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Sinister Franchise: Exporting the Tea Party to Australia

The new Liberal government in Australia seems determined to turn the country in directions no voters were warned about – those directions coming straight from the Tea Party manifesto.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott addresses the crowd at Multi-National Base Tarin Kot on October 28, 2013 in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. (Photo: US State Department / Flickr)

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The new Liberal government in Australia seems determined to turn the country in directions no voters were warned about – those directions coming straight from the Tea Party manifesto.

Five Eyes

After World War II, the triumphant English-speaking Allies of the Western world (the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) did not dismantle their extensive and very capable espionage networks, but developed and expanded them. As the Cold War unfolded, they were in an ideal position to spy on the exhausted Soviet Union and, after 1949, the victorious Chinese Communist government. Each country contributed according to its assets: the British Government Communications Headquarters excelled in mathematical analysis; Canada had its vast northern coastline facing across the Arctic icecap to the heart of the USSR; Australia and New Zealand were ideally located to provide listening posts. These included the US base at Pine Gap in the very heart of Australia’s outback, a downloading site for the information sucked up by the US Rhyolite satellite program that the USSR could not possibly intercept. As part of this so-called “Five Eyes Alliance,” Australia has willingly scuttled along to US wars – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Somalia, Afghanistan – at huge cost and no discernible benefit.

This country is now firmly welded into the American orbit, perhaps more so than Canada.

This country is now firmly welded into the American orbit, perhaps more so than Canada, where politicians take care to maintain a level of public animosity, if only to prove they are different (e.g. Vietnam, Iraq). Here on the other side of the Pacific, even that motivation is absent; our lascivious politicians feel they can go “All the way with LBJ” (truly) without being accused of treason. For example, Pine Gap is no longer a passive listening base, but is an essential part of the American aggressive war-machine. Beside massive debts, pointless deaths and injuries and the hostility of the Third World, nobody has said what this alliance has brought us, but I hope it was worth it. The good news is that the Australian public is now sick and tired of war-mongering, meaning the politicians who benefit from our exalted status as toady to the world’s hegemon have had to cast around for a new approach.

The Liberal Party of Australia, which has governed in coalition with the National Party since September 2013, was formed from a collection of right-wing, nativist and conservative organizations. Unlike most political parties, it doesn’t actually have a formal policy. It subscribes very loosely to the idea of a guided, semi-statist capitalism with lots of populist handouts, such as the current prime minister’s personal pet, paid parental leave, but nothing that would distinguish it clearly from the slightly-left-of-center Labor Party’s much clearer welfarism. Hence the main theme of the current Liberal government, which is best summarized as an attempt to fire a very moderate and generally indifferent, centrist electorate with some radically new ideals, ideals that seem to come straight from the Tea Party.

What is the Tea Party?

It is a spontaneous but diffuse political reaction of limited appeal, incorporating a volatile mixture of conservative, nativist, populist, libertarian and exceptionalist elements floating in a toxic stew of intolerance, self-righteousness and blind outrage.

That’s a very good question, as there is no registered political party in the US bearing that name. In brief, it is a spontaneous but diffuse political reaction of limited appeal, incorporating a volatile mixture of conservative, nativist, populist, libertarian and exceptionalist elements floating in a toxic stew of intolerance, self-righteousness and blind outrage. Politically, the Tea Party train starts at a station somewhere to the right of the mainstream Republican Party, stopping to collect passengers at all points such as fascism, religious lunacy and racial hatred, by way of flat-earthers, gun nuts, Red-baiters and assorted conspiratorialists until it disappears into the virulent reaches of gaga-land. In a country with a rational electoral system, nobody would take the slightest notice of them: the US is not alone in harboring low-grade fascists, cranks, bigots, etc. but it surely is the only nation on earth that would invite them to grab the levers of power of a major political party. Their danger lies in the way Big Money thinks it can commandeer their explosive energy for its own purposes, much as the German industrialists of the early 1930s thought they could harness a certain Austrian corporal to satisfy their political ambitions.

So what has that got to do with Australia? Everyone knows that this is the land of the “Fair Go,” where “She’ll Be Right, Mate” replaces “My Country, Right or Wrong” as the unofficial motto. Let’s not mince words: We’re a bunch of boozy, sun-struck layabouts; political extremism is just not our cup of tea. Or our can of beer. And that, as you will see, is where the Liberal Party’s dilemma rests. Since the demise of the Communist Party, they have had no bogeymen to inspire fear in their bovine electorate. There’s no communist can to kick, no reds-under-the-bed, no pinkos trying to pervert our youth, so they have to fight elections on the basis of a declared policy. That’s a problem for a party that doesn’t have a political program other than grabbing power and hanging on to it. But now they think they’ve got a winner: they’ve bought the ultimate franchise, one they hope will let them use any stray conservative, nativist, populist, libertarian and exceptionalist elements to fire up intolerance and self-righteousness so they can harness the outraged beast to satisfy their political ambitions. Is there any evidence for this? Yes, I think there’s plenty, but it’s being delivered piecemeal to the snoozing voters.

Tea Party Down Under: Down with the Welfare State

The first is to attack the very basis of the welfare system by fracturing services, setting up the grounds to privatize the remnants on the basis of inefficiency, even when the service was perfectly efficient beforehand or could have been rectified with minor changes. This is happening now in Queensland where the state Liberal government, which is extremely close to the Federal Liberal Party, has dismissed all government medical officers and offered them contracts. When the doctors refused to sign the appalling contracts, the state premier, a former Army officer who is not used to having to negotiate anything, said he would simply import lots of foreign doctors to replace them. To his misfortune, yet another scandal involving a foreign doctor has just erupted so that may yet go quiet. Foreign doctors are favored as they can be kept on conditional visas and conditional registration indefinitely, so they won’t so much as squeak in protest at pay drops. Meantime, the undeclared policy of the Liberal Party is to attack all inefficiencies of the welfare state as “selfish and misguided socialism” while lauding even the most brutal inefficiencies of the capitalist state as “the market at work.”

Welfare and social services are to be trimmed in order to balance the budget, even though, at 13 percent, our cumulative deficit is the lowest, by far, of any major economy (the US is 67 percent and Japan 230 percent). The age of retirement is to be lifted to 70, but the really expensive retirement schemes, such as the police, military, fire brigades and, above all, politicians, will not be touched. Retiring at 70 may be feasible for a fit and active music teacher, but very few manual laborers, factory workers, nurses or teachers would be able to manage it. What will happen to them we don’t know, especially as the population is following American trends and getting fatter by the hour.

At the other end of life, unemployment benefits will be restricted by extending the stingy youth benefits to age 25 ($207 per week instead of the adult rate of $255). Students finishing school who are unable to get work will have to wait another six months to get benefits, which is fine if their parents aren’t also on the dole.

Up with the Military

Over the next 30 years or so, we will spend a hair-raising $24 billion on 75 F-35s, even though no Australian-badged fighter aircraft has fired a shot in anger since the Korean War.

What will the spare money be spent on? Lots of very expensive aircraft to keep us safe from the Yellow Peril* (our Asian neighbors, in case you didn’t know). Over the next 30 years or so, we will spend a hair-raising $24 billion on 75 F-35s, even though no Australian-badged fighter aircraft has fired a shot in anger since the Korean War (that was a P-51 Mustang, if you please). The fact that there aren’t any military aircraft in the entire Eastern Hemisphere that can actually reach this country, nor any being developed anywhere in the world, doesn’t seem to have registered. What counts is that we have to be meshed into the US military system at any cost, just in case those treacherous Russkies exhume their 1970s Backfire bombers.

Down with Workers

At the state level, Liberal governments are experimenting with ways of restricting workers’ rights. In Queensland, the Newman government (Mr. Newman is a former army officer with all the tact and circumspection of that class) has decided to convert all medical officers in the public service (a far larger proportion than in the US) to contracted employees. That is, unique among all public servants, they lose all their rights and have to reapply for their jobs every three years. This came close to bringing the state health service, the major providider for the bulk of the state of nearly 5million, to the brink of closure. Why? As a medical practitioner who works in the state mental health service, I have not the faintest idea why. There are myriad problems with the service but, in fact, they are all administrative in nature, not medical.

Meanwhile, down in New South Wales, the Liberal government that recently lost its premier to the prowling Independent Commission Against Corruption, has decided to move against the sworn enemies of capitalism, injured workers. Changes to workers’ compensation legislation mean that the government-owned industrial insurer will not have to pay out some $350 million to about 16,000 injured workers. At the same time, the insurer is projected to run a $6 billion surplus in five years time.

Down with the Environment

Environmental protection is to be weakened in favor of Big Business (and don’t be mistaken, we have some very big businesses here, including the world’s second and third largest mining companies). Mining companies are being given covert access to policy development, essentially permitting them to write government environmental policies. In order to develop yet another port for exporting yet more coal to Asia, thereby helping cook the planet faster, the government is trying to authorize the dumping of millions of tons of dredging waste in the World Heritage-protected Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. International protests at the highest official level are being ignored.

At the other end of the country, Tasmania’s astounding native forests, again World Heritage listed, are under attack as the federal government tries to delist them from Heritage protection. This is being done without any involvement of the relevant parks and wildlife authorities at either state or federal level. Meanwhile, the big guns of the Liberal Party are taking aim at renewable energy developments even while massive subsidies are being provided to the nation’s worst polluters and the former Labor government’s carbon-reduction program is dismantled. Liberal grandees attack greenies for intolerance, which is a bit like the wolf complaining that Red Riding Hood didn’t play fair (check that link: the wolf is the Attorney General).

Who Needs Friends?

Legal protection of minorities is to be reduced. Against widespread opposition, the Liberal government plans to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people on the basis of race, color or national or ethnic origin, replacing it with a watered-down version. Even state governments are protesting this move. Aboriginal communities who own their land under traditional law are being pressured to change the title to a 99-year township lease, which can then be used as security to borrow money from banks: “…leases signed under section 19A of the Land Rights Act designate an executive leaseholder to hold the rights to the land on behalf of the government and can make decisions without traditional owners’ consent.” That means, of course, that the township could go broke so the banks would foreclose. Bearing in mind the stupendous mineral and water rights that go with these huge areas of land, the rationale is transparent.

At the same time, the Liberal politicians continue to show their usual cack-handedness in dealing with our huge Asian neighbors. By its hostile policies in repelling sea-borne, undocumented immigrants, the government has deeply offended Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation. Australian naval vessels have illegally entered Indonesian waters, leading the prime minister to truant from a recent conference in Bali where he was scheduled to meet the Indonesian president. Now we learn, by courtesy of the ever-helpful Mr. Snowden, that Australia has been a very willing assistant in the US MYSTIC program that was used tospy on the Philippines.

This followed two spying scandals from the Snowden revelations. The first was the news that Australia had spied on the Indonesian president during conferences in Indonesia, including his telephone calls to his wife. When confronted with this, our tin-eared PM said: “So what, everybody does it.” In fact, the Indonesians don’t do it; Australia’s clumsy spooks were just playing with some of the fancy technology they were given by the biggest of the “Five Eyes.” But the other was much more ominous. Between 2002 and 2004, while negotiating with the new nation of Timor Leste (East Timor) over the vast oil and gas deposits that lie smack between our two countries, it seems Australia was diligently spying on the personal communications of the Timorese president. At the time, the then-foreign minister reacted to Timorese complaints of not getting a fair deal (and now we know why they felt they were being toasted) by announcing imperiously: “I am not there to give them a tutorial in international negotiations.” Nor, it seems, had he gone there to teach them political integrity. Perhaps this is why the attorney general took it upon himself to label Edward Snowden a traitor.

And Down with Students

Education. Ah, education, that wasteful indulgence of the middle classes who foolishly think they can better themselves. Well, your Liberal government has other ideas. The right of education to one’s limits is to be changed to a privilege, essentially a privilege for sale. We have an enviable system for financing tertiary education but the government has decided to fix it. Students will pay more, over longer periods, and have to repay from a lower base so the number of potential students will shrink. But don’t worry, to offset this, universities will be allowed to charge what they like, meaning fewer of those indigent local students and lots more foreign students paying truly outrageous fees.

Why do universities need more money? Well, it isn’t to pay for more teachers; that’s for sure. The race is on to see who can tie the most students into MOOCs (massive open online courses), where one star teacher can be seen by up to 20,000 students hunched over their laptops in their lonely garrets. Come to think of it, by off-shoring teaching, the universities could get rid of all their teachers and become “All-Administrative Universities” after the (wait for it) American model. A fringe benefit would be to clear students off the campuses where they only get left-wing ideas, anyway. That would leave the scene open to a truly brilliant move: replace all the foul-mouthed, drunken and obstreperous Australian students with polite, diligent and cowed Asians on student visas that can be revoked by the stroke of an administrator’s pen. And then the universities could be privatized, meaning sold off cheap to international vultures, employing lots of retired politicians as advisors. For an excellent rebuttal of the concepts behind the moves, see this article by an Australian academic working in a US university.

Keeping the Poor in Line

The Federal Budget, which was delivered a week ago, has provoked a storm of hostility. The Liberal government has declared something of a national emergency requiring swingeing cuts to benefits health, education and other services to bring the economy back into surplus. It seems everybody hates it, but some people don’t have much to complain about: “While those families in the bottom quintile (or 20 percent) of income earners see an average 5 percent reduction in disposable incomes, those in the top quintile barely register a decline, down just 0.3 percent.” The Prime Minister, Mr. Abbott, says he wants to “change the culture and mindset of young people.” This could be an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, when people who can sort of struggle by on $255 a week suddenly find they have to survive on $207 a week, or 18.3 percent less.

A single parent with a 6-year-old child will be 10.1 percent worse off, but the surprising part is that the nation’s new-found financial crisis only extends to the poor: according to independent calculations, “A high-income childless couple earning $360,000 a year will lose nothing whatsoever” (an excellent article, it shows the extent of Liberal Party duplicity in favoring the rich over the poor). For Treasurer Joe Hockey, the Budget is “about the sort of country that we want to be in the years and decades ahead. It’s about the values we impart.” Those values, he says, are “enterprise, hard work, self-reliance and equality of opportunity….” In fact, there is every reason to suppose that the values the Liberal Party endorses are about something completely different.

Bring on the Dancing Wallets

There is one traditional value doing the rounds that we could do without: buying politicians.

We see a resurgence of talk about “traditional values,” which means more or less whatever the speaker wants it to mean. One traditional value that has popped up again, without any fanfare, was the reimposition of the former Imperial Honors system. So, once again, we have knights and dames gracing our social pages, a case of “forward to the past.” However, there is one traditional value doing the rounds that we could do without: buying politicians. Yes, we know this is all the rage in the US at present, as your ever-helpful Supreme Court steadily dismantles all the checks and balances that hobbled Big Money, but we don’t actually have that tradition. Well, we thought we didn’t. Seems political corruption has been rife here. The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has been chopping off heads recently, as it gleefully follows the trails of illegal payments between businesses and politicians. Another enquiry, into trade union corruption, was treated to some fascinating drama as the ex-partner of former PM Julia Gillard, started breathing hotly on a cameraman’s lenses.

First head out of the tumbrils belonged to Eddie Obeid, a minister in the New South Wales (NSW) former Labor government, but the clunk of falling noggins has become a drumming lately as the ICAC scythed into the Liberal Party. Federal Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos, a close friend of the prime minister, took a nose-dive while NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell fell on his sword a few weeks ago, quickly followed by a gaggle of his subordinates, then the NSW police minister and so it goes. And tonight, Queenslanders have been treated to the astounding spectacle of a gruesome murder on the Gold Coast (where else?), which has splashed gore on the person of none other than the godfather himself, former Prime Minister John Howard, patron of the current prime minister and most of the Liberal Party: if Little Johnny Howard doesn’t like you, you can kiss your seat goodbye. See this bizarre article (scroll down to the third picture: my granny used to say, “You can tell a man by the company he keeps”). When the nation’s most senior politicians hang around with convicted drug dealers, there’s something very fishy going on.

But it doesn’t stop there. The current treasurer, who holds the second most senior position in the government, is under fire for apparently selling tickets to businessmen for confidential meetings. For up to $225,000, the well-heeled and well-connected could sit down to a cosy tête-à-tête in the treasurer’s suite although nobody else could know who was there: “The Treasurer’s diary is confidential,” said his private secretary. What went on? Oh, just a chat among friends, as reported in an article entitled “Treasurer for Sale”: “Members get an opportunity to sit down and chat with Joe [Hockey, the treasurer]. We’ve had other ministers, state and federal, participate as well,” one participant was quoted. “It’s genuinely an exchange of information,” another said. “Joe just goes around the table and talks about issues.” The article continues: “[A participant] said money raised by the forum was often distributed to Liberal Party marginal seats. However, the forum does not lodge its own disclosures to the NSW Election Funding Authority” (as everybody else must).

A prominent Liberal fundraiser: “What’s wrong with giving a Member of Parliament a cheque?”

In NSW itself, hundreds of thousands of dollars have changed hands illegally, and lots of Beautiful People must now be wondering whether they will get to choose their cellmates (well, we can always hope, can’t we?). Bizarrely, the politicians and businessmen involved don’t see anything wrong with this: during an ICAC hearing, when it was clear to all that his goose was well and truly sizzling, a prominent Liberal fundraiserMr. Caputo complained plaintively: “What’s wrong with giving a Member of Parliament a cheque?” (I would never trust a man whose necktie goes over his belt). Others just don’t seem to be able to know when they’re in deep manure: see this lady member of parliament attempting to use her miniature schnauzer’s illness to explain her many lapses of memory. Memory was also Mr. O’Farrell’s downfall: if all these politicians have such poor memory, what are they doing in running the nation’s affairs? I have argued that we have the technology already to help their failing memories: NSA-type total surveillance of all politicians, at all times.

Buying a Sinister Franchise

So Australia has turned a dark corner. Once, this was a nice place to live, easygoing, friendly, where everybody was more concerned with the Melbourne Cup and the beach than the antics in Parliament – but no longer. In a series of insidious moves, we are being herded in the direction of the Tea Party, driven by odious people who can’t keep their fingers out of the till and who apparently don’t have the brains to avoid getting their photos taken with notorious criminals. What is their goal? That hasn’t been revealed in ICAC yet, but it isn’t what we thought we were voting for (don’t worry, I vote Green). I believe the Liberal Party wants to dismantle the welfare state, impoverishing workers while setting up a state where a very small group of haves totally dominate a very large group of have nots, for the purpose of enriching themselves and their serpentine mates. That is, they have adopted large chunks of the ALEC program, as financed by the Koch brothers and fed to the perfervid Tea Party. It seems the extreme right wing has lunged for, and grabbed, the controls of a major political party here. One day, we may wake up to find ourselves the 51st state.

*Yellow Peril: a racist phrase from the 1930s that summed up the prevailing Australian attitude toward our Northern neighbors.

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