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Your ‘Why To Vote’ Card

September 6, 2013

Tomorrow everyone will be wanting to give you a ‘How To Vote’ card, but only The Babel Fish will give you this handy ‘Why To Vote’ card. The purpose is not to tell you who to vote for, or even to tell you that you should vote. We have just witnessed an election campaign based almost exclusively on fake issues. My ‘Why To Vote’ card advises you of the real issues you should be considering in deciding how to vote. That’s something you won’t be getting from the politicians, and even if they did tell you, why would you believe them? They have vested interests. They want you to vote for them. I don’t. I’m not standing for election, nor am I a member of any political party. I have, however, made a detailed study of the state of the nation and I will give a number of key issues I have identified that should inform our democratic choices. Also, please note, everyone will have their own ideas about which of these issues is more important. The order I’ve put them in here is essentially arbitrary, please weight them as you deem appropriate once you’ve read them.

Vote 1. The economy. Boring I know, but I’ll do my best to liven it up a bit. This is perhaps the one real issue the politicians have been prepared to talk about, although not always honestly, so this point will inevitably be a bit of a fact-check. I should probably mention that I am an economist by training, and I’ve retained a lifelong interest in the subject since my student days.

Crisis? What Crisis?
The first thing to mention (apart from the fact that that is the name of my 2nd favourite Supertramp album) is that there’s been a lot of talk of a ‘budget crisis,’ a ‘debt crisis,’ a ‘deficit crisis,’ (or you can swap ‘crisis’ for ’emergency,’ same idea) and the like. These are in fact myths. There is no crisis, no emergency. That doesn’t mean it’s not important though. It’s always important. The world economy is still very shaky, and we could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

We often seem to see ourselves as an island here in Australia. Well, we are an island, but there are no islands in economics. International factors influence us a great deal, arguably much more than routine government decisions do. About five years ago there was a GFC (Global Financial Crisis). That was a crisis. When I was in Scotland in 2010 I had to get used to not calling it the GFC though, because I was getting tired of all the blank or quizzical looks. They didn’t call it that there. They called it the recession, or the credit crunch. In Australia we had neither a recession nor a credit crunch, so we had to find something to call it, hence ‘GFC.’

The reason we didn’t have those things is a tiny bit technical, but bear with me. You know what they say – when the shit hits the fan, it gets all over everybody. This happened in late 2008. So although the GFC was not in any sense our fault, we were every bit as much at risk from its effects as anyone else. It impacted every single country in the world. Global. Clue’s in the name. Its effects were different in every country due to their individual circumstances, and on how they responded to it. We got off relatively lightly for just those reasons too. In some ways an accident of history, in some ways the right decisions, promptly taken. The accident of history is that since the early 80s we have effectively been running a true Keynesian economic policy.

Keynes was the economist who revolutionised economic thinking in the 30s, helping the world to recover from the Great Depression (the only economic crisis we’ve ever had that was actually worse than the GFC). Keynes took the view that government isn’t there to make a profit. If it’s doing that then we’re paying too much tax. What it should do is break even over time. Now in a capitalist economy like the one we all live in, there is something called the business cycle. Socialists used to refer to it as ‘bust’n’boom.’ What goes up must come down, and while it goes up slowly, it tends to come down quickly, because free markets tend to get carried away with whatever is the prevailing sentiment of the time. When they are feeling confident, they bid each other up over time, eventually beyond what’s justified. People begin to realise that, and when confidence fails, it tends to evaporate.

Keynes said that we could smooth out that cycle if we made hay while the sun shone and ran surpluses in the good times, then cushioned the blows of hard times by running deficits and increasing govt. spending. Once every country had its own business cycle, but for many years now there has been an international one which involves everyone. Over the years many who think of themselves as Keynesians have remembered the deficit part, but not the surplus part, of what he wrote. The historical accident was that we happened to have economic conservatives from the Liberal Party, who have a bit of a surplus fetish, in power during the international good times, and Keynesians from the ALP in power in the hard times. Both of the last two governments, Howard and Rudd/Gillard, were doing the right thing at the time. Comparing how many surpluses, how many deficits is at best disingenuous, at worst downright misleading.

The world economy is currently recovering slowly, in part because many major, important economies started cutting back govt. spending too soon. It’s still too soon. Those countries which have cut deepest and earliest have fared the worst. This is absolutely crystal clear, and tends to proves Keynes’ point yet again. The reason is quite simple, and it’s this: if you have a recession and a deficit, you deal with the recession first, then the deficit. It’s basic economic triage. Because you can’t cut your way out of a recession. If you try, you’ll slow your economy, collect less tax as a result, and end up with a deeper recession and a bigger deficit. This is no idle theorising, you can see it graphically demonstrated all over Europe right now.

Vote 2. Infrastructure. Infrastructure is basically the fabric of the country. Stuff we all need and use, like roads and bridges, public transport, water, sewerage, the power grid, etc. The big ticket item we need at the moment is a broadband network. Now big infrastructure is expensive, so you want it to last a long time so you don’t end up having to pay for it again too soon. So you build it using the best available technology, and you design it not for current demand, but for conceivable future demand. Now both the major parties have policies on this, both are expensive, but there’s a difference. You see, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and in the case of the coalition’s plan of ‘fibre to the node,’ that weakest link will be the already existing copper network that will connect your home to the ‘node,’ or pillars and pits as Telstra call them. I have to tell you, I have worked for Telstra in the past, including a six month stint as a complaint manager. We didn’t deal with the simple complaints, but with the ones that took time to resolve. Some of them had taken a very long time indeed, and many of those involved pillars and pits. The pits were frankly, well, the pits. Every time it rained we knew we were in for a terrible day, because they would flood and fail, and of course so would anything connected to them, such as the copper wire to your home that the LNP NBN will leave in place.

The reason for this is quite simple – much of the network is ancient. Even when I was there, and this was at least six or seven years ago, it was falling apart faster than we could patch it up, literally rotting in the ground. It’s basically not worth the dirt it’s buried in. That won’t, however, stop Telstra from charging Malcolm Turnbull, should he get the chance to implement Liberal policy, 1, 2 or 3 billion to sell it back to us (because John Howard privatised it, as you may recall). But honestly, knowing what I know, you couldn’t pay me to take it off your hands. It’s not an asset, it’s a liability. Maintaining it already costs a fortune, and it’s not going to get any cheaper.

The ALP NBN plan, on the other hand, does deliver fibre, the best current technology, to the home. It will have greater capacity to meet future demand, and far greater speeds. Enough? Who knows, that would be predicting the future, but certainly more than the alternative. Against it, it’s a bit more expensive, and because there is more work to do, it will take a bit longer to complete. But, leaving the copper in place from node to home will still cost about two thirds as much as the full fibre network, and that copper will have to be replaced, whether it’s done all at once or bit by bit. It’s already an archaic technology which, one way or another, will have to go.

Infrastructure is really important. It’s not there to make money (as some seem to think), it’s there to make the country ‘work’ and allow everyone else to make money and generally get on with their lives. Now I make no claims to be an expert on broadband, although as the son of an engineer I ‘get’ infrastructure in general, but I found this little story quite telling. It comes from my son, who is 21 and a gaming nut. A few years ago, he was telling me of his adventures on X-Box Live. He said he much preferred to be online at night, because then most of the players were American, and their broadband is a bit crap too. There was no point, he told me, of playing when gamers from other countries closer to our own timezone, such as Japan or Korea, were online because their broadband was so much better than ours that it was impossible, even for the best Australian gamers, to compete. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a little glimpse of our possible future right there. We won’t be able to keep up, we won’t be able to compete. Today it’s gaming, tomorrow who knows?

Vote 3. Environment. Specifically climate change. Now, as I said before, it’s not my purpose to tell you who to vote for, just to identify the real issues and give some idea of the differences between the various approaches. On this one, both parties have the same target of a 5% reduction in emissions by 2020. However, neither of their policies comes with any guarantee of actually achieving that target. It is widely thought by both environmentalists and economists that the coalition’s policy has less chance of getting there, and will cost far more than the ALP’s.

Kevin Rudd once said climate change represented the greatest moral challenge of our generation. I’m not sure I’d call it a moral challenge. I definitely would say, with the weird feeling of my late father looking over my shoulder as I type this, that it represents by far the greatest engineering challenge of our generation, and probably quite a few other generations too. With that in mind, I have to tell you that 5%, even if it is achieved, is hopelessly inadequate as a target. To explain why here would take some time, and I’m already conscious that it’s getting a little longer than I’d like, so if you don’t understand why I say this about the 5% target, then I need you to read this Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibben, which explains the reality of our situation. If you want a policy that recognises this, then you may have to look somewhere other than the major parties for a serious effort at a meaningful policy.

It may be worth noting at this time that while one of the major parties is going to win, and voting for anyone else may not change the outcome in your constituency (except in a few seats, like Bob Katter’s or Adam Bandt’s), it can still give you a say in which major party prevails. It’s not about who you put first, it’s about who you put last. If you are one of the many people disillusioned by the major parties, but regard one or the other as the lesser of two evils, you can safely vote for whomsoever you wish first, so long as you make sure to put the party you think is the greater of two evils last. This might be described as tactical voting. The same is doubly true in the Senate, with the proviso that some of the minor parties and independents will actually get positions. It is virtually a mathematical impossibility for either major party to win an overall majority in the Senate, because only half of it is up for election this time around, so you need not be concerned with that scenario. That’s normally the case in fact, except in the case of a ‘double dissolution’ (please media, stop calling it a ‘double disillusion’ unless it’s an intentional pun).

Vote 4. Reputation. I am speaking here of our international reputation for decency and good international citizenship. As any evolutionary biologist will tell you, reputation is extremely important to a social species such as ours. Although it hardly rated a mention in the mainstream media, we have recently been found by the UN to be in breach of our obligations under the Conventions on Refugees, Human Rights and the Rights of the Child. This is due to our race to the bottom on refugee policy. Now, we’ve been seriously misled on this subject. For years, ever since John Howard in fact, we have been subjected to the notion that people arriving on our shores by boat and claiming refugee status is a) illegal, and b) a ‘crisis.’ In fact it is neither. Think about it. If it was indeed illegal to turn up by boat without a visa, then every disembarking passenger on every cruise ship that visits our ports would have to be arrested and detained. They are not. Why not? Because it’s only illegal if you fail to report to the proper authorities on your arrival. Would you believe I actually had to fact-check the ABC’s fact-checker (black mark, John Barron) today for not knowing this? If you get off the Queen Mary, or an Indonesian fishing boat, report to customs and request a visa for a legitimate purpose (such as tourism or in order to seek asylum) then you have absolutely satisfied all pertinent legal obligations. I used to be a traveler. I would have rocked up to at least thirty countries without a visa. Not once was I arrested or accused of doing anything illegal. I was simply issued with one when I got there.

In the case of refugees, there is a UN Convention, one which we not only signed, we actually helped to write, which confers an absolute right, under international law, to rock up to the border (or coast in our case) of any signatory country and claim refugee status. Most of us have little doubt in our everyday lives that if something is not actually illegal then it must be legal, right? Very few things actually have a body of law setting out what is legal, but this is one such rare case. As far as there being a ‘refugee crisis/emergency’ it’s simply nonsense, a total fabrication. The numbers, even now while it’s relatively busy compared to some years, the numbers are so low as to be statistically insignificant. Yes, people have drowned, but if you really cared about that then you’d set up your processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia, not on some out of the way island, but where the refugees are likely to be, process them there and allow them to catch a flight here. Or lease the Fairstar, or something, anything other than our disgraceful behaviour at the moment. You wouldn’t cry crocodile tears about it then punish the survivors. Anyway, how can there be a crisis when the record annual number of boat arrivals (which was set in the Howard years by the way) was still less than half of the number of English backpackers overstaying their visas at any given time since then? No, seriously, I ask you, how?

The other term that gets bandied around, but which is also utterly false, is that it’s a ‘border security issue/crisis/emergency. No. Wrong. A border security issue is when you are unable to adequately defend your borders against a potential invader. We last had a border security issue during the first half of the Second World War. And no, refugees arriving on fishing boats do not constitute any kind of invasion. For it to be an invasion, for it to be any kind of border security issue at all, we would have to be threatened by a foreign power. As the world stands at the moment, the only country that would have the military and logistical capability of even attempting to mount an invasion of Australia would be the US. So unless they turn against us, we’re perfectly safe, because our armed forces are more than capable of defending us against anyone else.

So there you have it – another fake issue. Unless, of course, you are a refugee, in which case our political games around your fate are a cruel and vicious insult to add to the injury which made you a refugee in the first place. If you were following the issue from another country, say a European country like Britain, or France, or Germany, or Italy, where they get hundreds of thousands of refugees every year, you’d have to be wondering why Australians, who live in one of the most prosperous and sparsely-populated countries in the world, are being such a bunch of dickheads about this. You might well conclude that it’s high time we stopped whinging and started pulling our weight. Once more, I’m forced to acknowledge the fact that if you’re looking for a logical, rational policy on this issue (and the ABC’s VoteCompass website, which is well worth a look if you haven’t already, found that at least half the population are), the major parties have nothing to offer you, and I refer you to my earlier paragraph on the subject of tactical voting.

Well there it is. I’m done. I could obviously cover other issues, but for me these are four of the biggest real issues, as opposed to the fake ones to which I have alluded, and anyway I have to stop somewhere. I sincerely hope someone, somewhere at least will find it helpful. I would appreciate if everyone who does read it would share it. Even if you disagree with some or all of it, leave a comment and then share it, so we can all discuss it. I’d just like to think that we could all enjoy our festival of democracy, secure in the knowledge that we at least know why we are choosing to vote the way we are. I wish you all a good evening, and a happy election day, and leave you with the following thought:

“No,” said Ford. “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On (this) world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
(Douglas Adams – Life, The Universe and Everything)

  1. Great work, Derek!

  2. Thanks Robyn!

  3. Quite a lot of shares, not a lot of comments. It would seem I’m preaching to the choir.

  4. I’m extremely inspired together with your writing skills as smartly as with
    the structure on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself?

    Anyway stay up the excellent high quality
    writing, it is uncommon to peer a nice weblog like
    this one nowadays..

    • Thank you very much for your kind words. The theme is the free ‘Titan’ theme by WordPress and the photograph is mine, of The River Clyde, close to where I grew up, in Scotland. 🙂

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