January 25, 2015

Nothing but a dream

By Russell Marks
Why does the right want to Americanise Australia?

Last June, the American theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss appeared on the ABC’s Q&A. During a brief discussion about public broadcasting – which, despite such programs as Sesame StreetFrontline and This American Life, is deeply impoverished in the US in comparison with its counterparts in the UK and Australia – Krauss expressed concern about the direction of the Abbott government’s policies. “What worries me about this particular government is they’re trying to make Australia more like the US, and it’s an awful thing.”

Later in the same program, fellow panellist, adman-turned-commentator Rowan Dean explained why he supported the government’s policy of university deregulation. “We want to be like America,” Dean told Krauss. “We do. Because that’s where we get people like you.”

It was the kind of mocking praise that’s designed to knock the wind out of a debating opponent’s sails. When it didn’t work, Dean simply continued to talk over the top of Krauss as the physicist attempted to respond. But Dean was also making a serious point, about his belief in the capacity for market forces to produce public intellectuals of Strauss’s quality from universities engaged in a constant competitive struggle for students, staff and research dollars.

That’s mostly myth. Within two months of that broadcast, Steven Ward, a professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University, wrote in The Conversation that seven of the ten highest ranked American universities (according to the prestigious Times Higher Education list) “are private, non-profit universities with both billions of dollars in their individual endowments and hundreds of millions of dollars of annual research support from the US government”. As well, Ward wrote, those universities derive additional support from the funding by state and federal governments of individual students.

But it’s a myth that holds sway with the Australian right. The Abbott government’s National Commission of Audit, chaired by serial corporate board member and former public servant Tony Shepherd, suggested – without supporting evidence – that complete fee deregulation “should improve efficiency through the operation of competitive forces”. (Whether “efficiency” is something we should be aiming for in university education is a question left unaddressed in the Audit report.)

Christopher Pyne, Tony Abbott’s education minister, fervently agrees that it’s market forces, not government regulation or funding (or population size), that have kept the Ivy League institutions at the top of the global educational tree for so long. So does Rowan Dean, who currently edits the conservative magazine Spectator Australia, and nearly every Liberal Party politician and right-wing commentator in the country. Also holding this belief is the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), the think-tank that feeds this government’s policy and from whose talent pool George Brandis plucked the hitherto obscure Tim Wilson to fill the role of “freedom commissioner” at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The belief in the power of market forces to solve social problems and achieve socially desirable outcomes can be traced back to the ideas of Adam Smith and John Locke, but those ideas found unparalleled acceptance in the various proponents of laissez nous faire in 19th-century America. “Freedom” in the age of laissez faire and its reinvention “neoliberalism” is defined in negative terms, as in freedom from government intervention. A social democrat might emphasise the role that government – the state – can play in allowing as many people as possible to live as freely as possible from such limiting experiences as poverty and exploitation by those more powerful. In neoliberal thought, policies that social democrats tend to support – like public education, universal health care, progressive taxation and the minimum wage – are often seen as unnecessary brakes on the wheels of capitalism. Many on the neoliberal right have such faith in the capacity of the forces of supply and demand to produce the most efficient allocation of resources that the question of imposing constraints on those forces has acquired a moral dimension.

My partner recently completed a semester exchange at a university in North Carolina, and I flew to New York to meet her just before Christmas. We stayed a few nights with a friend of ours, Sasha,* who rents a tiny one-bedroom flat on the Upper East Side, about seven “large blocks” from Central Park. Until recently she shared it with her boyfriend, but they broke up and he moved out. Sasha is now paying well over US$2000 in rent every month. She could move off Manhattan – she lived previously in other burroughs – but she is a psychologist for a number of autistic children and needs to be as close as possible to where they live. She works on what is effectively a casual basis and is often called up at short notice. The further out she goes, the fewer potential clients she has: there’s nothing like Medicare in New York, and her clients need parents wealthy enough to engage her employer’s services. She doesn’t get sick leave or annual leave, so when she took two weeks off to visit her family on the Pacific coast she earned no income. Neither does her employer pay for health insurance, which costs Sasha US$800 every month for very basic cover. Her two-year psychology degree came from Columbia University, and was financed by a loan of more than US$100,000. There’s nothing like our higher education contribution scheme (HECS) available to her, so that loan must be serviced regardless of her earning capacity. It attracts interest at a rate of 7% annually.

Sasha is one of America’s “winners”. She sees herself as living the American dream, albeit a dream without any prospect of home ownership: she immigrated with her family when she was in her teens, and later migrated internally to the Capital of the World to pursue the career of her choosing. But even before paying for food and bills, she must make over US$3000 every month just to avoid defaulting on her fixed expenses.

Many are not as lucky as Sasha. Across the US, the minimum wage is US$7.25 an hour, or not quite US$14,000 a year. In Australia, it’s more than double that amount. Barack Obama recently called for an increase. But it’s common to find workers on much less than that. The National Restaurant Association, which represents the restaurant industry, lobbies consistently to keep “tipped” wages – defined as the wages of workers who can expect at least 30% of their income to come from tips – at just US$2.13 an hour. The law says that the combined value of wages and tips must come to at least US$7.25, but that’s impossible to police effectively. In practice, wait staff suffer poverty at three times the rate of all other US workers. American journalism is full of stories of workers who take home much less than US$7.25, who aren’t afforded sick leave and who are sacked as soon as they complain to their employers.

Tipping removes the burden of paying restaurant wait staff from employers and places it on customers, who can refuse to tip. Staff depend on customers’ goodwill rather than legislated protections. My partner went out for dinner in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a group of friends from her university dorm. For reasons beyond the control of the single waitress working the restaurant that night, the group waited 90 minutes for their meals. Most of them refused to tip afterwards. For the two and a half hours that the group of 12 women occupied the table, that waitress made not very much more than the US$5.33 mandated by law.

The national aversion to regulation manifests in various ways to “liberate” people without means from adequate wages, access to education, nutritious food and health care. Standing behind a woman of perhaps 60 in a Californian pharmacy, I watched her query the cost of some medication she’d been prescribed. “It hasn’t been anywhere near this much before,” she said. The pharmacist retrieved a computer record and replied: “that’s because your insurance company has decided to not pay out for this medication this month. It happens sometimes. Just have a chat to them and they may be able to work something out with you.” I felt a pang of admiration for Australia’s publicly funded Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), which makes prescribed medicines available to citizens and permanent residents at tiny fractions of their real costs. Medical services across the US are in general complicated by the question of the patient’s capacity to pay.

The United States is familiar enough to Australians that we don’t expect the differences to be as stark as they are. But the America presented to us through Hollywood, and as tourists, is a stylised, idealised America, and one which very few of its residents actually experience. Is the desire of Australia’s right to Americanise their own country born of an error of perception, a mistaken belief that their own well-funded study tours of Washington DC and New York give them any insight into the lives of ordinary Americans?

The Abbott government has reversed earlier pay rises for already low-paid aged care and childcare workers, provided assistance for farmers and miners who want to fight native title claims, slashed funding to the CSIRO (though not for its research into “clean coal” technology), abandoned Australia’s targets for carbon emissions reduction, increased student debt levels and repealed legislation that placed restrictions on poker machine use. It has cut funding to community radio, Indigenous services, community legal centres, animal welfare, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, foreign aid, proven job creation schemes, the Environmental Defenders Office, the public service and the National Anti-Tobacco Campaign. It wants to cut much more from welfare payments, funding to hospitals, school, universities and Medicare.

As part of its commitment to “reducing red tape”, it has abolished the Climate Commission, the Social Inclusion Board, AusAID, the National Housing Supply Council, the Animals Welfare Advisory Committee, the Firearms Advisory Council, the National Steering Committee on Corporate Wrongdoing, the Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee, the Advisory Panel on the Marketing in Australia of Infant Formula, the Insurance Reform Advisory Group, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council, the COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water, the Home Energy Saver Scheme, the “health star rating” website for consumers, the food grants program for small farmers, the COAG Reform Council, the ‘Tools for the Trade’ program, energy efficiency programs, the National Solar Schools Plan, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, grant programs aimed at funding new business startups, the Women in Leadership program, the Community Food Safety Campaign, the National Rental Affordability Scheme, the Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the National Water Commission, the Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee, the tax on mining companies’ super-profits and the carbon pricing scheme among dozens of grants, schemes and advisory groups aimed at improving the lives of disadvantaged people and restricting businesses from engaging in unethical practices.

It now allows state premiers to approve development without federal environmental oversight, has reversed the listing of the Murray-Darling basin as “critically endangered”, and has removed the community’s right to challenge development decisions when the government has ignored expert advice on their effect on threatened species. Meanwhile, businesses have been given additional tax breaks, while the government has expressed its preference for lower penalty rates and minimum wages for workers. In February last year, it introduced legislation that would allow employers to employ young people on half the minimum wage and to exempt them from extending young workers all other work rights, and in May it announced that unemployed people under 30 would need to wait six months before accessing the dole.

In Abbott’s Australia, we will work longer for less pay and with fewer protections. It will be easier for companies to socialise their losses by making it easier for them to pollute the environment without suffering consequences. Abbott wants more freeways instead of more public transport. Perhaps Abbott’s vision is for Australian cities to resemble Los Angeles, with its network of clogged freeways and barely functional train and bus systems. In such intensely deregulated environments it’s the less advantaged who suffer the most. In search of fresh fruit and vegetables in Long Beach, which is what Australians would call a suburb of Los Angeles half an hour south of downtown, my partner and I tried three consecutive Walmarts – huge warehouses that combine supermarkets, chemists, department stores and even post office functions – and found only tiny bays of cellophane- and foam-wrapped “fresh” fruit amid rows and rows of frozen and processed goods. Most of LA between the freeways is just main road after main road lined with Walmarts, car dealerships and fast food outlets. Good food is available in wealthy pockets, but it’s much more expensive than the crap.

Is this what “freedom” looks like to Australia’s right? Australia is certainly well down the path of deregulation and privatisation that has, despite enormous advances in what we know about how to keep both humans and the natural world healthy, allowed (with very few exceptions) a very small number of people to become enormously rich by selling us bad food, expensive dreams and destructive ideas. As Australians become fatter, more unequal, less protected at work and less able to use the institutions of the state to climb out of poverty and disadvantage, the right clings to its theoretical understanding of “freedom” as socialists once clung to the beautiful coherence of communism.

Donald Horne complained in 1964 that Australia was a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck. In the 50 years since, Australian political leaders have ushered in some truly outstanding social policies, and expanded some others, which have arrested what would otherwise be the kind of drift Americans have seen towards a brash anti-society in which a few have much and most have little. Medicare, the PBS, HECS and the “living” – now minimum – wage would all be undone by Abbott’s so-called conservatives in pursuit of a radical rewriting of the social contract.

Names have been changed. For the list of Abbott government policies, thanks to Sally McManus for her website, Tracking Abbott's Wreckage.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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