Populism is not a dirty word

The political news right now is Malcolm Turnbull’s tenuous hold on government.

But tight elections aren’t unusual. The real significance of the 2016 election is how it reveals the growing dissatisfaction with the political class and mainstream parties.

This is a thread that links the support for Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hanson in Australia with the support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States and for Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit in the United Kingdom.

It’s easy to dismiss these movements as “populist”. That word has already been spat out hundreds of times on panel shows and through the quality media since last weekend’s election results began to come in.

But “populist” is a strange insult in a democracy. Democracy is a system by which we come to agree as a group about how we live together. It has lots of flaws. The idea that the conclusions it comes to are too popular – too widely accepted – surely aren’t one of them.

To call a politician or political movement populist is a dodge. A comforting, revealing dodge. An admission that the speaker sees the consent of the governed as a frustrating hurdle, rather than the reason parliament exists in the first place.

But even more than that, it’s deeply condescending. Yes, they’re less polished. They’re less refined. But those apparently dangerous and unacceptable populists deploy much the same arguments and same rhetoric as the major parties.

Consider their approach to foreign investment. Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hanson both want to “take back the farm” and make it harder for foreigners to buy Australian assets. This could have catastrophic economic consequences. Australia needs international capital.

But then again the major parties have been telling us that foreign investment is risky, even dangerous, for years.

The Coalition government has been running a crackdown on foreign investment in housing. It prevented the sale of the cattle station Kidman & Co to a Chinese company. It blocked the American firm Archer Daniels Midland from buying GrainCorp. Kevin Rudd made foreign investment scepticism a key plank of Labor’s 2013 election bid.

So if it is agreed by all parties that foreign investment is a bit of a problem, why would anyone vote for a major party whose concern for this issue seems only skin deep? Why not support a minor party that takes the concerns more seriously? The majors make the argument, and the minor parties increasingly grab the votes.

Likewise free trade. The Coalition government signed some important free trade agreements that are important for the future of the Australian economy. The Labor Party professes support for trade as well.

But too often those free trade agreements are presented by the political class as extracting concessions from foreign countries for Australian exporters, rather than allowing us to import goods cheaper and thereby raise our living standards.

The Labor Party used the Trans-Pacific Partnership for a scare campaign about Chinese workers being brought into the country. When Qantas moved its operations into Asia a few years back, the Transport Workers Union screamed that the company was being “Asianised”. Who does that sound like?

The Nick Xenophon Team wants the next government to directly support struggling companies – particularly the Arrium steelworks in Whyalla. On the one hand this flies in the face of every basic principle of sound economics, representing a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to public companies. On the other hand the major parties do that sort of stuff all the time. The Napthine government handed money to SPC Ardmona after the Abbott government refused. The only jobs plan either major party has for South Australia is to pay South Australians to build submarines.

In other words, no major political party has been making the argument for free trade, foreign investment and market competition. Yet now they blame the voters for being anti-market.

Major party strategists will tell you quietly that they have no choice but to take “populist” positions. Only the impotent are pure and all that. If the voters want protectionism the parties need to deliver it.

But this belief confuses policy means with policy ends. Do voters want higher tariff schedules, or do they want jobs and a sense of economic security? Do voters want lower immigration quotas or employment opportunities for their children?

The Australian public cannot be expected to know every detail of every policy, or the voluminous literature on trade and migration. They have families and businesses to worry about. But the protectionist and interventionist economic policies attracting people to the minor parties won’t protect jobs. They will hurt jobs by slowing the economy.

Basic economics can be counter-intuitive. It needs to be argued for. No major party is making that argument. They’re fudging and hedging, trying to be all things to all people, never committing, constantly doing one thing and saying another. No wonder people are voting for something else.

Australia’s minimum wage prevents people from getting a job

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a double dissolution election because Parliament wouldn’t pass the Coalition’s anti-union corruption legislation. But industrial relations is peculiarly absent from this campaign.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. For a decade Australia’s industrial relations debate has missed the point. What do we want out of the Australian workplace system? Certainly, we want less union corruption. Certainly, we want to increase productivity. But surely, most of all, we want to get the unemployed into work. And it’s here that we need to focus not on union royal commissions or building construction regulators, but on Australia’s minimum wage.

In May, the Fair Work Commission’s annual review lifted the national minimum wage from $17.29 an hour to $17.70 an hour – an increase of 2.4 per cent. It is now illegal to be employed at an hourly rate of less than this. If you are unable to find work at this wage, you have two options: scratching out an unstable living doing contract and cash-in-hand work, or starting your own business.

Or you can go on the dole. The Newstart allowance for a single person with no children is $527.80 per fortnight. Assuming a 38-hour work week (as the Fair Work Commission does when determining the minimum wage), Newstart recipients are on the equivalent of $7 an hour. This is the minimum wage trap – if you can’t find work paying $17.70, you’re pushed into unemployment at $7 an hour. And, of course, once you start receiving Centrelink benefits, you’re treated as a welfare recipient, with all the social opprobrium and paternalistic control that implies. Is there any other way to describe this trap than “cruel” – cruel to exactly the people the minimum wage is designed to help?

It used to be well understood by economists that the minimum wage created unemployment. Looking at evidence from Western Australia in the early 2000s, Andrew Leigh, now Labor’s shadow assistant treasurer, found increases in the minimum wage resulted in a reduction in the demand for labour – that is, the number of jobs available for workers. Leigh found the demand dropped most for young workers. A wage floor disproportionately affects people with poor work histories or prison records, elderly people, or anyone employers see as a risky bet for employment.

In the past decade some economists have started to argue the minimum wage does not harm jobs. In their view, the employment market doesn’t look like a market where employers compete for workers; it looks more like the fabled company town with one employer that holds a monopoly over jobs. The Productivity Commission endorsed parts of this argument in its recent review into workplace relations law. But how plausible is this new theory? If any employment market is competitive, you’d think it was the market for low-skilled, low-wage jobs, where there are lots of employers and lots of employees. By contrast, the new theory seems to describe the market for high-skilled work better. People with expensively acquired niche skills have a much smaller pool of potential job opportunities.

The research underpinning this theory is a controversial work in progress. But, contrary to the Productivity Commission, it has not undercut the basic minimum wage problem. Even when the employment consequences of the minimum wage are accepted, you sometimes hear that small increases in the minimum wage have only small effects on the availability of work. But there are real people behind those numbers. We should care about them.

As one of the world’s foremost experts on the minimum wage, American economist David Neumark, wrote in December: “Let’s not pretend that a higher minimum wage doesn’t come with costs, and let’s not ignore that some of the low-skill workers the policy is intended to help will bear some of these costs.”

The Australian public debate ignores those costs. There are a few topics in Australian politics that are out of bounds – policies that by questioning them is to cast yourself as a dangerous extremist. Compulsory voting is one. The minimum wage is another. Its supporters imply that the minimum wage is a crucial part of our national heritage, never to be challenged or examined. Who is that silence supposed to help? Certainly not Australia’s unemployed, pushed out of the employment market by a minimum wage they are told is for their benefit.

Labor Party Reluctant To Ditch Union Ties In Victoria

On Friday, Labor’s planning spokesman, Brian Tee, insisted he would not resign his membership of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union if he became planning minister.

This is rather incredible.

Federally, the Labor Party is slowly, emotionally, wrenching itself through reform to separate the party from the unions. It’s long overdue. The relationship hurts both sides.

Yet Daniel Andrews, the man who might be Victorian premier, is against this reform program. Not only that, but he wants to install a CFMEU member in the very portfolio where they could be most damaging – planning.

Nowhere in the country is the relationship between the Labor Party and the union movement as clearly dysfunctional as in Victoria.

Much more than Steve Bracks or John Brumby, Andrews is a creature of the Labor-union nexus; a party man close to the union interests that financially back Labor.

Last week submissions to the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption alleged the Victorian CFMEU has committed criminal blackmail, breached Supreme Court injunctions and violated the Fair Work Act, Commonwealth Competition and Consumer Act and the Victorian Competition Policy Reform Act.

John Setka, the Victorian CFMEU boss, has a long history of criminal charges, including for assaulting police.

It’s all very salacious. Yet Andrews’ Socialist Left faction invited the CFMEU back into its power-sharing agreement. He relies on their support. Now the CFMEU gets a say in preselections and what the party’s polices will be.

The Coalition has been trying to put the CFMEU-Andrews connection at the front of voters’ minds. Oppositions are usually risk-averse. You can imagine how much Andrews would like to distance himself from union militancy. It’s revealing that he can’t.

Sure, the Labor-CFMEU friendship is fodder for that most off-putting sort of politics – the politics of talking points and condemnations and press releases. But it does raise serious issues.

So much state government policy has been taken over by Canberra. This gives what is left a disproportionate significance. When we vote for state politicians we’re really only voting on a few issues.

Spring Street can’t set the corporate tax rate. It has almost no control over industrial relations and a minor influence on the level of economic regulation. The quality of our health and education – the centre of Labor’s message this week – is heavily dependent on how much federal funding Victoria receives.

But Spring Street does decide how open the state is to new building projects. So giving militant CFMEU interests a lever over development could have long-lasting effects on the shape of Melbourne, and even the Victorian economy.

Earlier this week it was revealed that two Liberal candidates have been interviewed by the Victorian Ombudsman’s office relating to corrupt donations and planning decisions. Labor is understandably excited. It all sounds very New South Wales.

But Victoria has its own native problems. What will it mean for business when this old union state gets an old union government?

Gimmick Items Dominate Victorian Campaigns

Is this all there is?

The Victorian election this week started with a Monday announcement that the Napthine government would give every government secondary school a 3D printer. There are lots of problems with education. Lack of 3D printers is not one of those problems. Right now 3D printing is just an interesting toy.

On Wednesday Denis Napthine’s team offered $12 million for an “Almond Centre of Excellence” to conduct research into almonds. Yes. It did.

Then came a government promise of free Wi-Fi across Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo. Talk about a solution to a problem we don’t have. Citywide Wi-Fi projects were popular about 10 years ago. But now we’ve all got phones with internet access. (“Whatever happened to municipal Wi-Fi?” asked an Economist article last year.)

There are serious things happening in the election. Labor offered $1.3 billion worth of education promises at their launch last weekend. The Coalition wants to boost police powers to search homes in secret. Both are big deals.

But these things get crushed in the conga line of fatuous and unnecessary policies, whose only purpose is to fill campaign days and spend money.

Voters have only so much attention to dedicate to state politics. 3D printers and Wi-Fi cut through. Yet they make state politics look trivial, and the parties which contest it even more so.

For instance, the $2.2 million for 3D printers was announced the same day as a much less silly extra $5.4 million for community language schools. Guess which announcement the Premier led? Guess which got the media focus.

It’s not like the Napthine government lacks a good story. It has a healthy budget – something which cannot be said by its federal colleagues – and has managed to govern reasonably well despite a thin and unstable parliamentary majority.

If Daniel Andrews is premier at the end of the year it won’t be because Napthine has done anything particularly wrong. Nor, indeed, because Andrews has done anything particularly right. He has a taste for gimmick too. (Take Labor’s policy of half-price rego for apprentices, also announced this week. Why not just give apprentices the

money directly?) Andrews could be catapulted into power on ennui alone.

State politics is a pale shadow of what it once was. The federal government has taken control of so many areas of policy that state governments have little room to move, and less in which to innovate. This control has almost always been voluntarily surrendered.

As a result state politics is frivolous and hollow. Everybody involved knows Canberra is where the action is.

Napthine had two wins this week though. First, he lashed out when the Abbott government said it was going to raise the fuel excise. Second, he stood beside the Prime Minister at the announcement of a joint police taskforce into union corruption.

Victorian politics at its best piggybacking on the Commonwealth. That says a lot.

Combatting The Cyberbully Myth

Why do we keep telling children that the law cannot protect them against severe cyberbullying? Time and time again politicians and the press claim that there is nothing police or parents can do if a child is being bullied on the internet, and that government needs to step in.

The parliamentary secretary for communications Paul Fletcher claimed this month that for children who were victims of bullying online, if sites like Facebook didn’t help, ”you really have no redress at all”.

This is gobsmackingly negligent. There are Commonwealth laws on the books that were written to do exactly that.

Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code makes it unlawful to use a carriage service – that is, telephone or internet – to menace, harass, or offend. The penalty can be jail.

Then, should the criminal code not be enough, there is defamation law (almost all acute cyberbullying involves defamatory speech), anti-stalking laws, laws against harassment and blackmail, and laws that protect people against threats and fears of violence to the person.

Indeed, some of these laws are excessively powerful.

Still, the fact is they exist.

The Abbott government is holding an inquiry into its election promise to establish a ”children’s e-safety commissioner” who is supposed to protect kids from cyberbullying.

This commissioner would have the legal power to force social media companies to remove abusive content from their sites in response to complaints from the public.

”Remove”, of course, is a synonym for censor. It’s bizarre that a government that promised to run a ”freedom agenda” would want to create a grand new bureaucratic body to censor the internet.

(Ironies abound. Tony Abbott announced this internet censorship proposal just a few days after he announced he would repeal section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act because the latter was an unconscionable limit on the human right to free expression.)

But anything to help victimised children, right? Well, not if it won’t actually help them.

Bullying is a very serious problem. The harm of bullying should not be played down. At its worst and most tragic, it can lead to suicide. The desire that the government has to do something about bullying is irreproachable. But there are a lot of widely held misconceptions about the nature of cyberbullying.

First of all, there is no such thing as ”cyberbullying”. There is just bullying. The research evidence demonstrates clearly that people who are bullied online are also bullied offline. Of course, this makes intuitive sense. Bullying is a social problem, not a technological one.

In fact, the academic literature consistently suggests cyberbullying is less of a problem than traditional bullying. As a 2012 paper in Complementary Pediatrics put it, ”School bullying is more common than online bullying.” Furthermore, being bullied at school is more distressing.

It’s important not to take the very real bullying problem and turn it into a moral panic about technology.

Bullying is intentional aggressive conduct sustained over time that incorporates some kind of power imbalance – real or perceived – between the bully and bullied. Having a bureaucrat whose job it is to delete individual instances of abusive speech online won’t tackle the basic problem of children being cruel to each other.

Certainly not if a victim is subjected to sustained harassment the moment they return to the playground. Or if the abuse just migrates to less easily monitored websites.

A children’s e-safety commissioner would only offer adults a false sense of security that the bullying has been dealt with.

The major social media sites are doing an increasingly effective job at policing their own networks, and without the iron fist of the state supervising them. Facebook, the site with the youngest cohort, has developed rather extensive systems to report and ban abusive users.

Perhaps surprisingly, a more effective mechanism than reporting users for abuse is the humble unfollow and block. This neutralises the cruelty, therefore reducing the harm, and is necessary to develop coping strategies for young victims.

A lot of cyberbullying is apparently done by text message. Most mobile phones now have a feature that allows users to block calls and messages from certain numbers.

And in the case of severe abuse, there is always recourse to the law. Too often people use the word ”bullying” to describe serious criminal conduct including death threats and physical assault. But the biggest barrier to reducing the harm from bullying is the fact that many children simply don’t tell their parents or teachers what is happening. Too often adults don’t have a chance to help, to provide counsel or support.

So we have to educate parents to identify signs that their children are being bullied, and what can be done.

We have to educate children about the many institutional, legal, and technological resources available to support them.

But most of all, we have to stop this incredibly dangerous political falsehood that there are no remedies available for children who are being bullied, online or off.

Why protecting the pension is a political con job

‘The Abbott government is proposing to reduce the rate of increase of the age pension’ said Bill Shorten.

You’ll only make it in politics if you are willing to be completely shameless.

On Tuesday Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews flagged a major review into Australia’s welfare system. One in five Australians now receives income support payments – 5 million people. That’s a lot, and the Coalition believes it is too many. The budget has to be balanced. We don’t want to become like Europe.

So far, so good. Yet 2.3 million of those people – nearly half, and the largest cohort – are on the age pension. And Kevin Andrews has specifically quarantined the age pension from his review. So, it isn’t quite the major budget-repairing review it sounds like.

Bill Shorten confidently insists that ”the Abbott government is proposing to reduce the rate of increase of the age pension”. (Never say Shorten isn’t trying his little heart out.)

This comically absurd little spat over the pension reveals a lot about Australia’s welfare system and the political system in which it operates.

The list of beneficiaries and the conditions placed on those benefits are not organised by any noble principle of need or fairness or morality, but calculations – often highly crude ones – about voting blocs. Of course it is all dressed up in the language of social justice.

Despite being the largest beneficiaries of the welfare system, pensioners are a protected species. Remember there’s no guarantee a review would recommend a cut to any particular welfare entitlement, nor any guarantee the government would follow through if it did. No, the pension is too sacred to even be studied.

Australians like to say they’re concerned about middle-class welfare. Defenders of the status quo argue our rate of middle-class welfare is relatively low by international standards.

But this week’s little pension quarrel reveals something more fundamental – the modern welfare state is, itself, a project designed to benefit the middle class above all others.

Middle-class welfare isn’t a bug or aberration. It’s the defining characteristic of any democratic welfare state.

This observation is known as Directors’ Law – named after economist Aaron Director, who argued that redistribution policies in a democracy will benefit the largest voting blocs. Invariably this is the middle class. The primary function of a welfare state isn’t to keep people out of poverty. It’s to transfer money to the powerful middle class.

Sometimes the system taxes the middle class to provide benefits to that very same middle class. Such ”churn” is a political confidence trick that relies on citizens’ ignorance of their true tax burden.

You’d be hard pressed to find a philosopher, economist, sociologist or political theorist who could support such a distorting, wasteful, politically motivated transfer system on principle. But that’s what we have. All the big political flashpoints of Australia’s welfare policy – baby bonuses, family tax payments, parental leave – are disproportionately generous to the middle class.

Nor is the age pension solely to protect the poor. Eighty per cent of people above pension age receive a part or full pension. By excluding the family home from its income test, the pension protects elderly home owners from having to use the savings they’ve accumulated in their house to fund their retirement. And, a bonus: it protects the inheritance of their children. No wonder it’s popular.

Welfare is a political compact. Sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen famously distinguished three models of welfare state capitalism: liberal, corporatist-statist, and social democratic.

Liberal welfare regimes view income support as a safety net. Think the United States, where welfare is an emergency, often short-term measure. The corporatist-statist regimes (found in Germany, France and Italy) uphold traditional class divisions. Scandinavian countries have a social democratic regime where welfare is less about poverty and more about citizenship. All classes get something.

Usually Australia is grouped in the liberal camp. This reflects our English political origins, with a focus on individual rights rather than collective belonging. And welfare for the rich seems to offend the antipodean sense of the fair go.

That’s the theory anyway.

The Abbott government seems intent on destroying the last vestiges of what makes our system liberal.

There’s something deeply alien – well, Scandinavian – about the Coalition’s paid parental leave scheme. The government will pay as much as $75,000 to new mothers for 26 weeks, according to their previous income, not their need.

The Coalition insists the parental leave scheme isn’t welfare, it’s a workplace entitlement. Nonsense. But the philosophy behind this talking point is deeply illiberal. It suggests the state is as responsible for providing your income as your employer is.

Even more symbolic: just two days after Kevin Andrews announced the welfare review, he also announced the government would give young couples $200 for marriage counselling. The average Australian wedding costs upwards of $35,000. Yet the party of free markets and individual responsibility feels the need to chip in another few hundred dollars.

Of course, a review into Newstart and the Disability Support Pension is a good thing. The latter has grown rapidly in recent decades. The chief executive of Mission Australia has said hundreds of thousands of disability support recipients should be helped into work. The social and psychological benefits of employment are unarguable. This is more than enough justification for an inquiry.

Nevertheless, any serious review of Australia’s welfare system must be a review of the entire system. Even the popular bits.

Joe Hockey has been unable to commit to returning the budget back to surplus until 2023. But if the government can’t slay – or at least scrutinise – some sacred cows, this deadline looks far too optimistic.

Melburnians Are Streets Behind On Pavement Food

For a city that boasts about its culture and cuisine, Melbourne has a serious deficiency: street food.

Australians mostly think of street food as a feature of the developing world – the slightly risky snacks available on the side of the road in Marrakesh or Hanoi.

But street food is everywhere. Food stands in Belgium and Holland sell chips with mayonnaise. Street vendors in Italy sell croquettes and arancini. Germans can pick up kebabs and bratwursts everywhere.

American cities have always had hot dog stands. Now, they are experiencing a food truck revolution – an explosion in mobile food vendors offering everything from Korean tacos to dumplings. Some of the best dining in the US is on the footpaths of the drabbest business districts.

Street food is varied and cheap.

At its best it is interesting and experimental. The trucks can quickly respond to consumer preferences and park where demand is highest. The communal nature of food-truck dining helps build social capital. Eating is about more than just sustenance.

But Melbourne is missing this revolution. Our food trucks are few; street stalls non-existent.

Melbourne’s street food is rubbish because Melbourne’s brick-and-mortar restaurants prefer it that way.

Businesses don’t like competition. Competition pushes down prices and forces innovation. Entrepreneurs are always trying to entice customers away.

And like any other industry, restaurants know the surest way to reduce competition is to have the government regulate your competitors. Every day, the City of Melbourne hosts about 800,000 people. Yet for those 800,000 people, the city council has approved space for just nine food trucks.

Also, these food trucks have to stay at specific locations. Not one of these locations is in the city centre itself, where you would think demand for food is highest. All but two are hidden in the parklands around the Royal Botanic Gardens.

So, perhaps the council is being ironic when it says food trucks ”are an important part of city life”. They are not even allowed in the city proper. Even more brazenly, the council claims its food-truck policy is all about ”responding to market demand”. It is a market the council is deliberately suppressing.

Still, at least the council pretends it is concerned about what consumers want. The neighbouring City of Yarra does not even bother with such niceties.

Yarra’s mobile food vehicle guidelines state the council’s first priority is to support existing traders in commercial premises. By ”support”, it means ”protect from competition”. Yarra includes some of the best shopping and cultural precincts in Australia. But until last year, food trucks were banned entirely.

Now food trucks are legal – with a permit, of course – but only if they stay at least 100 metres away from any existing takeaway business. Yarra Council can insist the trucks only operate when other restaurants are closed. It can even decide what sort of food is offered for sale.

These restrictions are nothing more than naked, anti-competitive protectionism. They reduce consumer choice. And they stifle Melbourne’s culinary identity.

Seemingly minor rules and regulations can shape a city’s culture in unexpected ways.

Much of what we imagine to be distinctive about global cities is the result of obscure local laws rather than any inherent national character. For instance, Amsterdam’s narrow buildings look that way simply because a tax in the 17th century was levied on the width of buildings. New York’s Times Square is dominated by advertising billboards not because Yankee capitalism is out of control but because the zoning code requires office towers in the square to display illuminated signs.
In Australia, the most obvious example of how regulations transform culture is liquor licensing.

Melbourne and Sydney offer a natural experiment. The people are the same; the laws are different. Until recently, Sydney had extremely expensive liquor licences.

High-priced licences encourage beer barns – licensees need the patronage to recoup the high costs. Melbourne’s much cheaper licences have allowed smaller, more distinctive venues to flourish. The laneway bars that feature in Melbourne’s tourism campaigns only exist because of our distinctive liquor regulations.

In 2008, the NSW government began to offer small-bar licences. But policymakers can’t decide whether to oppose more drinking venues (more places to get drunk) or support them (nicer places to socialise). As a result, Sydney’s small-bar revolution has been less than revolutionary.

In the same way, local councils love the cool vibe of food trucks but they also want to protect restaurants from competition. So they play both sides. The councils brag about their embryonic food-truck culture, while making it as hard as possible for the trucks to actually operate.

This political compromise works well for established restaurants and local government politicians. But it works terribly for us.

US Surveillance Scandal Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

More than a decade after the September 11 attacks, the US is having a debate about its monstrous national security apparatus. Finally.

In that time, Congress has granted every wish of every security agency. The only condition was those wishes had to be connected, however vaguely, to the war on terror.

Last week, Americans learned the result. They now live in a vast surveillance state run by secretive intelligence bureaucracies and bloated private contractors.

We should care about this, too. Australia’s national security agencies are pushing our Parliament down the same path.

Here is what we know so far about the American scandal. For the past seven years, the US government has been secretly hoovering up records of millions of phone calls. It has been able to gain access to enormous amounts of data from companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo on their users. For its legal authority, it relies on the rubber stamp of a secret court.

Those companies targeted are forbidden from discussing what is going on. In March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explicitly denied to Congress that the program even existed.
As one Democrat who received a classified briefing this week said, the public has only seen the ”tip of the iceberg”.

Australia has not gotten quite that bad. But every policy change goes one way – towards more state power.

The Attorney-General’s Department wants Parliament to approve a suite of new security powers. This would include a massive data retention scheme, where records of all our internet usage would be kept by internet providers just in case we are later suspected of committing a crime.

The government is not transparent about what exactly these new powers would entail, or what they are supposed to solve. We have to piece together disparate pieces of information to figure out what our own government is doing.

For instance, we learned in February our foreign spy agency ASIS has been lobbying politicians for permission to collect intelligence on Australian citizens. But that is already the job of the domestic agency, ASIO. Why does ASIS want this power? It is not clear.

Earlier this year, we learned Australian bureaucracies are accessing phone and internet records nearly 1000 times a week without a warrant. Even the RSPCA can get access to these records. Yes, that RSPCA, the animal group.

And it is almost certain the American program has been been collecting data on Australians. Parts of the program give moderate privacy protections to American citizens but nothing to people ”reasonably believed to be outside the United States”. It is unclear how involved Australian agencies are. We know British agencies have been, but Canberra won’t disclose anything.

This madness has to stop. The national security state has grown too big. It is too unaccountable. It is fundamentally undemocratic.

When the Attorney-General’s office was questioned about its surveillance activities, a spokesman replied it was the “long-standing practice of successive Australian governments not to comment on national security and intelligence capabilities”.

Such blithe dismissals might have worked in the past. But after what we have seen in the US, there is no longer a reason to give government any benefit of the doubt.

Nobody denies that law enforcement must keep up with the times. Nobody denies terrorism is a real and ongoing concern. But the past decade has seen security agencies use these two facts as leverage for unprecedented funding and power – far out of proportion to the technological problems they are worried about.

Security agencies have an advantage in the political game. They are a black box – opaque and secretive. It is easy to convince politicians they would be endangering lives if Parliament did not grant some new power, or if checks and balances were not relaxed a little bit more.

The agencies are helped by national security apologists, who seem more worried about loyalty to the state than any democratic accountability.

The first reaction of the conservative columnist David Brooks to the US scandal was to surmise that the person who exposed it – 29-year-old security contractor Edward Snowden – was just the product of an overly individualistic society. OK, one of the biggest surveillance programs in history is revealed, and Brooks concludes the real issue is young people?

Columnists say the darndest things. But Brooks’ is not a lone voice. There is an active discussion in the US about Snowden’s motives, his girlfriend and whether he has committed “treason”.

Some perspective, please. Snowden’s character is irrelevant to the question of how powerful security agencies should be in a free country. Those who try to play down, dismiss or deflect this scandal are simply the willing tools of state power.

Just as despicable is the claim (heard occasionally from the left) that citizens have abandoned their right to privacy by handing personal information to companies. Talk about blaming the victim. We share stuff on Facebook, so it’s our fault the government is out of control?

The surveillance scandal is an important moment. Even the most gung-ho conservatives in the US are having second thoughts about the national security state.

Let’s hope that scepticism trickles down to Australia.

Should You Foot The Bill For Execrable Waste Of Human Resources?

Trolls like to say that trolling is an art form. To troll is to be inflammatory on the internet for the sole purpose of disrupting and offending others. It’s more nuanced than it sounds. A troll must be plausible enough to be taken seriously – don’t want to give the game away – but outlandish enough to generate the desired outrage.

Trolling is not always successful.

On a Friday night less than a fortnight ago, six dancers from a company called BalletLab performed an artistic work at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art at Southbank. This involved them sitting on toilets and taking a dump.

The defecation was done in a most tasteful manner, obviously. The dancers were masked and cloaked in sheer golden garments. The toilets were transparent. Those involved emphasised how brilliant the performance was. The artist proclaimed that bowel movements were ”humanity’s most democratic act”. The centre’s director said it was bold and challenging: “It’s wonderful, powerful work.”

Nonsense. The performance, titled Goldene Bend’er, is a badly executed troll. Nothing more, nothing less.

There’s no longer anything original or particularly provocative about bowel movements presented as art. It has been 52 years since the Italian artist Piero Manzoni canned his own “Artist’s shit” – long enough for it to be considered a classic piece. And toilets featured in art earlier than that. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is four years shy of its 100th birthday.

These were genuinely important works. Artists have offered up many excrement-related performances, paintings and sculptures since. Remember that infamous painting of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung? It’s nearly 20 years old. Poo is a well-covered topic. It’s almost a cliche.

Goldene Bend’er is indulgent and mundane. It reveals that the art world is much more pious and insular than the society it is trying to “challenge”.

Decades ago this sort of stunt would have earned front pages across the country. Politicians would have condemned it. Conservatives would have thundered. Recall how angry people were when the National Gallery bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in 1973. Recall the fury over Piss Christ in Melbourne in 1997.

But that was long ago. Think about it: six dancers did a poo in front of an audience and the only audible noise was self-congratulation. No outrage. No protests. No one cares. What is the point of shock art if it no longer shocks?

There’s nothing wrong with shock art per se. Ugliness and revulsion has always been a feature of art. Christian painters dwelt on the wounds suffered by Christ on the cross. Death was depicted as twisted skeletons. Grotesque demons and terrifying monsters populated the landscapes of hell. There’s nothing that says art has to be – or has ever been – pleasant.

The 20th century has demonstrated art can be ugly, foul, empty, disgusting, accidental, amateurish, untrained and offensive, and still be art. But surely it at least has to be creative. The only thing worse than being obscene is being boring.

The only reason such faux-radicalism survives is because we are forced to pay for it.

The dance company that performs Goldene Bend’er, BalletLab, is financially supported by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments. The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art gets its money from Victoria and the Commonwealth, too. It also receives another chunk of money from the City of Melbourne.

In its submission to Kevin Rudd’s National Cultural Policy inquiry, the centre wrote that the arts were crying out for “proper investment” – read, much more government funding.

Nonsense. Taxpayer funding protects artists from their audience. That it tends to produce more rubbish than genius is a feature, not a bug. The system is designed to favour indulgent, unpopular work over appealing work.

The first arts grant in Australia was given to a poet, Michael Massey Robinson. In 1818, he was given two cows “for his services as Poet Laureate”.

Robinson knew his market. He would write birthday odes to the King and Queen for Governor Macquarie every year.

Not much has changed. Rather than persuading consumers to pay for their work, artists only have to persuade government bureaucrats to give them a share of tax revenue.

These attempts to shock help drive the public from contemporary art – not because the art is offensive, but because it is trite. It treats the audience as the enemy.

In other words, every taxpayer-funded crap a ballet dancer takes on stage is another blow to the commercial viability of all art.

One of the maxims of the online world is don’t feed the trolls. Let’s not subsidise them either.

If By A Miracle Labor Wins The Poll, It Must Deal With The Treasurer

The Age 19th May, 2013

They say every political career ends in failure. But some more than others. All the evidence suggests Wayne Swan’s sixth budget, released last Tuesday, will be his last.

In recent years the Treasurer has been confidently promising he would bring the budget back into surplus. This promise was central to the government’s economic story.

And for good reason, too. The promise implied that the budget’s drop into deficit was a co-ordinated dive, rather than an irresponsible free-fall. It implied Swan was in control all along. When he broke the surplus promise it completely shattered that illusion. Indeed, almost every major problem of the Gillard government can be traced back to the Treasury and its Treasurer.

Take the mining tax – one of the few proposals in the thousand-page Henry Review of taxation Labor bothered pursuing. The mining tax was Swan’s tax. It was his job to explain it, campaign for it, and push it through. But in the end Swan’s campaign for the mining tax resulted in Kevin Rudd losing the Labor leadership.

We often forget that the biggest mistake this government ever made – the spill in 2010 – was a direct result of the mining tax debacle.

The role of the Treasurer has an oversized place in Australia’s political culture. Australia is obsessed with its economy. In no other country do minor shifts in interest rates dominate the political conversation as they do here. For the past few decades budget surpluses and deficits have been the measure by which we judge our governments.

Perhaps we’re too obsessed with the economy. But the obsession serves us well. If you want to see what a lack of interest in public finance fundamentals leads to, then have a look at the United States … or Greece.

So no surprise the roll-call of prime ministers is filled with former treasurers. John Howard, Paul Keating, Billy McMahon, Harold Holt, Ben Chifley and Joseph Lyons have all occupied the post. Other long-serving treasurers (read Peter Costello) have been prime contenders for leadership.

Then there’s Swan. Among all Labor’s leadership buffoonery, Swan’s name has been missing. He is not just Treasurer but Deputy Prime Minister. He ought to be at the front of the queue. Wayne Swan is the only long-serving Treasurer in living memory who has been diminished, rather than enhanced, by his job.

As usual, it all started with the global financial crisis.

Labor apologists say the government’s hasty actions between October 2008 and May 2009 kept Australia from recession. Let’s call this the hero story of the Swan years. It’s pretty simple. The kitchen cabinet of Rudd, Swan, Julia Gillard and then-finance minister Lindsay Tanner pumped an unprecedented amount of money into the economy in the form of $900 cheques, school halls, and pink batts. Then: boom! Recovery was had.

That’s about as concrete as this argument gets. The government spent lots of money on stuff, therefore the economy survived.

But just because one thing comes after another thing doesn’t mean it was caused by it. It’s nice to imagine recessions can be avoided simply by pushing down on the spending throttle. But the world is more complicated than that.

Many countries spent more than Australia, yet their economies did worse. Many countries spent less and recovered quicker. As the blogger Ricardian Ambivalence has demonstrated, a statistical test devised by the Treasury shows there is no relationship between a country’s stimulus spending and its performance in the recent crisis.

If Wayne Swan has any evidence that he saved all our jobs, he hasn’t shared it. And without his crutch – his bold and exciting hero story – the Swan legacy is much less impressive, characterised solely by a rolling series of deficits and a futile optimism that the economy will just grow the debt away. That’s the real story of this year’s budget. It’s a final demonstration that the government’s grand plan didn’t work.

Yes, we have low unemployment, at least by global standards. Yes, international credit ratings agencies don’t think the Commonwealth government is going to default on its debt any time soon. Yet Swan’s entire economic strategy has been predicated on the idea that we would enjoy a sharp burst of growth after the lows of 2008 and 2009.

Instead, our economic growth has been sluggish. The flood of tax revenue Treasury was hoping would pay for those school halls and insulation hasn’t arrived.

Rudd declared in 2007 that Howard’s reckless spending must stop. But it has taken Labor half a decade to axe the baby bonus – the classic example of Howard-era waste. In the meantime Swan has busily increased taxes. We’ve had a mining tax, a carbon tax, an alcopops tax and a flood levy. Now we’re getting a tax for the national disability insurance scheme.

Perhaps Julia Gillard’s government will win the next election. There’s a chance Labor could survive, even if that chance is extremely remote. But if Labor does win, its first priority must be to deal with the problem of the Treasurer.