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Tony Abbott and the Heart of Darkness

Francis Ford Coppola’s dramatic and confronting film Apocalypse Now depicts Vietnam at the time of the ‘American War’. Based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about the exploitation of Africans in the Congo, the film tells the story of US Army Captain Benjamin Willard sent up the river to find Colonel Kurz who has gone mad, and kill him. Conrad’s novel was the subject of American and Palestinian philosopher Edward Said’s PhD: when Said was nominated as the BBC’s Reith lecturer for 1992, some people branded him a terrorist.

To draw a parallel between Tony Abbott and the personality of Kurz, might seem far-fetched. But is it? Too much of politics in too many countries is driven by a mix of intellectual laziness, the triumph of idealism based on no evidence over reason and views which leave the spectator asking themselves if they have heard right, demanding more attention to the ‘truth’ but unheard. Madness is often depicted as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. (Madness is not a clinical term.) Adherence to the principles of neoclassical economics, despite it being shown to be unsupported by history or human behaviour, is an example of that. It has spawned a ridiculous concern for efficiency with little regard to what is important.

When climate change is denied, Australia’s economic survival through the Global Financial Crisis is depicted as a disaster culminating in a loss of control of the budget and of the economy, a program to revolutionise school education is condemned, then supported by half, then abandoned in favour of return to a system which has led to declines in achievement in he private schools funded by the Howard government, when populating Australia’s north to develop Australia as the food bowl of Asia is promoted, and infrastructure advocated only to produce a muddle of ill-favoured projects, there is every reason to question the sensibility of the politicians involved and the competency of that party to govern.

True, continuing to focus on the problems with the other’s policies could simply play to them by giving them air-time. After all, changing minds is more likely achieved by talking about what should be done. Otherwise existing beliefs are likely to be strengthened. Yet the fundamental policies of the Abbott Coalition are so flawed that they may well drive the country into penury in the medium to longer term.

The evidence for serious concern is to be found in the Howard government’s policies which entrenched tax advantage for the already advantaged, favoured upper middle class beliefs about independent schools and did nothing to advance school education let alone early childhood or university education, achieved current account surpluses by ignoring the emerging huge future liabilities in vital infrastructure  and entered into ridiculously costly and unnecessary purchases of U.S. fighter planes and submarines with less than adequate consideration of the alternatives. As well as driving down investment in many areas of scientific research and universities.

And more, such as stuffing the ABC board with right wing mates. Abbott held several portfolios in the Howard government. His government has continued and indeed embraced many of the Howard government’s policies and taken them further.

Economic Policy

The Abbott government’s economics is the easiest of the Coalition policies to dismiss. Arguably they are anumerate! The rhetoric of bad economic management continues 14 months after the September 2013 election. In early October in the Parliament, Hockey held up a copy of Swan’s book The Good Fight, claiming the word “surplus” did not appear in the book, which Swan shouted was a lie before being expelled from the House. Hockey in fact has been a bigger spender than Swan.

Despite Australia surviving the GFC as has no other country and consequent relatively low unemployment, despite opinion after opinion from distinguished economists and economic authorities including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and despite a whole suite of other economic indicators, Abbott and Hockey, in opposition, opposed every strategy of the Labor government that might alleviate the transition from a resources boom dominated economy. Even down to condemning the requirement that people claiming tax advantages for company cars justify the expense and the increase in excise on cigarettes, as if it is better that poorer people die from smoking!

A litany of economists have pointed to Australia’s low government net debt, at about 11% of GDP, the third lowest in the OECD and to the fact that private debt is the major issue, especially because it mainly concerns real estate which banks have borrowed overseas to finance. Ian McAuley, along with others, has consistently pointed out that this is unproductive debt. As Professor Richard Holden of the University of NSW put it, “It’s tempting to call Hockey’s claim that Australia has a debt crisis “fuzzy arithmetic”. It may be fuzzy, but it’s certainly not arithmetic. It’s just wrong.” The lack of understanding was particularly shown by politicians like Nationals leader Warren Truss saying “never forget we are paying over $1 billion every month on the interest on this debt.”

The Abbott government claims completely ignore the economic context! Just like the attacks on the Whitlam government. They can’t claim to have kept interest rates lower than Labor and they can’t even claim to have done a better job in respect of productivity: in fact higher productivity – in the short run – has accompanied the Hawke government and the Rudd-Gillard governments.

Advancing the economy has not been helped by any of the major business advocates such as the Australian Industry Group which called for abandonment of the carbon ‘tax’ as soon as Rudd became Prime Minister again or the Business Council of Australia which consistently calls for workplace rigor and austerity budgets but ignores the best evidence about the importance of leadership, not an area of high achievement in Australia, and the evidence from Germany and elsewhere about the link between productivity and employee involvement! The Menzies government holds the record for the highest interest rate achieved by any government, 23 percent in 1952 after the 1951 Korean War wool boom, as Kenneth Davidson has recently pointed out. And populating the North is just silly and impractical as Sydney Morning Herald Economics editor Ross Gittins and others have shown.

Abbott and Hockey have stridently asserted that there is a budget crisis and a fiscal emergency which they inherited from the Labor government – claims strongly denied by every reputable economist. One commentator pointed out that Hockey had achieved the impossible: agreement among economists. The budget does not distribute the “pain” equally but, again as numerous economists have asserted over the nearly nine months since its presentation, it hits the poorest households hardest and especially affects families, as shown for instance by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling. The budget provisions are failing to pass the Senate because, as Ross Gittins said, the budget itself is not worth defending.

Just as importantly the policies simply fail to address every one of the most important challenges facing Australia. Like the Howard government’s policies, they assertions about the measures contained in the budget are based on no evidence. They sacrifice important challenges for short run efficiencies. Efficiency does not solve the problems of the world. The very significant cuts recall the austerity budgets introduced in Europe.

The real issues of health, urban development, transport, workplace relations and related matters of leadership, innovation and productivity, infrastructure, water management, biodiversity, cyber security, science and research and development as well as almost all social security issues including unemployment are treated in a cursory manner. Immigration and defence gain huge sums of money for questionable returns whilst foreign aid is reduced. Foreign policy seems to come down to what it is that the United States considers appropriate: how else to reconcile involvement in Iraq and Syria to combat Sunni extremists but not in West Africa to combat Ebola?

Climate Change

Climate change is without doubt the most important issue facing humanity. There can be absolutely no doubt that increasing carbon dioxide levels are human-induced and that the warming is leading to ice melt decreasing reflectivity of the earth’s surface and uncovering high latitude permafrost protected peat which will emit methane many times more greenhouse inducing than CO2. The consequences of displacement of millions by rising sea levels and increasing weather extremes are such as to eventually bleed governments and insurance companies dry. Australia’s response has been marked, so far as the Coalition is concerned, by denial and intellectual laziness.

The obvious consideration is just how much carbon-based fuel can be exploited to generate energy: the Potsdam Institute study of several years ago made it clear that no more than a quarter of the proven fossil fuel reserves can be burnt and emitted between now and 2050, if global warming is to be limited to two degrees Celsius (2°C), which is itself an increasingly near impossible goal to reach. How many Prime Ministers would appoint as business advisor a person who not only denies climate science but calls for an inquiry into the veracity of Bureau of Meteorology forecasts? (And brands the United Nations as a socialist plot!) Unsurprisingly, Abbott counts Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a “brother”: Harper withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Protocol and is hell bent on getting approval for the export of oil from Alberta shale. Australia’s future can hardly depend on coal, as Abbott and his Queensland counterpart Campbell Newman claim, if the Potsdam Institute’s study is to be believed. The falling price of coal threatens to derail the huge mines in Queensland and their export infrastructure close to the Great Barrier Reef.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions whilst ensuring supply of sufficient energy requires a mix of efficiency, energy generation substitution and carbon-based fuel elimination. A carbon tax has been one way to help achieve reduction and emission trading is another. In fact carbon pricing is almost universally considered economically sensible. After all it uses market forces! Abbott and colleagues, with the notable exception of Malcolm Turnbull who was turfed out of the leadership after Andrew Robb branded the Rudd government’s scheme, which Turnbull supported, a waste of money, have consistently condemned the carbon pricing and claimed, against all the evidence brought forth almost every day, that the carbon tax was bad and would lead to unsustainable increases in costs for households and business.

Even after Rudd abandoned the tax, brought forward the date of switching to an emissions trading scheme pricing carbon on the basis of world markets and called an election, Abbott continued the call. Instead an arithmetically flawed ’Direct Action’ supported by no economist is promoted. Minister Greg Hunt amazingly manages to turn every bit of contradictory evidence to his advantage. The policy stance is nothing short of grossly irresponsible. Were there no other error in the Coalition’s policies this would be by itself sufficient reason to assert their incompetence!

Dispensing with important bodies which give advice on climate change and fiddling with the Renewable Energy Target, recommended by a self-confessed climate change denier, are all part of the plan intended to achieve a 5 percent reduction on emissions in the face of much more substantial action now being taken by almost every country including China, the United States and countries of the European Union.

For Abbott and his government the reason promoted for the elimination of the carbon tax was to reduce the cost to households. That the carbon price added little to those costs is ignored! On the other hand the Coalition government studiously ignores the compelling evidence for energy retailers’ profligate deployment of tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending which required denying declining energy demand. And it seems unaware that there are several likely ways that energy costs for retailers will in fact increase through the escalating cost of exported gas and further declines in household demand as solar energy prices continue to fall. Indeed it is possible that the household demand will reach miniscule levels as it is realised that connections to the grid are no longer economically sensible in the long-term and that installing more solar and battery storage add value to the price of the home and save money in the long-term.

Now we have the Direct Action Plan to be approved by the Senate after the Palmer United Party, whose leader Clive Palmer once said was a waste of money, and a couple of other cross benchers agreed to support the measure. On 29 October, Environment Minister Greg Hunt had to be restrained by ABC 730 Report presenter Leigh Sales from trumpeting the cancellation of the ‘carbon tax’ and refused to say to why the Climate Change Authority, which Abbott had promised to abolish but now is to be retained for the life of the Parliament (as “a gesture of good faith”), should be conducting an inquiry into emissions trading in other countries despite the Government’s commitment to never implement an emissions scheme! He asserted that the Authority’s work would ensure that staff would not be sitting around doing nothing. Minister Hunt was unable to say what modelling they had done to show that Direct Action will achieve the targeted reduction in emissions, a target that after all is extraordinarily small and arguably grossly inadequate.

Amongst the many other policies two are of special concern: education and infrastructure.


Reform of school education was from the beginning a central plank of both Rudd’s and Gillard’s governments. Their policies focused on schools and were accompanied by other policies on early childhood, the most important area for investment in the longer term, as well as on universities. Increasing the professional qualifications of teachers and a variety of other changes as well as more funds for preschools were adopted by COAG though implementation has been slow in some states.

The principal issue in school reform in Australia is equity, followed by leadership and respect for the teaching profession. Everywhere: it isn’t standardised testing, merit pay or sacking bad teachers! The Howard government’s funding of independent schools justified by inappropriate SES data encouraged a movement of children of more economically and socially advantaged parents out of public schools. The substantial funding did not make them more affordable, contrary to the original intention used by Howard to justify the policy. Because the SES level of classes has a significant effect on the achievement of individual students, lower SES children in now lower than ever SES schools can be two years behind their more lucky peers. So the average achievement of Australian students continues to languish. Further advantaging already advantaged children makes exactly what sense? Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools has produced a multitude of reports showing that independent schools make no greater contribution to improving outcomes than do public schools once SES background of students is controlled for. Indeed achievement levels have declined to a greater extent in those same independent schools that have been funded under the Howard government policy according to Chris Ryan of the Melbourne Institute for Applied Economic and Social Research(‘What is behinds the decline in student achievement in Australia’, Economics of Education Review Volume 37, December 2013, p 226–239).

The central issue of the National Plan for School Improvement, the Gillard government’s response to the Inquiry by the panel chaired by David Gonski, addresses inequity by funding linked to disadvantage. It breaks the link between funding of public schools and automatic increases flowing to independent schools. Unfortunately it does not provide as much funding as recommended by Gonski and funding has been accompanied by reductions in university funding. But the Plan is critical. Every overseas school system which is successful deals with disadvantage, respects teachers and seeks the best from every student. The belief that every child can succeed is central.

The Coalition initially condemned the Gonski findings saying public schools were overfunded and the existing system was not broken, both utterly wrong, even silly. They have continued to advocate independent schools and as well greater autonomy for principals in hiring teachers and managing budgets: though principals generally would like more freedom, as would most people, neither are what makes the difference as the OECD has made clear. They have asserted more money is not needed, again contradicting the evidence. Most recently they have conducted a closed consultation to traverse the proposition that funding on the basis of need is not needed: attempts by Trevor Cobbold to make a submission were refused.

Christopher Pyne said he would abandon the Gonski reforms unless every state signed up. Pyne also advocated a return to didactic teaching, again contradicting all the evidence about learning. Then they said they would keep the Plan for the first four years. As Angelo Gavrielatos of the Australian Teacher’s Federation pointed out this is nonsense: the big funding increases are in years five through seven! The Opposition is all over the place: they simply don’t understand the issue just as they don’t understand economics or climate change!

Once in government Pyne and Abbott abandoned the last two years of the National Plan, given money to Queensland and Western Australia and the Northern Territory with no strings attached, bypassed High Court rulings on school chaplaincy by funnelling millions of dollars to the states, funded further development of Teach for Australia and funded the expansion of NAPLAN to bring it online!

As Melbourne University’s Professor John Hattie in his William Walker oration in 2011 pointed out the objective of education has changed from being a concern about the teaching of children in schools staffed by teachers we could trust, to demanding choice for parents based on accountabilities which may have nothing to do with anything since the between school variance in test results is vastly less than the very worrying within school variance. The issue is what actions by the teacher will make a difference to the student’s performance. Privileging parent choice of school may even disadvantage the child. Clearly, funding independent schools is largely a waste of money!

The Abbott government persists with their plans despite test results failing to demonstrate anything useful about “deep” learning and the discovery every week of another person who has succeeded in later life whilst finding their schooling to be deeply unsatisfying and performing poorly at school. Think Virgin’s Richard Branson who is dyslexic, Nobel prize-winner in Physiology or Medicine for 2012 John Gurdon who was told he did not have a future in science after becoming last in his school class in science, Regius Professor Christofer Tomazou of Imperial College London who failed his 11-plus exams, left school at age 16 having found that it failed to inspire him but went on to be appointed Professor at Imperial College at age 33, a leading inventor in the biomedical world and entrepreneur. Albert Einstein was told he would never amount to anything. James Heckman of the University of Chicago has pointed out that there is a lack of correlation between test results and later employment and that resource allocation on the basis of test results may distort funding.

This is part 1 of a two part essay. Continue to part 2.