Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Art of Opposition

I'm always giving the Coalition a kick about various things, so it's time I got stuck into the Labor Party for a change.  Abbott, Hockey and co are for once on the right track and it's depressing to listen to their opponents' response.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Fairfax radio 3AW where he said a temporary deficit tax was not a broken promise.

Budget emergencies are the height of political fashion at the moment.  Our current Queensland Government has been proclaiming one for the past two years.  It is a multi-purpose piece of rhetoric, allowing them to whack their opponents over the head, justify cuts to programs they don't like and soften us up for more quixotic asset sales.  Their colleagues over the border must think it's working because we now seem to also have one a Commonwealth level and the new Tasmanian Liberal Government has just announced one down there.

The word "emergency" seems highly inappropriate to this context.  The credit ratings agencies don't seem too worried and the worst that has happened is governments going from AAA to AA+.  No government is in danger of becoming insolvent any time soon.  It's tempting - very tempting - to see the whole thing as a convenient excuse for ideologically-driven budget cuts.

Still, there does seem to be a seed of truth germinating in this pile of bovine excrement.  Sober commentators like former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry and economist Saul Eslake agree that there is a structural problem with our budgets.  In the post GFC world, government revenue is not growing like it used to, but spending still is.

I don't claim to be an expert on the mind-bogglingly complex art of government budgeting.  It involves huge sums of money and complex forecasting efforts to plan future spending and taxation.  However, I (and all my readers) know enough about budgets to know that there are two sides to any budget ledger - income and expenditure.  If your spending is higher than your income, you have three options - cut your spending, increase your income now, or borrow now in the expectation that your income will increase later so you can pay it back.

The government contends that it has already borrowed too much and would like to reduce debt, so it either needs to cut spending or increase revenue - or both.  The government's preferred option is to reduce spending.  That's easy when you say it quickly, but when you actually start to look at what you would need to cut to make a difference, it becomes a whole lot less appealing.  Just which constituents, and how many of them, do you want to alienate in the interests of reducing debt?  They have already flagged cuts to disability and aged pensions, co-payments for doctors' visits and cuts to youth employment programs.  They have announced the sale of Medibank Private.  Yet these measures, while pissing off millions of people, barely scratch the surface of the deficit.

As a result, the government is starting to look seriously at its income options.  This makes a lot of sense.  It can be argued that a big reason we are in our current situation is that governments have repeatedly cut taxes over the past two decades.  It is these cuts, just as much as spending, that makes our current budget unsustainable.

The problem is that Abbott and Hockey seemed to promise before the election that they would not increase taxes.  This was a rash promise to make, given that they had no clear overall budget strategy and fudged it by withholding their policy costing from the Budget Office until the last minute.  Yet, as Jephthah (or at least his daughter) found out,  it's better to break a stupid promise than stubbornly turn it into a disastrous action.  So Hockey and Abbott have floated the idea of a "Debt Levy", a temporary tax on higher income earners to help clear the deficit.

I'm not sure that this is exactly the thing we need - I suspect we actually need a permanent tax increase to pay for the various social programs we all value.  Still, the government should be praised for trying to find a way to avoid a wholesale slash and burn exercise which can only damage the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community.

Labor leader Bill Shorten: "A tax increase is a tax increase is a tax increase."

So how has the Labor Party, the party of the battler and the downtrodden, responded to this piece of good news?  Have they praised Abbott and Hockey for the courage to face reality, and the decency to try and minimise cuts?  Have they offered to support a reasonable proposal in the Senate, or help craft a progressive, watertight measure that would help right the listing budget ship without drowning half the passengers?  Here is what Bill Shorten has to say, as reported in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

Labor leader Bill Shorten described the idea as the "mother" of all broken promises and argued that it was indeed a "tax increase".

"No amount of weasel words by Tony Abbott and his Liberal government can change the truth," Mr Shorten told reporters in Bendigo.

"A tax increase is a tax increase is a tax increase."

When asked if his party would block the proposal in the Senate, Mr Shorten said he would have to wait to see the detail of what was proposed.

"But we will fight a tax increase on ordinary Australians," he said. "Labor will have no part of it."

So what would Bill do?  Well, apparently he would not introduce the promised paid parental leave scheme.  This may indeed be justified - it seems absurd to pay new parents a generous non means tested payment while cutting back on payments to older people and those with disabilities.  Still, the parental leave scheme is only the cream on the cake.  Forgoing this will not fix the budget problem.  You still need more revenue unless you want to make drastic cuts, which no doubt Mr Shorten would also oppose.

Sadly, everything Bill Shorten knows about being Opposition Leader he learned from Tony Abbott.  Like Abbott, he doesn't have that many ideas himself, and his party seems incapable of generating any, so he sees his role as to oppose whatever the government proposes.  The more strips you can tear off the government's flesh, the weaker it will become, and in the end it will die and you will take its place.  It worked for Abbott.  Perhaps Bill thinks it will work for him too.

He should think again.   In the archaic parlance of the Westminster System, the formal name for the opposition was always "Her (or His) Majesty's Loyal Opposition".  I'm no royalist - sure Prince George is cute but that doesn't qualify his dad to rule a country half a world away from his home - but I like the idea behind this title.  It asks the Opposition to recognise both what divides it from the Government, and what unites them to each other.  They have differences of ideology or constituency, and these mean they will advocate different approaches to many of the problems of government, and will seek to apply different priorities.  Debates may at times be fierce because they are passionate about their views.

At the same time, they share a common loyalty, whether expressed as loyalty to the crown or loyalty to the nation and its people.  All parties are there to serve the wellbeing of the nation and whether in government or opposition they are obliged to do whatever this wellbeing demands.  This means that despite not holding the reins of power, the opposition holds great responsibility.  

Government is not a sporting match, where the object is to win.  It is a decision-making forum where the object is to make good decisions.  A good opposition will contribute to this by shining the light on government policy, highlighting weaknesses and holding the government to account.  But if they are doing this responsibly their criticism will be constructive.  It will always be "instead of this, you should do this".  This way, the opposition becomes a government-in-waiting.  When the electoral wheel turns they will be more than ready to take the driver's seat, because they will have been focused on how to drive better all along. 

The Abbott opposition didn't do this.  They merely opposed.  Now they are paying the price, realising just how unprepared they were and how much catching up they have to do now.  Abbott promised "no surprises" but if you walk into a room with your eyes closed, surprise is inevitable.

Shorten and the Labor Party have no such excuse.  A few months ago they were the government.  They know exactly what is going on.  There is no justification for irresponsibility.  We elect politicians to fix problems, not blame them on each other.  That goes for both sides.  Get on with it, people!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Anzac Memorial Park

Earlier this year I spent a couple of days at Milmerran, a little town on Queensland's Darling Downs.  It has a population of a few hundred, surrounded by cattle farms and increasingly by CSG wells.  I was there for work, but I did get time to have a little walk around town (it didn't take long) and found this place.

It's called Anzac Memorial Park, and it sits on Milmerran's main street, just out of the little strip of shops that passes for a town centre.  It's nothing that special - it has a few little bits of play equipment, a band rotunda, a public toilet, some nice trees and open lawns, a few benches here and there.  Pretty much like any park in any town or city in Australia.

It also has this - a monument engraved with the names of all the local young men who lost their lives in the First World War.  Around the base has been added a second list of names, of those who died in the Second World War.

This memorial is obviously well cared for.  The mould has been cleaned off the stone.  All the names are still legible.  A circle of shrubs has been planted around it quite recently.  The lawn is well mowed and it stands out as a feature of the park's centre.

These things are so commonplace that we hardly notice them.  Pretty much every town, city and suburb in Australia has a memorial park or garden, or a stone set up in a public square, commemorating its own local dead.  In Sunnybank, where I grew up, there was a honour roll in the community hall and the streets were also named after the people on it. Not far from where I live now Yeronga Park is bisected by Honour Avenue, a pathway on either side of which are planted huge fig trees bearing the names of local lads who did not return from the Great War.

All over Australia people did the same stuff in 1918 and 1919, building monuments, planting trees, consecrating gardens in memory of the dead. These things are still with us, and are still loved.

There's a brilliant example in Mt Gambier, South Australia.  It's not officially a war memorial, but in 1918 the end of the war left a lot of men with time on their hands, wondering what to do next.  The answer was a grand plan, to build a retaining wall, walkway and lookout overseeing the beautiful Blue Lake.

After months of planning, led by a man named Arthur Rook, 800 local men staged a working bee and built virtually the whole thing in one day, supported by 300 women supplying refreshments and encouragement.  Planners, architects and engineers would kill the idea on sight these days, but the project worked and it's still standing in all its chunky glory with the names of its builders engraved in the stones they laid.

There's another in a tiny town called Dartmoor in rural Victoria.  Like my neighbours here in Yeronga, after the Great War they planted trees, in their case at the entrances to the town along which the young recruits marched to sign up and get shipped off to foreign parts.  However in the late 1990s, when money was floating around for such things, the trees were inspected and many were found to be diseased.  Instead of just cutting them down, the local Council and RSL engaged chain saw artist Kevin Gilders to turn them into a series of sculptures which now line the main street, depicting the various services engaged in the war and other war-like themes.

What is it about the Great War that, almost a century later, still inspires us to care for and restore literally thousands of monuments across the country?  What sustains this outpouring of grief and care?

The two world wars were the last, and the largest, fought by citizen armies.  As the Great War broke, young men (in response to considerable emotional blackmail but by their own choice since there was no conscription in Australia then) flocked in droves to the recruiting offices, were signed up, given basic training and shipped off to Europe to serve in the trenches.

The first war, in particular, featured comparatively simple technology.  Planes were a small element in the war, tanks were still primitive and unreliable.  The war was fought by young men with minimal training firing inaccurate rifles.  Erich Maria Remarque tells us that the most effective weapons in hand to hand combat were the folding shovels designed for digging trenches.

Such warfare, stretched over years of intense conflict, took a frightful toll.  Altogether around 10 million soldiers died in the first world war and over 22 million were wounded, not to mention at least six million civilian deaths.  Something like 60,000 Australian troops were killed and over 150,000 were wounded - somewhere around 3% of the population.  Everybody knew someone who was killed or injured.

This meant that the memorials were not empty, formal acts of patriotism, they were intensely personal acts of devotion.  They were created by the parents, siblings, cousins and neighbours of the deceased.  Their unveiling was often witnessed by those who had watched them die.  There were tears, there was pain that would not go away, there were vacancies at the dinner table that would never be filled.

The trees, monuments, parks and sculptures would never replace them, but at least they honoured their memory.  They showed that those who survived, those who had the good fortune not to lose anyone, understood and appreciated what had happened.  This was also expressed in more practical ways.  The widows and orphans were cared for by those who returned via Legacy and the RSL.  The men who suffered PTSD, not known by that name then but well understood nonetheless, were treated with sympathy. Allowances were made, bouts of drunkenness overlooked, jobs preserved.  Returned soldiers were given scholarships and an education.

The impact of all this was so huge that today, nearly a hundred years on, we still remember it.  We still care for the memorials, even though the names no longer mean anything to us.  We still march on Anzac Day, in increasing numbers, to remember what they did.  Their deeds are among the foundation myths of our young nation.

The thing is, it couldn't happen today, could it?  Warfare now is a high-tech business.  Our government has just signed up to spend $24b on 58 fighter planes.  Our firearms and artillery are so accurate and have such amazing range that we can kill people without ever seeing them.  Wars are no longer decided by the bravery of soldiers using rifles and folding shovels.  They are decided by who has the best (or should I say worst?) toys.  Our most powerful toys are so awful they could wipe out the whole planet without a single soldier going near them.  Poorly armed people only win wars these days because the well armed refrain from intervening for fear of sparking a war where these terrible toys might end up being used.  Or sometimes, just because the well-armed don't really care.

War was never really as romantic as it was portrayed in the movies.  It was always about maiming and killing people in order to make them do things they wouldn't choose to do of their own accord.  Now, like so many things in our world, it's done by highly skilled, specialised professionals.  The citizen armies of the first and second world wars are things of the past.  I'm not sure if we should celebrate, or weep...

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

What Kind of King?

It's Good Friday in two days, the day we commemorate Jesus' death.  At St Andrew's South Brisbane each year we have a series of meditations, and I'm responsible for one of them this year.  This mediation brings together three things. 

The first is the chosen reading, from Matthew 26:46-68, which includes Jesus’ arrest in the garden and his sham trial before the High Priest Caiaphas.

The second is the framework for this year's series, “Jesus the real King”.  In what sense is it possible to see Jesus as a king when he is so obviously powerless?

The third is the religious thought of Leo Tolstoy.  Later in his life, after he had written his great novels, Tolstoy experienced a profound conversion.  He came to understand that following Jesus meant obeying his command to love our neighbours as ourselves, to do to others what we want them to do to us.  If we take this seriously, he says, we will not try to kill one another in war, we will not flog or imprison one another in the name of law and order, we will not live in luxury while others struggle in poverty.

He was completely committed to non-violence, because he believed a violent revolution would always end with a worse regime than the one it replaced.  He says it this way: “The good cannot seize power, nor retain it; to do this men must love power, and love of power is inconsistent with goodness.”

The result is this meditation on the kind of king Jesus appears to be, and what that might mean for us.

What Kind of King?
Two kings meet in the garden
In the dead of night
One is there in person with his friends
The other is elsewhere, and has no friends
Instead he has servants who send their servants
To do his dirty work

What kind of king
Has servants who do his dirty work?
He is rich and powerful
But he is weak and fearful
What if his servants turn on him in the palace courtyard
And cut him down?
Or hang him from his own cross?
Or worse, ignore him completely?
 What if his servants find another master?

So he bribes them and placates them
Appeals to their basest instincts
Or sends still other servants
To frighten them with the force of arms
Impress them with the splendour of chariots and horses
Or drug them with the mystery of false gods
Servants abound but friends are few
And fears multiply.

What kind of king
Prays in a public park with a few friends?
Keeps an enemy by his side?
Challenges his foes in the light of day
And meets them in the dead of night?
What kind of king tells his defenders
To sheath their swords in the middle of battle?
He is a king who has conquered fear
Who would rather die himself
Than have others die for him
Who knows that death will not have the final say.

Two kings meet in the courtroom
The servant of one is the accuser of the other.
The accuser, in his fine robes and long beard
Sits in the seat of the priest of the King of Heaven
But he serves the King of Earth
Every day he sacrifices for him in the temple
Today he will sacrifice a man.

What kind of king
Sacrifices the innocent to protect the guilty?
Pays liars to conceal the truth?
Serves as accuser, judge and executioner?
Many would fear such a king
Few could love him.

What kind of king
Gives no answer to his accusers?
Speaks truth without fear when the time is right?
Answers their lies, their abuse, their flying spittle
With a quiet “you have said so”?
This is a king none could fear but those who have fears to conceal
None could hate but those for whom hate is a way of life
This is the King of Love.

It’s easy to serve the King of Fear
The King of the Nations, the King of Darkness.
His servants compel us
His wealth bribes us
His splendour dazzles us
Even the gods are on his side.
How could we resist? 
Why would we?
Obedience will bring us peace
The peace of Rome, which we buy
With the blinding of our eyes
The stopping of our ears
The binding of our legs
The selling of our souls
So that life can go on as normal
“The trouble with normal is it always gets worse”.*

Are we brave enough to follow this other king?
To listen to his voice, to do as he does?
Risking his life daily in temple court
Receiving his betrayer’s kiss with words of assent
Opposing  clubs and swords with gentle words
Hearing their lies, receiving their blows,
Refusing to fall for the temptation
To match power with power?
This will not be normal
This will not be safe
This will cost us our lives.

But then we will no longer have to lie to ourselves.
We will be free from pretending war brings peace
Greed breeds plenty
Oppression protects freedom
Our blind eyes will be opened
Our deaf ears will be unstopped
Our trembling legs will walk again
Our silent tongues will shout for joy
Then we will see things as they really are
Our death will be swallowed in victory
And the Kingdom of God will reign among us.

Let it be so
O Lord, let it be so.

*I borrowed this line from Bruce Cockburn's song, 'The Trouble with Normal'.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Careful With That Axe, Eugene

I promise to stop banging on about Pink Floyd after this but I just wanted to share one more thing with you. It's one of my favourite pieces of Pink Floyd music, 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene'.  It was apparently first performed in 1968, written by Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason, and it exists in a number of different recorded forms as it morphed slightly from day to day and from year to year.  Here's a live performance from 1972.

Pink Floyd's earliest studio recordings, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, give a very imperfect idea of the kind of band they were.  Their early producer Norm Smith wanted them to be a pop band like The Beatles.  Syd Barrett and then Roger Waters and Rick Wright did their best to oblige, writing and recording their best approximations of three minute pop songs, and these formed the bulk of the first two albums.

Their live performances, on the other hand, were highly improvisational affairs.  Most of their set would be taken up with extended performances of pieces like 'Astronome Domine' and 'Interstellar Overdrive', with experimental keyboard, guitar and vocal sounds stretching out the sparse, simple melodies.  These performances went down well with their core audience in the London underground scene, but once their Smith-produced songs started to get airplay and they got booked for gigs outside London, their live shows translated poorly to the dance-halls and nightclubs that were the staple of touring English musicians in the late 1960s.

If even their own producer and manager were not sure how to handle their music, what chance did the wider music press and the BBC have?  They were clearly unsure.  On the one hand, Floyd featured on Top of the Pops, miming 'See Emily Play' while teenage girls gyrated around them.  On the other hand, they appeared on Look of the Week, a snobby BBC arts show.  They played a short segment of 'Astonome Domine' and then were subjected to a patronising interview from a musicologist who asked them why they had to play so loud.

When critics don't know what to do with you, it probably means you're doing something new.  What Pink Floyd were doing was a form of fusion.  It involved two main elements.  The first was what went in those days under the name of Rhythm and Blues, exemplified by Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Pink Floyd's favourite Bo Diddley.  Their first gigs, when they were young students trying to be in a band, always included Bo Diddley covers.

The other influence was a lot more obscure.  In their early years they often shared the stage at the UFO and Roundhouse with English experimental music quintet AMM.  AMM are apparently still playing, although now with only one original member.  Their performances were entirely improvisational.  They never rehearsed, their music had no melodic or rhythmic structure, they experimented with sounds on their various instruments so you could never be sure what was making each sound.  Impossible to describe really, but here's a little sample.  If you listen to AMM you will hear a lot of sounds that Pink Floyd borrowed.

Critics knew what to do with both these forms of music.  Bo Diddley was an entertainer, fun and immediately accessible, music for dancing and flirting.  AMM were Art, meant to be earnestly listened to and dissected respectfully.  What were they to do, though, with a fusion of the two?  Some tried to treat it as pop music, sending it out to the dance-halls of the world for the masses to enjoy.  Mostly it crashed and burned.  Others tried to treat it as Art but they found it was thin and derivative.  If you followed that path you would quickly bypass them and end up with AMM or maybe John Cage.

Of course it sits somewhere between the two.  You have to listen to 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene'.  You can't dance to it, or sing along.  It has no words to tell you a story, it has only hints - the slow, menacing beginning, the obscure whispers, the screams and thundering musical crescendo.  You have to use these to make up your own story.

This is a big step past Bo Diddley where everything is in the open and you don't have to guess at anything except maybe the occasional euphemism for sex.  Yet it is not a step all the way into AMM's territory.  'Careful With That Axe, Eugene' clearly tells a story, and it's not hard to work it out although each listener may tell it slightly differently.  With AMM there was no story, only sound.  The titles of their pieces tell you this very clearly.  'Before Driving to the Chapel We Took Coffee with Rick and Jennifer Reed'.  'After Rapidly Circling the Plaza'.  'Neither Bill Nor Axe Would Shorten Its Existence From the Crypt'.  'Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset'.  If the band's name stands for anything, its members have never revealed what.

Pink Floyd wanted to make you think and stretch your sonic palette, but they also wanted to entertain you.  They wanted to sell records, they wanted to be loved, but they didn't want to be boring or sound like everyone else.  It took them a while, but eventually people caught on in a way they never would with AMM.

Meanwhile back in the 21st century, the critics seem to have solved this particular problem.  Pink Floyd, of course, are mostly thought of as prog rockers courtesy of their later, more structured music.  However, I suspect if they produced stuff like 'Careful...' these days it would be called 'Post Rock'.

This curious sidelight of the 21st century music scene, one of my recent delights, appears to owe a lot to AMM and their contemporaries.  Like them, it eschews melody and focuses on sound, with room for improvisation and experimentation but not the flashy showing off of prog.  Bands have obscure names - 'A Silver Mt Zion', 'God Speed You, Black Emperor', 'Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson'.  Album and track titles are even more obscure.  'He has left us alone but shafts of light sometimes grace the corner of our rooms', 'Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven', 'sit in the middle of three galloping dogs'.  Yet often they also take something from Pink Floyd's approach.  They use riffs and motifs to anchor their music.  Often they sample obscure pieces of spoken word - fiery apocalyptic sermons, or a man telling the tale of a court appearance.  There may not be a story, but there are hooks you can hang onto, sounds or ideas you can recognise.  Unlike AMM, this appears at times to cross the boundary from sound into music.

So by way of conclusion, and so I don't get lost in nostalgia like some boring old man, here's a little piece called 'Gathering Storm' from my favourite post-rockers God Speed You, Black Emperor.  If you think it's too long you obviously don't get it!