One of the great things about being in remote parts for a while is that you miss out on the news. So I returned from the latest bicycle tour to find out that the pugilist Tony Abbott (our despised prime minister) has finally managed to pick a fight. A boxer from way past, he was known as a fighter with a simple, crude, but effective strategy: breathe heavily, sweat, close your eyes and throw everything at your opponent. He won all four of his bouts in the second round. Disdaining headgear, he seems to have blocked any punches thrown at him with his face. He took up boxing after being dropped from the rugby team, but while he did play rugby, he was the first to sink a short jab into an opponent when he thought the referee wasn’t looking. He carried this pugilistic approach into student politics, on one occasion hitting the wall with his fists on either side of the head of an opponent. Fast forward to today: when stuff-up after stuff-up happens for a prime minister like Abbott, what do you do? Pick an international fight. First, he tried to pick a fight with Russia over Ukraine, proposing to send Australian soldiers. Putin, it seems, found it nothing more than amusing. Now he has picked a fight with the Islamic State, and succeeded. Busting to send soldiers to Iraq before almost before anyone else, he pulled a political stunt. Last week a massive police operation threw everything at supposed ‘terrorists’. The result: two arrests, with most of the sixty odd people detained released soon afterwards. The Islamic State obliged with a fatwa against Americans, Europeans – ‘especially the spiteful and cursed French’ (love that phrase) – and as an afterthought, Australians and Canadians. Abbott has the fight he so desperately wanted, except that now it is on the international stage.

Meanwhile, there has been much talk of ‘intelligence’ by ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation). They now have yet more powers to monitor anyone in Australia and to decide who might be a ‘risk.’ As they do so, I can’t help remembering an insightful piece I read many years ago concerning the recruitment profiles for such organisations. They prefer people of moderate intelligence. Too little and you can’t do the job; too much and you may question the nature of the work you have to do. But a moderate intelligence ensures you are more likely to do the job faithfully, without asking questions. Obviously, we are in good hands.

Look what happens when you stay away from the incessant news cycle for a day or two: suddenly two universes are created. In those two universes, two very different Ukraines emerge, two Vladimir Putins, although only one plane has crashed. In one universe, ‘Vladimir Putin breaks his silence on MH17 crash’ – so proclaims the liberal Sydney Morning Herald (part of the Fairfax media chain). The hard-working journalists at this paper seem to have sourced their story from Agence-France Presse, which claims to have ‘200 desks in 150 countries’. For some reason, these 200 desks have missed the fact that Putin first broke the news to Obama a few days ago, then spoke with Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime, Rutte in the Netherlands, Merkel in Germany … and then, well down the pecking order, that embarrassment of a ‘leader’, Tony Abbott, who is still huffing and puffing and trying to look important on the world stage. He may actually believe that he forced Putin to ‘break his silence’. Meanwhile, Putin has been saying for some days now that a proper and impartial international investigation should be undertaken (here and here) and that people shouldn’t rush to rash conclusions and use the crash for narrow political goals (also herehere and here – perhaps a little self-castigation on that one). Of course, no one actually believes what any politician says, but that doesn’t mean they don’t speak.

If I stay away for a few more days, perhaps another universe or two will be created.

Has the French President, François Hollande, recalled a trace of socialism? The new super-tax on those earning over 1 million euro is set to go ahead. In a nice twist, it will be companies and employers who pay the 75% tax if they pay an employee over the ceiling. Of course, it is a weak measure and should really kick in no higher than 100,000 euro per annum.

Contrast the latest proposal by those ‘mean little people‘ in power in Australia, with the clueless Tony Abbott in charge. In order to save some pennies penalise low-income earners, they have proposed a $6 fee for those who visit doctors who charge only the medicare rate (and thereby charge nothing to the patient). Obviously, this targets the poor. Such vision!

Following on from my earlier post on social democracy as the natural partner of the free market, I read with interest Guy Rundle’s recent piece in the Arena magazine (also found here). Interesting argument: Kevin Rudd had an emancipatory vision of Australia that owed much to his experience in Sweden and China (as if the two are similar) that was simply to big for the Australian Labor Party, if not the country. While in government, the party might have enacted pieces of that vision, but they couldn’t communicate the vision that lay behind it. These include the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, and the education reform. The catch is that Tony Abbott basically agreed to all these main points in order to become prime minister, thereby being dragged leftward and betraying everything that had inspired him to enter politics.

As usual, Rundle makes you think. But the argument begins to become unstuck when he suggests Rudd was more like Lenin and Mao than any traditional Labor leader. This makes the basic mistake of assuming that communism and social democracy in our day are of the same ilk. As a colleague from Nanjing asked me recently, ‘why do western commentators make the mistake of equating social democracy and communism?’ But Rundle’s argument really falls to pieces when he closes by adopting the old line that Labor had betrayed its vision by yoking its reforms to ‘unargued economic growth’. That is, the supposed vision of emancipation and a better society was tied in with an alienating and impersonal vision.

Gonski [the education reform] was oriented to human flourishing, but also to integrating education into productivity. The NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] was designed to alleviate the horror of many disabled people’s lives, but also to provide passages back to work. The NBN [National Broadband Network], it was hoped, would open huge new possibilities for difference and new ideas, but would also yoke Australia more tightly into an online world dominated by capital, and, as we now know, monitored by the NSA. Thus, at its heart, there was much that was contradictory with the ALP’s originating social vision (p. 19).

This simply misses the point that social democracy has always geared its reforms to the flourishing of capitalism. Under their guidance, education reforms ensure greater job participation; welfare like the disability scheme is designed make people producers and consumers for longer; technological advance provides yet another angle for market expansion and integration. These are not anomalies but very much part of the social democratic vision.

I know this one has achieved quite a bit of coverage here in Australia and in some places overseas, but for those readers not up on the election campaign happening here … yesterday, the leader of the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, opined: ‘No one — however smart, however well-educated, however experienced — is the suppository of all wisdom’.

Puns were soon aplenty, but the best were some photo-shopped images:

suppository 05

suppository 02

suppository 01

And my favourite:

suppository 03

Bourgeois democracy, I love you …

Nothing like returning from an ‘authoritarian’ communist country like China to encounter a great moment in bourgeois democracy: back in Australia, Tony Abbott (leader of the opposition) runs from parliament so he doesn’t have to vote on his own motion. No argument here about which system is best.