Thursday, May 7, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Corona-culture wars
The Morrison government is using the pandemic to target old foes

© Lukas Coch / AAP Image

Actually, we’re not all in this coronavirus pandemic together – at least, not as far as the Morrison government is concerned. Some Australians are in and some are absolutely, definitely, out. The health crisis is easing, but the economic crisis is deepening. And as the federal government’s stimulus response beds down, it is becoming crystal clear that the Coalition is using the pandemic to win the culture wars, delivering a generational blow to small-L liberal “elites” in the universities, media, arts and entertainment. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has changed the rules of the JobKeeper program three times to make sure it excludes universities and their thousands of employees. Despite $214 billion in new federal spending, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher cannot find $84 million extra to prevent ABC lay-offs, even as the broadcaster stepped up during summer’s bushfire emergency and is now educating our kids during the lockdown. Meanwhile, paltry financial assistance for commercial media has come too late to stop the sector tanking, with closures announced almost daily, and nothing for film and TV producers or workers. And for artists and entertainers – who lifted our spirits and raised significant funds during the Black Summer but are also excluded from JobKeeper – there’s been a granite response from the same minister. 

Boiled right down, whenever Treasurer Frydenberg is asked about those who’ve been excluded from the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes, he says (a) $214 billion is a lot of money, and (b) the line had to be drawn somewhere. That argument served for a while, but is now looking flimsier as lockdown and social-distancing rules are set to relax much earlier than was expected at the time the three stimulus response packages were designed, predicated on a six-month timeframe. There are a million fewer workers than expected receiving JobKeeper. Perhaps there will be an underspend on this largest component of the stimulus? My questions to the treasurer’s office on this point have gone unanswered. But that’s what The Australian’s bone-dry economics editor, Adam Creighton, was arguing for [$] earlier this week when he called for the final three months of the JobKeeper package to be reassessed, at a potential saving of tens of billions. He noted that $126 billion of the stimulus package is slated for next financial year. Creighton quoted federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming, saying the government could “specify particular job advertisement levels at which JobKeeper will be phased out, or switch whole sectors off JobKeeper once their business activity statements indicate a return to relative normality”.

The flipside of a potential underspend on stimulus at the back end is that there could be a widening of the eligibility criteria at the front end – right now, as millions of people are being laid off or left without a source of income. A million casuals who do not have 12 months’ tenure, another million migrant workers or international students who cannot access JobSeeker – these people have been left high and dry. Labor senator Tim Ayres yesterday came across a queue of more than a hundred Thai students lining up at a soup kitchen. Soft power? It won’t be forgotten in the region how we decided to let their kids starve. 

Whether the total fiscal stimulus comes in at more or less than $214 billion, the PM and treasurer should design it fairly and leave no one behind. Right now, the federal government is picking winners and losers, dividing Australians back into political friends and foes after an extraordinary moment of national unity.

It may be time for Australia’s universities to rethink their over-reliance on international students – not to mention over-geared property developments – but now is not the time to force thousands more low-paid academics into unemployment. After cutting $783 million in funding from the ABC since 2014, there could hardly be a worse time for the Coalition to force more ABC employees into redundancy and to cut more programming. The $50 million public interest news-gathering initiative is clearly failing to prevent closures and lay-offs in the media – this week it’s magazine publisher Bauer – and, like much of the government’s financial assistance, it is yet to hit the ground. Finally, as shadow arts minister Tony Burke said in a statement, the government “hasn’t even bothered to ask Treasury for advice about how it could support tens of thousands of workers in the arts and entertainment industry through the coronavirus crisis”, even though official figures this week showed a quarter of the employees in the $111 billion industry have lost their jobs since the lockdown. Are all of these workers expected to go back onto the original below-the-poverty-line Newstart rate at the end of September?

We’re well past the stage where any of this could be excused as an oversight, an unintended consequence of the rushed pandemic response. By now it’s obvious: this is a deliberate strategy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the rest of the Coalition’s culture warriors are not wasting this crisis, that’s for sure. 

“We are satisfied that in 1973 Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of [pedophile priest Gerald] Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps. The most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child then they could sexually abuse a child or at least provoke gossip about such a prospect.”

One of the previously redacted findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse, publicly released today.

“My property in Nerriga is located within my electorate of Monaro and is an acreage which requires maintenance. My farm was damaged during the recent bushfires but fortunately the local Rural Fire Service in Braidwood was able to save the house.”

NSW deputy premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro, who spent the weekend at his farm contemplating a run at the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, insists he did not breach public health orders. NSW Police are investigating.

Jane Caro on reopening schools
The prime minister has made reopening schools a priority, arguing that school closures are leaving the most disadvantaged students behind. Jane Caro on how the political debate over coronavirus is reframing the inequality in education funding.

The forecasted number of extra deaths by suicide per year over the next five years as a result of the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, according to modelling by Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre. 

“I write to request the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) commence a performance audit into the effectiveness of the Commonwealth government’s debt management given the significant and rapidly increasing Commonwealth government debt levels as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic … a timely audit as Labor understands that the last performance audit into debt management was conducted in 1999, with a follow-up audit in 2005.”

Senator Katy Gallagher – chair of the COVID-19 select committee – writes to Auditor-General Grant Hehir after the Morrison government raised the statutory debt ceiling from $600 billion to $850 billion.

The list

“While she reflexively knows that anything over 14 metres is impressive for able-bodied throwers, she says that few, if any, able-bodied throwers would know the equivalent for throwers of short stature. That is, she executed an Olympic-qualifying throw that went under the radar for everyone except para athletes. ‘That’s the way it works, the way it is,’ she says, with a wry smile.”

“Back then, as a brooding teenager in my bedroom, or on long moody walks around the neighbourhood with only a walkman for company, I’d listen to music with a commingled sense of wonder and anguish. It was as if music might yet salvage a world that seemed designed to quash wonder and consign anguish to the realm of personal weakness. Something of that state has returned to me now … I find music becoming, once again, a primary means to illuminate imaginative terrains beyond the self, and to allay loneliness; music is a portal when actual movement is curtailed.”

“While writing, Hill says, she made the decision to dedicate every waking hour – apart from time spent with her daughter – to the work. If she stepped away from it, she felt there might be some nuance or some depth she would miss. ‘I just needed to keep going, all the time. It might be that I would speak to someone for three hours and I would then adjust only two sentences in the book, but they were vital. The amount of writing, rewriting and analysing – going over every line in that book – was just exhaustive.’”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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