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Australia's little sepia book of dead political tricks



I left Australia eight years ago, but this election began as if 1950s myopia never left. From afar I've watched four elections and five different PM's slip into the seat. Gossip and infighting dominate the political landscape and cruel policies remain the order of the epoch.

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten dance with their backs to the chaos in the rest of the world. Chris Johnston cartoonLiving within the United Nations community I've witnessed Australia fall from a well-respected international citizen, to becoming the spoilt, sneaky brat of international relations.

Even the most blasé glance at the geo political currents moving through the planet reveal complexities this election pretends don't exist: technological change, climate crisis, ideological bankruptcy, financial fragility, food security, labour uncertainty, increased automation, energy shifts, border fluidity and closures and rising states of emergency.

Australians fighting about jobs and growth in the corner comes across as deeply deluded isolationism. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. The world is watching. Hello Australia? Anybody home?

Since the 90s the major parties are stuck in a complicit rhetorical illness that repeats the Fordist mantra of 'jobs growth' and silences analysis of global geopolitics. It's almost as if the two major parties share a little sepia book containing tired tropes from the past.

After weeks of boredom, the Liberals experimented with passion by accusing Labour of declaring a war on growth. Immature metaphors spewed from Morrison's mouth, offending those who know what war is.

Can someone catch the Liberals up on the legal meaning of war, and remind them the Bush administration exhausted this metaphor? Can someone from the Liberals pop over to Nauru and listen to what war does to the human soul?

At least wars on drugs and terror made some literary sense, but that language is only used now to propagate Trumpism. War on growth rhetoric maintains a narrow focus on the delusion that the Australian economy is sacrosanct, and immune from global trends. It's hyperbolic and deluded. Its like the major parties believe politics stops at Australia's sovereign borders.


"Distance used to be Australia's tyranny — this election reveals it as a political strategy. Australia's narrow escape from the financial crisis bred an arrogant belief in immunity from global realities."


No polity can pretend it's the Fordist 50s, the neoliberal 90s or the fearmongering noughties without risking destroying their home, ecologically and economically. This election repeats the exhausted choice between upfront neoliberalism or one softened by false promises of a fairer neoliberalism. Even harbingers of neoliberalism like the IMF and World Bank conclude it's naïve to continue believing it works and isn't dangerous. They don't scream about war to get the point across.

Distance used to be Australia's tyranny — this election reveals it as a deliberate political strategy. Australia's narrow escape from the savaging financial crisis bred an arrogant belief in immunity from global realities. This lead to isolationist fictions such as jobs/growth obsessions, and now hysterical fear mongering where taxes are toxic bullets.

Australia is being left behind. The USA, India, China and EU invest more in science and technology and take fast action towards energy transitions. Where does Australia get off ignoring these planetary energy, scientific, economic and social shifts? Jobs from where? Obviously not science, research and development in technology and smart energy transitions — the direction most economically strong nations head. And what kind of growth? Dirty redundant growth the rest of the world shakes off? Even hardcore energy companies like Shell prepare for a new economic future.

Milk prices are symptomatic of global capital movements and can't be solved by chucking short-term money at the problem. Great Barrier Reef bleaching occurs due to carbon emissions of which Australia is one of the biggest, and most stubborn perpetrators. The dying reef is a case study in education systems around the world on the climate crisis and its causes. Connecting global dots illustrates local issues can't be reduced to jobs growth babbling and the naïve misuse of war rhetoric.

There is a battle in Australia: it's by government against the meaning and role of government. The last 15 years has seen the Australian state whittle itself down to a mere surveillance machine out to kill the arts, science, education, technological development, welfare, indigenous rights, the environment, the rule of law and farmers' livelihoods — to name but a few.

The desperate attempt to keep the election focused on jobs growth avoids questions about what role government has in shaping the future. Where are the post mining boom visions? What efforts are being made to allay the incoming property bubble explosion: an example of fictional value about to smash into harsh reality? Where's heat on our increasingly cruel human rights and international law breaches that breed distrust in diplomacy? Where's protection against climate change damage to our habitat, our home? Where's the acknowledgement that Australian sovereignty, the capacity to steer our national future, is increasingly impotent in the face of global power mechanisms like free trade agreements and the death of local property rights?

With the exception of Di Natale, excluded because he raises issues too confronting for bubble lovers, the real battle isn't being discussed. The capacity of all Australians for self determination — from fracking within metres of homes, to Aboriginal rights to stay on traditional lands, to Australian businesses being swallowed by corporate giants — is the quotidian and ordinary battle with global roots. And people care more than ever — but struggle to locate voices that resonate with their concerns because the little sepia book of dead political tricks keeps ranting about jobs growth and war.

There's no justification for boring or hyperbolic politics besides cowardice. While unstable and frightening, it's an exciting time for political engagement. Progress now means intelligent transitions that account for the reality of hyper globalisation, not Panglossian fantasies that economic immunity will continue.

In the collective scramble towards a sustainable future Australia will be left behind, losing jobs and growth in the process. It's time Australia shifted its lemming direction, its politicians threw out the little sepia book of dead political tricks and started engaging with the challenges that construct, create and influence Australian daily life. Banality and false hysteria are distractions designed to close down the difficult questions outside neoliberal concerns. Something's incredibly, evidently broken and backwards in Australian politics and, with four weeks to go, lets hope some substantial arguments occur beyond narcissistic celebrations of economic triumphalism and reductive fear-mongering about how taxes equate to war.

The reef is dying. Why?


Bronwyn LayDr Bronwyn Lay worked as a lawyer in Melbourne before moving to France where she now works as an legal consultant for international NGOs. She is the creative director of the Dirt Foundation and her book Juris Materiarum: Empires of Earth, Soil, and Dirt will be released in mid 2016.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston


Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, Great Barrier Reef, Election 2016



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Existing comments

I'm sure Australia doesn't want to be known as the "spoilt, sneaky brat of international relations"! It is true that we are enduring a long election campaign focussing on jobs and growth in the one corner, and health & education in the other corner. They are all concerns of ordinary folk. The Greens have better policies in regards to the environment and asylum seekers. Each and every vote is incredibly important. Maybe we could save the reef with David Attenborough as our PM? I'd vote for him.

Pam | 03 June 2016  

Exactly how I feel and passionately stated.

Phil Smith | 03 June 2016  

Tired old Trotsky mantra...try lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness

A. Kavanagh | 04 June 2016  

Thanks Bronwyn for your truthful insights into Australian politics and our damaged international reputation. The Reef is dying and both the Coalition and Labour are intent on opening up new coal mines. Both Coalition and Labor policies are also responsible for the asylum seeker deaths on Nauru and Manus Island. I think Australia has become a pariah state on the climate issue, the asylum seeker issue and the issue of drastic cuts in overseas aid. The Greens are the only party that take an ethical stance on these three major issues. While I realised long ago that the Coalition's main aim was to support the 'big end of town', I'm extremely disappointed with Labor for not standing up for these asylum seekers, for having only a 50% Renewable Energy Target by 2030, compared to the Greens 90% Target, and for cutting overseas aid, which will indirectly cause some poor people overseas to die. So now we have DEATH from climate change, DEATH on our off-shore concentration camps, and DEATH of poor people overseas because we're focused on JOBS AND GROWTH, or our own selfish economic policies. THERE ARE NO JOBS AND NO ECONOMIC GROWTH ON A DEAD PLANET!

Grant Allen | 04 June 2016  

Your brilliant Bronwyn beautifully written spot on truth I'm over what the migloos are doing to my country! We are lazy & backward.... Most of the electorate don't gives rats about jobs - they care about what you've said our politicians do nothing about - they are out of touch with the electorate & treat us like we're dumb! I'm a Green we will win more seats because they're blind! Well done my sista!

Tjanara goreng goreng | 05 June 2016  

Australia has long been the arrogant brat in the corner of the play ground as we refuse entry to the most desperate but allow free entry to the richest, dig up and sell anything in the ground and chop down everything above the ground while shooting at anything that moves.

Marilyn | 05 June 2016  

There is much that is wrong with Australia and needs attention. However, I think that there is much more that is right with this country. Interestingly, I think, if given a chance, most citizens of most UN member countries would come here or to countries like Canada. It is easy, from a well paid job in the UN or a university, to deride average Australians and their immediate concerns like secure jobs. How elitist can you get. Australian politicians, by and large, are indeed underwhelming. I would place the majority of Greens in that category: one of their main concerns now seems to be the Trotskyite gender revision agenda. I think we are going through a dark phase politically which I think we will come through. The Australian public are not idiots and will eventually demand and obtain better politicians. I put my faith in the average Australian.

Edward Fido | 06 June 2016  

Thank you Bronwyn! A voice of reason in a fog of rhetoric, the nation is rendered inert because of discredited ideologies. I often wonder if the slogans could be further reduced? However I shall use one from a different era "Wake up Australia"

Carl Ludeman | 06 June 2016  

Beautifully written. A cri de coeur. I'll be looking for your book.

Marie Belcredi | 06 June 2016  

Excellent passionate piece Bronwen, thank you. Confirmed by poll news today that 1 in 4 voters plan to vote for non- major party. Ground has shifted from under major parties esp on environment issues. They cannot ignore 25% of electorate on coal. Watch Joyce/Windsor on QandA tonight.

Tony kevin | 06 June 2016  

Sure. But lets not get carried away by implausible rhetorical contrasts between then (when Australia was respected) and now (when it isn't) and between dirty little Australia and the (much cleaner) rest of the world

barry hindess | 06 June 2016  

Brilliant and spot on. Totally nails our petty parochialism.

Greg Foyster | 06 June 2016  

' Hello Australia? Anybody home?' Plenty of people at home. But they are almost all inward looking; concerned only with boosting their own interests. Even Religions, which are supposed to concerned with becoming in tune with God are pushing their own exclusive claims instead of attending to God's Universal Call to become One in mind and heart. If we seek first God's Kingdom, all our other concerns will fall into place, and unite us instead of dividing us and giving rise to all the greed, bitterness and prejudices that presently torment the human race.

Robert Liddy | 06 June 2016  

If there's no justification for hyperbole in politics - surely there's no justification for hyperbole in opinion writing! If you want Australia to operate solely on renewable energy, then the best way to do it would be to live by example - prove that you can live without fossil fuels. Prove that you can have the same quality of life, the same level of healthcare, the international travel and the same essential possessions. There are plenty of places in the developing world without access to fossil-fuel created power. Why not show us that you can have as meaningful a life in one of these places. I'm a bit sick of being lectured to by people who take the moral high ground, but fail to live up to their own rhetoric. Remember - facta non verba - deeds not words!

Lucy | 06 June 2016  

Rumours of the reef's demise are highly exaggerated, according to the GBR Marine Park Authority chairman Dr Richard Reichelt. That makes sense. How can the Reef be dying from global warming when there's been no substantive warming for about 18 years, and a tiny .76c increase from 1850 to 2005? And if the reef is so sensitive, how did it survive earlier warnings, such as the medieval warming, the Roman warming, and the Holocene climate optimum? The reef is not dying. It's our ability to admit facts that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that is in terminal decline.

HH | 06 June 2016  

Apathy and complacency have become synonymous with Australian culture. The 'leaders' of this culture are people such as John Howard, Kim Beazley, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, who are racial and religious bigots and supporters of the neo-liberal economic policies of Milton Friedman. Most Australian people have little knowledge and understanding of political and moral philosophy and little interest in community and egalitarian culture. The reason for this lack of interest is that most Australian people are only interested in their level of income and their ability to acquire material possessions. Most Australian people have no altruistic desire for a healthy botanical environment in respect of places such as the Great Barrier Reef.

Mark Doyle | 06 June 2016  

HH ' The reef is not dying'. Right. It is just that a big part of it is already dead, so not actually still dying. 'And if the reef is so sensitive, how did it survive earlier warmings?' Perhaps earlier it did no have to contend with the amount of pollution that has been added to the mix - the last straw that proverbially breaks the camel's back.

Robert Liddy | 06 June 2016  

Australia's reputation overseas? I suppose it depends upon who one mixes with. Or which media one consults. In April this year I was in Fiji. Among the ordinary people I dealt with Australia's reputation was sky high because of the Australian government's quick response to the destruction caused by Cyclone Winston. I didn't meet any Fijian politicians or bureaucrats, so I can't say what the wheelers and dealers of Fijian society thought/think about Australia. Outside of Winston, the only other Australian connection was sport - in particular Rugby Union and Rugby League. I am always sceptical when polemicists declare Australia has become a laughing stock in the rest of the world because of Climate Change policies or Foreign Aid contributions or Political Corruption. Like Margaret Thatcher I ask: Tell me who's laughing? Name ten people. Name one. The shame of being the laughing stock doesn't affect me until I know who it is who's laughing.

Uncle Pat | 06 June 2016  

Sadly, I substantially concur with your observations. Gone are the days when political opponents John Curtin and Robert Menzies could exchange cordial letters expressing mutual esteem and respect. Gone, too, it would seem, the qualities of integrity, decency, honourable conduct, respect for others that we liked to think were hallmarks of this country's values, which actually did inform the attitudes and conduct of some former political leaders. Codes of fair play and mutual respect seem to have given way to behaviour more characteristic of auctioneers at a fire sale than prospective heads of state. It often seems that service to the people has been overridden by lip service to what are perceived as vote-grabbing initiatives and unsustainable promises of incentives that have not been thought through and are served up as short-term pre-election hype. Where are the sustainable strategies that will carry Australia and its people, and its unique ecosystems, into a future that will not be marred by the legacy of bad management and careless, superficial decisions?

Jena Woodhouse | 06 June 2016  

"A full survey of the reef ­released yesterday by the author­ity and the Australian Institute of Marine ­Science said 75 per cent of the reef would escape unscathed." "Dr Reichelt said the vast bulk of bleaching damage was confined to the far northern section off Cape York, which had the best prospect of recovery due to the lack of ­onshore development and high water quality." So most of the reef is not "dead", and that which is can recover. Moreover, the worst areas of reported coral bleaching are in relatively "pristine" waters, (Dr Reichelt) i.e. relatively unaffected by pollution. So pollution is *not* a factor. Back to square one: how has the supposedly dying reef survived previous warmings, and yet is allegedly ultra-sensitive to a tiny change in warming over 150 years?

HH | 06 June 2016  

Well written. I am embarrassed by the position of Governments in Australia who constantly preach rhetoric in the absence of solid long term strategic thinking. Can't wait to read your book.

John | 07 June 2016  

"The USA, India, China and EU invest more in science and technology and take fast action towards energy transitions." Unfortunately, fast action carries its own risks. The big story at the moment is that renewables like solar and wind are proving hopelessly uneconomic as base-load energy alternatives, and the world is at last waking up. Denmark, a world leader in renewables, is pulling back, abandoning offshore wind projects. Spain hit the wall a few years back. Europe as a whole is falling out of love with renewables. Which is a blessing for the poor, who will see their energy bills come down at last. Birds, too, might breathe a sigh of relief as the chances of being chopped or fried diminish. Meanwhile,as "Nature Climate Change" reported in April, the planet has been growing significantly greener from the extra plant food (aka CO2) being pumped into the air.

HH | 08 June 2016  

I totally agree with you Bronwyn. It is so sad to watch this nonsense- a bit like Nero watching while Rome burned.. HH the GBR is literally the canary in the coal mine (no pun intended) As usual you are being very selective in your reading of the reports on the state of the GBR. The current SST's around Australia are at record levels, that is why the northern end of the Reef was so badly affected. The remnants of Tropical Cyclone Winston, most likely the most intense cyclone recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, that so terribly impacted Fiji ,cooled the sea surface temperatures in the south of the Coral Sea, saving the southern end of the GBR from being similarly badly impacted . Also there is no evidence of the so-called warmings or cooling's you mention being world wide events.

Gavin | 08 June 2016  

Well said. Thank you.

AnneBenjamin | 08 June 2016  

I can only say thank you for your lucidity (if that's a real word) - also i will definitely buy your book :)

neil anderson | 08 June 2016  

Agree totally with Bronwyn. But unlike Bronwyn I have had to endure Australian politics and the Abbattoir all these past years. One of the most significant problems we face is that in the short term it is just so VERY EASY to dig stuff up out of the ground. Anyone can do it, even with a stone age shovel. To do more difficult things that pay off in the long run we need to defer our consumption of "now things" such as the latest BBQ that is miles bigger than our neighbour's BBQ and yes even has a pizza oven attached. The next problem is the domination of our politics by powerful interest groups, their proclivity to make large donations to both the major parties and then our greedy and lying politicians with their oh ever so forgetful memories. Frankly I despair at the intelligence of Australian voters and our politicians.

Henry Haszler | 10 June 2016  

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