Thursday, April 21, 2016

From Aged Care to Austerity ; Issues of Concern to Progressives as the Federal Budget Approaches

above:  Scott Morrison will likely bring down an Austerity Federal Budget in May ; But he is taking a harder line on Superannuation Concessions than Labor.  Labor needs to 'up the Ante' on Superannuation Concessions to maintain as much credibility as it can on Distributive Justice.

Dear readers; 

The following letters have been written over the past month ; Most have not been published (except here).  But I hope that here (at my blogs) they will promote reflection and debate.   This time we’re looking at the following:

·        Superannuation Concessions

·        liberal rights and the trashing of Cory Bernadi’s Office

·        Labor and Negative Gearing

·        Life Expectancy for the Mentally Ill

·        Aged Care

·        The Threat of Austerity in the Upcoming Morrison Federal Budget.

Dr Tristan Ewins

Labor needs to up the ante on Superannuation Concessions

Turnbull’s tougher stance on Superannuation Concessions raises the prospect of it ‘outflanking’ Labor on one front pertaining to distributive justice.  The tax concessions threshold stands to be cut back from incomes of under $300,000/year to those under $180,000/year – compared with Labor’s current target of  under $250,000/year.  (‘The Age’, 20/4)  Malcolm Turnbull has wasted much of the ‘small l liberal kudos’ and political capital he had won after deposing Tony Abbott.  To win the Federal Election, Bill Shorten and Labor cannot afford for him to ‘claw it back’.  As a minimum Shorten must now match Turnbull’s policy.  Even better: he must outbid Turnbull on distributive justice ; and the related theme of Budget repair without Austerity. Indeed Labor should welcome the opportunity for a degree of bipartisanship on an issue where its ‘distributive justice instincts’ were already demanding a stronger policy. Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute has projected that Superannuation Concessions will soon cost taxpayers  $50 billion every year : mainly in the form of an effective subsidy for the unambiguously well-off.  (paid by the rest of us)   A responsible policy would aim to cut this expense by half as a minimum; targeting the well-off specifically; and done as soon as is humanly possible.


Andrew Bolt was wrong on liberal rights re: trashing of Cori Bernadi’s Office

Andrew Bolt  (Herald-Sun, 21/3) condemns “leftists” and “socialists” for the trashing of Liberal MP Cory Bernadi’s office.  And indeed the tactics of those people were questionable at best.  In a picket line there is a clear physical objective – which can interfere with the profits of a private business – and thus deliver leverage to workers over wages and conditions.  Similarly boycotts of the goods of a country or a specific company can achieve leverage in a comparable way.   But the protestors against Bernadi achieved no leverage over government policy through their actions.  And while Andrew Bolt often agitates for free speech, he appears to have nothing to say about Mike Baird’s repressive anti-protest laws.   The problem with mistaken protest strategies can be that they play into the hands of the illiberal forces (ironically in the Liberal Party) who are now threatening our civil liberties.  A truly liberal and democratic society not only supports free speech – but also defends the right to protest, and even the right to engage in civil disobedience. Those rights are now under threat – and whereas Bernadi abhors ‘Leftist totalitarians’ the real threat to our rights comes from within his own party.

Negative Gearing Changes Just the First Step in Restoring the Australian Dream

Labor MP Andrew Leigh  (21/3)  rightly argued that increasing supply is the key to making housing affordable for more Australians.   Labor’s anti-Negative Gearing policies should encourage a shift to building new properties – hence helping to facilitate that crucial objective. But if we really want to increase supply we need to look at many billions invested in non-clustered public and social housing.  To provide for those people thus enabled to enter the housing market we also need to invest in the amenities and infrastructure provided in emerging suburbs.  Young families need transport and communications infrastructure, hospitals and schools, parks and gardens – to achieve the living standards they need and deserve.   But this is only possible via a significant public investment .   That goes against the grain of the Turnbull Government’s emphasis on cutting expenditure – which sabotages the Commonwealth’s revenue base - and hence its ability to provide for these things.  Company Tax cuts (read: corporate welfare)  are the last thing this country needs to provide for skills, infrastructure, social capital – all necessary for a successful economy and society.


Neglect of the Mentally Ill “A kind of Creeping euthanasia”; a Response to ‘The Age’

Catherine Armitage of ‘The Age’(‘A kind of creeping euthanasia’, 11/4/16)   is to be commended on her article exposing the rate at which mentally-ill Australians are dying well before their time.  That is, that the mentally ill (almost half a million Australians with a serious mental illness)  are on average dying 30 per cent earlier than other Australians – not just because of suicide, but mainly because of preventable physical illness.  That is, 9000 Australians dying as a consequence every year. This far outstrips the road toll and suicide rate combined several times over.  With the Federal Election now looming it is to be hoped that this will develop into an ongoing campaign in the Australian media, including in ‘The Age’: a campaign which will not relent until there are comprehensive and fully-funded government programs to ‘Close the Gap’ on life expectancy for the mentally ill, much as there are programs to ‘Close the Gap’ for Indigenous Australia. 


Responding to Morrison:  Austerity not the Answer!

Apparently Scott Morrison is under pressure to cut spending in the upcoming Federal Budget rather than raise taxes. (Herald-Sun, 17/4, ‘p 11)  What some people don’t understand, though, it that there is no ‘magic pudding’, and that cuts to health, education, infrastructure and welfare will have enormous ramifications.  Without increasing progressive taxation – which takes more from the rich than the poor – then there are two possible consequences.  Either the quality of services and infrastructure: like broadband, roads, health, education, aged care  – will suffer.  Or there will be privatisation and/or user pays.  There will be more $100,000 degrees.  State schools will suffer – as will our skilled workforce and economy.  And Australia will continue to lag behind in the quality of its broadband.  The problem with this is that ‘collective consumption’ through taxes can actually give voters a ‘better deal’ in their capacity as tax payers than as isolated private  consumers. Medicare demonstrates this.   But the Liberals have an Ideological fixation on ‘ever smaller government’ which defies practicality and common sense.  Supposed Christians like Abbott and Bernadi also ignore an older tradition of Christian Democracy which had no issue with a mixed economy and a ‘fair welfare state’.

We need a strong response on Aged Care ; This needs to be made a top issue in the impending Federal Election

Sarah Russell (The Age, ‘We’re ignoring the needs of our ageing population’, 17/4) draws attention to the under-funding of Aged Care : quality of training, staff pay,  conditions, morale, and numbers of staff on premises.  The result is poor service regarding turning in beds, assistance with eating, dressing and showering.  But the problems with Aged Care and Rights go deeper.  Those in residential care often simply don’t have anything to do but stare at TV and walls all day.  Similarly those ‘ageing in place’ (at home) can be lonely, socially isolated, and bereft of meaning in life. Hence appallingly
high levels of suicide amongst the aged. (especially men)  A common response is for policy makers to throw their hands in the air at ‘the ageing of our population’.  But the current  Aged Care budget  is $17 billion out of a $1.6 Billion economy – or approximately one per cent.  An indexed annual $5 billion/year boost could make a big difference: providing programs for social engagement, purpose, entertainment and mental stimulation, moving away from ‘user pays’, increasing pensions, and providing skilled staff numbers which are desperately needed. – We need an ongoing campaign to make this a top priority in the upcoming Federal election.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Defending the Left on so-called Political Correctness

Shutting down debate can create a cultural pressure cooker, something which critics of Australian universities dismiss with their glib references to ‘left wing political correctness’, writes Dr Tristan Ewins.

It has become commonplace for conservative commentators to make the accusation that our universities are enthralled to ‘left wing political correctness’ and ‘Marxism’.  But the narrative of political correctness itself can be deployed to shut down debate; such as in right-wing circles where there was once the common dismissal of the Left as promoting a mentality of ‘save the gay whales’. In other words, there existed an insensitive mentality which dismissed the rights and experiences of those of non-heterosexual orientation as nothing but political correctness.

On the Right particularly, there has also developed a narrative around so-called Left elites who enforce political correctness, and who are out of touch with mainstream Australia. Some Left narratives are far from the thinking of mainstream Australia on some issues, although one must not forget that at times in this country’s history, racism, sexism, and contempt towards other minorities was considered mainstream. The shift in this country’s view of minorities and women has occurred only as a consequence of the leadership provided by the Left and Centre-Left.

Specifically, the off-hand dismissal of narratives around the ‘invasion’ of this country can also be seen as reinforcing insensitivity towards indigenous people, and consolidating the kinds of perspectives that reinforced the narrative of terra nullius: the narrative that the continent we live on was unoccupied (or more specifically ‘there was no sovereign state’ before colonisation), legitimising settlement.

On the other hand, the injustices experienced by Indigenous Australia need to be resolved through a process of recognition, reconciliation and compensation. There has to be a point at which the nation moves on together. But this is not really possible, though, without a Treaty process.

“There is demand for critical thinkers.”

Red-baiting and promoting misunderstanding and confusion around Marxism is another common tactic deployed by conservative forces. It is true that an array of repressive regimes identified as Marxist throughout the 20th century. But it is also true that prior to the rise of Leninism and Stalinism, Marxists were the strongest advocates of free, universal and equal suffrage. (Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of Europe used a weighted suffrage system which granted voting power overwhelmingly on the basis of wealth, entrenching the control of the nobility and bourgeoisie despite an exploding working class vote for the social democratic parties.) Some of the strongest critics of Stalinism and Leninism were other (democratic) Marxists.

Many democratic Marxist narratives retain force, and do not rest on any totalitarian world-view. At the core of Marxism is the desire for a society based on the distributive principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need”, as well as the aim of empowering every individual to reach their full potential through immersion in the breadth and depth of human culture: from music, literature and art, to sport, philosophy, economics etc. This is a side of Marxism rarely acknowledged by its critics.

Finally, criticisms around employability miss the mark. The humanities and social sciences have long been condemned by those who opposed a critical society: a society which subjects itself to criticism, and does not take Ideological assumptions for granted. For some people, however, there is a technocratic outlook for which nothing matters except the technical demands of the labour market, and the imperative of maximising GDP. That said, there is demand for critical thinkers who can conduct research and criticism, and can express themselves fluently. Sometimes narratives around employability are more about shutting down criticism and pluralism in our democracy.

“It’s time we rejected right-wing narratives.”

To conclude, it is only fair to concede that sometimes parts of the Left do not tolerate internal dissent around their orthodoxies. And the relationship between parts of the Left and the principle of free-speech has become inconsistent and unclear. Pluralism generally means you engage with your political and intellectual rivals rather than just shutting them down. Shutting down debate can create a cultural pressure cooker, which over the long term builds up resentment. Though for instance when faced with a real and present danger of fascism that may warrant a rethink.

Also modern identity politics often revolves around a series of identities – around gender, sexuality, race etc – which are sometimes promoted in a kind of arbitrary hierarchy rather than through an integrated analysis. At the same time, also, parts (not all) of today’s Left have largely abandoned their traditional narratives around economic justice, economic democracy and equality, effectively distancing themselves from the working class and the working poor.

The problem is not so much with the critique of socially-constructed identity so much as it is with the method of an arbitrary hierarchy, and the abandonment of older Left narratives on the struggle for equality, and on the failings of capitalism. Here, though, the commonly-deployed term cultural Marxism is absurd for anyone who has an understanding. It was economics which was at the core of the old Marxist orthodoxy.

It’s time we rejected right-wing narratives around so-called political correctness. Ironically these very narratives shut down debate. They promote exactly the same kind of distortion and intolerance that so-called Left elites are accused of engaging in by the conservative Right.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Conservative Misconceptions on Tax , The Aftermath of 'Senate Reform', and More

above:  Greens leader Richard Di Natale argues reforms to the Senate will make Parliamentary elections more democratic ; But is he mistaken?  Could the Liberals soon control the Senate in their own right?  
This week I'm publishing six more letters looking at important issues in Australian and international politics...  These were originally sent to The Age, the Herald-Sun and The Australian ; Mostly they were unpublished.
Also this week we 're considering 
  • 'mental health and life-expectancy',
  • 'Conservative misconceptions on Tax', 
  • 'Superannuation reforms 'not a new Tax''
  • 'Integration and Assimilation not the same thing!' and
  • 'Was Bernie Sanders wrong on Clinton?'....

Dr Tristan Ewins

A Bigger Threat to those with a Mental Illness than Suicide – Close the Gap Now…

“Neil Cole (Reducing the Suicide Rate 9/3) raises the connection between Schizophrenia and suicide ; and by inference that we should tackle this just as seriously as we do the road toll for instance.  Yet one issue that none of the major parties are dealing with is that of reduced life expectancy for people with mental illness, and especially those with schizophrenia.  Here looking at suicide is only just ‘scratching the surface’.  For those so afflicted  (approximately 300,000 Australians with schizophrenia)  there is a reduced life expectancy of 25 years.   What is required is a ‘close the gap’ program similar to that pursued for indigenous peoples.  Not only to reduce suicide rates, but to promote fitness, health, good eating and the like, and also to further ameliorate poverty, provide flexible work, reduce social isolation etc.  ‘The Age’ has briefly considered this issue last year, but what is needed is an ongoing media campaign  demanding this be put this on all the major parties’ policy radar ahead of the coming election.  Some corners of the media could also do to stop treating Disability Pensioners like criminals.”

Conservatives misguided on Tax

The Herald-Sun (9/3) alludes to the corporate sector urging Turnbull to ‘be bold on tax’ and make sweeping cuts to the Company Tax rate.  Superannuation Concessions are mentioned, and indeed according to Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute those concessions (mainly for the wealthy) will soon cost taxpayers as much as $50 billion a year!  But are Company Tax cuts better for the rest of us, and do they really improve the economy?   Company Tax cuts mean that business is increasingly excused from contributing to paying for the services and infrastructure it benefits from. (eg: education,  communications, transport)  So either those services and infrastructure are neglected (hurting the economy) or the rest of us are called upon to ‘pick up the tab’.  This is what some people are calling ‘corporate welfare’.  It amounts to a ‘race to the bottom’ and effective ‘corporate blackmail’.  But ironically an economy with low corporate tax rates may end up being a LESS attractive destination for investment exactly because of the neglect of infrastructure, services and human capital.

Reforming Superannuation Concessions is not ‘A new Tax’

Mark Kenny (14/3) argues that voters are “sticking with the Coalition’ because of “Labor’s plans to lift taxes on superannuation and investment properties.”  This statement is profoundly misleading.  Labor is not bringing in new taxes, here, or even raising any existing taxes. Instead Labor is proposing that a series of concessions and subsidies be wound back.   Subsidies and concessions overwhelmingly favouring  the well-off.   Indeed these could be credibly interpreted as areas of government expenditure.   So a simple ‘reframing’ of the question could radically alter the terms of the debate.  Superannuation Concessions and Negative Gearing provisions could be seen as rorts for the well-off which cost average and low income tax payers.  Indeed Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute has estimated that superannuation concessions alone will soon cost taxpayers over $50 billion a year.  The sheer scope of the cost to the public purse is phenomenal.  It’s enough on its own to pay for an entire National Broadband Network (NBN) every year!  Incidentally Labor’s proposed  measures on superannuation concessions are at best modest.   If anything Labor needs a stronger policy. But they will be ‘spooked’ by the way ‘The Age’ and other publications are approaching this issue.

Integration and Assimilation not the Same Thing!

Frank Basile (HS Letters, 19/3) argues that ‘integration is the only way’ and that we should adopt a policy of “assimilation”.  But Integration and Assimilation are not the same thing.   Assimilation demands that people abandon their own culture to adopt the host culture.  That is, that they give up their cultural distinctiveness.  But Integration has a different aim.  Integration aims to establish enough ‘shared ground’ to facilitate interaction, communication,  intermingling and inclusion.  That might also include a commitment to liberty, democracy and social fairness.  In this way Integration aspires to achieve social harmony.   But under Integration this ‘shared ground’ does NOT mean immigrants must abandon their cultural identity and distinctiveness.  Integration is the way of bringing distinct cultures into relation with each other on the basis of ‘common ground’. In such a way cultures overlap and interpenetrate rather than 'one cancelling the other out’.  Integration is well and fine but let’s be clear what it really means.

What Senate Reform Possibly Means

(19/3/16)  The Greens have combined with the Liberals to implement Senate Reforms  which will probably wipe out the so-called  ‘micro parties’.  Here we speak not only of the ‘Sex Party’ and so-called ‘Liberal Democrats’ but also of the Carers’ Alliance and the Women’s Electoral Lobby.    In short voters will no longer be able to vote  for a Party ticket with the preferences being distributed according to those parties’ wishes.  The Greens will argue that takes the power away from the parties, and puts that power in the hands of  voters. .On the one hand it may do away with the questionable scenario of micro-party candidates being elected on automatically distributed preferences with only a tiny primary vote of their own.   On the other hand it might do away with the prospects of micro-parties  frustrating the Coalition’s social and economic agendas.   Joe Hockey’s brutal Budget would have passed without opposition in the Senate.  Anthony Albanese has rightly asserted that a system of ‘quotas’ – ie: imposing a minimum primary vote necessary for election - could also have rectified the system without the same ramifications.  Another option would be for the preference directions of all candidates be made public ahead of any election.   We can only hope these reforms do not deliver the Coalition absolute power through control of both Houses of Parliament.
Was Bernie Sanders Wrong on Clinton?
A letter sent to ‘The Age’ a while back)    Some people are criticising Bernie Sanders for not allowing Hillary Clinton to interrupt and speak over him. Who was in the right? Is 'what's good for the goose good for the gander', or do different rules apply to women and men? Generally speaking on the broad left we should not talk over or interrupt one another. We should have enough mutual respect or consideration to let arguments take their course, and allow people to arrive at their judgements. And in the past men's voices were always dominant - and that had to be corrected. But if a woman can interrupt or speak over a man, but a man cannot interrupt or speak over a woman (or even try and reassert himself as Sanders did when he was interrupted) - is it fair? And could this incident really hurt Sanders' campaign? And would that be fair also?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Progressive Letters on the US Presidential Campaign and More

above:  Bernie Sanders, US Presidential Candidate
The following are another series of letters to The Age and to the Herald Sun ; addressing topics as diverse as the US Presidential election; to Richard Denniss on economic reform;  a response to Peter Costello on ‘small government’;  on the threat of ‘elder abuse’ by government;  and the case against austerity!  Unfortunately the clear majority were not published.

Dr Tristan Ewins

Richard Denniss on Economic Reform

Richard Denniss (‘The Age’, 15/2) makes a compelling argument regarding the real nature of the social choices we need to make, and the social priorities we need to set.  Are lower corporate and personal income tax rates, as well as other concessions and subsidies for the well-off really a greater priority than quality, accessible state education ; a fair welfare system which is sustainable for those depending on it; social insurance for the disabled and the aged ; and comprehensive public health which is truly responsive to human need?  Peter Martin (15/2) makes the point that the top 10% consider themselves ‘battlers’, whereas in fact they are amidst the truly wealthy and the upper middle class. We cannot afford social services, welfare, social insurance and public infrastructure without a genuinely progressive tax mix.  And we must not be scared to put the arguments for redistribution and higher social spending – without which the minimum human and social needs of a great many Australians would not be met.  This election the progressive parties should be aiming to increase social expenditure by at least 2.5% of GDP (or $40 billion in a $1.6 Trillion economy) rather than parrot conservative mantras on ‘cutting expenditure’.

Responding to Peter Costello on 'Small Government'

Peter Costello (Herald-Sun 16/2) argues  “spending, not tax, is our biggest problem”.   Yet Australia’s public spending is low by OECD comparisons. The problem is that ‘small government’ imposes a ‘false economy’.  Some social needs are non-negotiable.  Health, Education, Aged Care, pensions for the vulnerable and for those who have earned it through a lifetime of work.  Crucially: In these fields ‘collective consumption’ via tax actually gives us a better deal as taxpayers than we would receive as private consumers.  To illustrate – in their book “Governomics  - Can We Afford Small Government?’ Miriam Lyons and Ian McAuley argue that whereas ‘high taxing’ and ‘high spending’ Nordic countries “contain health costs to 9 per cent of GDP”, in the US the figure is 18% despite only 40% coverage.   Australia’s Medicare is somewhere in the middle: It is an effective universal coverage scheme – but neglect and under-funding leave us ahead of the US but behind the Nordics.  So even with progressive tax and higher social expenditure these policies can actually get costs down as a proportion of GDP, and in the process free up a greater portion of the economy for ‘negotiable’ needs (eg: entertainment, holidays) which improve our quality of life. 

Continuing the Argument against 'small government'

Conservatives are arguing Turnbull must “slash government spending”.  But where would that come from?  The unemployed live in such poverty it interferes with their ability to seek work. The Disabled already experience poverty through no fault of their own.  Student poverty forces mainly young people to seek out work that actually prevents them from getting the most out of their study.   The Aged are forced to sell their houses to access sub-standard Aged Care even when they are from a working-class background.  Waiting lists are spiralling out of control in public health ; and we have the threat of a permanently two-tiered Education system which disadvantages those unable to afford private schooling.  Mental health is neglected and many mentally-ill can expect to die 25 years younger on average.   There is insufficient public money for infrastructure and privatisation passes on added costs that hurt the broader economy.  Public housing could increase demand and make housing affordable for more families.  So in fact more public money is needed – not less.  AND the deficit must be brought under control as well.  Only PROGRESSIVE tax reform (not the GST) can tackle all these crises fairly.  Cutting savagely is not the answer.

Meanwhile on Elder Abuse by the Federal Government!:

Christine Long (‘the Age’ 24/2/16) provides an exposition on elder abuse, usually at the hands of relatives.  Yet the worst elder abuse and negligence comes as a consequence of the actions (and otherwise negligence) of the Federal Government.   Nursing homes lack staff to resident ratios, and what is more there is no provision for a registered nurse on the premises 24/7.  Indeed nursing homes are often akin to ‘warehouses for old people’. There is little or no mental stimulation or diversity in environment.  Lack of staff means residents do not always eat, and some are left in their own excrement for protracted periods for the same reason.  What is more, onerous user-pays mechanisms are forced upon working class families who may have struggled their entire lives to afford a home.  User pays aged care is akin to regressive tax – but much worse even than the GST.  For quality of life in old age other reforms are also necessary.  A significant increase in the Aged Pension.  Free public transport.  Taxi vouchers, and social gatherings to cater for all interests.  Programs to combat loneliness and the likelihood of suicide.  A National Aged Care Insurance Scheme would be a great place to start.

Responding on the US Presidential Campaign: Bernie Sanders' Prospects
Rita Panahi  (Herald-Sun, 15/2) decries US Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders as “An ageing socialist who wants to raise existing taxes and introduce a bunch of new ones.”   The unspoken assumptions, here, are that small government is un-contestable, and redistribution unthinkable.  The Herald-Sun (15/2) was also concerned that what are probably the top 10 per cent of families live ‘pay-check to pay-check’ on $200,000 a year and more to maintain their lifestyles.  But according to the ABS  the average pre-tax individual wage in November 2013 was $57,980. And many truly battled on close-to-minimum wage: cleaners, skilled child-care workers, aged care workers, retail, hospitality and tourism workers.  In 2015 the minimum full-time wage was barely $650/week.  So redistribution is fair for many reasons.   Arguably everyone should have minimum rights to social inclusion, shelter, nutrition, education, and health care.  Best provided through the social wage, social insurance and various social services which demand progressive tax as ‘the price we pay for civilization’.  But pay is also based on ‘demand and supply’ in the labour market, and some workers’ industrial strength. Those mechanisms do not guarantee fairness.  You don’t get fairness and human decency without redistribution including services, welfare, public infrastructure and progressive tax.


Julie Szego (‘The Age’ 25/2) infers that women supporting Bernie Sanders in the US Presidential Election is not the ‘feminist choice’.  Underlying this is the assumption that identity is privileged over broader outcomes and over ideology . But if Sanders succeeded in winning free universal health care women would stand to gain as women – exactly because women are otherwise disadvantaged financially due to the exploitation of feminised professions, and due to women’s interrupted working lives.  Secondly, if Sanders raised the minimum wage this also would help the most exploited women in those same feminised professions.  Whereas Hilary Clinton can be seen as supporting a ‘liberal feminist agenda’ Sanders agenda ought appeal to ‘socialist feminists’  concerned also with class, and with the inequalities even between women themselves.   In this context it would not be ‘a betrayal of feminism’ to support Sanders.  Modern progressive politics needs to be based on reciprocal solidarity between human beings against oppression, exploitation, subordination and domination.  Here gender does not ‘trump’ other issues any more than those issues (eg: class) ‘trump’ gender. The agenda is for us all ‘to see the struggle through to the end’ with nothing less than ‘full human liberation’ as the aim.


Saturday, February 6, 2016

From Privatisation to the GST - Letters of Relevance to Labor

Above:  South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill has Upset and Awful Lot of People in the ALP with his Position on the GST!

Dr Tristan Ewins

Comrades and others; The following are a series of letters I've written over the past couple of weeks - in the hope of being published in The Age, The Herald-Sun, The Saturday Paper...  I'm hoping by republishing them here I can spur further debate.  Topics covered include 'How Federal Labor Must Respond to Jay Weatherrill on the GST', 'Privatisation Now and Then', 'the Holocaust and Cold War Atrocities - Never Forget',  'Why Isn't Shorten Cutting Through?', 'Infrastructure and Population'.  Most of the letters were never published debate here could help make up for that I think! :-)

Privatisation Doesn't Make Sense - Never did make Sense!
The Herald-Sun (27/1) makes a point of the fact the Liberal NSW Liberal Government will have $20 billion to spend following privatisation of electricity.  But it ignores the associated cost of this privatisation.  To pay for private dividends and corporate salaries increased structural costs will be passed on to consumers in full.  Energy will be more expensive – and that includes businesses as well as voters.  Dividends from the energy sector will also be lost to NSW voters – probably forever.  To get a picture of this: The Commonwealth Bank privatisation brought in about $7.8 billion (the total for the sale of the entire business!!!   )after being privatised by the Keating Labor Government.  But in 2015 the Commonwealth Bank registered a PROFIT (for only one year) of over $9 billion!  Meanwhile the Federal Government is having to pay Telstra several billions to access the very pits and wires that were privatised under John Howard.  How has any of this ever been in the public interest?

Remember the Holocaust - and ALL other Atrocities - So they are never repeated

Dvir Abramovich (Herald-Sun 27/1)  makes some crucial points about teaching young people of the dangers of hatred and prejudice, as epitomised most horrifically by the Holocaust, and the associated industrial scale murder and persecution of Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma, the disabled, and political dissidents. (mainly Leftists)  Such a public education program could be incorporated into a broader critical/active civics and citizenship curriculum reform agenda.  That is: reform the curriculum to empower all students to understand their rights and interests; to commit politically on the basis of their interests and acquired values; and to participate deeply in a truly and meaningfully pluralist democracy.  He also mentions Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and others.  But one aspect that he neglected (unintentionally I believe) was the record of atrocities on the ‘anti-Communist’ side during the Cold War.  Over half a million leftists and trade unionists were murdered in Indonesia in 1965-66. And genocidal attacks during Guatemala’s civil war claimed between 200,000 and 300,000. As well as political mass murders in El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Truly we must remember ALL of history’s shameful passages that we do not repeat them.  And that includes those committed ostensibly by ‘our side’. 

Why Isn't Shorten 'Cutting Through'?  And how can he change this?

Mark Kenny (28/1) argues Bill Shorten has failed to cut through since the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull as PM.  Yet the Liberal Party stands on the verge of another bout of bitter austerity: of the proportions which brought former Treasurer, Joe Hockey , undone.  For too long Labor has pinned its fortunes mainly to ‘socially liberal’ issues like Equal Marriage: neglecting robust social and distributive justice policies.  Hence the ‘socially liberal’ but ‘economically neo-liberal’ Turnbull has capitalised on the prevalent discourse.  Labor needs to change the prevalent discourse – and quick.  Labor’s strong endorsement of Gonski –  $3 billion on average a year - may show that Labor strategists are starting to learn their lesson. Other options could include more robust reform of superannuation concessions for the well off.  Superannuation concessions may cost taxpayers $50 billion/year by 2019, and Labor should be able to shave $20 billion of that from the well-off. Other areas of tax reform could include no further Company Tax cuts; gradually rescind Dividend Imputation; index the bottom two income tax brackets for fairness.  That could pay for a National Aged Care Social Insurance Scheme, reform of pensions and more, while improving Labor’s economic credentials, reining in the deficit.

The Infrastructure Crisis and Population: A Response to a Herald-Sun Reader
Nola Martin (Herald-Sun, 1/2) blames the transport infrastructure crisis – crowded trains – on overpopulation. Increased population has good and bad consequences.  On one side we will run into difficulty if schools, hospitals, roads, public transport – fail to keep up with population.  On the other hand higher population creates ‘economies of scale’ in the public service, defence and other areas. (ie: we can get away with paying proportionately less there)  But the real problem is that public investment in infrastructure and services – like roads – is not ‘keeping up’ on account of ‘corporate welfare’ and subsidies for the well-off.  Company Tax cuts mean corporations aren’t paying for the infrastructure they benefit from.  And superannuation concessions for the well-off might cost taxpayers $50 billion by 2019 according to Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute.  When there’s not enough public money for infrastructure like roads this also leads to privatisation.  The problem here is since the private sector cannot borrow as cheaply as the public sector, and must pay dividends to shareholders,  the increased ‘cost structures’ are passed on – hurting the entire economy.  But as the Federal Election approaches Malcolm Turnbull is considering more tax cuts. (eg: Company Tax)  When will we learn our lesson?

SA Premier Jay Weatherill and the Debate on the GST; And the 'Revenue Problem' for Health and Education

Regarding his discussion of raising the GST; On the positive side at least South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill IS saying there’s a revenue problem we have and not a spending problem. It’s good to actually confront that issue - and to prioritise health and education. The problem is that he's undermining Shorten on the GST – which could be crucial in the coming election. The best reply Shorten can come up with is promising to address BOTH the revenue problem and the Health crisis - including Aged Care. There are a host of possible measures. Hit superannuation concessions. Gradually rescind dividend imputation. Reform capital gains tax concessions. Rescind negative gearing. Restructure and increase the Medicare Levy. DON'T cut Company Tax.  Shorten has options! Outlining those options NOW - AS OPPOSED TO THE GST can answer Jay Weatherill's concerns re: 'the revenue problem'.   And we can then enjoy serious reform of Education and Health including Aged Care - where tens of billions new funding combined are necessary to make a serious difference. In response to the answering of those concerns Weatherill will probably then 'fall into line' on opposing the GST.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Recent Observations from the Media ; And observations on the ALP’s Policy Trajectory

above: Bill Shorten needs to focus more on Policy Substance and Depth; 
Very Little is possible without a serious commitment of resources

What follows is some commentary on recent material in ‘The Age’, ‘The Herald-Sun’ and the “Border Mail’, as well as a critique of Labor’s current lack of policy on strong tax and superannuation concessions reform….

Dr Tristan Ewins

Cash Splash?  How a ‘throwaway line’ offends both our values and our intelligence


i)                    ‘The Age’ should have been more careful with its rhetoric in relation to  the Gonski education reforms. (‘The Age’, 29/12/15)  In particular the term ‘cash splash’ is highly questionable.  Of recent years the term has been deployed heavily, with the obvious inference that the public spending associated is ‘frivolous’ or ‘wasteful’.  Indeed the term has consolidated the neo-liberal Ideological assumption that public spending generally tends to be wasteful.  But Gonski is anything but wasteful. The Gonski initiative and its associated funding are crucial in stopping the drift to a highly stratified education system; where the state sector becomes ‘residual’ and ‘second class’.  That is: only for those who cannot afford better.  By contrast Gonski has as its assumption that this drift must be halted, and that all students should have the opportunity to realise their full potential. There are economic reasons for this (training tomorrow’s workforce) – but the social and cultural ramifications are just as important.  Journalists for ‘The Age’ should be more careful in the future.  Gonski is anything but a ‘cash splash’, and ‘The Age’ should from now on be more careful in realising the ramifications of this kind of rhetoric.   (letter to ‘The Age’; edited version published)


A Surprising Position on Tax Reform in the Herald-Sun of all Places!


ii)                  It is good to see the Herald-Sun considering options for fair tax reform as opposed to austerity.  Capital Gains Tax discounts and Negative Gearing provisions are already set to cost around $20 billion year as Kara Vickery’s article (14/1/16, p 15) indicates.  But there are other options for government in containing the $40 billion/year deficit.  Dividend Imputation (rarely applied outside of Australia) could also be wound back for another $20 billion a year.  And a more rigorous winding back of unfair Superannuation Concessions for the wealthy and upper middle class could bring in well over $20 billion a year. Finally there are other options to actually expand investment in infrastructure, education  and health, fair welfare, and more.  Company Tax could be held steady. (already at 30% is lower than the Amercian rate) The Medicare Levy could also be increased and restructured – and channelled into Aged Care and Mental Health. And for the sake of fairness bracket creep for low and average income Australians could be contained by indexing the bottom thresholds.  Austerity is not the answer to the deficit – and would only hurt the economy , and at the same time some of our most vulnerable Australians.  (letter to ‘The Herald-Sun’ ; not published)



iii)                Interesting Position from NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley on the GST

The ‘Border Mail’ recently observed that:  “Opposition Leader Luke Foley [said] he would consider supporting an increase in the GST from 10 to 15 per cent as long as the funds were used solely for health and education and to compensate low-income earners.  NSW Conservative Premier Mike Baird seems to agree.  But the ‘Border-Mail’ also observed that:

“federal treasurer Scott Morrison insists any potential GST increase must also be used to fund income and company tax cuts”

In response I would argue the following:

A package including but not limited to the GST and other measures can be made 'progressive' depending on the compensation. If the compensation is strong enough the poor could even end up better off. (ie: if an increase in the GST pays for big improvements in welfare, targeted tax concessions etc) The problem, though, is that taxpayers tend to focus on INCOME TAX.   And if we cut the income tax of people on low incomes, for instance (in order to compensate), later down the track that will come under pressure as a consequence of high income (and potentially even some middle income) resentment.  Any increase to welfare could also come under pressure in such a way.  The focus will be on the simple rates of welfare (without considering the place of compensation in the total package), as well as the cost to the Budget and so on.  AND before you know it that compensation is whittled away! That is: both tax credits, income tax restructure, increases in welfare.... So in the end – over many years - we have a reversion to the full impact of the increased GST re: its distributive effects. Those on low incomes especially will be hit hard. Which is why we need to communicate this fact to Foley and others who think raising the GST could be a good idea.
This is not to suggest, however, that we should not try and raise welfare and lift people out of poverty.  But a big restructure of income tax as compensation for an increased GST would definitely face a significant threat of being wound back over time.  Possibly through another restructure later down the track.  And possibly because of bracket creep. (if there is not indexation of the lower thresholds)
There are alternatives, however: Tackle negative gearing; reduce dividend imputation, wind back capital gains tax concessions; maintain company tax; raise and restructure the Medicare Levy; introduce a financial transactions tax; withdraw superannuation concessions for the wealthy and the upper middle class; impose a super profits tax on the banks; introduce new progressive property taxes, modest inheritance taxes for large inheritances...

Indeed the measures listed above could potentially bring in $60 billion or more.

I can see how if the specific model of change pondered by Foley was implemented it could have good outcomes short term. But I'm just saying the progressive distributive changes would be whittled away over time. And eventually the effect would be regressive.


iv)                But isn’t Bill Shorten promoting strong reform on superannuation concessions?


Well, No.  The superannuation concessions reforms currently proposed by Bill Shorten currently are VERY modest.  The suggested reforms could even be dismissed as being ‘cosmetic’ in ‘the big picture’.  Shorten proposes cutbacks in concessions only for the wealthiest of all: "$14 billion OVER TEN YEARS" (that is: $1.4 billion a year by today's reckoning)  By contrast Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute believes the cost of Superannuation Concessions will soon balloon to OVER $50 BILLION EVERY YEAR.  (ie: by 2019)   And the deficit is currently in the vicinity of $40 billion a year.  To get a sense of proportion the economy is valued at approximately $1.6 Trillion.  So Bill Shorten's proposed superannuation concessions reform amounts to about 0.01% of GDP – and probably proportionately less when you factor in economic growth.  That is: it is so modest as to be considered trivial.

All this means that a Labor government will be under enormous pressure to introduce austerity. At this rate there could be cuts in pensions, an increase the retirement age, and so on.  Or they will ‘sit on the deficit’ and attract massive flak from the Conservatives.

At the ALP Socialist Left Forum Facebook Group one contributor inferred I should just get behind Labor’s costed policies, and that criticism was simply succor to the Liberals.

But the ALP Left is more than a 'cheer squad' for opportunistic policies that are about appearance and not substance.  I am saying that once we step back from the heat of the rhetorical policy battle - there is not enough SUBSTANTIAL difference between us and the Libs on policy yet. (though there are notable differences on Penalty Rates for example)

NOW if you want to talk about ALP Policy - I understand the PLATFORM does NOT lock us in to 'small government'. But understand that as things stand - without a change of direction - we won't have the fiscal ‘room to move’ to fully introduce Gonski and NDIS - let alone other absolutely critical reforms like:

·         National Aged Care Social Insurance on a similar scale to NDIS

·         reform of welfare to lift the most vulnerable out of poverty

·         full integration of dental, optical, physio, psychology, hearing aids, speech therapy, urgent cosmetic surgery -  into Medicare

·         increase proportionate and absolute funding for mental health

·         Begin a fully-funded program to ‘close the gap’ on mental health related  life expectancy - just as critical a priority as ‘closing the gap’ re: indigenous lifespan

·         A big investment in public and social housing

·         Maintain a retirement age of 65

·         Restructure HECS to approximate something like a genuinely progressive tax

·         Big public investments into infrastructure: transport, energy, water, communications, hospitals, schools, ports and more

·         Bolster Legal Aid

·         Kickstart a process leading to a negotiated Treaty with indigenous Australia

·         Big public investment into renewable energy research and infrastructure

Without root and branch reform of tax and superannuation concessions pursuing even a modest selection of said policies (above) would mean either extensive austerity elsewhere, or a ‘sit on our hands’ attitude to government. (neither of which are acceptable)  ‘One step forward, two steps back’ is not enough , and the prize of government is not sufficient if there is so little progress on the policy front.

I want a REFORMING LABOR GOVERNMENT. I want 'the forward march of labour' to get moving again.  A trajectory of progress.  Is that too much to ask?

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