Letter to a Friend

Gorgeous Dunny was brave enough to entrust me with rescuing some documents from aged equipment. OH and moi did what we could – not, sadly, finding everything GD was hoping for – but here’s a little something from our Guest Author that seems desperately apt for our modern times …

Thanks for your recent missive. Thanks also for putting it in perspective by mentioning some of Amnesty’s concerns. However much we grumble, it seems like we’re living in a safer and much fairer country than many in the world.

It is always important to keep things in perspective, and to count our blessings such as they are. I remember in Adelaide once Wendy lamenting her lot, and asking me what was the difference between her and a slave. I replied that for a start she wouldn’t be free to complain about her lot. It was a reflex reply without much thought, but it was enough to have her burst into laughter and break the anguish. It’s all relative when you think about it. Mixing in feminist academic circles during some of my studies, I often felt the complaint of how bad we men had made life for women. (by the way, at an EEO meeting some months ago, I, the only male committee member, was severely castigated for referring to a young female as a “lass”. Alas for the Scottish brogue! No longer acceptable in discrimination-free language.) But then I thought, however bad the plight of middle-class females, it seemed infinitely superior to that of poor black males. Not that this invalidates the complaints in any way. It just helps to keep a balance on things.

All that counts for nought, however, when someone like Pauline Hanson shoots off her mouth. Of course, it can fairly be argued that she represents many people with similar views and that parliament is the forum for free speech. And viewing her TV performance delivering her speech in parliament, there seemed no doubt that she was sincere in her prejudices (if that isn’t a contradiction). Perhaps she’s been so busy raising 4 children as a single parent and running a fish and chip shop (long hours), that she’s had to rely on gossip, offense from the odd drunken ratbags and vandals, and talkback radio for her views. She even mentioned Asian migrants forming ghettoes! The usual beef about Asian migrants is that they get all our jobs and our money! Of course, it provided a field day for talkback radio and the more tabloid TV ‘current affairs’ shows, with people stampeding to confirm she reflects their views. It is a sad day for Australia, which has mostly avoided the Enoch Powell syndrome. An unusual alliance of apathy and tolerance has meant that race has not been an important issue in Australia for a long time. Let us hope that this current outburst is merely an aberration, and not, as I fear, a symptom of growing inequality in Australia.

However, appeal to the lowest common denominator is not just confined to talkback radio and ‘current affairs’ TV. Recently, the Attorney-General in Victoria wanted to find out what the public felt about sentencing. So, they ran a questionnaire … in the Herald-Sun. When challenged about the validity of such an exercise, Mrs Wade replied that if you wanted to participate, you just bought a Herald-Sun! What could be more democratic than that ? Rupert must have loved her. Perhaps he could forget about Super League, and have Super Sentencing instead. He might finally get a few people to take up pay TV. Another ”market driven” brainstorm from our economic rationalists that has evolved into a catastrophic waste of resources.

I’ve got a very good article about Australia by John Pilger, which I’ll send you. He’s very critical of the Keating-Hawke years’ handover of the economy to the finance/banking sectors and the big multinational players – as is Hugh Stretton in another article. Both make the point that there was no major public clamor for these changes – just economic/financial advisers who have not had to bear the political cost ( the Labor Governments of Vic and SA lost their State banks and public confidence merely by following the prevailing advice. The federal Labor government was finally called to account for continued high unemployment). Nor have they had to bear the human cost of lost jobs and careers, closed businesses and public offices, and declining human services (which in Victoria have led to loss of life with cost-cutting ambulances, the reduction of hospital beds, and the removal of staff from intellectual care services as in the Kew Cottages fire). As Arthur Gibbs ( a former Trade bureaucrat who has slammed the level playing field mentality in several brilliant articles) said, had these economists been barristers or medical practicioners they would have been disbarred for their incompetence, and probably sued for professional misconduct into the bargain. It is ironic, but a feature of our 2-party system, that the public by rejecting the economic policies of recent years has given office to an even more vicious version of them.

I make allowances for Keating on two grounds: (1) Aboriginal Reconciliation (where he has made greater progress than any other leader, and shown more political courage than any leader since Whitlam). (2) The defeat of the extreme version of economic rationalism in 1993. Unfortunately, he did not absorb the lesson that it was the public fear/rejection and not his brilliance that led to it; and now we have it back, just in a more disguised form. But apart from that… the virtues were mainly that they softened the full damage otherwise likely to have been inflicted on a long-suffering community. The Accords, various social security reforms, medicare, the Button Plan, Working Nation (all of which were vigorously opposed by Treasury gnomes) all contributed but could have been more effective with an interventionist and nationalistic industry and investment policy. And if only they could have called a halt to the stripping down of government investment and infrastructure.

I am surprised that more people cannot step back a little to ask where we’re going. Where are our values ? (I’m not talking about you personally, of course, who have done a marvellous job in retaining yours with environment, family, and amnesty.) I know that there’s a pretence in current economic theory that it’s a value-free set of scientific laws like gravity, but I’m surprised that the rest of the English-speaking world has swallowed it so uncritically. Does Rupert really have that much influence ? Why is it so urgent that we reduce our public services ? For myself, I still cannot understand why it’s good to be reducing hospital beds and closing hospitals and schools at the same time as we’re expanding McDonalds outlets and casinos. Nor can I understand why, with jobs harder to get we ask those in jobs to work longer hours for less return. Why is it assumed that people will be more productive if they are insecure and have to compete with fellow-workers ? Most obscene of all, which I might have mentioned to you before, is hiring some super executive for a huge package with bonuses for each thousand staff he manages to get rid of. I guess we see another variant of it in the budget when everything is ruthlessly cut except funding for the Sydney Olympics. If we can’t give them enough bread, at least give them circuses.

The way our Department has gone is providing plenty of anecdotal evidence that the competitive model has its problems. Morale has collapsed. Staff are shocked, bewildered, angered, confused and feel betrayed not only by the coalition’s lies but by our own national office management (who seem to have sold us out to save their own skins). Those of us with economic/political knowledge realised long ago that Treasury and Finance, as free market puritans, have long wanted to gut us, as labour market interventionists. At least the previous government (with some backing from the ACTU) kept them on a leash, but now they’ve got a free hand for all their idiotic dogma. Effective planning has fallen away (how can we plan work when we don’t know what we’ll be doing and we get contradictory stories from management and the minister every other day ?). Productivity has fallen right away; some staff are worried about their future (maybe all staff) and have taken to positioning themselves and ‘stabbing’ others, etc. Altogether not a happy organisation these days. The only consolation is that management seem to have no more idea of what’s going on than we do.

As for me, I am angered that this national pool of labour market knowledge and experience will simply be disintegrated. It is part of our infrastructure as much as roads and telecommunications, and dollar-driven placement agencies will not be able to provide the same knowledge. So, I’m not hanging on and waiting. I’ve applied for APS positions with Commonwealth Rehabilitation Warrnambool and DSS Canberra, and I’m a fair chance in both. I’m not crazy about Canberra (although Wendy likes it) or relocating at all, for that matter.Maybe I’m getting too old for new locations,new jobs and so on. But I guess it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Keep up the good work with Amnesty. There’s so many dreadful stories of human suffering that at times you wonder where to start. Locally, I believe there’s talk of deporting Timorese. Our role under various governments has been pretty shabby in that area. The least we ought to do is offer refuge to those in need.

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