The Biggest Budget Lie

15 May 2014
It seems almost redundant to be posting yet another article about the budget. The anger is unprecedented. People whom I've never seen say a word about politics on Facebook in years are venting their fury. But what is truly repulsive here is not so much what's in the budget itself - we knew the Coalition are a bag of dicks, and cuts to seniors' payments, a $7 payment to visit the doctor, and requiring those under 30 to wait six months before receiving unemployment benefits, along with a host of other, unannounced cruel cuts, should come as no surprise - but Joe Hockey's responses to criticism, showing that he is not merely out of touch with the effects of his changes, but displays a disdain for the poor and a disregard for the true state of the economy and job market bordering on sociopathy. 

This morning's interview with Chris Uhlman on ABC radio gave a dark look into the twisted recesses of Hockey's mind; a mind that is shared by most of the wealthy elite in Abbott's government. Challenged on whether people would struggle to afford a $7 co-payment to visit the doctor, Hockey replied:

JOE HOCKEY: But, but, I'd say to you, Chris, one of the things that quite astounds me is some people are screaming about $7 co-payment. One packet of cigarettes cost $22. That gives you three visits to the doctor. You can spend just over $3 on a middy of beer, so that's two middies of beer to go to the doctor.  Let's have some perspective about the costs of taking care of our health. And is a parent really going to deny their sick child a visit to the doctor which would be the equivalent payment of a couple of beers or one-third of a packet of cigarettes? 

This is what they think poor people spend all their money on - cigarettes, beer and McDonalds (one of the young asswipes at the IPA announced the co-payment was less than the cost of the Big Mac meal he had for lunch). Leaving aside the multiple layers of irony here - cigarette companies have long targeted lower income earners, and the Liberal party happily takes donations from tobacco companies - unemployment in Australia is running at about 6%. On top of that, around 40% of Australian workers are in insecure employment - casual and contract roles. 15% of Australians smoke. So that's a whole lot of people from whom affording to visit to the doctor is not simply a matter of giving up a packet of cigarettes- despite that cigarettes are of course highly addictive and your party profits from that addiction - it can be a question of affording basic food. Macaroni, rice, mashed potato, sausages. Fruit for the kids, the adults go without. Not McDonalds (even though your appointed human rights commissioner says McDonalds has human rights). Bizarre how these people see the world - the inner city goat cheese eaters, the poor smokers and drinkers, and themselves, the hard workers, keepers of all that's good and true. 

Moving on to how the unemployed young person with no government benefits who can't afford a beer is going to afford a trip to the doctor:

CHRIS UHLMANN: Well, if you were 27 years old and had lost your job and weren't getting unemployment benefits, you might not have the choice of a middy of a beer, a packet of cigarettes or a visit to the doctor. 

JOE HOCKEY: Well, I would expect to be in a job. That'd be the starting point, you'd be in a job. And we need you to work. 

CHRIS UHLMANN: What if you can't get one?

JOE HOCKEY: Well, that's what we've got to do. Everything we are doing is about lifting the tide so that we can get more people into jobs. 

The last time I was unemployed, it took over 100 applications in four months before I found a position. One week without money is an eternity. I don't need to tell you what four (or six) months is like. Of course, back then I didn't have a car or a licence. In many regional and outer urban areas (including politicians' beloved western Sydney), employers simply won't consider applicants without their own car, whether the job requires driving or not, because of the unreliability of public transport. How do you pay for a car without money? Or clothes and haircuts suitable for job interviews? How even to afford the bus fare to a job interview? But it doesn't really make much difference. The jobs aren't there. As someone on Twitter said, Hockey is saying if you've lost your job and can't get a job, to get a job.

This is the great big lie underpinning the budget: that there are jobs out there if you're willing to work for them, and the bigger lie of modern society - that if you work hard and are a good person, then barring major calamity you will be able to build a decent life for yourself. It's not true, even as Hockey et al keep pretending it is. A job is a job, but insecure employment is a massive problem. Take one family I know of - she is a teacher and he is a garbo. Now, that should be secure employment enabling them to lead a moderately comfortable lifestyle. But in today's outsourced, economic rationalist economy, it means insecurity, short term contracts, casual work, jobs promised that then fall through. And very little money spare for doctors visits - certainly none spent on cigarettes or fast food. This is repeated all over Australia - casual work isn't just students doing shifts of retail and bar work around their studies. It's major companies and government departments outsourcing their work to recruitment agencies, hiring casuals with no leave or benefits who can give years of service - and be fired on an hour's notice.

Employers can afford to be extremely picky. Unemployed people under 25 will soon find themselves losing thousands of dollars in benefits a year - with those aged 25-29, as mentioned, somehow expected to go six months with no income at all - but youth unemployment is running at a national average of 12%, up to 20% in many regional areas. This creates overwhelming demand for entry-level positions. With such a huge candidate pool, employers can demand their own conditions. Looking at job ads lately, requirements frequently include own car and licence, round-the-clock availability at short notice, no guaranteed minimum hours. How the heck do you manage children or study or another job to help pay the bills if you are supposed to offer permanent availability at an hour's notice?

The barriers are endless, and getting worse. Gutting TAFE means the courses for people to increase skills are not available. Even volunteer work is affected; many volunteer roles now require interviews and reference checks; they also have their pick of candidates trying to give themselves any edge in the workplace. Volunteering is wonderful, but it is predicated on having the time to do so, not being required on demand to your casual job. And don't even get me started on the rise of the unpaid internship - jobs for those who can afford (or have parents who can afford) to go without a regular income for six months. (Maybe that's what unemployed people under 30 will be expected to do now, in between hospitalisations for starvation). And all this is supposing you have no disabilities. What hope do you have if you're in a wheelchair? And if you enjoyed that piece on Ramp Up please let them know - they've just had their funding cut.

So every time Hockey opens his mouth with remarks about smoking and just getting a job, forgive me if I'm shaking with rage and wanting to do the heavy lifting of my knee into his crotch. There's no economic plan to address underemployment or youth unemployment. Hockey keeps making facile remarks like "lifting the tide to get people into jobs" when even a medium talent like himself should realise a surplus does not create jobs, you don't create jobs by cutting programs and benefits, as if he thinks all that stands between the disadvantaged and gainful employment is $50 a week and an assessment. As I was posting this, Hockey lamented that there has been too much political discussion of the budget and not enough economic discussion. The Commonwealth Bank just posted a record $2.2bn quarterly profit. The government steadied them through the GFC. Do you really think if you raised company tax a bit, they'd stop being a bank? Or go overseas? If the moning tax was kept and increased would Gina Rinehart dig up all her bauxite and bury it somewhere else? He's got no clue, no heart, no courage and no brain, all in one. Well, it's time to stand up for ourselves (since apparently Labor won't do it; the Greens can't do it all on their own). With a cigar smoking millionaire telling poor people what's good for them, I say the man in Australia who is not a socialist is an asshole. Forget simply marching in May. Let's storm the barricades.

Tim Owen, ICAC and Where To Now For Newcastle

13 May 2014
After being conspicuous by his absence for weeks, yesterday state MP for Newcastle, Tim Owen, announced in a statement to the media that he would not be contesting the 2015 election after learning that banned donors contributed to his 2011 election campaign. Mr Owen claimed he was unaware of these donations, describing himself as shocked and dismayed; he then left without answering questions.

Now, political candidates receive all sorts of finance, and a major party candidate like Mr Owen no doubt had a campaign manager who focused on such issues so he could concentrate on campaigning and thus may not be privy to the origin of ever dollar coming in. But what we are being asked to believe here is that Buildev, having openly offered a bribe to Labor candidate Jodi McKay with the aim of winning approval for a coal loader to be built in Newcastle Harbour, then secretly gave the money to Tim Owen's campaign and never said a word to him about it at the time or ever contacted him regarding the loader or any other matter in the intervening three years.

I'm sorry. I don't buy it. Mr Owen must know it sounds dodgy as all get out, as he has so far refused all media interviews. Whatever happened to openness and accountability? Whatever happened to remembering who pays your salary (and will continue to do so for the next ten months, lumbered with an MP who has almost completely lost public confidence). Myself and many others are furious and cannot see how Mr Owen's position is tenable.

Meanwhile, talk has turned to who will be the Liberal candidate for the 2015 election, with the name of Ms Jaimie Abbott being often mentioned. Whenever I write about Ms Abbott I get attacked by her supporters, and have been accused of being obsessed with Ms Abbott. Well, let me describe for you a typical day during her campaign last year:

Hear ad for Ms Abbott on radio. Form letter from Ms Abbott in mailbox. Walk to bus stop, pass two coreflutes for Ms Abbott. Get bus to uni, pass posters for Ms Abbott every few hundred metres. Newspaper at uni library with interviews, ads for Ms Abbott. Get bus to shopping centre, pass more Abbott posters. At shopping centre, supporters are running a stall promoting Ms Abbott...and the shopping centre isn't even in the Newcastle electorate. Get bus home, pass more get the drift. There's only so many weeks one can endure this without going slightly insane, and the saturation campaign if anything worked against her (on election day, one of Ms Abbott's staff at the voting booth actually removed some of the advertising bollards, saying there were just too many, and I thought, you know, it is way too late for that).

But the main question I've had is, who paid for all this? I worked in advertising long enough to know a campaign of that magnitude must run into the high hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions (an electoral mail out would cost at least $100,000; my husband and I received six between us). As well as all the advertising there was the t shirts, balloons and in the international students paid to hand out how to vote cards on election day. Some of the funding no doubt came from the Liberal party itself, but what of the rest? Did Nathan Tinkler or any of his associates offer Ms Abbott any money? I'm not accusing her of any malfeasance, but she at least needs to answer these questions before her candidacy can be given credence. We've had enough doubt, uncertainty and lack of trust from our politicians, and I'm looking forward to hearing from all candidates how a new ethos of accountability and transparency will prevail.

Learning to Drive in Your 30s: The Horror Is Real

08 May 2014
The thing is, I always wanted to learn to drive.

I grew up in a regional area, and learning to drive was the right of passage. Losing your virginity? Forget it. In suburban NSW you could produce a thousand teen comedies about kids desperate to get their licence. It was all anyone talked about for the final couple of years of school. Of course I wanted in on it.

However, my father decided that teaching us kids to drive would be spoiling us. (Also spoiling us: paying for school excursions, orthodontia and optometry, HSC tuition, textbooks...basically anything that wasn't mandated by law). I had to sit blinking back tears as friend after friend recounted their driving successes, failures, and that sublime day when they got their Ps. I left home soon after, and that was that. I tried to put a brave face on it; driving was hopelessly suburban, bad for the environment, totally out of whack with the inner urban lifestyle I craved. Eventually I made it to the inner city, where driving would have been as much use as speaking Latin, and came around to my own way of thinking. I was happy here. I was never going to learn to drive.

Until I found myself as a newly qualified youth worker, unable to get any jobs because I couldn't drive. Then we had a baby, and moved to Newcastle, and I was trying to get a baby, uni textbooks, and groceries on and off the bus on my ageing legs. The hell with this. Enough. It was time, once and for all, to learn to drive. Most people I spoke to were happy to teach me, but wary of letting a learner drive their car (I know I wouldn't allow it), so I had to buy a car of my own.

I've always had a great eye for a bargain, and managed to pick up a much better car than I thought we'd be able to afford. But when it came to pay for the thing - well. Every cliche you've heard about how women are treated in car yards came true. I brought a more knowledgeable friend with me to look over the car and drive it home, but for boringly complicated payment reasons, we required our husbands to show up. When it was just me and her, the salesman was curt, evasive, distant. When the men showed up? New best friends! Handshakes, introductions (we got neither), speaking only to them even though it was clearly explained I was choosing and paying. I'd have taken my business elsewhere, but this really was a great deal on the car. At an age when most people are acquiring the BMW or Jeep they've always dreamed of, I had bought my first car.

Baby I'm ready to go

I started learning in the standard way, learning basic car control in empty car parks and the abandoned BHP site.  But it was still...weird. When you're 16, new learning experiences are flying at you from all directions; driving is just one more. By the time you're in your mid thirties, not so much. I know things. I can cook from scratch, know the difference between an adversarial and an inquisitorial judicial system, can perfectly apply nail polish on my other hand. (I don't understand Senate preference redistribution, but I don't think anyone does - frankly, I suspect even Antony Green is bluffing). But driving? Do people actually do this? Bit by bit I made slow, plodding progress, from "we'll try another lap...this time, try to go to the left of the bollard", to "I think you're ready for quiet roads", to the white-knuckle day I picked my husband up from the airport, 25km from town at 80km/hr. But it was so weird, and so hard, and platitudes didn't help. A word of advice - please don't tell someone learning to drive later in life that even Snooki/Justin Beiber/Nathan Tinkler has a licence. It will not reassure them that any schmuck can learn to drive, but make themselves feel like a schmuck for being unable to master a skill every other bozo can accomplish.

But parking, now. Good Christ in Heavens above, parking. The same weird brain wiring that sees me heading in the wrong direction and falling of the low step in a beginner's aerobics class came through in my parking. I didn't get it. And just when I thought I didn't get it, I started to get it less. Neither professional instruction nor well meaning friends could fix my body's stubborn refusal to work out which way to steer when reversing. Finally the breakthrough came...the day before the test. I know one normally doesn't book the test till they're ready, but with a six week wait at the local registry, I booked in advance and hoped for the best.

The night before the test, I couldn't sleep. Had anyone ever written "I am a fish" over and over on a driving test? I was terrified I'd forget my newly acquired skills. As I waited in the registry on the big day, I wondered why I was so nervous. Unlike most 17 year olds, I've had loads of scary waits; to face army and civillian interview panels, for test results, waiting to walk in to my wedding, waiting outside the OR to be gutted like a fish and have a human being yanked from my insides. But I just don't handle anticipation well. The tester was nice enough, but the test itself was bizarre, like being a taxi driver with a passenger who stubbornly refuses to admit they've no idea where their house is: turn down here, turn left there, stop here, start again. I've lived in this area most of my life and never got a sense of where we were going. I never relaxed, and was very relieved when it was over.

Now, these posts always conclude with success, the final pass, "I got my P plates in the end and you can, too". I did not pass yesterday, in fact failed in the first sixty seconds. Passing the shopping centre near the registry, a double semi trailer swung around the corner and in to my lane. Ironically, after months of being told I had a tendency to drift to the left (a legacy of years of cycling), I was now too far on the right. I over corrected, the instructor, possibly unnecessarily, put his hand on the steering wheel, and that was me done for. I was miserable, and felt the foul stench of failure clinging to my pores.

My driving test failure face.

In time, I came to be more philosophical. If I'd fluked a pass yesterday, I still would have issues with parking and reversing; now that I know I can do it, I'll spend the next few weeks till the new test focusing on getting it right. I'll get a couple of lessons, which is a bit rough on our budget, but if you could help out with a few dollars by the link below, that would be great - and it's all for a good cause, since as soon as I can drive I'll be looking for youth worker jobs and volunteering for Meals on Wheels (really looking forward to that, actually). My next test is at 9am on a to the busiest sports ground in Newcastle...with about 2000 kids turning out for winter netball and football. So I'll really know if I'm ready. Hopefully I'll have a triumphant finish post soon.

ICAC and How To Buy Newcastle

03 May 2014
As the ICAC hearings into government corruption in NSW continue, you have to wonder how much longer new Premier Mike Baird's government can remain tenable. Yes, we have fixed parliamentary terms in NSW, but as member after minister from the former premier on down "stands aside in light of these allegations" as they so delicately put it, surely he is obligated to call fresh elections to let the public have their say on a parliament that seems rotten on both sides? (Rarely have I been so proud to be a Green, the only party untainted by the whiff of corruption).

This is awkward

Funnily enough, the man who had so much to say about ICAC before last year's federal election has gone silent, denying it is his role to comment on a state matter and angrily refusing journalists' questions about it (one almost expected to hear Abbott to tell journalists to put their manners back in). Still, Abbott has enough problems of his own to worry about right now and maybe it would be churlish to kick a man whilst he's down.

Perhaps some of the most explosive evidence came during the week, when former state MP for Newcastle, Jodi McKay, claimed that after she refused to take a bribe from mining billionaire Nathan Tinkler to allow the development of the a coal loader on Newcastle Harbour, Tinkler joined with Labor MPs Eric Roozendal and Joe Tripodi on a smear campaign that saw her lose the 2011 election. These Labor stalwarts would rather a Liberal MP won the seat than one of their own whom they couldn't control; which is of course what happened, with Liberal MP Tim Owen winning the seat in an historic first. I would be very interested to hear what Mr Owen has to say about what he was offered ahead of that election, but funnily enough, he's been nowhere to be seen in recent days, not even when Premier Baird last week announced the sale of the port of Newcastle for $1.75 billion, of which the city will see less than a third in compensation. As someone on Twitter said, it often feels like things are done to Newcastle rather than for us.

But whilst I'm sure One Term Tim will be able to shed plenty of light on Nathan Tinkler's machinations in 2011, what I'm really interested in is hearing about our Lord Mayor, Jeff McCloy. My questions here would be not so much about any involvement in corruption that would see him leave office, but how the hell he was allowed to take that office in the first place. In NSW, developers are banned from making political donations. There are ways around it, but the law is there for good reason. McCloy, one of the largest developers in Newcastle (if you've ridden in a lift in Newcastle, it's a McCloy...even now he is developing several inner city sites), unable to buy political influence, simply bought himself political office. It begs belief that whilst developers can't make donations, they can hold actual office, but so it is. In 2012, Jeff McCloy, who doesn't even live in the Newcastle local government area, was able to use his considerable financial resources to buy the election, with no political experience, spending huge amounts of money on advertising and promotion, running on a platform of "you'll be lucky to have me", and a weary and broke city, for reasons I still can't quite gather, fell for it. McCloy has held office ever since, enriching the city by closing pools, spending $30,000 washing chalk rainbows off the footpath, sacking the Art Gallery director and ruining a redevelopment of the gallery that was already costed and paid for, and - it almost goes without saying - approving almost any project his developer friends suggest, including, if you can believe it, 20 story buildings in the heritage part of Newcastle CBD.

As if having an enormous penis on the horizon wasn't bad enough.

We may not have to wait too long. McCloy's name has already been mentioned in relation to ICAC - and it simply defies belief that Tinkler, having successfully swayed the 2011 state election, would 15 months later have so lost interest in politics and Newcastle that he would take no action ahead of the Mayoral election. I'm in no way suggesting McCloy is guilty of anything other than buffoonery and at a time as such allegations are made he has a democratic right to respond. I'm just saying, you know, things are about to get interesting.

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