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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Unpublished Letters from a Labor Activist ; March-July 2017

The following are a series of unpublished letters to ‘The Age’ and ‘The Herald-Sun’ from Labor activist Dr Tristan Ewins from March to July 2017.

They are presented chronologically.

Increasingly I'm finding it impossible to get any of these letters published ; I hope at least they may spur some discussion here at this blog.
Please feel welcome to link to this page via Facebook.

The position of modern Christianity is complex

(Herald-Sun, March 2017) As a democratic socialist I am loathe to concede anything to Andrew Bolt.  But regarding his recent op-ed on Christianity I had to concede there is a growing ‘cultural assault’ against the faith.  In some quarters there seems to be a double standard in how Christianity is treated in comparison with other faiths.  During the French Revolution – which Bolt alludes to – Catholic clergy enjoyed entrenched privileges as the so-called ‘First Estate’.  More recently (from the 1930s) the Roman Catholic Church was involved in fascist regimes in Spain (Franco) and Austria (Dolfuss)   The Papal Encyclical “Rerum Novarum” also alienated many Catholics from the Left.  But there is more to Christianity than this.  Churches – including wings of Catholicism – have been vehicles for progress also.   Consider Martin Luther King Junior,  Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero ; and even consider Francis’s attempts to reform Catholicism.  And across the country various churches and various denominations have embraced causes like indigenous rights, the environment, civil rights, peace, the fight against poverty and homelessness, queer rights and so on.  Today’s diverse Christian church is not uniformly the bastion of privilege and conservatism it once was.  That said, Christians must enjoy the same dignity and liberal rights as everyone.

What’s wrong with the Swedish Model?

J.Muir (Herald-Sun ,Letters 18/4) suggests those who look to the Swedish (democratic socialist) model have let go of all “logical thinking”.  Yet for decades Sweden’s famous welfare state has been the source of greater happiness, equality and security compared with the US, Australia and Britain.  At its height the ‘Swedish model’ also achieved close-to genuine full employment (hence ‘running the economy at full bore’) ; and that was comprised largely of high wage jobs thanks to Sweden’s interventionist industry policies.  The Swedish welfare state and industry policies also meant Sweden could revolutionise its industries without displacing and impoverishing workers in the process.  The Swedish welfare state’s universality also meant there was little in the way of resentment from the well-off.  All this was not a disincentive to work ; but nonetheless Swedes have enjoyed very high quality public health, education, and social security systems.  What is ‘illogical’ about all that?

What does Peta Credlin know about ‘Australian values’?

Peta Credlin (Herald-Sun, 23/4) argues we must “Stand Up for our Values”. (that is, ‘Australian Values’) But who determines what Australian Values are?  Traditionally we have thought of ourselves as an egalitarian nation.  Historically that was confirmed with our labour market regulation (with a fairer go for the low paid) ; through the rights enjoyed by workers and their trade unions ; and through our progressive welfare state (including Medicare), and our mixed economy. ( which involved cross-subsidies for the poor)  Further ; Australian POWs in Changi survived through human solidarity ; which is the opposite of the ‘survival of the fittest’ Ideology preached by today’s Right-wing. Those egalitarian values have been under siege for a long time now ; including from Peta Credlin’s Liberal Party. Just remember when you hear Conservatives speaking of ‘Australian values’ that we don’t all agree on what those values actually are.

Bolt wrong on Education Again

Andrew Bolt (4/5/17) argues there is at best little connection between levels of funding for schools and actual results.  And yet there has been a trend to a growing defection of parents to the private school sector on account of better infrastructure (eg: libraries, computers and so on), as well as better student to teacher ratios. Some private schools also offer better wages and conditions which enables them to ‘take their pick’ when hiring staff.  Clearly the emphasis on ‘teacher quality’ is a means of distracting from the question of funding ; providing an excuse for education austerity which is destroying ‘equality of educational opportunity’ in this country.  Here Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘Gonski 2.0’ needs to be considered in its context of an actual multi-billion dollar  annual cut compared with the original Gonski agreements. Further: If we are to attract the best teaching staff arguably we need to hold the profession in higher esteem. And more could be done, here, with reductions in course fees and improvements in wages, conditions and career paths for teachers. Instead the government is putting tertiary education fees and repayment schedules through the roof : even for those on roughly HALF the average yearly salary.  (ie: approx. $40,000/year)

Is Turnbull really ‘Turning Left’?  Ask Abbott: ‘What happened to Catholic Economic Centrism?”

Andrew Bolt (11/5) claims Turnbull and the nation are ‘turning Left’ on the basis of insufficient austerity and new tax measures intended to ameliorate the deficit. In reality, however, Turnbull is hitting students and the unemployed hard – with policies which target students on half the minimum wage for thousands ; and which could force low income earners to exhaust their meagre savings before receiving Newstart only after 6 months should they lose their job.  Despite this the Budget does move the Government closer to the relative economic centre in the sense that overall cuts are ameliorated by comparison with the disastrous Hockey Budget of 2014.  And there is finally acceptance that there was ‘a revenue problem’.  Ironically,  the “Abbott Purists” will likely claim the austerity has not gone far enough. Though they may be upset by the attacks on Catholic education.  But it is THEY who have abandoned ‘traditional Catholic Centrism’ on welfare, labour and the economy.  (a tradition which interestingly had parallels with other ‘Christian Democratic’ parties in Europe)  By comparison Abbott, Bolt and others would have us drift into a US style scenario with a class of utterly destitute, and a class of working poor.

Robert Menzies was a Social Conservative ; But might appear ‘leftish’ on the Economy by Today’s Standards ; Bolt wrong again

In the Herald-Sun (May 22nd) Andrew Bolt compares today's Liberals with Robert Menzies - and finds them wanting. Specifically he infers that Menzies would have nothing to do with narratives of fairness. (narratives Bolt rejects)  But in reality Menzies presided over a much more steeply progressive income tax system than we have today - with a top rate around 67 per cent.  Both Labor and the Liberals have moved way-Right on the economy since then.  In reality 'market forces' do not guarantee just economic outcomes. And as against narratives of meritocracy, most of the very rich inherit rather than earn their wealth.  Inequality is not 'natural' or 'inevitable'.  But a degree of redistribution can ensure equal opportunity in education, equal outcomes in health, and 'baseline' living standards that no citizen should be allowed to fall beneath. It is a matter of compassion ; but also of decency and justice. Australia's egalitarian traditions and culture are worth saving. Bolt is wrong.

Slashing the HECS Repayment Thresholds is Unjust by any Reasonable Measure

Ross Gittins (‘The Age’ , 24/5) rightly condemns the Federal Government’s assault on job seekers, including requirements that those people exhaust much of their personal savings before receiving a cent. It received very little coverage in Budget analyses.  Perhaps there is a cold calculation that ‘no one has sympathy for job seekers’ given the constant resentment and callousness whipped up in much of the monopoly mass media.  There wasn’t a word from Labor that I saw. But I don’t understand Gittins’ attitude towards students.  Someone on $42,000 a year is better off than a person struggling to feed themselves on Newstart.  But the Government is abrogating basic principles of progressivity by reducing the repayment threshold to $42,000/year ; or approximately only half the average wage.  Those on half the average wage are not receiving a significant financial benefit compared with workers and tradespeople who had not attended university.  And given other pressures – including housing unaffordability and a rising cost of living – surely HECS repayment thresholds and rates need to be fairer.  Just because you can make ends meet doesn’t mean principles of progressivity and fairness should not apply.  The minimum repayment threshold should be raised to at least $60,000/year ; then indexed.

Root and Branch Reform of Tax and the Social Wage Necessary

“Peter Martin (‘The Age’ 25/5) makes a good case to get rid of poverty traps in the tax and welfare systems which hurt vulnerable groups like single parents and provide little incentive for work.  We have a tax system which needs root and branch reform.  The whole tax mix needs to be restructured for fairness ; as do the PAYE income taxation scales on their own – which thereafter ought be indexed.  Dividend Imputation could be gradually withdrawn to a 50% rate (maybe more over time), saving  $10 billion a year. Superannuation concessions could be withdrawn for the wealthy , but also the upper middle class ; saving over $20 billion.  A ‘Buffet Tax’ (minimum income tax for the wealthy) could bring in over $2 billion.  The Medicare Levy could be reformed on a progressive scale ; where everyone contributes – but by an increasing proportion depending on income.   Finally inheritance taxes ought be reconsidered for those with truly large inheritances ; say over $2 million.  All this could be passed on with a mix of tax cuts for low to middle income earners, improvements in social security , and improvements in the social wage.  (including infrastructure, health and education)”

Terms like ‘Class Warfare’ and ‘Soak the Rich’ Demand Criticism

Peter Hartcher (‘The Age’ June 13th) seems critical of the recent upsurge in Left-wing politics, with good performances by Sanders and Corbyn , and the return of democratic socialism to ‘respectability’. Terms like ‘class warfare’ and ‘soak the rich’ are thrown around without any real critical consideration of the meaning, assumptions and historical context behind that kind of language.  Progressive taxation hence appears summarily dismissed, despite the fact  that taxes were effectively more steeply progressive under Menzies then they ended up being under any government since Hawke and Keating.   Regressive taxes, ‘small government’ and austerity are today considered ‘natural’ despite impacting negatively against the majority on lower and middle incomes. There is no talk of ‘class warfare’ where it is workers and the vulnerable under attack.  But somehow a fairer spread of taxation is dismissed as ‘redistribution’ – which apparently has been established as a political and economic ‘cardinal sin’.  Australia needs a new culture of social solidarity – where everyone contributes on the basis of their capacity – and where health services, aged care, social security, education, social and public housing – as well as transport, energy and communications infrastructure and services – are made fully available on the basis of need.

Terms like ‘Labor Lite’ to Describe Turnbull Expose Loaded Political Assumptions around the Australian Economy

Andrew Bolt describes Malcolm Turnbull as ‘Labor Lite” - ‘big spending’ and ‘high taxing”.  (3/7)  But in reality taxes and spending have over the long term been falling effectively by tens of billions under both Labor and Liberal Governments.  Compared with the OECD average Turnbull is low spending and low taxing.  Policies that Abbott and Bolt describe as ‘Left’ would be considered ‘neo-liberal right-wing’ in much of Europe and Scandinavia – including by Christian Democrats and Centrists.  Is so-called ‘small government’ really a good thing?  Paying for goods and services: including health, aged-care, education, infrastructure – through progressive taxes – gives citizens in general better value for money than if they paid for these as private consumers.  Look at the outrageously-expensive US private health insurance system for proof of this. This ‘social wage’ also means we don’t have a US-style underclass.  To get an ‘angle’ from which to undermine Turnbull Abbott is also betraying the traditions of Christian Democracy and Catholic economic Centrism which have historically supported welfare and labour market regulation.

What does Bolt know about Socialism?

Andrew Bolt (13/7) writes of Venezuela that it should “be taught in schools” how “socialism ruins countries”.  But surely that kind of official indoctrination would itself be a hallmark of totalitarianism? Instead we need a curriculum that informs students about the interests and value systems of both the Left and the Right , and of different social groups – and encourage them to make their own commitments – in an active and informed democracy. As for socialism: done correctly it has resulted in full employment, high wages, equal educational opportunity, and health care based upon need.  Consider Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway. But capitalism increasingly survives on unsustainable private debt ; and ‘corporate welfare’ as big business escapes taxation for the infrastructure and services it benefits from. (the rest of us must pay)  Also there is abuse of market power in the wake of privatisation of natural public monopolies.  (eg: energy) ; and this is why those on lower incomes are suffering.


  1. Re Bolt wrong on education again
    Here's some discussion re your Gonski letter. The Libs pulled a shifty aided by the ALP who want to debate totals. They agreed to the adequate funding advocated by Gonski but then split public school funding 80% to the states. Historically about a third of federal funding went to government schools. This is a huge cost shift with no state funding passage. There's more money in the pot but now 80% will go to the privates instead of 67%. States like Vic and Tassie already underfund. Big story, bigger than the size of the pot which should always be bigger

    Nb - this is John Shute -I don't have a blogspot account

  2. Hi all, you are all thinkers and bloggers/ facebook-activists,

    I have a question about impact. I spend too much time on Facebook lefty forums speaking to the converted. Post-Trump, I've spent some time trolling diabolical Hanson pages trying to prick consciences in an effort to get outside the left bubble. Ugly. Newspaper letters get widely read, keep it up, Tristan. Where to spend the effort? What has the biggest impact?

  3. Hi John ; that's difficult ; a lot of the Facebook Labor groups I've seen have been shut down or disappeared over the years. The ALP Socialist Left Forum has thousands of members ; but the readership of this blog has fallen. I think because of attempts to wreck and drive readers and participants away from the actual Facebook group which serves as a platform for this blog. A really good article here which other people promote can get well over 1000 readers ; this post will probably reach 200.

    Newspaper letters can potentially reach hundreds of thousands. I don't know why I appear to have been 'locked out' of that the past 5 months.

    The platforms that make the biggest difference are still the big papers ; including The Age and The Guardian. But some independent web publications probably reach several thousands or more.

    'Speaking to the converted' matters a lot because we have to maintain our own perspective - or our own people will 'be picked off ideologically'. Also there's a fight within the Left for its heart and soul. Are we to merely be a left liberal outfit ; or will we retain much of the radicalism of the past?

    What we could do with would be an effort at building a 'counterculture' within the Left, and the ALP Left specifically. But the response I've got is that that's 'the job of a Party and not a faction'. But the broader ALP isn't interested in anything radical. If we don't do it no-one will.

    The ABC should provide a platform for real pluralism also ; but under pressure for alleged "Left bias" it has long been excluding many Left viewpoints , especially decidedly socialist perspectives. That's another trend we need to seriously challenge.