40 minutes with Mary

This morning, I met Mary.

Mary’s the same age as my Mum, but I would never have guessed it. She looks so much older. She has one child, a son, who is the same age as me.

Mary has had medical problems her whole life. Despite that, she sold her home of 30 years and left her community so she could look after her elderly father, who’d recently had a stroke. Two months later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Four months after that, he died. Mary’s the sort of person who looks after others even through her own health problems.

Today, Mary drove her car to the local high street, because she can’t walk very far. She’s not even 60, but she’s already had two hip replacements on one side, three on the other. She parked in an accessible parking spot, then slowly started walking towards the bank, and then to the doctor, to talk about the possibility of having a third hip replacement on her right leg.

At the exact moment Mary was walking up the street, an elderly woman was finishing up her visit at the local podiatrist. As she was walking out the door, she caught her foot on the step and fell. Out the door, directly into Mary. The elderly woman stayed upright. Mary didn’t. She fell, hard, onto the ground.

I was walking nearby with my baby, on my way for a coffee, and I saw the whole thing happen. I walked over to them. The gentleman with the woman who had tripped and another gentleman helped Mary to a bench, but it quickly became clear she was in extraordinary pain. After five broken femurs, she knew what it felt like, and it felt exactly like that.

I called for an ambulance, took the details of the people who had also been involved (the poor woman was also very distressed- I found out later she was 87 and the gentleman with her was her neighbour, who takes her to the doctor when she has an appointment) and sent them on their way.

Then I sat with Mary and we waited.

Over the next forty minutes, I got to know Mary a little bit. We talked about pain and death and the existence of God and whether or not there’s a reason for everything. We learned we’d both had very unlikely pregnancies. Despite her pain, she worried about my time and the fact my baby was waiting with us. Didn’t I need to look after her? I assured Mary she was fine.

Mary’s the kind of person who worries about other people even when she’s in pain.

We both wondered at the cruel twist of fate that led her of all people to be in the way when the other woman fell. Of all the people to be walking by, it was someone who could least deal with the consequences.

Throughout the whole time, intermittently, Mary cried out in pain, or cried, or laughed darkly. I asked her if there was something she usually does to help with the pain. She showed me her morphine patch. “Pain is my constant companion,” she told me.

For forty minutes we sat there, waiting for help. For forty minutes, she cried and gasped in pain.

At one point, she said “This is what our society has become. Unless you have chest pain, you wait.”

I’m not someone who is starry eyed about medical care. I understand all care is rationed. We have finite resources But we have decided that we are willing to accept people being in pain rather than spend more on medicine. Our efficiency measures are more concerned with the amount of time an ambulance sits idle than the amount of time a woman sits crying on a bench on a footpath in agony.

Mary did nothing to deserve the situation she was in. She got dealt another bad card after a lifetime of them.

I called her son after she was in the ambulance, to let him know that his mum was heading to hospital. She’s spoken to him, but obviously had been a bit vague on details, so he asked me a bit more about what happened. When I said it was just extraordinary bad luck, he said that’s the sort of thing that happens to her. “She must have been born on an unlucky day.”

Mary’s fall might not have been avoidable, but her 40 minutes of pain without relief were. With more resources, we can improve ambulance response times. We more money for emergency medicine, we can turn 40 minutes into 20 or ten. We can stop believing that pain is an acceptable trade off for cost savings.

This might be who we’ve become. But it doesn’t have to be.

Mary kept telling me that there must be a reason this happened to her, but she doesn’t know what it was.

Nothing can ever be an adequate compensation for her pain and suffering, but I’d love to visit her in hospital in a few days time with some flowers, and to be able to tell her that because of her story, people are calling their local state members and putting pressure on them to improve funding for emergency medicine (which includes new paramedics and more emergency staff and beds). That other people care enough about her pain to say no, this isn’t ok.

I just got off the phone to my local member’s office. I hope you’ll join me in calling and demanding change.

Because Mary, and people like her, deserve better from us.

**Mary gave me permission to share her story

Not just a broken promise, a bad one

Since the proposed “debt reduction levy” was first reported earlier this week, commentators and the opposition have made much of Abbott’s decision to break his promise that there will be no tax increases in he led. Recent polls suggest his government’s popularity is suffering the consequences too. But the mistake Abbott made was not breaking his promise: it was making it in the first place.

You don’t have to look any further than the US to see how dangerous anti-tax rhetoric can be. So fierce is the anti-tax movement that every single Republican Party nominee for President in 2012 stood on a stage and pledged not to raise taxes by a single dollar, not even in exchange for $10 in reduced spending for every additional dollar in tax revenue.

In that environment, governments are put in a situation where deficits spiral yet to make the decision to raise additional revenue is electoral suicide. So services are cut, especially those that serve the most vulnerable, yet it is never enough.

It’s not surprising the Abbott seems to look to the US Republican party for inspiration: it is largely ideologically consistent with his own views and it has been effective in shaping the American political landscape to serve its interest, even with a Democratic president. And so Abbott stole another page from the Gingrich playbook and cast his party as the anti-tax party.

In opposition, Abbott made much of Gillard’s “great big new tax”. His message was clear: all new taxes were unacceptable. The Commission of Audit was instructed not to consider taxation arrangements. Neither was the Financial Systems Review. But balancing a budget and providing essential services to citizens sometimes requires tax increases. Anti-tax rhetoric and responsible economic leadership are mutually exclusive.

So Abbott stand accused of breaking his promise, when his real mistake was making the promise to begin with.

Taxes are inevitable and essential: rather than casting them in a negative light, politicians should talk their ideas on who pays tax, how it is paid, and how much is paid. Do we want a flat tax or progressive taxation? Should we tax income or expenditure? How should the tax system account for the additional expense of having a family? What level of taxation should businesses pay?

On the other side are the questions about which services should be provided to citizens and whether government is the right group to provide or fund them. Are we committed to universal free access to basic medical care? Should there be a safety net? Do we want all talented students, regardless of family background, to be able to access high-quality tertiary education?

And if the answer to all these is yes, then who among us should pay for them?

But rather than having these important conversations, in Opposition Abbott used phrases like “great big tax”, “class warfare” and “budget crisis”. When he assumed responsibility for the budget, there were few options available to him that he hadn’t publicly denounced. So rather than admit that perhaps a tax increase might be a responsible decision, and explain why a particular design is preferable, his policy of choice is a piecemeal approach designed to give the maximum amount of rhetorical wiggle room.

Reactive short-term solutions hiding under the rhetoric of a “levy” is not a way to build an effective or efficient taxation system.

Such policies fit poorly with existing taxation arrangements and can often have significant unintended consequences.

In this case, the proposed 1% levy applies to those earning over $80000 and, by media accounts, applies to all income for those earning over that amount, rather than just to marginal income. When you add the medicare levy surcharge and HECS repayments brackets into that, a single person on $80,258 with no private health insurance could be slugged with an addition $1534 compared with their equivalent peer on $79,999. The latter’s take home pay would actually be $1275 higher than their better-paid peer.

These sorts of unintended consequences are the result of reactive solutions from politicians afraid to commit to more fundamental change, lest they face they electoral consequences. In opposition, Abbott exacerbated this problem through anti-tax rhetoric. He is now suffering for his own games.

A smarter approach would be to remove these “levies”— which often bear little relationship to the actual cost of the service delivered — and to increase marginal tax rates.  To stop playing games and raise revenue in a way that will preserve the progressive nature of our tax system. Progressive taxation is a social good that ensures those who can afford to pay more do, but that nobody is ever worse off if the earn an extra dollar.

Other options, such as reintroducing a small inheritance tax on estates over a certain value or increasing the GST are other ways to raise revenue, each with its own political and social implications. But to weight the options against each other requires us to talk about tax increases as not inherently wrong.

Rather than committing to no new taxes, good leaders should commit to be constantly thinking about how to make taxes better, fairer and more efficient. In engaging in lazy, though effective, anti-tax rhetoric, Abbott dug the hole he now cannot escape.


Cut out the middle man

Democracy is predicated on the idea that all votes are equal. Unfortunately, in Australia, that isn’t true.

The problem is that we’ve built a system that ensures a small number of voters have a disproportionate sway over our politics, pushing both major parties in their direction. This Saturday, in the lower house, your vote will be weighted by where you live and how likely your vote is to swing. This election will effectively be decided by a small number of swinging voters in a small number of swinging seats.

This is caused by a unique combination of factors: compulsory voting, compulsory preferencing, closed parties, strict party discipline and single-member electorates.

Compulsory voting
Compulsory voting means that almost all legal voters show up at the polls, and it means that the parties don’t need to appeal to people to make the effort to get out and vote. Voters who aren’t particularly engaged, but generally vote in one direction or the other, don’t need to be spoken to at all. They can be safely counted for their party of choice, regardless of what that party does. By requiring all people to vote, parties no longer need to inspire or motivate their base. This helps keep certain seats safe, and means the members pre-selected in those seats need to do little to actually retain them.

Compulsory preferencing
In Federal elections, in order to cast a valid ballot, you have to number through to the end of your ballot. That means, in most seats, your vote will ultimately flow to either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party They don’t actually have to appeal to you enough to get your no. 1 preference, they just need to be better than the other guys. Again, this pushes the parties toward the small number of voters who will ultimately switch the two around.

Closed parties
As my dear friend Elizabeth puts it, what we call “branch stacking”, Americans call “building the party”. We have a remarkably closed system in which applications for party membership can be denied, and where pre-selection, in most instances, is done by a very small number of people. In safe seats, this has the effect of meaning that the Member only needs to keep a small number of preselectors happy in order to keep their seats. By contrast, other countries use open primary processes that make primary challenges a real concern to members in safe seats, and keeping them more closely engaged with their local community.

Strict party discipline
Strict party discipline, especially within the Labor party, means that members are required to vote along party lines (with the exception of conscience votes). While a Member can advocate for the interests of their constituents in the party room, ultimately, they are required to vote along party lines even if it is against the interest of their constituents. Note: the parties enforce this differently (the Labor party is much worse), but it’s an important element of our democracy for both major parties.

Single member electorates
The final nail in the undemocratic coffin is single member electorates. There is nothing inherently wrong with single-member electorates: in fact, in the United States, with its open primary system and voluntary voting, they work quite well. Unfortunately, when you combine the four elements above with single member electorates, the power of each vote is weirdly distorted. Single member electorates work best when the member has to maintain a close relationship with his/her district and advocates for them in parliament. When constrained by party discipline, the capacity to do this is significantly weakened- member are not able to caucus around issues, only parties.

All of that comes to this: in Australia, unless you are a voter who swings in a seat that swings, politicians don’t need to appeal to you at all. They don’t need to motivate you to get out and vote. They don’t need to worry about losing preselection. And because they’re constrained by party discipline, their capacity to advocate for your interests once they are elected is limited.

And so the policies of both major parties are unduly influenced by some of the least-informed voters in the country.

The way to address this is to get rid of some combination of the above. Personally, I’d do away with strict party discipline, mandatory voting and closed parties. But the party reform stuff needs to come from the parties themselves (and thus, from the people who have a vested interest in the system as it is). And Australians are weirdly devoted to mandatory voting, so that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.

So, reluctantly, I have come to see multi-member electorates as the most likely way of addressing this imbalance.

Essentially, our existing system elects parties not representatives. Representatives in safe electorates have limited accountability to their constituents, and are far more closely connected to their party. So why not just cut out the middle man, and elect parties directly, but to do so in a way that ensures they are proportionally represented. This minimises the distorting effect of swinging seats, and ensures there is incentive to appeal to the base, as it makes other parties more viable and votes genuinely contestable again.

I love single-member electorates, I really do. I love the way a Member can actively advocate for their community in government. I love the fact Members with similar interests on opposing parties can band together to pass a bill that is in the interest of their constituents.

But that doesn’t happen in Australia. Effectively, we elect parties.

So we may as well just vote for them.


When there are no better options…

Today, I cast a donkey vote for the first time in my life.

This is not something I do lightly. I take voting and my duty as a citizen very seriously, even though, for the most part, I live in an area where my vote doesn’t matter much as it’s a fairly safe seat. For once, this was not the case. Unfortunately, I felt I genuinely couldn’t vote for any of the candidates.

While some certainly had some positive attributes, my problem with them is this: I think the single biggest issue in Sydney is housing affordability. Not affordable housing. Housing affordability. Because Sydney is now the no. 2 most expensive city to live in in the world, yet nobody’s talking about the fact housing is absurdly expensive, and getting worse.

Housing affordability is as much about equality as a range of other things. There’s a tendency in Sydney for those who have already purchased property to want to pull up the ladder behind them, crying that their “way of life” is worthy of protection. Unfortunately, the candidates pandered to them. Sure, the Greens candidate talked about Affordable Housing, but housing affordability and affordable housing are not the same thing. Affordable housing is about providing accommodation for low-income people. Housing affordability is as concerned with the person making 30k as the person making 15, because both are priced out of the market at the moment.

We have a supply problem, yet all the candidates demonized developers. Developers aren’t inherently bad, and they are doing something we desperately need- creating more accommodation!

(Aside: yes, the Liberal party guy wasn’t as bad on developers, but he’d vote with O’Farrell, whose Civil Liberty record is an absolute travesty).

And so, with no candidate on the record as making the cost of living in Sydney for ALL Sydneysiders a key part of their campaign, I donkeyed. For the first time ever.

I decided to write-in Lewis Roberts-Thomson. Because he’s flexible according the the needs of the group, and he’s great under pressure. Those seem like good attributes in a politician to me.

**I should add, Alex Greenwich was outside the polling booth, and introduced himself. To which I said that I know, I’ve tweeted at you about 15 times asking your position on housing affordability, and you’ve ignored them all, so you don’t have my vote. It’s all well and good for politicians to use Twitter- it’s a great resource- but if you only use it to retweet positive things other people say about you rather than actually engage with voters on policy issues, you run the risk of alienating them**

The carbon tax made me a Liberal… and the Liberal party made me a cynic

About eighteen months ago, fired up in a fury of righteous indignation about the way the Labor party snuck some pretty significant income redistribution- especially toward fairly wealthy retirees- into the Carbon Tax bill, I did what any occasionally-aspiring political pundit would do, and took to Twitter. I declared my allegiances fixed, then and there, and that, with the Labor party having shown it was more interested in redistribution than a sound carbon pricing scheme, I would do my democratic duty and join the Libs.

The then-editor of The Drum saw my tweet, and asked me if I’d care to write a piece about it, which I did, then enjoyed the occasionally-terrifying responses.

But once it all died down, I did join the Liberal party. Not out of anger, but because I felt that to be truly engaged in our two-party system, you have to be a member of one, and that my commitment to civil liberties meant that the Liberal party was a better fit. Plus, as much as I appreciate our system (and I am 100% committed to having a strong welfare state), I think our income tax rate is plenty high, and shouldn’t go up further.

Well, after a year, I can tell you my experiment with participating in Democracy more actively was a miserable and abject failure, and one that has led me to believe that a donkey vote may just be my best option.

That isn’t to say I didn’t meet good, committed, intelligent people while in the party. I certainly did, and I appreciate the time I spent with them. Unfortunately, most of them are stuck working in regions where they’ll never win, and fighting internal factional battles with the rest. And losing.

The rest are the problem. As best I can see, there are two real types, and neither is committed either to ideology or to governing with specific outcomes in mind. In tandem, they are the reason our system is so flawed.

The first of these two types is the Power-Hungry Player. The Player is committed first to themselves, to gaining power or influence. They’ll wear any hat, kiss any arse, and do whatever it takes, as long as they win. They don’t need to win right now- many of them are playing the long game- but for these folk, the only reason to be in politics is to gain power.  Their approach to policy is to ask what will gain them the biggest advantage.

The second type is the Party Faithful. They are fundamentally and essentially committed to the Party. For them, the Party is a source of identity, of pride, and often a pretty big part of their social life. These people walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe the party. So for them, the health of the party is paramount. They’ve lost touch with much of what people think outside the party. Their approach to policy is to ask what the party thinks, and then to work back from there. They start from the position that the party is right.

And they work together. The Players use the Party Faithful to do their bidding, and the Party Faithful rely on Players for direction. Meanwhile, people who are actually committed to talking about policy and trying to figure out what the best way to govern is are pushed to the side. Leave that to the public servants.

And so the government becomes less the attempt to represents the interests of those who elected each representative, and more a giant game of football for nerds, where the desire to win trumps all else.

And ultimately, those elected are mostly only accountable to these people. Thanks to mandatory voting, unless you’re a preselector (usually either a Power Hungry Player or a Party Faithful) or are one of a small number of swinging voters in a small number of swinging districts, the parties couldn’t care less about you. They don’t need to appeal to you- your vote makes no difference at all. So while the system feels ideal to those within it, those of us who fall outside it are left with no voice.

People talk about the “horse race” of politics. It’s a ridiculous comparison. In a horse race, sure, there are favourites, but every single horse on the track has a chance to win, and usually there’s at least one 20:1 chance that gets up on any given day. Politics in Australia isn’t a horse race. It’s more like being stuck in the MCG watching Collingwood and Carlton play over and over again, when you go for another team, and there’s someone threatening to fine you if you don’t cheer for either the Blues or the Pies.

Well, I tried it. I put on a metaphorical Carlton guernsey, and tried to sing the club song. But it’s a world of Power Hungry Players and Party Faithful. I got sick of the inside baseball jokes, of laughing at anyone who held a different view. I got sick of the “well, if you join a team, you’re on a team” mentality.

I also got sick of the “moderate” Liberals completely decimating Civil Rights, but that’s a whole different issue.

So what’s my take away? Mostly, that our system needs to change. I tried to work within its confines, and it just didn’t work. Unless 100,000 people who cared deeply about issues signed up for the major parties- unlikely given the screening process- the inside baseball attitude is not going to change.  Meanwhile, I cannot, in good conscience, vote for either the party of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard at the next election. They’re both fiscally-irresponsible statists who don’t give voters who don’t fit a certain profile any respect. Yet in order to cast a legal ballot, I am compelled to do so. How is that democracy?

And so my experiment failed. Or perhaps it succeeded- I learned a hard truth about Australian politics: that nobody is really all that interested in governing well. They just want to win.

Message to Souris: Sydney's Small Bars are NOT the problem

In the seven years I’ve lived in Sydney, I’ve spent a fair bit of time, and money, in drinking establishments. I’ve seen fights- I even literally got stuck in the middle of one after a guy standing behind me mouthed off to the guy standing in front of me. I’ve seen girls doing racks of coke in the bathroom. I’ve had my arse slapped and my breasts grabbed. I’ve seen people passed out on sofas. I’ve seen girls in screaming matches on the street.

And you know what? Not one of those occasions has been at or around a small bar.

NSW Hospitality minister George Souris’s ludicrous claim that Sydney’s small bar licensing is a cause of violence in King’s Cross is utterly without merit. He provided no evidence that incidents of violence are perpetrated disproportionately- or even proportionately- by small bar clients. He pointed to the ‘proliferation” of small bar licenses around Kings Cross as “one of the causes” of violence without data, statistics or, really, even common sense.

As someone who frequents small bars, let me take the opportunity to describe for Mr Souris the usual small bar crowd. It’s a bunch of people, who’ve often just finished work in the city (quite a few of the bars don’t open on weekends). I might show up a bit early, order a $12 glass of wine (try getting drunk enough to cause violence on that- you’d empty your bank account first), and open a book while I wait for my friends to arrive. I’ll strike up a conversation with the bartender, who might suggest a new wine for me to try. Then my friends will join me, and we’ll have a quiet chat in the not-overly-loud venue, and catch up each other’s lives. Then we’ll get in a cab and go home.

Hardly violence central.

That hotbed of criminal activity, Stitch on York St

So what’s going on here? It’s pretty clear. The NSW Hospitality minister is cynically using the death of a teenager to promote the agenda of his party’s largest donor, the Australian Hotels Association, who are also large donors to the NSW Liberal Party, and who have fiercely opposed the small bar license. The AHA have everything to gain by turning the focus on to small bars, both because restricting small bar licenses will increase the hotels’ market share and because as long as the focus is on those small bars, it’s not on the big clubs and pubs and the part they play.

So I have a proposed solution to put to Souris and the AHA: how about for the next three months, every time someone is arrested for an alcohol-related incident, they are interrogated as to where they drank. If, at the end of the period, more people arrested drank at small bars, we revoke the small bar license but, if more than twice the number of people drank at big pubs, it’s the pubs and clubs who have their licenses revoked?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Small Bars have made our city better. They have made it a more pleasant place. It is nice to have a venues to drink in that feel safe, and where conversation trumps loud music and obnoxious DJs. They are not part of the problem and, if anything, are part of the solution: making the culture of our city nicer and attracting a better clientele. I can tell you from personal experience, the Sydney CBD is a far more pleasant experience now in the evening than when the local workers fled and the city filled with people who’d come in to town for a big night out.

But until small bar owners start donating money to the parties in power, they’ll continue to get shafted.


The kinds of equality

But seriously, there’s nothing wrong with the social choice to have more leisure and fewer material goods. The problem with leisure, however, is that you can’t tax it to pay off accumulated debt or to finance pensions for your senior citizens.

Matthew Yglesias hits on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, though in a very different context.  His is talking about stimulus.  I’ve been thinking about it in terms on inequality.

The problem with the inequality conversation is that it tends to centre around a certain kind of inequality: financial inequality.  We have all kind of wealth gaps in Australia, and financial wealth is only one of them.  We have gaps in leisure time wealth and gaps in friend wealth and gaps in companionship wealth.  Any attempt to make society equal through the redistribution of financial wealth ignores the very real effects of the accumulation and distribution of other kinds of wealth.

Some people make a choice to sacrifice leisure in order to earn more money. This is a choice people should be able to make for themselves as free individuals.  And yes, people who earn more should pay more in tax, to some extent.  But the notion that we should be aiming for “equality” through taxation is daft: it imposes requires one idea of what a human life should look like, and it imposes it on all.  It says that work/life balance is a fundamental good which society should desire.

It is, frankly, incredibly intolerant.

What’s more, it assumes that all individuals will derive happiness from the same things.  This is clearly not the case.  Some individuals derive happiness from the accumulation of financial wealth. For others, enough to pay their bills is sufficient, as they’d rather have the time to pursue other interests.  That is entirely their prerogative.  Those who have more wealth should be required to pay more tax to provide services of public good.  But they shouldn’t be required to pay tax in order to facilitate greater financial equality beyond providing basic services (including a safety net) for all.

If you think it is the role of government to increase equality, does that not require considerations of non-material forms of equality? And how do you justify economic redistribution with the goal of increasing financial equality without considering other forms?

I just can’t see any kind of program designed to increase equality that doesn’t look like a giant social project designed to get people to live a certain way that some have determined is the correct way to live.

Theoretically, and I understand this is entirely impractical, I’m increasingly fond of the idea of a tax based on rate per hour, rather than overall income.  Because I don’t think it’s right that the person who earns $83,200 working 80 hours a week should have a tax burden three times that of someone who earned $41,600 working 40 hours a week.  They may be more financially wealthy, but they’re poorer in many other ways.  And any serious conversation about equality ought to consider this.

The case for marriage equality in ten easy points

1). At the moment, marriage is both a civil and religious institution. It serves multiple functions.

2). At the moment, in Australia, marriage is discriminatory.

3).  Marriage as a religious institution, as it is inherently private, ought to be allowed to discriminate.

4).  Marriage as a civil institution ought to treat citizens equally.

5).  Therefore, the civil and religious institutions of marriage are not compatible

6).  The civil and religious institutions of marriage should be (pardon the pun) divorced.

7). The legal and civil recognition of a partnership (Civil Marriage) should be available to all citizens.

8). The religious institution of marriage should be allowed to continue, as each religion chooses to define it, unrestricted by the state*.

9). The religious institution of marriage should have no legal power, and in order for the state to recognise a union, parties must enter into a separate, legally-binding civil marriage contract.  This is legal, not ceremonial.

10). Every wins.

*With the obvious exception of any marriage involving people who are not of legal marrying age.  The state has a duty to protect children

There be trolls

On Monday evening, I got home from work and wrote a short piece about my disgust at the fact the Labor party was coupling fairly significant changes to the nature of redistribution in the Australian tax code to their attempt to price carbon.  I thought I was pretty clear: while I absolutely believe in progressive taxation, in pricing for negative externalities and specifically in the need to put a price on carbon, I was mystified and enraged by the government’s decision to compensate some household by more than 400% of the anticipated costs.

And then I stood back and watched the hoards go mad with ad hominem attacks and, strangely enough, conspiracy theories.

Usually, when I talk about policy, I prefer to analyse information and make judgements, rather than focusing on personal narrative (I’ll occasionally frame things in a personal way, but generally try to stick to facts for the core of a piece), but given my own story is apparently an important part of this, it’s worth recounting briefly.

First, it’s rather important to know that it was Jonathan Green, editor of The Drum, who asked me to write the piece, based on a tweet.  He sent me a direct message on Twitter and asked for it, and I wrote it that evening.

There was no conspiracy. There was no pay. I have absolutely voted for the Labor Party and Liberal Party in the past (and recently), as well as, at times, the Greens, the Democrats  and some independent candidates.  I am someone who taking voting very, very seriously, and I agonize over my preferences.  I number below the line.  I write letters asking candidates to further explain their position on certain issues.

At no point did I receive any kind of request or instruction or payment from anyone except the initial request from Jonathan.  It was not part of some broad strategy.  I was not on Sky News last night pretending to be Eliza. I was at home with a head cold watching the first season of Pretty Little Liars on DVD.

The second thing that warrants clarification is the fact some people have pointed to my profile on here as evidence that I was a Liberal party plant, specifically quoting the words “Classical liberal.” The small-l is important there.  I thought this was pretty clear in my piece but, again, evidently not, since people kept saying if I don’t like redistribution, I clearly could NEVER have been a Labor supporter.  Liberty is a priority for me, both economic and social.  Sadly, there is not a party in Australian with true liberalism as the core of its policy priorities.

Economically, of course, this means I have more in common with the Liberal party.  This does not in any way mean I think flat tax is the way to go: I understand the need for progressive taxation, but generally, I think we should seek to ensure the progressive nature of our tax does not undermine the incentive to work and the responsibility of all able citizens to contribute to the best of our ability.  I do not believe markets are flawless, and I absolutely believe in market intervention when they are flawed.  For this reason, I am a very vocal advocate of socialized medicine.

Socially, though, and perhaps this is the bit that got lost in the piece, I have far more in common with the Labor party.  To be honest, I’m probably somewhere to the left of the Labor party.  I think the Labor party’s hesitancy to support gay marriage is appalling, and I think the government should get out of the marriage business entirely.  I firmly believe all women should have access to abortion.  I think we need to massively liberalise our immigration policy, accept more immigrants, and in fact I think we should be actively recruiting people who would qualify as asylum seekers, not just accept those who can afford to make the journey.  I think climate change is real, and serious, and that we need to do something about it.

I’m an unabashed fan of Malcolm Turnbull, but that is largely because he occupies the space that closely resembles my own political beliefs.  This is also why I can support the Democrats in the US completely- the mainstream view in the Democratic party is in favor of a limited safety net, and progressive taxation that isn’t too onerous.  That’s exactly the kind of public policy I like.

Recently, a strong Labor-advocate friend made a very convincing case that in order to be involved in Australian politics, I should join a party.  The closed nature of our system, something I’ve bemoaned at length, necessitates it.  I would much prefer an open party structure and less party unity, but given such fundamental change to our political culture is unlikely, I had few options. I could start my own party, one that is both economically moderate (and Grant will curse me for using that term, but you know what I mean) and socially liberal.  It would be a true liberal party, not a hybrid liberal-economic, socially-conservative party.

But, I’m one person, with limited time and other interests.  Much as I would like to do that, and perhaps I shall at some point, in the interim, membership of a political party seemed a better way to go, to be a small-l liberal voice.  But given my preference for the Liberal party’s economic policies and the Labor party’s social policies, I was unsure of which way to go.  He said I should join the Libs, but hang out with people who were also socially liberal.  I remained unconvinced, still feeling the pull of the Labor party’s are more liberal stance on social issues.

That was until Monday, when I realised that the Labor party’s fundamental believe in significant redistribution was so central to its beliefs that it would try to sneak it into something as important as a carbon tax.  That it would use the opportunity to remove a million Australians from the income tax system entirely.  That it would overcompensate some households with a combined income of $80,000 more than four times the cost of the program.  I tweeted about my frustration.  Jonathan Green saw the tweet and asked me to write  the piece. End of story.  I have committed many an error in my time, but I do not believe this piece was in any was disingenuous or intellectually dishonest.

Then people went a bit crazy, and accused me of all sorts of things. Rather than engaging with my argument, they invoked my age and gender to claim that I didn’t know what I was talking about.  They claimed I described myself as a “classic Liberal” rather than as a “classical liberal”. For goodness’ sake, they even suggested Media Watch investigate.  And when I offered to explain myself further, I got such generous responses as:

“can hardly wait. I’ll bait my breath in anticipation” (Source)

The sarcastic reply speaks volumes: it speaks of someone looking for dishonestly, looking for a gotcha, looking for a partisan ploy, rather than considering the virtue of an argument. How appropriate, then, that he should accuse me of disingenuousness when he writes questions without any interest in the answer, and challenges without any consideration of the merit of the reply.

Even the snarky responses when I said I’d write something answering challenges– the “oh god, she’s writing another piece”-type responses– illustrated the way this debate has gone: rather that looking at the merit of what I said, it was viscerally reacting to me.

Don’t get me wrong, some people challenged me a couple of valid points, and I respect them greatly for it. One criticism that I think is worth responding to was that I didn’t analyze the Coalition’s carbon tax.  My response, of course, is that I didn’t analyze the Government’s Carbon Tax either- my post was rather about the excessive redistribution packaged with the carbon tax.  But I should have mentioned the redistributive effects of the Coalition’s carbon tax plans, which, overall, I am no great fan of.  I do consider them less insidious as they do not fundamentally alter the degree to which our income tax system is progressive, but I should have paid heed to that.

But for the most part, the replies were ill-considered and reactionary, looking for some grand scheme where there was none. One particularly snarky and poorly-argued blog post used my biographical information on this blog as “proof” that I was always a Liberal party voter.  Beside being poorly-researched (a cursory glance at the “politics” tag on my blog will reveal posts such as this and this and this, which describe my political philosophy more fully and the fact it doesn’t really naturally fit with any major political party in Australia), it implored me:

My ardent suggestion to young Erin would be, especially if she’s going to put her ideological views into the ether, that she crystallise them, if they aren’t already,

Well,  here’s one thing I can promise.  I will continue to allow my views to crystallise. I will continue to read voraciously. I will continue to consider the opinions of others and whether their arguments are convincing And I will do all these things in the hope that I never become someone who is so convinced of their own eternal correctness, who becomes so mired in their own ideology out of habit, that they don’t listen to others and consider their arguments on merit.  I long to be like my political hero, Abraham Lincoln:  big enough to be inconsistent.

A new Australian political party?

I voted today, in the NSW election. I’m going to be in Melbourne on election day and, to be honest, I just really wanted to vote.  I numbered all the way to 311 on my upper house ballot. It was fun.

But in perusing all the different party groupings on the upper house ticket, I’m astonished by the parties that do exist and, more relevantly, by the parties that don’t.  There are plenty of representatives of fairly obscure interest groups, but no party that represents the political space that I, and a lot of my peers, occupy:  a space that is more genuinely liberal, and interested in maintaining liberty.

I’ve been saying forever that I’d like to be part of starting a new party, but I’m starting to think it’s time.  It would be a long term project: while we’d contest elections within five years, we’d fully expect to take 10-12 years to get any kind of a footing.  Broadly, the party would be based on the following principles:

1. Protection of individual liberties. Minimise government interference in the way people live their lives, both directly and indirectly.  Fight for a Constitutional Bill of Rights that protects political liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly, worship, and freedom from unlawful search and seizure.

2. And while we’re working on the Constitution, let’s become a Republic.

3. Where markets work, leave them be.  Where they don’t, intervene to correct them, but interfere as little as you can.

4. Reform the welfare system. Don’t abolish it, but look at the incentive structure and try to provide incentives for people to work where they can. Reduce middle class welfare, including Baby Bonus and First Home Buyers Grant.

5. Where possible, tax to price for negative externalities and shift the savings to income tax reductions.

6. Let people live the lives they want. Stop state-sanctioned discrimination. Institute Civil Unions for the legal recognition of partnerships, and allow “marriage” to be a purely personal label in which the state has no role.

Such a party might be described as Libertarian, but that label isn’t correct, as it would neither advocate the abolishment of the Australian welfare state, nor of progressive taxation.  It would, however, be an economically moderate voice, adopting a neo-liberal approach to markets, while also rejecting social conservatism and middle class welfare.

I’m genuinely interested: would such a party have a constituency in Australia? Would people join?

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