Reflections on 2008

Mark Seymour writes about the year 2008 in Australian politics.

Author: Mark Seymour.

Date: 22 December 2008.

Original URL: (sent by e-mail to Mark Seymour list).


Article Text

At the end of 2007 Australia removed the Liberal Party from government and for the first time in decades it appeared an election would be won on issues other than economic management and national security.

Climate change took centre stage. Australian punters were rightly concerned about the future they would leave their children. Al Gore’s doco movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” was a box office smash. A green future was well and truly in the forefront of our minds. The Howard government appeared to be dragging its feet on climate change and Australians didn’t like it. It was a contest of numbers. How much carbon emission would be tolerated? Labor’s numbers were more radical.

The other big issue was ‘fairness’ at work, which is of course a notion traditionally associated with trade unionism. Trade Unions were long vilified by the Howard government and I might add, disliked by the majority of Australians. And yet Howard’s proposed ‘work choice’ regulations governing the basic conditions of ordinary working people was seen by most of us as bridge too far too and too heavily skewed in favour of employers and big business. Workers’ rights would be reduced to a handful of basic entitlements which gave employers unprecedented ability to hire and fire.

So it appeared Australians had taken a step to the left and embraced issues that were driven by altruism and social consciousness. After years of conservatism and self centred-ness, we were looking at the big picture. So, how did this transformation come about?

As an election issue, ‘Economic management’ has always worked politically because fear of its absence strikes hardest where the voter is most vulnerable. The wallet. On the other hand, climate change and industrial relations both require a leap of imagination to grasp their broader importance. Unlike unemployment or simply a lack of cash, they have no immediate effect but they will in theory, if governments don’t act.

It is one of the great truths of human history that civilization improves in times of prosperity because people have time to contemplate the greater good. Wealth creates leisure time and time allows the wise to contemplate the sum total of human happiness. People are more altruistic when they are confident of their own financial security. Prosperity was the key at the last election. Prosperity gave us time to think.

But how long could altruism stand in the face of a collapsing stock market? Which is of course, what came next.

Somewhere around the middle of the year there were ructions in the home of the free market, the United States of America. An insurance company collapsed. The Lehmann Brothers. Nothing too dire you might think but it was a huge public company whose assets were tied to unsecured money being lent to American home buyers, little people with poor credit. Within days there were dire predictions of a crisis of confidence in credit itself. American banks gradually tightened their belts.

Still, Australian economists were confident. Our economy was strong. China was strong. China would continue to buy Aussie minerals. But then the American crisis began to affect the Aussie dollar. Punters stopped buying it. Its value plummeted and then China became squeamish. China sells a lot of ‘stuff’ to the U.S. and the U.S. punter was running out of cash. Consequently China’s hunger for Aussie minerals slowed down too. It was like a house of cards.

We are now approaching Christmas and the effects of a slowing economy are still not bighting that hard but according to the government they will. It’s recently announced emissions trading scheme reflects this attitude. It falls well short of the ambitious carbon reduction targets it was aiming for during the election campaign last year. It doesn’t look good. The greens are screaming. The liberals too if you can believe that! But the government’s position is simple. There are twin crises now. Climate change AND the economy, which in Labor terms, means jobs. And consider this. The federal government has just announced a six billion dollar package to assist homeless people. That’s a good thing isn’t it? AND, just to add another twist, if Labor hadn’t won the election, and the credit meltdown had come anyway, which it would have, imagine what the Howard government would have done with “workchoices’ in place. Job security for ordinary working people would have been out the window.

Traditionally Labor governs in times of economic hardship. It’s uncanny really. Since federation the rhythm of economic growth and decline has always fallen in favour of the conservatives. But no one can tie this latest crisis to socialist largesse. It’s too early for that. Quite the contrary. You can blame capitalism fair and square my friend. This one comes straight out of the dark heart of Wall Street. People fiddling with billions that weren’t theirs or didn’t in fact exist in the first place.. The rot began in the insurance industry and spread.

In October Kevin Rudd finally used the “C” word to describe the current crisis. ‘Capitalism’. ‘Extreme capitalism’ he called it. Remember ‘CAPITALISM’? That’s the word they used to use to describe the society we live in back in the last century. There have been all these other weasel words in use for decades now, to describe the slick new face of free enterprise. “Market de-regulation,’ ‘market forces’, ‘enlightened self-interest’. ‘privatization,’ the list is long but it all get’s down to one thing. motivation through greed and fear. As Rudd put it to the National Press Club, “greed and fear were “the twin evils” that had sent the global economy into a tailspin.

“Fear is the first of these demons we must see off. Dealing with greed which has caused the fear will come after that,” he said.

Refreshing isn’t it?

Merry, Christmas.