparations’, treaty controversy.” Mainstream media see the dialogue participants and advocates for Uluṟu as angry activists with angry motives. It is so clichéd. What we saw, as Bray and Nakata elegantly put it, was a “meeting place. A place where even agreement is noisy.”

It is where common interests have sharp, broken edges. Where the peace is fragile. Where understanding is often incomplete. It is where the past and the present and the future converge in moments that seem like they should break us apart, but don’t.


This is the parliament.

This is Australian democracy.

This will be the Voice.

I see Bray and Nakata’s concluding words as a neat metaphor for the Voice and for Australian democracy. Democracy should be the meeting place of all citizens.

But for so long it hasn’t been that for the First Peoples because, as they say, the marginalisation of First Peoples has been done “not by accident, but by design.”

Nakata and Bray traverse some of that history. But more importantly, they explain that democratic governance, like our constitution, is not intended to be static, to stand still. As Bray and Nakata say:

Those who argue that the safeguard of a democracy is its unchanging nature are wrong. Renewal is how nations inoculate themselves against new forms of division and conflict that emerge when the people and the power continue to diverge. This is exactly what constitutional reform to protect an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament works to achieve. The proposal for a Voice takes seriously the weaknesses of Australia’s democracy and proposes a constitutional remedy.


After all, the origins of the parliament come from the post–Norman conquest formation of assemblies to talk. Parler is the French word for “to speak”– from which the word parliament evolved. And this is what dialogue seeks to do. It seeks to speak “to” the parliament and “to” the executive. Our parliamentary system is adversarial and is built upon the mediation of two versions of the good life. But for First Nations people, our world, our lives, our needs fall outside that spectrum because we are distinct cultural groups. The Voice is utterly consistent with our legal and political traditions, as it aligns with the values that Bray and Nakata show are integral to contemporary democracy, and this includes the mechanisms of accountability citizens can exercise outside of elections and the deliberative capacity of political communication and the inclusion of affected people in policymaking and the empowerment of the historically marginalised. We are asking to be listened to. That’s all.

Bray and Nakata say, as we do, “From this vantage point, the Voice will enhance Australian democracy.”

Damien Freeman sets up a straw man. I don’t say that undecided non-Indigenous voters who have genuine questions about the Voice’s ability to address the plight of Aboriginal people don’t love Aboriginal people. I said Noel Pearson’s claim that we are “unloved” will be tested at this referendum.

Freeman also says that Aboriginal cynicism is not the only cynicism that needs to be addressed and that we need to make the case to non-Indigenous electors who feel cynical about a Voice.

My entire work post-Uluṟu has been to turn up, tirelessly, to a host of different forums across Australia and write in different media to try to reach those people and explain how the Voice is and was expressly conceived, and has been developed, as a form of recognition that will be more than symbolism, that will help improve the lives of people on the ground. Unlike Freeman, most communities don’t use the term “local communities” – that’s not how they describe themselves. It’s a bureaucratic term. It’s a term used by the United Nations which has seen the diminution of Indigenous rights. They don’t make a distinction between local communities and national voice. That’s an artificial distinction: their Voice is their Voice no matter where the meeting place. They view this mechanism as grassroots communities wanting a Voice directly to Canberra, where national decisions are made. And most dialogues wanted to elect spokespeople directly via ballot-box elections. The design phase that the Labor government has committed to that follows a successful referendum will allow communities to contribute to that design. The one point they all made was that there is no existing entity or framework that represents their voice.

Freeman worries about me convincing cynical voters who don’t know what the Voice will achieve. The Uluṟu Dialogues, which I co-chair with Pat Anderson, are on the ground every day doing the hard work of talking to cynical undecided and No voters, as well as to ATSI peoples and Yes voters. My team over six months in 2023 has been to Cooktown, Laura, Cairns, Mossman, Port Douglas, Kuranda, Ingham, Innisfail, Lightning Ridge, Walgett, Coonabarabran, Narrabri, Moree, Townsville, Palm Island, Eagleby, Broken Hill, Mudgee, Wellington, Gilgandra, Trangie, Narro-mine, Gulargambone, Nyngan, Warren, Lithgow, Wagga Wagga, Redfern, Nowra, Cairns, Mareeba, Tully, Brewarrina, Logan Central, Taree, Port Macquarie, Tamworth, Hervey Bay, Dubbo, Orange, Sydney, Newcastle and Logan City. We are soon moving to South Australia. We run small, face-to-face dialogues with Aussies and local Indigenous groups, some together, some separate. We have no “Yes” placards. We are there to educate, not proselytise.

What we are hearing is not cynicism about the Voice, or even opposition to the Voice, but voters with cynicism because the system does not work for them. They demonstrate little faith in Australia’s democracy or Australia’s politicians or Australian parliaments.

Freeman challenges me to persuade those voters, but neglects to consider an avalanche of misinformation and disinformation that’s being driven by his side of politics (though definitely not by Freeman). If Australians thought the same way as LNP conservatives, the conservative vote would not have plummeted to the low thirties in the 2022 election. It’s disappointing that they are now glee-fully and publicly saying they will use this referendum and the lives of vulnerable First Nations communities to position themselves for the next election. It explains why a Voice is needed. It explains why the Uluṟu Statement was issued to the Australian people. Politicians only have their eyes on the three-year term. And for a party that is struggling to fundraise, the LNP sees this referendum as a money-making opportunity for themselves. That brazen pursuit of power is what I’m hearing as we travel the country talking to ordinary Aussies. Their cynicism is fuelled by retail Australian politics. And the more they hear about the Uluṟu Statement as an invitation issued to them, not to politicians, the more likely they are to vote Yes.

Daniel James addresses this from the Indigenous side of things in his eloquent reply. I have thought about the same issues he has written about for years and years. The deep concern of some of our people is that we do distrust the system because it’s let us down so much. Even so, I do believe the 83 per cent statistic and the higher statistic from Reconciliation Australia that around 88 per cent of our mob support this. Because we are pragmatic people. We decided not to waste this opportunity. But we are all nervous. We are all anxious. The day after a referendum, if the result is No, all First Nations people will feel profoundly rejected by a system imposed on them, that they sought to join in an ever so modest way: Recognition Through a Voice. As Aunty Pat Anderson said on 7.30, “We are fringe dwellers,” “We are knocking on the door.” Will Australians open the door?

Which makes the Voice as a model and the Uluṟu invitation so remarkable: that after everything that has come before, we offer a modest constitutional option. The Voice is about listening. And constitutionally, it is about listening always. I found James’s essay profoundly moving. Our people are taking a leap of faith. And they’ve placed that faith not in politicians but in their fellow Australians.

Henry Reynolds asks whether it was the right decision not to use international principles and standards for the current Voice debate. He writes, “It is surely strange that they are so rarely referred to. It suggests the advocates for the Yes case decided it was better not to mention the UN, international law or global opinion. Whether that was a prudent decision remains to be seen.”

Reynolds need ask no more. If he reads the Referendum Council report, he can see that the process was influenced by international principles and standards. From UNDRIP to CERD, it was influenced by the standards applicable to Australia. It also references many of the international resolutions on truth-telling.

However, where the UN is mostly referred to in this campaign is in No forums and campaign material seeding disinformation and misinformation on Facebook. I’ve been asked a number of times at community forums whether the Voice means the UN takes over Australia. I believe this referendum demonstrates the problem that can occur in liberal democracies where civics is poorly understood, and in particular it highlights the failure to educate about modern history and Australia’s place in a global world. The UN conspiracies I am seeing and hearing align with the anti-WHO, anti-vaccine discourse that emerged in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mark McKenna is the historian who influenced my thinking and my career turn to become an academic. His work on the 1999 referendum had a profound impact on how I thought about the republic referendum and Indigenous recognition. A failed Voice referendum will make it that much harder for a republic referendum. I do wonder, however, whether the legislative changes that needed to happen for the Voice referendum – such as fact-checking the pamphlets – will happen following this referendum.

Many Australians ask how the Voice will make a difference: read Antoinette Braybrook. There is no area that suffered more under nine years of conservative government than the field of family/domestic violence and violence against Indigenous women. When the Abbott government introduced the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and ripped $500 million out of community programs and policies, many of these were schemes, bodies and programs aimed at combating violence against Indigenous women. The conservatives pulled money for night patrols.

Braybrook talks about the silence and disbelief. We heard this a lot in the dialogues. The way the bureaucracy and executive in successive conservative governments ran Indigenous affairs was like some Florentine patronage scheme. If you’re in the “in crowd,” you’ll be fine. If not, you’re done until there’s a change of government – and even then it’s not guaranteed. The Australian National Audit Office reports provide a snapshot of the arbitrariness of executive decision-making. The picture is bleak for many. And the bureaucratic trend of co-design and sharing decision-making is so utterly ludicrous in a system where the power imbalance is acute for all but for a very few elite figures who, for various reasons, carve out their own boutique space.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women lead our communities. They do the heavy lifting. And our women are never silent. We are always talking up. The Voice is a mechanism that will allow many women and girls to flourish. One of the design principles that make up the detail is that the Voice must comprise equal numbers of men and women. This is critical. Constitutions do provide the material conditions for a dignified human life. It’s in plain sight that the constitution has benefited Australians. But it has not benefited all. This referendum is about the Australian people agreeing that there is dignity in having a seat at the table and this will mean empowering women structurally.

My essay straddles an interesting phase in the referendum. It was published when Yes was ahead in the polls. That is no longer the case. But curiously, there are huge numbers of undecideds – somewhere near 40 per cent. I don’t think anyone expected the misinformation and disinformation to dominate in the way it has. As The Guardian has reported, the No campaign even has funding and expertise from companies registered in Texas who are from the Christian far right and are experts in Trumpian misinformation and disinformation. The Yanks have arrived on our shore and they are interfering in the integrity of our democracy. This should be a bigger topic of conversation than it is. But will all these problems be cleaned up after the referendum?

I’ve led this work for seven years, maybe twelve if I start with Gillard’s expert panel. I did not think that just months before the referendum the headline in The Australian would be “Prime Minister defends the length of the Uluṟu Statement.” Ludicrous. While the political elites play political games, the issues that plague our community remain hidden from view. That’s the tactic. If we are distracted from our jobs, then fewer Australians hear about the exigency of the Voice and why it is a clever and fair way to address a structural injustice. The exclusion of First Nations is not by accident but by design in the Australian constitution. I’ll leave Bray and Nakata with the last word on this:

Structural injustice exists because that is how our political system is structured. We are getting exactly what the system was designed to deliver. A Voice to Parliament alone cannot specifically redress every injustice, but it will connect people to power in a way that currently does not happen. Democracy demands nothing less.


Megan Davis

Voice of Reason


Henry Reynolds

Megan Davis’s Voice of Reason makes a significant contribution to the intensifying debate about the forthcoming referendum. It is a rational and persuasive account of the process of national consultation which culminated in the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart in May 2017. It provides a cogent account of the legal and political framework against which the 250 delegates negotiated their three- part program of Voice, truth-telling and treaty.

But, like in practically all the literature produced by either side of the debate, there is little about the international context. The debate is both contentious and notably parochial, even though for sixty years global opinion and international law have played major roles in the evolution of Australian politics and law. Some brief background may be necessary.

The Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107) was the first international document which dealt specifically with the rights of indigenous people. Surprisingly, it had an almost immediate influence in Australia. Copies were distributed at the inaugural meeting of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines in Adelaide in 1958 and it was formally adopted a year later. Although assimilationist in tone, it strongly supported land rights. It was here that both Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan received their inspiration for their pioneer land rights legislation in the Northern Territory and South Australia. The Murray Island land rights claim survived Queensland’s challenge in Mabo v Queensland no. 1 due to the anti-discrimination legislation of 1975, which drew on the UN’s Convention of 1966. In his leading judgment in 1992, Justice Brennan declared that Australian courts had to keep the common law in step with international law and “neither be nor be seen to be frozen in an age of racial discrimination.” He referred to both UN conventions and judgments of the International Court of Justice.

The political and constitutional rights of indigenous people were further developed in ILO Convention 169 of 1989, which both recognised and supported “the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the States in which they live.”

By then negotiations were underway at the UN, which eventually resulted in 2007 in the vote of a massive majority in the General Assembly in favour of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, to which Australia gave its formal support in 2009. The Declaration recognised and reaffirmed that indigenous peoples “possess collective rights which are indispensable for their existence, well-being and integral development as peoples.” They also have the right of self-determination and “by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” As well, they have the right to “autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs.”

The relevance of these international principles and standards for our current debate scarcely needs emphasising. It is surely strange that they are so rarely referred to. It suggests the advocates for the Yes case decided it was better not to mention the UN, international law or global opinion. Whether that was a prudent decision remains to be seen.

Henry Reynolds

Voice of Reason


Rachel Buchanan

Back in 2001, the literary journal Meanjin was preparing a special issue called “Poetics” and selected writers were invited to record their poems to a CD (ironically titled Enhancer) that would be sold with the journal, tucked into a plastic pocket at the back.

I was asked to go to a place in Coburg or Brunswick, somewhere miles away from where I lived in Melbourne’s west, and read “The Immigration Experience,” a two- part piece about what the title says.

When I got there, Lisa Bellear was at the mic. I had heard of Bellear from the “Koorie survival show” that used to be on 3CR, a community radio station in Melbourne. Lisa read two powerful short poems – “Reconciliation Spins My Head” and “Prepared to Die” – in a voice that was slow and dreamy, edged with menace.

Then Lisa hung around to watch me. I was nervous. As I reflected in an essay for Te Pouhere Kōrero, the journal of the Māori Historians Association, I had not imagined what a Koorie person would think of my work. I had written my piece with a white Australian audience in mind, I guess, and maybe a Pākehā one as well.

Afterwards, we had a chat. Lisa was a warm person with a beautiful smile. She commented on my outfit – a subtle combo of a bright-orange fake-fur maternity dress worn over striped bell-bottomed leggings – and noted that we had both made mention of cousins in our work. I felt her reference was rather more sophisticated than mine but whatever. Then Lisa got to the point.

“We don’t like it when you Māoris come over here and tell us how things should be for us,” she said. Lisa was looking away from me as she spoke. Her voice was light, almost joking, but I heard her message. Do not speak for me. Do not compare your people with mine. Be respectful. Listen. Don’t ever forget who you are and where you are.

Five years later, Lisa Bellear – poet, playwright, photographer, comedian – died in her sleep and the obituary published in The Age said 1000 people attended her funeral at the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League headquarters in Thornbury.

This might sound weird, but I’ve learnt that it is a gift when someone important – say, Lisa Bellear – decides you are worth dressing down, and after reading Megan Davis’s brilliant essay, this encounter with Lisa came back to me.

In arguing for a constitutional Voice, Davis says Australians “could see an unconventional yet compelling invitation to address one of the most acute challenges for Indigenous Australia: getting the government to listen.”

The second section of Davis’s essay is called “The Torment of Our Powerlessness,” a title not easy to forget. “Parliaments do not listen because they do not have to,” Davis writes.

Bob Hawke promised a treaty (1988). Didn’t happen. Royal Commissions have come and gone – Deaths in Custody (1991) and Little Children Are Sacred (2007) – but still nothing changed. The Northern Territory set up a Treaty Commission (2019) but the work fizzled out. South Australia announced treaty negotiations (2016), then a new government canned them. Now they are back on. A change of government in Victoria could derail the work happening here too.

As Davis said in her 2021 Mabo Oration: “Treaties that are not premised on the country’s federal structure are not binding treaties.”

Pandered to, placated, patted on the back, fobbed off with “Acknowledgments of Country and an endless parade of posters and water bottles and wristbands” or Reconciliation Action Plans (yesterday’s news), Davis damns the ritualistic ways that federal, state and territory governments have signalled “connection and deep engagement” with First Nations communities while continuing to ignore what these communities are actually saying.

Attending a NAIDOC morning tea might make non- Aboriginal people living in Australia feel good, but it does nothing to reduce the numbers of First Nations children who are removed from their homes or the number of First Nations people who are in prison. (I mention child protection because Davis uses it as a case study to justify the need for a Voice to Parliament, and here in Victoria the Yoor-rook Justice Commission’s first inquiries have been on child protection and the criminal justice system.)

I understand some of the struggles here because I’ve seen similar ones at home. No matter what some people like to say, Aotearoa New Zealand is not a bicultural paradise where the immense harm of colonisation is being undone, one treaty settlement at a time. If that were so, why are so many of us here?

One in five Māori, about 170,000 people, live in Australia. In total, just under 560,000 New Zealand–born people live here, making us the fourth-largest immigrant community, behind people born in the United Kingdom, India and China.

Some of us refer to Australia as Te Ao Moemoea, which could mean the land of dreams or the land of the Dreaming, and even though we arrived as uninvited guests, this country has welcomed us. Australia has certainly been good to me. I have received an excellent tertiary education here, raised three kids with a top bloke (Italian- Anglo Australian), written four books, had good jobs and made good friends, but I also know my place.

Yes, I am an indigenous person in New Zealand, but, as Lisa Bellear reminded me all those years ago, here I am a migrant, a guest, a surface person wrapped in the blanket of my ancestry, a thin covering compared with the luxurious cloak First Nations people wear, the one created by 60,000 years of occupation, custo-dianship and care.

I am in awe of Professor Megan Davis, Aunty Pat Anderson AO and their many colleagues for the innovative and dogged work they did leading up to Uluṟu and what they’ve done since then. I am inspired by the fire and dignity of Professor Eleanor Bourke and the other Yoorook commissioners as they hold the state of Victoria to account in a series of extraordinary hearings (you can watch them online) and by the passion of many Elders who have chosen to give evidence so far.

Thank you for sharing your Country with me and my family. Thank you for your power, humility, generosity and intellectual, artistic, creative and legal excellence. I will vote Yes and I hope every other eligible Māori and Pākehā person living on your land does too.

Rachel Buchanan

Voice of Reason 


Damien Freeman

Few people have been as invested in the forthcoming referendum as Megan Davis. She has been a protagonist in every key scene of the drama of constitutional recognition that has played out over the past two decades. In Voice of Reason, Davis reminds us of that journey, and of how much is at stake – not only for her personally but for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at large and, indeed, the whole country at this year’s referendum.

No one who reads this essay can be left in any doubt about the crucial role she has played or what has motivated her. Central to the essay is her account of how the proposal for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice was developed; how it obtained the imprimatur of Indigenous consensus and, subsequently, parliamentary acceptance, so that it could ultimately be put to the electors at a referendum. This narrative is situated within Davis’s analysis of the massive failures in public policy when it comes to Indigenous affairs and her own attempts at helping to identify problems and recommend solutions.

This experience allows her to assert with confidence that public policy and law reform will not improve unless a new mechanism is established to enable policy and lawmakers to hear Indigenous voices. She explains that this mechanism won’t be effective, however, unless its existence is guaranteed by the Australian Constitution. Hence, the need for constitutional recognition not only of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It is only in this way that “the torment of our powerlessness” can be ended. Thus, the heading “recognition and reconciliation” only appears halfway through the essay. For Davis and those who have toiled with her, the referendum proposal is primarily about addressing the failure of public policy in Indigenous affairs by entrenching a new consultative mechanism in the Constitution. Only by achieving this can reconciliation between Indigenous and non- Indigenous people occur, through the symbolic moment of amending the Constitution to recognise Indigenous people.

Within months of the publication of Davis’s essay, the country will have voted either for or against the proposal she first read out at Uluṟu six years ago. When she was writing the essay, most electors were only just starting to become aware that they would have to vote for or against the proposal for a Voice to Parliament. So it is timely to think about what might be going through their minds.

Towards the beginning of her essay, Davis references Noel Pearson’s claim in his 2022 Boyer Lectures that Aboriginal people remain the “most unloved” people in Australia. She writes that “Pearson’s theory will be tested in 2023.” Davis claims that Pearson’s thesis applies to “an Old Australia,” and that it is this Old Australia that is propping up the No campaign. She writes: “Conservatives are busy carving out a convenient narrative for themselves that there is a reasoned and respectable case for ‘No’; there isn’t.” She continues by quoting Niki Savva’s opinion that “While it is not true to say that every Australian who votes No in the Voice referendum is a racist, you can bet your bottom dollar that every racist will vote No.”

I offer no comment about who is racist or how racists will vote. I do note, however, that – although I don’t agree with them – there are principled reasons for voting No, as Greg Sheridan explains in a paper he wrote recently for the Centre for Independent Studies. His philosophical objections to the proposal do not make him racist and they are not misinformation – they are arguments that can and should be refuted. While Davis claims that conservatives are busy carving out a convenient narrative for voting No, some of us have spent the better part of a decade carving out the conservative case for voting Yes. I helped edit two collections of essays – The Forgotten People: The liberal and conservative case for recognising Indigenous people (2016) and Statements from the Soul: The moral case for the Uluru Statement from the Heart (2023) – which show that some conservatives are in fact motivated by their conservatism to vote “Yes” and to make the case for change. The case for change has never been confined to the purview of progressives. Conservatives since Edmund Burke have understood the need for change, and the proposal that is currently before us is one that owes much to conservative thought.

There is widespread acceptance among conservatives and progressives alike that Australia’s Indigenous people should be recognised in the Constitution, just as there is widespread acceptance that public policy is failing badly when it comes to Indigenous affairs. The question is whether there will also be widespread acceptance by referendum day that a Voice will improve public policymaking in Indigenous affairs and similar acceptance that entrenching a Voice is the right way to recognise Indigenous people in the Constitution.

To achieve the requisite level of acceptance, electors need to feel comfortable that they understand, first, how a Voice could work and, second, why a Voice that works in that way will improve the lives of people on the ground. Sean Gordon, in his speech to the Sydney Institute last year, addressed this when he said, “As a nation, we all want to see more Indigenous communities driving a responsibilities agenda and leading change. There are pockets of change happening, but this change is slow. To accelerate progress, communities need to be able to tell government how to get rid of the barriers to their development, and they need a structure or group who is authorised to drive place- based reform. The Voice to Parliament can be that change if the Parliament designs it as such.”

Greg Craven and I argue along similar lines in a paper we wrote this year for the Centre for Independent Studies, Guaranteeing a Grassroots Megaphone: A centre-right approach to hearing Indigenous voices. As we explain: “If the Indigenous Voice is designed as a grassroots megaphone, it will be something that conservative and liberal voters can support. We can all get behind a mechanism that enables people in Indigenous communities to provide advice to the Commonwealth Parliament about laws relating to Indigenous affairs. And we can all get behind the idea that, in light of Australia’s history, the Constitution should guarantee that, in future, Indigenous voices will be heard before Parliament exercises its power to make laws with respect to Indigenous affairs.”

More recently, Gavin Brown, a Wiradjuri man, authored PwC Indigenous Consulting’s report entitled Who Is Speaking? Who Is Listening? The architecture for creating a Voice as a vehicle for practical partnerships. The report notes that the co- design report commissioned by the Morrison government and delivered in July 2021, known as the Calma/Langton report, dealt largely with the question of who is speaking at local, regional and national levels. It was focused on the Indigenous voices. To explain how the Voice will work in practice, the PwC report identifies the need also to consider who is listening to these voices, and the bridge between those doing the speaking and the way the parliament and the executive would listen. Brown notes that the desire for Indigenous peoples to be heard is a call for mutual respect and recognition. “Underpinning this structural reform is both the right to be heard, and the responsibility to speak. Rather than seeing the Voice as a threat to our democratic process, a well- designed structure which provides for local, regional and national input can actually be a crucial enabler for improving outcomes for Indigenous peoples,” he says.

The value of the report lies in the way it explains the structural link between local and regional Voices and the national Voice. It explains that the local Voices will provide the critical power base for the parliament and the executive to engage successfully with Indigenous communities. The efficacy of the national Voice lies in the architecture that it provides for facilitating constructive engagement between these people on the ground and decision-makers in Canberra. It does this by creating a bridge – an institutional framework that ensures disempowered people can speak effectively to those with the power to make decisions, and that those decision-makers can listen effectively to what is being said.

Opponents of the Voice argue it risks being stacked with activists or, worse, people from the so-called Canberra bubble. Once you see the functions and the responsibilities of the Voice through this grassroots-up architecture, it seems unlikely this would occur, given the lines of accountability back to community.

Davis concludes her essay by relating how she has sought to reassure Indigenous people who feel cynical about the capacity of government to address their concerns that there is a better way of doing business, that their aspirations will be realised if we ensure that their voices are heard by law and policymakers. Their cynicism is understandable, and Davis has done our country a great service by patiently acknowledging and addressing it. But theirs is not the only cynicism that needs to be addressed. We need to explain to non-Indigenous electors who feel cynical about a Voice that a Voice that enables local Indigenous communities to work with policymakers to find solutions to the problems that beset their communities will bring about solutions that enable Indigenous communities to take responsibility for their own prosperity.

That non-Indigenous electors might be cynical about the ability of a Voice to address the plight of many of their Indigenous compatriots does not necessarily mean they do not love Aboriginal people. A different interpretation could be that, in a constitutionally conservative nation, electors need to understand what they are being asked to vote for and why it will help improve the lives of people on the ground. If this is explained to them, they will vote Yes in large numbers and will affirm their love of their fellow Aboriginal citizens.

Damien Freeman

Voice of Reason


Daniel James

Megan Davis avoids the obvious choice, as a child of the 1980s, to find meaning in John Farnham’s hit “You’re the Voice,” instead opting for “Age of Reason” – as someone with her impressive scholastic and legal background would, of course. But there is another Farnham song that could also describe the position we’re in when it comes to the Voice: “Two Strong Hearts” – “reaching out forever like a river to the sea.” The Uluṟu Statement from the Heart is another iteration of the offerings First Nations have made to the colonial state over the last two centuries – reaching out. Without the selfless advocacy of so many, Uluṟu would not have gained the traction it has. The country needed to change before it could be embraced.

The road to a referendum on a Voice has been long and arduous. In Voice of Reason, Davis flags the stations along that road. Initiatives and attitudes, some well- intentioned, some designed to destroy us. Despite the motives, good or bad, both have invariably failed to change the way of things for First Nations people under the shackles of the colonial experiment.

Colonialism engulfed us all. The survivors and fighters – from first contact to the earliest days of Federation and beyond – soon understood that the best way to resist and then change the new order was from within, no matter how painstaking or traumatic that was. Seeking an active role in the white democratic life of a country founded on the bodies of its original inhabitants was, and is, no easy task. To see it, as some critics do, as conformity is not only a gross insult to so many of our forebears, but also displays a rudimentary understanding of history and empathy. It also isn’t a cessation of sovereignty; that was never ceded. Our land was stolen and our free movement across what was ours was restricted to the point of forbiddance.

It stands to reason, then, that to loosen its grip, to change the way modern colonialism influences the lives of First Nations communities, it will be necessary to change the founding document of this country and tend to the machinations of its parliament on issues pertinent to us in real time.

How much time have we lost along the way? Davis reminds us that for much of the 1990s and the early twentieth century the notion of reconciliation was essentially privatised. The Howard government washed its hands of reconciliation in its truest sense, finding greater comfort in stoking the tedious history wars and promulgating a Python-esque view of the benefits of colonialism for First Nations people.

It fed into that government’s emphasis on “practical reconciliation,” a political inertia after Mabo and Wik which gave birth to the Reconciliation Action Plan – a dubious velvet-covered instrument that only reckons with activities designed to highlight progress through the number of boxes ticked. As Davis writes, “[the RAP] focuses on private action or corporate civic action, and not on truth and justice.” It’s perhaps why corporate Australia, including the not-for-profit sector, so fervently adopted RAPs – as an easy way to cleanse collective guilt by doing the bare minimum, without addressing truth and justice, without doing the heavy lifting of reconciliation. It reminds us that true reconciliation is looking forward and looking back, realising the tense of all things coexisting and shaping all of us in any given moment. The long view through mature eyes, just as our old people tried to instil in us.

The ultimate disconnect is not the rationale for a Voice, especially if one considers all that has come before. No, the real stumbling block for people considering whether to support it or not is whether they can muster enough faith in the political system and its operatives at a time when faith in public institutions and those who run them has never been more tenuous. Anyone who is even a part-time student of the blak struggle in all its guises knows that the advocates, the leaders, the voices from communities around Australia will throw themselves earnestly and honestly into the task of speaking truth to power.

What is far less certain is the will of political leaders of all persuasions to hear the truth and act upon it. All it takes is one John Howard or one of his political spawn to arrest the legitimacy of truth-telling. It’s why enshrinement of the Voice in the constitution and not merely through legislation is important.

In her concluding paragraph, Davis challenges us: “We Aboriginal people must suspend our belief that the system cannot change. We must suspend our belief that the nation cannot change.” I think it requires more than that – it’s going to take a leap of faith. Even once First Nations people avail themselves of all the arguments around the Voice, as many have, that final act of faith is hard to approach, let alone make. It’s why so many are still undecided in my community: their reasons are valid, their hesitancy understandable. I pondered this final step for a long time myself before taking it.

As I write this, the Melbourne Remand Centre, with a capacity of close to 600, currently houses 143 Aboriginal male prisoners. Almost every Victorian Aboriginal person with ongoing connections to this part of the colony would know, or know of, First Nations people in prison. You can’t help but understand why there is a resistance among many of us to dealing with the state, let alone entering into dialogue with it. Yet this is again what is on offer; one side has shown heart, demonstrated vulnerability through strength. Will the broader community reveal its own heart? Because that’s what it’s going to take if we’re to break the status quo.

Daniel James

Voice of Reason


Antoinette Braybrook

“They do not listen because they do not have to.” This quote from Yunupingu sets the scene for Megan Davis’s thought- provoking Quarterly Essay. As Megan writes, that quote “succinctly summed up the problem” that has led to this year’s referendum. And it resonated powerfully with me, an Aboriginal woman who has spent the past two decades working on the frontline of family violence, witnessing and personally experiencing the silencing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Twenty years ago, I was instrumental in establishing Djirra together with a small group of like- minded Aboriginal women and men. I took on the role of inaugural CEO, and the passion and determination that fuelled me then remains to this day. Djirra is a specialist Aboriginal community-controlled organisation based in Victoria. Our team of around 100 work every day with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who experience or are at risk of experiencing family violence, predominantly women and their children.

In my twenty years on the frontline of Aboriginal women’s safety I have seen and heard a lot. But before I elaborate on what those two decades have taught me – and the lessons that, I believe, might be drawn from them for those considering whether or not to support the Voice – it is important for me to say that I do not speak on behalf of anyone other than myself.

My authority to do what I do comes from being an Aboriginal woman with my own lived experience and the trust and confidence Aboriginal women place in me. My CEO title carries little weight in my Aboriginal world, but it makes sense and opens doors in the world of many reading this. I take my responsibility seriously, and it is with that in mind that I offer a deeply personal and considered response to Megan’s essay. These are my own views, but I cannot deny that they are informed by my work.

I speak my truth here as an Aboriginal woman, knowing that I am exposed. This is not unusual in my work, but I am extremely conscious of the elevated hatred that has descended on all of us at this critical time as First Nations people: the extremist views, the white supremacy, the lateral violence – all of it not just attacking our personal safety, but also making media and social media platforms unsafe. Truth hurts, it’s uncomfortable, but it must be spoken, written and heard.

Djirra’s work is holistic, providing frontline legal, counselling and case management services, as well as our signature early intervention and prevention programs. Aboriginal women and their children who come to Djirra are seen, believed and respected. There is no test of cultural integrity, no doubting and no judgement. Through our work we keep Aboriginal women and their children’s experiences and lived reality visible. We are fearless and unapologetic in our advocacy and continuously look for ways to break through the structural silencing and be heard. And let me tell you, that is not easy, with Aboriginal women’s lived reality too often rendered all but invisible.

This can be seen in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women that has guided work in this area for many years. This “mainstream” plan has not made a difference for Aboriginal women. During the twelve years of its existence – and over my twenty years as Djirra’s CEO – I have only seen rates of violence against our women increase.

Reader, let me ask you two questions: Do you know that we have been advocating for many years for a standalone, self-determined National Plan to End Violence Against First Nations Women – one that does not apply a one-size-fits-all approach or render us invisible? Do you know that there is currently a Senate inquiry into missing and murdered First Nations women? It’s very likely you don’t, and there’s a reason for that.

It has always been us, First Nations women, who have done the heavy lifting, who have been vocal and fervent, never silent, about the violence we experience from individuals from many cultures and backgrounds. We have not been silent about the systemic violence and racism we experience from government agencies and service providers, which sees our kids taken at alarming rates, our people achieve the abhorrent, heartbreaking record of being the most incarcer-ated people in the world, and our women’s safety not prioritised and their lives compromised.

We continue to be silenced and disbelieved, but never silent. There’s a difference.

Megan writes that “the need for the Voice is best articulated by Aboriginal people who have experienced voicelessness.” I don’t disagree, but I would make that point slightly differently and say that the need for the Voice is also best articulated by Aboriginal people who have been silenced and disbelieved.

This, too, has been my lived experience. In my twenty years working in family violence, I have been sidelined, shut out of important conversations and excluded. That is because what I have to say represents the real experiences of Aboriginal women and children. Because what I have to say makes some people uncomfortable. Because what I have to say is about Aboriginal women leading and determining for ourselves.

I have a deeply personal interest in change. I feel strongly that a successful referendum could be the game-changer that we so need. Cynical supporters of the “No” campaign talk about the change that’s needed “on the ground.” They politicise Aboriginal women and their children’s safety. We have become a political football in this debate, something I find both disgusting and disheartening. They talk endlessly about the need for “practical change.” Whatever do they mean by that? Is the change that we Aboriginal women seek and advocate for not “practical”? What could be more “practical” than saving Aboriginal women’s lives?

Many of us have laboured for years to bear witness to what’s happening “on the ground” and show the way forward. We have the solutions. We know what will make a difference. But we are not heard. We are not heard by those who need to listen, because, as Megan quotes Yunupingu, those who should be leaning in to hear our solutions “don’t have to.”

If they were listening, here’s some of what they might hear.

The political handballing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues between the federal and state governments must stop. It’s time for national leadership to address the violence against our women and children, the high rates of child removal, the poor and unacceptable health status of our people and the high incarceration rates. It’s time for our people to have a say in the policies and decisions that affect our lives. It’s time.

Governments have long masked inaction through tokenistic symbolism that does not result in real change. As Megan writes, “Symbolic gestures matter until shit gets real.” Shit has been “real” for our women and children since colonisation began.

Governments have controlled Aboriginal people through what Megan describes as “regulatory ritualism,” another phrase that resonated deeply with me. As she explains, regulatory ritualism is “the acceptance of institutionalised means for securing regulatory goals while losing all focus on achieving the goals or outcomes themselves.” I gave the Reconciliation Oration for the City of Melbourne earlier this year, and I spoke to this idea, though I didn’t name it as such. I shared the perpetual cycle of key dates we go through year after year, from 26 January to the tabling of the Close the Gap report in parliament, to Reconciliation week, to the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender- Based Violence – all without seeing any real change.

In many ways, we as Aboriginal people may have become stuck in this cycle of government-imposed regulation and almost complicit in this regulatory ritualism, not by choice but because it’s the only way we are able to elevate our voices. We participate in the inquiries and imposed government reviews and evaluations; some sit on the hand-picked advisory committees. Twenty years of living each year in the same way, knowing what’s coming, is enough for me to say that something has to change.

We see this regulatory ritualism played out time and again through fickle and uncertain government funding patterns. Funding responsibility for Djirra and other Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services has shifted so many times without consultation – or engagement – that even to attempt a brief summary here is impossible. What I will say is that so much money goes unnecessarily – and unacceptably – into establishing new bodies, or to expanding government departments to administer and oversee funding of our services. It’s money that does not hit the ground, money that keeps bureaucrats employed in high- paying roles, money that does not support services that give priority to Aboriginal women’s safety.

Then there’s the introduction by government and policy-makers of new ideas that mask the control and further regulation of us. You may have heard of “co-design” pitched as a way of working together to achieve a self-determined outcome. I am not convinced, especially given that the power imbalance between government and First Nations people remains.

I can honestly say that in decades of doing this we have been saying the same things over and over again, and we’ve seen very little change. We have made hundreds of recommendations to governments that are filed away and never considered. There has to be a better, fairer and more dignified way.

A successful referendum could break this pattern of regulatory ritualism, giving us a real and different kind of “voice,” one that cannot be taken away by a change in government, an opportunity to speak that does not depend on the benevolence of white people working in the bureaucracy or white systems to offer us that “voice.” It would be a voice that takes into account the unique and diverse cultures and experiences of First Nations people. They will finally listen because they “have to.”

So, yes, I want change. Yes, it’s time to make a difference. Yes, it’s time to be heard. Yes, it’s time for truth. Yes, it’s time for a more equitable future. Yes, this could be a new chapter, not the last word. Yes, this is about trust. Yes, it’s time for others to take responsibility and carry some of the load and feel privileged in doing so.

For me, it’s yes.

Antoinette Braybrook

Voice of Reason


Mark McKenna

Voice of Reason is one of the most detailed and persuasive cases for the Voice I’ve encountered to date. Megan Davis has explained why the Voice is needed from the ground up. The examples she explores, sometimes in granular detail, highlight the failure of past policies and the urgent need for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament.

Davis also brings out the creative and imaginative dimensions of the Voice – both in its conception and its constitutional function. She explains why the Voice is an Indigenous and Australian solution to the complex historical and political circumstances faced by Aboriginal people. She also documents the long, tortuous journey to the referendum – pointing out that since 2011, we have witnessed seven public processes and ten public reports on constitutional recognition. As she laments, “at each meeting, for each prime minister, we had to explain the process from scratch.”

Like the official “Case for Voting Yes,” published online by the Australian Electoral Commission, and her recent publication with her UNSW colleague Professor George Williams – Everything You Need to Know About the Voice – Davis’s essay is there for every Australian to read and understand. Just how many voters will take up these or other opportunities to cast an informed vote in the referendum is difficult to estimate. But for anyone seeking to persuade family, friends or their local communities to vote Yes – or, as Davis colourfully put it in a recent interview on Late Night Live to join the road to “Yes town” – Voice of Reason is essential reading. As it stands, the need for persuasive arguments and positive stories that illustrate the practical advantages of the Voice and constitutional change grows more pressing by the day.

On 26 June, the day Voice of Reason was published, Newspoll showed that support for the Voice had dropped below 50 per cent nationally, with only two states (New South Wales and Victoria) registering more Yes than No voters. By late July, only three months out from the referendum, the same poll showed a continuing downward trend across the nation: 41 per cent Yes; 48 per cent No; 11 per cent undecided; and not one state recording over 50 per cent support for the Yes case.

As Australia enters the most crucial period of the referendum campaign, the fear of failure is palpable. The bar to achieve success inches ever higher. Calls to abandon the referendum have come from historian Bain Attwood, journalists, and Coalition MPs who feign concern for the future of reconciliation even though they did little during nine years of Coalition government to legislate the Voice or put forward a viable alternative to the proposed constitutional amendment. They cry out for detail at the same time as they provide no detail themselves. They argue that the Voice is divisive as they do all in their power to sow confusion and dis-cord. They speak of their attachment to the constitution and argue the Voice will divide Australia on the grounds of race, when they know full well that racism is embedded in the very constitution they claim to protect.

Like the Nationals, Dutton’s intention was always to scuttle the Voice. The only recognition he is willing to countenance is recognition on his own terms. Even more reason, then, not to abandon the referendum. After having achieved the momentous task of securing a referendum, turning back now would inevitably be seen as a de facto defeat, demoralise a generation of Indigenous leaders and hand an easy victory to the naysayers and scaremongers. In any case, Albanese has made it clear that he is not in office to mark time:

I’m not here to occupy the space. To change who is in the white car. I’m here to change the country. And there’s nowhere more important than changing the country than changing our nation’s constitution to recognise the fullness of our history. So I want this done for Indigenous Australians but I want it done for all Australians. We will feel better about ourselves if we get this done . . . Australia will be seen as a better nation as well by the rest of the world.


Albanese’s words echoed those of Gough Whitlam when he launched Labor’s election campaign at Blacktown Town Hall in December 1972: “All of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.”

To a large extent, the referendum campaign has pivoted on ideas that reflect an aversion to all things “political.” In different ways – and there’s certainly no equivalence between Dutton’s anti-Canberra rhetoric and the Yes campaign’s desire to take the discussion away from the political arena into local communities – both sides seek to distance themselves from politics. Like Morrison before him, Dutton, who presumably wants to be prime minister and believes in the transformative capacity of parliament, regurgitates cheap anti-Canberra rhetoric at every opportunity. While Senator Jacinta Price, whose office, like that of every parliamentarian, would not function without access to the informed and hopefully fearless advice of public servants, does all she can to besmirch the Canberra “bureaucracy.” In any other workplace they would be sacked for damaging their employer’s reputation.

For the Yes campaign, there’s an obvious tightrope to walk: how to engage Labor and other members of parliament who have helped make the referendum a reality while repeatedly arguing that the referendum doesn’t belong to politicians but to the Australian people. Davis, for example, places her faith in the new politics that emerged in the last federal election, one in which the major parties struggled to secure a primary vote above 30 per cent, while Greens and progressively inclined independents won an ever- increasing proportion of seats in electorates that were previously Liberal strongholds. “The demographics have changed,” she argues, and “the politics have changed.” True. Yet she also seeks to distance the Yes campaign from politics, claiming, perhaps rightly, that the referendum needs to “engage Australians on a higher level than political cynicism. The heart and the head. People, not politicians.”

While the desire to “escape the political” seems to be the point on which all sides of politics agree, there is no escaping the fact that the referendum is an intensely political process. The very structure of a referendum, with its binary Yes and No alternatives, immediately implies that both cases have equal validity. No matter how misleading and vacuous the No- case arguments might be, they are validated merely by being seen as the alternative to the proposed constitutional amendment. Moreover, unlike the 1967 referendum, when there was no official No case, the 2023 referendum campaign is already captive to an adversarial political process. Like it or not, partisan politics has its paws all over the referendum.

Even the Voice itself, if the referendum succeeds, will be tasked with managing the same political reality, and will obviously need to be conscious of its own political optics in such an intensely competitive and antagonistic political system.

For Albanese and Labor, there’s a delicate task ahead. To what extent does the prime minister attempt to enter the fray? Is Albanese merely a facilitator of the debate? A leader who has done his bit by getting the referendum legislation through parliament and now hands it over to the Australian people? Or does he seek to lead? It’s already evident that the No campaign has a clear leader: Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, backed by Warren Mundine and Senator Jacinta Price. But who is the leader of the Yes campaign? While a long list of names come to mind – from Albanese and Linda Burney to Noel Pearson, Megan Davis, Rachel Perkins, Marcia Langton and Thomas Mayo – there is no clear answer. Given the nature of the Yes strategy, perhaps a community campaign requires a community of leaders, but in the cut and thrust of adversarial politics, the “courageous leader” Davis speaks of would seem essential.

More broadly, the issue is not whether the referendum campaign is “political,” but how its politics is conducted; how we, as voters, and politicians, as our representatives, engage in political discussion – whether inside or outside the parliament – and ensure that the spirit and character of the referendum debate improves the fabric of our democracy. After all, the Voice is an attempt to better inform the Commonwealth parliament on “matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” and to work with it constructively. There is little point in deriding politics and politicians when the Voice, or any future proposal for that matter, will rely on politicians for its efficacy.

To drive home the underlying urgency of the Voice, Davis draws perceptively on the history of invasion and dispossession to illustrate the marginal position in which Indigenous Australians find themselves today, especially in relation to the exercise of political power. Many of the progressive democratic reforms cherished by non- Indigenous Australians, often expressed through ideas such as the “fair go,” emerged under White Australia, at a time when Aboriginal people were rendered invisible and excluded from the glorious narrative of democratic advancement. Democracy and equality were ideas treasured by British Australians, but they were also exclusive because they applied only to whites. Equally, the land that became “the great Australian dream” was taken from Indigenous Australians without treaty, compensation or consent.

This raises one of the key challenges for the Yes campaign. The referendum implicitly asks the vast majority of Australians to recognise and understand a different historical experience to their own; to recognise that, for Indigenous Australians, the history of the last 235 years has been far removed from the stories of peaceful progress that have comforted white Australians for so long. In other words, the referendum asks Australians to do what Prime Minister Paul Keating suggested in his Redfern Park speech in 1992: to imagine that “we” had suffered the “murders . . . discrimination and exclusion.” “With some noble exceptions,” said Keating, “we failed to make the most basic human response . . . to ask how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.”

When Peter Dutton stokes fear and anxiety by claiming that a constitutionally enshrined Voice will see the “greatest change” to our system of government since Federation, he both wildly exaggerates the risks and fails spectacularly to demonstrate empathy. What of the changes forced on First Nations peoples by invasion and dispossession? What of the changes wrought by over two centuries of government policies designed to eradicate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and dictate every aspect of their peoples’ lives? What of their long struggle for their rights? And what of their exclusion from the constitution?

In grave tones, Dutton warns Australians about a constitutional amendment that will genuinely and positively include Indigenous people in our constitution for the first time since 1901. He stresses the virtues of the constitution’s stability and continuity. As he and others so often remind us, the constitution has “served Australia well.” But who has it served well? And for whom has it provided “stability and continuity”?

Because of their exclusion from the nation’s founding document, Indigenous Australians understand the Australian constitution far better than other Australians. They do not have the luxury of ignorance.

Over the past fifty years, the presence of Indigenous culture and history has become more visible in Australia’s public culture; from Welcome to Country ceremonies, to place names, art, dance, music and literature, and the opening ceremonies of football finals, school assemblies and, since 2008, the opening of federal parliament after each federal election. For many Australians and certainly for visitors from overseas, this is the most distinctive aspect of Australian culture.

How long can Australians remain content to draw on this rich Indigenous knowledge and heritage as mere symbolism? Surely we have to give more; surely we need to demonstrate that we have listened to and heard Indigenous Australians by agreeing to establish what the Uluṟu Statement asked for: “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution,” which, as Davis argues, will constitute a “dialogue for time immemorial between the First Nations and the Australian people.” This is the “constitutional moment” of reckoning that the coming referendum has placed before us.

In its tone and gracious request, the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart calls to mind previous invitations from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their fellow citizens.

Among the thousands who walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000, there were undoubtedly many reasons for attending. But the overwhelming expression of support for reconciliation would lodge permanently in the nation’s memory. So too would the simple act of walking, which became one of the most powerful metaphors employed by Indigenous leaders when seeking support from their fellow Australians.

In October 1992, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation explained that the process of reconciliation “involves all of us walking together to find a better path to the future of this nation.” In May 2017, the final words of the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart invited Australians “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

I can only admire the optimism and determination of Davis and so many other Indigenous leaders, who continue to hold out their invitation to Australians to “walk” with them. As Davis argues, over the next three months, the Yes campaign needs to “explain to Australians why the Voice is needed.”

The coming referendum is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the Voice work to the betterment of Indigenous Australians and the entire nation.

Mark McKenna

Voice of Reason


Sana Nakata & Daniel Bray 

Our home is a meeting place. Our families are the coming together of people from communities with long histories of conflict and division. Our sons can name the places of their kulkulgal ateh, their Maltese nannu, their German oma, and the grandmother they call aka. The conflicts and divisions our family lines represent are not metaphorical. War lingers in unexpected ways. Our ancestors stared down the barrels of each other’s guns and starved each other, and we no longer live in the places any of them called home. Our love is an irreconcilable peace. It is not forged in the identification and priority of our likenesses, any more than race divides us. Our home is a meeting place because here these temporal and geographical trajectories interact in ways that are beautiful and hard and joyful and unexpected. We forget sometimes that not everyone lives here.

The trajectories of our lives have produced a differentiated commitment to democracy. Sana uses democratic principles as a way of holding the existing political system to account. She is not much invested in this democracy, given that so much violence and injustice has been done by the state to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders while Australia has called itself democratic. Her engagement with democratic theory is more along of the lines of, “well, if you wish to call yourself a democracy, perhaps you should be one.” Daniel does not disagree with this, but points out the ways in which democratic principles, when sincerely prac-tised, do lend themselves to achieving a more just world. Democratic principles can be effective tools for justice.

The national referendum on the proposal for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament has focused our attention upon the different democratic grounds for supporting it. Three key claims are made: first, democracy is more than the aggregation of votes; second, the Voice addresses systemic and structural injustice; and third, renewal ensures that our democracy adapts to the changing fabric of society and politics. From one perspective, these arguments are grounded in a commitment to democracy. From another perspective, these arguments are grounded in a commitment to justice in a place where democracy has so far failed to deliver it.

These points are all made by Professor Davis at different points in her essay. We emphasise them here because as campaigning for and against the Voice to Parliament heats up, it is becoming apparent that one central argument of the No case is that the Voice will somehow undermine the democratic foundations of Australia.

We want to highlight that this view relies upon an understanding of democracy that does not capture the values and practices of existing liberal democratic societies. It adopts an extraordinarily narrow conception of democracy that is, frankly, out of touch. It also wrongly presumes that democratic institutions and processes automatically operate to the benefit of all, when in fact they need to be designed to reflect the communities they govern. If one is genuinely committed to principles of equality, the rule of law and a fair go – to repeat the rhetoric of public naysayers – then there are fundamental democratic reasons to support the Voice, rather than to oppose it.

In short, we view the Voice to Parliament as a democratic imperative – expanding democratic representation, redressing structural injustice – and as a form of renewal by which our democracy responds to contemporary social and political conditions.

Opponents of the Voice often assert that a special advisory institution for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders undermines the democratic role of elected parliamentarians. This is to reduce democracy to the processes that elect parliamentary representatives and ensure their accountability through the ballot box. In fact, modern democratic politics involves a broader range of representative processes and practices through which diverse peoples and their political institutions are empowered to discuss, contest and decide the course of their common life together despite deep divisions and disagreements.

Democratic politics is more than the filling of parliamentary benches. Representative democracy demands more than a right to vote. Representation is a process mediated by a variety of actors and institutions – it includes the state, politicians and political parties, but also unions, lobbyists, NGOs, the media and protest movements – which together enable forms of political participation and contestation in which all members of a community can engage.

It is these broader processes of deliberation and contestation that expand representative politics beyond the ballot box and actualise democratic societies by meaningfully connecting parliaments and the people. Political theorist Nadia Urbi-nati writes in Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy that “the multiple sources of information and the varied forms of communication and influence that citizens activate through media, social movements and political parties set the tone of representation in a democratic society by making the social political. They are constitutive components of representation, not accessories.” A Voice to Parliament does not supplant a much wider, more diverse field of Indigenous representation that takes place beyond the reaches of the colonial state. But it does expand that field specifically to facilitate the connection to political decision- making.

In this view, values that are integral to contemporary democracy include: the mechanisms of accountability citizens can exercise outside of elections; the deliberative capacity of political communication; the autonomy and impact of civil society; and importantly, the inclusion of affected people in policymaking and the empowerment of the historically marginalised. Seen from this vantage point, the Voice will enhance Australian democracy.

Although voting rights were incrementally accorded to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders from the 1960s, they have had very little effective political power and influence in the corridors of Canberra. Even as we see increasing numbers of Aboriginal members of parliament, we are reminded that each alone cannot represent all Aboriginal people and nor are they empowered to. Moreover, there are yet to be any Torres Strait Islander representatives at the Commonwealth level, and so we know that existing voting rights and political institutions alone cannot represent the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the federal government.

History has taught us that treating the most marginalised members of a society as we treat everybody else can be the source of their disadvantage. In pursuit of substantive equality, often we must treat people differently: we must consider the specific needs and histories of marginalised groups in order to create opportunities for them to participate in society. Special measures are justified when they empower historically and structurally marginalised groups to participate more fully and meaningfully in society. Such measures are not mechanisms that divide the country; rather, they work to bring people together by giving everyone a fair go.

In political communities made up of structurally disadvantaged peoples with unique experiences of the world, it is not only democratically legitimate but a fundamental democratic imperative to create specific mechanisms that redress this disadvantage. To do so deepens the democratic character of a nation and does not in any way diminish or reduce the rights of others.

Consequently, recognising the dispossession of this continent’s First Peoples and rectifying the sustained marginalisation and disadvantage that the existing political system has delivered is the primary democratic justification for the Voice. As Davis’s essay reminds us, the stakes are high. Her essay does not enumerate exceptional failures, worst-case scenarios or outlier events. Her essay tells us that the torment of powerlessness – from child removals, burning communities to the ground, the gross mismanagement of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and more – is Indigenous governance as it is designed to be. This is not a case of good intent gone awry, or benevolence misplaced; this is not a bad- apple bureaucrat, or a case of not doing better before we knew better. Structural injustice does not exist because we do not know our history or the truth. Structural injustice exists because that is how our political system is structured. We are getting exactly what the system was designed to deliver. A Voice to Parliament alone cannot specifically redress every injustice, but it will connect people to power in a way that currently does not happen. Democracy demands nothing less.

Democracy is an unfinished project, which must be continually renewed in the light of changed social conditions. John Dewey wrote that “Every generation has to accomplish democracy over again for itself . . . its very nature, its essence cannot be handed from one person or one generation to another, but has to be worked out in terms of the needs, problems and conditions of social life.” The point is that the capacity of democracy to adapt itself in response to changes in the world, including changing social norms and attitudes, is part of what helps to keep democracies democratic: it supports plurality, not just within generations but across them, and in doing so guards against hegemonic concentrations of identity and authoritarian rule.

Those who argue that the safeguard of a democracy is its unchanging nature are wrong. Renewal is how nations inoculate themselves against new forms of division and conflict that emerge when the people and the power continue to diverge. This is exactly what constitutional reform to protect an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament works to achieve. The proposal for a Voice takes seriously the weaknesses of Australia’s democracy and proposes a constitutional remedy. The Voice endows with a political power of representation a group that Australian democracy has marginalised – not by accident, but by design.

On lazy Sunday mornings, Sana’s voice will become increasingly loud and argumentative: democratic renewal is not an analogy for Indigenous justice. It is not the job of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to improve a political system that has failed us so consistently. Before Daniel can clarify that he is actually agreeing, and is only pointing out that the Voice remains a democratic imperative even if improving democracy isn’t the end goal, our youngest child bursts in: “Please, don’t fight!” Our children hear Mum and Dad vehemently agreeing about something from their different worldviews, their different ontological commitments. This is the meeting place. It is a place where even agreement is noisy. It is where common interests have sharp, broken edges. Where the peace is fragile. Where understanding is often incomplete. It is where the past and the present and the future converge in moments that seem like they should break us apart, but don’t.

Sana Nakata & Daniel Bray

The Wires that Bind 

Response to Correspondence 

Saul Griffith

When I was at MIT Graduate School my physics and maths modelling professor, Neil Gershenfeld, was very fond of saying, “We are violently agreeing.” He loved the details and it was his way of telegraphing that he was about to express a vociferous difference of opinion on some tiny detail. I too loved reading the detailed and thoughtful responses to my Quarterly Essay and find myself “violently agreeing” with most if not all of the respondents, and most but not all of their big ideas and tiny details.

Thankfully, everybody has urgency in their voices and nobody questions the climate physics. For an Australian climate debate, this is good news, a sign that we are all concerned about the lack of progress to date, and the daunting timeline of what lies ahead. David Pocock most concisely expressed this need for speed, including citing the IPCC’s AR6 Synthesis Report, which didn’t mince words – this is our last chance to avoid catastrophic levels of warming. Many people, and most politicians, remain ignorant of this terrible urgency. We remember the target of the IPCC’s 2018 report – to halve emissions by 2050 – and so governments nominally (though not in the detail of their commitments) aim their rhetoric and policies towards that target. But that target was only possible if you started in 2018, which of course we didn’t, and apart from a brief COVID-induced blip, we are emitting more than ever.

New science has also come in about the extent to which our own pollution has been masking global warming! The particulate emissions from things such as bunker fuels in ocean transport have been keeping the Earth artificially cooler than we thought. These two facts collide in my colleague Jonathan Koomey’s new book Solving Climate Change: A guide for learners and leaders. In summary: the uncertainty about remaining carbon budgets is now larger than the actual remaining carbon budget, or in other words, our pathway to 1.5ºC of warming now requires effectively zero emissions by 2040. We need more ambition and urgency, and after we inevitably move slowly for a few more years we will need even more ambition and urgency again. All of Biden’s impressive climate bills do not yet put the United States on this track, not even for 2050. This is the true opportunity for Australian global leadership on climate. We can afford to do it by 2040, and if we did, we’d make it more possible for everyone else.

It is for this reason that my primary hope in the essay was to reveal, as Ian McAuley understood, “the political economy of our energy transformation and … how households have been used in the weaponisation of arguments about renewable energy.” In many ways I wasn’t writing this for the respondents who replied here, but to engage Australians in demanding faster action on climate. Governments don’t want to go much further or more boldly than the electorate will let them, and this essay was a plea to the voters – not only can their government afford to do more, but Australia can’t afford not to. I still believe we need a massively popular climate movement that is constructive and about building the future – an environmentalist movement in stark contrast to the tradition of environmentalist movements that shut things down and close the gate. We will have to create that movement, and I think our best hope is in our households, where voters live, not in boardrooms debating ESG lukewarmly.

Most respondents commented on the public appeal of electrification. My friends in climate science have been rudely ignored and even vilified. Rewiring Australia started campaigning publicly in October 2021 and we have enjoyed a huge volume of positive coverage across the media, from The Saturday Paper to The Australian, from Nine News to the ABC’s 7.30. We are leading with a solution that everyone can understand and, in a few short years, almost everyone will be able to afford. We do not talk about abstract emissions targets or even more abstract and corruptible offsets and baselines. We talk about things everyone can have a view on: cars and stoves, solar panels and heaters, hot water and houses.

The most exciting outcome of our work is excitement itself. There is a welling up of new ideas, big bold plans and visions around the climate space such as I have not witnessed before. Communities are hosting meetings on how to increase political ambition and get their own communities to zero faster than governments are planning. The public is doing the work of governments – not everywhere, but important green shoots.

We should welcome big ideas, especially ones that are actionable today. We must go hugely fast, which should worry you, as it does Christine Milne. I find her commentary the most difficult and urgent to respond to. When we move fast we break things. The environment is already fragile from two centuries (if not two millennnia) of attack, and we should be very wary of the mistakes we could make in the next two decades. It is worth fretting over rushed permitting for nickel mines and lithium projects, and the details of where the solar and wind go. Christine (as with other respondents, notably Bjorn Sturmberg and Ian Lowe) urges reduction in demand for energy, sometimes known as efficiency.

My work has shown electrification is the principal efficiency. Electrification will likely reduce energy demand by more than 60 per cent, not only for households, but for whole nations. Electric machines and renewable generation do not squander huge amounts of energy as waste heat. Electrification is the biggest efficiency win. I’m prepared to gloss over the efficiency gains of more traditional demand reduction – using a smaller car, driving less, insulating your house, wearing a sweater – because climate solutions finally have momentum. It is now possible to fundamentally address the climate crisis without subsuming all electrical efficiency gains under a culture war over “lifestyle.” I think this should be our primary strategy, but I am painfully aware that this decision glosses over the fact we should double-glaze our windows, improve building standards, build more walkable communities and drive less gigantic vehicles.

It is also true that the climate crisis is not our only ecological and planetary crisis. (As my colleague Dan Cass says, “The limits to growth is ‘the most inconvenient truth.’”) The biodiversity crisis could overwhelm Earth-wide systems, but before then it could quickly escalate into an urgent international food security disaster. So in this response I will be more clear, and as laconic as I can be: Electrify Everything, upgrade it when it fails, build all new things well and make everything as reusable and recyclable as is practicable. While we rush to electrify, it would be great if we could change the story about what the great suburban Australian life looks like. No more cynical and pretentious developments on the city fringe with porticoed homes of dubious quality, with multiple living spaces and levels and single-glazed windows, no insulation, several gas appliances, hot, unshaded, north-facing aspects and garages big enough for four small trucks. It really does matter whether every household has one, 1.8 or three cars. It does matter whether those cars are small or large, even if they are 100 per cent electric.

These choices made poorly will more than double the amount of material we’ll need to pull from the Earth to create this future of clean machines. We absolutely should reconsider our development patterns, our architectural vernaculars, the way we have designed our schools and medical systems to embed things like extra travel and extra materials and energy into our lives. As nearly every respondent emphasised, this won’t be achieved without structural and systemic change.

Christine caught me out in my own little “theory of change.” Having seen no great adoption of bicycle lanes despite thirty years of agitation in this country, I’ve given up on the noble and the sacrificial and embraced the pragmatic – take the efficiency win of electrification and hope that as people see positive change in their communities they adopt a few other nice-to-haves, such as bicycle paths, because electric bicycles are now truly wonderful, sweat-free conveyances that flatten every hill and make every leg that of an eighteen-year-old.

Christine also puts in a very concise plea for a clean-up of our energy market bodies. The new government and new parliament have a new agenda. Their legislation was written for the age of coal and their boards were installed by a conservative government that wanted anything but clean energy progress and deep climate action. When Labor came to government it was forced to manage an energy crisis bequeathed to it by the previous government’s nine years of climate war and energy ineptitude. Perhaps, now that Prime Minister Albanese has had time to reflect, there should be a review of the energy regulators which, like the Reserve Bank of Australia, must be fit-for-purpose. This would prepare for a refresh of their legislation and their boards, a flushing of the regulatory immune system. The regulators seem confused about what it will take to hit the climate target set by the IPCC in Paris: not net-zero or even real zero by 2050 – we are too slow for that; but a pathway to limit cumulative emissions as close to a 1.5ºC pathway as we can get.

The current “green” plans for the National Electricity Market (NEM) are plans for climate overshoot. We still don’t model the NEM ambitiously enough to account for the sector coupling that happens when we electrify all the vehicles, most of the industries and all the housing and commercial building stock.

Ian McAuley rightly points out the “imagined benefits of privatisation” of the NEM. He enthuses that energy consumer–producer households will “be participants in community renewal” and would surely agree with Heidi Lee, who writes that electrification will also have a social function in rural and regional Australia, where “entire regions work together to decarbonise.”

Guilty of boostering, addicted to carrots, I have avoided the hard discussion of regulations with teeth. Perhaps my time in the Land of the Free softened me or made me frightened of things that might be conceived as infringing on personal liberty. The United States’ Inflation Reduction Act was full of carrots – an all-incentive approach to climate action. But we won’t get all the way with incentives, and many incentive-based systems are socially regressive. We must also regulate. Norway, another wealthy primary-producing country with a small population, shows us the way. They have mandated only zero-emission cars for sale by 2025. Eighty per cent of sales this year are electric. The road hasn’t been perfectly smooth but they have managed it and the certainty has enabled all players to implement the policy effectively. To be very clear, it is in the interest of the energy transition to have a phase-out date for all fossil-fuelled machines, and the sooner the better. Governments are scared of the headlines around mandates and bans, but that is what is actually needed, not eventually, but soon. That means a phase-out date for gas appliances and a phase-out date for petrol and diesel vehicles that don’t run on biofuels or a zero-emissions alternative. We should mandate more efficient and all-electric new construction, and even apply the same logic to major renovations. Science requires urgency and the “market” needs certainty, and the general public deserves honesty.

Rebecca Huntley rightly argues that a lot of people will need “proof of concept” of the cornucopia our all-electric protopia might provide. I can’t agree more violently. It is why I have been an advocate for “pilot” projects in real communities. These shouldn’t even be called pilots, but rather “proof at scale” demonstrations and social innovation incubators. Proof of the efficacy, proof of the savings, a shiny and happy community that is proof that the sky doesn’t fall in when we stop putting carbon in the sky.

I have been advocating for the rapid electrification of a suburb – cars and all – for about two years now. A place in Australia, a postcode, where the future has arrived already. A place people could visit to lose their fear of the future and embrace change. Alas, fear of resentment and classic Australian cringe means these pilots will likely get watered down to less ambitious technology-testing grounds. No politician wants to be resented because they picked a winning suburb and subsidised its EVs. I get that, but the picture was much bigger, to show how it is done somewhere, including re-optimising the regulatory environment. For a very small investment in one community, the country would get an enormous discount on the decarbonisation project writ large.

So we are still embarking on this journey together, a little piecemeal. And piecemeal is a recipe for discontent, as Rebecca also points out with her crisp phrase “suburbs full of … old tech, rising energy costs and resentment.” She is right, and this is my biggest fear – for lack of the courage to show how it all works and figure out the gnarly details, we could well fail in the new culture war of who can afford to save their children’s future and who can’t. Better to deny the science than tell your kids you didn’t have the money or unblemished credit history. The political party that figures out how to bring everyone along will have a long and vibrant popularity. It was good to see money for small businesses and social housing in the recent federal budget allocated explicitly to electrifying and efficiency. Baby steps are good. The historical moment requires leaps and bounds.

I was glad that Ian Lowe agrees that part of the climate solution is a leadership revolution which sees women taking the reins of power. Ian wants to quibble over whether an SUV that weighs twice as much causes four times as much damage or sixteen times as much damage to the road as a smaller vehicle of half the weight. I’ll quickly and violently agree with him if we can use that to turn our attention urgently to the need for incentives to prevent Australia adopting even larger truckzillas – whether electric or not. Making larger vehicles pay their way is critical if we are to curb the ever-increasing size of our cars and prevent ever more of the plunder of the Earth that Christine Milne appropriately regrets.

Robin Batterham cites the Net Zero Australia (NZA) study, which produced modelling demonstrating we will have to continue to rely on gas. This research was sponsored by APA, the $22-billion gas conglomerate whose pipes carry half the nation’s gas, and which owns most of the country’s pipelines plus a handful of generators. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with the authors and gas industry sponsor of the study to compare assumptions and models. As Ian Lowe said, it is “right to draw attention to the dishonest claims being made by fossil-fuel interests.” One of the modellers for the NZA (America) study worked from my office for a year or so. I got to watch over her shoulder and see the inputs to their models and debate them with her. The model was flawed, and assumed one was designing the system for optimal size, not optimal cost, and hence the model didn’t contemplate an over-build or over-supply of renewables with eight to twelve hours of short-term storage, something that has since been shown to be a lower-cost way of getting to a 100 per cent reliable energy system, and one that requires no gas at all. I once downloaded a handful of climate models to see whether they were all just cutting and pasting their work – I’m suspicious of models because I know how easy it is to model bullshit in and bullshit out. Those climate models turned out to be good work; the Princeton NZA modelling work was good work too, but it wasn’t the last word. It would be lazy to accept the results without debate, especially in a different country and context and time with new information and new solutions. We will only get what we model and what we currently model is not ambitious enough, nor reflecting the latest and best ideas.

I also worry that Robin took the essay out of context, which was focused very much on the residential and suburban aspects of electrification, and I’d refer him to my books The Big Switch and Electrify to look at the full effects and sector coupling of the whole economy, and the likely physical and practical limits on things such as carbon capture and bio-fuels as part-solutions. These books emphasise more renewable electrification sooner for the climate targets we need.

It appears that Bjorn Sturmberg was most violently agreeing with me with his calls for rebuilding trust, collective values, reduced demand and empowering stakeholders. I couldn’t agree more violently – there was a long chapter on reducing demand in the most important sector of all: transportation. There were many references to collective values being absolutely central to success on climate and charts of all the stakeholders across the energy system mapped to machines and even governance. I was precisely trying to empower stakeholders with a map, and a call to collective arms. Perhaps I didn’t say enough about rebuilding trust, and I likely can’t say enough. We have gutted the public sector in the past few decades. In many cases I have to buy energy data and studies that my tax dollars paid for because we farmed the work out to private enterprise. The fact we privatised energy and not water is illustrative of the plunder of the public good for private gain.

Bjorn criticises me for a lack of big ideas. I’ll take that as feedback. He proposes to “provide households with a cost-free energy allowance to cover their essential needs, including refrigeration and cooking.” I think this is a great idea. I have been meeting regularly with Audrey Zibelman, the former head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, to workshop exactly this idea and whether in fact we shouldn’t just have a flat subscription fee for electricity, given there will be such an abundance once all the cars and batteries are connected. Unfortunately, I don’t see these big ideas debated publicly and within the critical regulatory bodies. I invite Bjorn to work with me to model these things and fight the regulatory battle. We have nothing to lose except our complex bills and unfair energy contracts!

While we are at it, Bjorn, here’s another big idea, and one that brings us back to Christine’s concern. Each Australian currently pumps about 15 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and generates multiple tons of things like fly-ash to service their fossil-fuelled lifestyle every year. All of that is mined at great cost to the Earth. Their all-electric lifestyle will need copper, nickel, iron, lithium, silicon and other things, but these are extremely recyclable. With population declines predicted globally at the end of this century, you can squint and imagine a future with practically no more mining at the end of this century because we are recycling all the things in our energy lives. Wind turbines become more wind turbines and solar cells become more solar cells. This vision can animate us about the possibility of dedication to Christine’s truly circular economy. It also emphasises that it probably isn’t a great idea to rush and sell all of Australia’s metal resources once, at commodity prices. Australian metals and ores are going to be electrifying every other country’s machines centuries into the future. Before we sell it once and then let Korea or Japan or Germany recycle it forever, let’s have a conversation about a recurring revenue business model of leasing our lithium and renting our copper with dollars perpetually flowing back into an Australian sovereign wealth fund owned by all and benefiting all rather than just a few mining magnates making a quick buck for themselves right now. If we adopt a more indigenous relationship with the land than a colonial one, where we are borrowing the land and its minerals from future generations, this transition could be the progressive opportunity of the century to share our collective natural wealth while also protecting it for those future generations.

How to do all this in the negligible time we have left? Simon Holmes à Court says we have to walk and chew gum and change everything from ballet box to switchboard at the same time – and he’s right. Or as he puts it, “we need to focus on systemic change, work to build movements in our communities, elect the right people and pass the right laws.” I couldn’t agree more violently.

Saul Griffith

<h2 class="title-chapter">The Wires that Bind</h2>

<h3 class="title-body">Correspondence&nbsp;</h3>

<p class="body"><strong>Heidi Lee</strong></p>

<p class="body">Since 2010, Beyond Zero Emissions has supported hundreds of energy and industry experts to crowd-source solutions that decarbonise all sectors of Australia’s economy. In particular, we see an immense opportunity to establish a national network of renewable energy industrial precincts (REIPs) in our industrial heartlands. In doing this, Australia can keep pace with our trading partners, which are moving rapidly towards establishing a global green economy.</p>

<p class="body">REIPs cluster manufacturers, with shared infrastructure enabling participating businesses to be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy. Our research indicates this ecosystem-level approach is the most efficient way to decarbonise our industries (which contribute almost half of Australia’s domestic emissions), diversify our exports, create good, long-term jobs and unlock new economic opportunities for regional communities, such as Gladstone in Queensland and the Hunter in New South Wales.</p>

<p class="body">REIPs are how Australia delivers both zero-emissions households and zero-emissions jobs, as well as replacing fossil-fuel exports with zero-emissions alternatives. As Saul Griffith writes, “Clean electric industry needs to make clean electric things for us to incorporate into our clean electric households.”</p>

<p class="body">Of Australia’s many advantages, including critical minerals mining and renewable energy generation, perhaps the most striking is that we have recent experience in building global export industries from scratch. As recently as 2000, iron-ore exports constituted only 9 per cent ($5 billion) of Australian exports. Fast-forward to 2019 and iron ore made up more than 35 per cent of total exports, with value growing twentyfold to $100 billion.</p>

<p class="body">As Beyond Zero Emissions’ research shows, if we get this right, we will have developed the capability to produce the millions of machines our households and businesses need to decarbonise, our regions will thrive and we will have made the shift from significant contributor to climate change to global leader in decarbonisation without reducing our enviable living standards. That is the opportunity before us.</p>

<p class="body">How do we realise this once-in-a-century opportunity? We need to rapidly build a National Supergrid that can electrify our households and our industries. We need commitment by the federal government to develop a network of REIP locations to retain and attract large industrial players and ensure our regional communities prosper. And we will need well-funded training and skills programs to retool our workforce so that it is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.</p>

<p class="body">Most importantly, we need radical collaboration. To “electrify everything,” we will need leadership on all fronts: households, communities, industry and government. Local, national and international. Radical collaboration is when entire regions work together to decarbonise. With everyone coming together, Australia can become a protopia for global decarbonisation.</p>

<p class="body-right">Heidi Lee</p>

The Wires that Bind 


Robin Batterham

We are besieged by messages about how to reduce emissions, appropriately focusing on eliminating our use of fossil fuels. The stridency of the “kill coal and gas now” theme is almost omnipresent, yet the notion that this would result in chaos is rarely mentioned. When the damage that would be done if we get our decommissioning of existing assets too far out of phase with our commissioning of new assets is mentioned, it is seen as the bleating of vested interests. There is then relief in reading Saul Griffith’s essay, as it acknowledges the challenge and plots a path that has a splendid ring of feasibility: of delivering net-zero emissions by around 2040. (Saul is careful not to name an actual target date, but his suggestion for your household plan for full electrification stretches to 2040.)

Saul’s message is very simple and is directed to us as individuals and communities: electrify everything as and when you can. At the same time, install solar PV on rooftops, on community facilities, on top of car parks, indeed wherever you can. By his calculations this will take us to where we need to be and also be affordable.

So far, so good and no arguments. Electrification is the key driver of decarbonisation, as we can see in the Net Zero Australia (NZA) study, the results of which have just been published. But NZA also talks about gas being needed to firm up our renewable energy grid. Can both positions be right?

The NZA study is a partnership between the universities of Melbourne, Queensland and Princeton and the management consultancy Nous Group. It uses the modelling method developed by Princeton University and Evolved Energy Research for its 2020 Net-Zero America study, adapted to the boundaries of the Australian debate. NZA is rigorous and granular, evidence-driven, technology-neutral and non-political in its approach. It is the only study that has considered the totality of Australia’s emissions, including those of the land sector and those associated with our exports.

In the NZA study, we considered full electrification as recommended by Saul Griffith as one scenario, and a further scenario where electrification was less rapid yet net-zero emissions was still achieved by 2050.

We can summarise the NZA results in three parts, where the words in italics represent quite different positions to those in Saul’s essay:

1 To achieve an energy transformation:

• Grow renewables as our main domestic and export energy source.

• Install a large fleet of batteries and pumped hydro and gas-fired power capacity.

• Greatly increase electrification and energy efficiency.

• Develop a large carbon-capture utilisation and storage industry.

• Greatly expand our utility networks.

• Commit $7–9 trillion of capital investment to 2060. This excludes capital spending on the demand side: for example, vehicles and appliances; and land and agricultural sector investment.

2 To transform exports:

• Transition to clean energy and minerals.

• Locate export industries in the north, possibly also in the south.

3 And to invest in people, land and biodiversity:

• Add 700,000 workers.

• Move the land sector towards net zero.

• Address major land-use changes.

So why have we ended up, after a very rigorous study, with some significant differences to the seemingly sensible recommendations of the Quarterly Essay? There are two answers: first, we have not forced any one favourite solution (such as renewables or nuclear) to be the main way of achieving net zero. We have forced the emission trajectory to come down to zero and then, at five-year intervals, have let a modelling package pick the cheapest supply options to meet the energy demand. This is done down to a local level and takes into consideration all manner of restrictions, be they land ownership, limitations on infrastructure on farmland, and a string of others such as biodiversity considerations, no-go areas (airports, military areas) as well as areas we want to preserve, such as inland waterways. This is a level of detail far beyond anything yet attempted for this country.

More significantly, we have considered transforming exports. Our exports of coal and LNG produce twice the emissions in the export countries as in our domestic economy. We have assumed, as others have done, that the remarkable abundance of sunlight and wind in this country will allow us to export energy, or to use this abundance to transform our existing industries such that we don’t export iron ore or bauxite/alumina – rather, we will export green iron and green alumina.

On our points of difference, I would point out that, using cost projections from the CSIRO and AEMO, our calculations show that you cannot firm up the grid just with batteries and pumped hydro. You do need gas. This will be a surprise to some but we are talking decarbonised gas fed to turbines that sit around for 90+ per cent of the time doing nothing and then, on the occasions when renewables can’t meet the load and we run out of pumped hydro and battery storage, kick in to keep the lights on. As well, we are talking about a bigger grid than that envisaged by Saul Griffith. We are going for net zero at home and net zero with exports.

We could cross swords on the matter of the hard-to-abate sectors, which Saul correctly lists as aviation, some aspects of freight transport, industry (for example, cement and chemicals) and agriculture. Saul’s essay relies on the assumption that “the technology is on its way” to look after this sector. Our approach has been more pragmatic. On our modelling and on the work of many others, we have to build a lot, starting now. That we need three times the grid we currently have by 2030 is taken by most modellers (including AEMO) as a given. We just don’t have time to wait around for new technologies, so we have used everything that is currently available. For carbon capture and storage, globally 42 Mt of CO2 was injected in 2022, mainly for enhanced oil recovery. This is the hallmark of a developed technology, even though in Australia the rates achieved at Gorgon are nearer 2 Mt in 2022 for a project touted originally at a much higher level. We have considered that injection rates would be limited and have come out with a figure that even in the most optimistic renewables scenario, around 90 Mt per year, would be needed, because the land sector is, in our opinion, not able to supply these sorts of figures as offsets.

The NZA results and this correspondence are not a contrary view to the essay. Indeed, we would suggest that Saul Griffith is not going far enough. If Australia makes the right choices, it could grasp a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and not only decarbonise the domestic economy but the export economy as well. It is too early to place bets on just one pathway. We need to keep a wide range of options in play, although the dominant shift to electrification cannot be avoided.

Robin Batterham

The Wires that Bind 


Ian Lowe

Saul Griffith’s wonderful contribution not only spells out a clear vision of a cleaner energy future but also describes a viable pathway to get there. This is a very significant step forward.

Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a small book for Black Inc., the publishers of Quarterly Essay. In A Big Fix, I said we needed “radical solutions” to the environmental crisis unfolding around us. I argued that significant change required four things. First, there needs to be discontent, without which there is no motivation for change. Second, there needs to be a vision of a better way; unless there is a clear vision, change could make things worse rather than improving the situation. Third, there needs to be a viable path from where we are now to the place we would like to reach. Finally, there needs to be commitment to follow that path, despite predictable opposition from vested interests wanting to continue outdated practices.

Discontent, an awareness that we need to change the way we produce and use energy, has been around for decades. The CSIRO and the Commission for the Future worked together thirty-five years ago on Greenhouse ’88, a program to communicate what science was saying about climate change. At the time, there was broad agreement among our elected governments of the need for change. Then the fossil-fuel industries began a systematic campaign of misinformation, adopting the approach used successfully by the tobacco industry to dissuade timid politicians from action. As Griffith points out, the more subtle misinformation continues to this day, with dishonest claims about “renewable gas,” the ultimate oxymoron, and the spurious need for “baseload power.”

Despite these efforts, discontent has continued to expand. Six independent reports on the state of our environment, at five-year intervals, have called with increasing urgency for action to slow climate change. The election a year ago of Teal independents and Greens members in what had been seen as safe major-party seats demonstrated the level of public concern. The vision of a better way, replacing fossil-fuel electricity with renewable energy such as solar and wind, was clear thirty years ago, but there did not appear to be a viable pathway. At the time, coal-fired electricity was much cheaper than power from solar farms and large wind turbines. The technology has improved rapidly and produced amazing cost reductions. Ten years ago, world average prices were about 8 cents per kWh for gas-fired power, about 11 cents for coal-fired, 14 for wind and 35 for solar. Last year, world average prices for fossil-fuel power were about the same as ten years ago, but the average cost for wind power was 4.1 cents per kWh and for solar farms was 3.7 cents. Remarkably, the Coalition is still holding the telescope to its blind eye, now even calling for a national debate about nuclear power. The cold hard truth is that nuclear power would make no economic sense, even if we were prepared to overlook all its other problems. The world average price of power from nuclear reactors is 16 cents, four times that of wind and solar, with the only three construction projects in western Europe, all years behind schedule and billions over budget.

It now makes economic sense to phase out fossil fuels in favour of renewables with storage. That is the easy part. Griffith correctly recognises that the electricity system only accounts for about a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. To play a responsible role in the global campaign to slow climate change, we also need to tackle the emissions from transport, cooking, manufacturing, space heating and agriculture. While the last sector is the most difficult, The Wires That Bind develops a coherent and credible plan for using renewable electricity to meet all our other energy needs. It builds on the solid technical work in Alan Finkel’s Quarterly Essay, Getting to Zero. Griffith is, like Finkel, an engineer, but the real strength of this new essay is its emphasis on the social factors which will determine whether a transition is possible. The failure of prohibition in the United States and the “war on drugs” everywhere should have taught us that social acceptance is essential to achieve fundamental change. It is futile to try to stop practices that the community wants to continue.

If we are going to achieve the urgently needed transition to clean energy systems, it must be based solidly on widespread understanding of the need to change and the practicality of doing so. As Figure 2 in the essay shows, while the approach by the Albanese government is light years ahead of the decade of inaction under the Coalition, it is still too timid to give us a fighting chance of keeping the increase in average global temperature below 2°C. Our leaders need to be encouraged – literally, given courage – by the community to do what is needed. As I was writing this response, the government released its policy statement about electric vehicles. It is again a significant step forward, but still well behind what most European countries are doing to accelerate the end of petroleum-fuelled vehicles.

Griffith is right to draw attention to the dishonest claims being made by fossil-fuel interests to try to prolong their businesses. Despite decades of funding, schemes for carbon capture and storage have almost all just captured public money. While it is a good thing that small amounts of gas have been replaced by hydrogen produced from solar energy, it would be better if energy were used directly, rather than being wastefully converted, and there is absolutely no prospect of hydrogen replacing more than a small fraction of the gas. We should accept the advice of the International Energy Agency: keeping the increase in average global temperature below 2°C means no new fossil-fuel projects, anywhere, ever, and the accelerated closure of existing activities.

I only noticed one small technical slip in the section on transport, where Griffith says that road damage is proportional to the square of the weight of a vehicle. The landmark study of this question concluded that the damage is more like the fourth power of the axle load, so doubling the weight increases the damage to the surface by a factor of sixteen. That means the entire road maintenance bill is essentially a huge subsidy of road freight. Cleaning up freight transport vehicles is desirable, but it would make more sense to phase out the subsidies that have effectively moved freight from rail and coastal shipping to the roads, increasing both emissions and the numbers killed in transport accidents.

I would like to have seen more emphasis on improving the efficiency of using energy. Griffith notes the inefficiency of our cars, typically weighing more than a tonne to carry a payload less than 100 kilograms. But his section on home-energy needs implicitly accepts inadequate appliance efficiency standards that allow the dumping in Australia of goods that could not legally be sold in Europe. The report on energy efficiency presented to the Howard government twenty years ago showed our emissions could be reduced by 30 per cent, just by changing to cost-effective existing technology. We should be very angry that little has been done to introduce those changes that would put more money in our pockets as well as helping to slow climate change.

Perhaps the most interesting observation in the essay is the comment about the leadership of women. Strikingly, in the 2022 election the Teal independents elected to the House of Representatives were all women, and television crosses to election-night celebrations showed that the great majority of their supporters were also women. Surveys show that women are much more likely to support strong action on climate change than men. Older men are the group most likely to think climate change is not a problem at all. Perhaps it is time for those of us who are male, pale and stale to get out of the way and let women take over the response.

Ian Lowe

The Wires that Bind 


Bjorn Sturmberg

While the pivotal role of electrification in decarbonisation has been understood for decades, it has rarely been described as vividly or enthusiastically as by Saul Griffith in The Wires That Bind. Griffith recognises that electrification is a story, at its heart, not about decarbonisation but about cleaning the air in our kitchens and streets, improving the liveability of our homes and communities, and “keeping wealth in our households and communities” – and nation. In short, electrification is a story about a better future.

While attuned to this human story of electrification, Griffith is, at heart, an engineer so it’s no surprise that The Wires That Bind is packed full of figures. Emissions are carved up, the grid is mapped and fossil-fuel machines are counted. This achieves Griffith’s goal of “clarity about the job in front of us” and complements his persuasive case for electrifying everything. The question that remains is: how can the transition best be accelerated and steered towards just and enduring outcomes?

Part of the answer is the substitution of fossil-fuel machines with electric machines and subsidies to expedite this, as advocated by Griffith and Rewiring Australia. But these substitutions are insufficient (and oddly conservative, given Griffith’s reputation for out-there ideas). What’s more, while straight substitution has fuelled the fastest transitions in history, it has invariably led to new, sometimes worse, problems. The example given of cars replacing horses (which was also motivated by a pollution problem – that originating from horses’ backsides) is a salient example: cars went on to drive global warming, respiratory diseases, obesity, road accidents, social isolation and the mass consumption of resources and real estate. As Griffith points out, the substitution of our fossil-fuel cars with electric Hummers could exacerbate more of these harms.

So how else can the transition be effected? Our research suggests four interrelated approaches: (re)building trust, focusing on collective values over individual responsibility, reducing demand, and empowering a broader set of stakeholders.

First and foremost, we need to move beyond our myopic focus on markets and machines to instead focus on trust – not technology or taxes. For, as Chilli Heeler explained it to her daughters Bluey and Bingo, “if there’s no trust, none of this [the world] is possible … No libraries, no roads, no power lines.”

Markets don’t foster trust. Market mechanisms, such as evening peak pricing, have not changed when families eat – nor should they. Their greatest success has been to send pensioners to bed at 4 p.m. to shiver under blankets instead of running their heaters. The Wires That Bind plots how twenty-five years of energy-sector privatisation in Australia has fuelled hyper-inflation of prices. What’s harder to plot and harder yet to undo is the consequent hyperdeflation of trust in the sector.

To give just one example of a non-market initiative that would earn back trust, governments (or the energy sector) could provide households with a cost-free energy allowance to cover their essential needs, including refrigeration and cooking. An elegant model could link this consumption with government-owned renewables generation.

Technology, likewise, neither creates trust nor replaces it. The rise of cryptocurrency scams and collapses is a timely reminder that we need to trust the humans on the other end of algorithms. For the energy sector, this should temper visions of trustless, blockchain-facilitated peer-to-peer trading and the Home Energy Management Systems that Griffith presumes will become ubiquitous. Research, such as the Digital Energy Futures project, keeps finding broad rejection of smart technologies and tariff-based incentives: people prefer hands-on control and to shift their demand by shifting routines.

The second approach, which also works towards building trust, switches the focus from individual responsibility (as a market participant or climate citizen) to collective values. As Griffith puts it, “the challenges of climate change need a politics of the collective more than a politics of the individual.” One way to put this into practice would be to conceive of the grid as a “common good.” This points us to lessons from managing other common resources, such as water. Drought-time water reductions, for instance, are not achieved through financial contracts or automated tap-closing devices but through social contracts of solidarity. Temporary electricity demand reductions, which are invaluable during periods of low renewables generation or peak demand, could be pursued through similar means.

Rooftop solar systems could be monitored in the way rural fire brigades monitor their community’s water tanks and dams. These solar systems today have greater combined power capacity than the biggest generator in the country – they are truly, as Griffith notes, critical national infrastructure. But there are no processes in place for monitoring their performance or managing their maintenance. This critical gap would be best filled by local or state governments, network companies or a not-for-profit, not by individuals – we don’t, after all, make individuals responsible for maintaining roads or the NBN.

The commons framing also highlights the risk of “free riding,” which can arise when turbulent transitions throw costs and benefits into the air. As an example, households that install solar and/or disconnect from gas are reducing their contribution to the upkeep of the electricity and gas networks without altering the total cost of maintaining these networks. This increases the burden on remaining customers, who are increasingly those facing barriers to make such upgrades. In contrast to Griffith’s description, increased use of the electricity network will likewise leave the total maintenance costs unchanged, but it may alter their distribution. The huge opportunity for saving is to decommission the gas network completely.

The first step in tackling distributional questions is to define who’s in and who’s out of the community/commons. I strongly believe in the principle of considering communities with the greatest diversity and number of constituents. Only within broad communities can inequities be redressed. This principle runs counter to the popular trend of localism, which Griffith’s suburb-and postcode-based initiatives play into, and instead emphasises the role of network companies and governments, which represent large and diverse swathes of the country. An outstanding example of this is the “postage stamp” model of paying for electricity, under which all the customers of a network pay the same price, despite the cost of serving rural customers at the end of long lines being many times greater than the cost of serving urban customers.

After personally spending years bringing solar to the roofs of apartments and rentals, I now believe the most equitable and effective approach gives these customers access to cheap and green grid electricity. Similarly, I believe there are efficiency, environmental and equity advantages to grid-scale storage, such as hydropower stations and batteries at wind farms, rather than Griffith’s vision of 5 million household batteries. Grid-scale storage lets diverse customer behaviour average itself out, before responding to residual imbalances of supply and demand. This efficiency reduces the quantity of batteries required, and the shared nature of grid assets avoids inequity risks. Additionally, the need for dedicated short-term storage assets will be greatly diminished in 100 per cent renewable grids because of the abundance of long-term storage assets that have been built to cover multi-day stretches with low renewables generation.

The third approach to the energy transition is greater investment in the “demand side,” which, despite representing the raison d’être of the energy system, has been overshadowed by supply-side initiatives. The Wires That Bind overlooks the foundational role of non-electrical ways of fulfilling human needs. Insulation, ventilation and thermal mass can create more comfortable buildings at lower carbon, material and financial costs than the latest, greatest air-conditioner. Reconfiguring urban layouts and infrastructure to place work and services within a fifteen-minute commute via active and public transport will create happier, healthy and more socially connected communities than merely swapping drivetrains. Perhaps the slogan can be elongated to “eliminate, then electrify everything”?

The defining challenge of demand-side actions is that they take place where people live and work. This raises the complexity and stakes of implementation and maintenance. Australia’s unrivalled roll-out of rooftop solar provides two salient lessons in this regard. The first is that leaving implementation to the market invites what Griffiths politely describes as a “perpetual stream of ‘buy solar now!’ advertising,” as well as some companies pursuing more predatory sales techniques and a race to the bottom on cost and quality of components and services – what industry insiders call “crap solar.”

The second lesson is that social expectations and technical standards should be defined in preparation for ubiquitous uptake. This would mitigate the confusions and frustrations that have followed repeated modifications to solar system functionalities. As electric vehicle sales accelerate, our research on vehicle-to-grid technology has demonstrated how this technology, and the flexibility offered by vehicle charging in general, will be an illusion unless there is a behavioural shift from filling cars as rarely as possible to plugging electric vehicles in whenever parked.

The fourth approach is to empower a much broader set of stakeholders “within the framework of existing institutions.” One aspect of this is action by nimble communities, for which The Wires That Bind makes an impassioned case. But while there are exciting developments in this space, I believe a just transition ultimately requires our larger institutions to earn back our trust and then to lead.

For energy-sector institutions the issues are remit and ideology. The bodies making and enforcing the rules currently see their fundamental objective as market efficiency and their sole tool as market competition. Regulation is therefore framed around containment (“ring fencing”) – restricting network companies to reacting to customer actions – rather than proactive enablement. Griffith is right that the “regulatory environment is as important as the physical one” – I was taught this by incurring $120,000 of legal work to enable the first installation of a solar and storage system (costing $80,000) in an Australian apartment. “Regulatory sandboxes” are a laudable innovation but changes to regulatory governance must go deeper.

Two institutions whose role in electrification – as champions or blockers – is often overlooked are rental property managers and tradespeople. Property managers are the under-appreciated glue that holds together Australia’s three million rental arrangements. With training, resourcing and culture change, they could play a potent role in planning and managing electrification upgrades (at least upon failure of existing appliances) and having these features understood and valued by property buyers and renters. Similarly, tradespeople are the boots-on-the-ground authority on whether or not (in their opinion) it is feasible to electrify, disconnect from gas, insulate and otherwise retrofit properties.

The electrification and decarbonisation transitions are lively, uncertain processes with abundant path-dependencies. We will never know precisely how to best navigate them, but the four approaches discussed here – prioritising trust over technology and taxes, governing for the common good, eliminating demand as well as electrifying it, and empowering more stakeholders – provide some direction. Taken together, they remind us that it is not the wires that bind people together, but rather the bonds of community that are materialised in the grid’s wires.

Bjorn Sturmberg

The Wires that Bind 


Ian McAuley

Opponents of meaningful action on climate change present households as powerless victims, financially crippled by ever-increasing electricity bills, threatened by blackouts when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, and faced with the terrifying prospect of the $100 roast.

Saul Griffith’s essay dispels this fog of misinformation. Households aren’t just passive consumers. Rather, they can join in the task of energy transformation, a transformation that, far from requiring sacrifice, offers expansive possibilities. As we move to full electrification, fed by abundant renewable resources, not only will we enjoy lower prices but we will also be participants in community renewal, because that transformation, in changing the way energy is produced and distributed, will result in social developments in a way that previous waves of technology have done.

Griffith’s main contribution is to apply the hard discipline of engineering to develop an economically and financially realistic way for that vision to be achieved, starting with the practicalities of what to do when your gas water heater or cooktop is due for replacement.

Most engineers, when talking about energy systems, start at the generation end and work from there to the three-pin plug on your wall. In a class or a public lecture their first slide or drawing will be of a power station – perhaps a 1-or 2-GW coal-fired power station, or more recently a large solar array or wind farm. They will then move to the high-voltage transmission lines that deliver electricity around the country, the transformers and low-voltage lines that distribute electricity around cities, and finally the 240-volt line that brings electricity into your house.

Griffith covers all these elements but in reverse order: he starts with your lightbulb (LED, of course), cooktop (induction) or car (electric), and builds from there to the generator, not necessarily to a large power station or a big battery, but possibly to some community-based network of small-scale generators and batteries.

It’s not that he ignores the need for big pieces of infrastructure, such as high-voltage transmission lines connecting our geographically and time-zone separated renewable energy hot spots, or big batteries, such as the Snowy 2.0 “battery” with a short-term power output (2 GW) that matches that of our largest coal-fired stations. We need these big pieces of infrastructure, but rather than being at the core of our energy supply, their role will be complementary to a system where the conversion of sun and wind energy to electricity is increasingly in small-scale units, ranging from household rooftop solar to small-scale cooperative ventures.

As for storage, to provide electricity when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, particularly during the early evening peak, there’s the battery on wheels: the electric car.

One may wonder why Griffith is so concerned with the household. A glance at Australia’s energy statistics reveals that households use only 28 per cent of electricity and 10 per cent of gas produced for the domestic market. But there are three reasons why these figures understate the importance of households.

First, they do not include households’ use of energy in their cars, which dwarfs our consumption of energy for other purposes. With better urban design we may use our cars less in the future, but we will still use them, a point he illustrates in the essay itself, much of which he wrote while on an electric-car road trip.

In the short term, we can make significant savings to our household budgets and to the nation’s contribution to emissions through investing in heat pumps, electric cooktops and insulation, but in time we will be using much more electricity to power our cars. If we get it right, much of that electricity will be generated locally, from panels on our roofs or in car parks.

Second is the nature of household demand. Much industrial and commercial demand corresponds with times when renewable energy is plentiful, and some energy-intensive industrial processes, even aluminium smelting, can shape their usage accordingly. For such big users the spot market works well. But households do not have easily changeable habits. We cook in the early evening and turn on heaters when it gets chilly in the evening. Add an electric car into this mix, plugging in to recharge when arriving home from work, and the problem is exacerbated.

This peak demand drives the case for gas-fired peaking power stations, and is even used by defenders of fossil-fuel generators to argue for 24/7 “dispatchable” or even “baseload” power. These old power stations, with their massive spinning inertia, were wasteful but they were magnificently shockproof to events such as everybody turning on their hot water jugs in an ad break during Neighbours.

Catering for peaks with fossil-fuel generators is high cost. Having this supply available has therefore had a strong influence on the price of electricity. Ideally, if demand could be shaped in line with potential supply from low-cost renewable sources, we could get the price of electricity down towards 4 cents per kWh, the cost of rooftop solar, compared with the 28 cents we are paying now. That would be unachievable, but as a practical solution, Griffith shows that with the help of batteries we can get the cost down to 12 to 15 cents.

That is why he stresses the need for every household to have a Home Energy Management System (HEMS), “a dorky acronym for the computer that will manage all the flows of electrons between the things in your life.” Your HEMS will turn on your washing machine and dishwasher around the middle of the day when renewable energy is cheap. It will heat your well-insulated hot water system when there are short periods of strong winds driving wind farms. In so doing it not only saves you money, it also benefits all users who do not have to pay so much for peak supply.

The third reason to emphasise households is political. Griffith’s essay is largely about the political economy of our energy transformation and he describes how households have been used in the weaponisation of arguments around renewable energy. Large industrial and commercial users of energy, some of which bypass the energy “retailers,” can handle the energy transition well. They use the same analysis as Griffith does to understand the value in upgrading their installations. But for households it’s different. Even though many investments in upgrading appliances are so attractive that they could justifiably be financed at credit-card interest rates, many people just can’t get their hands on $700 for a new refrigerator or $1000 for a heat pump to replace their gas heater and electric radiators. Also, in the rental market there are particular problems impeding energy-saving investments.

Furthermore, as behavioural economists know, even those with access to cash are prone to making poor investment decisions, psychologically overestimating the burden of immediate outlays while underestimating the benefits of future savings.

Griffith deals with the problem of access to credit, citing a scheme already in place in New South Wales. The harder problem lies not only in that short-term bias recognised by behavioural economists but also in people’s general disengagement from anything to do with electricity and gas.

In fact, the very notion of householders exercising agency in energy use seems to be alien to those who speak and write about electricity. Last year’s budget papers, for example, forecast a 56 per cent rise in electricity prices, which many journalists reported as an increase of 56 per cent in electricity bills, as if households have no control over their energy use.

Many people (apart from retired engineers) find it difficult to engage with electricity. They may know the price of a litre of petrol, maybe even their car’s fuel consumption per 100 kilometres, while being stumped when it comes to the price per kWh of electricity or the annual usage of their refrigerator. They may not even know what a kWh is, let alone a megajoule of gas.

The public aren’t helped by the opaque and clunky technology in electricity metering and billing, or by media and government statements asserting that a certain policy change will save or cost consumers $X year, without expressing that in terms of cents per kWh – as Griffith does so carefully in his essay.

There is ample evidence that households want to do their part in combating climate change, but they need basic knowledge if they are to take meaningful steps – not to worry about the light left on or the standby power for their television, but to go for the big gains in the way they choose and use electrical machines and appliances.

Griffith’s vision involves households and communities becoming active participants, rather than passive consumers, in our energy transformation. That’s hardly radical: three million households already have panels on their roofs.

His vision, however, is unsettling for economists schooled in the idea that supply and demand have their separate existences, represented by their respective lines intersecting at a neatly defined price. Economists see household production as a relic of a pre-industrial era that can be safely ignored in their models.

As an engineer, Griffith understands energy in a way that economists do not. It’s not simply that he knows about the technologies and their cost functions (which rarely resemble an economist’s supply curve). He also applies the basic discipline of engineering to describe an interactively complex and dynamic system. Furthermore, he is an advocate – an advocate for a world in which we can reduce emissions while enjoying an enriched lifestyle. His is practical advocacy, based on evidence rather than the imagined benefits of privatisation and structural separation that have shaped the National Electricity Market.

Ian McAuley

The Wires that Bind 


Christine Milne

I love the idea of electrifying everything and turning off the blue flames of fossil fuels in factories, power stations and households as rapidly as possible – for all the reasons Saul Griffith sets out. His commitment to addressing global heating, his enthusiasm for stopping burning things, his stories of community commitment and his powerful arguments underpinned by careful calculation are compelling and inspiring. Reducing greenhouse gases, better air quality, improved health, better energy security, cheaper energy, a more sustainable built environment from replacing 101 million machines with new, more efficient, better and more climate-friendly machines – what’s not to like?

But I would have liked Saul to address the question of whether we can afford it, if the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy destroys ecosystems? Can the Earth afford the transition to renewables if it is embedded in the linear business-as-usual, take-make-dispose model of unlimited consumerism and economic growth? There cannot be infinite growth on a finite planet. Without that recognition as the foundation, electrifying everything will boost economic growth and consumerism (with a green salve) while continuing to destroy biodiversity, extract resources and dump waste, in largely hidden practices.

How effective is the electric transformation if there are three Teslas and a heavy electric truck in the renovated garage? If we do not “internalise the externalities” of the resource extraction needed to produce these vehicles, or the new transmission infrastructure to convey that electricity, it will be a recipe for community conflict. Already, mines such as that proposed by Venture Minerals in the Tarkine forest are justified on the basis that boron is “an important and versatile element in the modern world, used in everything from computer screens to fertilisers to creating powerful magnets for wind turbines and EVs (electric vehicles).”

Gangs on the streets of Brisbane and Sydney are stealing catalytic converters from the exhaust systems of our petrol fleet to recover precious minerals such as platinum, while governments don’t bother to recycle cars or whitegoods to recover metals and rare minerals and instead send them for waste disposal and approve new mines. The failure to manage waste from the technological revolution is evident in the mountains of e-waste that pile up or are exported. What will happen to 20 million cars and gas burners over a decade?

Saul has started charting a critical path. As we walk it, we must keep in mind that climate and biodiversity are two sides of the same coin. We cannot destroy one in the name of the other. Electrification has to occur within ecosystem limits, not by “offsetting” or ignoring or trashing these limits.

But this is possible. At the end of his essay, Saul argues that “we can show the world later this century what a circular economy really looks like.”

In a linear economy, to quote an online reference, “raw materials are retrieved and made into products that are used until they are discarded as waste. This economic system relies on selling as many products as possible,” even when there is a focus on “eco-efficiency,” or minimising the ecological impact to get the same output.

By contrast, a circular economy focuses on reducing, reusing and recycling. “Resource use is minimised (reduce). Reuse of products and parts is maximized (reuse). And last but not least, raw materials are reused (recycled) to a high standard. This can be done by using goods with more people, such as shared cars. Products can also be converted into services, such as [the way] Spotify sells listening licences instead of CDs. In this system, value is created by focusing on value preservation … This means that not only the ecological impact is minimized, but that the ecological, economic and social impact is even positive.”

We can advocate energy efficiency and, as Saul outlines, pull government levers to constrain demand, meet supply, change consumer attitudes and prompt innovation within existing development footprints. Sulphur batteries, for example, don’t need scarce resources such as cobalt. Fuel efficiency standards, building standards, EV targets, sunset dates for fossil-fuel machines or weight-based road charges, separate bike lanes and removal of electric-bike power limits, community-based feed-in tariffs – all these should be part of a government plan to complement individual and community plans. But we need to acknowledge that ultimately we must pull those levers in a circular economy which is not divorced from local biodiversity and waste streams. How much better to have a distributed rooftop solar generator than to destroy a forest or unique ecosystem? How much better to protect a forest and recover metals and minerals from obsolete machines rather than dig a new mine?

Reducing demand for metals and minerals and land for new generation, along with establishing facilities to recover and recycle resources – this is what must be installed as the Electrify Everything transformation gets underway. Once the energy transformation is embedded in the linear economy and runs parallel to the fossil-fuel economy, it will be almost impossible to retrofit. The country will have lost the jobs and social and environmental benefits of cradle-to-grave resource recovery, better urban design opportunities from electrification of the transport fleet, and it will have torn itself apart. Communities are already becoming polarised and conflict-ridden over congested cities, overcrowded parking areas, resource extraction, mines, land alienation, transmission and biodiversity impacts consequent upon the existing transition – let alone before we become a renewable energy “Superpower” supplying energy to meet overseas demands as well as our own. Yet we have a great opportunity to embed circular principles now, and we must do so to maintain ecosystems, community cohesion and the social licence for renewable energy.

To be a truly transforming force, Electrify Everything has to be more than a politically safe, siloed, clean-energy initiative; it must repudiate the discourse of delay that has overtaken Australian politics. We have shifted from a “fossil-fuel only” economy to a “let’s have it both ways” economy. Let’s maintain fossil fuels and delay the transition for as long as we can, but at the same time, in parallel, create new businesses and exports from a clean economy sector and facilitate them both with “offsets.” It is a deliberate and successful “divide and rule” strategy to smother dissent from the climate activist community. It is an economic growth strategy based on exporting fossil fuels and building clean energy infrastructure as if the two were completely compatible. It is a “something for everyone” climate and energy strategy.

Many who argue for the transition to renewables deliberately avoid hard-edged condemnation of the delay discourse to maintain political access. Embracing technological optimism and a “carrots, not sticks” approach sits as happily with Woodside as it does with climate investor groups. The “just pass it” mentality that drove the 43 per cent emissions reduction target and the Safeguard Mechanism is the politics of delay.

Saul notes the way government and regulatory bodies such as the AEMO have, in recent years, maintained the status quo and delayed the transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But he doesn’t take the next step and call for the complete clean-out of these bodies. I do. We are entering a period of chaos, greenwashing and bad decisions because the regulatory authorities are not up to the challenge and are committed to business as usual.

Christine Milne

The Wires that Bind


David Pocock

Change is often hard. The renowned twentieth-century inventor Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” The genius of Saul Griffith’s vision is that it doesn’t seek to destroy or detract from what Australians know and love. He departs from the notion that the only way to improve our energy use is to use less. Instead, he proposes a more democratic energy system that provides cheaper, more reliable and more secure energy to Australian households and businesses. All while avoiding the damage to our health, climate and economy caused by burning fossil fuels.

The scale of the change warrants feeling daunted and despairing at times. Just a week before the release of The Wires That Bind, the international scientific community issued another stark warning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Synthesis Report, described as a “survival guide to humanity,” is the most reviewed document in human history. The message from scientists is as clear as it is unsurprising: we must act now: catastrophe is just around the corner. It’s easy to hear this warning and feel frustrated. Many Australians have been listening to our leading scientists say the same thing for decades. We know we’re embarking on this enormous task to reduce the damage to our climate at the eleventh hour.

It’s easy to find reasons for the lack of long-term vision and leadership in Australian politics – the 24-hour news cycle, social media, three-year election cycles, the list goes on. And we’ve all suffered as a result. Many of our leaders have been happy to be weathervanes on issues, rather than articulating a vision and making decisions in the best interests of all Australians and our long-term future. Others have incited culture wars and constructed straw-man arguments when political winds start to blow in a direction that doesn’t suit them or their donors. This culminated in the Morrison government arguing it didn’t even have a duty to protect Australian children from the harms of climate change.

But the fact that we are starting from behind is not a reason to lose hope. It is the reason to move faster. A benefit in starting late is that we can learn from the experiences of others. Saul brings precisely this kind of experience, having had significant involvement with the US Inflation Reduction Act. In Australia, we can move faster by avoiding the mistakes of others, adopting models proven to succeed and rolling them out at pace and at scale.

Reducing emissions is not the only reason to increase the speed of electrification. The changes Saul proposes would also bring substantial cost-of-living relief. On his calculations, households that make the switch will save upwards of $3000 a year, every year. The key to unlocking savings is for governments to provide affordable, accessible finance and remove the regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of electrification. Public finance is already provided in many areas where public good is identified – infrastructure and higher education are prominent examples. Applying this to household electrification would allow many households to afford the upfront cost and then use the cost savings to pay back the loans and still benefit from electrification. Governments must also be careful to ensure that finance is available to everyone, regardless of their circumstances. A model for this already exists in the way that HECS is structured. This could be adopted and modified to increase the speed of electrification.

But incentives and access to affordable finance will not work for everyone, and we must ensure no one is left behind. The benefits of electrification must extend to renters, people living in apartments and people in social housing. If we get this right, the greatest benefits of electrification will flow to those in our low-income households, who spend a higher proportion of their income on energy bills and suffer more from the health and wellbeing issues that come from energy poverty.

The “miracle of rooftop solar” is a model of what is possible if we get the settings right. A combination of government investment, rebate schemes for early adopters and improving regulations to streamline the installation and accreditation process has led to us having some of the cheapest rooftop solar in the world. The scheme has had bipartisan support since John Howard introduced the photovoltaic rebate program in 2000. Politicians know that cheaper energy is a vote-winner.

The political realisation that electrification will reduce energy costs is coming. But at this point, as is so often the case, the electorate is ahead of governments. Our communities see the Australian solar miracle and understand that electrification can build on that success. In The Wires That Bind, Saul describes the impressive work of Electrify 2515, a community campaign to increase the speed of electrification in neighbourhoods north of Wollongong. And we’re seeing groups pop up elsewhere. A passionate group of Canberrans has formed Suburb Zero to push for faster and more ambitious electrification in the ACT. The Suburb Zero campaign was launched on a Friday evening in mid-April in a packed theatre of more than 600 people. The organisers are a diverse mix of energy experts, community advocates, parents, neighbours and friends. They have been collecting surveys, door-knocking, letterboxing thousands of houses, setting up stalls, putting up posters and talking to their friends and colleagues.

The work of groups such as Electrify 2515 and Suburb Zero shows the best in our democracy and the desire Australians have to step up and make the most of this opportunity. The suburb-wide pilot projects they’re advocating provide an opportunity to increase the speed at which we find solutions to technical and regulatory issues that will inevitably arise. Successful pilots would serve as proofs of concept and inspire suburbs and regional towns across the country to electrify.

We’re seeing the politics of climate change shift rapidly. People in communities across the country are realising that the challenge of decarbonising our economy presents households with huge opportunities. But even now, with climate action on the agenda at all levels of government, we’re going to have to keep ratcheting up our ambition, set big goals and go faster than is comfortable. There is always risk in change, but the risks we face if we fail to seize this opportunity to transform our energy systems and decarbonise our economy mean we have little choice. The Wires That Bind shows us the power of collective action. Households can make a difference when it comes to reducing our emissions, but we need political leadership to remove obstacles, help scale that effort and install the right policy settings for the rest of our economy.

Saul Griffith shows how electrification can help address two of the most pressing challenges we face: climate change and the cost of living. The opportunity is here. We can make this happen.

David Pocock

The Wires that Bind 


Simon Holmes à Court

Some say the energy transition – decarbonising our energy: that is, what we must do to hold on to a liveable climate – is the biggest transformation since the industrial revolution. This greatly overstates the task, and makes it sound much scarier than it really is.

Saul Griffith has a knack for simplifying what others tend to complicate: decarbonising Australia is largely a matter of us replacing 101 million machines that rely on fire with ones that don’t. As Saul says, we need to “carry out the fire.” Thanks, Prometheus, electricity will take it from here!

As we replace fire with electrons, it is of course critical that we use “green” electrons … or rather, electricity produced by non-polluting sources. And here Australia is doing pretty well. Twelve years ago, just 9 per cent of our electricity came from renewable sources – mainly hydro, with a smattering of wind, solar and bioenergy. Renewables sit at 36 per cent today, with solar in front, wind close behind and hydro and bioenergy unchanged. In the scenario the Australian Energy Market Operator currently deems most likely, renewables provide 90 per cent of the energy in a significantly larger grid just twelve years from now, and 98 per cent a decade later.

That future is not “in the bag,” but the engineering, economic and political momentums are all pulling decisively in that direction. There’s a lot of policy work, investment and construction to ensure we get there at the lowest cost, but energy experts almost unanimously agree that this decarbonisation of our supply side is inevitable.

Saul has done a great service by shining a light on the energy demand side – the vast majority of the 101 million “fire” machines belong to punters, in their homes and driveways.

The punters are going to replace pretty much all their machines over the next decade or two as the machines age. What’s critical is that the old “fire” machines are replaced by machines of decarbonisation – air conditioners instead of gas space heaters, heat pumps instead of gas water heaters, induction instead of gas stoves and cars powered by batteries instead of petrol.

If it is done right, most people won’t notice the decarbonisation of our energy system. Our rooms will be illuminated, our showers will continue to be steaming hot and our houses will be no less comfortable whether it’s searing hot or freezing cold outside. Few will stop to consider that the power now comes mostly from wind and solar rather than from burning coal and gas and dumping carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air – using the atmosphere as a giant open sewer, as Al Gore likes to put it.

In this inevitable future, those who drive will enjoy better cars – cleaner, quieter and zippier – but their wheels will no longer be driven by a couple of hundred small explosions of petroleum a second under the bonnet.

As Saul rightly points out, households will save thousands from their budgets by making the switch.

The elephant in the room is that many of these “fire-less” machines currently cost more to buy than the ones we’ve been buying for decades. Even though the lifetime costs are lower, or soon will be, what matters to most households is the cost today.

Unfortunately, if your gas hot water system dies today, chances are your plumber will replace it with another gas burner, locking in another two decades of emissions. Anyone replacing an internal combustion engine car today is more than likely to purchase another petrol burner, again locking in another two decades of emissions. In both cases, you’ll also be locking in two decades of higher energy costs.

Thankfully, we can draw on our own experience to solve this problem. In 2002, just 253 households in Australia installed solar panels. Costs were very high. For some of these early adopters, it would have been an economic decision – for example, a remote household that otherwise would have relied on diesel generation for all its power. It’s likely that other households were enthusiasts who just wanted to play with a new technology, but neither scenario could be considered the mainstream.

Early on, the subsidies were massive: up to $8000 per kilowatt. Nowadays, the subsidies are much smaller, less than $400 per kilowatt and falling. Thanks to the falling cost of solar and a strong value proposition, almost 290,000 households installed solar last year and now more than one-third of Australian homes have an array on the roof. Solar is now truly mainstream – most of these households didn’t install solar to save emissions; their motivation was to save money. Australians love technology and will flock to it if it’s readily available and they can justify the investment.

We now need to ensure that the machines of decarbonisation are also readily available and make financial sense to the mainstream household. This is not a call for subsidies, but for smarter, friction-free financing. Take $10,000 off the cost of a new electric vehicle at the point of purchase, and recoup the program cost through annual registration fees. Discount heat-pump hot water systems at the point of purchase, but recoup the costs of the discount through (lower) energy bills. In both cases consumers will be better off, and society will be closer to meeting its decarbonisation goals.

I’m reminded of Emma Marris’s important New York Times piece “How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change,” in which she implored us to stop thinking of personal sacrifice as a solution to climate change – that won’t achieve much, if anything. Rather, we need to focus on systemic change, work to build movements in our communities, elect the right people and pass the right laws. When doing the right thing – the thing that needs to be done – is the easiest thing, even the totally disengaged will do their bit to decarbonise Australia.

Australians are ready to do more for decarbonisation. We just need to ensure our representatives deliver the systems to make it easy for us all to do the right thing. It’s not a dichotomy between household and government action, but rather a collaboration between the two – a new, transformative social contract.

Simon Holmes à Court


Response to Correspondence

Katharine Murphy

Christopher Pyne, a lifelong major-party partisan, is clearly a new politics sceptic, but when it comes to Anthony Albanese, he sees the same political protagonist I see. We’ve both engaged in Albo-ology, watching the prime minister from different vantage points for a couple of decades, and have evidently reached substantially similar conclusions about who this man is and how he operates.

There is reassurance in this. To borrow the Hamilton jingle, journalists are never in the room where it happens. We press-gallery types are close, ecosystem-adjacent, but there are boundaries we can’t cross. I am always acutely conscious that politicians (borrowing this time from T.S. Eliot) prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet. I’m never entirely certain that I have the measure of the person. Pyne has been in rooms with Albanese, bantering and bartering, in many different political contexts, high stakes and low – places I will never see. I’m glad there are no significant divergences in our impressions. Pyne’s is a generous response. All these responses are. I’m grateful for the positive reception, because these Quarterly Essays are magnificent projects, but they are beasts that plunge writers even further into self-doubt. It’s very hard to get them right, both in tone and in substance, and the topics I have attempted aren’t static.

My favourite observation from Pyne – one I wished I’d located in the mist in my head – was a racing analogy to capture Albanese’s long-held desire to be in the centre of things, but always slightly off-camera. Pyne notes as that as Albanese rose through the viper pit of professional politics, he “kept his rivals in front of him, where he could see them. In racing terms he was one back, on the outside.” It’s a good line, because it encapsulates a modus operandi that has survived the transition from aspirant to holder of the office. In the opening months of his prime ministership, Albanese has prioritised a mode of operation that feels measurably different after a run of regicidal presidential operators in Canberra. As the ever-perspicacious Nick Bryant notes, in an age of narcissistic performative politicians, Albanese has opened his prime ministership by showing Australians “the value of an ensemble cast with multiple principal actors – a point of difference from Morrison, who evidently wanted to play many of the leading roles himself.”

Will Albanese’s return to first among equals work? Will it all end in tears? Possibly. This is the Labor Party. That has certainly been known to happen. But for now, Australians have experienced a circuit-breaker. Politics is a permanent campaign, but we’ve seen plenty of governing since May 2022. The government has sped into office like it’s five minutes to midnight, but the public-facing operation is tranquil. For the first time in more than a decade, government has been about something more than crises and coups, even if the program is more cautiously pragmatic (to borrow from Nick again) than many progressives might like.

Michael Cooney also makes a cut-through observation on the theme of ensembles, but before I get there, full disclosure. I am close to 100 per cent confident that I borrowed Albanese being an old dog for a hard road from him, so it’s decent of him to praise me for lifting his thought without serving a copyright infringement notice. Also, that friend he texted was me. Just for the record. But to his cut-through observation. Cooney notes our current prime minster deploys the vertical pronoun frequently “because he doesn’t hate talking about himself.” During his professional life as an adviser and wordsmith for Labor leaders, Cooney kicked around in proximity to Albanese for years, so we both know this is true. But we both also know this tendency or habit has been necessary for the reformed Lone Wolf in the Lodge. Albanese is a factional powerbroker, so he has legions of acolytes. Lots of people owe him, and he’s one of the most networked politicians I’ve ever seen. But his inner inner sanctum used to be small. Albanese has also maintained an unusual degree of control for a person in public life for the best part of three decades over the basics of his life story, including deciding when he will share key details, like finding his Italian father after his mother’s death (detailed in Karen Middleton’s excellent biography; if you haven’t read that yet, do).

When I set out to write this essay, I imposed a rule with the many people I interviewed. We could certainly chat on background (if you aren’t fluent in the conventions of journalism, this means any information shared in the conversation is usable without attribution). But I would not be using any blind quotes in this essay, or “sources said.” This kind of reporting is necessary sometimes; people can’t always own newsworthy information for valid reasons. But the convention is overused, and it’s sometimes just plain corrosive. For this profile, colleagues would need to talk about the prime minister (then at the peak of his power) honestly and on the record. I wanted candour, for posterity. Seeking this might sound like no big deal, but in the world of politics, direct reflections on the leader can be fraught. Because it’s fraught, people often overthink what they will say, and there was a bit of that evident in this exercise. But fortunately, most didn’t overthink in the end, and I was grateful for the degree of frankness in many of the observations.

This context about my methodology for this Quarterly Essay sets up Cooney’s point. He notes that until now, Albanese has had primary carriage of his own story because his life circumstances – “political, as much as personal – do mean he hasn’t often been one to rely on a surrogate. Someone else to tell that funny story about his fridge never being empty of staples, or his credit card balance always being zero, or to introduce him by saying at least he never changed his footy team, rather than it being left to him to make the humblebrag himself.” Cooney wonders whether that will change. It’s the right question, and one I set out to test. Albanese, as the thirty-first prime minister of Australia, can’t control his own narrative anymore. People don’t care much about Opposition leaders, but the story of a prime ministership is the story of a country. It’s common property. Leaders belong to the people and the history of this time will be told by multitudes – journalists in the first draft, and proper historians, of course (I’m looking forward to an updated edition of Dreamers and Schemers, Frank Bongiorno!) – as well as colleagues, friends, foes, rivals, successors.

Knowing the essay would very likely be the first long-form profile-style reportage of his prime ministership, I wanted to capture two things: a first-hand account from Albanese about how he operates and why he behaves in certain ways; and the collective voice of a new government as it transitioned to power. I wanted to test and record the impressions of the surrogates (as Cooney puts it) because a key narrative arc in the essay is Albanese consenting to be part of a collective “governing project” (Cooney’s locution again) after a professional lifetime of minority group in minority faction insurgency. I witness these transitions from my second-floor office in Parliament House, and feel it’s my job to capture them. The overarching aim of my first Quarterly Essay – The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics – was to capture not only the essential facts but also the mood of the first six months of 2020, those visceral months of “lives and livelihoods.” This was an incredible time: journalists masked up, rattling around in a near-empty Parliament House with a group of leaders having to work out hour by hour how best to stop people dying of coronavirus before we had vaccines – a time I knew we would all forget, or radically reinterpret, the further we got away from it.

The Morrison essay was a study in two parts, a man in a moment, and so is the latest one. Lone Wolf is the story of how Albanese rose to lead the Labor Party, and then surfed to office on, in part, a teal wave. Pyne is a new politics sceptic. Historian Bongiorno, in his response – not so much. The facts tell us new politics is, actually, a thing. If we look at the run of federal elections over decades, the hard data plots a major-party system in decline. The decline of mass political movements has left both the major parties vulnerable to base shrinkage, a phenomenon that feeds narrow-casting politics. As major parties become more bespoke and less representative, pandering to the prejudices of their shrinking bases, the electoral splintering intensifies. The relevant case study in 2022 illustrating this rusting-off phenomenon was the Coalition’s decade-long obduracy on climate change driving a collapse in support among metropolitan centre-right progressives – small “l” liberals.

We are witnessing an electoral realignment. This isn’t moot. But it’s a moving phenomenon. The next manifestation of the long-term trend is hard to predict. What can be known now is that the new bottom-up community-based movements, as Bongiorno says, favour “integrity and transparency, in contrast with the old politics’ pleasure in a backroom deal in a smoke-filled room or around a lazy Susan in a Sussex Street Chinese restaurant.” This movement “has in common with right-wing populisms an insurgent, disruptive quality, but it is supportive rather than corrosive of democratic norms and rational policy.” He sees another element to the new politics: the return of seriousness to meet the seriousness of the times. The teals tapped this mood, and so did Albanese, Bongiorno says. “The new government is well regarded because it has been practical and has restored a sense of order and civility to a politics that had been veering dangerously towards the right-wing populist model contemptuous of parliament, process and even policy.”

Rachel Nolan takes us to the nub of the thing. Albanese wants to “make Labor the natural party of government and to deliver meaningful change.” Albanese is perfectly comfortable in this disrupted electoral world, but he wants to shape it by renewing the case for major-party politics. Nolan then poses a question none of us can answer: “can he succeed?”

Who knows? That’s the story of the next parliamentary term.

Thank you again for all of the responses – truly above and beyond. I am certain all the contributors would have preferred to enjoy their first real holiday in three years without parsing Lone Wolf. The reader response has also been amazing, and I’m grateful. Thanks most of all to Chris Feik and his editorial team for being a dream to work with. Thank you to Lenore Taylor and my Canberra colleagues for facilitating some writing time, and thank you to David Marr, a mentor in all the important ways. Love and gratitude to my husband – partner in life, thinking, writing, striving.

Katharine Murphy



Rachel Nolan

In Lone Wolf, Katharine Murphy offers an explanation for a fascinating yet little-remarked feature of recent Australian politics: the physical and apparently temperamental transformation of the prime minister before our very eyes. Out is the “insurgent,” “bomb-throwing” Albo, a character so compelling that Lech Blaine argued it was the model Scott Morrison plagiarised to invent ScoMo. In is a quiet, thoughtful character who, in round glasses and felt hat, looks for all the world like John Curtin during the war.

Murphy’s explanation is that far from being “Queer Eye’d” in pursuit of ambition, Albanese is an outsider who’s moved in, bringing a considered and collaborative approach to leadership in disrupted times.

Albanese’s goals, Murphy writes, are to make Labor the natural party of government and to deliver meaningful change. His fascinations in order of preference are “power, politics, parliament, policy and process.”

Murphy’s analysis is satisfying. The bigger question is: can he succeed?

After the devastation of the 2019 election, Labor adopted a more modest program, promising an expansion of public services through cheaper childcare, greater access to Medicare and more investment in the NDIS, as well as some harder-to-deliver programs, such as a 43 per cent emissions reduction target, greater investment and efficacy in Australia’s defence posture and an end to relentless, often partisan attacks on public services and the welfare state. With progressive politics having spent a generation in retreat and trust in politics at historic lows, even this agenda may be hard to get up.

Labor’s approach is a unique political experiment. In abandoning the model of an “all politics, all the time” front man dominating the debate, Albanese differs not just from Scott Morrison, but from every post-war Labor prime minister except Julia Gillard.

In ditching pizzazz for policy and process, the government is choosing two of its leader’s lesser preoccupations. It’s a radically conventional approach at a time when the weakening and politicisation of the public service has become commonplace and democratic institutions are threatened globally by nationalists and a raging hard right.

Less than a year in, the Albanese government has begun to define its approach. There is a proper cabinet process, complete with functioning committees. Ministerial staffer roles were publicly advertised and there are six new public service heads. First among them, Glyn Davis – an exceptional public servant and thinker who has led both the Queensland premier’s department and the University of Melbourne – has replaced Morrison’s former chief of staff Phil Gaetjens as head of the prime minister’s department.

Legislation for an integrity commission has been introduced and an expensive decision made to abolish rather than “square up” the irredeemable Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

While these are sound high-profile decisions, the success of the government’s approach will depend on the far less sexy work of improving capability and integrity at the heart of the Australian public service (APS). In the past twelve months, a series of public inquiries at both state and Commonwealth levels has revealed deep flaws in public service integrity. Queensland’s Coaldrake review, the Barilaro inquiry in New South Wales and a string of Commonwealth audits, royal commissions and reviews have heard shameful evidence of senior public servants taking it upon themselves to suppress bad news because they have sensed, or been told directly by out-of-line political staffers, that uncomfortable advice will not be smiled upon.

This dynamic – in which public servants become avatars of their political masters, and politicians lack access to frank and fearless advice – is risky for everyone. Timid public servants leave themselves open to carrying the can for what should be political decisions, but there’s also the risk that governments, lacking the rigour of good policy advice, get it wrong.

Political decision-making is an art form; a magic concoction of ideology, evidence, power dynamics and a nuanced understanding of public opinion. It’s best undertaken by politicians who, unlike public servants, are masters of the discipline.

Fixing this will take serious reform and time. So far, the new government’s approach relies largely on the recommendations of the Thodey report, a review into the APS commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull in 2018 and largely shelved by Scott Morrison. The review began with a concerning starting point, identifying that just 30 per cent of Australians trusted public services, that the public sector spent 12 per cent more than the private sector in running old digital platforms and that the APS was excessively atomised across agencies.

While Morrison rejected any suggestion that the APS would take a leadership role in policy development, the new government – under public service minister Katy Gallagher – has set about an extensive overhaul of the APS, with ongoing capability reviews, better organisational and industrial coordination, the pursuit of diversity including First Nations employment, the development of an in-house consulting model and a commitment to measure and report on public service efficiency and trust.

The government has appointed Gordon de Brouwer, a former secretary of the environment department, on a two-year contract to lead the reform. In a significant move, it has also begun publishing communiqués from meetings of the departmental Secretaries Board.

The reforms are sound and represent normalisation rather than a step change. There’s no trendy, new democracy–style launch into citizen’s juries, no regionalisation of service delivery – as Kevin Rudd pioneered and Barnaby Joyce ham-fistedly applied – and no money for wholesale investment in digital service delivery as has occurred in New South Wales.

But getting to the sweet spot of the relationship between the public service and the executive will take some doing and, if successful, will test the integrity of the government in a system now so used to ministers just getting their way with a disregard for process or policy.

Far from being an exercise in giving the APS what it wants, the reforms will need to reflect an understanding that an elected government does have a mandate but that the APS can and should know deeply what it’s talking about. With the trickiest conversations inevitably happening behind closed doors, we will have to wait for the entrails of the first conflicts to be revealed either in key departures or gripping Senate Estimates hearings.

In the last Oxford University survey, Australia’s public service was rated the fifth-best in the world, which might come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched the recent Commonwealth inquiries or tried to deal with Centrelink. The service might be fine by international standards, but there is an ocean of improvement to be made in culture, diversity (including an ability to imagine life beyond Canberra), digital capability, integrity and excellence.

There is no higher calling than public service – for our political and bureaucratic actors alike. We will know all of this is getting somewhere when Australian universities, many of which have abandoned teaching public administration, return to the field and produce graduates who rush not to intern with the World Bank in Washington, but in Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the climate change department. These are the places where the real action is happening.

Achieving such a change may at times be uncomfortable for a prime minister and cabinet already nearly one year into a three-year term, but if the goal is to make the Labor project sustainable, then the best-quality advice will immeasurably benefit the cause. Australia has long provided a leading example to the world in our democratic institutions. Compulsory voting provides ballast to our democracy; our health, education and welfare systems are world-leading, and we famously took a lead role in the establishment of the United Nations.

If Australia can succeed in de-politicising and strengthening its public service at this critical moment in history, it will again be an exemplar for the English-speaking world to follow. If it doesn’t, it’s hard to say where we go. There is no plan B on the horizon.

Rachel Nolan



Luca Belgiorno-Nettis

The subtitle of Katharine Murphy’s Lone Wolf – “Albanese and the new politics” – is a tease. “New” works every time: new toothpaste, new art, new idea. There was little that was particularly new in the political campaigning of 2022 – except what catapulted six freshly minted teal candidates into heartland Liberal seats. The question is: what was it? Something transformative seems to be emerging.

No doubt the success of the teals – and the Greens – was enhanced by having a cartoonish, coal-carrying villain named Scott Morrison and by the Coalition’s lack of a raison d’être, other than keeping the other side out of office. It was amazing to witness the unprecedented levels of grassroots support. In Monique Ryan’s seat of Kooyong, for example, there were over 1500 volunteers – a frankly astounding number. The public’s desire to be involved in the campaigning – active in teal seats, but absent in the major party branches – is a message to the big-tent parties.

The appearance of independents in parliament is nothing new, but it was the “people-powered model of community organising” that was unconventional. Pioneered by Cathy McGowan in the seat of Indi in Victoria, then followed up by Zali Steggall and Kerryn Phelps in New South Wales, they all unseated long-standing incumbents, including – famously, in Steggall’s case – Tony Abbott. Murphy is keen to understand how Albanese can possibly “[push] against the mega-trend of major-party depletion” and “the lowest primary vote ever for an incoming government.” For Albanese, it begins with a comprehensive policy agenda and, to be fair, his government delivered beyond expectations in the last sitting weeks of 2022. That’s a great start, but a government prosecuting an agenda may not suffice. That’s old politics, done better. Albanese himself admits, “People have been very frustrated with the political system and process, and why wouldn’t they be?”

Murphy describes campaigns as “message wars mediated by an incurious, deadening apparatus intent on seeking heat, not light,” and representative democracy as “a spectacle of pulverising, naysaying partisan politics.” With politics being so pugnacious, there’s an obvious appeal in having a fresh batch of independents, especially when each comes untainted by a lifetime of trench warfare. Zoe Daniel says, reflecting on the major parties, “It must feel quite unnatural for them, to try and take point-scoring out of it, to try and look at it as having productive conversations and collaborate.” In Perth’s electorate of Curtin, Kate Chaney declares that she’s “doing politics differently.”

In this election, climate change was always going to be the hot topic. “Swimming Between the Flags” is Murphy’s title for her chapter on the ALP’s policy work behind the 43 per cent emissions reduction goal: the safe place where Labor’s constituency could feel comfortable swimming. The Albanese government has now enacted the target, with Greens’ support – unlike the fiasco in 2009 – with Adam Bandt trumpeting that this parliament could be “a great era of progressive reform,” and that “one of the lessons from the climate negotiations is the only limit on more progressive action is Labor’s ambition.” After more than a decade of climate wars, the political rhetoric remains eerily the same.

Murphy also unpicks Climate 200’s contribution to the election. Eighteen months out, Simon Holmes à Court, its founder, started putting together a team and engaged Kos Samaras, “a long-time Labor operative who was now running … campaigns for the Melbourne-based lobbying firm RedBridge.” Samaras’s advice was that Liberal electorates with “high numbers of young professional women” and a growing “renter cohort” could be swung over. “All we needed to do,” Samaras tells Murphy, “was build a particular brand of politics that was going to … meet these needs that people had, that [was] sort of centrist, socially progressive, on climate very progressive, with a bit of pragmatism.” Climate 200 helped strategise and fund each of the teals’ campaigns: get the messaging right, build the brand and target the spend. Again, old politics done well.

New politics would suggest more – new politics addresses the loss of agency and the disaffection that many have with the “naysaying spectacle.” Australians aren’t alone in this. In 2020, the OECD published “Catching the Deliberative Wave,” a review across member states, highlighting how trust in democracy is waning around the globe, and, on the flip side, the transformation happening in citizen engagement. The presidents of Ireland, France and Germany have now all implemented citizens’ assemblies.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, these assemblies are a public judgment mechanism akin to a criminal jury, and thus the opposite of a public opinion tool. Selected by civic lottery, the participants are exposed to a diversity of expert information and sources, including many of their own choosing, and given time to question and discuss. With the incentive of being listened to and getting a response from the government, citizens work diligently to make common-ground recommendations.

Albanese, with an eye on a second term, says, “I’ll be standing [in 2025] and saying we had this agenda: action on climate, economic growth, new industry, skills, aged care, cheaper childcare, cheaper medicines, advancing gender equality, Voice to Parliament. This is a significant agenda, and Australia needs stable government going forward … You need a government to get things done.”

All true, and it’s heartening to see that, in early December, the agenda might now include structural reform. The Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, announced the establishment of a “Strengthening Democracy Taskforce”; and the Assistant Minister for the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, is exploring the use of citizens’ assemblies for the proposed republic referendum. Allegra Spender, the teal in Wentworth, has also just called for a citizens’ assembly “to consider how best to fund elections.” These latest initiatives seem to be building on the public’s hankering to do politics differently. In Spender’s words, “If we did this, we could get an answer that puts the Australian people first, not parties, politicians or vested interests.” This appears to be the new current lifting the wave of community independents.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis



Carol Johnson

Professor James Walter has described Katharine Murphy as “one of our most astute political observers” when it comes to analysing the personas and performances of our political leaders. Lone Wolf draws a masterly portrait of the attributes that facilitated Anthony Albanese becoming prime minister and that may assist in his managing of the “new politics” as major-party support declines. In the process, Murphy provides an insightful analysis not just of a developing political persona but of a changing political landscape. Murphy characterises the “clean and green” new politics as eschewing “major-party custom and practice,” being “bottom-up rather than top-down,” idealistic and aspirational while championing dialogue, positivity, integrity and transparency over division. She suggests that Albanese will draw on the lessons he learnt during the Gillard period to manage relations with key independents who represent the new politics. Doing so will facilitate their ongoing challenge to the Liberal Party, even though he doesn’t need the independents’ support in the House of Representatives. (Albanese has required the support of independent senator David Pocock in the Senate.) However, there are some issues raised by Murphy’s analysis that are worth considering further. Labor’s task is complicated by the fact that it is having to negotiate the new politics at the same time as it negotiates some very old political issues. Traditional social cleavages and antagonisms remain and will complicate Labor’s strategies, despite Albanese’s claims that he will bring Australians together.

For example, Murphy cites Albanese’s proud assertion that Labor represents “the interests of the vast majority of Australians,” including being able to “work with business and unions.” Yet Labor still needs to address the traditional social democratic issue of how to reduce inequality under capitalism, while managing the relationship between business and labour in the process. As I explain in my book Social Democracy and the Crisis of Equality, economic inequality has increased in recent years, partly due to neoliberal policies that have contributed to wage stagnation and a decline in real wages. The pandemic has exacerbated economic inequality even further. Albanese has often evoked former Labor PM Bob Hawke’s consensus politics to suggest that an Albanese government will bring both business and unions together to improve workers’ standards of living. However, Hawke’s rapprochement was based on an Accord process that facilitated business reducing its wages bill, while workers were supposedly compensated by an increased “social wage” expenditure on health, welfare and education. By contrast, the Albanese government aims to increase real wages in the longer term, rather than restrain – or even cut – them, as Hawke and Keating did.

The Albanese government’s task will be made even harder by major inflationary pressures and an uncertain international economy. Furthermore, Labor’s ability to increase compensatory government expenditure, including welfare spending, is constrained by the need to manage a large deficit. That deficit will be further affected by revenue losses due to the planned stage three tax cuts. Given these dilemmas, we have already seen the government delay the full implementation of wage rises for aged-care workers, despite Labor having made a strong case for such wage rises. The government has succeeded in passing industrial relations legislation through parliament that it hopes will facilitate wage rises. However, it has done so in the face of considerable business opposition and only after making concessions to David Pocock. Pocock had been particularly concerned about the implications for small business (as indeed had some teal independents in the House of Representatives). There are also doubts that the measures included, such as multi-employer bargaining, will be sufficient to ensure adequate wage rises in the current economic climate, especially given business resistance.

Many of the new politics independents have a small “l” liberal background that is sympathetic to business, so Labor may encounter ongoing challenges in managing parliamentary relations with them. Outside of parliament, business opposition can result in well-funded campaigns against Labor and a resulting perception that Labor governments are poor economic managers. Voters employed in the private sector can be particularly worried about the prospect of reduced private-sector investment and job losses. Business campaigns against Labor governments have contributed to the electoral defeats of the Chifley, Whitlam, Keating and Rudd governments. Murphy cites Albanese’s concern that Labor’s poor relationship with business during the 2019 election campaign had contributed to Bill Shorten’s defeat.

Climate change policy is another area where relationships with at least some sections of business are still problematic for Labor. Murphy states that Labor’s Minister for Climate Change, Chris Bowen, has been “attracted to the idea of framing climate action as the unfinished element of the economic reforms Labor had pursued since the early 1980s.” Yet this is not a new framing; it is one that Penny Wong used when she was climate change minister in Kevin Rudd’s first government. Unfortunately, Wong was only successful in convincing some sections of business that Labor’s climate change reforms were necessary, with the Rudd government facing considerable opposition from the large polluters.

Labor has managed to pass its reduced emissions target through parliament with support from the Greens and independents. However, we wait to see how successful the party will be in introducing further measures, including its attempts to tweak the existing safeguard mechanism to reduce emissions by big polluters. Fortunately for Albanese, much of Labor’s safeguard mechanism policy can be implemented via regulation, thereby bypassing parliament and the need for either Greens or Coalition support in the Senate. However, a key aspect – namely the stockpiling and trading of carbon credits by overachieving firms to under-achieving ones – would need to be passed by legislation. It is a measure designed to placate those businesses that will not sufficiently reduce their carbon pollution, while rewarding those that will overachieve. As with proposed carbon trading during the Rudd era, Labor is facing difficulty obtaining Greens support, given that the Greens see Labor’s cautious measures as facilitating big emitters. Meanwhile, the Coalition is resorting to old political strategies, with its Opposition energy and climate spokesman, Ted O’Brien, denouncing Labor’s climate change measures as a “carbon tax.”

Climate change is not the only field where Labor faces old arguments and culture-war issues. Murphy also cites Albanese’s statement that Labor respects “First Nations people” as part of his argument that Labor represents “the interests of the vast majority of Australians.” Yet that “embrace” of broader forms of equality also comes with longstanding political divisions. Not only have the Nationals opposed the Voice, but Peter Dutton has repeatedly raised questions regarding the form the Voice will take. Meanwhile, radical critics, such as Senator Lidia Thorpe, have questioned the Voice from the left, raising concerns about how effective it will be and its implications for black sovereignty.

As with climate change and the republic, Labor must solve the dilemma that addressing the conservative issues raised by the Liberals risks alienating more progressive supporters. Murphy rightly notes Albanese’s emotional intelligence, but it might not be a match for a culture war–style fear campaign from the right coupled with feelings of disappointment and negativity from the left. After all, Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme failed to get through parliament when the Greens joined the Liberals to vote against it. The republic referendum failed when the votes of conservative opponents to a republic were bolstered by the “no” votes of progressives who supported a republic but not the specific model proposed. Peter Dutton may lack the dexterous footwork of an Albanese, who likes to keep his opponents “dancing,” but Dutton is not without room to manoeuvre. As Murphy reminds us, the new politics can also take an anti-progressive form. Trump is an example of new politics – “a classic disruptor.” Dutton has well-established cultural warrior credentials on which to draw, which owe as much to John Howard as to the former American president.

Clearly, Albanese will be hoping that Peter Dutton proves to be out of step with the new politics rather than an alternative manifestation of it. Albanese will try to utilise the new politics’ emphasis on “dialogue over combat” to pursue a successful parliamentary agenda. He’ll be hoping that the new independents’ preference for making some progress rather than none, along with the Greens’ apparent greater willingness to compromise, continue to gel with social democracy’s traditional pursuit of incremental reform. Nonetheless, as Murphy acknowledges, the Greens will continue to target Labor seats and future teal-style independents may do so too. Negotiating old battles while managing the new politics will not be easy. So far Labor has enjoyed significant legislative success. However, “swimming between the flags,” as Murphy argues Labor has successfully done, may yet prove to be a far more difficult exercise in government than it was in Opposition.

Carol Johnson



Simon Jackman

Prime Minister Albanese, the victor, must sit centrestage in any account of the 2022 election. But as Murphy explores in her essay, Albanese is (or at least was) far less the agent of change driving a new politics than he was alternately a bystander and its beneficiary. Albanese’s relevance to a new Australian politics is not in the context of the 2022 election per se. Rather, as Murphy notes towards the close of the essay, Albanese and the new politics cross paths through his tenure as prime minister, the policies a Labor government can enact and the politics of the next election.

We now know more about the “new politics” and the election than was available when Murphy penned her essay. Both major parties have conducted their reviews of the 2022 election and major academic studies of the electorate are now in the public domain.

Along with Ian McAllister (ANU), Sarah Cameron (Griffith) and Jill Sheppard (ANU), I was one of the principal investigators for the 2022 Australian Election Study (AES). The AES has surveyed a representative cross-section of the Australian electorate after every federal election since 1987, using consistently worded questions and methodology to examine what drives voter decision-making and how these factors change over time. AES data is therefore an authoritative source for assessing just what is “new” about the new politics and giving the 2022 election historical context.

Many analysts, Murphy among them, rightly emphasise the decline in major-party first-preference vote share, which is perhaps on the cusp of a critical threshold that will see minority government become commonplace in Canberra. The AES data supplies an important qualification to this observation. Because, at least for now, it is the Coalition that is suffering more from dealignment than Labor.

The AES shows that “new voters” are perhaps a bigger part of the story than a “new politics.” Only about 1 in 4 voters under the age of forty report voting for the Coalition in 2022. The Coalition’s vote share has fallen to parlous levels, not only among younger women and younger professionals, but right across the two youngest generations in the electorate, millennials and gen Z. At no time in the thirty-five-year history of the Australian Election Study have we observed such a low level of support for either major party in so large a segment of the electorate.

The reservoir of AES data accumulated over the last thirty-five years reveals “life cycle” effects in political loyalties; for instance, voters becoming more conservative as they age, a tendency we see almost everywhere around the democratic world. But the AES data shows these effects to be mild. Large, enduring or abrupt changes in levels of political support at the life course are unusual in Australian politics. Of more importance is the level of support for one side of politics over another from which a generation starts its political journey over the life course, something akin to a form of generational imprinting. Reactions to issues and a specific set of party leaders generate bumps and wiggles around a slight tendency towards conservatism over the life course. But the point from which a generation starts its political journey – the politics that defined its generation as it “comes of age” politically – is at least as important as any slow, mild maturation effects or transitory election-specific “shock.”

These patterns provide important context for the decline in Coalition support observed in 2022. Millennials entered the electorate in the early 2000s, with about 35 per cent of this generation supporting the Coalition, a level which has now fallen to 25 per cent. Gen X first appear in the AES in 1987, with 40 per cent reporting support for the Coalition, with a slight trend away from this level in the thirty-five years since. Labor’s vote has waned somewhat among Gen X, but this is almost entirely made up for in two-party preferred terms by Gen X’s turn towards the Greens. If Australia does have a “new politics,” one of its defining characteristics is that its “newest” voters skew heavily towards Labor and the Greens. This is a profound challenge for the Coalition, and literally a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Labor to cement its standing in this segment of the electorate over their life course, putting a distinct centre-left stamp on the “new politics.”

Political scientists are often chided for the emphasis they attach to political institutions, constitutions, electoral laws and procedures, seemingly giving insufficient due to personalities and leaders in accounts of political, economic and social change. But one key institutional feature of Australian politics bears special mention in understanding why dealignment is not symmetric in its partisan consequences.

No political party likes to see its vote share go down. But preferential voting softens the blow for Labor. The current configuration of Australian politics means that Labor losing votes to the Greens usually costs Labor close to nothing – at least up until the point where they fall behind the Greens on first preferences or where tactical preference allocations among other parties and candidates could push the Greens ahead of Labor. In 2022, 86 per cent of Greens voters preferenced Labor ahead of the Coalition in House of Representatives elections; no other group preferenced Labor so strongly. In the smaller set of seats where we see preference flows between the Coalition parties, 90 per cent of Liberal preferences flowed to National Party candidates and 81 per cent vice versa. While not coalition partners, Greens preference flows to Labor are as strong as those between the capital “C” Coalition partners, the difference being the Greens won 12 per cent of the vote and ran candidates in all 151 House of Representatives seats.

Further, keep in mind that no successful teal challenger was a majority winner or even a plurality winner on first preferences. Zali Steggall was an incumbent in 2022 and was the first-preference plurality winner with 45 per cent; Steggall also outpolled Tony Abbott in 2019. But for the six successful teal challengers, none won the most first-preference votes and two won with less than 30 per cent of first preferences. If these had been decided on “first-past-the-post,” a lot more Coalition voters would have needed to defect and very different campaign strategies would have been implemented by both incumbents and challengers.

Institutions matter. And in Australian politics, preferential voting is helping Labor moderate the effects of dealignment and was critical to unseating six “heartland” Liberal incumbents.

Murphy repeatedly quotes Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erikson, on the key role of Morrison’s unpopularity in shaping the outcome of the 2022 election. AES data allows us to add some vivid historical context to Erikson’s conclusion. Since the 1990 election, the AES has been asking survey respondents to rate major-party leaders on a ten-point “strongly dislike” to “strongly like” scale. By the 2022 election, Morrison was not just unpopular, but historically unpopular, his average rating of 3.8 on the ten-point scale making him the least-popular PM or Opposition leader ever seen in AES data. Barnaby Joyce fared even worse, scoring 3.2.

Albanese’s average rating was 5.3, placing him in the middle of the pack, the eighth-most popular election winner out of thirteen spanned by the AES data. In 2019, Morrison’s average rating was 5.1 against Bill Shorten’s 4.0. The 1.3 point fall in Morrison’s average rating from 2019 to 2022 pushed Morrison not only into historically unprecedented unpopularity for an incumbent PM, but with a pace unseen in any of the other election-to-election, leader-specific comparisons available in the AES data.

It is difficult to test for causation in “one shot” public-opinion surveys. The adage that warns against conflating correlation and causation is the political scientist’s touchstone. Moreover, asking voters as to whether they vote “on the issues” or for or against the party leaders almost surely produces an overestimate of issue voting: many survey respondents lean towards a socially desirable presentation of themselves as substantive issue-based voters before nominating party loyalty or assessments of the leaders. With those caveats, 53 per cent of 2022 AES respondents said their vote was driven by policy differences, down from 66 per cent in 2019. Leadership qualities had more “leverage” on the vote in 2022 than in 2019.

All this is to say that, yes, 2022 was a remarkable election for all the reasons Murphy recounts: the major-party primary vote for House of Representatives candidates reached new lows; Labor has formed government with less than a third of first-preference votes; conservative forces have their lowest share of House seats since World War II, losing hitherto “heartland” seats; and Climate 200 and community-supported independents introduced a novel form of political organisation and campaigning to Australian politics. We need to add to the list an incumbent prime minister who had lost and was losing the respect and approval of the electorate at a spectacular rate, whose last-ditch attempt at explaining away his governing style (“bulldozer”) was paired with the image of him knocking a small child to the ground on a soccer pitch during a campaign stunt in the closing days of the campaign.

Macroeconomic management, climate change and energy policy, industrial relations, the national integrity commission and the Voice to Parliament is the substantive terrain over which the parties will compete for votes in 2025. With Morrison in the rear-view mirror by the next election, Albanese’s and Labor’s performance on these issues will determine whether it capitalises on the historic opportunity before it, imprinting loyalty to Labor on gen Z and millennials over the course of their lives.

Simon Jackman



Frank Bongiorno

In the week I’m writing this response to Katharine Murphy’s admirable Quarterly Essay on the new politics, we’ve had two pointed reminders of the old. Scott Morrison appeared before the Robodebt royal commission, ducking and weaving as in days of yore, but with one major difference from those media conferences we came to abhor and avoid. In this forum, he was unable simply to avoid a question, patronise the questioner and then move on to another of his endless stream of deceptions.

Australians also heard from a woman, Sandra Bevan, who was a victim of this odious and unlawful system. A real battler – as distinct from the kind invented by John Howard to harvest votes – she was bullied, humiliated and cheated by a system designed to punish the poor and win the favour of voters and media hostile to welfare recipients. All in the land of the fair go.

In the same week, the attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus KC, announced that the government would be abolishing the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. As currently constituted, this body represents – as Dreyfus put it – a “disgraceful exhibition of cronyism.” With its eighty-five former Liberal politicians, staffers, candidates and mates, it has become a high-end welfare system for Liberal Party people looking for their next “opportunity.”

While the AAT is an especially notable example of the Coalition’s way of running the country for the benefit of the well-connected – egregious not least because of its potential impact on the lives of so many Australians – it is just one among many of the country’s institutions debauched during nine years of Coalition government. The old politics also saw the same kinds of people stuffed on to the boards of cultural institutions, even as several of those same institutions were so deprived of funding that some of them are now – quite literally – falling apart.

Is there a new politics? Murphy believes so, and I think she is right. For Murphy, it is about the decline of the two-party system and its ways. Unlike those parties’ tendency towards what political scientists call the “electoral-professional model” – parties dominated by politicians and paid officials and with a thin rank-and-file base – the new politics is “bottom-up,” arising from local communities. While it has a strong streak of pragmatism, it is also idealistic, and it elevates cooperation and conversation over the combat of partisan politics. It stresses integrity and transparency, in contrast with the old politics’ pleasure in a backroom deal in a smoke-filled room or around a lazy Susan in a Sussex Street Chinese restaurant. It has in common with right-wing populisms an insurgent, disruptive quality, but it is supportive rather than corrosive of democratic norms and rational policy.

During the 2022 election, the teal “community independents” were the most “in your face” expression of the new politics, which is particularly attractive to younger people, the better educated, the professional and women. For decades, the major parties have seen the key to their future not among those they have – often pejoratively – treated as metropolitan elites, remote from the values and experiences of “real people” out in the suburbs and country towns. Western Sydney was seen as the testing ground for politics: as in Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. Labor’s most explicit experiment in this kind of politics occurred under Mark Latham, who expressed disdain for the “insiders” of the inner city and championed a politics of the suburbs. That ended poorly, and the 2007 Rudd election indicated that Labor’s only real hope of electoral success lay in what Murphy calls a “big tent” approach that forms and then seeks to hold together an alliance of often diverse people and interests. But that ended badly too.

In the years since, Labor has never quite known which way to jump. There were champions of a politics that emphasised the need to connect with blue-collar workers with “traditional” and even “conservative” values. Some proponents of this view took inspiration from Blue Labour in the United Kingdom. Labor’s defeat at the 2019 election – which some attributed to its loss of connection with traditional supporters in regional, Queensland and “coal” seats – boosted the idea that Labor needed to secure its blue-collar base, but proponents had little to say about how this approach might affect its standing with other kinds of voters. Its most vocal champion was Latham’s old mate Joel Fitzgibbon. Murphy’s account is revealing on how the party managed his internal criticism and eventually landed on a climate policy under Chris Bowen as minister that – in an evocative image from her essay – managed to swim between the flags.

There is a case that considering both Labor’s climate policy and its commitments to childcare, it is unfair to characterise the party’s approach at the 2022 election as small target. It was adventurous in its chasing of voters who wanted action on climate change, government integrity and equity for women, but who lived in electorates rarely inclined to throwing Liberals out of office. Jim Chalmers is quoted in the essay as suggesting it was a bigger program than Hawke’s in 1983 and Rudd’s in 2007. This is debatable, but it might not be wrong. What is less in doubt is that in 2022, metropolitan voters delivered a very clear message to any political parties or candidates inclined to ridicule or condemn their lifestyles, values or interests.

That brings us to Albanese. We have a good biography from Karen Middleton of a few years back, and Albanese has said plenty about his personal story on the public record. Nevertheless, I learnt more here. The overriding impression I had taken from his successful campaign was that he wished to be seen as a collaborative leader. The late political psychologist Graham Little would probably have seen in Albanese’s style “group leadership,” which he also attributed to Bob Hawke: “neighbourliness, translating the experience of life in smaller groups, like the family, into the nation as a whole.” But Murphy suggests that Albanese has another side: a lone wolf quality that works as a tension with the more collegial approach. Albanese’s stress on orderly government, his emphasis on process, his search for consensus, his ambition – also nurtured by Hawke – to turn Labor into the natural party of government: these suggest not only an identification with the Hawke era but a rejection – politely implicit, but still real enough – of the leadership style of Kevin Rudd. It is, of course, also a rejection of Morrison’s outrageous breaches of Westminster conventions and practices that have a history stretching back centuries, such as his secret assumption of five ministries on top of the prime ministership.

Albanese seems to understand something that eluded Rudd. Rudd wanted to make his government the story each day, to win each 24-hour news cycle. That was great while the government’s popularity lasted, not so great when things soured. Albanese realises that a sideshow featuring your opponents has its uses: we have an almost daily reminder of how bad the last government was, and therefore – until Peter Dutton and his colleagues make a more explicit break with their immediate past – what an alternative to an Albanese Labor government might yet look like.

Albanese also seems to have judged the present mood of electors well. They don’t want partisan politics in their faces each and every day. They are over charismatic leadership. They are over silly stunts of the kind Morrison made his trademark. There is a dawning realisation that serious times and serious issues – the China relationship, climate change and energy policy, a fast-rising cost of living and unaffordable housing, a lack of integrity in government – call for a serious politics. The teal independents also benefited enormously from this impulse among many voters. The new government is well regarded because it has been practical and has restored a sense of order and civility to a politics that had been veering dangerously towards the right-wing populist model contemptuous of parliament, process and even policy.

One other Labor leader of Albanese’s lifetime also seems to sit there as part of his make-up and project. That is Gough Whitlam. Albanese might once have been of the Hard Left – the kind of politics that was hardly enamoured of Whitlamite social democracy – but in his life story he is very much a product of the Whitlam era. As the son of a mother on a disability pension, living in public housing, he was the beneficiary of public support, as inadequate as that could sometimes be (and the stories Murphy tells of the experiences of his mother, Maryanne, in the health system are especially moving). He received a free university education, courtesy of Whitlam. He was mentored and employed by Whitlam government minister Tom Uren. Albanese’s talk of a move towards universalism in childcare is as Whitlamite in its feel as his insistence that the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice are definitive of his government’s commitments, values and image, here and abroad.

Yet, as Murphy indicates, Albanese’s government, like Whitlam’s, finds itself in office at a time when the global economic situation is unconducive to the realisation of Labor ambition. The local fiscal situation will also pose challenges, not least while Labor remains committed to seeing through the stage three income tax cuts.

Still, like Whitlam, Albanese is not willing to die wondering, as Penny Wong told Murphy. We are in for an interesting ride.

Frank Bongiorno



Nick Bryant

Often a new leader personifies a new politics, but that can hardly be said of Anthony Albanese. He is a Labor diehard at a time when the two major parties are in decline. He remains a pretty blokey pol at a time when politics is becoming more feminised. He is a cautious pragmatist on climate change when key constituencies in urban and corporate Australia are turning a deeper shade of green. He is a lifelong left-winger when the electorate clearly favours centrism. So Katharine Murphy’s Quarterly Essay poses important questions about how Albanese is realigning himself with Australia’s political realignment, and to what extent he pre-empted the new politics.

From the outset I should reveal that I consider myself one of Katharine’s biggest fanboys. When I returned to Australia after eight years in America, she became one of the commentators I relied on to make sense of the fag end of the Morrison years and the quiet rise of Anthony Albanese. And sure enough, her essay is full of Murphisms, those enviably well-written lines and subtle observations that pepper her columns for The Guardian. Of Morrison’s grubby attempt on election day to play the boat-people card, as a vessel carrying Sri Lankan refugees was intercepted in the Indian Ocean, she notes: “The final hours of desperate men were what they always are. Unworthy of the memoir.” Her description of the formulation of Australian climate policy “as an exercise in swimming between the flags” is perfect, and could be applied more broadly. After spending time with Albanese at his home in Marrickville, she reveals that the prime minister never runs out of household staples – milk, frozen food, coffee, toilet paper, dog food for his beloved Toto – and has never paid a cent in interest on his credit cards. Albanese’s backstory has been so heavily mined, not least by “Albo” himself, that any new biographical nuggets that make more sense of him are gratefully received – and these do help make more sense of him. Besides, in a polity that once obsessed over an empty fruit bowl, voters can presumably sleep easy at night knowing that the country is in the hands of a prime minister with a well-stocked freezer.

Katharine also avoids what could have been a pitfall of the Quarterly Essay format: to overthink a prime minister who does not overthink himself. Her subject is “a clever and patient strategist, with sharp political judgment,” she notes, rather than a philosopher king. “Like his mentor Tom Uren, his political values are drawn from life, not philosophy or theory,” she says. But neither does she underestimate him, an elephant trap that commentators have frequently plunged into, myself included.

What she offers is a frame to explain why he has become a more successful prime minister than many of us expected. This she puts down to his evolution “from lone wolf to collaborative actor,” a process through which he came to rely more heavily on his talented team of ministers and tried to transcend the self-defeating factionalism of Labor politics.

Often in discussing the rise of Albo, the focus has been on what she calls the “front-end stuff.” The dramatic weight loss. The switch to more fashionable eye-wear. But she is surely right to focus on what was happening behind the scenes, as Albanese sought to expand his circle beyond his two closest confidants, Penny Wong and Mark Butler, and mend fences with rival Labor factions.

Sure enough, one of the most admirable aspects of Albanese’s prime ministership has been his willingness not only to delegate, but to encourage many of the star performers in his cabinet to shine. This feels more like an Albanese administration than an Albanese prime ministership. After decades of Australian politics becoming more presidential, he has made it more ministerial. In this age of narcissistic, performative politicians, he is showing us the value of an ensemble cast with multiple principal actors – a point of difference from Morrison, who evidently wanted to play many of the leading roles himself. Tellingly, one of the most eye-catching quotes in the essay comes not from the prime minister, but his treasurer. “My theory of governing,” says Jim Chalmers, “is people will cop big things done slowly and little things done quickly, but not big things done quickly or little things done slowly.” Even Bill Clinton or James Carville, who are renowned for their pithy rhetorical inversions, would struggle to put it better, although maybe we should think of this dictum more as a Keatingism, given that the treasurer’s doctoral thesis was on the “brawler statesman.”

Always there is the danger in writing this kind of essay of succumbing to an analytical form of reverse engineering, with plot mechanics neatly combining to produce a known outcome. Initially, I thought Katharine may be straying into this territory by highlighting as a pivotal moment Labor’s new childcare policy, which became the centrepiece of Albanese’s budget reply speech in October 2020. Back then, so much of the commentary focused on how the footy-loving “Albo” was a figure of reassurance to working-class male battlers, rather than to women, who often felt the burden of childcare. Covid also dominated the headlines. So was it really that much of a turning point?

Yet she presents a persuasive case. Childcare was a kitchen-table issue which the coronavirus brought into sharper relief, and also one which was usefully emblematic since it exposed the tone-deafness of the Morrison government. Albanese had opened up an important dialogue with women. As Georgie Dent, the executive director of The Parenthood, notes in the essay: “That childcare commitment was the first step towards winning office.”

For all his smart political and policy choices, for all the times he has been the author of his own success, I still look upon Albanese as an extraordinarily lucky politician, a happy habit which does not lend itself to intellectualisation and which maybe receives short shrift in the essay. Albanese was elected, on the back of Labor’s lowest primary since the 1930s, primarily because he was not Scott Morrison. One of the reasons he has enjoyed such a long political honeymoon is because Morrison continues to experience such a disastrous post-prime ministership. During the federal election, the teals prosecuted the case against the Morrison government often more effectively than he did. Even Albanese’s brush with Covid, which forced him to spend a week in isolation, ended up being a boon. It allowed him to regroup when all those tedious gotcha questions were taking a toll, and brought his front-bench team of talents to the fore. His good fortune extends to the ALP having digested the lessons of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years, which has made it less cannibalistic (the caucus room, as well as its leader, has altered its dietary habits). And felicitous is the politician who faces across the dispatch box an Opposition leader with the negatives of a Peter Dutton.

Like all successful politicians, Albanese has made his own luck, and what he has achieved is in many ways exceptional. This veteran of Canberra politics has undertaken an extreme political and physical makeover, shedding policies as well as pounds, while at the same time safeguarding two of his prime assets: his honesty and authenticity. That is no mean feat.

In this new era, in this new politics, Albanese’s skill as an intra-party peacemaker makes him ideally placed to serve as an inter-party coalition builder. So, too, as Katharine points out, does his experience of Julia Gillard’s minority government, in which he served as Leader of the House. Needless to say, he wants Labor to become the natural party of government. But maybe he should set his sights instead on making the Liberals the natural party of Opposition. Certainly that possibility now presents itself, and he could achieve in Australia what has eluded progressive leaders in America or Britain, where there has long been a centre-left majority but also long stretches of conservative rule.

In the United States, the structural flaws of its democracy, which include the unrepresentativeness of the electoral college, the malapportionment of the Senate and gerrymandering of the House of Representatives, have prevented the Democrats from turning their numerical advantage among voters into an iron grip on presidential and congressional power. In Britain, the splintering of the progressive vote between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Scottish Nationalists has helped the Conservative Party dominate Westminster. But the appearance of the teal independents and the rise of the Australian Greens give Labor the chance to block the Liberals from returning to government for years to come. In this sense, Albanese does not need to personify the new politics. He just needs to make sure they continue to work in Labor’s favour.

My take when I profiled Albanese for The Monthly, six months out from the federal election, pretty much mirrored the conventional wisdom of the time. I found him to be an adroit tactician with a compelling backstory; a likeable sort of bloke, if not a magnetic personality; a details man rather than a visionary; a mechanic rather than a Messiah. After the regicide of the coup years, and the regressive politics of Scott Morrison, he seemed well on his way to delivering on his promise of “renewal not revolution.”

Back then, I dubbed him a repairman, but perhaps we should have looked upon Anthony Albanese as more of a restorer. As Katharine Murphy suggests in the superlative line of her essay, the new politics for him is the “[s]ame as the old politics, before the old politics lost its way.”

Nick Bryant



Michael Cooney

Politics is both funnier and more serious than people expect, and so is Lone Wolf. Maybe no one in 2022 quite “campaigned in poetry,” but Katharine Murphy saw the election in haiku. Think of her rendering of the unsettling prospect for any Labor handler of an unscripted lakeside conversation between the leader and a self-funded retiree.

No hecklers have been ejected from the scene. Reality is coming in hot. The country needs a change. Get this done, the bloke says to the Labor leader.

Or her anxious interior dialogue later that day, moments before a photo shoot at Anthony Albanese’s home.

He’s tired and I don’t want to intrude. Where’s the dog? Do we need the dog? Should we go back to the city?

Albanese watches me … He points at the lounge. Grateful, I sit.

Twenty pages in, I texted a friend to say this was the most unexpectedly funny thing I’d found since reading Growing Up African in Australia in lockdown two years ago.

And it’s also the most serious. Here, unlike in a lot of journalism – even journalism containing revelatory reporting – there are precise and subtle details to savour. When we read of election night, “As the night wore on, it was clear … ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’ was past tense,” we have to think, yes, nicely done. He really didn’t, did he. Later, “Albanese adores the dog … like a child” carries a lovely ambiguity which can’t be an accident. And as for, “I say belief, not faith, because Albanese believes in what he can see,” I don’t think St Paul could have put it better.

The prime minister is also a funny man, as well as a serious one. I like that this comes through in Murphy’s consideration of his character and the politics he is leading us through.

Albanese’s good humour is something all his friends of forty years’ standing reflect on when they speak about him. I’ve certainly seen it in the twenty years (goodness me) that I’ve worked with and – briefly – for him. People ask you what are they like, these Labor leaders. It is sometimes interesting which people ask about which leaders. The first thing I have always said about Albanese is that of all the Labor leaders I’ve worked for or with, and that’s all of them since 1996, he’s the one I’d be happiest to find sitting next to me on a flight to Perth.

I said that once, when giving the vote of thanks after he gave the Harvester Oration in late 2020, and one person laughed: the leader of the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese. I really hope that doesn’t change.

But some things definitely changed about Anthony Albanese while he was Opposition leader. “The old dog for the hard road had to learn some new tricks,” we read. A hundred per cent. Murphy points out that the Opposition leader had never run for national office or in a national campaign before 2022 and hadn’t had the benefit of two years on the road due to lockdowns and border closures; what’s more, he seemingly didn’t see that he might not be match-fit when the time came. Until he did.

Murphy recalls a certain Albanese “ebullience” after the Eden-Monaro by-election in July 2020, and reports this brought a “constant assessment,” or an “intervention,” or something – whatever it was, it apparently took a conversation with the colleagues to bring things back to earth. That’s changing; if there was any ebullience around in the second half of 2022, then it didn’t take the colleagues to rein it in. Events kept this PM’s feet pretty firmly on the ground.

I reckon Albo’s “art of indeterminate age” – on the balcony at the Enmore Theatre and all that – might be another change coming. They all turn silver. When he runs for re-election, the PM will look at least sixty-two.

What else might change in coming years? He doesn’t hate talking about himself, Anthony Albanese. The contrast between his happy warrior self-talk on his weight loss and Michelle Rowland’s horror at the thought someone had been talking about her advice to him is very cute. The PM says “I” a fair bit when he’s quoted in this essay. To be fair, he’s being asked about himself. And Albanese’s life circumstances – political, as much as personal – do mean he hasn’t often been one to rely on a surrogate. Someone else to tell that funny story about his fridge never being empty of staples, or his credit card balance always being zero, or to introduce him by saying at least he never changed his footy team, rather than it being left to him to make the humblebrag himself. I wonder if that will change, whether the surrogates will find their voice, and how he’ll help them find the space. I think it will, not least because we can already see the voices found and the spaces created by his colleagues in the governing project, and Murphy rightly zeroes in on this.

What we have in Canberra right now is a prime minister who is leading a real government-by-portfolio, as much as any in modern times. I think that tells us a lot about what comes next. If you’re trying to answer the question, “How will this PM approach the big stuff: the Voice referendum, decision-making on the real economy, China?” then it seems to me the first thing you’ve got to do is rethink the question. You can’t answer that question without also thinking about Linda Burney, about Jim Chalmers, about Penny Wong. That’s a good thing.

Colleagues quoted on two key decisions of the Albanese Opposition – childcare and climate – rightly emphasise the big interventions the leader made, but it’s equally clear these interventions weren’t fundamentally about design. They were about purpose, political purpose as well as policy purpose. And they worked.

One other change. I watched at home with my eighteen-year-old son the first 7.30 interview Albanese gave after the 2019 election. The caucus had met that day and in the room Albo’s candidacy had been unopposed. So there he is on television, saying, “Well, as the leader of the Labor Party” as his intro to every second answer, and junior turns to me and says, “Your man certainly does like being the ‘leader of the Labor Party’, doesn’t he?” Penny Wong noticed this too, unsurprisingly. Her summary of the most important decision Anthony Albanese made between 2019 and 2022? “He decided to win, and he wanted to win the prime ministership, not the leadership of the Labor Party.”

I just think that is so true.

The PM is not a new Albo; he’s a bloke growing into a new job. But yes, in Katharine Murphy’s essay we see an experienced politician changing – even more remarkable, we see a man aged over fifty growing – and the change that comes through most clearly is collegiality. The wolf runs with a pack.

What about a new politics? The Labor Party’s national secretary and campaign director, Paul Erickson (another funny and serious character, whose post-election address to the National Press Club is worth printing out and popping inside this QE for future reference), is clearly sceptical. The election was won in the regions and the suburbs; one-off factors held down Labor’s primary vote during the campaign.

Erickson also makes the very sound point that if we really must see in politics the exhausting trope that Labor infrequently wins from Opposition, the only general lesson of that is you can’t draw any general lesson from that, because those wins are wildly discrete events, literally decades apart. He might have noted two other pertinent caveats to the “Labor winning from Opposition” trope. First, that’s federal Labor. In state elections, the Labor Party has won from Opposition five times in the past nine years. Second, it really just means that “the Menzies government was long.” Even in federal politics, Labor’s last three governments went two terms, five terms and two terms. The federal Coalition’s last three governments went three terms, four terms and three terms. Come on, guys.

Nevertheless, a big change did happen in 2022, when a key group of geographically concentrated Liberal voters switched, taking a heap of seats off the Coalition, making the path to majority for the LNP very hard, and hugely disrupting some entrenched habits and institutions in politics and the parliament.

To the extent that this emerges as sustained change, it may just be change back to a very old politics; when Murphy refers to “centre-right progressives,” doesn’t she just mean “liberals”? Hello, 1909. And hell yes, if liberalism and conservatism really are never, ever getting back together, that’s great and amazing. In her biography of Alfred Deakin, the last liberal prime minister outside a conservative party, the historian Judith Brett observed:

From the security of his cherished and comfortable childhood and the easy successes of his youth, Deakin never understood the grievance and injuries of working-class life, its humiliations and narcissistic wounds. The bitterness and pride which drove men like Billy Hughes or Andrew Fisher or Frank Anstey were a mystery to him …

Let’s see if that’s still a problem this time.

If it’s not, and the liberals don’t fuse into the conservative institutions again, does that mean a new politics? I dunno. What I do know is that the people who say it would mean there’s a new politics also say the new politics is about three things, and one of them is integrity.

Which is where I come back to the question behind Lone Wolf. Not “What is Albo like?” but “How will Labor govern?” How will the prime minister lead? One more Murphy haiku:

It would require the Labor Party not to devour itself and throw away government.

“There’s a plan,” Albanese says. “There’s always a plan.”

I can imagine the look of satisfaction that drifts across his face.

So can I. When the PM speaks about long-term governments, a lot of people hear lessons from 2007 to 2013, especially from 2010. Important lessons about process and progress – “big things done slowly and little things done quickly,” in Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ words. And very very obviously, yes, lessons about unity – the PM’s overflow of emotion at the Lodge after the election when thanking colleagues for their teamwork as they had rallied in the campaign; tears of relief, Murphy thinks.

But I think more should be made of the likelihood that the PM has also learnt a lesson about trust. Yes, the ghost of 2010 says to work methodically, yes dear God obviously, it says don’t eat your own, but I think the PM might hear it saying something else: you rarely build a long-term government by breaking election promises on tax.

And by the way, all that discussion of the NSW Left was really interesting. Meredith Burgmann’s insights are particularly striking and I’d forgotten Andrew Leigh wrote that amazing paper. (Of course he did.) When the prime minister addressed the NSW Labor State Conference in the Sydney Town Hall last year, the first prime minister from New South Wales to do so this century, there was a little moment in the middle where he stopped, looked up and called out, “Delegate Albanese, Admin Committee!”

Very, very Albo (he may even have said “Albuh-neez”): funny, sentimental and something we probably won’t hear at the conference this year. Things keep changing for the PM. That’s the plan.

Michael Cooney



Christopher Pyne

In a media milieu where news ages hourly, Katharine Murphy’s substantial Lone Wolf was both insightful and useful in understanding what drives Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

As a keen antagonist and friend of the new prime minister, while not wishing to correct anything in the essay, I feel I can add some texture to Murphy’s observations and analysis.

After most recent changes of government or even prime minister in Australia, pieces are written that suggest the new head of the government has ushered in a “new politics.” It didn’t feel that way in 1996, when John Howard defeated Paul Keating, largely because they were seen to be men of a similar era, having both come into politics in the late 1960s/early 1970s and become household names over the ensuing decades.

It certainly felt that way in 2007, when there was a generational change after a long period of government and the baton was passed from (or rather wrenched from the grasp of) Howard to Kevin Rudd. So too when Julia Gillard lost to Tony Abbott, mostly because they are utterly different characters.

The pattern was repeated in 2015, when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Abbott. One commentator even characterised this as ushering in a “new Camelot,” apropos the Kennedy ascension in the United States in 1961! Alas, it was not to be.

I have always been sceptical of the epithet “new politics.” To me, there’s only the ebb and flow of victory and defeat. Each practitioner of politics works out what they need to do and the mood to tap into, in order to get elected over their rivals. It’s been that way in the West since the Roman Republic. Politics is understanding human nature.

In 2022, Albanese sensed the mood better than anyone else, whether on his own side or in Scott Morrison’s government, and emerged with the trophy. There’s been no epochal shift in politics. The proof of that will be in how the Albanese government is judged over the coming few years. It won’t be re-elected on whether it delivers an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, creates a national anti-corruption commission or mitigates the harmful effects of climate change on our society and environment. While those issues are important to many Australians, as for every government before it, the yardstick of success will be how well it manages the formidable challenges to our economic and national security.

There’s something else to tease out from Murphy’s important essay: how did Albanese beat more-fancied rivals to become leader of the parliamentary Labor Party and then prime minister? I’m sure that’s a question they are all still asking themselves! Albanese was the outsider – destined for senior office, but not for the top of the greasy pole.

Outsiders often win in life – whether in business, politics, the arts, sport or other pursuits. The truth is, outsiders have to work harder to win. It makes them resilient. It makes them tenacious. Think about your school reunions as you get older. How often have you thought to yourself, “Whatever happened to such and such? He or she was the best-looking, most popular, sportiest kid when we were at school. Why didn’t things turn out the same way for them in life?”

Fact is, when it’s too easy for you in the first part of your life, it tends to inculcate a sense of entitlement that the rest of the world resents and, unless you have enough self-awareness to understand this, can often prove fatal to ultimate success.

Outsiders don’t have that problem. They have to fight for every crumb. As they win, they realise quickly that the secret of success isn’t relying on others or your looks or your connections; it’s about what you can do with hard work, tenacity, a team and a certain je ne sais quoi.

Malcolm Fraser and John Howard were both outsiders in politics. Fraser was ten years on the back bench before he was promoted to the ministry. He wasn’t part of the Menzian clique that ran the Victorian Liberal Party. He had to claw his way to the top, deposing John Gorton and then Billy Snedden in bloody coups before he had his chance to politically neck Gough Whitlam.

Howard, too, wasn’t the favoured son of the Liberal establishment. That was Andrew Peacock. Despite Peacock challenging Fraser when he was prime minister, Fraser still supported Peacock over Howard in the leadership ballot after he lost the 1983 federal election. Howard and Peacock fought a political civil war from 1983 to 1995, culminating in Peacock retiring from the House of Representatives and Howard finally winning the top prize in March 1996.

Albanese is, as Murphy writes, a “lone wolf.” He is a product of his upbringing – a single child, in a one-parent family, helping to support his chronically ill mother on not very much. He learnt to be resourceful, to fend for himself and be content with his own company.

In the Labor Party, he is an outsider. I suspect he is happy to be so. He was in a minority sub-faction of a minority faction in a political party that has spent more time in Opposition at the national level than in government. When thwarted by his rivals in the Left faction, he set about replacing them. He succeeded. He settled into his role as head of the Left and the most senior cabinet minister after the prime minister until his party ate itself and went back into Opposition after only six years in government. Then he bided his time, took no shtick from anyone and made his move when his internal opponents were bereft after the 2019 national election. He did it all on his own terms.

I first noticed him when we were both backbenchers on the outside – he in the Labor caucus and me in the Howard government. I was elected before Albanese, in 1993. He was elected in 1996. I happened to be sitting in the House of Representatives chamber when he rose to speak and delivered a blistering appraisal of the then prime minister. I was shocked but quite impressed that such a greenhorn would have the chutzpah to take on the most powerful person in the land! I immediately marked him down as a creature to watch and be wary of in the political jungle.

As it turned out, our careers were to intersect over and over again in the next two decades. For ten years we sparred in our roles as Manager of Opposition Business and Leader of the House. We even swapped offices when the change of government came in 2013. We had countless debates across the chamber and traded innumerable critiques of each other’s ability. For eight years, we appeared every Friday morning on Nine’s Today at 6 a.m. Almost always in person, which on reflection seems quite bizarre.

Over time, we came to respect and even like each other. I think I can say without conceit, there would be few on the Coalition side who know Albanese as well as I do.

I’m not surprised he won. He kept his rivals in front of him, where he could see them. In racing terms he was one back, on the outside. Others were expected to lead and did. Bill Shorten led Labor to two elections, but lost. Greg Combet and Lindsay Tanner retired. Chris Bowen wasn’t favoured after Labor’s 2019 defeat at the hands of Scott Morrison. Wayne Swan was associated with the schisms that racked the Rudd and Gillard governments. Tanya Plibersek and Tony Burke decided to fold their tents for the time being. Meanwhile, the outsider kept doing what he had always done: building his team, defeating his internal rivals – such as the Ferguson Left, led by Martin and Laurie Ferguson – honing his skills, letting others underestimate him and learning how to be a leader, not a rebel.

I also happened to be in the House of Representatives chamber when Albanese delivered his remarks adding to the motion of condolence following the death of his political hero and mentor, Tom Uren. I knew what Uren had meant to Albanese. I spoke to him briefly afterwards and offered him my sympathies.

Mentorship is an innate part of politics. It is a job undertaken by serving political figures to secure the future of their party – and ensure the continuation of their own political beliefs – by identifying and supporting like-minded, capable and smart future leaders.

Uren saw in Albanese a future leader, of his faction and his party. Sure, he was rough around the edges, quick to take offence, a brawler, a socialist and a rebel. But he was also articulate, committed, partisan, hardworking, passionate and believed in things. Uren – a former prisoner-of-war of the Japanese in World War II, a socialist and a committed Labor Left partisan – grasped immediately the potential of Albanese and, against the objections of some, brought him into the fold to give him a chance. Albanese pinned his ears back and ran.

Albanese had raw energy. Uren taught him how to channel that energy into making things happen. For himself and now ultimately, finally, for the country.

The parliament itself is a tool of Albanese’s that his rivals underestimated and probably still do. In modern politics, some of our leaders think it fashionable to denigrate the importance of the parliament – the debates, Question Time and the legislative process. Little time is devoted to learning the mores of the House of Representatives by its members. Yet it is the crucible of our democracy. Far too much attention is afforded the importance of the “news cycle” and how the parliament fits into that, rather than the other way around. Critics regard knowledge of parliamentary procedure and an ability to debate and win in the parliament as evidence of a member of parliament being elitist or out of touch. In fact, being able to master the parliament is a potent weapon.

Having the ability to knock down your opponents in the chamber and demonstrate your superiority, by tearing holes in their argument or tripping them up on procedure, is noticed by the two most important groups in the Canberra bubble: your colleagues and the press gallery. It’s how young, ambitious politicians come to the attention of their seniors, particularly among the leadership of their party.

Taking the fight up to the other side, whether in the parliament or the media, is a valued skill in politics, probably more so than in any other walk of life. Many politicians are intimidated by the House. Not Albanese. He loves it.

There is no surer way to stand out from the pack than to showcase your abilities in the one forum that every MP attends every day the House sits: Question Time. I have seen otherwise capable men and women left bewildered by what just happened to them in Question Time. They usually never recovered and were diminished in the eyes of their peers. You could almost smell their fear as the sharks of the press gallery and their rivals in the party room or caucus began to circle. Equally, a startlingly good performance in Question Time from a minister, leader or backbencher would capture the attention of the rest of the House and the press gallery and either confirm the superiority of the minister, strengthen the leader or mark a backbencher out for promotion.

Albanese, as a seasoned fighter, realised the opportunity the chamber gave him the moment he arrived as the Member for Grayndler. None of his rivals in the Labor caucus took the chamber nearly as seriously. Some were good anyway because of their strengths in debate. Others looked pedestrian.

Albanese has spent twenty of his twenty-six years in parliament in Opposition. During long years in the wilderness, the leader who can lift his or her colleagues’ spirits with a withering assessment of the other side or bring down the “weak wildebeest in the herd” of the ministry is always a candidate for the award of most valued player of the year. Albanese did that more often for his side than anyone else I witnessed.

In other words, Albanese is a battle-hardened political performer. He hasn’t presided over the arrival of “new politics” in Australia. Like all the winners before him in the past forty years (Hawke in 1983, Howard in 1996, Rudd in 2007, Abbott in 2013), he has played a straightforward, traditional hand – don’t distract from your opponent’s mistakes, present a non-threatening alternative, lead a united team, work hard and be patient.

Albanese understood the desire among Australian voters for a quiet life, rather than constant partisan political stress, and he surfed the deep unpopularity of the prime minister all the way to the Lodge. The reason this orthodoxy appears like “new politics” to some is because the fifteen years from 2007 to 2022 were so fractious and unique.

How Albanese performs as head of a government remains to be seen. The true tests start now, in 2023. Much depends on the ability of the Opposition, led by Peter Dutton, to hold him to account and apply political pressure. That’s the job in our adversarial system of democracy. Whether the Liberal and National parties can regroup and reorient to a winning formula that appeals to a majority of the people by the time of the next election remains to be seen.

Both Albanese and Dutton have got off to solid starts. Both have challenges. Fortunately for Dutton, the spotlight is always on the government, unless the Opposition brings it on itself through disunity or stupidity. He has time to work out how to win back the Liberal heartland and appeal to enough aspirational Australians to remind them why they voted for the Coalition for most of the last seventy years at the national level. But he also has to navigate two political parties that have among them many who believe the electorate needs to bend to their will rather than the other way around.

Albanese, treasurer Jim Chalmers and finance minister Katy Gallagher face serious economic headwinds – rising interest rates, rising inflation, the need to expand the workforce, a potential wages explosion, the risk of industrial unrest, slowing growth in markets such as China and the United States, the effect on Europe and elsewhere of the Russia–Ukraine War, rising energy prices and a substantial national debt and record government deficits fuelled by the necessary response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

His government also must reassure the Australian public that our national security is in safe hands. Developing the AUKUS agreement is critical and complicated. Well handled, it will strengthen the likelihood of peace in the Indo-Pacific and check the ambitions of China to expand its sometimes less than benign influence on the world. The globe is a more dangerous place today than it was five years ago. We have less time to react to changes in the military parity of the region. There is a realisation on both sides of the political divide that Australia must invest more in weaponry, platforms and people for our defence.

Seen from an economic perspective, AUKUS has the potential to continue remaking our strategic industrial base and our sophistication as an advanced manufacturing economy. Economic power is military power. They go hand in hand.

Despite his clear appeal to young people and his “log cabin” narrative, which is genuine and acknowledged by friend and foe alike, Albanese will not get re-elected on a vibe. The next election will be decided, as is every Australian election, on which party has the confidence of the Australian people to deliver a better standard of living, economic security and national security.

As a nationalist, to use his own words, I hope he has “a plan.”

Christopher Pyne



Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens

Never read the online comments. So goes the advice issued to almost every writer published on a news website. Generally speaking, it’s wise. You’ll just be infuriated by the ad hominem, the misrepresentations, the people who simply read the headline and post comments that show they never bothered to read any further. But when a portion of our Quarterly Essay was extracted on The Sydney Morning Herald’s website, one such comment, usefully – if predictably – presaged what was to come:

Seems to me, when speaking about the Australian examples, you’ve chosen your subjects of interest being Julia Gillard, refugees and “Stop Adani” in the context of climate change. Wouldn’t a more rounded argument also [have] included the constant bashing of other politicians such as John Howard, the complexities of refugees and why the “Stop Adani” might have been irritating without having to blame the Nationals.

Implicit here is an allegation that we’ve selectively highlighted examples of right-wing contempt, and that the one exception to this – that of the Stop Adani convoy – was tagged with a dig at the Nationals anyway. That whatever else we were doing, we were revealing our left-wing sympathies. That sort of response, which rummages through the essay, tallies, grades and categorises the examples, and then assigns the overall argument a political persuasion, became relatively commonplace upon its release. So, by the time the correspondence of John Quiggin and Carla Wilshire lodged with us – albeit making a countervailing charge of “right-wing advocacy,” in Quiggin’s phrase – we were on familiar ground.

And here we were thinking we’d written an essay! Turns out that instead we might have issued a Rorschach test. We’ll return to Quiggin and Wilshire, but what’s so striking about the highly varied correspondence published here is that it nonetheless falls into a few broad categories that accurately reflect the orientations of the respondents. One group, the philosophers and democratic theorists, take the essay on its terms, consider the implications of contempt for democracy, and then challenge or extend certain of the essay’s concepts. Another group, coming from those with more of a culture-war posture, conscript this essay into precisely those wars – rendering it an artefact whose primary value is in whether or not it sides with the right side of those wars. Similarly, but slightly distinctly, stands Nyadol Nyuon’s contribution: that of an activist for whom the primary meaning of the essay is what it means for the liberation of the oppressed.

Somewhat apart, though, is Brigid Delaney’s vignette, which for all its brevity makes a keen observation. She distils the civic importance of “real” communities in which people are more than their opinions, appear to us more fully in their humanity, and where interdependence demands a kind of supra-political cohesion. These are exactly the things that online conversation doesn’t habitually offer. But Delaney’s story of a shunned Arkansas pastor offers a prescient warning. It might be that the habits of online engagement have now poisoned our real-world communities, too. Delaney describes this beautifully as a sign of a society “rife with inflammation and division.”

That describes a society with a certain condition. And that is fundamentally what our essay is about. A condition. A widely present state of being, an atmosphere – or, in the metaphor the essay adopts, the air. That air, we argue, is thick with a contempt that suffocates democratic culture. And most of our interlocutors – especially those interested in democratic theory – agree. Where they take issue is in how we might best respond, or precisely what the limits might be.

These aren’t easy questions. Karen Jones says something uncontroversial by our reckoning when she says white supremacy is “asked and answered.” But we can’t follow her to her conclusion that we can use “asked and answered” as a test to determine when contempt can safely follow, for precisely the reasons she ends up indicating: the matter of what is “asked and answered” is becoming increasingly the site of politics itself. She gives the conflicts over transgender politics as an example – and it is a good one – but we can observe that political contests are increasingly being framed in that way: contentious issues are presented as resolved, such that all that remains is for others to “educate themselves” or “take the red pill.” “Asked and answered” is not a sober description of something, but a move made to foreclose often fledgling debates.

Bo Seo offers us a sharp, quietly thrilling response, suggesting that perhaps we have the problem backwards, and that maybe democratic debate would improve if we gave people the skills to argue better. We’re certainly all for imparting those skills, but we have our doubts precisely because of the conditions in which that would be taking place. If we’re right that contempt increasingly characterises our common life, then we are dealing with more than a problem of the mind. We’re dealing with a problem of the heart. We’re up against the fact that our modes of communication incite us to contempt, and that we enjoy hedonic sensations when we indulge in it. Can you get a similar dopamine rush from learning to argue well? Seo might be the expert there, and we’d love to hear from him that you can. But if not, we suspect the starting point would be appreciating that we have a contempt problem in the first place, and considering whether we might actually want to argue better.

Or, as Robert Talisse reminds us, we might want to find places where we do things other than argue. Talisse surgically identifies certain conundrums of democracy – among them that it encourages us to build coalitions with other true believers, whose fidelity is best proven by not being fair to their political opponents. On this basis he suggests that our call for attentiveness might commit the mistake of the Addams–Dewey principle: that the solution to any democratic dysfunction is more democracy. But if more democracy means more political engagement and therefore more coalition-building, more democratic activity might in fact increase our mutual contempt, making democratic life worse. And we’re inclined to agree. We’d only clarify that ours is not an Addams–Dewey argument. It is one that says democracy is predicated on a kind of civic bond, a mutual recognition of each other as democratic equals and as partners in a shared project with a common future. But we do not say those means are best achieved by making everything at all times a matter of democratic deliberation and contestation. Talisse is right to identify a gap in our essay: there could be a whole other section on the importance of apolitical space as a precondition for healthy political life. There is certainly an argument worth exploring that it is in apolitical life that we become sufficiently real to one another such that we may then be attentive. Delaney, too, gestures in that direction. And if that’s correct, it follows that where everything becomes politics, politics must fail.

But the fact that we are discussing a condition means that our essay is not about – and cannot be about – a rogues’ gallery of bad actors, because to focus simply on a group of malefactors would be to describe something less than a condition. Clearly this irritates Quiggin, Wilshire, and to a certain extent Nyuon, who want the focus to be very much on certain bad agents – especially the Republican Party in the United States. Hereabouts, the 6 January insurrection is frequently raised, and we stand criticised for not mentioning it in our essay.

We do, actually, on page 55, albeit in passing. True, it doesn’t play a major role in our analysis, but that’s because ours is not an essay about the specific and particular problems of American politics. It draws heavily on American examples for reasons explained at the outset, but only to the extent that we suspect Australians will see analogues in their own experience. Australia simply has no analogue of 6 January. But we do have analogues of a high-stakes discourse on Roe v Wade or any number of culture wars about “bigotry” and “wokery” that we have imported from American social media feeds. Some lengthy consideration of 6 January would have been a mighty digression in a way these other examples are not.

This family of responses therefore put us in something of a bind. Taken together, they charge that the essay’s main thrust is to urge the reader that both sides of politics are as bad as each other, and that cancel culture – as the major example of contempt – is a chief threat to democracy, as bad or worse than the 6 January insurrection. Put simply, our bind is this: how far do we go in responding to these charges when they simply don’t engage with our essay on its own terms? They are either misrepresentations, misunderstandings or principled refusals to take our argument on face value, preferring instead to uncover its “real” meaning or agenda.

It is true that we draw on examples across the political spectrum. How could it be otherwise in describing a condition? But the question of which side is worse is an irrelevant and uninteresting one when you’re diagnosing an emerging, corrosive, increasingly standard mode of discourse. To demand that an essay like this one make such a declaration – and to accuse it of smuggling in right-wing apologia under the cover of faux centrism if it doesn’t – is to force it into a pre-existing political disposition in which the apportionment of blame along some political axis must always be the ultimate destination.

Quiggin, Wilshire and Nyuon provide more to engage us when they seem to deny that contempt is a problem tout court. For Wilshire, contempt is simply an “individual emotion”; what we should be focusing on is polarisation, and polarisation is the result of inequality. That last point requires further demonstration at a time when Sweden, one of the most equal and high-taxing societies in the world, has a far-right government in its governing coalition, as Denmark previously did for a decade. But the point for our purposes is that this line of argument reflects both a misunderstanding of contempt and of the way the weakening of the bonds of mutuality in the decades following World War II created the political conditions in which many people in the United States, Britain and Australia could fail to be affected by immiseration of their fellow citizens. As Rousseau anticipated, and political philosophers such as John Rawls and Pierre Rosanvallon have argued at great length, contempt precipitates and enables pervasive inequality. (To read the full argument, see Scott Stephens, “Two Towers: How We Learned to Live with Inequality,” Meanjin, Spring 2017.)

Hereabouts, Nyuon’s extraordinary intervention deserves its own, separate and sustained consideration. It is hard not to be impressed by its force and seriousness, and at critical points it can only command our assent. But it is also hard to know how to respond to the imputation of views we do not hold and arguments we did not make. Much like Wilshire, Nyuon says that our essay leaves the impression “that cancel culture and political correctness pose a symmetrical threat, or an even greater threat, to American democracy than Republican attacks on voting rights.” Nowhere do we suggest or imply any such thing. To deny a group of people a vote, and therefore a voice, in the constitution of the life of a nation is an egregious act which both humiliates that group by denying them equal status as citizens and undermines any claim to democratic legitimacy. And given the importance we assign throughout the essay to voice and consent, to mutual recognition and the transformative power of civic associations, it is incredible to hold that we would be unconcerned with partisan redistricting, racial disenfranchisement and the ongoing legal assaults on sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act (1965), not to mention the return of voter intimidation and outright political violence. These are vitally important issues, and we are heartened that so many American lawyers and activists, philosophers and politicians are waging a valiant struggle against such blatantly anti-democratic tactics.

But were we to devote significant space in the essay to “Republican attacks on voting rights,” Australian readers would have good reason to wonder about its relevance to them. These are the peculiar afflictions of a nation teetering on the brink of becoming a post-democracy, and the product of its particular history of racism and injustice, to say nothing of its fraught relationship to the very idea of political equality and its distinctive (and debased) conception of individual freedom. While Australia certainly has its own share of electoral problems, voter suppression, gerrymandering and an overblown sense of states’ rights are not among them. Moreover, we assiduously avoided the attribution of blame to one side of the political divide or the other – Republican or Democrat – not because we hold them equally culpable, nor because we wish to draw some moral equivalence between their conduct, much less take part in a nauseating game of “whataboutism.” Politicians and political parties are, at best, a sideshow in our essay; they are epiphenomenal, not really causal. Instead, from the very first sentence we sought to address our fellow citizens, participants all in a shared political project – each one entrusted with the care and cultivation of our common life – and invite them to reflect on the degree to which we have contributed to a prevailing condition of mutual distrust and disdain (“above our wills,” as Emerson once put it). Nyuon no doubt would prefer that we focused more of our attention on voter disenfranchisement or white backlash. Fine, but that’s a different essay. And, in fairness, we didn’t devote much space to “cancel culture” either, and none at all to “political correctness.” “Cancel culture” in the essay functions as little more than a ready-to-hand, well-known illustration of the logic of one of the more conspicuous forms of contempt that we adduce – moral contempt – and it would have been strange indeed if we failed to mention it in an essay that sets out to examine the fraying of public deliberation and debate. But we did not linger with it for long. Not for nothing, the instance of “cancel culture” to which we devote the closest attention is the right-wing media’s censure of Yassmin Abdel-Magied. That seems to have gone unremarked.

More troubling, by far, is Nyuon’s claim that the form of moral reasoning we employ in the essay against the prevalence of contempt “echoes the historical justifications used to restrain and even reverse progress, especially as demanded by the historically marginalised (the contemned).” In effect, she charges us with peddling what Martin Luther King Jr called “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” – his way of characterising the pseudo-prudential efforts on the part of effete northern moderates in the 1960s to impede the progress of voting rights legislation for fear that such legislation would prove too disruptive to an untenable status quo. But King insisted that this kind of political stability is unjust, because its cost was too high and had to be borne by too few: it entailed nothing less than consigning black women and men to a state of moral suffocation, condemning them to inexpressiveness by denying them access to the democratic medium in which their voices could be heard and their consent given.

But for King, there were two insidious threats to the cause of racial equality. One was the bromide of “gradualism,” which promised that the desired change would come, eventually, and even then only at a rate white Americans could stand. The other was what King called a “new militancy,” which viewed white Americans as “the enemy,” as an existential threat to their wellbeing, and therefore portrayed their struggle for justice as a zero-sum contest. King believed that both temptations had to be avoided at every turn if the nation was to be made whole – if American democracy was to become a moral reality. And so, from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 until his assassination in 1968, King would condemn with commensurate urgency the reversion to violence and contempt on the part of black militants as the self-defeating pursuit of purportedly just ends through patently unjust means, and the self-serving callousness of the “great majority of Americans” who are “uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” Both, he urged, must be renounced in order to cultivate the proper moral emotions between citizens such that they could come to see themselves as constituting one people who share one another’s future and bear one another’s fate – a “beloved community.” As Tommie Shelby puts it, King insisted that we “should not be content with interracial detente; we should strive for interracial civic friendship.”

However much Martin Luther King is revered now, his message of “interracial civic friendship” and his call for the renunciation of racial contempt proved to be fabulously unpopular, as Nyuon observes. In a 1968 Gallup poll, King ranked fifth on the list of “least trusted” public figures; he was “disapproved of” by more than 75 per cent of white Americans, and more than 60 per cent of black Americans. By contrast, according to the same poll, the brazenly segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who was running for president as a third-party candidate, came in eighth on the list of the “most trusted” Americans. Contempt, clearly, can be popular. But the point isn’t popularity. There are doubtless many effective means of achieving restitution for the crimes of the past, ways of seizing power and forcing the hand of “History.” What King insisted is that democracy imposes certain inherent constraints on what means might be employed if the goal truly is justice as equality and mutual recognition – because (as we cite in the essay) “the end is pre-existent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”

You can argue for a different politics if you like, in which just ends license unrestricted means. But at that point, you are not arguing for a democratic politics. And you immediately raise questions that never really receive an answer. For instance: precisely which means of activism are you prepared to endorse? At what point would you deem certain means illegitimate even in the face of injustice, and on what basis would you proscribe them, especially if “what is being protested” is “the problem” rather than “the manner of protest”? And precisely what conditions describe the end point at which we can say means matter as much as ends? Our democracy is a long way from a world of legalised slavery, segregation and the denial of the vote. Can a politics of means resume then? Or must some absolute equality exist first?

We may not have written the essay that Nyuon wanted, but does that really warrant lumping us in with the opponents of racial justice? Is there really any suggestion in our essay that we are trying to pump the brakes of progress lest “the contemned” demand too much too quickly and hurt too many feelings along the way? Is it really our position that those who are demanding radical change need to “play nice” so as to ensure they can be safely ignored? Or is it simply that fidelity to a democratic vision of the preciousness of persons and the demands of justice places certain moral requirements on speech and conduct to which citizens must aspire if they want to sustain a life in common? By characterising our position as she did, Nyuon unfortunately engages in precisely the form of argument about which we warn throughout the essay, whereby those with whom one disagrees are caricatured, tossed into the same basket as some truly bad actors, pronounced guilty by association, and dismissed altogether.

This applies equally to her crass dismissal of Immanuel Kant, reducing the contribution of his moral philosophy to some notorious remarks in the notes to his 1781–82 lectures on anthropology in which he proposed a kind of hierarchy of races and offered a principled defence of colonialism. While these views were omitted from the subsequent publication of his lectures, they were reiterated, to varying degrees, in lectures and papers and in a number of letters written during the 1780s and early 1790s. There is no defending or excusing them. But what Nyuon fails to mention is that Kant would himself go on to repudiate these very views in the late 1790s: he condemned the colonial seizure of lands and labour, upheld the importance of contracts and informed consent with the indigenous occupants of non-European territories, argued that the interests and wellbeing of indigenous populations imposed a normative constraint on the designs and conduct of Europeans, and denounced the utter inhumanity of chattel slavery in Toward Perpetual Peace (1795) and in The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) – which, incidentally, also contains his most fully developed reflections on the non-reduction of human beings to means to another’s end, and on the vice of holding other human beings in contempt. And it is precisely this refusal of contempt that, in a very real way, made his repudiation of colonialism possible.

We did not use Kant in the essay as a source of authority, much less a trump card, but as someone who bears persuasive witness to a vision of human community founded on the preciousness and equality of persons, in which each is called to consider the interests of others and to adopt the kind of dispositions and quotidian habits that would permit their life together to grow in depth and mutual understanding. It is a vision that can lay claim to no authority apart from the terms of its own appeal – which is to say, the invitation it holds out to see the world, and those within it, in a different, more gracious light. Like philosophy, democracy has no claim to authority apart of the consent of citizens and is assured by nothing other than their daily willingness to go on together. This is, of course, an invitation that may be rejected: there are those who will refuse the moral constraints inherent to a democratic vision of life, and eschew the very notion of pursuing a future in which their enemies have a place. No wonder, as Stanley Cavell puts it, philosophy and democracy seem both to vacillate perpetually between hope and despair.

Is there any better way of characterising the moral vision of James Baldwin than as one which occupies the space between hope and despair? Nyuon rightly observes the importance of Baldwin’s witness in our essay, but her contention seems to be that we illegitimately appropriate him, turning him into a shill for our own purposes – our very own Booker T. Washington (or Herschel Walker) in the service of a kind of counter-revolution to the cause of racial justice. There’s no point engaging in a contest of duelling Baldwin quotes, for his writing, like his life, “refuses summation,” as Toni Morrison put it in her eulogy at his funeral. Even in his own time, Baldwin was a highly controversial figure, more even than King, because he fit neatly nowhere. He could be claimed by no one, and easily enlisted in no cause. He was black and bisexual, but refused the mythologies of black nationalism and the cultural reification of what he termed “queer identity”; a Baptist preacher’s son, and a child evangelist himself, who abandoned Christianity; a son of Harlem who lived much of his life in France and Istanbul; a close friend and ally of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and yet a loving critic of both; neither a secular saint nor an activist, but a writer who made his name with an incendiary critique of the most revered black novelist of the first half of the twentieth century; a public intellectual whose public standing collapsed in 1968, in part because of Eldridge Cleaver’s mercilessly homophobic attacks. Cleaver charged Baldwin, among other things, with relinquishing his black manhood on account of his sexuality, and wrote that Baldwin was trying to become “a white man in a black body.” For Cleaver, a Black Panther leader, Baldwin’s refusal of contempt was simply appeasement, an attempt to ingratiate himself with whites. And when the violence which engulfed 110 American cities after King’s assassination was taken to demand either total justification or absolute condemnation, Baldwin refused to do either. But this is precisely why Baldwin demands attention in a time like ours: the way his life and writing straddled what would seem to be incommensurable positions bears vital witness to his determination to escape America’s suffocating cycle of racial contempt and counter-contempt.

That cycle invites us to recall an aspect of Baldwin’s thought to which our interlocutors paid insufficient attention. That to succumb to contempt is to license it per se, and thereby to consent to the other’s contempt for one’s self. Nyuon asks if “the moral responsibility for resisting contempt … is only imposed on the contemned”? We’d suggest our answer was unequivocal: no, it is imposed on all. That is precisely the moral basis on which the contemned can protest their contemning. But as Baldwin understood, something fundamental changes when contempt becomes the coin of the realm. It then circulates in all directions, including – perhaps especially – among those seeking equality. So, members of the Nation of Islam ended up being the ones who assassinated Malcolm X. Baldwin’s own treatment at the hands of Cleaver is another illustration. Or, to choose a contemporary, local example, allegations of an Indigenous senator leaving an Indigenous elder traumatised by a tirade of abuse after a meeting at Parliament House. Even the dynamics of cancel culture illustrate this. Progressives can’t cancel Donald Trump or his supporters. They thrive on that. The ones who truly fear being cancelled are most often fellow travellers. Twitter pile-ons frequently take that form: feminists castigating other feminists for being the wrong kind of feminist; progressive stoushes on transgender issues; Muslim activists tearing apart senior, even revered, Muslim scholars. And of course, as we quoted Jonathan Haidt noting, Republicans attacking their colleagues as “cuckservatives.”

If our reading of Baldwin is “overstretched,” as she claims, then Nyuon’s reading is indefensibly narrow. Take the example of Baldwin’s use of the term “innocence.” Anyone who has read Baldwin knows that “white innocence” in his writing does not suggest guiltlessness, much less a kind of spurious moral purity. Rather, it denotes something closer to self-delusion, a wilful ignorance as to white Americans’ complicity in the immiseration of their fellow human beings. The moral force of Baldwin’s use of the term “innocence” is thus analogous to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of the self-satisfied lives of the inhabitants of the “civilized” northern states prior to the Civil War: they may be far removed from the barbarity of the plantation, and yet the delicacies on which they dine each evening and the comforts with which they adorn themselves each day are the products of a regime of systemic degradation. It is their “graceful distance” from that suffering which permits them to live in a kind of effete oblivion to the “dreadful debt” they owe to the slaves who picked the cotton and boiled the sugarcane. As Emerson puts it, unforgettably, “The sugar they raised was excellent: nobody tasted blood in it.” Like Emerson’s neighbours, Baldwin’s fellow citizens liked to believe themselves untouched by the taint of injustice. And yet this will-not-to-know had consigned them, Baldwin thought, to a state of perpetual adolescence; it had retarded their moral growth and bound them to an infantilising self-image from which they must be freed.

As Baldwin writes in No Name in the Street, “the fraudulent and expedient nature of the American innocence … has always been able to persuade itself that it does not know what it knows too well.” But even here, the term “innocence” is inflected with a mixture of bewilderment and pity, not condescension, certainly not contempt. The contempt with which white Americans have viewed their black brothers and sisters has so distorted their vision that they cannot even see themselves clearly. That, for Baldwin, is what contempt does: it leads to the moral deformation of the eyes. Which is why, after he writes, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself,” he explains immediately: “That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff – and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” The only thing that can free the “white man” from the self-imposed anguish of his “innocence,” the only thing that can release him “from the tyranny of his mirror,” Baldwin writes, is to “be seen as he is … by those who are not white.” He goes on:

All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

For Baldwin, love is the contrary of contempt. It creates the conditions in which the parties can realise a life, and a just future, together. Whereas the contempt he heard in the words of Elijah Muhammad – as Baldwin dined with him at the headquarters of the Nation of Islam movement on Chicago’s South Side – represented to him “the absolute death of the communication which might help to liberate both Negroes and whites.” Nyuon is right that there is nothing “romantic” or sentimental about Baldwin’s notion of love, but it is nonetheless passionate, and not simply political.

Which delivers us, finally, to Martin Krygier’s strong suggestion that we would have been better off, and our readers better served, had we simply adopted the language of civility rather than that of “love” or “attentiveness.” In a sense, he is unarguably correct. Civility is the horizontal expression of our shared commitment to political equality – it is how we show that we regard one another as equals. As such, civility is the name for the particular type of moral restraint that must be reciprocally exercised by members of a democratic community if their deliberations and disagreements over the state of their common life are to remain non-coercive. To put it bluntly: without civility, there is no consent. And so, for Stanley Cavell, civility “is not a particular moral demand, but the condition of democratic morality.” This is not to reduce civility to courtesy, much less politeness. Rather, it suggests a way of speaking which ensures that our speech is answerable to others. In his important book Sustaining Democracy, Robert Talisse puts it this way:

Civility is consistent with hostility and rancor; one need not like others in order to duly recognize their equality. Congeniality and fondness are not necessary for civility. All that civility requires is that citizens do not lose sight of the fact that their fellow citizens are their political equals, who are therefore entitled to an equal say.

Our thinking on civility and democratic equality has been richly informed by Talisse, Teresa Bejan and Danielle Allen, among others, and we’ve discussed their work (occasionally with them) on numerous episodes of The Minefield. But in the essay, we steered clear of the language of “civility” for reasons made clear by Carla Wilshire’s correspondence: because civility has already become so widely associated with politeness, and so widely – though we say wrongly – attacked as a structure of oppression in itself. We hoped that by transposing the language of our essay into a different and perhaps unexpected key – contempt, attentiveness, love, reciprocal devotion, marriage – it might give our sense of the problem and of the solution (much of which resonates with the sentiments expressed by Philip Selznick) a wider hearing.

Perhaps Krygier is right, and this will prove to have been a failed and ultimately fanciful endeavour. Maybe contempt is simply too much the air we breathe, and democracies such as the United States, Britain and Australia have already passed the point of no return. But if there remains some hope, we believe it begins with a recommitment to the task of attentiveness, which is why we are prepared to linger with the analogy between democracy and marriage. “Reciprocal devotion” perhaps misleadingly conjures the image of citizens looking lovingly in one another’s eyes, as if such strong emotions could be cultivated, much less realised, in a diverse political community “whom chance or choice have brought together” (to quote Michael Oakeshott). This is not what we argued. Rather, the devotedness is to the condition of political communality itself, as an expression of the desire that it should persist – and that it should persist with our opponents as an indispensable part. Writing in the early nineteenth century, the philosopher Georg Hegel was convinced that marriages pass from “contingency” (two random people bound together by nothing more than a kind of contract) to “necessity” (an enduring ethical bond) only when each person comes to see themselves through the other’s eyes as a person worthy of love. Is it really too much to suggest that the commitment to see one another as equals, and therefore as equal participants in a shared political project which depends on cooperation, compromise, frankness, remorse, forgiveness, reciprocity and mutual education, requires a devotion for which the only word is love?

Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens



Bo Seo

Aly and Stephens pitch their essay on the ethereal ground of sentiment. “Something’s amiss,” they write, “isn’t it?” The spidey senses are tingling and they intuit a malady in our body politic. Everything – from opinion polls to stray tweets – confirms that initial feeling. Theirs is a sentiment in search of analysis and not an analysis in search of sentiment. And who can blame them? I sense it too. Don’t you?

I come to any discussion of polarisation with unclean hands. As a reporter at the Australian Financial Review, I wrote many articles on the divisions in our country – including the growth in people’s self-reported “dislike” of their political opponents. I authored a book, Good Arguments, that trades off a premise shared by Aly and Stephens: our public conversation is in disrepair and we are losing the ability to disagree well.

However, the experience of touring my book around the world and observing Australia from an expatriate’s distance has changed my view of polarisation in our country. Based on these reflections, I pose two questions to Aly and Stephens.

First, what are the distinctive features of contemptuous politics in Australia? Aly and Stephens import many examples for their argument from the United States. In so doing, they “do not wish to conflate Australia and the US, but to prevent them becoming more alike.” This is a plausible but misleading move. It results in analysis that elides each country’s particularities to insinuate proximity – an insinuation which, if anything, may be self-fulfilling.

Living in the United States, I often pause over the particular vulnerabilities of its political system to hyper-partisanship – among them, the contested access to the franchise, the outsized role of campaign finance, and a legal culture fashioned around individual rights and entitlements. I miss, too, the sources of Australia’s resistance to such pressures – among them a robust social welfare system and a natural (if begrudging) cosmopolitanism.

What obscures these distinctions in Aly and Stephens’ essay is sentiment – the sense that things are amiss and that they are amiss in the same way. The authors may be right that the pathologies of social media are universally pervasive. But their unwillingness to explore how these norms interact with particular conditions on the ground results in both a missed opportunity and a fresh danger.

The missed opportunity is the failure to ask what may be distinctive about an Australian expression of contempt. How, for example, might a cultural preference for social equality and distaste for “tall poppies” reinforce or undercut the propensity to dismiss other citizens? The danger is that, in taking our cues from the country “furthest down the road of contempt,” we will argue as though we were there rather than here, and thus enact the resemblance. Building Australia’s resistance to contempt requires paying greater attention to the distinctiveness of our political culture – strengths and weaknesses, both.

Second, what is to be done about the problem of contempt? The part of this essay that I wish were longer is Aly and Stephens’ prescription of “attentiveness.” Instinct in this beautiful instruction are at least three sources of obligation. Sure, we should attend to the “moral reality of other people” for their benefit. But we also owe it to ourselves to avoid becoming monstrous in our disregard, and to the “we” that emerges from our relations – whether family, community or nation.

Harder than perceiving the obligation is enacting its demands. In Good Arguments, I argue that the art of debating can teach us to disagree better in our everyday lives. Its prescriptions for a more deliberate approach to disputes – naming the disagreement, constructing robust arguments, choosing one’s battles – can help us raise our voice and be heard. They evince an attentiveness that stems from the recognition of disagreement as a craft.

Aly and Stephens write that such practices are “inseparable from the democratic aspiration.” But it is helpful to separate them to make this point: though we often think aspiration must precede action, the reverse can hold, too. Mutual respect may be less a precondition for a good argument than its outcome – one achieved through noble practice. This inversion puts a finer point on Aly and Stephens’ diagnosis: we are not unpractised in the art of disagreeing because we are contemptuous; we are contemptuous because we are so unpractised.

The actions required to counteract contempt need not be solemn. While writing this response, I stumbled on YouTube onto an episode of the joke quiz show Have You Been Paying Attention? In the clip, a twenty-something, mullet-haired comedian named Aaron Chen, dressed in a powder-blue tuxedo, was quizzing the prime minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese. “You defeated Scott Morrison. Congratulations. He used to like to be called ‘ScoMo,’” Chen drawled. “Will you be called AnAl?”

The line, profane and visceral, was no deep dismissal. It was an invitation from a jester to a ruler to set aside the trappings of high office and engage him as an equal. In my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I felt as though the summer heat had yielded to a breeze from some distant place. For the moment, the joke cleared the air.

Bo Seo



Karen Jones

Emotions infuse our interactions with one another and shape our social and political worlds. The affective climate we inhabit changes our perception of the practical options that we face and of the people with whom we communicate. Many commentators claim that there has been a change in this climate and not for the better: fear, distrust, disdain and anger are on the rise, and they are driving out cooperation, trust, respect and civility. We inhabit an increasingly polarised and toxic social and political landscape. By bringing contempt into focus, Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens have taken us a step further towards understanding this present climate and, with that, a step further towards remedying it. Whereas many place current problems at anger’s doorstep, Aly and Stephens diagnose contempt as the chief culprit. I will argue that, though they are not wrong to lay blame on a rush to hold those we disagree with in contempt, the philosophers they draw on misunderstand the nature of contempt. This misunderstanding leads us to find symmetry between the contempt which we might appropriately feel towards views that are beyond the pale, such as white supremacy, and the “reverse” contempt that those charged with being contemptable might direct back at us. Contempt is dangerous – even, I will argue, more dangerous than Aly and Stephens claim – but it is seldom best understood as a symmetrical problem.

Contempt has few supporters, but two philosophers, Michelle Mason and Macalester Bell, have recently taken up the job of defending it. Their analyses are similar. Both point to the totalising nature of contempt: it ascribes “badbeing” to the one held in contempt. It is not simply that the contemptible have done bad things or displayed morally problematic character traits – traits they should be ashamed of but which they might yet work to remedy. Contempt is a move to global shaming: the person’s whole character, their very identity, is found wanting. The contemptible are beyond redemption. Contempt, on this analysis, passes a form of harsh moral judgment on the one held in contempt and in so doing positions the contemptuous as morally superior to their target. Contempt seeks expression in words or deeds and so is communicative. Aly and Stephens accept this analysis but reject Mason’s and Bell’s limited defence of the emotion, on the grounds that the evidential requirements they place on justified contempt are simply not able to be met in the public domain, given the commodification of outrage in our current environment.

I don’t think this is the right analysis of contempt. This becomes clear when we consider contempt towards institutions. When Scott Morrison secretly assumed several ministerial portfolios, he demonstrated contempt towards the Westminster parliamentary system, towards his cabinet colleagues, and towards the Australian public. Yet he did not pass harsh moral judgment on the institution of Westminster parliament, his colleagues or the public. He did not ascribe “badbeing” to anyone. (It barely makes sense to say we can ascribe badbeing to institutions, though we can find them corrupt.) Morison demonstrated an unwillingness to be held answerable to that system, his colleagues or the public. This suggests that the core of contempt lies in the thought, “I am not answerable to you.” One reason we might take this position is if we hold others to be so morally bankrupt that they are outside our moral community and can therefore be pre-emptively dismissed, ignored or shunned. But it is not the only reason. We can also consider ourselves not to be answerable because of our own superiority (patronising contempt, as defined by Aly and Stephens). Neither seems easy to justify, raising the question of whether it is ever reasonable to take ourselves not to be answerable to an institution, a view, a person or a group of people. Isn’t the practice of giving reasons for what we do and being responsive to the demands of others to justify our actions both at the heart of moral life and central to any well-functioning democracy? If contempt is a refusal of answerability, how could it ever be justified?

I think it can be. I think white supremacy and white supremacists are contemptible. In response to the violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017, Trump was just wrong to say, “you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.” In our public discourse we do not have to give space to, engage with or debate white supremacy; we are done with answerability towards such views and towards such people, because they’ve “asked” and been “answered.” Asked and answered again and again over at least the last 200 years. Answerability has been discharged.

There’s dangerous territory here. What happens when one group thinks “asked and answered” and places a position and its advocates outside the sphere of answerability and open to dismissal, while another group thinks “not answered, still trying to ask, and being unfairly and contemptuously closed down”? Perhaps this characterises where the Australian community is currently at with the issue of trans inclusion. Trans activists have taken on the burden of sharing their lived experience, and of myth-busting “mad or bad” stereotypes and so might justly feel “asked and answered,” yet they continue to be met with “not answered.” How do we decide when the burden of answerability has been discharged and contempt becomes warranted?

There’s further reason to be cautious in our contempt. Emotions have their own kind of logic. It’s not the logic of argument, but a narrative logic in which some feelings invite or repel others, which in turn invite or repel yet others, which in turn … and so on through feedback loops that can quickly turn toxic. Aly and Stephens criticise online shaming, in which someone is called out for their bad behaviour and faces the threat of being “cancelled.” It is a practice of contempt, they claim. Because I have a different analysis of contempt, I don’t take these practices to be expressive of contempt – yet. But there is an affective alchemy whereby they fast turn into not just contempt, but runaway contempt. If I try to shame you, I am presupposing that we share some moral standard to which we are both accountable. I charge you with failing to meet that moral standard and so showing some deficiency in your character. It is time you pulled your socks up and tried to become a better person. Sometimes this works. But more often it doesn’t. Shame is a strongly negatively valenced emotion and we are strongly motivated to avoid it. Shaming is more likely to attract anger than reform. However, anger only partly meets the sting of would-be shaming. Contempt does a much better job, because it dismisses the charge at its root: I am not answerable to you, and so I am not answerable to your shaming move. I dismiss it and you, so there! You dismiss me? Well, then, I dismiss you! (Developmentally, one of the places we learn what to feel, when to feel it and towards whom is the playground, so it should come as no surprise that even as adults emotions can be vulnerable to the logic of this space. It takes maturity and some measure of practical wisdom to regulate them not to be so.) We start with an attempt to shame that presupposes shared values, or at the least the possibility of shared values; a few moves later we have pushed one another outside the realm of answerability and descended into mutual contempt.

The narrative logic of emotions is not doomed to be toxic. We can start with a different response and set in train a positive feedback loop. Aly and Stephens point to the example of James Baldwin, whom they believe has been erroneously cited on the side of contempt, but whose work is better read as a refusal of contempt, even towards those who hold you in contempt. On whom falls the burden of breaking cycles of contempt? It is easy to place that burden on those in socially subordinated positions, asking of them a near super-human moral forbearance of not returning contempt with contempt. Alternatively, we might say the burden falls on us all, as the problem comes from all sides. Or we could instead decide that the burden falls asymmetrically – this is not to say that “upward” contempt is better or more readily justified than “downward” contempt, but that it is time for the burden of forbearance to change hands.

Karen Jones



Robert B. Talisse

There is much to admire in Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens’ essay. Its strength lies in the care with which Aly and Stephens analyse their central diagnostic concept, contempt. Their claim is that although current democratic politics admits of many forms of dysfunction, the root problem is neither disunity nor animosity, nor polarisation, but rather the fact that these forces are driven by the disposition of contempt. On their view, contempt is the tendency to treat all political disagreement as an existential conflict between democracy and tyranny, and the corresponding disposition to write off anyone with whom one disagrees as wholly beyond the pale and thus undeserving of engagement.

As Aly and Stephens observe, when contempt takes hold of our civic life, our political divides grow to be at once both deep and shallow. We’re convinced that fundamental democratic norms are at stake in every dispute. Yet those disputes are increasingly grounded in self-serving caricatures of the opposing side. Politics becomes intensely disagreeable, but increasingly detached from any actual disagreement.

I find Aly and Stephens’ essay largely correct. However, I also think their account is incomplete. In this brief response, I will introduce an additional element into their diagnostic story. In turn, this addition will complicate Aly and Stephens’ analysis of what we must do to restore democracy.

Something’s amiss, isn’t it? Definitely. It is common among democratic theorists and practitioners to begin from the assumption that democratic dysfunctions emerge always from the ways in which citizens, officials and institutions fall short of democracy’s demands. We can call this assumption the Addams–Dewey Principle, as it is captured in the slogan that Jane Addams and John Dewey popularised: “the cure for democracy’s ills is more democracy.” Here “more democracy” means “better democracy”; hence the idea is that all democratic dysfunctions are at root democratic failings. In this way, the Addams–Dewey Principle forms the basis for another fundamental commitment of Dewey’s conception of democracy: democratic ends can be achieved only through democratic means.

The Addams–Dewey Principle is undeniably attractive. Indeed, a broad range of political dysfunctions can be traced to our institutions, practices and habits being insufficiently democratic. Yet the principle is too often read as universal in scope, as saying that whatever the dysfunction may be, the solution is more democracy. The Addams–Dewey Principle thus denies that there could be a form of democratic dysfunction that arises precisely because citizens are earnestly attempting to satisfy their civic duties.

The Addams–Dewey Principle is false. As I argued in my 2019 book, Overdoing Democracy, certain civic virtues can be cultivated only under conditions where citizens occasionally engage in cooperative social activities in which politics has no place. One upshot of this argument is that the tendency to see in every activity a potential site of democratic participation is actually counter-productive. In overdoing democracy in this way, we undermine it – we erode the civic virtues we need to perform well as citizens. Overdone democracy is itself a kind of democratic dysfunction. More democracy thus can lead to worse democracy. It seems to me that Aly and Stephens have tacitly embraced the Addams–Dewey Principle, or at least not attended to the ways in which political contempt may itself be a predictable product of authentic democratic engagement.

In my 2021 book, Sustaining Democracy, I argued that democratic citizenship is intrinsically morally conflicted. On the one hand, citizens are obligated to deploy their share of political power to advance justice as they can best discern it. That is, democratic citizens must take responsibility for their politics by participating, individually and collectively, in the project of making a more just political order. On the other hand, citizens are also required to recognise the political equality of their fellow citizens. They are responsible to others, including those among the citizenry with whom they disagree over justice. They must regard their fellow citizens as people who not only get an equal political say, but are entitled to one. On many accounts of democracy, citizens are additionally required to consider and perhaps consult their fellow citizens when deciding how to best pursue justice.

The conflict between these two modes of democratic responsibility is manifest. Especially when political issues are urgent, the obligation to pursue justice can run counter to the obligation to recognise our fellow citizens as our equals. After all, to adopt a position about what justice requires is to see opposing positions as not merely mistaken, but in the wrong. We hence are bound to see our political opponents as not merely on the wrong side of the issues, but on the unjust side. The requirement to be responsible to our foes thus seems to encumber our effort to pursue justice. A democratic citizen might well wonder why she should extend to her opponents any consideration whatsoever, given that they are on the side of injustice. In Sustaining Democracy, I call this conflict the “democrat’s dilemma.” It’s important to observe that it arises out of a sincere commitment to the ethics of democratic citizenship rather than to some dereliction.

Consider a further upshot of the dilemma. In order to have an effective voice in a democracy, one needs to join a chorus. Accordingly, the project of taking responsibility for our politics necessarily involves building coalitions of like-minded others. As members of coalitions, we must plan and coordinate joint endeavours, and we thus grow to rely on other members to support and advocate for the collective. In any modern democracy, the dynamics of democratic social activism are shaky. To succeed, the movement must be sustained, and this calls for high levels of sustained commitment and effort among large numbers of individuals. Solidarity, integrity, cooperation and persistence are crucial; correspondingly, it is important for coalitions to weed out any poseurs or pretenders in their ranks. This means that activist coalitions tend to establish, formally or informally, litmus tests for authenticity among the members, ways of assuring the other members that one is “all in” with the group’s cause and agenda.

Here the democrat’s dilemma intensifies. Showing political opponents due regard, “attending” to them in the ways that Aly and Stephens recommend, typically appears to one’s allies as a signal of inauthenticity or half-heartedness. Why seek to give the other side a hearing, unless one thinks they may have something of value to say? To see the opposition as anything other than an obstacle to justice, to see them as deserving of “attention,” is to concede something to injustice. Thus, in charged contexts of political engagement, the attempt to make good on the responsibility to our fellow citizens can jeopardise our political coalitions, thereby undermining our efforts to promote justice.

This point about the need for in-group solidarity is important because, in line with the Addams–Dewey Principle, Aly and Stephens seem to place the cause of contempt entirely within the commodified and commercial informational environments that democratic citizens now inhabit. Their diagnosis here is correct as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. My suggestion is that escalating partisan contempt and the corresponding tendency to write off anyone who’s not an overt political ally is incentivised by the very nature of democratic social action. Citizens cultivate and express contempt as a way of signalling authenticity to their political allies, and in doing this they assure them of their allyship. Although such measures are democratically dysfunctional, they are nonetheless necessary for building and sustaining viable political coalitions. Once again, the dysfunction is partly due to a non-negotiable element of democracy rather than to a deviation from it.

What can be done? Aly and Stephens propose a compelling vision of healthy democracy where citizens learn to attend to one another and care for the common atmosphere of democratic “air.” I embrace this view of what a healthy democracy would look like. However, in shifting from diagnostic to prescriptive analysis, it is imperative not to conflate two distinct questions: (1) how would things look were present dysfunctions mitigated? and (2) what can be done to mitigate present dysfunctions? Too often, theorists answer the second question strictly by way of the first. That is, they propose to mitigate democratic dysfunctions by asking people to act as if the dysfunctions never took hold in the first place. This is to conflate prevention and remedy.

Properly formulated, the prescriptive question is what we can do given that contempt is already at the core of our democracy. It seems to me that Aly and Stephens’ prescription is doomed. Given that we are already in the grip of a politics rooted in partisan contempt, taking up their call for attending to our opponents is bound to dissolve our political alliances, thereby turning our political friends into additional enemies. Though I cannot here provide my alternative prescription, I believe the way forward lies not with endeavours to repair toxic relations among political foes, but rather with the attempt to expand our sense of permissible disagreement among our friends, to see authentic allyship as possible despite ongoing political disagreement. Again, given existing levels of contempt and corresponding degrees of in-group conformity, it is not clear how this can be achieved. My hunch, which is currently being worked out in a forthcoming book, is that we can begin to mitigate present dysfunctions only by reclaiming detached and solitary reflection as an essential activity of the democratic citizen.

Robert B. Talisse



Martin Krygier

I welcome and applaud Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens’ trenchant critique of the growth of contempt as a standard accompaniment (and source) of hostilities among citizens “in public settings.” They argue elegantly and rightly that, as a reflex response to those with whom we differ, contempt pollutes “the quality of the air we breathe together,” and corrodes democracy, civil society and indeed most other conditions that might sustain successful and flourishing lives in common.

Of course, as so many contemnors happily learn, a posture of reflexive contempt for those with whom one disagrees has its charms. It allows the alluring pleasures of self-righteous and censorious judgment, demands neither excuse nor apology, does wonders for one’s confidence, and allows one to avoid the difficult business of mounting or coping with evidence and argument. But these are shabby delights, typically unearned by those who enjoy them and undeserved by those who suffer from them.

But what’s the alternative? The essay’s title is “uncivil wars,” but clearly Aly and Stephens are not after civil wars, a phrase in which the adjective has another “other.” A civil war is, of course, not a war that is civil, but a war among citizens. The opposite of uncivil wars is civil peace, not a common phrase but an attractive condition for which we have a more familiar term: civil society.

Often, when civil society is spoken of today, the adjective has little work to do. The noun carries the whole load. It’s a way of turning attention to society rather than, say, the state or government or even the economy. Alternatively, and today typically, civil society is degraded simply to identify a particular sub-category of organisations within society at large: NGOs, or “not-for-profits.” This might be what led to the lament by the Hungarian former anti-communist dissident Ferenc Miszlivetz that “what we dreamed of was civil society. What we got were NGOs.” One senses he hoped for more.

What did they dream of? Perhaps a society in which routine relations among citizens are not dominated by the state and are actually, and typically, expected to be routinely civil, rather than hostile, warlike, full of mutual contempt and/or worse. For a special charm of societies in which civility is widespread, as I argued in my essay “The Quality of Civility,” is that:

routine non-predatory social relations can occur among non-intimates that neither depend upon love or deep connection nor – as is common in uncivil conditions – are fractured by their absence and replaced by suspicion, hostility, hatred, or simple fear. Cool, civil connections are not the only ones that occur nor should they be, but in the public realm the possibility of such connections is key. People have familial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic attachments that often matter to them greatly and that differ; but they do not kill for them. Nor is it a realistic expectation that they might.

Civility in this sense is cooler than love – if all you can say of lovers is that they behave civilly to each other, you know the relationship is on the rocks. In its place, however, civility is precious, for it is cooler and calmer than hatred as well. It doesn’t just happen though, but is a true and relatively rare achievement. As we know from many parts of the world, it doesn’t have to be like that. In so many places, today and always, society is not composed of routinely civil exchanges and interchanges among citizens but of wary and hostile manoeuvres, full of tension, fear, hatred and, often, contempt.

Many of the societies with which Aly and Stephens are concerned, with all their myriad faults, blemishes and real sins – including our own – have attained a high level of civility (at least among large numbers of their citizens) for considerable periods of time. That depended on a host of enabling conditions, which are often in short supply and, as we are seeing in the United States and many countries, can dry up or be deliberately destroyed. Manufacture and distribution of wholesale contempt, as Aly and Stephens show, threaten this precious condition and achievement.

I doubt that they would disagree with any of this. However, they never mention civil society, and they seem to have something altogether different and more demanding in mind as the ideal antidote to contempt, which we should strive to emulate, if not completely realise. The model is marriage. Thus their first example of contempt arises in the context of a marriage gone wrong. There, a wife who believes her husband is prepared to use her as sexual traffic for a job (for that is what it amounts to) finds him contemptible (as, were the charge justified, would I). And their last chapter, entitled “Democracy as Marriage,” makes clear that the ideal to emulate as a counter to contempt is a marriage gone right: “a particular type of relationship in which two persons, who are bound together by nothing more substantial than a reciprocal devotion, discover through their life together the ‘ethical conditions’ that allow their union to persist.”

I’m fond of democracy, I like many of my neighbours, some of them are friends and some of them I love. I’m also fond of marriage. But to hope for much like “a reciprocal devotion” among citizens of vast, multitudinous, various, differentiated society – who, unlike many spouses, have no opportunity to choose (or to leave) their associates – seems to aim a little high. It is what philosophers used to call a category mistake.

Just as modernity was taking shape, Adam Smith wonderfully characterised the predicament of the citizen of modern, large, populous, complex, differentiated societies: “In civilised societies, he [sic] stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.” If he or she is lucky, one of those persons might be a spouse and their relationship “nothing more substantial than a reciprocal devotion.” But that’s a rather fragile foundation on which to build a society among multitudes, the bulk of whose social relationships must necessarily be unchosen and thin, unlike those of spouses, whose connections, for better or worse, richer or poorer, are thick.

To be helpful, an ideal for social interaction must take seriously the circumstances of politics and society, as they are and as they are likely to be. Sustaining conditions of civility does that; seeking society-wide simulations of reciprocal devotion does not. There are two routes to this conclusion, one born of relative but realistic optimism, the other of bleak pessimism, about the human condition. Both need to be taken seriously.

On the one hand, whereas civility is often regarded as a cold and pallid virtue, the optimistic civilian stresses how much it can offer to social interaction that is rich and positive. This view is nowhere expressed with more insight and nuance than in a chapter (on civility and piety) of The Moral Commonwealth, the magnum opus of the great American sociologist Philip Selznick.

Selznick was that very rare type of thinker, a Hobbesian idealist. Unlike most people, who tend to emphasise either conditions of survival (Hobbes) or hopes for flourishing (ideals), he insisted that we should strive to realise both: recognise real constraints, but refuse to ignore ideal potential, which he tried very hard to find. But conditions precede possibilities: without survival, flourishing is not an option. On the one hand, he writes, civility is “not a morality of engagement … It is cool, not hot, detached, not involved” and it is a necessary condition for secure interactions among those who will never love each other. It is true, as Selznick was at pains to stress, that more might be possible. Indeed, where circumstances are favourable, the qualities of civility might be enriched, for:

Respect is not love, but it strains toward love as it gains substance and subtlety. Rudimentary respect is formal, external, and rule-centered – founded in fear of disruption and lack of cooperation. The corresponding civility can be chilly indeed, as some connotations of “being civil” suggest. An important change occurs when respect is informed by genuine appreciation for the values at stake in communication and good order …

In truly civil communication, for example, something more is required than self-restraint and taking turns. An effort must be made really to listen, that is, to understand and appreciate what someone else is saying. As we do so we move from arm’s-length “inter-action” to more engaged “interaction.” We discover and create shared meanings; the content or substance of the discussion becomes more important than the form. The outcome is often a particular community of discourse and a unique social bond. A foundation is laid for affection and commitment …

Furthermore, civil speech takes into account human frailties and sensibilities. Contempt is the enemy of communication; patience and empathy are its allies. Hence we reject as uncivil personal abuse, intellectual intimidation, and indifference to offense. On especially sensitive issues – religion, nationality, race, for example – civil communication treads lightly, with special regard for the sources of personal identity.

In these passages, Selznick comes closer than elsewhere to countenancing the ideals that Aly and Stephens espouse, though they are ideals for enriched public, not intimate, engagement. And that is never where he starts. For while he always hoped for more, he realised that often circumstances don’t give you much choice. You might aim for high ceilings, but you must start with solid foundations. It is harder the other way round.

Our world is full of dark possibilities, repeatedly realised. Even then, indeed especially then, where love is nowhere to be found and we confront just how perilous the circumstances of society and politics can be, norms and practices of cool civility among associates and strangers are precious.

This darker, more uniformly Hobbesian theme has recently been taken up by the Oxford political theorist Teresa Bejan in her book Mere Civility. Writing of the seventeenth-century debates over the novel idea of toleration, she introduces us – well, she introduced me – to one Roger Williams, a now somewhat obscure but then significant English Puritan evangelist and religious fanatic, who founded and became governor of the colony of Rhode Island in America. He advocated the practice of “meer [sic] civility” as the “vinculum societatis” (social bond) that, as Bejan puts it, “might hold in the face of protracted fundamental disagreement and discord” that followed the Protestant Reformation. On this view, “the virtue of civility in a tolerant society rested on the way in which the rules of respectful behaviour could be maintained no matter what one thought about others, their culture or their fundamental and sacred beliefs.” The blunt message was, “[w]hile we are stuck in the same boat with people we hate, we better make the most of it.”

Williams has been taken up recently by those few political theorists who have heard of him, prominent among them Martha Nussbaum, as an inspiring prophet of civility as a product and source of mutual respect, if not love. However, on Bejan’s persuasive reinterpretation he was nothing of the kind. It was lack of respect for beliefs other than his own that drove him and that he sought to deal with. This Puritan zealot appeared to dislike, to the point of disgust, the views of anyone who did not share his beliefs, and in Rhode Island, as well as in England, there were a lot of them. He expected he would not be alone in that sentiment. So rather than decree the impossible, that we should respect the views of those with whom we disagreed over the most fundamental things, he made available in Rhode Island, and enforced, an extraordinary and unprecedented freedom of religious belief, speech and observance.

Bejan argues that Williams had recognised a truth for which there is more than enough evidence and good reason to believe: that many of the harshest problems of social life, perhaps inexorable problems, come simply from the difficulties people have in living peacefully with others whose views, or whose religion, or whose nationality, or whose ethnicity, colour, gender … they do not share. Of course, we can be directed to like and respect them, but often that doesn’t work. What to do? Williams’ answer was not to try to wish fundamental disagreements away, but to acknowledge they were here to stay and we had to have ways of dealing peaceably with them. His answer, translated by Bejan to the modern world, might seem dispiriting from a marriage guidance counsellor, yet apt for a social analyst. He faced then, and we face now, the problem that very often:

[in] trying to make sense of others’ different opinions, human beings conclude not that these differences are reasonable by-products of the burdens of judgment but that their opponents are bigoted, ignorant, malicious, even insane. We might hope – and strive – to do otherwise. But rather than conflating this aspiration with civility, political theorists [and the rest of us] must recognize the latter as the virtue called upon to fill the breach when reality fails to meet our expectations.

In such circumstances, exhortations to treat others as we should a loved partner, instead,

necessarily move the discussion to an aspirational realm of ideal theory in which the kinds of problems civility is needed to address do not even arise. The result is an impoverishment of our ethical vocabulary, which, in turn, exacerbates the vacuity of our moral and political discourse in confronting the very problems to which we appeal to civility and toleration as solutions.

Bejan is here talking us down from expectations that “mutual respect,” still less John Locke’s “love and charity in the diversity of contrary opinions,” can be relied on to serve as lubricants for harmonious and civil social relations. Doubtless, they are good things to have, but one wouldn’t bet on them. One might nevertheless hope that Selznick’s realistic optimism will be vindicated in some societies at some times, but we know that bleaker options are more likely in much of the world. One wonders, in either circumstance, what the odds are for sustaining modern societies on “nothing more substantial than a reciprocal devotion.”

Martin Krygier



Brigid Delaney

Recently, the New York Times podcast The Daily reported on the story of a pastor in Arkansas. Kevin Thompson, forty-four, was solidly Republican, a small “c” conservative who had happily and without much complaint led his congregation in his hometown of Fort Smith for nineteen years. As he tended to the community, his flock grew and things were going well. Thompson thought he’d be there for life. Until 2016. Trump was running for president – and some aspects of his character did not jibe with Thompson’s moral code.

Thompson wrote a blog post that said that for the first time in his life, he would not be voting Republican that election. Instead, he would seek out an independent candidate.

All hell broke loose inside the parish. The upshot was that the parishioners did not want to be challenged on their political beliefs. They did not want to hear another side or another point of view. After a couple of other clashes around political and cultural issues, it became apparent that Thompson had lost the authority to preach. He and his family left Arkansas and moved to California.

“The moment you lose the concept of truth you’ve lost everything,” he told The Daily. And he might have also said, “The moment we lose the ability to disagree, we’ve lost everything.” As the great Roman Stoic Seneca wrote almost two thousand years ago: “We are bad men living among bad men; and only one thing can calm us – we must agree to go easy on one another.”

What happened to the Arkansas pastor was a failure on one side to agree to disagree. As a consequence, he was cancelled for the crime of misspeaking.

We often think cancellation is a bloodless attack that occurs online and then people move onto a new victim (or main character, as it’s known in Twitter parlance) the next day. But people are being cancelled in real life all the time – not just for expressing views that are offensive or defamatory, but also for ideas that differ from the orthodoxy of the community hearing them.

Thompson’s views were pretty benign. He wrote that he intended to vote independent. But in a society that is rife with inflammation and division (caused in part by misinformation and fake news), even a mild divergence from the norm is enough to find one cast off into the outer darkness.

It used to be that living harmoniously in a community or small town meant living with a variety of views and positions, some that may be different from your own. The old taboo on talking about religion, politics or money, once seen as outdated and quaint, now appears to have played an important social role. It kept us all from tearing each other apart.

Communities are more cohesive and less fractured – and also more diverse – when there are fewer arguments about religious, cultural and political positions.

But living in smaller communities, made up of a range of people with differing beliefs, also acts to stretch our limits of tolerance. And this can only be a good thing. If your neighbour votes differently from you, but you rely on your neighbour to help you in the garden or lend you tools or drop your kids at school, you are less likely to cut him off for his political beliefs. Now, with social media, the internet allows you to form your own communities around beliefs, political positions, sexual and cultural identities and religion. In many ways it is the opposite of lived communities, where you have to take what you get in terms of neighbours and other community members. Internet communities strengthen and reinforce bonds by virtue of their common beliefs. With this strengthened group identity, we go out into the world and – as Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens explore in their essay – we feel more empowered not only to assert our own beliefs but also to reject the beliefs of those who may disagree or have other opinions.

So, what to do about this? We can’t rewind the internet, but we can balance it – and our online communities – with engagement in the real world. It’s harder to condemn and castigate someone to their face (although, in the case of Pastor Thompson, it’s getting easier in lived communities as well).

And remember this: “Only one thing can calm us – we must agree to go easy on one another.”

Brigid Delaney



John Quiggin

Uncivil Wars arrived in my email at the same time as two other pieces of news. The first related to the removal of a mural painted by a Melbourne artist, showing a Russian and a Ukrainian soldier embracing. It was not well received by Ukrainians, who have suffered months of murder, rape and other crimes at the hands of Russian soldiers, and would have suffered more, were it not for the fierce resistance put up by Ukraine’s own forces. While this particular mural was (let us hope) an expression of a sincere wish for peace, it echoed the message of Russian propagandists (notably including Fox News contributors such as Tucker Carlson) seeking to portray the two sides as morally equivalent.

Contempt for Putin and his murderous supporters is entirely justified. But a natural reading of the Stephens and Aly discussion of US politics is that such contempt should stop at the water’s edge, exempting people like Carlson because of “the bond that must exist between democratic citizens.” Certainly, that’s the implication of their view that Hillary Clinton’s description of millions of Trump supporters as racists was outrageous contempt, even though there is ample evidence that it was accurate.

More directly relevant to the essay was President Biden’s speech on 1 September warning that US democracy was under threat from MAGA extremists. Republicans responded to the speech with attack lines that might have been drawn directly from the Stephens and Aly essay. Biden, Republicans said, was slandering tens of millions of Americans as “fascists.” In Australia, a string of pieces in the Murdoch press echoed this view.

But what led Biden to make such statements? It is hard to think of an American politician more steeped in the old-fashioned ways of consensus, learned from decades in the Senate. His election campaign was premised, in large measure, on his ability to work “across the aisle” with Republicans. And even in his doom-laden speech, Biden was careful to claim that such Republicans still exist.

Has Biden suddenly fallen, as the analysis of Stephens and Aly would seem to imply, into a politics of grievance and contempt? Or was he, perhaps, responding to a series of events they don’t even mention (with the exception of a passing reference to the quite literal call to “hang Mike Pence”)? Somehow, the repeated attempts by Republicans to overthrow US democracy, of which the most dramatic was the 6 January insurrection, seem to have escaped their notice.

The desperate attempts at moral equivalence in this essay can be seen not only on big points like this, but also in more trivial pieces of bias. Stephens and Aly quote, with approval, a report in Vox on the social psychology of threats. This reflects the fact that Vox is a serious publication, offering careful analysis from a broadly progressive, but not propagandistic, perspective. Yet when they want to denounce “tabloid” partisan media, Stephens and Aly list “Fox, Vox, Sky, Vice, BuzzFeed and the Daily Mail,” carefully balancing right-wing propaganda outlets with titles that might be seen as leftish.

At a time when democracy is under threat around the world, the last thing we need is right-wing advocacy packaged as “both sides do it” centrism. But that is precisely what Stephens and Aly have offered us.

John Quiggin



Carla Wilshire

What is most exceptional about Uncivil Wars is not what it covers, but what it leaves out. In a treatise on the fragility and risks of American democracy, it is telling that the 6 January riots are not mentioned. Neither are declining institutional trust, voter suppression, gerrymandering, Russian interference or disinformation. A definition essay by design, it industriously explores the topology and nuance of a singular impassioned hypothesis – contempt. This fervent state, we are told, has metastasised in the milieu of algorithmic social media and is now eating away our political institutions from within, consuming the very skeleton of our democracy. The proposed remedy is less “cancel culture” and more courtesy, lest we engender civil war.

The essay presents a three-tiered model of contempt, defined by an escalating moral dimension. The third form of contempt, implicitly the most malicious, is moral censure, where an individual or group is judged by their behaviour to have an irredeemable failing of character. The example given is online “cancel culture,” where subjects are targeted and judged for transgressing a moral standard held by a contemptuous group. This third form of contempt, described as a deliberate and considered act of moral appraisal culminating in a “totalising” and unrecoverable verdict of inferior human worth, is characterised as bidirectional, but in practice no examples of upward contempt are given (women morally censuring men, black people censuring white).

I take issue with their deeply flawed construction on three grounds. Firstly, it ignores the contested (and sometimes violent) history of social progress in favour of a nostalgic view of democracy as a polite “to-and-fro” of ideas. Secondly, while American democracy is at a critical juncture, increased contempt is a symptom and not a cause. Contempt is an emotive state born of a process – in this case polarisation – rather than a causal factor. Contributing factors include increasing economic inequality, disinformation and the rise of the authoritarian right. Finally, the role of social media needs to be considered more fully. In an unregulated public square, many of the examples of online contempt should be examined through the lens not of individual human emotion, but of group dynamics. There is an issue with the categorisation of cancel culture as contempt; it is instead a sometimes brutal, sometimes justified form of group social regulation.

Gloria Steinem once said that, “Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.” Cultural and political change is rarely won quietly or politely and never without contest. American democracy is an act of creation that spans centuries, its ledger defined by more periods of division than unity and more accounts of contest than accord. At its inception, the constitution did not deliver for most Americans. The frontiers of American democracy, its basic structures of government, voter rights and the role of courts have always been fiercely debated, but the system has enjoyed a level of institutional continuity through world wars, terrorist attacks, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the Vietnam War. It is striking that in an essay portraying democracy as a casualty of the uncivil disobedience of online cancel culture, there is a conspicuous omission of the essential threads of contestation that weave strength into the fabric of America’s democracy.

The ultimate endgame of mutual contempt, Aly and Stephens argue, is the inability to engage in civil debate and the hardening of ideological positions. This presumably undermines the building blocks of democracy for two reasons; firstly, democracy requires an exchange of ideas that contempt does not allow for; and secondly, contempt undermines the collective narrative that is necessary for the functioning of a democratic state. I do not disagree with these general claims. We are in a period of heightened polarisation, and one of the indications of this is indeed contempt. However, contempt itself is not what is causing American democracy to falter. Contempt is a limited individual human emotion, while polarisation is a complex multifaceted process that can be created by myriad factors.

Firstly, polarisation is a manifestation of economic inequality. To put this in more concrete terms, the richest 10 per cent of US households own 70 per cent of total wealth (with half held by the top 1 per cent), and the bottom 50 per cent hold only 5 per cent of total wealth. Furthermore, Thomas Piketty finds that while in the 1970s the cumulative value of inherited wealth constituted only around half of total wealth, by 2030 this figure will be between 80 and 90 per cent.

This point is central. A polity that does not enable upward economic mobility and does not reward merit will create an increasingly disenfranchised and angry citizenry. The patterns of history show that although democracies can survive internal conflict, they tend to fare poorly in the absence of economic mobility. We need to believe we can succeed.

Secondly, while Aly and Stephens accurately identify both sensational tabloids and social media as a risk to modern democracy through the distribution of disinformation and “fake news,” their exploration is limited to the role each medium plays in creating a more contemptuous polity.

Disinformation is a strategy employed by a growing number of state and non-state actors, including those on the far right. It is a low-cost, high-yield means to spread narratives, distort opinion and undermine trust in public institutions. As Christina Nemr and William Gangware write in their report “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” disinformation campaigns often work to simplify complex problems and can be framed to provide consumers of content with a belief that they are exposing hidden truths. An example of a disinformation campaign in this vein is QAnon. In The Wall Street Journal, Brett Forrest explains how QAnon offers a definitive explanation to combat uncertainty and to explain complex global outcomes. It has also undermined trust in American democracy and the institutions of government.

Social media can be utilised to destabilise, erode trust, confuse messaging or flood public opinion. This does make people more angry and thus more contemptuous, but more importantly it erodes their belief in democracy. Some 80 per cent of Republicans consider the 2020 election to have been stolen, and this belief was sown by an organised campaign of disinformation led by Donald Trump. The 6 January riot was the single most fractious day in American democracy during our lifetimes. It is a testament to the leaning of Aly and Stephens’ essay that it is not mentioned once. A result of social media disinformation might be contempt, but the cause is deliberate and orchestrated campaigns to sow the seeds of mistruth and mistrust.

It was Trump’s contempt for democratic institutions and the operating rules of elections that fuelled the 6 January protesters. The MAGA right – Trump’s Republican apparatus – won the 2016 election by appealing to the section of America who had the least experience in American democratic traditions, and so the least attachment to democracy. As Yoni Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic: “In 2016, a presidential candidate who scorned established norms rode that contempt to the Republican nomination, drawing his core support from Americans who seldom participate in the rituals of democracy.”

It is this “fourth” form of contempt – not towards people, but towards the very values that underpin their own political system – that represents the biggest threat to American democracy in 2024.

Finally, the authors misunderstand that group censure is part of social regulation. Democracies enshrine collective values in the law and enforce them in the courts. Social media is our new public square and, as a privately regulated sphere, it relies on group moderation, which can be swift and sharp, and on reporting to the platform when agreed values are contravened. At the extremes, internet censure involves de-platforming, a kind of internet prison if you will. How and when this should be used is worthy of debate. But is this contempt? Contempt is an individual emotion. “Cancel culture” as defined by the authors is not; it is a form of social regulation, perhaps sometimes unwarranted or even toxic, perhaps sometimes necessary. It is worth noting that there is no collectively agreed definition of cancel culture. The term itself was popularised by the American right and cyber-libertarians. That said, survey data collected by the Pew Research Center shows that the most accepted definition across both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats is “actions people take to hold others accountable.” The same research indicates that the majority of Americans support the calling out of others on social media for potentially offensive content. “Cancel culture” is not necessarily “trolling” or a “pile-on”; sometimes it is simply the act of drawing moral boundaries and pushing back on the contempt of others, and sometimes it is just evidence of shifting cultural norms.

I arrived at the end of the essay unnerved that it makes only a passing mention of poverty, fake news and echo chambers, and then only as examples of contempt and not as drivers of polarisation. The true risks to democracy – the rise of the far right and the seeping of authoritarian doctrine into Republican ideology and practice – are conveniently ignored. The writers attempt to shoehorn the reader into a view that democracy is at risk, not from authoritarianism, but from cancel culture and the growth of an uncivil polity. Perhaps the most damning irony is that Aly and Stephens themselves censure those who, after years in sufferance of “downward contempt” from those who stand above them in the established social order, are now exercising power “upward.”

When they reach their conclusion, Aly and Stephens offer no remedies beyond polite conversation. But there are many. The solutions lie in a progressive government that embraces taxation on wealth, equitable education, universal healthcare and welfare as countervailing measures to the tendencies of unfettered markets, and in the regulation of social media and a broad-based investment in critical media skills. They are found in projects that rebuild trust in institutions and in narratives of collective worth. Taxation, redistribution and education are fundamental to a thriving economy, but even more fundamental to an enduring democracy.

Carla Wilshire



Nyadol Nyuon

A majority of US Republican nominees running for the House, Senate and key state offices this year are election deniers. Most are expected to win. This will place some in positions where they can refuse to enforce election results. The threat is not theoretical. This year the Democratic secretary of state for New Mexico had to get a court order to enforce the election result of a primary.

And it gets worse. Republican lawmakers are proposing and enacting laws to restrict voting. The Washington Post reports that these voter restriction laws would “strain every available method of voting for tens of millions of Americans, potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction.” And this is only what is happening on the political front.

On the cultural front, conservatives in the United States, sometimes backed by wealthy individuals and groups, are banning from schools books focused on race, LGBTQ+ issues or marginalised communities. Some of the books banned include biographies of Rosa Parks, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Ruby Bridges. Ruby Bridges was the six-year-old first grader who walked through an angry mob to desegregate a school during the civil rights movement. For her protection, she was escorted by four federal marshals. The white crowd, mostly adults, were there to protest her presence. They screamed insults and racial slurs at the six-year-old. A woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. Today, some believe teaching this history is “woke,” in the pejorative sense of the word.

Yet Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens’ essay leaves the impression that cancel culture and political correctness pose a symmetrical threat, or an even greater threat, to American democracy than Republican attacks on voting rights. Others have arrived at the same conclusion about the essay. Ryan Cropp, an historian, writes in Inside Story that although the authors have no sympathy with the right wing of American politics, they advance a narrative that suggests “the fascist inclinations and genuine illiberalism of the new American right has its mirror on the left, in the form of cancel culture and political correctness.”

That claim is obviously ridiculous to many, including Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama plainly states in his book Liberalism and Its Discontents that the “threats to liberalism are not symmetrical. The one coming from the right is more immediate and political; the one on the left is primarily cultural and therefore slower acting.”

Turning to substantive matters, I think the essay also echoes the historical justifications used to restrain and even reverse progress, especially as demanded by the historically marginalised (the contemned). This is apparent in the authors’ use of language such as the “hard labour of patient appeal” or the value of maintaining hope “in the moral possibilities of persuasion.” Importantly, this language is exclusively directed at the contemned. It defines what the authors deem to be the morally permissible response the contemned should have for their contemnor. There is no equivalent analysis of the contemnor’s moral responsibility or whether they share any moral accountability. What is clearly argued is that responding to contempt with contempt is morally wrong. By framing the issue in this manner, the authors impose an order that treats the reaction to an issue as the issue.

To set the scene, the authors indicate there is something amiss about our time. They say we may live in the first period of history where every demographic feels “existentially slighted all the time.” This has created a cycle of mutual condemnation, which leads us to treat each other with contempt. The authors argue that “democracy cannot survive contempt.” All these statements are debatable.

Arguably, democracy was “born” with contempt that was visceral and violent. Women, enslaved black people and Native Americans were not equal human beings or citizens. And these groups’ fights for equality always generated tensions as disruptive as in our time. The southern slave states felt “existentially slighted” enough to go to war over their right to own other humans. During the civil rights movement, white people felt “violated and victimised” by black people’s demands for equality. You cannot look at the photographs or footage of violent attacks on peaceful protesters – or of the group screaming at six-year-old Ruby Bridges – without sensing that these are people who felt threatened in some fundamental manner. Dr Martin Luther King Jr, concerned by the backlash, warned that America “may now be in … an era of change as far-reaching in its consequences as the American Revolution.” Conceivably then, the existence of anger, or contempt, has accompanied the democratic experiment and isn’t distinctive to our times.

An understanding that democracy was “born” with contempt shapes and redirects our attention to what should be considered a critical threat to democracy. According to Jan-Werner Müller, a political philosopher from Princeton, what really threatens democracy isn’t disagreement, since the true function of democracy is allowing for “disagreement in perpetuity.” The real threat to democracy is an attack on the means or the infrastructure established for dealing with disagreements. For Müller, Crop writes, “you cannot expel or disenfranchise citizens, or attempt to limit their participation in the political process. This is democracy’s ‘hard border’: cross it, and you pose a threat to democracy itself.” That would be what the Republicans are currently doing or attempting to do, as discussed. The authors are silent on this point.

This silence might be explained by their preference for Alexis de Tocqueville’s “soaring vision” of a thick democracy over a thin democracy. To the authors, thin democracy “connotes very little indeed: regular free and fair elections, the rule of law, tolerance of opposition political parties, and a set of rules that determine how publicly binding decisions get made.” It is difficult, however, to see how one can achieve a version of thick democracy without first protecting thin democracy. Without thin democracy, you return to a system of institutional contempt. In any case, it has never been the lack of a “soaring vision” that is the problem. After all, the “magnanimous vision” – “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – was stated by men who, in the words of David Livingstone Smith, “participated in the brutal and degrading institution of slavery.”

Nevertheless, accepting the argument that democracy cannot survive contempt, let’s examine the nature of the contempt deemed to be the problem. The authors state that “contempt has been almost universally condemned as the kind of moral emotion from which nothing good can come.” Immanuel Kant’s moral theory of contempt provides the reasons for the universal objection. According to the authors, Kant is against contempt because “humans have an inalienable dignity simply by virtue of being humans.” As such, contempt – judging “something to be worthless” – denies human beings the respect owed to them as human beings. Kant admits someone might have inward contempt, but performing that contempt outwardly is an “offence.” At this stage we get the first distinguishing characteristic of contempt: it is performative. The authors distil two more: it is judgmental and comparative. We therefore get two overall statements about contempt. It is universally condemned and, distilled, it has three characteristics. Next, Aly and Stephens present three types of contempt: patronising contempt, visceral contempt and moral contempt. The authors concede these types are “not mutually exclusive” and each can “easily bleed into and inflect the others.”

Considering the statement that contempt is universally condemned, that it has three characteristics, and that there are three types of contempt (which are not mutually exclusive) raises some absurd scenarios. Michelle Mason, who advances the view that contempt can be morally required in certain circumstances, probes these scenarios. She asks: if remorse were to be expressed by perpetrators of the Holocaust, ought the victims and survivors forgive such perpetrators? “Should they feel morally pressured to stifle their contempt?” These are, of course, difficult questions, but Uncivil Wars is meant to be addressing difficult moral issues.

Importantly, I think Mason’s questioning might expose an assumption in Kant’s moral theory of contempt. While Kant formulated these egalitarian principles, he himself endorsed racism and sexism. He considered black people to be unable to govern themselves, and thus they “serve only as slaves.” The point isn’t the racism or the sexism. It is whether Kant’s theory of contempt was “tested” against those he considered less than human – in the way Mason’s probing challenges us to do. It is likely Kant’s theory was intended to manage relations between individuals who mutually recognise each other’s humanity. This seems logical. In this situation, contempt – if allowed to fester – would threaten that mutuality and undermine the foundation of their shared life. To the contrary, where such mutual recognition doesn’t exist, it is manifestly absurd to argue that enslaved people have a moral obligation or duty not to hold their enslavers in contempt because they are human beings with inalienable dignity and shouldn’t be treated as worthless, while that is precisely how the enslaved are treated.

Whatever absurdities might arise, the authors appear to imply that upward contempt will always remain morally objectionable. To develop this argument, they supplement the Kantian view of contempt with their construction of a “Baldwinian” approach. This is meant to address two things. First, to embed their argument that responding to contempt with contempt isn’t morally justified and should be resisted. This means that even if grave injustices exist (as they did during the civil rights movement), upward contempt is still morally objectionable. Second, the Baldwinian approach is regarded as appropriate for our time. The authors posit that in our current political environment, “in which everyone claims to be victimised, ‘upwardness’ becomes far from straightforward.” To draw out this complexity, the authors provide the example of working-class white people who consider discrimination against them to be just as bad or even worse than that experienced by racial minorities (such as African Americans). The Baldwinian approach is advanced as providing the morally acceptable response to these challenges. In my view, however, the authors overstretch Baldwin’s work.

The authors cast Baldwin’s body of work as a “monument to the refusal of contempt.” In addition to extracting from Baldwin’s novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, the authors focus on the letter in his book The Fire Next Time. They draw attention to Baldwin telling his nephew that he must not only accept white people, but also accept them with love because “these innocent people” are “still trapped in a history which they do not understand.” The authors claim this language captures Baldwin’s “moral claims for racial justice” and that it is “far removed from a disposition of contempt.” The authors imply Baldwin’s understanding is shared by the “greatest advocates for racial justice.” These include W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. For emphasis, the authors contrast Baldwin’s perception of the Black Power movement. They argue that for Baldwin the problem wasn’t that “Black Power is immoral on account of its militancy.” Instead, “Baldwin regarded the Black Power movement as a kind of tragic figure.”

It is questionable whether Baldwin’s use of phrases such as “innocent people,” “accept them with love” or “war between brothers” means what the authors claim. Baldwin considered innocence, especially this particular kind of white innocence, to be a crime. Earlier in the letter quoted by the authors, Baldwin wrote: “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” He did not speak of innocence in the manner that we would look at a child’s mistake as rendering them guiltless. This kind of white innocence is complicit, through ignorance, wilful blindness or tacit justification of the destruction of black lives. Indeed, before naming that innocence a crime, Baldwin wrote in the same letter: “I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” As such, what the authors derive from this term seems to be the exact opposite of its intended meaning. In fact, it is arguable that the white working class who believe they are suffering discrimination equal to or greater than black people today, are suffering from this kind of white innocence.

Further, Baldwin’s concept of love was directly opposed to the romanticised version. In Down at the Cross, he wrote: “I use the word ‘love’ … not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” It is easy to discern how that concept of love connects with the concept of innocence: they both call for maturity. Part of that maturity is the ability to face the truth and the suffering that may bring. For Baldwin, “people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.” It is also debatable whether Baldwin’s reference to “brother” has the implied meaning advanced by the authors. This was not necessarily a spiritual or political brotherhood; it was literal. He often referred to the rape of enslaved women and how that had led to African Americans who were “visibly and legally” descendants of enslavers. To Baldwin, black and white Americans were “blood” brothers who could do nothing to change that.

Overall, it is even harder to reconcile the authors’ construction of the Baldwinian approach with the purpose of his work. Baldwin dismissed the “sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will.” He claimed it could never be relied on to deal with hard problems – only with those changes born of political necessity, and by necessity he meant “concession made in order to stay on top.” On the other hand, Baldwin saw no real improvements without “radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure.” As did King. Those who study his philosophical theory argue King’s “political hopes” were informed by the conviction that societies have to “grow and change, in radical and perhaps revolutionary ways,” to achieve justice.

This call for “radical and far-reaching changes” seems to go against much of what the essay advocates, and directly contradicts the authors’ characterisation of the Baldwinian approach as being about “steadfastness and patience.” Baldwin’s approach couldn’t be more different. In 1971, speaking of his two-year-old nephew, Baldwin said his frame of reference was that his nephew was not going to live the life he had lived even if it “demands blowing up the Empire State Building or whatever it demands.” He is known to have asked white America how much more time it needed for its progress when it had already cost his father and him time. He reproached William Faulkner for similar reasons, stating the time Faulkner asked for “does not exist.” For Baldwin there was no time in the future; the time was “always now.”

Arguably, King also rejected calls for patience. In his memoir Stride Toward Freedom, King mentions a speech in which he told the congregation that they had come “to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” Famously, King reproved the well-intentioned white moderate who was more devoted to “order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He said he had “almost reached the regrettable conclusion” that these well-intentioned moderates were a greater stumbling block to black people’s stride to freedom than the Ku Klux Klan. With these counterarguments laid out, it is difficult to reconcile the authors’ construction of Baldwin’s, and by extension King’s, position with their own.

And this is not their only error. The authors also misunderstand Baldwin’s critique of what they call the “Black Power movement.” Perhaps they meant the Black Panther movement. Black power is a concept that has militarist and non-militarist expressions. It can simply mean pride in blackness or culture. In the cultural sense, it is a way of shoring up a feeling of self-worth against the many racial stereotypes black people often confront. Black Power can, indeed, have militaristic and supremacist expressions. The Black Panther movement certainly embraced a militaristic approach, but not always a supremacist approach. It was formed originally as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. And the self-defence was meant to be against police brutality. Where Baldwin and King criticised Black Power was when it spilled over to Black Supremacy. Baldwin thought that tragic. And it is tragic. Any supremacy leads to hierarchies of dehumanisation. In any case, and possibly because of these complexities, Baldwin not only “[felt] an undeniable tenderness towards” members of the Black Power movement, as conceded by the authors – he understood them and even conceded “intellectual grounds” to them. For example, in his letter to Angela Davis (quoted in part in Uncivil Wars), he acknowledged the “enormous revolution in black consciousness” occurring in the younger generation. Baldwin even appealed to Davis not to “appear to be your father’s daughter in the same way that I am my father’s son.” Baldwin recognised that he, like his father, was constrained by what was expected of their generation and what was often sold as the model of a good black leader. He stated, with a force that is confronting, that his father “was just a n*gger – a n*gger laborer preacher, and so was I.” It is remarkable how much intellectual ground Baldwin concedes to the younger generation and to this “revolution in black consciousness.” Such intellectual humility is hard to come by in our era, where younger generations are often castigated as woke snowflakes who are unable to keep their calm or a job.

Above all, however, whatever his disagreement with the Black Power movement, Baldwin never made their reaction, contemptuous or otherwise, the cause of the American racial problem. He simply did not commit the error this Quarterly Essay makes by focusing not on the source of contempt, but on the victim’s reaction to contempt. Baldwin in fact called out the apparent hypocrisy when he noted that “violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks.” He argued the only way to deal with those who embrace militant acts, like Malcom X, isn’t to point to triumphs and progress made so far, but to concede that they are right and ask why this is so. Therefore, Baldwin had a radically different approach to the one proposed by Aly and Stephens. And he was right never to lose sight of the source of contempt. And here lies the greatest challenge to the authors’ arguments.

Of all the “greatest advocates for racial justice” that are named in the essay, none had a fate that was drastically different from the fate of the “tragic” Black Power movement. Du Bois, a civil rights pioneer and intellectual, renounced his American citizenship and died in Ghana. Baldwin was worried “nothing has changed in the depths” and that America might be in “worse trouble than before.” He spent significant time in France and died there. King was assassinated.

It is telling that King, despite a lifetime commitment to non-violence, suffered a similar fate to Black Panthers members who – as Baldwin sorrowfully lamented – were killed “like rats.” So, despite the authors implying that the Black Power movement’s failure was determined by its contemptuous approach, it can equally be explained by its members being killed, sometimes in their beds.

Of course, Aly and Stephens’ explanation remains consistent with their claim that responding to contempt with contempt is not wise because it might attract worse outcomes. This, however, creates a circular argument. Why did the people who arrested or killed members of the Black Power movement not respond with “brotherly love” or non-contempt? After all, as Baldwin pointed out, “there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than white.” Is the moral responsibility for resisting contempt one that is only imposed on the contemned? And if it is only imposed on the contemned, mainly because any other reaction might result in a worse kind of contempt for the contemned, what is the point of moralising if there is only one moral possibility? And what are the practical consequences of a moral duty upheld by a threat? Isn’t that analogous to the claim that a slave contract was legitimate because, as summarised by Fukuyama, “a weak individual faced [with] a choice between a life of slavery or death at the hands of a stronger person … could voluntarily choose to be a slave”? Whatever the response to these questions, Dr King’s violent assassination diminishes any claim that the manner of protest, and not what is being protested, is the problem.

Whatever the authors might believe to be the “record of lasting change” of non-contemptuous actions, Dr King’s own view of that record isn’t that glorious. Neither was the public’s at the time. Dr King died with a disapproval rating of nearly 75 per cent – a figure that is noted by James C. Cobb as “shocking in its own day and still striking even in today’s highly polarized political climate.” He became beloved after his death. Reading King’s own assessment of his life’s work, and what was happening to it in his lifetime, is heart-breaking. In his essay “Impasse in Race Relation,” Dr King spoke of white backlash and the undoing of civil rights progress. These were some of his last statements on racism, poverty and war before he was killed:

The depravity of the white backlash shattered the hopes that new attitudes were in the making. The reversion to barbaric white conduct marked by a succession of murders in the south, the recrudescent of white hoodlumism in northern cities and coldly systematic withdrawal of support by some erstwhile white allies constituted a grim statement to Negroes. They were told there were firm limits to their progress; that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor.

According to Lawrence Glickman, writing in The Atlantic, white backlash has been a defining pattern of American history. For Glickman, the elements of white backlash to the civil rights movement were its smouldering resentment, its belief that the movement was proceeding “too fast,” its demands for emotional and psychological sympathy, and its displacement of African Americans’ struggles with its own claims of grievance. Glickman notes this backlash often deployed “imagined coercion where it did not exist” and “embraced a lexicon and posture of victimization.” It was reported at the time, for example, that “white panic” was driven by fears of “favoritism” and “special privileges” for African Americans and fears that “the Negros want to take over the country.” It doesn’t take much to see how these fears and anxieties parallel many of the complaints of Trump supporters and the white working class that the authors write about in their essay. What is even more striking is how early in American history the charge of “favouritism” arose in response to calls for equality. Less than twenty years after the abolition of slavery, the United States Supreme Court nullified the Civil Rights Act of 1875 on the grounds that it was time for former enslaved people to cease “to be the special favorite of the laws.”

Aly and Stephens present the matter of poor and working-class whites as something that complicates the picture, yet the picture is less complicated than it is historically consistent. Besides, the argument proceeds as if there are no poor or working-class non-whites. There are. Yet these groups don’t appear to be making the same political choices or rushing into the Trump coalition. Even warning that focusing on aggregated advantages accrued by white people (like over-representation of white men in politics) should be avoided because it obscures the experiences of working-class whites, it is not long before we hit another inconsistency. It is there in the bodies that don’t seem to be registered in the warning about “body-counts.”

The authors challenge those who see a “democratic case for contempt” to show “its track record of lasting change.” They argue that the alternative, such as when contempt underwrites decisive political action, “always involves body-counts.” But there are still body-counts. The body-count has not stopped for some. Sexist contempt kills at least one Australian woman a week through domestic violence. Racist contempt killed George Floyd as he begged to breathe the air we are told is collectively ours. Placing the moral responsibility for resisting contempt on those who are contemned, on the basis that this might avoid deadly contempt against them, isn’t necessarily going to prevent their deaths. We might simply fail to notice those deaths; that is, fail to include them in body-counts because they are not the kind of death that matters, or they are the kind of death we lament but tactically accept as an unavoidable price of patiently waiting for the “moral possibilities of persuasion” to return better outcomes. But since the authors remind us we should not aggregate the advantages accrued by white people to obscure the experiences of working-class whites, perhaps then we should not aggregate the progress made so far to obscure the price that continues to be paid. This reality might be tolerable if the authors’ moral arguments improve the outcome. I do not think they do.

The real problem isn’t necessarily the nature of contemned reaction – whether contemptuous, or Baldwinian love, or King’s non-violence – it is progress itself. In short, in the case of race, white people see equality as a zero-sum game. Research confirms that “white Americans perceive increases in racial equality as threatening their dominant position in American society.” This view, as noted in the section on white backlash, isn’t new. It is a pattern. In the context of gender, a modern version of this zero-sum view is reflected in Scott Morrison’s comment that: “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.” This zero-sum frame means that what appears or feels contemptuous might be the very progress of the person – no matter how they do it. This means the contemned need not display any of the distilled characteristics of contempt for a negative reaction to occur. I do not know how we resolve that, but perhaps, like Baldwin, we can better witness to our times.

Baldwin considered himself foremost a witness. We read him today and get a clear picture of what was the sin, who were the sinners, what price was paid, and how we might possibly liberate ourselves, or indeed perish. The task of a witness is to record things as they saw them. What, then, does Uncivil Wars stand as a witness to? Is it an accurate assessment of our time? What, as a matter of style and approach, does it “insist on”? How does it focus “our attention” on some things while “narrowing our attention on others”? Could we really say that cancel culture and political correctness create as symmetrical a threat to democracy as the concerted efforts by Republicans to restrict voting rights in a way that recalls America at the time of Reconstruction?

Wherever our future lies, whether in the grace of equality or in the doom of body-counts, it is not for the contemned to be blamed. Those to be blamed are the ones who insist on that type of innocence Baldwin called criminal. They seek to hold others in perpetual contempt, and human dignity refuses to be divisible. There is little that is theoretically appealing about obtaining one dignity partially or gradually through the “hard labour of patient appeal.” That this has been practically the case is a kind of moral failure which has had deadly consequences. The chance for change lies in challenging that moral failure, not in elevating it as the appropriate form of relating to one another. Even if the contemned have to reconcile themselves with a harsh reality in order to survive, it is never morally wrong not to lose sight of the whole claim to dignity and to insist that it become reality. That it is reality unjustly withheld.

Nyadol Nyuon


Response to Correspondence

Hugh White

The first thing that strikes me about these interesting responses to Quarterly Essay 86 is that, despite wide differences of tone, most share a strong assumption that everything will work out fine. They exude confidence that China’s ambitions can be easily contained, that America will remain a major strategic power in Asia, that the risk of war is manageable and acceptable, that Australia’s current policy settings are broadly right, and that our future in Asia will therefore not be very different from what we have known.

I’m reminded of something that Keynes once wrote: “The idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.” The deepest reason that I take a more pessimistic view of these matters is that I think the future is going to be very different from the present – or rather, that the present is already very different from the past – in one absolutely fundamental way. In the past, America was by far the richest and most powerful country in the world, and China was a lot poorer and weaker. Today, China’s economy is already bigger than America’s on the most relevant measure. That changes everything. It makes it much harder for America to retain a strategic position in East Asia, and much easier for China to push it out. It makes it much harder to deter China from confronting America militarily. It makes it much less likely that we can depend on America as the foundation of our security the way we have done for so long.

It is significant that so many of these commentaries – five of them, in fact – argue that one key reason to reject my pessimistic view of our current situation is that China’s economy is likely to falter, and that China’s ambitions to take America’s place as the leading regional power will falter with it. There are three broad reasons to reject this argument. The first is a point about prudently learning from our mistakes, because we have got this wrong before. For thirty years, Western policy-makers and analysts have consistently predicted that China’s economic growth is about to stall. Of course, this time they might be right, but we should be careful of presuming that they are. It is tempting to evade hard choices and unwelcome truths by assuming that the Chinese will solve our problems for us by screwing up. But the only prudent basis for policy is to expect them to succeed.

The second, more powerful reason to reject faint hopes of future Chinese failure is that the horse has already bolted. The shift in wealth and power has already happened. China is far wealthier and stronger relative to America than the Soviet Union ever was at its peak, and it is already strong enough to raise the costs and risks to America of resisting its ambitions to the point that they exceed America’s imperatives to do so. So whether China’s economy stagnates in the years ahead doesn’t make much difference.

The third reason is that the optimists don’t have to take my word for it. The figures I quoted on the first page of the essay are not mine. They are the Australian government’s. They say that today China’s economy is 19 per cent of global GDP and America’s is 16 per cent, and that by 2035 China will be at 24 per cent and America just 14 per cent. These numbers tell us that the future will not be like the past, and the refusal of our government and so many commentators to accept that simple, essential fact explains why we are failing to address the biggest foreign policy challenge we have faced since 1788.

Part of that failure is a refusal to recognise the risks of war and how those risks should shape our policy. None of these commentaries directly engages with what is, I suppose, the starkest judgment in the essay: that Australia should declare that we will not go to war with China to defend Taiwan, and that we should urge America to do the same. This proposition is central to the essay. The question it addresses is not in any way hypothetical, because the risk that China will move against Taiwan militarily is high and fast getting higher. The clear trend of both Australian and US policy has been to affirm that we should and would go to war to defend Taiwan if China attacks. And no one here contests my argument that such a war not only could not be won, but would also probably go nuclear. The challenge for those who believe that we should maintain our current policy is to explain why we should be willing to fight such a war, and what we could hope to gain. The choice we face about this is extraordinarily difficult, of course, but I do not think we can chart our course in Asia over the years to come without confronting it and answering it.

Rory Medcalf sidesteps this challenge by arguing that war will be avoided because confrontations will be limited to the “grey zone” below the level of conventional warfare. His main reason for thinking this is that the contest has remained in the grey zone until now – for example, in the South China Sea. That is true, of course, but is it reassuring? Rory thinks it is, because he assumes that Beijing has been unwilling to escalate to military conflict. On the contrary, it has been Washington’s reluctance to risk a war with China that has kept the confrontations in the grey zone. That is why America has been unable to stop China making gains in the South China Sea. If it is to contain China’s challenge, Washington will eventually – and sooner rather than later – have to step up and meet Beijing’s grey-zone provocations by escalating to a military confrontation, whether over Taiwan or some other issue. War between the US and China is not inevitable, but with the stakes so high it will only be avoided if one side backs off. And when China’s stake is so plainly higher than America’s – because we are talking about China’s backyard – it is pure wishful thinking to assume that it will be China that backs off.

Of course, they might both back off. This is the possibility encompassed by the idea – promoted by several of these commentaries – that the future we need to prepare for is not Chinese regional hegemony but multipolarity. That is half-right. As I argue in the essay, China will not be able to establish a sphere of influence over Asia as a whole because it will not be able to dominate India. Instead, India will assert its own sphere of influence south and west of the Malacca Straits, so we will find ourselves in a bipolar Asia. But it is wishful thinking to assume that China cannot establish primacy in East Asia and the Western Pacific if it can push America out of the region. Its potential rivals in East Asia are too weak to counterbalance it. Japan by 2035, on Canberra’s own estimates, will have an economy only one-sixth the size of China’s. It will be strong enough to look after itself, but not to look after anyone else. And by 2035, Indonesia’s economy will be about the same size.

But will America be pushed out of the region? Sam Roggeveen and Peter Varghese both suggest that America will not be pushed out of Asia, but will remain a key strategic player in East Asia in some kind of multipolar regional order. There is a lot of talk about multipolarity these days, but it is more properly applied to the global, rather than the regional, order. I think a multipolar global order is emerging, in which a handful of major powers will compete and balance one another to prevent any of them dominating the world. But each of those major global powers will tend to dominate in its own region, producing a series of hegemonic orders at the regional level – including China in East Asia and the Western Pacific. There is no doubt that the rest of us would prefer a multipolar East Asian order, but that doesn’t mean it will happen, because it depends not just on what we would like but on what China wants, and how badly it wants it. Peter Varghese, in a characteristically subtle and compelling contribution, says that China might accept a continuing US role as long as it achieves what it wants: “China at the top and an expectation that all other states would pre-emptively concede the primacy of China’s core interests.” But what kind of role does that leave America? I think it is clear that China is very determined to get America out.

Sam Roggeveen has an important point to make in this connection. He has done me a favour by picking me up on my loose use of the word “domination.” He is right to argue for more precision there, and I agree that China will only be able to achieve, and will probably only aim for, the weaker “sphere of influence” version in East Asia. But even that weaker version presupposes the exclusion of any rival major powers from its sphere, which leaves no hope that China will tolerate a substantial continuing US role.

But does it matter what China wants, if America is determined not to be pushed out of East Asia? Mike Green thinks it doesn’t. He does not doubt that America has the power and resolve to contain China’s challenge and preserve US leadership in Asia. He too calls this a multipolar order, but he gives the game away when he describes its purpose as the preservation of the “existing US-led rules-based order.” To him, I think, multipolarity is just another name for US unipolarity. And can that be sustained?

I argue that it cannot because, ultimately, the costs to America of resisting China’s ambitions in East Asia exceed the imperatives to do so. That’s because, in the multipolar global order I’ve described, China will not be able to dominate Eurasia, and hence will not be able to threaten America directly. Mike simply misunderstands my argument in this point. Like him, I think (as would George Kennan) that Chinese domination of Eurasia as a whole would be unacceptable to Washington. But that does not make Chinese domination of East Asia unacceptable to Washington, especially when the costs of preventing it are so high.

Mike is nonetheless convinced that America is firmly resolved to stay the course in East Asia. He adduces as evidence “the broad consensus of the US policy community and the US Congress.” That is the same community that thought invading Iraq was a good idea, that committed America to rebuilding Afghanistan, that tried and failed to prevent North Korea (and, it seems, Iran) getting nuclear weapons, and that was convinced that Russia could be easily deterred from contesting the post–Cold War strategic order in Eastern Europe. In each case, the US policy community proclaimed objectives that America lacked the power and resolve to achieve, without seriously considering the US interests at stake. So we are well advised to judge US strategic policy not on what the folk in DC say, but on what they actually do. And as Mike himself acknowledges, they have not done nearly enough – economically, diplomatically or militarily – to successfully contain the challenge posed by China in East Asia today. Nor is there any sign of that changing. Australians simply cannot afford to take America’s commitment and resolve on trust.

The most significant part of Kevin Rudd’s wide-ranging commentary on my essay is his defence of the proposal – put forward in his recent book The Avoidable War – for what he calls “managed strategic competition” between America and China. As he makes clear in his comment, this is a series of measures designed to reduce the risk that strategic rivalry will accidently flare into war. That is a laudable goal as far as it goes, but it does not get us very far. As Kevin acknowledges, his proposals do not seek to offer any resolution to the rivalry itself by setting out a viable vision of a future regional order that might reconcile US and Chinese objectives. Nor do they offer any guidance as to how Australia should navigate the decades ahead.

The most significant part of Malcolm Turnbull’s equally wide-ranging commentary is his argument that AUKUS has no real strategic significance, because it does not represent any material strengthening of support for America. He is right, of course, that the arrangement embodies no new strategic commitments of the kind embodied in the ANZUS Treaty. But I think he is wrong to think that the arrangement therefore carries no strategic weight. It was clearly seen in both Washington and Canberra as a substantial step towards the closer alignment – indeed, the total convergence – of US and Australian strategic objectives in East Asia. And by surrendering the development and operation of such a vital capability as our submarine force to the United States – which is what AUKUS has done – we have very significantly reduced our room to manoeuvre and our capacity to differ from Washington. Malcolm may smile at the words of the senior US official who reportedly said that AUKUS had locked us into American policy for the next forty years. I think those words were meant quite seriously. How much harder will it be for us now to resist future requests from Washington to deploy nuclear forces on our territory, for example, if we concluded – as we should – that that was not in our interests?

Let me turn finally to three commentaries which differ from the ones I have discussed so far. Kishore Mahbubani, a doyen of Singapore’s formidable foreign policy establishment, has been remarkably successful in puncturing Washington’s complacency about its position and future in Asia. He certainly understands the scale and significance of the shift in wealth and power towards China and India, and the massive diplomatic and strategic changes which must follow. Nonetheless, he too believes that America will retain a key strategic role in Asia, because Beijing will be willing to allow that, “as long as America doesn’t undermine any vital Chinese interest.” The problem as I see it is that China will view the exclusion of America from East Asia as a vital interest in itself, just as America views the exclusion of any rival great power from the Western Hemisphere as a vital interest. That is why I cannot share his optimism that we will find a “win-win” outcome in the best ASEAN tradition.

Dennis Altman approaches the questions about Asia’s future from a much broader perspective, asking whether armed force and military operations are any longer as central to international power politics as my analysis assumes. He suggests that Russia’s disastrous experiences in Ukraine (and for that matter America’s in Iraq and Afghanistan) might convince other great powers, such as China, that alternative instruments – economic, diplomatic and so on – offer better and more cost-effective ways to expand their influence and promote their interests than old-fashioned military invasion. I think there is a lot in this idea, even without the lesson of Ukraine. It has long seemed to me that, beyond the special case of Taiwan, the Chinese are unlikely to use overt invasion and occupation to build their sphere of influence in East Asia, if only because it is costly and inefficient. But the special case of Taiwan remains, and so does the broader objective of forcing America out of East Asia. For these tasks, I think, China will continue to see armed force as its primary instrument, and America will likewise see armed force as its primary response. Hence the risk of war is very real.

And finally, Emma Shortis’s commentary takes a refreshingly different and distinctly challenging approach to the whole question of Australia’s place in the world. I read Emma’s recent book, Our Exceptional Friend, while writing the essay, and found it a very stimulating test of my assumptions and approaches. Emma’s view of America is much darker than mine, but her take on the way questions in our foreign policy interact and resonate with the big questions here at home rang a lot of bells for me. I have long thought that the biggest foreign policy questions are ultimately questions about how we see ourselves. And it has long been clear that we must change as we adapt to changes in our international setting. We have done this before – think of Federation and the abandonment of White Australia – and we will do it again. That is why Emma is so right to say that a lot of the weight in our debate about our place between America and China “lies … in the pronouns” – in the way we define who “we” are. I see no reason to be frightened of that. And that is why I think Mike Green is so wrong to say, as he does, that learning to live in peace with a powerful China would mean “pre-emptive strategic euthanasia” for Australia. I have more confidence in Australia than that. I think we can create for ourselves a secure and respected place in an Asia which is not dominated by Britain or America. And given the way the world has changed, I see no alternative but for us to try.

Hugh White



Dennis Altman

Generals, it is said, tend to fight the last war. There are echoes of this in the growing anxieties about Australia’s security, with references to the dangers of appeasement and Japanese aggression in World War II. Fear of a potential Chinese base in Solomon Islands draws on memories of the battle for Guadalcanal in 1943, when US forces began driving back the Japanese advance.

The American alliance has been the bedrock of Australian security planning since World War II, leading us into wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and to ever-deepening integration into US military planning. It is the central and most significant insight in Hugh’s essay that this alliance may pose considerable dangers to Australian security, increasing rather than diminishing the possibility of major conflict in what politicians now like to call the Indo-Pacific.

The new federal government is trying to balance commitment to the United States with greater attention to both the Pacific and Southeast Asia, although Albanese’s attendance at the recent NATO summit suggests it shares the dominant paradigm of a global contest between democracies and autocracies. There is some truth to this, but it also ignores the realities of strongly held nationalist grievances. There is a parallel to the way in which the United States and Australia misunderstood the importance of nationalism in Vietnam, seeing the North Vietnamese communists as, to quote Robert Menzies, “part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

Anxieties about a new Cold War have been heightened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which echoes centuries-old disputes over territory that at various times has been part of Lithuania, Austria-Hungary and Russia. The conflict is more than simply a vanity project of Vladimir Putin: there is a deep connection between Russia and much of what is now Ukraine, symbolised for many Russians by the city of Odessa, essentially founded by Catherine the Great and immortalised in Eisenstein’s images of the city steps in his film Battleship Potemkin.

To acknowledge history is not to excuse current outrages, but it is necessary to understand why many Russians support the invasion. In the same way, the Chinese claim to Taiwan is based on centuries of Chinese control and bitter memories of the civil wars of last century, when the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island. Until 1972 both the United States and Australia recognised his government as that of China, so we can hardly be surprised if the Chinese government believes it has a legitimate claim to the island.

Media commentators in Australia seem surprised that major Third World countries, such as India, Brazil and South Africa, have not joined in condemnation of Russia. The majority of countries in the world – and in our region – have a realistic appraisal of China’s rise and are seeking to find ways of balancing one great power against another. They might well provide a better guide for Australian policy-makers than the hawks of Washington.

It is certainly possible that China may try to take back Taiwan by force, but this does not mean that it is likely to attempt military conquests beyond what it regards as its legitimate territory. Rather, it will behave as other great powers have in using a range of military, economic and political pressures to suit its national interests. The complaint that China is breaking the “rules-based international order” would be more persuasive had the United States not so frequently disregarded these rules.

Hugh has long argued that Australia needs to become more self-sufficient in defence planning, which makes his scepticism about the AUKUS agreement all the more telling. I would only add that the images of Scott Morrison flanked by Joe Biden and Boris Johnson reinforced the perception of many in our region that Australia still longs for a world ruled by white imperial powers, a dangerous delusion for a country situated in the Indo-Pacific region. Penny Wong is clearly aware of these perceptions, as she made clear in stressing that Australians are “more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics” at a G20 meeting of foreign ministers.

The disquiet within the region about Australia’s plans for nuclear submarines, expressed most clearly by Malaysia, suggests that there is a cost beyond the astronomical amount required to build, purchase and operate the ships. Labor’s rush to endorse the project was understandable in the lead-up to an election. Now that it holds power, one hopes it will ponder Hugh’s warnings about the problems of the arrangement.

Many years ago, then trade minister Neal Blewett remarked that Australia needs to be particularly agile diplomatically as we belong to no obvious bloc. It is difficult to imagine us as a member of ASEAN, and rhetoric about “the Pacific family” disguises that we are essentially a neo-colonial power, albeit largely benevolent. For a small fraction of our military expenditure, Australia could increase its diplomatic presence, which Lowy Institute research has shown lags behind that of most comparable countries.

As Hugh points out, Morrison’s claim that our alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom is a “forever partnership” ignores the harsh reality that countries will act according to their perception of national interest at any given moment. With the possibility of a return to power by Trump, or by a Republican in the Trump mould, our reliance on the United States becomes more dangerous. (In my first draft I typed “Untied States,” which is increasingly appropriate.) In pointing to the flaws of the AUKUS agreement, Hugh is echoing comments in September 2021 by Paul Keating, who diagnosed “a monster level of incompetence.”

Hugh’s essay is a powerful antidote to the excessive dependence on the United States, which is increasing even as that country becomes internally more divided and isolationist. While politicians rail against Chinese influence in our universities, the University of Sydney hosts a large US Studies Centre that increasingly positions itself as a booster of the American alliance. Many years ago, when I sat on its advisory committee, I suggested that a key research question was to evaluate the benefits of the alliance; that question went unanswered.

A world dominated by China is not an attractive proposition, one that is worth working to prevent. But to do this requires skilful diplomacy and an acceptance that neither we nor the United States can prevent its rise as the predominant military and economic power in East Asia. As Hugh points out, there are “profound moral imperatives” as we balance values and principles against the imperative to avoid war. “Peace,” he reminds us, “is a value too.”

It is possible that Russia’s slow advance in Ukraine, following the ignominious withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, suggests that military interventions of this sort are relics of a dying world. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books Sophie Pinkham writes that Russia’s attack “begins to look like the convulsion of a dying state,” asserting that massive climate change is eroding Russia’s internal stability.

Pinkham’s essay reminds us that we need a more fundamental re-evaluation of Australia’s security interests than Hugh’s essay suggests. His argument rests on an assumption that China’s rise presents the greatest challenge to Australia’s security. Yet over the past few years the realities of climate change and new epidemic diseases have been far greater assaults on national security than Chinese trade embargoes and cyber interference.

If scientific forecasts are correct, the AUKUS submarines will be delivered into a very different world to the current one, a world in which fire, flood, pestilence, food shortages and massive refugee flows will present real and present dangers. It is easier to envision enormous social, economic and political upheavals in our part of the world as consequences of non-military disasters than it is to imagine a Chinese military attack on Australia.

The scale of such upheavals will require us to work with the Chinese government, however repugnant its domestic repressions. Were the Republicans to control US politics after 2024, this would produce the greatest strain on our alliance since the Whitlam government, so well described in James Curran’s Unholy Fury. If the Albanese government is serious about making climate change a crucial element of its approach to domestic and foreign policy, how would it respond to a United States that refused to accept the Paris Agreement? We already know that climate change is a central concern for Pacific island nations. Faced with a choice between China and Trump’s America, should we be surprised were they to favour Beijing?

Dennis Altman



Emma Shortis

I am far from the first to point out that Hugh White is a critical figure in what is, for the most part, an embarrassingly shallow and unimaginative national “debate” about Australia’s relationship with China and Australian foreign policy more broadly. Sleepwalk to War builds on White’s longstanding efforts to bring rigour and self-reflection to both the discussion and the practical implementation of Australian foreign and security policy. The essay, and the initial responses to it, only further demonstrate that too often White is an almost singular voice of dissent in a stale consensus.

White faces the most pressing questions of Australia’s place in the world head-on: questions like the strategic importance of Taiwan to both the United States and to Australia, the reliability of Australia’s greatest and most important ally, and how a conflict might go nuclear. Despite a dramatically changed domestic political environment, honest answers to these critical questions – even the act of posing them – are both rare and desperately needed.

Unsurprisingly, it is these vital problems that are the focus of most of the responses to White’s timely intervention. Even as White identifies “a serious and systemic failure of our intelligence, defence and foreign policy establishments, and the penumbra of think-tanks and university departments that surround them,” the responses (with obvious exceptions) take White’s analysis and critique seriously, treating it with the respect it deserves – even as most of them come from the same institutional environments White criticises (just as, it must be said, both White and I do). White has, as usual, prompted a flurry of debate about policy and diplomacy among those same circles – even though one suspects that, in the end, most of his critique will be dismissed.

These immediate policy debates, urgent as they are, also obscure the “serious and systemic” failures White rightly pinpoints. At the same time, they reveal just who gets to dissent, and be taken seriously when they do. White argues that there is a pressing need for a “national conversation” about Australia’s place in the world – one that is both broader and deeper than the current discourse.

So why aren’t we having one? And why have we failed so badly?

The answers to those questions, I think, lie at least partly in the pronouns. Who, exactly, is the “we” that those of us in these institutional settings refer to when discussing Australian foreign policy and its history? Who is the “we” that White argues “failed” collectively to anticipate British abandonment in the mid-twentieth century, and how did it come to be “our fault that we did not take more responsibility for our own security as a result” (emphasis added)?

In fact, those failures are the responsibility of a very specific set of very powerful people making particular choices, as is the collective, self-reinforcing failure to reckon with them. And these failures are foundational.

National “conversations” about Australia’s unwillingness to “take responsibility for our own security” rarely interrogate why it is that “we” as a nation have consistently turned to bigger white governments to provide that security. They do not generally acknowledge that at least some of Australia and the United States’ “shared values” stem from our shared histories as nations founded on dispossession and attempted genocide, or that successive governments of both nations have, so far at least, refused to really confront that history. That history and those “shared values” must be taken into consideration in any analysis of the “threat” posed by a rising China. When “we” express concern about living under the shadow of China, what exactly are “we” worried about? White’s radical assertion that there is a “clear possibility that China will turn out to be a regional hegemon we can learn to live with” deserves much more attention than it will get in mainstream discussions, precisely because it would require profoundly complex interrogations of racism, machismo and history that do not preclude similarly complex debates about the way “we,” as a nation, are committed to upholding and supporting democracy and human rights. As White implicitly suggests, an Australian foreign policy based on such a deep commitment would look very different to what we have now, and it would involve a dramatic re-evaluation of Australia’s alliance with the United States.

That relationship – one that White has critiqued for a long time – sits at an inflection point. White is right when he argues that “our ally will probably fail us,” but I don’t think he goes far enough. The collapse of American democracy is a real possibility. What would that failure look like? How could, and should, “we” as a nation respond?

These potential and foundational failures also point to the discipline of International Relations’ troubled relationship with History. History, while lauded (is it even an essay on international relations if it doesn’t mention Thucydides?), becomes not a source of imagination but a constraint on the possible. Security alliances and strategic, rational thought become the expected norm, as does the rise and fall of hegemons and changing balances of power. The fine-grained historical analysis that we need, and which informs much of White’s essay, goes missing. It is in that detailed, delicate analysis, in the honest recognition of our shared, messy histories, that we might find the imagination and the ambition required for more than just avoiding war. We might aspire instead to a genuine and inclusive peace in which we all prosper, together, and to a fundamental role for this nation in building it.

Emma Shortis



Rory Medcalf

Strategic analysis can be a weird game. With incomplete information, in a haze of uncertainty, you are expected to reach durable conclusions about the interplay of power, people and events, their impact on national interests, and options for sound policy.

There are several ways to play. The most frustrating is the endless hedge of discussion and description, without an actual attempt to guide strategy: matters could go this way, or that; we lack a full dataset (and always will, since this is about the future, not just history); so better to be hesitant than wrong. Leaders shun such stuff. Foreign Minister Penny Wong openly laments commentary that merely “admires the problem.”

Rarer is the effort to strike a fine balance of evidence, plausible judgments and practical implications for decision-makers. Proffer conclusions, by all means, but temper with analytic humility. Concede the limits of your information and method, recognise what you may have got wrong in the past, be prepared to change your mind and avoid the temptation to score points. It should be about the community of experts helping government get the best estimate. That’s how good assessment works in the intelligence world. It’s a pity that public discourse too often responds to other and somewhat perverse incentives: the reward is less for being useful than for product differentiation.

I’ve admired my ANU colleague Professor Hugh White for decades: his singular intellectual style, public profile (such that many mistakenly assume he speaks for Australia), unorthodox career, generous mentorship of next-generation thinkers, sharp good humour, even his zeal. He is a past master of the strategic analysis game. But he insists on playing it just one narrow way – his own, derived from his training in philosophy and winner-takes-all Oxford debating. And, sadly, his new Quarterly Essay maintains the cage.

True to the essay’s title, Sleepwalk to War, Hugh’s is a mesmerising approach. It’s a kind of syllogistic hypnosis, using superbly readable prose to generate camouflage that looks like free and open debate. That sounds uncharitable. But my frustration comes from forever hoping for more: waiting through several essays and books now for Professor White to engage on terms wider than those he rigidly sets (always the same) at the outset of each foray. That, of course, would make for a very different intellectual expedition, one where the end – China wins, America loses, Australia needs to change drastically before it’s too late, and anyway it’s probably too late – is not preordained. In this ritualised tragedy, the author’s argument always triumphs. But the denouement feels less like the outcome of an exhaustive and evidence-rich contest of ideas and more like the imagined acme of Chinese strategy: winning without fighting.

Despite the obligatory early reference to a pat economic projection (that China will overtake America as world’s largest economy), and various admissions that we need to consider China’s power-play in wider contexts, the essay is really a self-contained drama with few protagonists, dimensions and moving parts. It’s primarily about conventional and nuclear military confrontation between China and the United States in East Asia, principally over the status of Taiwan, the risks and projected outcome of war, and the decisions this forces on Australia. This is interspersed with a lot of virtuous throat-clearing about Canberra’s alleged missteps in China policy over many years, a critique of the AUKUS technology-sharing agreement and a selective tour of global and regional security dynamics, but all to reinforce the headline argument: that, if we are to live with a powerful China, we must turn our statecraft towards urging America to back off. This means – and Hugh cannot be accused of lacking clarity here – “abandoning Taiwan to Beijing.” This line is so thunderous, it may paradoxically lull readers into thinking they’re wide awake and alert to all realities, rather than dazed by a false dichotomy.

Hugh aims to provoke, and he does. Other correspondents will no doubt elaborate on the awful implications of such anticipatory capitulation – surrendering a self-ruled, Australia-sized community at the heart of Asia to a fate worse than Hong Kong’s, demolishing the most successful democratic endeavour in the history of Chinese civilisation and the most robust young democracy in the Indo-Pacific. Hugh’s rejoinder is that, while this may not be pleasant, it beats nuclear war. This computes in the parameters of his self-structured debate, but it ignores all plausible futures short of unlimited war. If you accept that, in the years ahead, Beijing is more likely to launch campaigns of extreme pressure than do-or-die invasion (and that any planned invasion would be preceded by a rising tempo of threats and coercion), then we need to hear also about how to counter and deter China in that vast grey zone. Hugh’s commitment to peace is admirable, and his point that America is underinvesting in front-line conventional forces is well made, but this does not mean Beijing is poised to risk doing battle with them. A counsel of despair can also be an invitation to aggression – and overlook that the loss of Taiwan could prove the beginning, not the end, of a perilous struggle for security in Asia, not least in the view from Tokyo.

China doesn’t want war, as Hugh acknowledges, and would much prefer a bloodless victory. For Australia, America, Japan and a range of other prospective partners, sensible policy advice therefore would be to understand Beijing’s coercive playbook and explore every avenue of preparedness and deterrence. Well before it contemplates total war, China is likely to consider economic sanctions, maritime blockades, political interference, cyberattacks, sabotage of critical infrastructure, disinformation, intimidating military exercises, incursions and seizure of outlying islands. All of these steps are feasible; some are already being tried. They exist in a space of contingency, where matters could go either way: they could be discouraged, even deterred, by a combination of military, economic, cyber, intelligence and diplomatic measures. Or they could bring risks of escalation and damage to the global economy and its technology supply chains, in which Taiwan plays an integral part. But this spectrum of potential Chinese action also widens the range of prospective countermeasures by the many nations wanting to preserve the status quo. These could involve increasing support to Taiwan as an advanced economy and a durable democracy located close to vital international sea lanes, without necessarily crossing thresholds to state recognition.

Even an imminent or limited Taiwan conflict would have dire economic consequences for Australia and globally (as our iron-ore miners privately know, and many corporations worldwide are beginning to wargame). One of the many lessons from Ukraine is the danger of economic reliance providing asymmetric leverage to an authoritarian aggressor. A fruitful avenue for new policy thinking is not only how to wean oneself off such dangerous dependence, but how to begin turning the tables. If Beijing’s Taiwan threats jeopardise the international economic order on which China’s internal stability depends, then it makes sense to begin mapping the collective geoeconomic leverage of democratic states and signalling how this could be brought to bear. This is a conversation that has begun in America, Japan and, crucially, even in Europe (including Germany) – whose investment, technology and markets China needs more than the other way around. If a Taiwan conflict is going to destroy business as usual – and it surely would – then what’s to lose from warning about that up-front and weaponising that fact as a form of deterrence? This geoeconomic dimension may seem peripheral to Hugh’s thesis, and may matter less if the shooting starts, but to ignore it entirely is to miss an opportunity for policy advice more realistic and nuanced than simply “abandon Taiwan.”

And geoeconomics is hardly the only vital piece of context missing or out of place in the unsettling dream world of Sleepwalk. Nations are not billiard balls, responding identically and predictably to the laws of physics: if they were, then Ukraine would have surrendered by day three; Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and India would long ago have conceded their contested boundaries to China; and Canberra would have meekly accepted the fourteen points accompanying Beijing’s economic coercion. Internal dynamics, leadership, risk calculations, events, national identity and public mood all matter. So it is disappointing how little attention the essay pays to what goes on inside China – though surely everything else follows from this.

There’s understandable reference to the troubled state of American politics, and a dismissal of the Taiwanese people’s will to fight, yet almost nothing about the internal challenges and attitudes of Chinese society, other than the uncritical assertion that primacy or regional leadership is “as dear to China’s people as it is to their leaders” – implying that they are universally ready for total war in this cause. This does a disservice to the complexity of what China’s people and the Communist Party must face. Development and stability are still compelling national priorities. Yet these must now be achieved with a slowing economy, a rapidly ageing society without a safety net, growing mistrust of China across much of the world, pollution and resource pressures, rolling debt crises, constant suppression of diverse springs of dissent, patterns of political and professional disengagement among youth, and a still-deferred reckoning with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Extreme nationalism spilling into military aggression may be an insecure Xi’s circuit-breaker for such internal trouble – or may make China’s predicament worse. We simply don’t know, though we do know the enormous lengths to which the Communist Party’s propaganda machine goes to insist that China owns the future. Yet we are asked to believe that the Chinese people are more than ready to leap over decades of restraint from almost any use of external armed force to risk everything – including generations of economic wellbeing – on a sudden willingness to wage nuclear war, and therefore strategically it’s game over.

There’s likewise a frustrating selectivity in the essay with evidence when it comes to the crucial questions of Australian and American objectives. We are told Washington is incapable of making Asia policy in any terms other than seeking primacy, even though it is acknowledged that some leading strategic thinkers on both sides of US politics are starting to explore more realistic alternatives. And we are told Australia’s entire policy-making elite has timidly put the nation’s fate in American hands – even though so many of the decisions that have upset China in recent years (such as the Quad and the bolstering of domestic security) can be read credibly as efforts to diversify our partnerships and do more for our own protection. It’s baffling how wilfully the essay jumbles the timeline of Australia–China relations (during, before and after the reality check of the Turnbull years). It’s easy to disprove the claim that Australian policy was essentially about impressing and following America. Indeed, Australia was the pioneer on many of the issues Hugh refers to; China knows this, and has said as much, which helps explain its bullying. The first round of the Sam Dastyari affair, which signalled the start of Australian pushback against Chinese Communist Party interference, occurred months before the election of Trump – who initially had no wish to pressure allies on China in any case.

The essay is also curiously uneven in the way it treats regional and global settings, as if these are painted opera scenery to be moved around as fits the unfolding plot. On the one hand, we are told China wants primacy in East Asia but is content to leave its hands off the Indian Ocean (and by extension South Asia and Africa), and will fail – thanks to Indian, Russian and European “multipolarity” – if it foolishly makes a play for Eurasia. And since it can’t dominate Eurasia, it won’t really threaten America by controlling the resources of this global heartland. Yet the argument somehow dismisses the whole question of whether multipolarity will, in time, work against China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific, where within a few decades the combined economic, population and military weight of India, Japan, Australia and Indonesia could, without America, be larger than China’s. Hugh claims that China and India can avoid a clash of interests because China will leave the Indian Ocean as a sphere of interest for India. This requires erasure of the inconvenient fact of Xi’s signature external policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, which involves dominance of ports, undersea cables and other economic infrastructure across the two oceans, Eurasia and beyond. None of this means that India will line up militarily against China in a war over Taiwan – one of Hugh’s favourite straw men is to claim that some of us imagine India alone will save the day.

But it does mean that China courts a widening horizon of risk and is provoking balancing coalitions across Indo-Pacific and global landscapes it cannot dominate. All this widens the aperture for more creative and expansive Australian policy – including multilateral engagement with Southeast Asia, support for Pacific and Indian Ocean island countries grounded in more than our own security fears, and, yes, judicious dialogue with China based on coexistence, mutual interest and an attempt at mutual respect. On that vision, perhaps Hugh and I can agree – though there’s no need to prematurely surrender Taiwan to get there.

Rory Medcalf



Peter Varghese

Hugh White’s latest Quarterly Essay is a forensic, clear-eyed and courageous revisiting of the foundations of Australian strategic and foreign policy. Even if you do not agree with his conclusions, Hugh asks the right questions.

His analysis is radical in the true sense of the word: he goes to the root of the issues. And while much of what he concludes is compelling, there are three issues on which I take a somewhat different view.

First, I think he is too stark on a US retreat from the region. It is unlikely, in my view, that America’s choice will be as binary as lead or leave. The country is intent on preserving its primacy, but the paradox of US strategy is that retaining primacy will ultimately mean constructing a new strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific, one that involves a more traditional balance of power in which the United States would be but one, albeit powerful, player. That is what the Quad really represents. It is an implicit acceptance that America alone may not be able to match China, but that with others it most certainly can. It is a sublimation of US primacy. But even in a post-primacy world, the United States will retain very significant strategic and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific which will keep it engaged there, unless of course a nuclear war makes all this academic.

Hugh would likely argue that China will eventually force the United States to withdraw from the region because that is what Chinese primacy demands. But that is an overly narrow view of primacy, and I think China neither expects a complete US withdrawal nor is it likely to press until it is achieved. China wants a return to the Middle Kingdom where harmony was hierarchy with China at the top and an expectation that all other states would pre-emptively concede the primacy of China’s core interests. If China can secure this it may be willing to live with a US presence that is short of primacy, just as America is currently willing to live with a Chinese strategic presence in East Asia that is short of primacy. Strategic positioning may well be a zero-sum game, but that does not require the United States to go to zero if China succeeds in becoming the predominant power.

Second, Hugh both overestimates and underestimates India’s position. I agree that India will want a sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. India will be tenacious in pursuing the first and ultimately unsuccessful in pursuing the second, not only because neither China nor the United States will concede primacy over the Indian Ocean, but also because India will not have the economic or strategic heft over the next few decades to impose its primacy.

One of the features of a multipolar strategic environment, which is where we are heading, is that primacy, by definition, becomes a much more problematic concept. Real primacy means that you are stronger than the aggregate strategic weight of all those who oppose your primacy and I doubt that India can achieve this in the Indian Ocean, just as I doubt that China can achieve it in the Asia-Pacific. It is one thing to be the strongest single power, but quite another to be the hegemon.

Nor will India be relaxed about conceding primacy to China in East Asia, although it may not be able to prevent it. India’s economic interests in East Asia will only grow and its strategic relationship with China will become essentially competitive. That is why I am more convinced than Hugh about the validity of the Indo-Pacific framework. It makes little sense to put China and India in separate strategic systems when in the future each will see the other as a primary strategic point of reference. This competitive dynamic will apply across East Asia and the Indian Ocean and will not, as Hugh would have it, be confined to the boundary between South Asia and East Asia.

It is true that India has a substantially opportunistic view of the Quad, but then so do all the Quad members in their own way: a case of same bed, different dreams. And to the extent that the Quad is presented as a spear carrier for democracy, it will have to wrestle with an India which will stay democratic but could well see a Hindu nationalist agenda corrode its secular liberal-democratic character.

Third, Hugh downplays the reality that China is now itself heading in a very uncertain direction. Xi has made some spectacularly bad calls in the cause of party authority. He has reasserted state control of the economy, which can only lead to slower growth. His “wolf warrior diplomacy,” whatever domestic returns it delivers, has failed as foreign policy and will have economic consequences, as evidenced by the caution about new foreign investments in China. This is all a result of Xi’s absolute determination to ensure party control over everything, but in doing so he is causing an economic slowdown that will challenge the monopoly power of the party. This is a very different set of triggers to the wishful thinking behind the “coming China collapse” theories of the past, and at the very least they should cause us to be more sceptical than we otherwise might be about projections of China’s economic growth.

Hugh’s most significant insight is our urgent need for a defence force capable of defending our continent without the combat assistance of the United States. This builds on his carefully argued book about how we can do this at an increased but still manageable cost.

We must bury the policy of forward defence once and for all. As long as it sits unexorcised in the background of our defence thinking, we will never shed our ambivalence about whether we can protect our continent without relying on the US cavalry. The point here is not that the United States is unreliable or that the alliance should be abandoned. Neither is true. But ultimately we need to rely on ourselves. The alliance can help us do that, but it cannot do it for us. Australians must overcome the deep-seated belief that we are incapable of defending ourselves. As a G20 economy with a continental geography and the advantages of both distance and alliance-enabled access to advanced defence technologies and platforms, we should have more confidence in ourselves. We are not a lonely country, but we will have to do more to make our own way in a much more complicated world. That should be the starting point of Australian defence and foreign policy.

Peter Varghese



Sam Roggeveen

From the publication of his 2010 Quarterly Essay, Power Shift, to the release of his latest, Sleepwalk to War, Hugh White’s body of work on the consequences of China’s rise has generated a mountain of commentary and criticism. Yet remarkably, none of it has laid a glove on his most important claim: that America’s overall security is not threatened by China’s ascent to leadership in East Asia.

If White is correct on this point, it suggests that every statement made by every US administration about the importance of Asia to American security and economic wellbeing, every reassurance to friends and allies in the region that America can only be secure if Asia is secure, is built on sand.

To my knowledge, no one in the Australian security commentariat, or among national security leaders in our two major parties, has directly taken on this crucial idea. White’s critics often complain that he has been repeating himself for over a decade. Yet that leaves them no excuse. They should have rebutted him by now.

I don’t think we can conclude that silence implies assent. Rather, silence is a form of avoidance because White’s conclusion is just too uncomfortable. Australia is betting its future security on the proposition that Asia is critical to the United States, and that therefore the United States will be prepared to secure a favourable order in Asia, even if it means fighting China. White overturns this assumption. He argues that America’s security interests in Asia are not vital, and certainly not important enough to risk a catastrophic war with China.

That’s a radical enough conclusion, with consequences for Australia that ought to be exercising the minds of our decision-makers. Unfortunately, this government is seemingly no more ready than the last to entertain any limits to what it insists on calling the “unbreakable alliance,” as if such a thing ever existed in history. Yet in Sleepwalk to War, White goes further still, when he describes what comes after American leadership in Asia. He says, “it is hard to see what could stop China dominating East Asia and the Western Pacific. No other country in the region has either the power or the disposition to resist it.”

This is where White leaves room for debate. His use of the term “dominance” is not quite consistent throughout the essay. At some points “dominance” seems highly coercive. For instance, White says that to really threaten America, China would have to dominate Eurasia first: “Only then would it command a material resource base big enough to overwhelm American conventional defences and – just conceivably – overmatch and neutralise its nuclear forces. And only then would it be free of rivals closer to home, which would allow it to focus its power on America.”

So “domination” here refers to a great power’s ability to agglomerate the resources of the states which it dominates, and then direct this combined force at a rival. It also implies that the dominant power can impose its foreign policy goals on subordinate states. This would be something akin to the Soviet Union’s position vis-à-vis the smaller Warsaw Pact countries.

But White also says: “India will dominate South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and China will dominate East Asia and the Western Pacific. Each of them will be strong enough to deter the other from seriously interfering in its sphere of influence.”

Here we might interpret White as saying that to dominate a region is to exercise a sphere of influence over it. But a “sphere of influence” is commonly defined as being looser and less intrusive than “dominance.” As White points out, Australia has traditionally exercised a sphere of influence in the Pacific, as does the United States in Latin America. Where a major power boasts a sphere of influence, it can exercise authority due to its economic and military weight. It can also exclude other great powers from exerting influence within the sphere. Yet as traditionally defined, a sphere of influence does not allow the leading power to appropriate the military, diplomatic and economic resources of the countries under their tutelage to further their own foreign policy ambitions.

Is Chinese “dominance” of East Asia likely by the first, stronger, definition? It is not the present reality, even for North Korea, China’s only formal ally. Perhaps weaker Southeast Asian states such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar will fall under China’s direct control (though if they ever do, they will become a drain on Chinese power rather than add to it). China is not likely to impose direct Soviet-like control over bigger Southeast Asian countries, and for powers such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Australia it is out of the question unless China physically conquers them first.

I would argue that even the latter, weaker, definition of “dominance” does not fully describe Asia’s likely future under Chinese leadership. True, we can already see the makings of a Chinese sphere of influence in its relations with smaller Southeast Asian neighbours. Others may slip further into China’s orbit and away from the United States; the Philippines and Thailand look particularly vulnerable.

But beyond that, the task will be challenging for China because maintaining a sphere of influence over maritime Asia requires enormous resources – primarily a huge navy, preferably with a handful of well-located foreign bases to support it. Of course, China has a big navy, and nobody can stop it from getting much bigger still. But as White himself has argued forcefully on other occasions, in the maritime realm, the advantage rests with the side trying to prevent an adversary from imposing dominance.

This is especially true over long distances, which make it difficult to project sustained naval power. Smaller countries can concentrate their lesser defence resources near their coast, with the result that even much bigger navies can have their power blunted just enough that the smaller state never needs to submit to the great power’s authority.

Distance is not the only constraint. Even at a slight geographical remove, smaller powers have options because of the inherent limitations of navies. For instance, White says, “Taiwan cannot realistically expect to defend itself from China.” But I would argue it is still too early for such a stark conclusion. Even under the imbalance of forces that exists today, Taiwan has some hope of repelling a Chinese invasion because, in the missile age, military operations involving large surface fleets are incredibly risky, even over short distances. Taiwan is able to impose high costs on China by targeting the ships it needs to mount an invasion. If Taiwan spent more than its current 2 per cent of GDP on defence and sharpened its focus on the so-called “porcupine strategy” (small, agile forces rather than ships, tanks and fast jets), it could set Beijing’s ambitions back by years.

Still, let’s assume Taiwan is eventually retaken by China. White says this will be a disaster for America’s regional alliance structure, which “will crumble” as a result. Again, this seems too stark. It is equally plausible that Japan, South Korea and Australia will breathe a quiet sigh of relief that the United States has conserved its military resources rather than expended them defending Taiwan. Besides, what’s the alternative for America’s allies? They would need to declare that it is no longer reliable, politely kick US troops out of their countries and then build up their own military forces, including with nuclear weapons. That’s much harder than maintaining the status quo.

To return to where we began, none of this is to disagree with White’s claim that American resolve in East Asia is eroding and unlikely to recover. The United States faces a highly motivated and well-resourced China, and America’s own security interests in the region are not vital enough to justify taking on such a big rival.

But White paints American resolve as a quickly diminishing resource. In fact, he says it could be exhausted at a stroke if Taiwan falls. My response is that for each setback, there is a fallback. China’s assertion of hegemony over the South China Sea was a setback, yet American resolve and the US alliance system did not crumble. Nor are they likely to crumble if Taiwan falls.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the United States will transition from a dominant power to a balancing power in East Asia. White argues convincingly that it wouldn’t gain much from such an arrangement. If it is self-aware enough to recognise that its vital interests are not threatened by China, then settling for a lesser security role in East Asia is no more attractive than having no role at all. Rather, I would argue that residual American resolve can delay Chinese dominance indefinitely. Japan, South Korea and Australia have strong political and bureaucratic incentives to hold on to their alliances, and America’s other partners in the region also want it to stay. On the US side, there is simply no political or bureaucratic constituency for withdrawal from East Asia. Even after a viscerally anti-alliance president came to office in 2016, America’s military footprint in Asia did not change.

White would presumably reply that simply maintaining alliance arrangements is not in itself a demonstration of American resolve. To show that it really is committed to competing with China, the United States must massively up its military game in East Asia. He is right. America has been standing pat in East Asia since the end of the Cold War, and although no US administration will ever admit it, this is a de facto decision to go into relative decline. Allies and adversaries recognise this for what it is – an erosion of American resolve.

But America’s military presence in Asia, particularly its marines and navy in Japan (55,000 military personnel plus a permanently stationed aircraft carrier), will remain a potent force. Even if this force is outmatched by China in future, it will act as a “trip-wire” whose destruction could prompt the United States to use nuclear weapons in retaliation. As White reminds us, nuclear weapons cast a dark shadow over the US–China contest. While the chance of nuclear use is small, that slight possibility is tremendously significant because the consequences will be so cataclysmic. This low-risk/high-consequence dynamic works against a dramatic transition away from US power because although China may well believe American resolve is eroding, it cannot afford to make risky bets on that belief – the consequences of being wrong are too high. Hence even a lukewarm US commitment to its Asian allies can constrain China.

There is one more extenuating factor. If, as now seems likely, China’s economy grows more slowly than previously forecast, we might never see clear daylight between the United States and China in terms of their national power. Recent Lowy Institute research suggests they will remain roughly equal for the indefinite future, which makes China’s task of presenting itself as overwhelmingly the leading power in East Asia that much harder.

Again, this will not affect the ultimate transition away from US leadership in East Asia, but it will extend America’s horizon. And when the curtain finally falls on the age of American leadership in East Asia, the region stands a good chance of being able to prevent a new era of Chinese dominance.

Sam Roggeveen



Kishore Mahbubani

A prophet, they say, is never recognised in his time. This may well be the fate of Hugh White. For decades, he has been accurately warning that the geopolitical environment around Australia has changed and will continue to change. Curiously, even though many of his warnings have come true, his voice hasn’t been heeded. Indeed, I have met many Australians who dismiss his work by saying, “Oh, that’s Hugh White.”

Many of the opponents and detractors of Hugh White claim that they are the hard-headed and tough-minded “realists.” Actually, their heads are full of intellectual mush as they ignore two critical geopolitical realities. First, geography is destiny. If, as White predicts, China becomes the number-one power in the world and America becomes number two and the rest of Asia adapts intelligently and pragmatically, Australia will be left isolated in its own geographical region. As White says, “We’d face harsher diplomatic isolation, fewer economic opportunities and more military pressure from Beijing, and less support and cooperation from our more prudent neighbours.” In short, Australia could functionally become the Cuba of Asia. The second geopolitical reality that the right-wing hawks ignore is that great powers will not set aside their own national interests to save smaller ally states, even those who share the same cultural skin. White is therefore right to emphasise that Australia has been abandoned before. As White says, “Australia is no stranger to alliance failure, as Morrison should have recalled before talking of a ‘forever partnership’ with the United Kingdom. Our first great alliance failed in 1941, at what was, until now, the most perilous moment of our history.” As White warns, 1941 could happen again for Australia.

One of the biggest strengths of this latest Quarterly Essay by Hugh White is its accurate and insightful analysis of the new geopolitical realities of East Asia, driven primarily by the return of China as one of the biggest economies of the world. Few Australians seem to be aware of a simple fact that White highlights in his first paragraph: “Today China’s economy is 19 per cent of global GDP and America’s is 16 per cent. By 2035, China will be at 24 per cent and America just 14 per cent.”

Curiously, in the early decades of China’s rise, Australia adapted intelligently and pragmatically to this new geopolitical environment. Indeed, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating forged good ties with their Chinese counterparts. Even as late as John Howard, China was managed carefully and sensitively by Australia. In 1996, Howard told Jiang Zemin that Australia’s alliance with America was sacrosanct, but that nothing Australia did as a US ally would be directed against China. Sadly, all these decades of careful management of China were washed away when Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison came to power. Future historians will truly marvel that Australia decided to take on China just as America had elected the most unreliable (to its allies) administration in its history: the Trump administration. Indeed, Morrison and his government tried to out-Trump Trump. As White says, “This is the spirit in which [Morrison] refused even to meet China’s newly arrived ambassador in Canberra.” Morrison and his team were probably unaware that Beijing has a long memory.

It was unwise for the Morrison government to align itself with the Trump administration when it launched a geopolitical contest against China without first working out a thoughtful and comprehensive long-term strategy to ensure that America would win. As White says, “Competing with China for primacy in East Asia is by far the most serious strategic commitment America has undertaken since the Cold War. And yet Washington has launched into it with no clear idea of what would count as winning, how it could be won, how much it will cost and why winning really matters.” Indeed, this is the key message of my book Has China Won? – that America has no long-term strategy for managing the competition with China. And, as I document in the book, this insight was personally given to me by Henry Kissinger.

One of the wisest pieces of advice that White gives to his fellow Australians is the following: “We should do our due diligence and decide for ourselves if what Washington is saying or doing really stacks up and makes sense. And the closer we look, the worse things appear. The problems start with the most fundamental question: what exactly is Washington trying to achieve?”

Indeed, as I am a friend of America, this is the most basic question I ask my American friends: if all the policies of the Trump and Biden administrations succeed, what will America have achieved? Here are some possible answers: isolate China? Overthrow the Chinese Communist Party? Stop China from becoming the number-one economic power in the world? Even a short list like this makes it clear that America’s goals towards China are not clear. White declares that Australians indulge in a “cringe-makingly sentimental and grossly ahistorical talk of our US alliance.” This may explain why Australia unthinkingly follows American policy, even if the goals are unclear.

Another great strength of this essay is White’s withering and devastating descriptions of the two latest initiatives taken by Australia to counter-balance China: the Quad and AUKUS. As White says, “Washington talks a lot about the Quad – the grouping of India, Japan, Australia and America – as a highly effective counter to China’s bid for regional leadership. It is hard to see why, because the Quad does not actually do anything except meet.” However, while the Quad may not do much good, it also doesn’t do much harm to Australia. By contrast, AUKUS could do Australia much harm. By acquiring nuclear submarines to challenge China’s navy, Australia is inserting itself into the front line in a potential nuclear war between China and America. As White says, clearly and bluntly, “All this – the complacency, the incompetence, the illusions – came together in the proposal to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS.” White could have added that AUKUS also undermined Australia’s nuclear non-proliferation credentials. And it also insulted and alienated its largest immediate neighbour, Indonesia, with this AUKUS move.

While I agree a lot with what White says in this essay, I have one major point of disagreement. White is absolutely convinced that China is determined to push America out of East Asia. As he says, “That is what China is trying to do in East Asia today. It aims to assert its place as the region’s primary power, and undermine America’s position, by showing that it is willing to go to war to push America out of East Asia and that America is not willing to go to war to stop it.” The great strength that China’s leaders have – as Kissinger documents in his book On China – is that they are pragmatic realists. It’s vital to note here that the current Sino–American geopolitical contest was started by America, not China. China is clearly pushing for more geopolitical space for itself. But it is willing to share geopolitical space with America as long as America doesn’t undermine any vital Chinese interest, such as by advocating for independence for Taiwan.

Indeed, this is the win-win strategy that the ASEAN states are pushing for. They have made it clear, as White confirms, that they don’t want to take sides: they want good relations with both America and China. To have good relations with both also means that ASEAN wants America to retain its presence in East Asia. However, they want America to retain a thoughtful and sensitive presence in the region, not the clumsy presence of the Trump administration (with the support of the Morrison government).

At the end of the day, the wisest thing that any Australian government could do is to get the country’s geographically isolated, predominantly Western population of 25 million to align itself with the win-win strategy of ASEAN towards managing the Sino–American contest. This is the argument I put across in an essay in the July 2022 issue of Australian Foreign Affairs.

If Australia steers towards a greater alignment with the ASEAN position, it could play a useful bridging role between Beijing and Washington, DC. The greatest geopolitical asset Australia has is that it’s trusted in Washington. And, as White correctly asserts, American foreign policy is made by a small group of people. As he says, “The essentials of US foreign policy have long been deeply bipartisan, and there has always been a lot of consensus among the tight-knit group of people who work on these issues as they move between universities, think-tanks, congressional staff jobs and official positions in Washington.” Australia is trusted by this “tight-knit group.” It should persuade them of the wisdom of the ASEAN position that Australia can support. And if Australia does this, it will avoid many of the dangers White warns about. It’s time for Canberra to heed its best prophetic voice, that of Hugh White.

Kishore Mahbubani



Michael J. Green

Hugh White’s essay Sleepwalk to War starts with a compelling observation about China. “Not since we faced Imperial Japan in the 1940s,” he states, “have things been so bad between us and a major Asian power. And this is potentially worse.” This jarring but accurate statement is the right starting point for a serious discussion about Australian strategy and managing relations with China and the alliance with the United States. But the essay unfortunately goes on to provide the wrong diagnosis of the problem and then essentially concludes that the best treatment for Australia is pre-emptive strategic euthanasia.

Sleepwalk to War reads like an Australian iteration of the hyper-realism of self-professed American “restrainers” such as John Mearsheimer or Stephen Walt. The balance of power that upsets these authors most is not in the Indo-Pacific, but in Canberra and Washington. Their greatest ire is reserved not for China or Russia, but for their own foreign policy establishments’ “alliance back-slapping” and “cringe-makingly sentimental” statements.

It is always fun to critique the bureaucrats, of course, but the attacks would be more convincing if the underlying analysis of the power dynamics in the international system was actually right. The geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific is not the simple bipolar contest between China and America that Hugh posits; nor is the world moving towards respective spheres of influence with China at the centre of Asia, as he predicts. The only country in the region that would like this to be so is China, which is why Beijing promotes its own version of Hugh’s argument through repetition of Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” thesis and offer of a “new model of great power relations,” in which the United States would avoid conflict by conceding to Chinese demands in a bipolar condominium that excludes the interests of Australia, Japan and other US allies and partners.

But this is not Athens and Sparta. The regional distribution of power is not bipolar. Instead, the Indo-Pacific region is defined increasingly by a multipolarity in which almost all of the other regional powers greatly prefer the existing US-led rules-based order to Chinese hegemony. To the extent Hugh pays attention to the other players in the system, it is to dismiss them as doomed or feckless. He ignores Japan’s growing defence capabilities, jointness with the United States and infrastructure financing (which rivals China’s Belt and Road and is much better received); South Korea’s recent election of a government much more aligned with US regional strategy; and Europe’s harder line on China. He casts India as largely irrelevant because New Delhi is refusing to become a real ally like Australia, when the US strategy was always premised on India not being an ally but a counterweight to China in a multipolar Asia – a reasonable long-term bet considering India’s demographic advantage over China.

The diplomacy involved in a multipolar Asia is not always straightforward, to be sure: Southeast Asia and the Pacific will always be porous; India will never be fully aligned; and the architecture of multipolarity will remain fluid and messy and fall short of a convenient collective security arrangement like NATO. But for a realist supposedly preoccupied with the distribution of power, it is a major oversight for Hugh to ignore the growing pushback against China in Tokyo, New Delhi and increasingly Seoul and Brussels. And it would be strategic malpractice for any Australian or US government not to harness this resistance to maintain a favourable balance of power going forward.

Hugh’s assertions about the economic power dynamics in China and the United States are also lopsided. Readers should by now be sceptical of the linear projections of Chinese economic dominance that underpin Hugh’s geopolitical arguments. As former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers predicted – even before Beijing’s self-defeating COVID lockdown, squelching of the private sector and real estate downturn – Chinese growth is reverting to the historical international norm. The United States averaged growth rates of 2.9 per cent from 1979 to 2021 and is projected by most economists to continue that performance in future. China averaged 9.5 per cent from 1979 into the second decade of this century, but now hopes for a 5.5 per cent growth rate that few private economists think is actually achievable (many predict stagflation this year). Even if China surpasses the United States in nominal GDP in the next decade, the next largest economies will still be the United States, India and Japan – collectively larger than China’s GDP and none prepared to cede regional economic leadership to Beijing. This is not to argue that the China challenge will solve itself because of China’s internal contradictions – its economy and military are huge and the strategic challenge for the rest of us is as real and as perilous as Hugh asserts in the opening of his essay. History suggests an economically stressed China could be even more dangerous for the world. But either way, it is important not to hyperventilate about China’s inexorable economic dominance over Asia. That is not how Chinese business leaders privately describe their own projections or why they increasingly seek permanent resident status in Singapore.

In addition to miscasting the material distribution of power, Hugh’s essay also misreads American willpower and intentions. His critique of the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations’ lurching and uneven efforts to find the right balance of cooperation and competition with China is not entirely unfair. As I described in my own history of US strategy in Asia, By More Than Providence (which Hugh kindly cites), the American way of grand strategy is always a messy “meta-process,” as one would expect in a system of government designed to reinforce checks and balances. Australia too was uncertain of what the transition from Hu Jintao’s China to Xi Jinping’s China meant in the years from John Howard to Scott Morrison. Hugh is also right to argue (as I and other American scholars such as Hal Brands and Zack Cooper have) that Washington has left big gaps in its emerging China strategy, including the fundamental question of what “victory” in a strategic competition with China looks like.

But while Hugh gets the faults in the American policy-making process right, he completely misinterprets the historic definition of US strategic interests. George F. Kennan would not have argued that Chinese domination of the Eurasian continent would be acceptable because it is far from the American homeland, as Hugh implies. In fact, Kennan asserted that there are two geographic “strongpoints” that would always remain essential to American security: Western Europe and Japan (and, by extension, the waters of the western Pacific beyond Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines that make up the first island chain). There is still broad consensus in the US strategic community and in Congress that Chinese control of maritime Asia is fundamentally unacceptable – a tradition that did not begin or end with Kennan. China’s strategy is clearly premised on domination of the first and second island chains, of course, which puts the US alliance system and Beijing’s vision of its security on a collision course. Hugh is right about what is at stake in that sense. But he is wrong to assert that historical American definitions of geopolitical interests in Asia point to a viable accommodation of Chinese dominance of the region. Several opinion polls (Pew, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, CSIS) indicate that the American public gets this and is more willing than ever to defend allies in the Indo-Pacific should it become necessary.

By extension, Hugh draws all the wrong conclusions about the geopolitical significance of Taiwan to US interests. The United States would not be able to brush off a Chinese takeover of Taiwan with skilful reassurance of Japan, as Hugh argues. The reality is that successful Chinese coercion of Taiwan would sever the first island chain, isolate Australia, put Taiwanese semiconductor firm TSMC and the “Ruhr Valley” of advanced semiconductor fabrication under Beijing’s control, and force states across the region to choose neutralism or possibly nuclear weapons to survive in the new environment.

But neither does Beijing have clear options to take Taiwan, as Hugh asserts. It would not be “easy for China to control the seas off Taiwan” for an invasion. While a Taiwan fight would be dangerous for surface combatants on all sides, the US Navy maintains a significant edge in undersea warfare that would make amphibious operations highly perilous for the PLA. Ukraine’s success against the Russian Navy in the Black Sea illustrates how much Taiwan could further complicate Chinese military planning with the introduction of more anti-ship missiles: a capability now at the top of Taipei’s shopping list. In short, it has become harder for the United States to execute its traditional plans for the defence of Taiwan, but Beijing hardly has an easy path of its own to victory. The unprecedented unity of US global alliances in response to Putin’s attack on Ukraine will further complicate Chinese assumptions about the use of force against Taiwan: Europe may not be neutral in Asian crises after all, as Beijing clearly assumed for years. That does not mean NATO sends warships, but there are now clearer geopolitical and economic costs to aggression. The bottom line is that deterrence and peace in the Taiwan Strait are still achievable, while pre-emptive surrender of Taiwan is neither necessary nor a reliable path to lasting peace.

The most surprising aspect of Hugh’s essay to me as an American is the curiously apathetic definition of Australia’s core values and interests. There may be an appetite in some corners for critiquing bureaucrats in Canberra or Washington, but would there really be political support in Australia for accepting the implications of Chinese hegemonic dominance of the Indo-Pacific? Is that the “China choice” Australians would make? Would they be prepared to curtail their free speech, as Beijing is already demanding, or to accept the odious apparatus of China’s high-tech surveillance state or PLA military bases in their immediate region? It is difficult to see any democratic society signing up for such a future – particularly when predictions of Chinese dominance and American retreat are built on such flimsy analytical scaffolding.

One thing Hugh gets absolutely right is how much influence Australia has in Washington. As he notes, the strategic community on Asia policy in DC is pretty small (I should know, I was part of it) and also very impressionable (see earlier parenthetical comment). If there are good ideas from trusted partners like Australia, they go right to the top. That is particularly true today, when the Congress and the Biden administration put such heavy emphasis on alliances and when Americans (especially younger Americans) are more positively disposed towards allies in polling than ever. But Hugh is wrong when he asserts that Australian officials just use that influence to cheer for whatever America wants. That was never my experience in my time in the Pentagon, the White House, or in think-tanks in DC. Australian officials may close ranks with the United States in public, but they don’t cheerlead in private. More often, they join forces with Japan or Britain to push the US system towards smarter policies. Sometimes they fail, but more often they succeed. AUKUS, the White House Indo-Pacific Strategy with its emphasis on engaging Southeast Asia, and the renewed US commitment to the Pacific Islands are just three recent examples of direct Australian influence on US strategy. I suspect that if the Australian embassy followed Hugh’s advice and went to President Biden to say, “You can’t win, best to turn the place over to China before it’s too late,” the meeting would not go well and Australian strategic influence in Washington and by extension the region would start to plummet. But since no Australian government on the horizon is likely to do that, I do not lose much sleep over that scenario.

What Australia should do with its influence is continue shaping American strategy towards China, not trying to break it. Hugh notes that the Biden administration has yet to define what victory looks like in the competition with China. Fair point. Australia should push the Biden administration to think over the horizon to a regional order that rests on a more sustainable equilibrium with Beijing. That starts with shoring up a favourable balance of power, enhancing deterrence, blunting dangerous Chinese initiatives and investing in the resilience of smaller states in the region. But if the goal is to find acceptable terms for less dangerous and more productive relations with China down the road, then the United States should be more focused on economic statecraft that can provide leverage over China’s treatment of investors and trading partners, rather than just looking at ways to decouple. In that regard, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is still a very thin reed compared with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Australia and other allies are right to push Washington to do more to shape regional economic rules. Along the same lines, the Biden administration would do well to reintroduce the kind of strategic dialogue with Beijing that Bob Zoellick in the Bush administration and Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration sustained with key players like State Counselor Dai Bingguo. Xi’s opaque and authoritarian leadership style makes this harder but it is no less important. In some ways Washington is still in the John Foster Dulles stage of competition and will sooner or later have to get to the JFK stage, when tough-minded but serious dialogue channels were established with Moscow – and this time preferably not after a Cuban missile crisis. (The administration has tried to establish transparency and guardrails around high-risk areas, such as nuclear weapons, but these talks have been aimed at making geopolitical competition less dangerous rather than finding a sustainable strategic equilibrium.) So yes, there are shortcomings in the US strategic approach where quiet prodding by close allies can help – as it often has in the past.

A balanced assessment of power and purpose in the Indo-Pacific would highlight for Australian policy-makers when to invest in jointness and interoperability with the United States, when to support American resolve, when to partner with Japan or others, and when to hedge. It would also highlight where pushback and risk are necessary with China, and where reassurance and even cooperation might be possible. There is no binary “China choice.” Instead, there are dozens if not hundreds of smaller choices that strategists and policy-makers must make to protect Australian interests – just as there are in the United States. Fortunately, a balanced assessment of the strategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific will lead us to the same conclusions in almost every case – and with a growing number of like-minded allies and partners along the way.

So kudos to Hugh for shaking things up as always. There is urgency, as he notes. There are also many big and hard decisions ahead. But the basic consensus behind current Australian and American grand strategy is founded on a more nuanced and realistic assessment of the international system and the relative balance of power than offered in the polemical pages of Sleepwalk to War.

Michael J. Green



Kevin Rudd

There seems to be an immutable law of Australian national security policy that the more challenging our external strategic circumstances, the more polarised, polemical and facile the debate becomes.

In the blue corner stands Peter Dutton from the Queensland Far-Right School of International Relations. His view: the more Australia could ingratiate itself with Donald Trump, ignore our immediate region and screech at Beijing every Monday morning, the more Australia’s national security would be enhanced.

And in the red corner, Hugh White from the Lord Halifax Appeasement Faction of the Green Left. With supreme self-confidence, White considers America already done for as a regional (and probably global) power; it should “gracefully withdraw” from Asia, leaving the keys for Beijing in the mailbox; and Australia should start chatting to our Marxist-Leninist friends in Beijing about our “role” in the new regional Sinosphere.

On any realist analysis aimed at safeguarding Australia’s territorial integrity, political sovereignty and national economic interests, Dutton is as strategically dangerous as White is strategically naive.

Dutton represents the reverse of Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum to “speak softly and carry a big stick” – instead, he tramples loudly through the jungle of international relations wielding no stick at all. That he departed office without a single new submarine (or even a contract to build one) after years of fulmination underscored how Morrison’s government saw foreign and security policy as little more than the continuation of domestic politics by other means. Nobody, apart from Beijing, took it seriously. Its shallow, shabby effort to discredit its political opponents in a fraudulent khaki election nonetheless had important real-world consequences for China’s long-term assessment of Australia as a potentially implacable enemy.

White leans heavily into the winds of political exhaustion, reaction and anxiety fostered by this egregious policy overreach to now paint a simplistic picture of a more benign future under what he accepts as an inevitable Chinese “regional hegemony.” A skilled political operator, White adduces selective facts and little reason in reaching this conclusion, but happily smears as “unthinking” anyone who challenges his word as self-appointed prophet of both the anti-American far left and the “never upset Beijing” Rio Tinto far right. It is therefore important to deconstruct both White’s analysis of our future strategic environment (whereby almost everything is headed Beijing’s way) and his six-point prescription for Australia.

White’s bottom-line conclusion, peering through a glass dimly, is that it is game over for America. As evidence, he claims the economic gap between the United States and China is unassailable, that Taiwan is indefensible and that America is domestically ungovernable. He further advances, ex cathedra, that China’s projection of power should not cause any real concern for our territorial integrity, political sovereignty or economic interests. America is declining and should withdraw, China will emerge as a regional hegemon, and these fundamentally altered strategic circumstances require an equally fundamental Australian adjustment towards a Whitean form of neutrality.

There are many factual problems with White’s intellectually arrogant futurology that demand a factual response. For example, White cites the “simple fact” China’s GDP is already larger and growing faster than America’s, but doesn’t disclose this is based on purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than market exchange rates. This is a big difference: US GDP is 30 per cent larger than China’s on market rates, but appears 16 per cent smaller on PPP. Why not acknowledge this important qualification? Because it does not support White’s narrative.

A further complication for White’s Chinese economic determinism is Xi Jinping’s ideological decision since 2017 to take China’s economy decisively to the left, radically altering its economic growth model by attacking the private sector in general, and tech, finance and property businesses in particular. Add to this China’s rapidly ageing population, contracting workforce, collapsing productivity growth and rolling “zero Covid” lockdowns. Long-held assumptions about Chinese linear economic growth have changed, and debates are erupting among non-partisan economists over what this means for its long-term growth (see, for example, works by Daniel Rosen and the Lowy Institute). But none of these doubts creep into White’s essay because, once again, they don’t fit his thesis.

Further, on technology, despite unprecedented public investment since 2015 to make China a world leader in all ten critical future technology categories, the evidence of real-world progress is at best mixed. Politically sanctioned state-owned enterprises are crowding out private innovators (particularly in semiconductors, where the United States and its allies, notably Taiwan and South Korea, remain decisively ahead). The core point: the jury is out on who wins the global race for economic and technological pre-eminence between China, and the United States and its closest allies. On current evidence, I’m not prepared to pick. But White breezily assumes it’s all over, red rover. Really?

On the military – an equally critical determinant of future great-power status – the jury is also out. White urges Australians to “get real” and abandon the comfortable consensus that “America’s position in Asia is invulnerable, that its armed forces are unbeatable, and that its commitment to Asia is unshakable.” Wow. Talk about the ultimate straw-man argument. For anyone who witnessed the fall of Saigon in 1975, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the reinstallation of the Taliban in 2021, these are not hidden truths. America regularly screws up. We know that. But its military remains the most formidable fighting force on Earth, battle-hardened and constantly modernising its doctrines and weaponry. By contrast, China last fought a major naval battle in 1895, which it lost. And, as the Ukrainians have demonstrated, it is impossible to prejudge the success of a “porcupine strategy” to defend Taiwan against a mainland invasion. Taiwan has 25 million people who have repeatedly told pollsters they would fight to the end for their democracy. Taiwan is already well armed, well trained and has greater capabilities on the way aimed at deterring attack or else fighting a bloody war of attrition. Furthermore, killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese on Taiwan would hardly be politically popular on the mainland. A full-scale maritime invasion would also involve the single biggest amphibious operation since D-Day. So I’d add a note of caution to White’s conclusion that conflict over Taiwan would be a lay-down misère for Beijing.

Another tranche of White’s argument is that, unlike communist China, the United States is politically divided and shows no appetite for reinvesting in the future pillars of American national power. Meanwhile, neo-isolationists, such as Trump’s America-Firsters, stand by to torpedo any consensus. White is correct that US politics is changing fundamentally, in significant part because our very own Citizen Murdoch has fused acute partisan division, the lunatic right and the dynamic that drove the 6 January insurrection into a successful business model for Fox News. But it remains far from clear that US politics are irredeemable. Unlike White, I have lived in the United States for most of the past decade, including through the Trump phenomenon. It is as probable as not that America’s democracy, like its economy, will successfully reinvent itself – as it did in 1776, 1812, 1865, 1917, 1932, 1941, 1945 and 1974–75. I’m not prepared to bet the house on it, though White apparently is.

From these unreliable foundations, White advances a six-point strategy to “get out of this mess.” Running to eleven pages, this is where dubious analysis degenerates into policy farce. His first three points go to nothing approaching rigorous policy, but rather pop psychology. The first is to “get real about the situation we face … stop underestimating China’s power and resolve, and overestimating America’s, because a correct assessment of their relative positions is essential.” White doesn’t explain how his “correct assessment” of China’s rising regional power accounts for Korea, Japan and India all turning decisively against China. While ASEAN remains the geopolitical swing state, Beijing’s only semi-reliable strategic partners in all of Asia are North Korea, Pakistan and Cambodia.

His second point is to “build a more balanced and realistic view of China” and “keep China’s power in proportion.” I have been examining Chinese politics and foreign policy for forty years. There have been profound changes under Xi that have turned China politically leftward and moved its nationalism more decisively to the right. My conclusion is that China will be increasingly assertive. Meanwhile, White’s “balanced and realistic” analysis is coloured by such bold but unsubstantiated conclusions that Russia will inevitably split from China because of their historical rivalry. He misses that Russia now has nowhere else to turn; that China is very happy with this new dependency; that it suits both parties’ strategic interests deeply; and that this is unlikely to change under either Putin or Xi, both of whom plan to remain in office for fifteen more years at least.

The third pillar of the White Doctrine is to “think seriously of war.” Some of us lesser mortals, Hugh, do think about these things too. I just wrote an entire book on the subject, titled The Avoidable War, which outlines a proposal to do just that through what I call “managed strategic competition” or MSC. It’s not rocket science, but has been positively reviewed by the likes of Graham Allison (author of Essence of Decision and Destined for War), Joseph Nye (“Soft Power” and “Smart Power”), James Stavridis (formerly NATO’s supreme commander) and Henry Kissinger. But White fails to take his own advice and, rather than thinking seriously, simply dismisses MSC as unworkable by lazily misrendering its core arguments, probably because they don’t suit his case. For example, White falsely describes MSC as a “compromise” proposal for both sides “sharing power” in Asia; in reality, MSC proposes vibrant strategic competition within a set of minimum guardrails to reduce the risk of escalation, crisis, conflict and war. White insists China won’t agree to MSC to limit the risk of war by, for example, dialling back its more daring military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, because it wants to change the status quo; but White entirely misses the point that such exercises heighten the risk of stumbling into conflict by mistake. White also criticises MSC for not resolving the “underlying differences” that sustain US–China strategic competition – something MSC explicitly does not attempt to do. MSC is designed to reduce the risks of strategic competition escalating into unintended war – not to eliminate strategic competition altogether, which is utterly unrealistic. The only reasonable explanation for White blatantly mischaracterising the core argument of MSC is to dismiss it as an alternative to his own capitulationist approach.

White’s fourth pillar is to “talk to America about its future in Asia” and, assuming we are unsatisfied, encourage Washington to abandon Taiwan’s democracy to Beijing and “withdraw quickly and gracefully” from Asia. This is perhaps the single most naive element of White’s grand schema. What does he imagine the impact would be on US allies globally? Every security guarantee involving America and its allies would be rendered worthless, while democracies as a genus would henceforth be regarded as politically and strategically expendable. Not to mention the real-world political response in the country that, rightly or wrongly, has seen itself as the world’s “city on the hill.” White’s admonition to tell the United States to cut and run is appeasement writ large, politically naive, morally corrupt and with profound geopolitical implications far beyond East Asia if Washington were to concur.

Point five is to recast our diplomacy to be more attentive to our neighbours. This is simply a motherhood statement. Regional political, diplomatic and economic engagement is essential whatever our strategic circumstances. Here, White dances around the bleeding obvious: that Liberal governments have treated most of Asia and the Pacific badly, and Labor governments since H.V. Evatt have done the reverse, as we are seeing once again under Albanese.

The lynchpin of White’s six-point plan is the final one: Australia should “start talking seriously to China” about our role in its regional hegemony. But he then slides off this core point after a mere ninety-three words. Talk about what? What White is squeamish about admitting is that this is code for Australia’s status under a new Pax Sinica. This goes to the heart of Beijing’s plan beyond the opaque diplomatic language of “neighbouring states diplomacy,” a “community of common destiny” and “win-win cooperation.” Despite China’s hints of a hardline, Leninist, realist edge (for example, through its recent coercive economic diplomacy against states it disagrees with), we simply do not know what a Sinocentric regional order would look like in practice. And as for White’s more immediate suggestion that Australia make concessions to restart bilateral negotiations (because the Chinese are “fundamentally … more important to us than we are to them,” and castigating Albanese as “weak” for delegating meetings with Chinese officials to Foreign Minister Wong), this singular piece of advice has already aged poorly. At the time of writing, Wong had already broken the ministerial freeze by meeting her counterpart, Wang Yi, in Bali without a single concession, and with Albanese stating resolutely that “Australia doesn’t respond to demands.”

In summary, White would bet Australia’s entire national security future on what is at best a couple of hunches: first, that China will inevitably prevail over the United States and its allies, and America therefore should seek early terms; and second, that Australia should “talk” to Beijing on what Australia’s role in this future Sinosphere should be. White argues both propositions with supreme self-confidence without, to my knowledge, ever having studied or read a word of Chinese, or graduated in Chinese history, or specialised in the Marxist-Leninist doctrines of the Chinese Communist Party. My argument is more modest: simply that the jury is out on White’s first proposition, where there is much history still to be written; and the second is a massive poke in the dark, given that the internal planning processes of the CCP on the future of the international order are still unclear. White’s written reply to this critique should provide substantial responses to each of these factual challenges, rather than resorting to the usual repertoire of caricature, polemic and diversion.

While these two historical questions are played out, I have argued a different framework for Australia–China relations built on five principles: first, be unapologetic with Beijing that Australia is a democracy that believes in universal human rights grounded in the Universal Declaration, which China has also ratified, and that this will remain a running tension in the relationship; second, our US alliance will remain fundamental because it has added to our national security under multiple strategic scenarios over the past century; third, Australia and China should maximise bilateral economic and people-to-people engagement to the benefit of both countries; fourth, Australia and China should also collaborate at the G20 and all forums of global governance on climate change, pandemic management and global financial stability; and fifth, if we disagree with Beijing, we should do so in partnership with our international friends and allies, rather than flying solo like Morrison and Dutton. Further, we should bring the rhetorical temperature of the relationship down because – despite what Dutton may believe – megaphone diplomacy achieves nothing in foreign policy and (as the last election demonstrates) precious little in domestic politics.

This five-point approach represents a rational middle course between the hairy-chested world according to Peter Dutton and the deeply analytically flawed, brave new world according to Hugh White.

Kevin Rudd



Malcolm Turnbull

For many years Hugh White has argued that Australia should not assume the continued presence of superior American power in our region, but rather accommodate ourselves to the reality that China will become the hegemon in this hemisphere as the United States is in its own.

Whether you agree with White or not, these regular doses of realpolitik are invigorating but in this latest Quarterly Essay, White has strayed into sweeping generalisations and, frankly, “alternative facts” to embellish his argument. I was disappointed that a scholar of his standing would do so.

White’s description of Australian foreign policy is simply wrong – in his view we have been passive clients of the United States, always looking to our great and powerful friend in Washington to solve all our China problems. Thus he suggests decisions taken by my government to enact laws on foreign interference and the 5G network were inspired by the Trump administration. He adds that by 2017, “Turnbull had repositioned Australia as the most stridently anti-Chinese country in the region, and indeed globally.” He then goes on to say that in August 2018, I “tried to back-pedal with a major ‘reset’ speech at the University of New South Wales.”

Nowhere in this description does White consider whether the extent of foreign (mostly Chinese) espionage and other influence in Australia warranted new legislation, any more than he considers whether the ban on Huawei and ZTE from the 5G network was justified on security grounds. The reader is left to assume that White believes it would have been more prudent for Australia not to bother about these security threats.

The truth is that both the foreign interference legislation and 5G decisions were carefully considered, calibrated responses to real threats. Great care was taken, especially with the 5G decision, not to arouse unnecessary resentment, and our announcement was deliberately very low-key. We went to great lengths, without success, to find a way to mitigate the risks so that we would not have to ban Huawei. The decisions were taken by the Australian government in Australia’s national interest and were not dictated or encouraged by any other government, including that of the United States. Indeed, as I have described in my memoir, A Bigger Picture, we were ahead of the United States in our assessment of the risks posed by the very different architecture of 5G wireless technologies.

As for the “back-pedal” – the background to that was quite the reverse of White’s description. The foreign interference and influence legislation was introduced at the end of 2017. The Labor Opposition had not agreed to support its passage through the Senate and there was considerable pressure from China to encourage the government to drop it and for Labor not to support it.

Once Labor had agreed to support the legislation and it was passed, we needed to create an opportunity for China to elegantly discontinue its pressure campaign. So I gave a speech at the UNSW in August 2018 which did not take a backward step on any matter of policy, but was warm in its tone and context, pointing to the considerable achievements from Sino–Australian cooperation in science and research. This was designed as an opportunity for China to reset and was not a “back-pedal” in any respect.

While China’s strategy of becoming the dominant power in our hemisphere is unchanging, its tactics are thoroughly flexible and when one line of pressure or coercion fails to achieve its objective, China will switch to another approach but generally needs the appearance of a catalyst to provide the exit ramp. The recent change of government is a good example of this.

Where White is on firmer ground is in his criticism of the gratuitously belligerent bluster about China from Scott Morrison and, especially, Peter Dutton. The absurdity of some of Dutton’s comments about Taiwan was underlined for me in November 2021 at the Halifax Security Conference, when one American four-star after another wryly observed, “Your defence minister is more forward-leaning on Taiwan than our president.”

And White is correct in saying that this belligerent rhetoric was designed to pander to a political and media constituency in Australia, undermining Australian security and prosperity in return for some favourable headlines in the Murdoch media.

White makes the mistake of swallowing whole the rhetoric around AUKUS. He describes it as “a major shift in our strategic positioning.” It suited all of the signatories to AUKUS to exaggerate its importance. For Morrison and Dutton it created the appearance of doing something on national security, for Boris Johnson it was evidence that after Brexit “global Britain” was back, and for Joe Biden it was a counterpoint to the debacle in Kabul.

Shorn of the bravado, apart from the submarines AUKUS does not add up to much more than a continuation of the already intimate collaboration between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States on security matters, especially signals intelligence. It does not create an obligation in any of the parties to defend the others and is not, as White asserts, “a complete identification of our interests with Washington in dealing with China.”

Chinese propaganda has been ready to condemn AUKUS as (yet another) attempt to contain China, but in truth its net effect is more of an own goal. So far AUKUS has:

done little more than evolve the already close cooperation between the US, UK and Australia;

seriously undermined the trust France had reposed in both Australia and, more consequentially, the United States;

humiliated France’s “Atlanticists,” who support closer ties with the United States, and vindicated those, on the extreme left and right, who contend the “Anglo-Saxons” are utterly untrustworthy;

ensured Australia’s new submarine capabilities will be delayed for at least an additional decade – into the 2040s;

set back the prospects of closer cooperation between Australia, the United States and France in the Pacific; and, if that wasn’t enough,

created a precedent of transferring weapons-grade uranium to non-nuclear weapons states for the purpose of “naval nuclear propulsion,” which is not prohibited under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This has not only caused considerable concern among our ASEAN neighbours, but will also be used by Iran and other would-be nuclear-weapon states as a precedent to allow them to continue enrichment to weapons-grade levels. (There is a wealth of literature on this issue now: see James Acton’s “Why the AUKUS Submarine Deal Is Bad for Nonproliferation – And What to Do About It” and multiple speeches, interviews and papers by University of Texas professor Alan Kuperman, including his May 2022 article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)

Plenty there to celebrate in Beijing, and a reminder that just because you label something #standinguptoChina doesn’t mean you aren’t shooting yourself in the foot. Equally, just because Beijing is loudly protesting about AUKUS does not mean that it isn’t delighted with the chaotic outcome.

However, when it comes to the history of the acquisition of submarines, White is at his most unreliable. It is true that Tony Abbott was intent on buying submarines from Japan, although he did not share the full extent of his commitments to Japan with all his ministers, let alone the Australian public. However, it was Abbott in February 2015, following the “empty chair” spill, who announced there would be a competitive evaluation process to determine which country we would partner with to build the “future submarine.” The countries invited to tender were Japan, France and Germany.

I became prime minister in September 2015 and by April 2016 the unequivocal recommendation from our defence department and expert advisory panel was that we should proceed with the proposal from France’s Naval Group (then known as DCNS). This was based on the design of its latest nuclear attack submarine, the Barracuda, now known as the Suffren class. White says, “Their bid was extremely expensive – perhaps double the price of the competitors.” That is untrue. The costs of all three proposals were comparable. More importantly, the French proposal was head and shoulders above the others and the only one which offered a regionally superior submarine.

France also offered the prospect of transitioning to nuclear propulsion over time, but with low-enriched uranium reactors that do not present the proliferation risks that the weapons-grade uranium used by the US and UK navies does.

White goes on to assert that what really drove the AUKUS submarine move was “the growing awareness that the French project was a debacle, and the ever-increasing desire to align ever closer with Washington.”

I cannot speak for Morrison and Dutton’s motivations, but it is utterly false to describe the French project (more accurately described as an Australian–French–American collaboration) as a debacle. In fact, as was stated by defence department secretary Greg Moriarty in Senate Estimates, the program was not over-budget and, as revealed in defence department correspondence released under FOI requests, it was progressing well and the proposal from Naval Group for the next phase of work was regarded as “affordable and acceptable.” Moriarty assured Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, the CEO of the program, that this good news would be passed on to the French and Australian ministers when they met on 30 August – just two weeks before the Australian government terminated the contract.

White is scathing about the decision by Morrison to acquire nuclear-powered submarines from either the United States or the United Kingdom. I described my own reservations at length in a speech to the National Press Club in September 2021.

As Australia has no nuclear industry, let alone any ability to maintain or sustain a naval nuclear propulsion system, the submarines could not be safely operated other than under the supervision of the US Navy. This means an abandonment of Australian sovereignty.

The singular reason my government, and its predecessors, did not seek to procure nuclear-powered submarines was because it recognised that in the absence of a domestic nuclear industry, we would not be able to exercise sovereign control of such submarines. That was precisely the explanation I gave President Trump when he asked me why we were not acquiring US (as opposed to French) submarines.

The likely candidate is a US Virginia-class submarine, which is more than twice the size and with more than twice the ship’s company of the Attack-class (or Collins-class) submarines. It is very questionable whether Australia could afford these submarines, let alone recruit and retain the much larger crews required.

Naval nuclear propulsion does offer greater speed and endurance under water, but the vessels are not as stealthy while submerged as a modern diesel/electric boat. The ideal configuration for our navy would be diesel/electric boats for the shallower waters closer to Australia (such as in the archipelagic regions to our north and east) and nuclear-powered boats for longer transits in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The upshot of proceeding with the acquisition of Virginia-class submarines from the United States will be that we will not be able to deploy our most expensive and lethal military capability without the active involvement of the United States.

So AUKUS as an agreement, absent the submarines, is not of great strategic significance. The engagement of “global Britain” in the Pacific, whatever that means, may well not survive the prime ministership of Boris Johnson. If you want a European, nuclear-weapons state that is a permanent UN Security Council member to partner with in the Pacific, it would make more sense to pick the one that is actually in the Pacific, not the one that withdrew its substantive military forces “east of Suez” more than fifty years ago. And it certainly made no sense at all to choose Britain as a new partner in the Indo-Pacific if the price of doing so was shattering the relationship with France.

At this stage, it may well be too late to restart the Attack-class program. While all the intellectual property has been retained, the workforce has been dispersed and would take many months to reassemble. Morrison has likely scuttled that option. The proposition that we could buy an “off-the-shelf” submarine from somebody else overlooks the fact that there is no such thing.

The best option at this stage is to acquire nuclear-powered submarines from France. Its production of six Suffren-class boats for the French Navy will be complete by 2030 and it would be feasible for that production line to continue to build six or eight boats for Australia, with one becoming available every two years. The submarines would be a more manageable size and cost. Their reactors would use low-enriched uranium – enriched to about 6 per cent, around the same level used in a civil nuclear reactor to generate electricity but far below the 90 per cent level needed to make a weapon. This would reduce the proliferation issues, and the Lockheed Martin combat management system could be readily integrated – much of that design work had been done for the Attack-class. In time, the front half of the boat could be built in Australia, with the back half containing the nuclear propulsion system built in France. This would give us nuclear-powered submarines from the early 2030s – a full decade before the Virginia-class.

From a strategic point of view, this would cement a partnership with France, a substantial power in the Indo-Pacific, with nearly two million citizens and extensive territories across both oceans. This strategic partnership, and the trust established between myself and President Macron, was seen as the foundation of France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, launched in Sydney at Garden Island on 2 May 2018 – an “Indo-Pacific axis,” in his words. It would not diminish our alliance with the United States – the submarines would be interoperable with the US Navy. The only barrier to this course of action would be politics in Washington and Canberra.

White is very critical of the “small target” strategy of the Labor Opposition in the lead-up to the May 2022 election. On the AUKUS issue he makes a fair point. Morrison gave Labor only twenty-four hours’ notice of the deal – despite having undertaken to the White House that the Opposition would be fully briefed and supportive. Labor, recognising the risk of a wedge and being framed by Morrison and his friends in the media as “anti-American” or “Manchurian candidates,” chose to go with the flow – sign up to the deal but without any time to receive, let alone consider, a fully detailed briefing. It wasn’t edifying, but I can understand the political calculation behind it.

The small target may well have helped Albanese and Labor win the election but it does create a challenge for the new government, which must first and foremost set out all the facts surrounding the submarine issue, including the way in which the decision was taken to terminate the Attack-class program, the options that remain available, their cost and timing. It must tell the truth about the consequences of operating submarines with weapons grade uranium–fuelled reactors and explain whether the US Navy will allow those submarines to be operated without any US involvement or supervision.

One of the leading figures in the US administration intimately involved in the AUKUS negotiations has been reported in Europe as having justified the deal as “getting the Australians off the fence. We have them locked in now for the next forty years.” Now, knowing the individual involved, I can, just, imagine him saying that in an ebullient way. But of course, Australia was never “on the fence” in the sense of being about to move away from the ANZUS alliance to a non-aligned status which was more accommodating to China. But it is significant that this report is widely believed in Europe, and that the AUKUS submarine deal is seen as an abandonment of Australian sovereignty.

It is noteworthy to recall that in President Macron’s speech at Garden Island on 2 May 2018 he spoke of how Australia, through its partnership with France, was developing a wider range of allies, pursuing a policy of sovereign autonomy and not simply relying on the United States. He was quite right; that was precisely my thinking, and my government’s strategy.

That is why I often talked about our seeing our region as not simply a series of spokes leading into the imperial capitals of Washington and Beijing, but rather as a mesh where we found our security, as Keating used to say, not from Asia but in Asia, by building closer ties with our neighbours, whether it be Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India or, indeed, France with its vast Indo-Pacific territories.

Hugh White’s bleak realism is as usefully challenging as it is dangerously mistaken, although his warning about not putting all our strategic eggs in one basket is a fair one. However, he is just wrong in saying that Australian foreign policy has been monotonously obedient to, and enthralled by, Washington.

During my own time, I displeased President Obama by not falling into line with his wishes on the treatment of pharmaceuticals in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With President Trump, of course, we went toe to toe on a refugee deal, as we did on steel tariffs. In both cases our officials would have been happier if I had taken a path of less resistance. Similarly we did not agree to our navy conducting freedom-of-navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of claimed Chinese “islands” in the South China Sea. And perhaps most significantly, when Trump pulled out of the TPP and everyone thought the deal was dead, we persuaded other countries, especially Japan, to stick with the deal and as a result it was revived and concluded without the United States.

Similarly, White complains that Australia has neglected the Pacific and says we must do more than simply tell our Pacific islands neighbours not to deal with China. Well, leaving aside Morrison’s shameful diplomatic failure in Solomon Islands over the past few years, our diplomacy in the Pacific has been very active. In my own time we persuaded Solomon Islands not to do a deal with Huawei for an international cable network, not by lecturing them on the evils of communism but by building a cable network ourselves and funding it almost entirely out of our aid budget. We did similar things in PNG and Fiji.

White urges Australia to “stop telling our Southeast Asian neighbours that US primacy is the only path to regional order and start listening to them about how they see China’s and India’s rises and how they are dealing with them.”

In numerous discussions with ASEAN leaders I have never spoken to them in those terms and always sought and listened to their views. Many of my predecessors have done so as well, as have most of our foreign ministers. During my time we stepped up our engagement with ASEAN with new agreements with Singapore, Indonesia and particularly important security assistance in the Philippines. In my experience most ASEAN leaders welcomed a continued American security presence in the region, recognised that China would seek to exert more influence as it became stronger, and saw the United States as a vital counterweight. Hugh White’s prediction that America will depart this region and leave it to China would fill almost every nation in ASEAN with dread.

For my own part, I believe the United States will remain engaged in this region for many years to come. The United States is as much a Pacific nation as Australia; it can never responsibly or rationally cede this hemisphere to an unchallenged hegemony of China.

White recommends that Taiwan be abandoned by the United States to Xi Jinping, and that Australia should have nothing whatsoever to do with helping America defend it. But on that basis Ukraine would have been swallowed by Russia, which would now be moving on the Baltic states and on its way to restore the Soviet empire. And if Taiwan were to be overcome, how does that buy peace in our region? One nation after another would acquire nuclear weapons to make itself unassailable. If the risks of nuclear conflict are high today, the withdrawal of the United States in the manner White contemplates would send them sky-high.

The truth is we are living in a time when the pace and scale of change are without precedent. We have to expect, as Margaret Thatcher said, the unexpected. And that means that Australia must have a thoroughly independent foreign policy. The more independent it is, the more influence we have around the world, in our region and indeed in Washington and Beijing. As an ASEAN foreign minister once said to me “If we see you as a rubber stamp for Washington, why would we waste time talking to you? Easier just to talk to head office.”

As far as the defence of Australia is concerned, we must be able to defend ourselves and that means that all of our defence capabilities must be sovereign Australian ones, able to be maintained, sustained and deployed by Australia without the approval or supervision of any other nation.

Of course we look to our allies to support us in times of need, as we will support them, but we cannot look out across the decades to come and assume those allies will always be there.

Malcolm Turnbull


Response to Correspondence

Sarah Krasnostein

A few weeks after I finished writing Quarterly Essay 85, the federal budget was handed down, a federal election was called and punitive populist politicking – ever-present in the nation’s sphere of accepted political discourse – was turned up to eleven. Like the emotional experience of researching the case studies and figures in my essay, these events brought further examples of how it is possible – ironically – to be unsurprised by human decision-making that shocks the conscience.

In the lead-up to the election, we saw the two major parties haemorrhage finite time on the specious need to “turn back the boats” and the concocted debate over the fundamental human dignity of trans people. We heard deafening silence, however, when it comes to the actual, enormous and urgent need to significantly invest (money, time, attention, effort, training) in the mental health of Australians generally, and already-marginalised groups specifically. Given that both parties have commissioned research about not only the scope of the mental health catastrophe in this country, but also the ways in which Othering – in all its forms – compounds and causes mental illness, these hypocrisies signify something that has not yet been psychologically mastered, something ill at ease with itself and intentionally self-deluded, as Theodor Adorno put it in the context of post-war Germany.

Despite the slick marketing labels – “Guaranteeing the essentials” and “Modernising the mental health system” – this was a federal budget that did neither of these things. As Sebastian Rosenberg put it in his thoughtful response to my essay: “The 2022 federal budget … smeared some new funding across myriad, often time-limited programs and services. Links to state spending … are unclear or missing. New funding cannot be wasted by perpetuating fragmentation. We must stop pouring more oil into this leaky engine.”

It struck me that a shared theme across the correspondence is that of moral injury. This can be understood as the eviscerating betrayal of one’s conscience when one is compelled to operate within a system that discourages values such as fairness, effectiveness, compassion and justice. “I am a psychiatrist relatively early in my career,” Alexandra Goldsworthy movingly wrote, “but already suffer from burnout and compassion fatigue. It comes in waves, not dissimilar to grief … this grief is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion involving a sense of reduced accomplishment, helplessness and despair.”

I am grateful for this intimate insight. I had previously been aware of the ways in which our mental health care system is itself iatrogenic, causing harm to patients, carers and families through myriad institutional failings. I had also been aware of the prevalence of secondary trauma among clinicians, lawyers and police who work in these systems. While related to those harms, moral injury is, however, an independent, additional wounding.

Goldsworthy continued: “Years of underfunding of psychiatric services informed my own clinical training, in which the most important KPI was the rapid turnover of inpatients, who were often discharged prematurely to under-resourced community ‘support’ … I do not know a single colleague who feels we are doing an adequate job.”

Relatedly, Janet McCalman, in her finely synthesised reply, stated that “the dilemma of American nursing is that they are ordered to care in a society that refuses to value caring. And that’s the rub.” Joo-Inn Chew writes – beautifully, powerfully – of recognising “the weary frustration of the front-line clinicians [interviewed in the essay] who band-aid daily the deep distress of their patients in a system and society which is failing them.” This theme of moral injury is also present in Russell Marks’ revelatory interrogation of authority at the intersection of our mental health and legal systems: “In my view, the only possible description of a lot of what occurs in the public mental health and disability systems is systems abuse: the use of bureaucratic and legal systems to deny vulnerable people agency … the systems also did a very poor job of supporting their own staff.”

“We don’t value the caring professions,” one woman – an academic and a mother with lived experience of trying to secure effective psychiatric care for herself and her two children – told me when I was researching the essay. Her acuity gave me goosebumps. The mental health system was already understaffed before the workforce problems caused by Covid-19. We underestimate the prevalence and impact of moral injury among those in the caretaking professions at our collective peril. I am grateful to the correspondents for bringing this to my attention.

The correspondence also speaks, from different valuable angles, to the ways in which personal wounds affect group psychology and therefore political behaviour: what we will see, what we will tolerate, what we will participate in. “So much of our public expenditure is, in the old parlance of health bureaucracy, sending ambulances to wait at the bottom of the cliff,” wrote Rick Morton, with characteristic insight. “It has become fashionable to frame these moral truths in the language of ideology. Unemployment benefits, according to some, are not meant to be ‘easy’ to live on because then people might actually manage to live on them. But if you’re not inclined to believe the bleeding hearts, ask the hard-headed economists and researchers at the Productivity Commission.”

Jennifer Doggett – to whom I have long been thankful for her clear-sighted analyses of health policy and practice – wrote: “It seems that mental illness is a mirror which reflects back to the viewer their existing concerns, anxieties and ideologies. In this way it reinforces the ideologies and worldviews which divide us, making it difficult to work together to develop a common response.”

We are united in the fears and emotional reactivity that separate us. Luckily, facts do not care about ideology. Countless publicly funded fact-finding missions have provided us with a wealth of data about the causative and compounding impacts on poor mental health of stigma and discrimination, housing insecurity, job insecurity, imprisonment, lack of early intervention, care, treatment and support, domestic violence, and childhood abuse and emotional neglect.

“What is maddening about all of this,” Morton continued, “is that we have arranged our collective social mind to hide away the uncomfortable truths about mental illness.” While it is true, then, that facts don’t care about ideology, facts alone do not move the world. Again, Morton: “It feels too big, I suppose, to stare down the role of poverty; family dysfunction; the harsh illogic of the justice system; chronic pain and physical ailments; the stress of being any kind of ‘other’; physical or emotional traumas; and government systems meant … to provide support but which come booby-trapped by negligence or, worse, malicious intent.”

In what has gone unsaid and unseen and unchallenged, the final weeks of campaigning and media coverage evoked in me an uncanny dread. The familiar, and pathological, political patterns continue: investing public money in public inquiries only to ignore or cherry-pick their findings; politicians refusing to model the behaviours they purportedly expect from sectors and services; and the deliberate use of already-vulnerable groups as political footballs, despite government-funded evidence that stigmatisation and othering increase the risk of suicide.

Our leaders persist in their delusive aversion to enacting the solutions we are by now well informed about. Nicola Redhouse eloquently describes this political and institutional dysregulation as “a mental health system whose borders repeatedly collapse, open up, fall down; a system that cannot maintain a holding function, that buckles under the pain of its society.” Too much of the electorate – and the media, whose role is to hold power to account – also have a hand in this. A critical mass continues to “defend themselves against the progress of the treatment,” in Freud’s words.

Redhouse rightfully located this main concern of the essay within the field of socioanalysis, “which attempts to understand the collective unconscious ‘phantasies’ of a group as socially induced phenomena: that the behavioural dynamics of the group, its defences and dysfunctions, come about because the individuals within it have taken in a shared social experience.” I am thankful for her observations, especially considering the impact that two texts had on my thinking: Freud’s “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921) and Adorno’s “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” (1959), both masterful interrogations of the ways in which individual psychology is an inevitable aspect of social psychology.

This leads to the last theme I’d like to highlight from the correspondence, that of the still-determinative influences of our national history – “from the anxieties and afflictions of the penal colony to their long shadows, falling everywhere around us,” as James Dunk elegantly put it. I am grateful to Dunk and Rosenberg for tracing – from different but equally illuminating perspectives – not just our mental health care system’s failure to thrive since, at the very least, the late colonial period, but its failure (our failure) to adapt to the reality of social needs.

In addressing the mental health crisis, there is a vital, reparative role to be played by our historians, our storytellers, our artists, our educators, our readers and everyone who can find it within themselves to listen to what Aboriginal community-controlled organisations have been telling us for decades. These are the people whose lives are devoted to practices of truly knowing, and properly grieving, the past. That is the precondition for not repeating its violence. Personally and politically, we cannot cope with what has not been made conscious. “This is the social-psychological relevance of talk about an unmastered past,” Adorno wrote over sixty years ago.

“Commissioner after commissioner expresses horror and disgust at bedding or bathing practices,” Dunk wrote, about the repetitions of that past, “at the lack of therapeutics, at the class or capability of keepers, at the state of rations or visitation policies or at the personality flaws of superintendents … For those of us who have spent time working with that history, we come sooner or later to wonder at the amnesia and self-righteousness of the commissioner, and of the dialectic. Why should anyone have ever expected anything to be otherwise? Because things are forgotten … Because it has been helpful to forget.” Now, however, “[a]fter two hundred years of bullish bureaucracy, the iron cage is straining awfully, and beginning perhaps to buckle under the weight of its dissociative fictions.”

That collapsing of borders described earlier by Redhouse is also inherent to apophenia – the human tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated things. This is a characteristic of certain mental illnesses as well as of all artistic endeavour, rational thought and perhaps the quality of empathy itself. Which is all to say that even though I have gone on to new assignments, I am still thinking about the people at the heart of my essay, and still finding greater understanding in unexpected places.

I recently finished a deceptively slender book by Ross Gibson titled Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (UQP, 2002), which interrogates white mythologies of Queensland’s landscape. Gibson defines myth as “a popular story that highlights contradictions which a community feels compelled to resolve narratively rather than rationally, so that citizens can get on living.” I think about our shared grammar of evasion within that framework: She’ll be right. Toughen up. Pretty ordinary. Border Force. Religious discrimination. Guaranteeing the essentials. Modernising the mental health system. “Myths help us live with contradictions,” Gibson wrote, “whereas histories help us analyse persistent contradictions so that we might avoid being lulled and ruled by the myths that we use to console and enable ourselves.”

While we desire our myths, we need our histories, Gibson tells us. “The histories of most nations founded on violence suggest that an inability or refusal to acknowledge the past will produce evermore confusing and distressing symptoms in the body politic,” he writes. “In the wishful shelter of ignorance or amnesia, an abiding melancholy tends to creep into the populace. Or equally disabling, the society can succumb to a paranoid urge to expunge all dissenting persons and memories.” As happens in the counselling room, techniques of national insight and grieving are required “so that the denials might cease, so that guilt and threat might be ‘lived out’, and citizens might start to earn some kind of worldly wisdom, scars and all.”

Without this unflinching confrontation with the reality of our history, future generations will “continue to live in the shadow of denial and repression of events that cannot be undone by acts of forgetting,” as Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich wrote decades ago. These are not simply acts of remembering. They are also acts of seeing – health and justice and educational and housing outcomes in real time, this minute; a lived history, as Sheree Lowe, executive director of the Victorian Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisation’s Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing Centre, put it in the essay.

You are reading this with knowledge of the election’s outcome, which I lack at the time of writing this. But the weeks of campaigning have showcased the continued normalisation of punitive paranoias, which indicate that the nation has not yet earned the label “post-colonial” or “post-traumatic.” “The past will have been worked through only when the causes of what happened then have been eliminated,” Adorno wrote. “Only because the causes continue to exist does the captivating spell of the past remain to this day unbroken.”

Favourable or otherwise, serious engagement with one’s work is a gift. Engagement that understands the work in the way one intended is exceptional. Goldsworthy’s use of the following analogy to trace the line from the interior to the communal was a bullseye; she hit the heart of the matter: “We desperately need experts and those with lived experience to inform good policy; we also desperately need good policy to be properly implemented and funded. But I often wonder what kind of shift could occur, in a collective sense, if our leaders (parents?) tried to be sensitive, warm and empathic … If the people of Australia felt loved, unconditionally, by those who govern, perhaps we might have a more secure and robust attachment to our society, and more compassion for each other and for our leaders.”

This is the “wider issue,” as Australian Fulbright scholar and correspondent John Kuot put it, and its acuity reminded me of something Kuot told me in an interview for the essay, when he emphasised the foundational importance of belonging in the context of the mental health of migrants and asylum seekers: “What people fail to understand is in the environment they’ve come to, their background experiences might not be the biggest trauma – there might be a new trauma. There are the challenges of isolation where you feel so different all the time and your only survival mechanism is code-switching. You have to be two people in one in almost every environment, and you can never be consistently one. That presents challenges for any young person, cognitively. There’s only so much a brain can take … If you live in the same household and different standards are applied, you will never feel like you belong in that home.”

I have been heartened by, and learnt much from, each of the responses printed here and those I received directly. They have enlarged my understanding of the topic. And they have strengthened my conviction that we must look broadly at the external landscape, and deeply into our interior ones, because there are no “unchlorinated areas of the pool” when it comes to our social and emotional health and wellbeing.

Finally, I am especially grateful to Marks, Chew, McCalman, Morton, Red-house and Goldsworthy – and those readers who contacted me directly – for their willingness to normalise their personal mental health experiences and share their vulnerability in the face of the pervasive stigma in this country. Those radical acts – “scary and risky, yet full of transformative power,” in Chew’s words – have expanded my optimism that harms relationally created can be relationally solved.

Sarah Krasnostein



Sebastian Rosenberg

Sarah Krasnostein’s powerful essay Not Waving, Drowning demonstrates the moribund state of Australia’s mental healthcare “system.” But to call our mental health system broken suggests that it was once whole. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There has never been a genuine set of alternative mental health services in the community. Our current situation is akin to trying to put together pieces from different jigsaw puzzles.

Krasnostein first describes the terrible everyday experiences of individuals attempting to find help. The essay’s three key case studies highlight the gaps and failures to which families and communities have unfortunately become accustomed. People struggle to find help, face delays in getting the right diagnosis or treatment and become very sick, isolated and at real risk of harm to self or others.

There is dissonance here. A rich country, Australia is regularly lauded as having one of the world’s best health systems. And yet the stories of poor care, missing care or abuse in mental health are well known. They were documented in a report I was involved with back in 2005, entitled Not for Service. Prepared jointly by the Australian Human Rights Commission and (the organisation now known as) Mental Health Australia, the report’s title denotes how the Victorian state mental health system categorised a troublesome patient seeking care – that person was classified as being “not for service.”

Typically called consumers, people using mental health services have told their stories of continuing abuse and powerlessness to repeated parliamentary committees, statutory inquiries and royal commissions. There would surely be few areas of government activity more subject to formal inquiry than mental health. All this inquiring generates a blizzard of actions, recommendations and strategies – a plandemic. Yet mental health’s share of the total health budget in Australia was 7.25 per cent in 1992–93, when the National Mental Health Strategy began, and in 2019–20 (the latest year available) it had hardly changed at 7.57 per cent.

If this were any other body part, there would be uproar about the abject failure of the health system. Perhaps this reflects the ongoing impact of stigma described in the essay.

But I think there’s more to it. If you ask people with a mental illness, any type of mental illness, what they are most concerned about, they will typically prioritise secure housing, the capacity to earn a living and the social connections which make life worth living. Australia collects almost no specific data on the quality of life of people with a mental illness or whether the care they received helped them go home, find or keep a job, or improved their relationships. We are spending $11 billion each year on direct mental health services, but we know almost nothing about the merit of this spending. Is anybody getting better?

Without this information, as pointed out recently by the Productivity Commission, we are outcome-blind. We are vulnerable to a view that somehow people with a mental illness are not worth spending time or money on. This is stigma.

A scan of a map of Sydney Harbour will reveal that the body of water adjacent to the old Gladesville asylum is named Bedlam Bay – a legacy of colonial laws preventing the mentally ill from travelling the King’s highways. Incoming patients were instead transported by boats, disembarking at Bedlam Point.

Krasnostein writes that Australia’s mental health system is broken and in need of fundamental reform. She quotes one of the people with a mental illness as saying, “You can’t heal in the environment that made you sick.” Some consumers certainly report feeling that the services or hospitals they visit are toxic environments rather than places of healing. But all those reports and inquiries document not only the voice of consumers, but also the well-intentioned health professionals describing “iatrogenic harm” – the inadvertent harm caused by treatment. Health professionals themselves recognise they cannot deliver quality mental healthcare in existing settings.

When the old mental asylums in Australia closed, two replacement institutions emerged: the psychiatric wards of our public hospitals and jails. Of the $6.6 billion spent by the states and territories, around 80 per cent would be directed towards hospital-based mental healthcare – inpatient and outpatient. Australia has never really funded mental healthcare outside of hospitals, in people’s homes or in the community. While people with mental illness are now permitted to use the King’s roads, those roads all lead to our choked emergency departments. And a 2019 report by St Vincent’s found that 40 per cent of all Australian prisoners have a mental illness.

I suggest that Australia’s mental health system is not broken. It has never been built.

The federal government funds Medicare, which is primarily designed to provide GP and psychology services to people with anxiety and depression. The states deal with rarer mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, through public hospital care. Two different funders for two different client groups. So what happens to the person with schizophrenia when they are well? How is their physical health managed? What about a person with severe anxiety? Where should they go for help if their condition improves or deteriorates?

The result of this fragmentation is that if you have a mental illness that is too difficult or complicated for your local GP or psychologist, Australians have almost no choice but to go to the accident and emergency department of their local public hospital to seek assistance. Key opportunities to provide care in other settings are missed, leaving only the most expensive and often traumatic option of going to hospital. Other illnesses focus on early intervention – addressing the cancerous lump before it grows larger. In mental health, if your lump isn’t large enough you get sent home until it grows. And that’s if you get seen at all – not assured by any means, as Krasnostein reports in the essay.

A person with more complex mental health needs will often require a team. Take, for example, a young person with an eating disorder. Their care is likely to benefit from a team including a GP, a nurse, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a dietician, a peer worker and other allied health workers (for example, to keep the person connected to their education or employment).

But mental healthcare in Australia is based on people going to see health professionals who work solo, typically charging considerable out-of-pocket costs, rarely coordinated to work in teams. Recent Medicare funding enabling this young person to see the same practitioner forty times may not be enough to address their complex problems. Only one in three Medicare mental health patients were new in 2019–20. Most are repeat customers, forced to continue to seek help because they did not get the right help the first time.

Technology can help provide care, monitor the impact of that care on a person’s wellbeing and help coordinate the team (through shared records, etc.), but investments here are negligible.

One of the most famous mental health services in the world is in Trieste, Italy. There, psychiatrists led a revolution against acute, locked, hospital care in favour of a new model of multidisciplinary health and social care in the community. Australia’s psychiatrists and other health professionals seem too content with the status quo – with hospital-based care or the certainty of Medicare fee-for-service payments – to contemplate any such revolution here. In Trieste they say, “Da vicino, nessuno e normaleup close, nobody is normal. And you get a sense of this as you walk the streets there. With some subsidised arrangements for employment, a person with a mental illness might be driving your bus, making your (excellent) coffee or cooking your lunch. Their mental health needs can be met on the high street near where they live, or even in their own home. It is an irony that Australia pioneered the concept of hospital in the home with mental health decades ago. Home visits are rare now (even pre-Covid). People get phoned, not visited.

The government can play a lead role in enhancing the social democratic reflexes of Australian society, as Krasnostein puts it. This is because effective mental healthcare should not focus on the health system. It should focus on employment and housing. Given that 75 per cent of all mental illnesses manifest before the age of twenty-five, it should focus on education. Change at this level is way beyond tinkering. It needs much more than a few new beds here, another hotline there or some new, comfy beanbags for the local Headspace.

Central to this more fundamental reform is to finally recognise psycho-social care as a vibrant and respected partner to clinical care. Psycho-social services have never accounted for more than about 8 per cent of all mental health spending, but they provide vital counselling services, accommodation support, self-help, support for families, carers and peers, as well as assistance with employment, education and recreation. These services barely exist, leaving mental healthcare stuck as just a medical problem.

Addressing this imbalance, as well as ensuring access to quality clinical care, would give people a fair chance to live well in the community. And this was the point of deinstitutionalisation. Not just to swap one institution for another.

The 2022 federal budget, announced as Krasnostein’s essay appeared, smeared some new funding across myriad, often time-limited programs and services. Links to state spending, even the significant new spending in Victoria arising from its royal commission, are unclear or missing. New funding cannot be wasted by perpetuating fragmentation. We must stop pouring more oil into this leaky engine.

Thirty years on from Australia’s first national mental health strategy, Krasnostein’s essay demonstrates the scale and urgency of the fundamental reform still required.

Sebastian Rosenberg



Alexandra Goldsworthy

Sarah Krasnostein offers a sobering account of our current predicament, writing with insight about our systemic failures as a society, to ourselves and our families. I found myself teary and despairing when Krasnostein posed the questions in the last paragraph: “What would happen if we became curious about the sources of our strangely ambivalent relationship to change? If we acknowledged the fact that our vulnerability is our greatest strength because it is the source of true connection?”

I am a psychiatrist relatively early in my career, but already suffer from burnout and compassion fatigue. It comes in waves, not dissimilar to grief. As Krasnostein captures so eloquently in her essay, this state of physical and emotional exhaustion involves a sense of reduced accomplishment, helplessness and despair, and is shared by doctors (particularly our under-appreciated general practitioners), psychologists and other front-line clinicians. The main risk factors for burnout include lack of control; an inability to influence decisions that affect your work; unclear job expectations; chronic discomfort with holding excessive risk; lack of support; feeling isolated; and work–life imbalance. Work – and intrusive thoughts about patients’ risk – uses so much bandwidth that little energy remains for family and friends. In my private practice, I see a fortunate group of patients who have managed to get to the right place at the right time. But every day, my colleagues and I reluctantly decline countless referrals due to lack of capacity. There are simply not enough clinicians to keep panning water out of a sinking boat. Sarah has an impeccable understanding of the contribution of trauma to the mental health crisis that we are drowning in. My burnout and grief, and clearly Sarah’s grief, are accompanied by disbelief that we, as a society, continue to allow such appalling neglect of all members of our society.

Affectionless psychopathy is a term coined by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who researched attachment and the importance of a reliable and safe relationship with at least one primary caregiver for normal social and emotional development. It describes individuals who cannot exhibit care, concern or affection for other people. Bowlby theorised that this is a consequence of long-term emotional deprivation in early childhood parental care. Parenting is so very complicated, yet so very simple. Children need to feel loved consistently and unconditionally.

Additionally, if a parent strives to foster a sense of security (essential for physical and mental health and self-esteem), they should also protect the child from physical and mental harm; comfort the child when distressed; ensure the child feels valued; see and know the child; and support the child in exploring, being vulnerable, trying unfamiliar things and making true connections. If, in this instance, we replace the word “child” with the words “Australian people,” and “parent” with “government,” I would suggest that our society is suffering from extreme neglect and abuse, leading in the best case to an emotional failure to thrive, and in the worst case to collective existential crisis, rising suicide and homicide rates and escalating screams for help falling on ears that refuse to listen. Perhaps I should report our government (mandatory, of course) to child protection to try to help ourselves? Knowing, obviously, that nothing will be done.

In my practice, I encounter person after person who is so riddled with shame that it obliterates their capacity to be vulnerable and to open up to themselves and that which may help them. The root of this shame is a belief that the abuse they suffered or the poverty they grew up in or their lack of education was their fault. They do not see that it was instead a symptom of a systemically traumatised society, with no parent caring enough to offer a safe and secure place of being. This shame is perpetuated by the systemic negligent responses seen everywhere they turn, including in emergency departments, ranging from the comments of ill-informed and overworked clinicians to practices such as being locked in a room, shackled to a hospital trolley or shoved to the barren psychiatric ward at the back of the hospital, and not being able to access psychologists or psychiatrists in the community.

Years of underfunding of psychiatric services informed my own clinical training, in which the most important KPI (key performance indicator) was the rapid turnover of inpatients, who were often discharged prematurely to under-resourced community “support.” There was little time for appropriate humane care or connection. Instead, reliance on biological psychiatry (usually medication) was all we could do with the time and resources allocated. I do not know a single colleague who feels we are doing an adequate job.

How do we build a healthier society when our “parent” repeatedly looks the other way; is neglectful and emotionally depriving; is even unable to put a roof over our head and food in our bellies? The responsibility for raising our society appears to have been left to individuals: teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, counsellors. We have all been “left holding the baby,” fully knowing that the baby has no home or food or safety beyond the relatively brief time they spend in our purview.

Employment, housing, education and social justice are leading determinants, of course. More generous and humane welfare support for families, primary caregivers and children would make a huge difference in those vital early years, alleviating undue stress and allowing secure attachments to form in our vulnerable young. Child protection policies in Australia have failed repeatedly. We desperately need experts and those with lived experience to inform good policy; we also desperately need good policy to be properly implemented and funded.

But I often wonder what kind of shift could occur, in a collective sense, if our leaders (parents?) tried to be sensitive, warm and empathic. If they listened when we expressed our pain and sadness and fear – or at least responded without a smirk. If they provided a nurturing environment in which we could feel safe, contained and held. If the people of Australia felt loved, unconditionally, by those who govern, perhaps we might have a more secure and robust attachment to our society, and more compassion for each other and for our leaders. Perhaps, as Krasnostein so beautifully articulates, we might reap the benefits of both vulnerability and togetherness.

Something has to change. The “she’ll be right” mentality is not cutting it.

WE R NOT OK. Thank you, Sarah, for writing so eloquently for us all.

Alexandra Goldsworthy



Joo-Inn Chew

Sarah Krasnostein listens to one of the young women she introduces in Not Waving, Drowning, 21-year-old Eliza, “on two levels … with the interest of the 42-year-old author of this essay, watching how Eliza embodies decades of evidence that the negative outcomes associated with BPD [borderline personality disorder] might be mediated … with favourable environmental influences,” and also “with the admiration of the distressed eighteen-year-old” part of herself, who had suffered relational trauma but “hadn’t attained the insights Eliza has and was convinced … that she never would.”

Krasnostein’s essay is potent and radical for a multitude of reasons – her poetic and erudite blending of storytelling and analysis, and her synthesising of history, psychiatry, criminology and psychoanalysis to grapple with this country’s fragile colonial past, which has stigmatised the vulnerable, dispossessed and marginalised. Most powerful to me was her decision to situate herself in the narrative, to have “chosen my fear of that stigma over silence in the face of it.” In doing so, she removes another brick in the illusory and damaging wall we have built to render as “Other” those who experience mental illness and psychological distress. She speaks, and shares the voices of others, to show that “We” are “They,” and “They” are “Us” – in the future or the past, in ourselves or our loved ones – and that mental anguish, grief, trauma and psychiatric illness are intimate parts of what it is to be human. There is no shame in this. Normalising our own vulnerabilities fosters insight and empathy, the prerequisites for the cultural and systemic changes which are so direly needed.

Such a “radical choice” is not easy. I am a GP with a long history of working in mental health, including with refugees and asylum seekers, the LGBTIQ+ community and in the prison system. I recognise the weary frustration of the front-line clinicians Krasnostein interviewed, who band-aid daily the deep distress of their patients in a system and society which is failing them. Like so many of us, I have my own complex history, which shapes how I work with people who are traumatised, and then pathologised and othered on top of that. I know what it is like to reach a place where my psychological pain transforms into compassion and healing for myself and others, where it makes me more, not less.

There is something familiar about this territory, this radical choice. I came out as a lesbian decades ago. I know the danger and freedom of no longer hiding, of stepping into the world on my own terms. I see now that coming out as having “a mental health history” is just as hard, especially as a clinician, as coming out as queer was in the 1980s and 1990s – scary and risky, yet full of transformative power. Something done in my own way and time, but which also connects me to those who have made (or will make) their own radical choices. Over time, all these choices expand our collective view of who “We” are.

When I worked in a regional Victorian hospital as an intern, I admitted a young woman brought in by ambulance with fresh lacerations up and down her arms. I went through the steps as gently as I could, aware of her terror and despair. As I checked her pulse between the bloodied cuts, I felt an echo inside me. My arms ached in sympathy because under my work sleeves were long pale scars from my own self-harm a few years before. I said nothing about them, but gave her my best compassionate care. Back in the 1990s, BPD elicited hostility from many doctors and nurses. It was not unusual for people who had self-harmed to be left waiting until last in emergency, and to be called “attention-seeking,” “manipulative” and “incurable”; there were even stories of people having their cuts sutured without anaesthetic to “teach them a lesson.” I have never been diagnosed with BPD, but I knew how it felt to be in a vortex of pain, to try to cut an escape route through my own flesh. I tried to keep my scars hidden, especially early in my career, but if a colleague noticed I would tell a brief version of the truth – that I had been depressed as a teenager – and watch their triple-take at my category transgression. I was supposed to be a Normal – in fact, a Super Normal, a Dr God-Robot, invulnerable and always on the right side of the stethoscope.

Decades have passed since that time on the wards, and there are few of my cohort who remain untouched by grief, trauma or despair, few who do not have scars on our skin or in our hearts. Suffering is universal; so too is hope and the possibility of healing. In my work I have sat with people trapped in the long shadow of childhood abuse. I have looked after people who are fleeing torture and persecution, only to be detained and denied protection by our government. I have known patients for longer than I have known my own children, and then lost them to suicide. I have carried the stories of so many people struggling with anxiety and depression and psychosis, with trauma and shame and stigma, as carefully as I carry my own. Behind each wound, each addiction, each diagnosis is a person and a story, and beyond that a web of cultural and economic power which shapes everything, from the start people get in life, to how they express distress and whether they seek help, to how they are treated by front-line services and social institutions. Not everyone knows what it is like to feel safe and free in Australia. Every one of us can take stock of where we are in the web, how we use the power we have and how we recognise the common humanity of people around us. We can normalise our own vulnerabilities and use our power well. I thank Sarah Krasnostein for an essay which invites us to do just that.

Joo-Inn Chew



John Kuot

Sarah Krasnostein may not be a mental health specialist, but her essay provides a good outline of all types of mental health and their level of impact on individuals trying to navigate the system. As someone who has worked across the public service and community sectors, I think Sarah’s essay brilliantly captures the many frustrations of consumers and people working in mental health. The stories of Eliza, Daylia and Rebecca are not unique; instead, they perfectly reflect the many years of community outcry about the failures of the system. While traditional assessments of the system often narrate the experiences of individuals without including their voices, this essay evokes systematic failures by giving the perspectives of highly resilient individuals. I was moved by Eliza’s outline of what help should have looked like for her. She explains that housing, financial support and someone to speak with would have enabled her to overcome some of the challenges she faced. What makes this essay different is the utilisation of these accounts to portray a very broken system. All the stories demonstrate that the failures are not just within mental healthcare, but are broader. Reading Daylia’s and Rebecca’s stories, I was shocked that our justice system, most of the time, exacerbates patients’ conditions without consideration. That Rebecca – and many others in need – are too readily placed in prison rather than looked after illustrates why the conversation in this essay raises a wider issue of community responsibility, which needs immediate attention and action.

John Kuot



James Dunk

As a historian, I was pleased to find that Sarah Krasnostein’s Quarterly Essay about vulnerability in Australia is, as she writes, “always about history.” It moves deftly through the short history of European colonisation here – from the anxieties and afflictions of the penal colony to their long shadows, falling everywhere around us. She argues that the psychological processes of convict transportation and colonisation survived the penal colony in masculinist cultures that stigmatise mental illness and deter the ill from seeking help, leading to egregious outcomes, including the alarmingly high suicide rate that has been a consistent feature of Australian history.

In the essay’s sustained reflection on the 2019 Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, there is refreshing historical depth, placing the Commission not only in the “shadow of the penal colony,” but in the more recent history of proliferating public inquiries. These are only the latest in an endless string of inquiries, which is a striking and exhausting facet of the modern history of mental health and mental illness. Exhausting not only in hours spent asking, answering and transcribing questions, but emotionally or spiritually exhausting. Commissioner after commissioner expresses horror and disgust at bedding or bathing practices, at the lack of therapeutics, at the class or capability of keepers, at the state of rations or visitation policies or at the personality flaws of superintendents: at everything, in short, and at who could possibly have authorised or funded or built or managed such a wretched institution. For those of us who have spent time working with that history, we come sooner or later to wonder at the amnesia and self-righteousness of the commissioner, and of the dialectic. Why should anyone have ever expected anything to be otherwise?

Because things are forgotten, writes Krasnostein. Because it has been helpful to forget. She brings depth psychology to bear here. She writes of our shadow selves, and of splitting selves, tracking the difficult line between individual psychopathology and social malaise. Asylums and hospitals become vehicles for our projected anxieties, sites for carving out and keeping out the most difficult parts of ourselves by doing slow violence to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. For a time, these institutions were palaces that exhibited, on the outside, the mastery of enlightenment rationality and mastery over the mind. They robustly secured by walls and laws those minds that strayed from the enlightened ideal. The emergence of effective psycho-pharmaceuticals in the post-war years offered relief from the costs of maintaining such elaborate structures, which, through endless inquiries, also became focal, vocal points for discontent with the whole entangled mess of what mental illness does to humans, and what humans do to other humans. Many of those purpose-built palaces are now crumbling or being repurposed, and the social barriers they buttressed have become more nebulous, with selves and populations harder to demarcate. And yet the inquiries continue, because people are still suffering, and their suffering is still and always alarming. The inquiries are compulsive acts, writes Krasnostein, where past trauma is recklessly and endlessly acted out instead of recalled, experienced and healed. These are social defence mechanisms gone to stale, barren seed.

The other kind of history here is personal history, the lived experience that elicits such inquiries. A genuine development in that steady stream of scrutiny is that commissioners have slowly learned to listen properly to the cared-for – consumers, clients, patients, survivors of psychiatric services – as well as the experts charged with their care. And their experience is, often, breathtakingly crushing. Max Weber described the onslaught of an industrial bureaucracy that aimed to strip away traditional impulses and motivators (like emotion) from the rational work of government. Bureaucracy may be, as he suggested, an iron cage in which we are slowly imprisoning ourselves, but Not Waving, Drowning shows the more violent parts of the system, in three studies of lives torn apart by the state or, at least, while the state sat back and watched. A friend who works in health policy told me that if the mental health system was funded properly, Australia would be broke in a fortnight. But these costs must always be borne, and they are. They are borne by those like the woman Krasnostein calls Rebecca, who spent eighteen months in a carceral forensic mental health facility because the court could not make a ruling. The court could not make a ruling, even though the “offence” had been minor, because there was nowhere it could rule her to be placed. This is not metaphorical. There was literally no place for her to live safe from further, compounding trauma. Krasnostein remains with her story through the long months in which many people met to solve a problem of which they were aware, including one where eighteen stakeholders (itself a major development or minor miracle) could not find a way to care for Rebecca because she fell between their agencies and systems. Everyone there was responsible for her, writes Krasnostein, and therefore no one was. For all its failings, the penal colony was governed from the centre, a colonial governor accepting moral and legal responsibility for those who were mentally ill on behalf of the Crown and deploying a rudimentary bureaucratic apparatus to solve problems and, often, to care for those who suffered. Those who assume the past is a dark or darker place are often surprised to find in my book Bedlam at Botany Bay a close and interpersonal colony, where compassion and care emerged within a wider program of discipline and terror and dispossession.

After two hundred years of bullish bureaucracy, the iron cage is straining awfully, and beginning perhaps to buckle under the weight of its dissociative fictions. The inquirers themselves – the archetypal commissioners – may finally be beginning to remember, and not repeat only. The conclusions of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System showed the commissioners were aware of the long, long history of policy and moral failure, and aware too that a dataset and list of recommendations could do little to alter it. Daunting amounts of money and time were needed: billions of dollars and a decade or more to be spent on systems change, according to a theory in which real improvements are produced by changed relations between things. Krasnostein is at pains to show that those systems relations are in fact human relations, just as the gaps they aim to fill are embodied – are agonisingly realised – in the experience of the most vulnerable among us. More remarkable still, the Victorian government accepted the recommendations in full, rather than dodging and dissimulating, and has begun to implement them. It is, however, important that the reformers are not, as the minister has said, building a new system from scratch. They necessarily build in the ashes of the former system; they must build lucidly from history and memory, looking to those with lived experience of the old system to be architects of the new one.

James Dunk



Nicola Redhouse

Cracks, walls, gaps, “acts of splitting,” “living in old houses,” “‘ha-ha’ walls” providing “an invisible divide,” “cottages burnt to the ground,” the enduring problem of housing, of how to “contain,” how to “connect” – these are among the phrases I found myself noting repeatedly in Sarah Krasnostein’s astute Quarterly Essay, which conjures a mental health system whose borders repeatedly collapse, open up, fall down; a system that cannot maintain a holding function, that buckles under the pain of its society.

Though Krasnostein writes that the “body politic cannot fit in a therapist’s room,” her essay develops into a fine attempt to bring it in, to comprehend what exactly is behind the breaks and gaps and disconnections. The work she does in this essay to get to the heart of our broken system accords with the techniques used in the field of socioanalysis, which attempts to understand the collective unconscious “phantasies” of a group as socially induced phenomena: that the behavioural dynamics of the group, its defences and dysfunctions, come about because the individuals within it have taken in a shared social experience.

In the context of a nation, according to socioanalytic thinking, it follows that the cultural and social responses we put into place (policies, laws, language uses, etc.) can be read as collective defences against our country’s earliest traumas. Krasnostein parses these responses thoroughly.

For Australia, the “group as a whole” that Krasnostein details is a society built upon a significant early trauma: two “enormous acts of splitting: transportation and terra nullius.” Such traumas, when they aren’t properly mourned, are, according to Turkish Cypriot psychiatrist Vamık D. Volkan, unconsciously passed on to the next generation, “to complete these unfinished psychological processes.” Volkan calls this the “chosen trauma.”

Much like Krasnostein, I don’t find it surprising, then, that as a nation we perpetuate shame, humiliation and dehumanisation in many of our health systems; that we transform the seeking of asylum into something to be punished. Jon Jureidini, for example, taking a socioanalytic perspective, believes that our punitive asylum-seeker policies reflect our earliest identification as a remote island with “uncommon control over its borders,” he writes in “Perverse asylum,” a quality of isolation that has given rise to a “national characteristic of giving greater priority to the many than the weak and vulnerable.”

Nor do I find it surprising that a nation established through force, by way of a colony centred on punishment, has, according to the Australian Journal of Human Rights, a “public mental health system … skewed towards harmful and controlling forms of care.”

And it is also unsurprising to see that the vulnerable describe their experiences in these systems as riddled with the same sicknesses as those of the nation’s earliest life. To see, for example, in Victoria Legal Aid’s Your Story, Your Say project – which “supported people with experience of mental health issues and services to tell their stories to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System” – repeated themes of “distress, stigma and discrimination,” of relationships “based on power and control” in mental health facilities.

All of this is only surprising if you maintain a position of denial; if you contend that who we have become has nothing to do with our earliest relationships, national or individual, and more significantly our earliest traumas.

Jenny Smith writes about the ways Australia’s “chosen trauma” has played out in our treatment of asylum seekers, and makes a point central to the work of socioanalysis: that healing within a group involves leadership that can adopt what psychoanalyst and object-relations theorist Melanie Klein called the “depressive position”: we must be “able to hold the ‘good’ desire to right the wrongs of the past,” Smith writes, “and the ‘bad’ feelings of guilt and shame associated with what caused such trauma in the first place.” Reparation depends on this capacity.

What will this take in the mental health sector? Krasnostein covers comprehensively various aspects of systemic change that need to come into play, and that the recent Victorian Royal Commission points towards. I can only add support to these.

At both a societal and an individual level, the work of repair needs time. I have written, in The Age, about the inadequacy of the Medicare-funded allocation of sessions for psychological treatment for developing what we know to be the central feature of good psychological care: the therapeutic alliance. Krasnostein highlights this inadequacy throughout her essay. Eliza’s story conveys an experience of “insufficient time” with doctors, of hospital admissions where only “surface” behaviours were addressed.

The work of repair needs connections that foster trust. In Rebecca’s story, we hear of incarcerations instead of trauma-informed care that would develop “close and continuing relationships, especially with clinicians.” Time allows relationships to develop. Rationalism and consumerism threaten the necessary trust for effective psychological care. Hannah Piterman writes in her essay “Have we abandoned the patient?”: “Without trust there is no clinical relationship and without a clinical relationship there can be no creative enterprise.”

It will take a degree of de-medicalising of mental health, in recognition of the lasting value of working through trauma, balanced with the knowledge that, as Krasnostein demonstrates in canvassing the Verdins principles, the medicalisation of mental illness is sometimes required for appropriate legal outcomes.

It will take deep engagement at the level of thought and culture – the kind of deep engagement that socioanalytic dialogue gives rise to. It will take, as Krasnostein shows through the story of Daylia May Brown, a shift in ideology from one that places the burden of responsibility entirely on the individual to one that understands that people, like Krasnostein’s interviewee Eliza, are the products of psycho-social experiences beyond their control. As Krasnostein notes: “one-quarter of all people admitted to acute mental health services are homeless prior to admission and most are discharged back into homelessness.” She tells us that childhood trauma is a key driver of chronic homelessness, that adults who frequently experience racism are almost five times more likely to experience poor mental health.

We know from a wide field of research in psychology and neuroscience that how we interact with others and how we encounter the world is shaped, without our conscious awareness of it, by experiences we have early in life, both relational and material. So much of the aetiology of mental illness is beyond the individual’s control. A model of healthcare that frames mental illness as the sole result of conscious individual life choices seems to serve the goals of a market-driven economy, but in fact we cannot afford to deny the connections that run between individuals and the worlds within which they exist, neither financially nor morally.

And while housing, jobs and affordable ongoing treatment are essential to improving outcomes, as Krasnostein points out, increased funding is not all that’s needed. A deeper social shift is required – one that recognises the values of the relational experience, that closes the gaps not only materially but experientially.

Hannah Piterman writes that pharmacological solutions reflect a consumeristic accommodation of mental illness that is cost-effective and formulaic, but reflects “[an] omnipotent phantasy that has no place for illness, vulnerability and dependence. While the consumer is being served, the patient is being discarded and in some cases destroyed by a culture that discounts human experience and human suffering.”

Similarly, Burkard Sievers notes of his work with organisations striving for greater market profitability that: “In face of the on-going struggle for excellence, growth and survival and the attempt to gain greater market shares, there seems to be almost no capacity for the depressive position and its anxieties … no space for the experience of guilt, the desire for love, mourning or reparation.”

We need to develop this capacity as a society not only for feeling, but for thinking. “Because being empathic and decent is demanding and potentially painful, we are all subject to retreating from it, both individually and as societies,” writes Jureidini. As W. Gordon Lawrence notes in Tongued with Fire, when individuals regard “knowing” as too painful they “destroy, in various degrees, the very process of thinking that would put them in touch with reality.” Socioanalysis proposes that this same mechanism occurs in a group, which enters a socially induced state of, as Sievers suggests, “totalitarian thinking.”

Jureidini writes: “a decent society is one in which the leaders maintain a collective attitude of depressive concern.” Depressive concern involves being in touch with reality, seeing what is happening and taking it in. We need to find a way to hold our society’s pain at all levels – personal, institutional, governmental – without looking away.

Krasnostein’s essay goes a long way towards keeping it in our line of sight.

Nicola Redhouse



Janet McCalman

Now that I have retired and have my pension, I can confess that I have been there too and done that. In 1976 I was locked up in the closed ward at Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital and emerged from a horror movie of delirium to find myself in strange clothing, in a strange place with a lot of iron bedsteads, with a couple of old women trying to get into my bed.

I had been stripped of all personal possessions, including my watch. But as I came to, it was still a recognisably human place, and my fellow inmates, many unable to speak, became less frightening once we were in the vast day room. Some were just crying. One old woman was visited by a man – perhaps her husband, perhaps her brother – while she babbled incoherently. He seemed utterly devoted.

The food was appalling, not that I had much appetite, and I learnt later that the budget per day per patient was 70 cents.

Then came the clinical assessment before twenty or so staff in a semicircle. I remember one particularly kindly and sympathetic face. They decided that I had recovered my wits, so I was sent to the open ward to rest for a few days.

There, it was quiet, and the only other patient was a young woman who was struggling with her identity and had admitted herself for a few days’ breathing space. She could also discharge herself when she liked.

If I were suffering a similar psychotic episode today in one of our leading hospitals, I would be in a room of my own that is all white and has fluorescent lights on 24-7 so that I can be observed by video and prevented from self-harm.

When the Quakers and rational reformers got their hands on the prison system in Britain and its penal colonies, they railed against the lash and promoted reform of the soul above punishment of the body. This meant isolation, silence and surveillance.

In the solitary cells, prisoners convicted of secondary offences heard no sounds: all eating implements, buckets for wastes and water, and even the warders’ feet were wrapped in cloth. You can see this at the panopticon at Port Arthur, where on the Sabbath prisoners attended church in a vertical coffin that cut them off from each other and directed their gaze at the preacher.

The reformers’ “silent treatment” drove prisoners insane and shortened their lives, whereas flogging had not. Prisoners in the Millbank Penitentiary in London, the most modern in the land, begged to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land and, if blessed to be chosen, collapsed on boarding in hysterics.


It is arguable that the biggest social policy failure of the post-war era has been the closing of the public psychiatric hospitals and the outsourcing of long-term care to families or the community. Certainly, we have looked away from a lot of deaths by suicide, by homicide and at police hands. But the narrative is that these hospitals were ugly, brutal places, best forgotten. And a critical architect of that narrative was the same Erving Goffman who wrote so brilliantly about stigma.

John C. Burnham, a distinguished historian of US psychiatry, commented that the closing of the asylums represented a perversion of liberalism. He recalled that there had been only one small study of the afterlife of those expelled into “freedom.” This revealed that after five years, half of them were dead and the rest were being supported by people as poor as themselves.

But the rot had set in earlier in the United States, as the new liberalism in social policy that privileged the right to choose over the right to care had degraded the work of the asylums, which had once been committed to training people for work and independence but were now teaching them how to shop – the citizen as consumer, not worker.

Old Royal Park, many will remember from a trip along the freeway, had a small farm attached. The new “lunatic asylums” of the second half of the nineteenth century, lacking any psychotropic medications, had only physical restraint and occupational therapy, and high on that list was farm work and gardening, in the outdoors, with animals to tend and befriend. Animals and fresh air still work wonders and there is some effort to introduce animals into aged-care facilities.

A psychiatric nurse turned historian was looking at the Cambridge County Asylum in England, opened in 1858 and closed, like Royal Park, in the 1990s. When she examined the case records, she was hugely impressed by the quality of care in the nineteenth century. The wardsmen and women were locals from a long-depressed rural community who were suddenly offered good jobs, nice uniforms, dignity and security. She remarked that they did better at suicide watch, in a difficult building to police, than we do today.

And when Australia closed its asylums, with them went the therapeutic residential communities, the workshops and day centres, and of course the gardens and animals.

Like Sarah, I too read the pleas for mitigation in Supreme Court trials for grave crimes of violence. And I read the reports of the Coroner’s Court of the preventable deaths in and out of care, of the suicides and of the overdoses. Nearly every perpetrator has a hideous childhood story of fragile parents struggling themselves with substance abuse, educational failure, inability to trust, wildly fluctuating moods and serious mental illness.

This knowledge helps me as an historian, for the convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land between 1803 and 1850 were similarly distinctive in that they were far more likely than their social peers to have lost one or both parents, exposing them as children to a life unprotected by a safe, functioning household. And those parents who were still living were often fragile breadwinners – alcoholic, unstable, unreliable.

Even worse for your life outcome, despite all the privations of transportation and penal servitude, was being born in a place that was especially dangerous for your mother – a place where the only work outside domestic service was in a public house or a brothel. That is, in a seaport like Liverpool, full of transients, prostitution and violence, where women and children were said to be “living in drunken savagery” in alleys and under bridges around the docks. Far better for life expectancy, marriage and children was to be born in rural Ireland and survive the Great Famine of the 1840s.

This will come as no surprise to those who work with criminal offenders, especially the young. And what has failed them is the household that is meant to protect and nurture them. And more often than not, that household has failed because the household a generation before, and a generation before that, has similarly failed. It is very hard to learn to trust, to give love and to be a good parent if you have no model.

But fragile households in turn are failed by a society that may pretend to care, but which will not invest emotionally and financially in sufficient help, in secure work, in affordable housing, education and training. Uncaring societies inflict structural violence on their most vulnerable members, and structural violence breaks minds and shortens lives.

The moral core of most societies draws on ethics about care for others. Churches and mosques and temples are obliged to care as a spiritual duty. But mostly they are ill-resourced. In 1601 England instituted the first secular welfare state, paid for by a tax (the poor rate), where the Old Poor Law acted as a “civic household” to the destitute, the friendless, the illegitimate, the sick and the homeless. And it worked until the mid-eighteenth century, when it was overwhelmed by demographic and economic change.

The welfare state, as it was reinvented in the mid-twentieth century, is intended to enable those without strong families to survive. It is an expression of a “duty of care” that is fundamental to all the world’s great religions. Its remit, in Lord Beveridge’s words, was to abolish “five giant evils: want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness.”

After the social-democratic high point post-war, this duty of care has been eroded: why should we subsidise the lazy and the stupid, the sick and the poor because of their bad habits? We need to grow wealth so that it will trickle down. And anyway, we are trampling on the right to choose your own destiny, even if you are unwell and without means and a home.

And so, when Jeff Kennett closed Royal Park in 1994, we didn’t dump its residents to live in tents along the streets. We decanted them to the public housing towers, which today are our vertical, underserviced, lonely single wards for invalid pensioners, the majority with mental illness.

It’s no longer as traumatic as it was in 1974, where distressed people wandered the streets of North Melbourne screaming for their pills, but too many still experience distress that in turn distresses their neighbours. And they are lonely, their daily lives consumed by their illness, as they will tell you in their first breath.

Those towers today are also incubators of mental illness in their newer, refugee population: suicide by jumping from a window, homicide while deranged, domestic violence and depression.

There was meant to be a proper support system for these outsourced patients in the 1990s, but there was never enough investment, the pay was too low, carers burnt out and people were left to medicate themselves.

Susan Reverby wrote a brilliant history of nursing in America called Ordered to Care, arguing that the dilemma of American nursing is that they are ordered to care in a society that refuses to value caring. And that’s the rub.

By the time this letter is published we will know the result of the election. Anthony Albanese has committed to a “care-led recovery.” This is our largest growing sector of the workforce and if we want proper aged care, childcare and mental healthcare, we need to value the carers. Few of the journalists and pundits seem to take this seriously: it lacks “vision” and is too small a target; surely it’s unaffordable. They really don’t get it.

Like global warming, the science is in on the effects of toxic stress in utero and early life. We know what to do for children and struggling parents to break the chain of intergenerational trauma and illness. It requires holding families together, not breaking them except in extremis, and intensive work building language skills, emotional resilience and personal capacity. It needs love and play, laughter and fun. It needs affordable housing and social infrastructure. And to do that we need well-paid, properly supported and trained carers of all kinds.

And it even makes economic sense. The think-tank Per Capita finds that the impact on GDP of the NDIS – the one the Morrison government considered too expensive – has an economic multiplier effect (conservatively estimated) of around 2.25. Currently it employs 270,000 people in over twenty occupations: that’s a lot of jobs. In the great pandemic lockdown year of 2020–21, the NDIS made an economic contribution of around $52.4 billion to the nation. Improved mental and aged healthcare investments contribute likewise.

Even better, there would be less suffering and more happiness. There is no excuse any longer: our mutual care system from cradle to grave is the best investment we can make in our future as a society.

Janet McCalman



Russell Marks

Sarah Krasnostein’s essay makes many important observations about Australia’s mental health system and the people caught up within it. Stigma endures despite decades of awareness campaigns, partly because of the competing need – often expressed through News Corp’s papers and commercial TV current affairs – to moralise, to punish and to stoke fear. Like every other funded service, mental health is subject to the dictates of administrative gatekeepers who are the foot soldiers of the neoliberal revolution. Often this produces contradictions. Governments point to the extra millions and billions they’re investing in mental health, but people trying to access those resources need to jump through ever more hoops. Neoliberal ideology doesn’t allow the provision of a universal public service for a universal public benefit, so people who have the least means to stay afloat end up drowning in tides of bureaucratic “criteria”: mental healthcare plans; Centrelink applications and assessments; bureaucratically imposed geographic boundaries; non-government organisations which will do this but not that; never-ending waiting lists. Stable housing is now fairly universally recognised as the main precursor to stable mental health. Fifty years into the neoliberal revolution, our system of housing, as Krasnostein repeatedly observes, is now entirely broken.

For all practical purposes, there are two mental health systems in Australia. There’s a system for people who can pay private psychiatrists and psychologists, and then there’s the public system. Many people who find themselves engaging – as patients or as their families or friends – with the public system in most parts of the country are bewildered at the lengths to which it goes to apparently keep people sick.

Throughout 2020 I worked for a publicly funded legal service in a capital city (not Melbourne), representing people with diagnosed mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities. Among the extraordinary powers doctors have under state and territory legislation is the ability to “section” patients: to subject them to involuntary psychiatric treatment and to detain them in a hospital in order to effect it. (The colloquial term “section” is shorthand for the particular legislative clauses – they’re different in each state’s Mental Health Act – which authorise these actions.) To ensure doctors aren’t using those powers unnecessarily, all involuntary treatment orders are automatically subject to periodic review by mental health tribunals. What I learnt in my year in those tribunals was that any transparency and accountability they appeared to provide was mostly a façade. In practice, nobody wanted to second-guess the original doctor’s decision to make the order. Patients had a right to a second medical opinion, but invariably that opinion would be provided by the first doctor’s colleague, in the same hospital.

Patients under involuntary treatment orders are chronically gaslit. I saw patients who were routinely punished for merely asking questions of their psychiatrists, whose progress reports to tribunals would claim that patients “did not accept” their diagnoses and therefore “lacked insight” into their conditions. “Insight,” it turns out, is fundamentally important in public psychiatry. As far as I could tell, a patient with “insight” is one who dutifully and unquestioningly accepts their diagnosis (even if it’s a vague and imprecise one like “schizoaffective disorder”), their treatment (even if it’s a heavy dose of psychotropic medication which causes them to gain weight rapidly, lose the ability to orgasm and sleep all the time) and their environment (even if it’s a closed hospital ward). These dutiful patients were obviously easier to deal with, so they got an easier run: nice things would be written about them in progress reports, and tribunal members would smile and say encouraging things. Patients who asked questions, or who became frustrated, or who disputed their diagnosis would invariably be accused of “lacking insight,” which meant they couldn’t possibly be ready to progress to a less restrictive form of treatment.

Psychiatry is necessarily an inexact science. It’s common for psychiatrists to disagree about diagnoses and treatment, because the same symptoms are often consistent with a range of conditions. But consult two psychiatrists who are colleagues in the same public hospital system, and the second will invariably concur with the first.

Very occasionally I’d have a client who was able to secure – by paying for it – a second opinion from a private psychiatrist who was entirely independent of the public hospital treating team. This was rare: the professional world of psychiatry is a small one. But this was practically the only way of problematising the narratives created by the public hospital treating teams. If the private psychiatrist recommended less restrictive treatment, the tribunal was generally obliged to endorse it. So middle-class clients were sometimes able to find a crack in the walls erected by the public treating teams. But schizophrenia isn’t generally a middle-class disorder. Strongly correlated with severe childhood trauma, it most often afflicts people in poverty, or causes middle-class sufferers to sink into poverty. Most of my clients had no access to a private psychiatrist. They simply had to cope with the demands of their hospital treating teams.

The general rule – compliance good, questions bad – seemed to me to be entirely the wrong way round. Surely it’s outside the normal range of human experience to be confronted with a complete lack of freedom and respond with total submission? Yet over and over again, that’s what public psychiatrists and mental health tribunals appeared to demand. Over time, some of my clients learnt what was expected of them, and played along. When they spoke to me, they would express the kinds of doubt and rage I’d normally expect from anyone forced to take debilitating meds and prevented from going outside. To their doctors and nurses and social workers, they’d say “yes ma’am, no sir, three bags full.” Invariably, these patients would slowly progress to less restrictive treatment.

In her essay, Krasnostein points to a possible motive other than clinical need which might account for this common experience among public mental health patients: power and control. My socio-economic status is such that I occasionally mix socially with doctors. In my experience, doctors are rarely democratically inclined. I’ve often wondered whether this is a necessary corollary of being required to make very quick life-and-death decisions, for which self-doubt must be entirely unhelpful. When they debrief after shifts, it’s often to express a kind of outrage that a mere patient or their family dared question their expert assessment. One doctor told me once of his discomfort when he discovered that a more senior colleague had made a potentially life-threatening error. During the exchange which ensued, the doctor told me he’d “never” report a colleague, and would “always” endorse that colleague’s medical opinion to the patient, even if he suspected or knew it was wrong. Medical culture, I suspect, has a lot to answer for.

Occasionally I have met doctors who seem genuinely committed to involving their patients – and their very human fears, uncertainties, doubts, questions and, yes, even rages – in decisions which will affect them. Often in public psychiatry this simply isn’t possible, because many patients are very unwell. But even when confronted with a schizophrenic patient in the florid throes of a psychotic episode, surely the public mental health system has more to offer than bed restraints and forced injections in an austere ward?

One of my clients, who had migrated from Tanzania, was on very high doses of antipsychotic medication to treat her “treatment-resistant” schizophrenia. (I was never able to resolve this contradiction: why continue to inject medication with strong side effects into patients whose conditions aren’t responding to it?) She constantly reported feeling lonely, depressed and hopeless, which she said was due to the fact that she couldn’t see a way out of her very restrictive existence. She wanted to return to Tanzania, but that option was never seriously considered by her treating team. (In his remarkable book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, Ethan Watters observes that non-Western cultures often respond rather less restrictively to what the DSM describes as “schizophrenia.”) She died suddenly while waiting for her umpteenth six-monthly tribunal review. I strongly suspected suicide, but I wasn’t allowed to know her cause of death.

Another client, also diagnosed with treatment-resistant schizophrenia, often told me of feeling hopeless and lonely, and said that he was consumed by memories of the horrific abuse he endured as a child. I obviously couldn’t know whether those memories were true or symptomatic of his schizophrenia, but I was struck by his treating team’s unwillingness even to attempt to obtain any collateral information. While he broadly understood the need for his anti-psychotic medication, he also consistently requested grief and trauma counselling, or at least “someone to talk to.” His doctor told me that there’s no evidence that talking therapy has any clinical benefit for schizophrenia. Indeed, none of my clients in the public mental health system were ever able to access regular counselling or psychological therapy: it’s been well documented that public health psychiatry has moved a long way from its psychoanalytic origins, and now seems to consist of a trial-and-error approach to the various pharmacological alternatives currently available. My client’s entire experience of the public mental health system was as an involuntary patient who was punished with hospital admissions whenever he didn’t show up to his fortnightly depo injection, which (for him) never did much other than make him sleep all day and night. His was an almost unimaginably bleak existence.

Another client, also diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been considered “treatment-resistant” until the advent of the NDIS, when he began to gradually take control of his therapy and his life with the help of a trusted support coordinator. He’d occasionally say strange things, but the proof was in the pudding: after being consistently in and out of jail since he was a teenager, he hadn’t been so much as arrested since his NDIS package commenced. I’ve never met a worthier poster child for the NDIS. His treating team, however, found both him and his support coordinator difficult to deal with. So it applied to the civil and administrative tribunal to have the Public Guardian take over his NDIS decision-making. At law, guardianship orders can only be made when there is positive evidence that a person lacks the capacity to make decisions. Yet in my experience, treating teams would make applications when their patients were making NDIS decisions the teams simply didn’t agree with. Eventually we persuaded the tribunal to dismiss the applications, though not without a fight and fifteen pages of written submissions.

Some treating teams would refuse to abide by tribunals’ dismissals of their guardianship applications. Upon having their applications dismissed, they would simply make new ones. My client in the paragraph above had endured four such applications by the time I met him. Another client, who had a severe intellectual disability, had been subject to rolling guardianship applications by his doctors. After removing him from his mother’s care as a child, the Department of Child Safety had placed him in a now-notorious children’s home, in which he endured seven years of physical and sexual abuse. When he turned eighteen, the Public Guardian simply warehoused him in a locked facility operated by the Department of Disability Services for almost a decade, before his mother first won guardianship back and then got him out of the secure facility, after which his behaviour – hitherto deemed intractably bad by his treating team – began to improve. But his doctors didn’t like his mother. So they tried over and over again – five times, by our first meeting – to have his guardianship returned to the Public Guardian. Within a month of the tribunal’s most recent decision, which appointed his mother as guardian for the maximum period (five years), his doctors made yet another application, causing his mother to waste valuable time and energy fighting a legal battle with his doctors – time she should have been using to find him somewhere stable to live.

In my view, the only possible description of a lot of what occurs in the public mental health and disability systems is systems abuse: the use of bureaucratic and legal systems to deny vulnerable people agency and punish them for not fully cooperating with their doctors’ demands. Of course there are the #notallpsychiatrists caveats. But in my own twelve-month experience the exceptions were rare enough to prove the rule. It was remarkable how much a humane psychiatrist could improve the experiences of people living under involuntary treatment orders. Invariably, these (rare) doctors were better able to educate their patients and observe “insight,” allowing patients to express frustrations without punishing them. But such doctors existed despite the systems they worked in, not because of them. From what I could tell, the systems also did a very poor job of supporting their own staff, including their doctors, whose standard shifts are often twelve hours long, and who – even before Covid-19 – were routinely required to work truly ridiculous hours. Doctors are, ironically, at much-elevated risk of suicide themselves. These systems are less about treatment and wellness for public mental health patients and disability clients than they are about maintaining a sense of controlled order for the rest of us.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that schizophrenia and other mental illnesses aren’t difficult to treat. But it’s hard to accept that we’re making even adequate use of the abundant collective resources available to us, given that Australia is among the richest handful of states on the planet (on a per capita basis). Even if patients do need to be detained and force-injected, can’t it be done with at least a modicum of humanity?

Krasnostein observes that “approximately 3189 people presented at the Austin Health emergency department for mental health issues” in 2018–19. I was one of them, taken there with significant “suicidal ideation.” I’d never been suicidal before and haven’t since. I was ultimately diagnosed with an “adjustment disorder,” which apparently can be triggered by stress. I’ve made sure I haven’t worked as hard as I was working in 2018. Melbourne’s mental health system is light years ahead of those in Katherine (where I was living at the time), Darwin or Adelaide (where I now live). Still, as Krasnostein convincingly argues, it’s far from what it should be. Emergency departments seem designed to erode the mental health of patients (by preventing them from sleeping) and staff. The secure psychiatric unit I found myself in for a few nights keeps people alive, mainly by frequent surveillance and the absence of hanging points, but it also seems designed to enhance depression. What helped me enormously was a four-week rent-free stay in a Prevention and Recovery Care (PARC) service house in Heidelberg Heights. Staffed round-the-clock by qualified mental health workers, the PARC house looks like an ordinary (if large) suburban house from the outside. Inside, ordinary people spend valuable weeks in the company of others, cooking, talking and recovering.

But outside the PARC houses – there really should be a lot more of them – society at large is being transformed into a gigantic factory for the production of mental illness. Stable housing is now practically impossible for a large and growing segment to come by. Employment standards and conditions in the private sector are worsening. Means-tested barriers to basic social security are fortified by remarkably complex bureaucratic requirements which cause many to simply give up.

The factory analogy seems confirmed by the apparent lack of any interest in prevention and early intervention. My partner, a social worker, has spent the last six months trying in vain to refer one of her clients – a teenage boy with classic signs of early psychosis – into a Headspace program which is funded on the basis that it provides “outreach” to its clients’ homes. She knows what the current research says about the importance of getting teenagers quickly into treatment as soon as psychosis presents: in the most hopeful cases, early treatment can prevent a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a lifetime of inpatient stays in the adult public mental health system. Despite its “outreach” component, Headspace – the federal government’s flagship youth mental health service – has required this boy to present to its offices, “to demonstrate a commitment to therapy.” After multiple, confusing “intake” conversations at Headspace, during which he was asked the same questions over and over again, he told my partner he didn’t want to pursue the referral. His future is not bright.

Another teenage boy has already been to court on multiple occasions for very serious domestic violence incidents. In and out of custody, he’s also begun to say some very strange things, suggestive of psychosis. He says he doesn’t want to hurt the people he loves, but recognises that he’ll probably continue to do so unless he gets help. The system’s only response so far, despite Herculean efforts by his lawyer (not me) and the youth court to have him referred to appropriate services, has been to arrest him and incarcerate him. Police now routinely verbally abuse him and goad him into physical confrontation, so they can justify using force against him. Various funded services – both government and non-government – have said he’s unsuitable for their assistance, or that their waiting lists are too long. In her essay, Krasnostein gives us a glimpse into his likely future, and the future for any women who get close to him.

Russell Marks



Jennifer Doggett

For those (like me) who work within the health sector, mental health is a puzzle.

It’s an area where there is a surprising level of agreement among stakeholders. Politicians (from both sides of politics), clinicians and consumers all seem united in their concern about the rates of both mental illness and sub-clinical mood disorders in Australian society. It’s also an issue which has been a high personal priority for individual health ministers (including the recent federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt), who have allocated significant policy, political and financial resources to improve our mental health outcomes.

In any other area of health, these factors would have resulted in substantial progress. But in mental health, they appear to have delivered only marginal gains.

Also puzzling is that, unlike the other public health challenges we face (such as obesity, smoking and Covid-19), the causes of our seemingly intractable mental health problems are murky.

From the outside, there is no clear reason why Australians are experiencing so much mental distress. Australia outperforms the OECD average in income, jobs, education, health, environmental quality, social connections, civic engagement and life satisfaction. Even accounting for the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Australians have never lived longer, with greater health and more material wealth than they do today.

Yet rates of depression and anxiety are at record levels, seemingly even higher than those of many other countries with materially worse living standards and conditions – Indonesia, Nigeria and Mexico, for example (although, due to data quality issues, it can be difficult to make accurate comparisons across countries).

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged fifteen to twenty-four, with rates among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people double that of non-Indigenous young people. Domestic violence (which often results from and in turn causes or exacerbates mental health problems) is a national emergency: on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Everyone agrees that these are serious and urgent problems. But disagreements arise as to their cause and therefore possible solutions. People on the left cite social determinants such as rising inequality, poverty and racism as the main drivers of mental health problems. Those on the other end of the political spectrum point to the shift in social institutions such as marriage and family or our changing views about gender. Others suggest environmental issues and the existential threat posed by climate change. It seems that mental illness is a mirror which reflects back to the viewer their existing concerns, anxieties and ideologies. In this way it reinforces the ideologies and worldviews which divide us, making it difficult to work together to develop a common response.

Sarah Krasnostein’s thoughtful and wide-ranging essay sheds some useful light on this problem and suggests where our previous approaches to mental health may have gone wrong. By stepping outside the conventional, individualistic and health-centred approach to mental illness, she draws connections between our traumatic past as a nation and our current struggles with mental illness today. She highlights the importance, at both an individual and a social level, of naming and responding to trauma, and describes how this can contribute to our understanding of mental illness.

Obviously, mental health policies, programs and services can be important in addressing mental health needs, and Krasnostein is certainly not suggesting otherwise. But her essay also makes clear how anaemic these responses are when they are seen outside of a broader context: the traumas of our past, the fault-lines of race, class, gender and sexuality, and our collective anxieties about existential threats of climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and global conflicts.

As we grapple with the findings of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, Krasnostein demonstrates why this issue is too important to be left to the policy-makers, clinicians, bureaucrats and politicians.

It illustrates how desperately we need the knowledge and wisdom of those not generally included in the mental health debate: the historians, the storytellers, the educators, the grandmothers and elders. It reminds us how much we can learn from the resilience of Indigenous, migrant and refugee communities about the strength of shared stories and the healing power of relationships.

Most significantly of all, Krasnostein highlights the importance of listening to the voices and experiences of people living with trauma and mental illness – people like Eliza, Daylia, Rebecca and Codey, whose stories Krasnostein respectfully and sensitively shares. Along with her deep insights and thoughtful analysis, their stories provide a powerful and valuable reminder of the human and social cost of our failure to address the impact of mental illness on the Australian community.

Jennifer Doggett



Rick Morton

Reading Sarah Krasnostein’s beautiful, sick-making Quarterly Essay, Not Waving, Drowning, in a local park beneath dappled autumn light, I was reminded how much of my relatively good mental health now is simply the product of time, money and language.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Orygen’s director of clinical services, Dr Andrew Chanen, tells Krasnostein that “a lot of the problems associated with BPD [borderline personality disorder] are not part of the diagnostic criteria,” it made me sit upright, leaning into the revelation of those words.

The constellation of confusing presentations to emergency departments, the “difficult” behaviour of people seeking help – none of this is necessarily inherent in BPD, as Chanen says, but in “things that we create.”

“They’re diagnostic of the mental health system,” he says.

And, as the essay addresses, these harms are inflicted well beyond the mental health system silo. They are all around us.

During the promotional run for My Year of Living Vulnerably – a book I wrote to make sense of my recent diagnosis with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD), a condition with very close links to the BPD of Krasnostein’s impressive case study Eliza – I spoke offhand about the seven or so psychologists and psychiatrists I had seen over the course of a decade in a bid to get better. Because I had initially been diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder all the way back at university, this was the label that stuck. And that, apparently, would have been the end of the matter if, at age thirty and armed with hard-won knowledge, I had not finally demanded a reappraisal.

After one radio interview, I received an email.

“I was that uni psychologist that stuck those very sticky and unhelpful labels on you. At the time, as a CBT [cognitive behaviour therapy] therapist, that’s all I could really see to fit with our brief discussions. How much more I know today,” the psychologist wrote.

“Anyway, I just felt compelled to say I’m sorry I didn’t know or have the time to help you understand that little seven-year-old Rick, that vulnerable little boy, was still showing up, and we needed to work together to help him feel safe and connected.”

To be clear, I have never once blamed this person. They, too, were the product of an inelegant system designed to spit out inelegant solutions. And they are, through this kind of eternal curiosity, a force for good. But it is true, too, that those original sticky labels produced something of a tunnel for my own treatment. I have been on medication – SSRIs, once daily – for seven years, although it is now clear they were not needed. These pills produce terrifying withdrawals. The CBT so favoured by Medicare is not particularly well suited to treating trauma-related conditions: there are better options. In my lost decade, I didn’t even know to ask for them. Like Eliza, there was no language available to me for what had happened and nobody, in all my frenzied interactions with the system, who could speak it.

What is maddening about all of this, as Krasnostein correctly observes, is that we have arranged our collective social mind to hide away the uncomfortable truths about mental illness. It feels too big, I suppose, to stare down the role of poverty; family dysfunction; the harsh illogic of the justice system; chronic pain and physical ailments; the stress of being any kind of “other”; physical or emotional traumas; and government systems meant – at least in our conception of them – to provide support but which come booby-trapped by negligence or, worse, malicious intent (Robodebt, anyone?), such that they can grind the very objects of their attention into paste.

Yes, it all sounds very hard.

So we open a new Headspace, launch the 874th awareness campaign and double the number of Medicare-rebated psychological sessions in a given year to twenty. More of the same, with the same results. Of course, some of the approaches that will make a difference are not very “hard” at all. It just takes money. Not only in mental health but to pay people enough through the safety net that they are not destitute. That is, payments above the Henderson poverty line. Housing that is affordable and accessible; services in justice that do not, as Krasnostein writes, “mistake the last note for the whole song.” So much of our public expenditure is, in the old parlance of health bureaucracy, sending ambulances to wait at the bottom of the cliff. It has become fashionable to frame these moral truths in the language of ideology. Unemployment benefits, according to some, are not meant to be “easy” to live on because then people might actually manage to live on them. But if you’re not inclined to believe the bleeding hearts, ask the hard-headed economists and researchers at the Productivity Commission whom Krasnostein quotes at length. Loath to use the terms of neoliberalism though I am, this argument from conservatives and reactionaries is lost even on the doctrines of their sacred economic temples.

What we continue to ignore is making us sicker.

I think of all this when I am reading Krasnostein’s QE in the park on an afternoon when, despite recently living through one of the most multidimensionally stressful periods of my adult life, the earth does not threaten to swallow me whole. The ground does not tremble, precisely because I am lucky. To have work that I am able to do, that I enjoy doing and that pays me well. Work that allows me to look after my family and preserve their dignity in the face of otherwise diabolical circumstances. My being here, reading this clarifying essay, is pot luck. Still, despite working myself raw in fear of losing the only thing that afforded me a skerrick of agency in my own life – my job – there were so many months where it almost all came undone. Months where I spent every last cent I earned on out-of-pockets, running the roulette of bulk-billed GPs wherever in Australia I could walk in when needed. One of them kicked me out of his office when I asked for a new mental healthcare plan, because that would have taken fifteen minutes and he hadn’t had lunch.

On paper I was income middle class, albeit with none of the structural advantages of those born into this category, and still I was drowning. What hope the millions of Australians with fewer resources? With deeper and more complex layers of hurt?

Instead of offering them a hand in the churning water, we’re commenting on their stroke. Lazy, defective, morally culpable perhaps. This kind of thinking is baked into public life.

A little love, in the sense that love is a way of saying I see you, would remove at least some of this degrading nonsense. But as anyone who has ever loved anyone in any way knows, it can be difficult to inhabit the lonely chambers of that place.

“Ignore words and look at outcomes,” NSW Hunter Region GP Adrian Plaskett tells Sarah Krasnostein. “For the health system, have a think about areas that work really well. Emergency – you have a car accident, you have a heart attack – we have extraordinarily good outcomes in Australia. Intensive care – does a wonderful job.

“Any sort of emergency surgery – public health is great. Cancer is pretty good – my sister had breast cancer last year and it all went pretty smoothly. And then ask yourself: what are the parts of the hospital that the middle class uses? There it is. What are the parts of the hospital that poorer people use? There it is.”

This is a shameful state of affairs when we know, in our sinew, that people help create governments, and governments can help engineer a little luck. When we and they manage to do this, however, we call it something else.

We call it help. We call it love.

Rick Morton


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 Respect@Work 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 Respect@Work 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 Hi