The Great China Distraction: post-pandemic Australia requires more than a trade fight

Looking beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s difficult to put the disruption, the suffering and the ongoing geopolitical gamesmanship behind us. But over the past fortnight a number of organisations have been doing just that.

Australia’s think tanks, political parties, government commissions, business councils, industry lobbies and university research centres have been busy drafting competing policy prescriptions for a post-pandemic Australia.

It’s not difficult to see why. The pandemic offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset Commonwealth policy in relation to taxation, markets, infrastructure, investment, energy, security and much else beside. Everyone with a stake in the game is starting to show their hand.

In other times, some of the adjustments mooted in the policy papers in circulation could damage investor confidence or possibly carry sovereign risks. Not now. The greatest danger in planning for post-pandemic Australia is not sovereign risk to businesses but business risks to sovereignty. Whether they like it or not, businesses and security interests are in this together.

Among other things, the pandemic has exposed a degree of dependence on China that was sometimes anticipated but never fully appreciated until tourist flights were grounded, student enrolments fell away, and tariff and non-tariff measures were imposed on beef and barley.

At the same time, the pandemic has cruelly exposed the Trump administration as incapable of preserving Americans from harm, let alone capable of reaching out and assisting others.

As Australia starts drawing lessons from these international experiences, China and America loom large in the policy prescriptions being drafted around the country.

This is part of the problem.

An obsessive focus on economic relations with China and security relations with the US introduces a new and serious risk of putting Australia’s relations with one or the other at the heart of serious planning for the post-pandemic era. We’ve been talking so long about China and the US that we approach issues relating to Australia’s economy and security as if it were about them, not us.

The choice facing Australia, Peter Hartcher pointed out in Red Flag, is not one between China and the US. It’s a choice for Australia and it goes well beyond relations with either.

A focus on China is apparent in two recent reports about post-pandemic Australia. The timing of James Laurenceson and Michael Zhou’s Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) report on COVID-19 and the bilateral relationship was unfortunate, coming less than a fortnight after China’s ambassador Cheng Jingye’s explosive comments to The Australian Financial Review late in April.

China’s ambassador to Canberra basically said that if bilateral relations did not improve, in China’s favour, China’s students and tourists could stop coming to Australia and its consumers could lose their taste for Australian beef and wine. Whatever his intention, the ambassador’s comments drew immediate attention to Australia’s dangerous level of trade dependence on China.

Despite this, Laurenceson and Zhou say there is little we can do about trade dependence so we should just get over it. Australia’s trade dependence, they argue, is nothing out of the ordinary as the country ranks 46th in the world for relative dependence on a single export market. Any attempt to reduce dependence is a “zombie idea”.

In fact, all but one of the 45 countries ahead of us are not peers (some are in fact dependencies) and the sole exception, Canada, is acutely aware of its trade dependence on the US and has a long-standing ambition to diversify its way out.

In Canada, diversification is not regarded as a zombie idea. It is not borne out of anti-American prejudice either. It’s a matter of common sense. What if Americans were to elect a vengeful “America-First” narcissistic to office?

Canadians already know the answer to that one.

The same goes for Australia and China. Whether Cheng’s remarks were intended as a friendly warning or as a dire threat is immaterial. Either way, they clarify as never before the risks arising from excessive dependence on China. Australia is a trading country. Our biggest trading partner could dump much of our business overnight.

Just think about that.

There is only one possible lesson to be drawn. Australia’s trade dependence on China presents a serious threat to our welfare and sovereignty and something needs to be done about it.

Precisely what is the question driving John Coyne and Peter Jennings’ report After COVID-19 for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). On the assumption that Australia is dangerously over-dependent on China, the report proposes a series of remedial steps that go beyond trade dependence to other forms of dependence, “including walking back PRC ownership of critical infrastructure such as the electricity grid, IT assets, farmland, ports and medical facilities and cutting university research links that help to enhance People’s Liberation Army (PLA) capabilities”.

Looking forward, they suggest extending the administrative architecture of national security beyond traditional areas of defence, intelligence and foreign policy to cover other policy domains such as health and biosecurity, climate policy, human security, critical infrastructure, university and industry R&D, and oil supplies.

This is where things start to get interesting. In pushing the boundaries of security thinking beyond defence, intelligence and foreign policy — in fact beyond the US alliance — the ASPI report expands the scope of the problem from simple trade dependency on China to dependency on the US for strategic oil reserves, on Germany and Switzerland for medical and hospital supplies, and on a largely foreign-controlled fossil fuels industry for meeting Australia’s energy needs. The report starts out being about China but ends up arguing that we need to do whatever it takes to secure Australia’s future.

This includes addressing climate change.

The business press and top tier bureaucracy pounced on the ASPI report to condemn the administrative overreach a comprehensive national strategy would obviously entail — and to defend the fossils industry. For Dennis Richardson, it appears preferable to live with excessive China dependence than to contemplate alternatives such as a domestic industrial revival built on investment in renewable energy.

The former head of Defence and Foreign Affairs told journalist Paul Kelly on May 9 that “when it comes to putting a whole range of things under the national security banner, my response is ‘no way’.” He went on: “if you have climate change in the mix, you are throwing a domestic political hand grenade into it. That merely highlights the point — you cannot put everything into a single pot and create a consistent product.”

In fact you can. But it is not likely to happen while Australians are distracted by their China dilemma. The fossil-fuel industry is hiding behind this country’s national China/US obsession to entrench its power and influence in planning for a post-pandemic Australia and arguably placing national sovereignty at risk.

On March 25 the federal government announced the creation of a high-powered commission to manage the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) was set up under the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet “to help minimise and mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 on jobs and businesses, and to facilitate the fastest possible recovery of lives and livelihoods once the virus has passed”.

Some idea of the recommendations likely to emerge from the commission can be gleaned from its composition. It is headed by Neville Power, former CEO of Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals, and according to one report seven of its 15 commissioners and working group members have strong links to the fossil fuel industry, particularly the gas industry.

Expect fracking, expect resistance to reservation of existing gas fields for east coast consumers, and expect resistance to any reasonable effort to increase taxes and royalties on minerals and energy to help meet fiscal deficits arising from the pandemic. Also expect arguments about maintaining Australia’s continuing dependence on China. In fact, expect the fossil fuel and China business communities to come at this together.

The debate we need to have is not about relations with China and the US but about our future energy and strategic-industry policies. The pandemic shows that possibly our greatest security challenges involve human security, not traditional security, and this goes well beyond anything the US security alliance can offer.

It also shows that we need to find a path to recovery that builds strategic resilience while reducing dependence on China or any other country. Navigating an economic recovery in these circumstances means tacking in entirely new directions.

The key to reducing a dangerous China dependency lies in reducing dependence on fossil fuels and positioning Australia to become the energy superpower of the 21st century, as Ross Garnaut put it, producing low-cost renewable energy that is capable of supporting globally competitive industry and commerce.

A strategy of this kind would get people, businesses and governments back to work and build resilience at the same time.

What is stopping us? China? I don’t think so.

For a new breed of right-wing ideologues, ‘wrecking crew’ politics isn’t fast enough

Twelve years ago, the iconoclastic American left commentator Thomas Frank published The Wrecking Crew, one of those books that irritates because it points out a structure of reality that suddenly feels obvious but was obscured by the very reality it had created.

Frank identified the failure of good government in the George W Bush era of the US, and across numerous republican state governments — as exemplified in the triple whammy of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 crash — not as a failure to govern effectively due to a political theory being wrong, but as the deliberate effort of a political movement that sought to govern badly.

The aim was not — as in the Thatcher and Reagan periods — to (allegedly) run a smaller government, show that it worked better than post-war social democracy, and thus deter a return to the latter by the electorate.

“Wrecking crew” government seeks to govern so badly, per the interests of those governed, that the very machinery of such government is so damaged that it cannot be restored, even if the voters make it pretty clear they want it back.

The secondary effect of this is that if government provision is now seen as inherently unreliable, a rational choice even for low-income, potential service beneficiary voters is to vote for tax cuts and tax credits.

Even tax cuts that favour the rich — so long as they are part of a package that have some for the poor — will be supported. A tax cut spiral will be instituted. So too will a legitimacy spiral, in which it becomes ever harder for left-centre parties to propose any sort of counter-program no matter how modest.

Thus, as wrecking crew rightism proceeds, it transforms the nature of the political right that is applying it.

The wrecking approach

Thatcherism/Reaganism wanted a smaller domestic state, but an efficient national-military one, providing good infrastructure and projecting global military power.

The wrecking approach abolishes this balance, privileging the private, the atomised and the exuberant at the same time as it removes any real belief in their possible unintended consequences.

Thus enthusiasm for FA Hayek — who is, after all, a theorist of the state — is driven out by a worship of Ayn Rand, an amphetamine junkie anarcho-capitalist, whose disciple Alan Greenspan would run the US economy right up to the edge of the ’08 cliff he didn’t believe existed, and then wonder, bewilderedly, to a congressional inquiry why it had fallen off it.

What would have been taken by the Thatcher/Reagan era as actual political and governance failure, was taken by their successors simply as “new context”.

The Iraq War cost trillions of public money, but made many billions for the private contractors who fed the wrecking crew right’s political ecology.

The 2008 crash offered the chance to permanently break even the most vestigial notion of a social contract and obligation to assist, between rich and poor, that had held since World War II.

Katrina abolished the notion that government actually had a whole-of-society relationship, and could not return to a pre-19th century reform era idea of being indifferent to the living or dying of its citizens.

Such an indifference to any except the most basic cause of maintaining and reproducing power gave this right the sort of manic swagger and appetite for chaos visible, for example, in the no-deal Brexit push.

The only danger to such a way of holding power would be a reversal of fortune so categoric that it threatened that most basic capacity of society to reproduce — i.e. for the same social relations to exist on Tuesday as they did on Monday, and for Wednesday’s to arise from what was done on Tuesday, and so on.

The possibility of this was rejected because its suggestion was most closely associated with climate change, and so the fact of climate change’s sufficient probability (i.e. near certainty) had to be contested not only by flat out denialism, but by a more comprehensive attack on scientific modelling, the act of precaution and, finally, any concern for the future to any degree that would hinder exuberant action in the present.

The COVID-19 challenge

What such a program didn’t count on was a challenge such as the one we have now: COVID-19.

COVID-19 hangs between normal political conditions and catastrophe, rendered by its high infection rate on the one hand and its low lethality rate on the other.

The science-fiction imagination fell short in all those books and movies where a contagion fells millions in the street and breaks down society immediately.

Popular culture could imagine a world where trees emit a gas that makes humans commit suicide (The Happening), but not one where the most basic ways of being human are quickly reorganised by the state as an alternative to a lot of people dying painful, terrifying and, by reason of isolation, abhorrent deaths.

Catastrophe within a system makes a whole preceding political debate pretty irrelevant. The right relied on the idea that if something came apart decades from now, recriminations wouldn’t matter much in an emergency.

Meanwhile capital and the right could hide behind the slow and hidden grinding-down of, first, an enabling state, and then one that was even minimally viable — and its powerful ideological resources could sell this as the natural state of affairs.

COVID-19 lands right between these two states: the grind down and the catastrophe. We suddenly need an efficient state, and nothing else will do. But in the absence of it, a slow crisis grinds on and chaos accumulates.

This is where the US and the UK are at now. This is state chaos in real time, playing itself out in a way that no one can easily remedy because the overarching authority that might be able to do that is the state itself.

In a federal separation-of-powers state like the US the multiple centres of authority empower those operating off a logic of cynicism in the usual way: the self-interested and dishonest actor always has an advantage because corruption and dishonesty are counterfeit forms of integrity and truthfulness, not distinct modalities.

President Donald Trump is not coming out and saying: “Hey, lotta folks gonna die, suck it up, could I care?”

The fantastical lies he tells about testing, being over the worst, are in service to an indisputable idea of “the good” from within a state mechanism whose capacity to deliver has been, and is being, destroyed.

Random priorities

The same process is occurring in a distinctive fashion in the UK, where a tight class-based establishment — stretching across the Conservative Party, the corporate media, the BBC and the new leadership of the Labour Party — appears to be applying or defending a rollout of coronavirus response that appears to be almost random in its priorities.

How is it possible that a unitary, mostly non-federalised government like the UK’s has been unable to deliver a basic coordinated testing response?

How has it had three distinct lockdown regimes over six or seven weeks with no clear logic connecting them?

Why is it only now imposing a two-week quarantine on new arrivals at airports, when tens of thousands of people from high-risk areas have been streaming into the country for months?

Both these responses of a state after the wrecking crew philosophy has deprived it not only of resources but of organisational structures, and institutional practices and memory capable of responding to radically new situations (which is something that the classical liberal side of right politics used to spruik as one of its selling points).

But in fact we may have gone one stage further than the wrecking crew, if an intriguing new study of the western right is anything to go by.

War for Eternity by Benjamin Teitelbaum is a study of the influence of US-UK rightists such as Steve Bannon, and the Boris Johnson consigliere Dominic Cummings, of the obscure school of capital-T traditionalism which flourished in the early- and mid-20th century.

Traditionalist writers such as French mystic Rene Guenon and Italian pre-fascist occultist Julius Evola were more than simply nostalgic conservatives; they argued that not only modernity, but rationalism right back to the Greeks, alienated “man” (very much “man”) from a concrete, organic, indivisible world-spirit which had once manifested itself in a single world religion, then shattered into the visible religions, was then traduced by secular modernity altogether.

Secular modernity, with its doctrines of equality and self-determination, of questioning mastery and a given order (unsurprisingly masculinist above all) was the catastrophe, for traditionalist thinkers, condemning humanity to an annihilated, evacuated existence.

Restoring the order of a life worth living meant seeking out chaos and chaos-bringers. Humanity lived in long epochs, and ours was one of “the slave”.

Philosopher-warriors such as Bannon would find men of action such as Trump — who knew not what they did — to bring such transitions forward and open up possibilities. Traditionalism is thus occultish and mystical, beyond even a Nietzschean politics of the will, and Teitelbaum makes clear its influence on Putin and Russia, for example, via the performance artist turned “National Bolshevik” turned Putin guru Alexander Dugin — and via Dugin its influence on the western-occulted “alt”-right.

For the new “occult right”, wrecking crew politics isn’t enough. Governments must be formed whose leaders’ active role is to rapidly destroy the organisations they have been put in charge of.

This is the philosophy that has guided cabinet and state appointments under Trump (or over his signature by people who continue to have his ear), appointing people such as Department of Education head Betsy de Vos, who believes the public school system should not exist, and an Environmental Protection Agency head who wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.

Most recently, the administration denied a cash injection to the United States Postal Service, one of the country’s public offices that retains a degree of public trust, identification and support.

The extra strain on the indebted service at a time of higher demand on its services is exacerbated by the appointment of a new head, Louis DeJoy — a Trump mega-donor and head of a major logistics firm — who has talked of abolishing the service altogether in favour of private “solutions”.

A disorderly Brexit

DeJoy is simply a corporate privatiser; DeVos a Christian rightist, and so on.

But the nature of such accumulated appointments is a direct assault on the capacity of the government to function, to create a fundamental break — a condition achieved in the UK by seeking the most damaging, arbitrary, deranging form of Brexit possible.

An orderly Brexit, ostensibly sought after, would have been the worst thing that could have happened for such a push.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the occult right wanted to be the chaos bringers. Instead, chaos came as a force of nature in the form of a disease which renewed a public appetite for order and conscientious leadership.

If we got a measure of that in Australia at the federal level that might be due to the not-yet-fully-decadent nature of our right — we have a prime minister who is the product of a cult, happy-clappy in this case, but a relatively mild one — and the delay of a greater crisis of state legitimacy by the absence of structural economic crisis.

That’s ironic in a way. Historically our homegrown right — in the form of James McAuley, founding editor of Quadrant — had dabbled in traditionalism via the works of Guenon (with whom his “Ern” Malley affair co-conspirator Harold Stewart was obsessed, running a Guenon study circle in Melbourne in the 1940s), and parts of Australian post-war rightism were coloured by the Manichean and cosmic notions of such occultism.

(The CCF, the CIA front that funded Quadrant, had to write repeatedly to McAuley to remind him that the magazine was meant to be a front, projecting a notion of disinterested liberal reasonableness, and not a, in our terms, “headbanger”. A dip into the magazine today will show that the occultist headbanging style won out.)

The elements are there. One can see an increasingly “cosmic” and nihilist turn in the intellectual and moral decline of the Institute of Public Affairs, for example, and the occult forces will start to move more actively should a real no-holds-barred economic crunch make its presence felt.

The one thing most likely to check their advance here is what we can see happening over there.

Like ancient insects slowed and then suspended in Russian amber, the chaos-bringers are made visible by a force utterly beyond their control of the out-of-control.

How the environment could save the economy, post-pandemic

The challenges of the COVID-19 crisis have occupied Australia’s — and the world’s — policy attention in recent months. And despite Australia’s comparative success to date, will continue to do so for months or years to come.

But we must not forget the existing challenges we faced prior to 2020. There are the tectonic economic forces of globalisation and automation putting pressure on jobs and wages. There has been rising inequality around the world and in Australia.

And, perhaps above all, in spite of signing up to the Paris Agreement to restrict global warming to less than 2˚C, there has been a shocking failure to address climate change.

The economic costs of inaction are considerable. One recent study has suggested a staggering cost of US$23 trillion a year by the end of the century (equivalent to four to six 2008 global financial crises every year), with Australian losses of A$159 billion a year through drought-driven collapse in agricultural production and sea-level rise.

Although the COVID-19 crisis does not present us with new solutions to address climate change, it has shone a brighter light on what might be possible than we have seen before.

Around the world it has given clean air to people living in terribly polluted cities . It has demonstrated directly the impact of emissions. In California the 80% drop in car usage due to the state’s lockdown provisions mean that for at least one day in April, Los Angeles — the poster child for a polluted city in a wealthy country — had perhaps the cleanest air of any major city in the world.

And, for those fortunate enough to be able to work from home, it has shown them and their employers that telecommuting can be effective and efficient— saving commuting time as well as reducing carbon emissions.

Never before have so many people had a common, shared experience at the same time. There is some hope this collective “lived experience” will lead more favorable public opinion about investments in electric cars, alternative energy sources.

The need is an urgent one. To reduce emissions and grow the economy, this might also help make the case for congestion taxes and even a “carbon dividend” involving a tax on carbon that is redistributed evenly to all voting-age Australian citizens — as one of us has previously proposed with the Australian Carbon Dividend Plan (ACDP).

This plan would provide incentives for producers to adopt more efficient technologies and for consumers to reduce their carbon footprint, while providing progressive compensation to households

The post-COVID-19 economy

The crisis has also sparked debate about what the post-COVID-19 economy needs to look like.

Even before the crisis Australia was suffering from “secular stagnation” — a term repopularised by former US treasury secretary Larry Summers — involving a protracted period of low economic growth caused by a global shift in the balance between savings and investment.

Australia’s post-COVID-19 economy will need to involve an even greater push toward productivity improvements and economic reforms that boost economic growth and shrink away debt incurred from managing the pandemic. This has already been foreshadowed by prime minister Scott Morrison.

One natural area for reform is increasing our comparatively low national research and development (R&D) spending, with spending on “green tech” an important component of this.

Increasing R&D spending

At 1.88% of GDP, Australia’s current R&D spending is relatively low for an advanced economy. The OECD average is 2.4%. South Korea is at 4.24%.

Were Australia to boost its R&D spending up to the OECD average and those expenditures earned a 25% annual rate of return (which, as Nobel Laureate Paul Romer has emphasised, is at the lower end of the range of credible estimates of these returns), then Australian GDP growth would be increased by 0.124% per annum.

Compared to a baseline GDP growth of 2.0% p.a., this would lift our GDP by $135 billion over 30 years, an average of $4.5 billion per annum. To put this in perspective, this is larger than the size of the entire Australian dairy industry.

How to do it

Australian universities are home to world-class scientific research in many areas — particular in green technology — that can help drive economic growth at a global scale.

The UNSW, for instance, has world-leading expertise in photovoltaics and solar energy. In recent decades, international students have greatly benefited from an education in new energy technologies at UNSW and returned home (many from China) to go on to establish manufacturing companies of solar PV that have become the principal suppliers to Europe, Australia and the world.

Solar technology at UNSW is just one example of the far-reaching role universities can play in establishing new industries (end employment) in Australia and helping the world pivot the global economy to low carbon.

Harnessing these opportunities requires translating basic research into the commercial sphere. One way to do that is through the creation of an Australian Research Translation Future Fund as proposed by UNSW vice chancellor Ian Jacobs. Its would focus on translating Australian Research Council-funded research, akin to the way the Medical Research Future Fund does in translating research funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Together with tax incentives to encourage industry to partner with universities (as recommended by both the 2016 review of the tax incentive and the government’s Australia 2030 innovation report), these “green stimulus” measures would provide a bridge from the laboratory to the market. 

A multi-pronged approach

Measure to internalise environmental externalities like the ACDP while providing progressive compensation are important to addressing climate change.

The economic costs of inaction are eye-watering. The plan also incentivises the adoption of more efficient, lower-emission technologies across the economy.

Those technologies still need to be developed, of course. Some of that will happen overseas — in the US or China, for example. But there are major opportunities for Australia in translating our exceptional primary research into commercial opportunities, opportunities that will develop as nations more aggressively strive to meet their Paris Climate Agreement targets by decarbonising their economies.

Doing so not only helps the environment but also our economic recovery from COVID-19.

But it will require bringing universities and industry together: both pushing universities toward translational research and pulling industry toward it.

The economic cost of inaction is just not an option.

What will post-pandemic environmental action look like? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for Crikey’s new Your Say section.

Richard Holden is professor of economics at UNSW Business School and Chris Turney is ARC Laureate Fellow and Professor of Earth Science & Climate Change at UNSW. Chris is a scientific advisor to clean tech company CarbonScape.

How can we be free in an age of surveillance?

On a Sunday afternoon last April, long before COVID-19, my nine year old set up a fish tank, my 13 year old took me to the movies and The New York Times told me to panic. 

“It’s time to panic about privacy,” wrote columnist Farhad Manjoo. “Each time you buy some new device or service that trades in private information — your DNA, your location, your online activity — you are gambling on an uncertain and unprotected future. Here is the stark truth: we in the West are building a surveillance state no less totalitarian than the one the Chinese government is rigging up.” 

The newspaper then published a series of investigative reports. One revealed how US law enforcement is using Google’s Sensorvault to find criminal suspects (and witnesses) by drawing on location data, often without users knowing. Another showed how China is using facial recognition software and public cameras to monitor and control the minority Uighur population, even when they leave their home province. 

What happened? Until recently, privacy lurked in the shadows. Suddenly it’s stumbled into the light to become a defining issue of our time. 

In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden popped up in a Hong Kong hotel room to drop bombshells about government surveillance.”We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” he said. 

Perhaps that was the moment when privacy forced its way into the public consciousness. Or perhaps it was the following year, when nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Selena Gomez and dozens more were leaked to 4chan, and then to the wider web. Several celebrities responded with heartfelt pleas that the content not be shared. It was shared anyway. Or perhaps it was in 2015, when hackers raised intriguing ethical questions by “doxing” — that is, exposing — the identities of men using the Ashley Madison adultery website. Some of the men committed suicide; others initiated a lawsuit, which ended in a multi-million dollar payout by Ashley Madison’s parent company. Or perhaps it was in 2017, when a Canadian court ordered a company that makes vibrators to pay out $4 million for tracking users’ sexual activity. 

To cap it all, we then learnt that democracy had taken a hit. In March 2018, it emerged that the data of 87 million Facebook users had been harvested in the attempt to influence elections in the US, the UK and many, many more countries. This was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a Facebook design flaw was exploited by a seemingly harmless psychological quiz app to manipulate the voting process. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) responded to this (and other transgressions) by imposing a US$5billion penalty. “The $5 billion penalty against Facebook is … almost 20 times greater than the largest privacy or data security penalty ever imposed worldwide,” the FTC said. “It is one of the largest penalties ever assessed by the U.S. government for any violation.” 

Admittedly, the FTC’s decision wasn’t unanimous. Two of the five commissioners wanted the penalty to be bigger. 

Cambridge Analytica showed how invasions of privacy can compromise not just individuals, but society. When privacy is threatened, democracy can falter. All of which suggests that privacy is collective and “networked”, rather than purely individualistic. My privacy matters for your benefit, and vice versa. Privacy only properly makes sense when we think of it as relational. 

This was a conclusion I came to in a very roundabout manner. For nearly 20 years, I worked at the Sydney Morning Herald, where one of my regular topics was film. Another regular topic was fatherhood, which meant that I was also writing about my wife and children. I didn’t realise at the time, but here was a neat illustration of the relational nature of privacy. As I wrote about my life, the content was about my family, some of it personal.

In early 2013, having left the newspaper, I embarked on a PhD into the ethics of new media, and privacy became my focus. And the more I studied, the more I became intrigued by a single sentence dating from 1785. It comes from Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

The Groundwork is slim, but its impact is big. At its heart is the notion of a “categorical imperative”: a supreme moral principle. Kant expressed this categorical imperative in several forms, but the most enduring is the “formula of humanity”, which tells us that we must never treat another, including ourselves, “merely as a means”, but only ever as autonomous agents who are free to chart their own course. The formula of humanity prohibits exploitation and mandates egalitarianism. It tells us to treat all persons as imperfect rational beings of absolute worth. It commands us all to act with respect. Today, it is a cornerstone of human rights law. The task of my research became to apply this single sentence to internet privacy. 

As my research took shape, three main questions emerged. The first asks: what is the problem? In the examples cited above, I’ve barely skimmed the surface. Philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault described the Panopticon, in which surveillance leads to conformity and obedience. In Panopticon 3.0, we step into the net, where we are all surveillers, and all surveilled. Potentially, everyone watches everyone, even into the future. 

The second main question is in two parts, and concerns the meaning and value of privacy. It’s the second part that often feels particularly challenging. Why does privacy matter? Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, right? While we’ve all heard doomsayers invoke the totalitarian nightmare depicted in George Orwell’s 1984 – where privacy and freedom are crushed beneath Big Brother’s boot heel – others have been resolutely optimistic. 

In 1982, science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov portrayed the utopian possibilities of a world of total openness and connection. In Foundation’s Edge, Asimov described the planet Gaia, where humans, with the help of robots, have developed a collective consciousness that binds all living objects, and even some inanimate objects. Here, there is no privacy, and the result is a peaceful, blissful paradise where each person lives as part of a networked super-organism. “It seems to me,” says one character in Foundation’s Edge, “that the advance of civilization is nothing but an exercise in the limiting of privacy.” 

Gaia is an imaginary world. In our world, I suggest, privacy matters a great deal. Everyone has something to hide, and something to fear. Without privacy, our humanity is diminished. Without privacy, we cannot be free to think, act and express ourselves fully. Without privacy, we cannot befriend or love, given that my closest relationships are founded on trust, forged in part by keeping one another’s confidences and secrets. And without privacy, society and democracy cannot flourish. 

And yes, I am aware of the irony that someone who once wrote a blog and a book about becoming a father is now arguing for the value of reticence. 

Finally, the third main question addressed in my research asks how we might best protect privacy. Here, building on Kant’s categorical imperative, I argue for law that protects a privacy that is not just individualistic, but relational. Such law ought to take Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, as its template. Further, such law ought to take its cue from consumer law by outlawing misleading and deceptive conduct and mandating fairness and transparency. And such law needs extra-legal supports, in the form of social norms, market forces and, above all, coding. For instance, there is a key role for ‘privacy by design’, which recognises that privacy needs to be coded into new services and platforms at the outset. 

There is one caveat, however. Privacy matters, but must always be balanced against other rights, interests and freedoms. Big data has tremendous potential to enhance the lives of individuals and society: to ease traffic congestion; to solve crimes; to advance medical research. Right now, personal data can help us combat COVID-19. The question is, how do we strike an appropriate balance?

In 2019, the internet turned 50, the web turned 30 and Facebook turned 15. Unfortunately, confusion reigns. “The online world has become so murky that no one has a complete view,” wrote tech innovator Jaron Lanier in 2018. “The strange new truth is that almost no one has privacy and yet no one knows what’s going on.” 

Net Privacy is an attempt to figure out what’s going on, and then to propose practical solutions by applying a clear ethical framework. Granted, there are other approaches we could apply, but my suspicion is that other legitimate ethical frameworks might yield a similar analysis. 

That’s merely my suspicion. What I can say with more certainty is that on an April afternoon last year my family and I installed a fish tank and saw a movie. And later that night, at a casual dinner with friends, my wife and I shared political opinions and risqué jokes. These opinions and jokes were private. Or were they? After all, the New York Times was telling us to panic. 

Here on our island continent, most of us are coast dwellers. At a young age, many of us are taught the basics of the ocean: how rips and currents flow; when conditions are dangerous; how to avoid sharks and stingers. And the first rule is: don’t panic. If you panic, you’re more likely to drown. Right now, we’re drowning in data abuses and privacy violations. Still, panic isn’t the best response. What we need to do is help each other make it back to shore, and to a particular sort of freedom.

Sacha Molitorisz is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney. This is an edited extract from Net Privacy: How we can be free in an age of surveillance, out now through New South Books.

The virus has revolutionised life. Labor must present a radical plan for what comes next

The Morrison government’s announcement of free childcare has prompted another round, amidst miserable circumstances, of deep gloating about the direction that politics and economics has taken.

The mild proposals by Labor that were described as “communism” have been swamped by a range of measures that have abolished the political claim of scarcity altogether. Many of these have been designed specifically to hold things in place at all cost. It’s only when there is no real alternative — such as a six-month ban on evictions (at the state level) — that radical measures emerge.

The free childcare measure is one of those. People who see it as some bold policy leap should consider that there was really no alternative.

But as these unavoidable moves pile up, it does seem that it will steadily become more difficult to wind back such measures once this is all over.

One suspects that’s especially so with childcare, because our childcare system is one of the worst in the world — expensive, patchy, poorly organised; an avoidable disaster the product of its privatisation and then an “industry”-wide crash with ABC Childcare, the corporation/cult heavily enmeshed with the Liberal Party.

Childcare costs are part of the distinctly Australian squeeze, in which millions are told they’re earning high wages in a uniquely booming and robust economy, yet only see that money flow out in the other direction on non-discretionary costs — overpriced housing, power, comms, and childcare.

The system is a racket, and everyone knows its a racket, but it’s just that bit short of dysfunctional to avert actual political damage. Indeed, it can be played for advantage. Because no systemic alternative is offered, the Coalition reaps political benefit from the neoliberal squeeze it imposes by offering tax cuts, and ekes out narrow victories in swing seats. The advantage of such quickly evaporates because prices are raised to adjust, and round it goes.

Labor never offered a real alternative to this squeeze, which is why it has spent a quarter century mostly out of power, and not even setting the agenda from opposition.

Even though the 2008 global crash made it clear that the system would be perpetually prone to ever greater crises, and even though the subsequent “recovery” was largely composed of quantitative easing money and waves of automation, embedding structural underemployment, Labor failed to commit to a process of reinventing social democracy, and developing a centre-left approach to transforming how we live and work.

Instead, both right and left committed to a conventional growth-and-work capitalist economic base, still based around the useless measure of GDP, and no reduction in the working week.

Right-left stability pacts then dictated a series of bolted-on policy initiatives demanded by the left as the price of their acquiescence to right control. But these had no linking narrative, so they looked like a series of isolated big-ticket spends and tax grabs, with no underlying logic.

When that disastrous state helped Labor lose the last election, the right of the party took its chance to repudiate these initiatives and move to become a Liberal clone, in the hope that it could crawl back into power due to Scomo’s incompetence.

Well now look, now look. The virus itself has repudiated the type of capitalism Labor has been spending its political capital to sell, and Scott Morrison has reaped the reward. Morrison looks like a leader, because he has become a leader. That’s undeniable.

The early hesitations and the fumbles a la Ruby Princess have been bad, but hardly unusual the world over.

The lack of personal protective equipment and essential supplies is bad, but won’t play as catastrophic. The essence of leadership is audacity of action, followed by fidelity to the course of action you’ve taken.

If very forceful lockdowns by state governments have flattened the curve, and the sequence of JobKeeper initiatives and beyond have saved hundreds of thousands of households from fear and penury, then Morrison has become the sort of leader people put pictures of up over the fireplace.

Labor is… uh, I dunno. Quite aside from doing the right thing in an emergency, what’s the plan? You won’t find it in Jim Chalmers’s op-ed in The Guardian, which is two-thirds boilerplate “time of testing” guff, and one-third PowerPoint blather.

Having suggested we need radical new thinking, Chalmers then gives us “six pillars” of recovery (“prosperity”, “opportunity”, “sustainability”, etc), which offer nothing by way of analysis of the predicament we’re in.

Having been the loudest voice after the 2019 defeat for having no new ideas at all, Chalmers is now desperate to get himself ahead of the parade that’s started. Usual desperate pollie-trick. Danger is, if you’re out of step, you’ll get trampled on.

The crucial and telling misstep is the “prosperity” point. Should this process continue for months — until end of June as announced by the NSW Police (and why the hell are the NSW Police announcing these things?) — then what exactly “prosperity” is will come into question.

For decades, Western publics have been conscripted into a no-choice lifestyle of long working hours, steadily rising costs and the impoverishment of public services, all leavened with a series of overpriced consumer pseudo-choices, to give the appearance of freedom, and deepen indebtedness.

No major party has offered an alternative, and the union movement has been too dozy to do so since Laurie Carmichael last tried in the 1980s.

Now? Now that’s all happened for millions of people in a rush. For those working from home, the very shape of work has changed. All those hours you were deprived of in the time poverty of “prosperity”? Here they are, all at once. The regimented pseudo-factory discipline of office life — three hours work spread over nine hours’ office presence — are exposed as bogus.

Despite the many irritations of lockdowns, people are slowly rediscovering what the day looks like when it’s a mix of work, free time, non-commodified necessary activity (i.e. childcare), and free life-activity. People are cooking more, doing gardening, DIY, and much more.

You can see why the powers-that-be hate it. Because this is communism. Communism is collective free time and free life-activity, and nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. A communist dimension has entered daily life, and it will only continue to develop and transform our thinking about how we should live beyond the crisis.

That would involve some working out of how “regimented” and “non-regimented” jobs are worked out, and how we start to distinguish ongoing essential work from non-essential. But since the alternative is being marched back into bullshit overproduction for less money, it seems worth a try.

Jim Chalmers, with his prosperity gospel, is trying on John Curtin’s clothes, quoting Stuart MacIntyre’s great study of Labor’s post-war reconstruction. But that was a democratic socialist industrial growth strategy for an underdeveloped country.

Simply aping that doesn’t make Labor now the new Curtins and Chifleys; it makes them the backward right of the party (mostly from Queensland) who wanted business-as-usual, and fought the Marxist-influenced Curtin, and the native radical Chifley, every step of the way.

Morrison’s political strategy is obvious. Having led audacious moves in a “special period”, he will now make the “snap-back” to normality part of the leadership deal. Labor’s only chance is to have a real alternative, which talks about what life is, what we can have, and how things can be done differently.

The Greens too, need to push this hard. Where’s the books and manifestos, Greens? The leadership is now composed of people, when I knew them, whose idea of fun was to read a 600-page commentary on Althusser’s interpretation of Spinoza.

There’s no excuse now for not getting a book out, and other materials, about where we should go from here. If the Greens can’t do that now, we’ll know they got lost in the long march through the institutions.

Something has happened, and political acts like freeing up childcare are a response to it. Those who want a more radical result from this crisis need to build on the great interruption. This may be a distinct event. Or COVID-20 may be here in two years time, followed by climate change.

Change is either a great opportunity for a better life, or a necessity for any sort of future life at all.

The PM’s pick finally faces a Senate grilling over sports rort

Next Monday, March 16, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Phil Gaetjens is due to front a Senate committee examining the sports rorts affair. Inq investigates what’s at stake — and why it matters.

Phil Gaetjens is Australia’s most powerful public servant. He is the custodian of the integrity of the Australian public service, as designated by the Public Service Act 1999. He is the government’s highest-paid public servant, earning $914,416 a year. 

It is he who appoints other heads of department — with input from the Australian Public Service Commissioner — and it is he to whom they ultimately report. 

But if Gaetjens himself doesn’t measure up to the job — a charge made, significantly, by a former head of the prime minister’s department after Gaetjen’s investigation of Senator Bridget McKenzie’s grant-approval methods during the sports rorts scandal — then to whom is the secretary accountable?

The answer is his boss, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who appointed Gaetjens to the public sector’s most powerful job for a five-year term in the months after Morrison’s 2019 election victory.

Gaetjens had come to the role after a year as Treasury secretary, where he had landed after three years as Morrison’s chief of staff. Labor alleged that his elevation to Treasury secretary was an “overtly partisan political appointment”.

He had also worked for a decade as former treasurer Peter Costello’s chief of staff. Costello himself said that Gaetjens “was never doing politics”. For his part, Gaetjens says he should not be judged by the roles he has held.

Whatever the case, Gaetjens faces a Senate committee inquiring into the scandal-laced sports grants affair not as a storied public official but as a man tarnished by the last, best-known thing he did for Morrison: a report into McKenzie’s conduct during the sports rorts affair, which saw a river of grants being diverted to seats targeted by the Coalition for an unlikely election victory.

McKenzie had set up a parallel grants program in her office, which took precedence over the entire bureaucracy of Sport Australia — a nominally independent agency.

In an odd parallel, Gaetjens ran an investigation — at the behest of Morrison — which was separate to an investigation undertaken by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) and managed to reach findings at odds with the ANAO.

Gaetjens found no fault with the targeting of McKenzie’s grants, where the ANAO found extensive evidence they were skewed to marginal seats. Gaetjens did, however, find fault with McKenzie for failing to declare a conflict of interest, including for a grant to a shooting club which had given her a membership. 

In Senate hearings earlier this month it emerged that Gaetjens and his team at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had taken a tightly targeted approach to the task of investigating McKenzie’s grants. 

Gaetjens’ PMC officials hadn’t known of the existence of 136 emails which had buzzed between the prime minister’s office and McKenzie’s office in relation to the grants.

Nor did they know of 28 versions of a spreadsheet of approved sports grants which had been passed between McKenzie’s office and Morrison’s office.

Gaetjens’ PMC officials conceded that while Gaetjens himself had spoken with McKenzie, no one had spoken to anyone from the prime minister’s office. 

At the hearing, Senator Jacqui Lambie responded: “I would have thought that the investigator just doesn’t want to investigate his boss. That’s made quite clear. As a matter of fact, it’s disgraceful. Jesus!”

Critically, the PMC officials professed to be unaware that Morrison’s office had been engaged in email exchanges with McKenzie’s office in the hours after parliament had been prorogued.

The evidence is that in the four hours after parliament was dissolved at 8.29am on April 11, there were emails between McKenzies’ office, the prime minister’s office and Sport Australia.

Between 8.46am and the last email at 12.43pm, changes were made to the list of approved grants. One was removed and nine new grants were introduced, adding over $3 million to the total. 

The ANAO established that at least one change was made at the behest of the prime minister’s office. It remains unclear who ordered that nine new grants be introduced. McKenzie broke her silence on the issue to say it wasn’t her — meaning it was either her staff acting without her knowledge or it was the prime minister’s office. 

Either way, the exchange — an act of executive government — occurred once the period of caretaker government had started. It shouldn’t have, according to Dr Michael Keating, a former head of PMC. 

“The head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is expected to act as guarantor of the integrity of the caretaker conventions,” Keating told Inq. “When department officials are uncertain they would normally turn to him for guidance.”

The Australian Public Service Commissioner has confirmed to Inq that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is in charge of the caretaker guidelines. 

A PMC spokesperson told Inq via email: “At the time of his inquiry, and in the ANAO report which was public at the time of his inquiry, there was no mention of any issues related to caretaker conventions.”

In other words, Gaetjens was apparently unaware that Morrison’s office had exchanged emails with McKenzie’s office — even though Gaetjens had been tasked with investigating how the McKenzie grants came to be awarded.

Inq asked PMC to clarify if Gaetjens had any concerns about a breach of caretaker conventions now that the information was publicly known. We received no response. 

The Senate committee is likely to look closely at who ordered the inclusion of new grant approvals given that they may be unlawful — not because they were made during the caretaker period but because there was no legal basis to take away decision-making power from Sport Australia, an argument articulated by Sydney University Constitutional law professor Anne Twomey, among others.

It raises the prospect that someone from the PMO acted unlawfully during the caretaker period — and that the secretary of the department failed to discover it.

It will be a test of Gaetjens’ ultimate defence: that he was simply following orders in the form of a narrow-scope inquiry ordered by his boss, the prime minister. What Gaetjens may or may not have found in his inquiry is secret, with Morrison classifying it as cabinet-in-confidence — an arrangement which Gaetjens has not publicly objected to.

Keating has described the cabinet-in-confidence ploy as “an absurd proposition”.

“Invariably when a government commissions a report on something, it is normal for it to first go to cabinet, but it is then subsequently released to the public,” Keating wrote  

“The only obvious answer” for the report being kept secret was that “it cannot stand-up to public scrutiny”. 

The sports rorts affair may ultimately blow over. It’s the details that matter in stories like these, and professionals like Morrison know that sooner or later the public will either be confused by the avalanche of information, will lose interest, or another crisis will take its place.

The legacy, though, is something new in Australian public life: a vacuum of accountability at the very top of Australia’s government.

Inq went looking for the organisations or people who might stand up for the independence of the public service in the hypothetical case of a prime minister who might be prepared to bend the rules, lie to the Australian public, stonewall when the evidence mounts up and leave it to a compliant department head to help manage the issue.

The Australian Public Service Commissioner is an impressive title that sounds like it might be the body to guarantee public service integrity — but it has no authority over the secretary of the PMC. 

What’s more, the commissioner has already declined to intervene in a real complaint lodged by Labor arising from the sports rorts affair: the case of Health Department secretary and ex officio member of the Sport Australia board Glenys Beauchamp, who destroyed notes she made of conversations relating to the grants.

Commissioner Peter Woolcott noted that he did not have evidence that there was “widespread or ongoing issues in the service” relating to the destruction of documents.

“Without this, I am of the view this does not require further review,” Woolcott said. 

The Secretaries’ Board, a body which brings together all Canberra’s departmental secretaries and which is enshrined in legislation, sounds promising as a professional standards group which might raise the alarm on politicisation of the public service — however the board is chaired by the secretary of PMC who holds employment powers over other secretaries.

Then there’s the Institute of Public Administration Australia, which styles itself as providing public sector thought leadership and capacity building, counting among its members the heads of Commonwealth departments.

However it has no remit to blow the whistle on any of them.

The accountability that remains, then, is public exposure through Senate hearings or freedom of information, each of which have been progressively nullified by government actions designed to halt the flow of information.

A Senate inquiry is trying to understand Australia. We tried to understand the inquiry

It’s nearly a year to the day since an Australian man walked into a mosque in Christchurch and massacred 51 Muslims. He was a textbook internet fascist, a product of disorienting, memey online sewers. But he was also radicalised in Australia.

And yet, aside from a limited crackdown on violent content online, there’s been little done by the government to confront what happened in Christchurch.

Meanwhile, the shooter — who Crikey has decided not to name — has inspired a host of copycats, from Texas to Germany. ASIO recently warned that the threat of right-wing extremism was increasing.

One of the few attempts out of Canberra to combat the rise of extremism has come in the form of an obscure Senate committee, which this month has been holding public hearings on how to save Australian democracy.

The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs’ inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy is an ambitious word salad that aims to do a lot of things.

The terms of reference include “changing notions of nationhood, citizenship and modern notions of the nation state”, “social cohesion and cultural identity”, the role of “globalisation and economic interdependence” in “disrupting traditional notions of national identity” and “contemporary notions of cultural identity, multiculturalism and regionalism”.

Greens Senator Nick McKim was right when he described the inquiry’s terms of reference as a “bizarre grab-bag of issues”.

That bizarre grab bag is likely a product of ideological confusion about the inquiry’s purpose.

The inquiry was the result of an unlikely alliance between Kim Carr, a veteran Labor Senator and grizzled factional warrior from the Victorian Left, and Amanda Stoker, an LNP rising star and conservative culture warrior.

The ABC’s Andrew Probyn said the pairing was a bit like “Vladimir Lenin deciding after his Bolshevik revolution that he and the Tsarists might have had few interests in common after all”.

Unsurprisingly, the two wanted very different things out of the inquiry. For Carr, who was spooked by Labor’s bruising election loss, it was an opportunity to address the rise of populist nationalism, and the fear, apathy and disinformation that drove voters away from Bill Shorten. Stoker saw it as a chance to continue to wage war against identity politics.

Can Stoker and Carr fix Australia? A final report is due in May, but so far, we seem to have learned little. A discussion paper released last September was criticised for citing “extreme movements of the eco-fundamentalism and post-modernist variety” as posing a similar threat to right-wing populism.

Meanwhile, the inquiry has received nearly 200 submissions. Interest groups, think tanks, and academics jostle for space alongside the usual motley crew of cranks and weirdos with enough time on their hands to write detailed submissions to parliamentary inquiries.

Many made important, lucid points about the future of Australian democracy. Some, like the Australian Lawyers Alliance, used the opportunity to push for a First Nations voice to parliament.

Multicultural organisations called for a renewed anti-racism campaign (the funding for the last one dried up in 2015).

The University of Western Australian wanted the abolition of section 44(i) of the constitution, which blocks dual citizens from entering parliament.

But others expressed just the kind of reactionary sentiments Carr was hoping to counteract. 

A submission from the “British Australian Community” opines that “the rise in ethnic diversity has produced a decline in social cohesion”, and warns that foreign language street signs in multicultural suburbs like Auburn and Box Hill is part of an anti-white agenda.

The Australian Monarchist League bemoans the “suppression of Christian belief”, and calls for new migrants to pledge their allegiance to the Queen.

Another submission rails against the evils of globalisation, and posts a YouTube link to Donald Trump’s rambling address at the United Nations. We’re told migrants from countries with civil law jurisdictions struggle to understand our values.

When the inquiry was announced last year, then Greens leader Richard Di Natale sounded the alarm about the potential for it to platform racist, bigoted views. It seems those fears have been realised.

Still, if we want to understand the challenges facing social cohesion and national identity in Australia, there’s no better place to start than with anti-immigrant ramblings.

Such submissions are far more illuminating than the platitudes about the strength of Australian democracy made in public hearings earlier this week.

Toxic anti-immigrant sentiment is inextricably linked to the kind of right-wing populism Carr says he’s hoping to counteract. Perhaps the most important story in Australian politics in recent years has been the revival of One Nation.

It’s easy to forget that before its resurgence in 2016, the far-right, anti-immigrant party was languishing in the political wilderness.

There have been a lot of reasons offered for One Nation’s rise. A common theme, cited by Carr ahead of the inquiry, is the idea that voters, particularly in regional Australia, feel alienated by the politics of inner-city elites they see represented by the ALP.

But in his 2017 Quarterly Essay on Pauline Hanson, “The White Queen”, David Marr offers a far more straightforward thesis: One Nation is first and foremost, an anti-immigrant party. In the previous year’s Australian Election Study, over 80% of One Nation voters believed immigration was “extremely important” and should be cut.

“One Nation voters loathe immigrants … it is much too late to pretend that a party which displays such extreme hostility to immigration is not driven by race,” Marr wrote.

The rise of an explicitly anti-immigrant party hasn’t happened in isolation. Nearly half the respondents to a YouGov poll released weeks before the last election wanted less migration.

An Australian National University survey earlier that year found two-thirds of Australians wanted fewer people in the country — a significant increase from when the poll was last conducted in 2010.

Opponents of immigration often frame their arguments around concern about overpopulation in Australia’s cities. But this view can often obscure the racialised edge to such sentiment.

Last year’s YouGov poll, for example, also found the majority of Australians feel negatively about Islam. And more worryingly, anti-immigrant sentiment has slowly been allowed to fester and harden into something far more malignant.

The Christchurch attack was a horrific expression of what a culture of anti-immigrant hostility and normalised xenophobia can create. It should have given Australia’s political and media elites an opportunity to reflect. Instead it was business as usual.

Sunrise’s David Koch, for example, was praised for confronting Hanson over her anti-Muslim stance. But the show had spent years giving her airtime, and would continue to do so after the attack.

The week of the attack, Scott Morrison announced a new migration cap. One Nation’s primary vote went up in the NSW and federal elections.

A year later, as Carr and Stoker’s inquiry winds up, there’s still no greater challenge to social harmony, the future of multiculturalism, and many of the issues flagged in the terms of reference, than the normalisation of anti-immigrant sentiment. We’ve seen it resurface again, as hysteria around the coronavirus has led to an increase in hostility toward Chinese Australians.

Considering all this, it seems a bunch of Senate hearings, pages of dry submissions and a report very few people will ever read might be too little, too late.

And, despite its good intentions, a broad inquiry such as this risks obscuring the very real impact of anti-immigrant populism on the security of non-white Australians.

Xenophobia requires a laser-like focus, and shouldn’t be drowned in buzzwords about democracy and populism. The whole exercise seems like a tremendous waste of potential.

The last few years should have made it clear what Australia needs saving from. A Senate inquiry alone won’t be enough.

Old metaphors sink beneath the waves as unprecedented crises emerge

Have we had enough of cruise-ship disasters as metaphors for modernity by now?

The recently released inmates of the Diamond Princess were doing double-duty: incarcerated to protect us all from the further spread of Covid-19 (the exciting new name for coronavirus), they were also a floating image of recent decades, a pricey, pointless “pleasure” cruise that soon became a nautical hell, with guests confined to their cabins for a fortnight.

The food was terrible, outdoor exercise was minimal, and eventually the porn channel on the in-ship cable was made free, with the hope, I presume, that the guests-turned-inmates would wank themselves into a complaisant torpor.

The staff protested over their greater exposure, but did not take control of the ship. Largely drawn from the global South, they have been infected at a faster rate than the guests. Tourists began to pull up alongside and take photos of the few desperate postmodern galley slaves with deck privileges.

The only thing that prevented our full enjoyment of the giant floating metaphor was the bowel-watering fear of just how infectious Covid-19 might be. 

The first such floating modernity metaphor I recall was in the late ’80s, when a Thames party boat — all glass and lights, cover band playing Foreigner hits — got splintered by a larger vessel with many dead, and became a cartoonists’ go-to for the ’87 stockmarket crash.

Then, in 2012, there was Costa Concordia, a poorly maintained piece of hideous kitsch with an incompetent and cowardly captain, and there have been many in between.

The fact that we’re not doing that sort of stuff — we’re just watching and waiting and holding our breath behind masks — is a measure of our changed historical circumstances.

We could hitherto afford these ruminations that we were “heading towards the rocks”, precisely because we thought we weren’t; beneath the superficial venality and incompetence, the system, we believed, was intact.

We no longer believe that.

Have we had enough of cruise-ship metaphors? Yes, we’re in a different period, with the system crises coming fast. So far in 2020 we have seen:

  • Bushfires, which became a national catastrophe and then a global event
  • An act of war by the US against Iran, in third-country territory
  • A highly infectious virus spread rapidly to the world from one streetmarket in one Chinese city
  • President Donald Trump, post-impeachment acquittal, fully trashing the most basic separation of powers in the US by intervening in an actual trial of one of his cronies.

And we are six weeks in. Six weeks! No one’s doing cruise ship metaphors, no one’s invoking Blade Runner 2049, no one’s saying “this is like a Black Mirror episode!” because it’s now all like that.

Dystopias of recent past have been caught up to. Mass quarantines for two weeks tend to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Instead of dystopia-chatter, there has been a nervous glance towards China’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and some grudging respect for the resolve with which they handled the outbreak, firm hand, no nonsense, etc etc, before it became clear that it was at least possible that its increasingly totalitarian system had made the situation much, much worse.

This then prompted a rush back to the virtues of democracy, its ability to provide clear steering, true information, etc — just as, in Australia, the sports rorts affair showed how pathetically compromised, corrupted, distorted and inadequate the processes of parliamentary bureaucratic states are for dealing with the real challenges we face.

It was easy to praise, from afar, the iron fist of Xi Jinping in quarantining the whole of Wuhan and then Hubei province, and then to damn him for the suppression of warnings from doctors that this was no ordinary flu.

In other words, to suggest that the initial low death figures were a consequence of prompt action, and then to suggest that 1500 deaths were the result of a lack of freedom.

The truth is that, had the outbreak happened, say, here, de facto private hospitals would have instituted a first layer cover-up/inaction to cover their bottom line/KPI standing.

Doctors who objected would have been threatened with the sack, and possible civil proceedings. The health department would have responded sluggishly. The fixers in the health minister’s department would need focus-group responses before doing anything.

Contracts for emergency response would have been awarded to government mates without the most basic assessment of adequacy or tender.

News Corp would have steered its coverage by reference to the government’s political interests. If minimising it was the line, they would have sent their junior reporters out to willingly trash the personal reputation of any whistleblowing doctors.

To round out the party, the opposition would have looked for a marginal seat angle, and someone in The Guardian would have argued that the infection model of disease was biologically reductive, white supremacist, inherently heteronormative, and that trying to stop a virus crossing the border was a legacy of 200 years of colonialism.

Look, I mean you know it would happen that way. Exactly that way. Will happen that way.

The truth is that both systems have a dimension of effectiveness in dealing with these categorical situations, and a dimension of failure. But we have no idea what the ratios are.

Fifteen hundred deaths is being waved around as an example of Chinese failure. Compared to what? Without the merciless quarantining of a whole region, would it be 10,000 by now? More? I don’t know and nor does anyone.

Would a dissident doctor’s raising of the alarm in the West have prompted efficient and clear-eyed action? Or arse-covering, and a story on page 29 behind debates about wokeness at the Oscars? I don’t know and nor does anyone.

The melancholy truth of Covid-19, and the fires, and whatever comes our way in March (or the second half of February) is that global systems of complexity — markets, travel, communications, trade, data-driven politics, mass extinction, climate change, disease vectors — have now started to bust out of any human containment system, least of all territorially bounded unitary authority of that 19-century product of the railway and the telegraph, the nation-state.

Government (derived from the Greek kybernan, which means to pilot a ship) is going to need to be reconstructed on a global scale, but also at a local one.

Sadly, it’s likely that only real catastrophe — not this petty deck-game of Covid-19 — will provide the moment by which that occurs.

In the meantime, locked in cabins, watching free political porn, we idle in the shallows with no charted course; and desperate to disembark from the cruise-ship metaphors.

‘Deciding to be black’: how Bruce Pascoe understands his own family history

Eight years ago, author Bruce Pascoe wrote about his Aboriginality — and how it felt being attacked by Andrew Bolt for “deciding to be black”. With Pascoe’s identity again being debated, the piece has resurfaced. Here is an edited extract.

I am one of Andrew Bolt’s disappointments. I didn’t know I had offended him until a friend sent me a copy of the column in which I was pilloried by Bolt for deciding to be black.

People expect me to be outraged but my inclination is to wish I could have a yarn with Bolt over a beer. Except he doesn’t drink beer, I’m told, just good red wine. Sad, the impasse we have just because histamines play havoc with my arthritis.

I can see Bolt’s point, and the frustration of many Australians when pale people identify with an Aboriginal heritage. The people he attacked for this crime, however, had an unfortunate thing in common: their credentials were impeccable.

Any good reporter could pick up the phone and talk to their mothers about their Aboriginality until the chooks go to roost.

If I had been part of the group who took Bolt to court for impugning their heritage, he would have had a field day. My mother’s dead, and even if she had been alive she knew precious little about her heritage.

He would have found that my cousin had discovered the woman we thought was our Aboriginal ancestor was, in fact, born in England.

Having got that far, I hope he would have delved deeper and found that both my mother’s and father’s families had an Aboriginal connection. I was amazed to find that the families knew each other in Tasmania years before my father met my mother at a Melbourne Baptist church.

But was it an accident? The two families lived close to each other in Melbourne, in the same street in Tassie, and had Aboriginal neighbours in both places. Aborigines signed as witnesses to their weddings, and various members of the families went back and forth across Bass Strait to marry back into the other family, including some first cousins.

I’m sure Bolt would find it fascinating. It mirrors the turbulence of postcolonial Australia and explains why so many Australian families have a black connection. Why should I deny them, I would plead; they fascinate me, the very nature of their survival is heroism in a cardigan.

My great-grandfather died two streets from where I lived and I never heard anyone in my family mention his name. His mother had a traditional Aboriginal name. Aren’t you intrigued by that, Andrew?

I’m not saying people whispered ancient secrets in my ear or passed on sacred knowledge; what I was told amounts to a bald analysis of Australian history and society, and the injunction to watch and listen to the land, to respect the fact that we do not command the earth.

I’d like to explain to Bolt that my mother told me the same thing and I’m not sure if that is Aboriginal thought or just her general modest decency.

My insight into Aboriginal Australia is as abbreviated as my heritage has allowed. It is as if I have been led at night to a hill overlooking country I have never seen.

I am blindfolded but at dawn the cloth is removed and I am asked to open my eyes for one second, any longer and I will be killed, and then asked to describe that country.

An impression is what you would get in that second. Detail? Very little. You would be left with a feeling of the country’s nature and for the rest of your life you would be searching the span of a second’s memory.

An impression – a shallow base from which to lecture others, a humble heritage. Humility was always valued in our family, beyond wealth or influence, and you don’t shake those legacies easily.

I had to learn my Aboriginal history and I had to learn Aboriginal etiquette by making mistakes. It has not been a painless journey filled with the excitement of acceptance and inculcation into the mysteries of a secret society.

I reckon Bolt and I would have a terrific yarn. He came from Holland as a child and learned to be an outsider, too. I reckon I’d be fascinated by his childhood, how he coped as an alien.

But I’d be impatient to tell him how I was perplexed by my father’s mild acceptance of my discoveries. I’m sure Bolt would want the same question answered that I do: why had no one but a rogue uncle spoken of this before?

Obviously someone, or several people, had been covering tracks, but my father’s affirming nod to me after I’d spoken about our Aboriginality on ABC Radio hit me for six.

I’d left him listening to the radio in my Volkswagen as Terry Lane and I did the live-to-air. Terry had a way of getting guests to confide.

That’s journalism, Andrew!

This is an edited extract from a piece originally published in Griffith Review #36: What is Australia For? in May 2012. The essay was republished in Salt: Selected Stories and Essays by Bruce Pascoe (Black Inc, 2019, p73)