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Archive for the ‘Political Whinging’ Category

Fair Go

The recent public outcry across the Australian community at large about the Abbott government’s budgetary decisions have revealed one of this nation’s core values – the belief in fairness and egalitarianism – which has been absent from the general zeitgeist for some time – most especially in the case of asylum seekers. The decisions of the Abbott Government to impose significant cuts on education, health and welfare have caused outrage, not simply because of the fact that these cuts constitute broken promises, nor because of the utter contempt and hypocrisy that have been revealed by their rhetoric that all must do the “heavy lifting” and that this is the “end of the age of entitlement” but because they so obviously target the disadvantaged and leave the wealthy largely unscathed. This is hardly surprising considering it has long been the modus operandi of neo-conservatives, yet the measures contained in this budget are so patently unfair that they go against traditionally upheld core Australian values, at the heart of which is egalitarianism. It is the kind of breach of trust Australians generally do not tolerate.

facebook feed piechart

Unfairness, in “the land of the fair go” is, to put it bluntly, un-Australian. The term is here used with ironic awareness that it is most often falsely deployed by nationalists and narrow-minded knee-jerk patriots with the least interest in the greater good. Fairness, or egalitarianism might be an abstract idea which can be realised in many ways, yet in recent decades in Australia it has been associated with equal opportunity and equality of access to services and welfare. Australians have long boasted of their good fortune in not being like America, something people of all political persuasions talk about with pride: our free Medicare; our decent, if not perfect education system with its relatively equal access, our social safety net which, despite its holes, is broadly adequate and at times generous; our better safety and health regulations and more sober judgements on issues such as gun ownership. This position is even reflected in the way this debate is characterised in the media, where the question has been repeatedly asked as to whether Australia is in fact turning into America: a United States of Australia. We inherited our social system from the British, yet we look to America for comparison to see its virtues, and its virtues are the fairness and egalitarianism encapsulated in the idea of universal access.

Forcing people to pay $7 for a visit to the doctor is clearly unfair and no amount of rhetoric about “price signals” is going to change the public’s view of what is clearly an unnecessary and highly unwelcome tax. It is an outrageous imposition on low-income earners and those dependent on welfare, yet even more galling is the dismissive suggestion that it is merely the cost of “a couple of middies.” For a start, there are many disadvantaged Australians who don’t have the opportunity to enjoy a couple of middies, because finances are so tight, but irrespective of that, the failure to empathise with the situation of these people, or worse, care about it, is indicative of the age-old conservative blindness to the actual cost of living. A man with Joe Hockey’s assets and income is not well placed to contemplate the incapacity of people to pay this fee – though he should be, or else, he should not be in politics. If we can accept that Hockey is, in fact, capable of such empathy (bearing in mind his student protest days) yet has chosen to pursue this policy anyway, then it merely highlights the government’s indifference to fairness and equality.

millionaire meme

The attack on unemployment benefits – cutting off payments after just six months – is not only unfair, especially in areas where work is not available, it is socially irresponsible and dangerous policy. On the ABC’s Q & A on May 21, a young Tasmanian man pointed out to Joe Hockey that there are roughly 18,000 job seekers in Tasmania, and around 500 jobs advertised monthly. How are those people expected to live when, still unable to find employment, their benefits are cut off? What kind of Australia are they trying to create? One in which crime and depression are more widespread? No one is suggesting it’s OK to exploit welfare, but to have a system which might deny support to people who genuinely need it is not remotely fair. You can’t have a watertight public system and feeding a few leeches is a small price to pay for security and dignity.

our pledgte

The public has already had a sniff of this government’s “un-Australian” tendencies with their unwillingness to save Holden and blithe indifference to a future foreign takeover of Qantas. This might not been the greenest polity in the world, yet they are deeply suspicious of the government’s lack of concern for the environment, most evident in their willingness to expose the Great Barrier Reef to risk. Irrespective of any cold logic or economic rationalism that might be argued in any of these cases, the gut response across the community is that Australia is losing its icons and its unique environment is directly threatened. Woe betide any prime minister who carelessly tinkers with the very soul of the nation and transgresses its core values.

This country might represent the richest and most decadent society in human history, but it is less stupid and complacent than Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey seem to believe. How do they think it looks to the average person when they move to cut billions from education and deregulate university fees, along with increasing the interest on student loans, in the light of the knowledge that Tony Abbott’s daughter was offered a scholarship that was clearly only granted on account of her wealthy, influential pater? How does it look when, on budget day, a day on which measures that would harm the livelihoods of millions of Australians were announced, the treasurer and finance minister are seen joking and smoking cigars? We are not a bunch of mugs, and, so far as doing the “heavy lifting” is concerned, such arrogant, hypocritical rhetoric will see this government picked up and tossed into Lake Burley-Griffin in the next election.

Tony Abbott Simpleton

These are but a few examples, yet the unfairness of this government’s agenda is evident on many fronts. Why push to remove the mining tax, perpetuate tax breaks for the fossil fuel sector, but cut welfare payments and services? Why claim to be a government for indigenous Australians, then rip more than 500 million dollars out of funding for indigenous programs? Why push for a ludicrously generous and expensive paid parental leave scheme which will primarily advantage high income earners, but not invest in child-care whilst at the same time cutting family support? Why spend $12.4 billion on foreign-built fighter planes, while offering no support for local manufacturing? There are so many clear inconsistencies coming out of this budget, but they all add up to one very clear and alarmingly loud message – the rich pay once (maybe, if the levy passes the senate) while the rest of society pay forever with an unaffordable, elitist education system, more expensive health care, under-funded services, inadequate childcare, slow, expensive internet, and a bleak environmental future. This does not reflect Australian egalitarianism, in fact, it is the most blatantly arrogant form of elitism we have witnessed in decades.

The government’s program might seem less cruel and vindictive if it was coupled to a sound vision for Australia’s future, yet their performance so far makes it clear that they are clueless. The Coalition never had any real alternative policies in opposition, only oppositions and disingenuous arguments about how to fund things, whilst pretending they would uphold the significant social infrastructure which Labor had put in play – particularly Gonski and the NDIS. It is now clear that this government’s only purpose is deregulation – creating an environment in which their donors can operate freely without red and green tape getting in the way. This is especially evident in their attitude to science, climate policy and the environment. Why dismantle the Climate Commission, as though climate change is not a real and present threat? Why fail to appoint a science minister for the first time since the 1930s? Why shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, even when it’s turning a profit? The answer is simple – no matter how much they might pretend otherwise, Tony Abbott still thinks climate change is “crap” and the coalition have absolutely no vision for Australia’s environmental future.

Pledge

What makes this all so stupid strategically is Tony Abbott’s failure to understand how greatly disliked he is across the community as a whole. He won the last election on the back of the most vicious and partisan propaganda campaign by the right wing media, and only because, despite their best efforts to sell him to the public, he was viewed incorrectly as the lesser of two evils. After such vitriolic rhetoric about lying and broken promises, after taking the moral high-ground so stridently against Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, he would have done well to adhere to those standards. By treating the public with such contempt, namely, in breaking almost every single promise he made prior to the election, he and his government have lost the small amount of credibility they had mustered. They now have no political capital left to spend whatsoever.

Game of thrones meme

Even Tony Abbott’s one big win in “stopping the boats” has become a slow-burning, potentially metastasising cancer that will eat away at Australia’s international credibility and come back to bite them as the situation inevitably deteriorates. In “solving” the problem they have, ironically, removed the one issue on which they might have argued competence, thus nullifying any positive effects on public opinion. The mainstream media has already moved on, and, increasingly, the focus is on conditions on Manus Island – a human rights disaster which no amount of whitewashing can disguise.

The very nature of this government’s broken promises also significantly undermines their credibility, because they mostly serve to punish people in need, without any net positives for the majority of the population. The lie that these cuts will improve Australia’s position economically and save the country from perilous levels of debt quickly evaporates with a glance at the comparative statistics on debt levels across the OECD. More importantly, however, the cruelty and short-sightedness of these cuts is readily apparent when we consider that there are other, far more effective ways of generating wealth without restricting the grass-roots spending power of the lower middle and working classes, or imposing unreasonable charges and debts on the most vulnerable socio-economic groups.

dead people hecs

The government’s attempts to sell this budget have been pathetic and contradictory to say the least – relying either on false dichotomies, blaming Labor, economic rationalist rhetoric and even bullying. One MP , George Christensen, had the temerity to suggest on Twitter that Australians should tour Asia and live like locals to put their “First World complaints” into perspective, going so far as to post a photo of a poverty-stricken street. The take-down was swift – “Aussie battlers should take a glimpse at LNP model for Australia’s future,” was one reply. Apart from the exploitative, disgusting sentiment expressed by Christensen, he might bear in mind that most Australians have visited Asia and already appreciate what they have and will fight to keep it. He might also bear in mind that many of us have been to Scandinavia too, and know only too well how much better things can be with even fewer resources if only the government has the balls to tax industry properly and make the people it was elected to represent its priority.

But of course, in reality, this is class warfare pure and simple. The government has been using a false premise to wage ideological warfare on behalf of its benefactors. The “incompetence” and “profligate spending” of Labor, resulting in a “budget crisis” are rhetorical constructs of right-wing ideologues. Yes, Labor at times appeared shambolic on account of their lack of internal discipline, yes their PR team is likely the most incompetent in history, but at least their policies (with the very clear and obvious exceptions of cuts to welfare for single mothers – the greatest betrayal of their heartland – and their pathetic and cruel policies on asylum seekers) were primarily geared towards providing the essential hard and soft infrastructure Australia requires to function as a progressive, competitive and fair society: the National Broadband Network, the Gonski School funding program, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Carbon Pricing Scheme, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax among many others.

Gonski

These are in some cases expensive, but arguably necessary policies, designed to promote fairness, equality and to raise revenue from areas that are inadequately taxed or require taxation to curb current practises. At least when Labor broke their promises about the Carbon Pricing Scheme it was, arguably, for a good cause. We do need to reduce our emissions and make an effective transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Other programs for which Labor have been pilloried, such as the Home Insulation Scheme, smack of a bad case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. No one doubts that the deaths of those installing the insulation were an unmitigated tragedy and should have been prevented, yet the policy itself was implemented with sound intentions. Do we really need a royal commission, especially one that is ideologically motivated and has siphoned funding from the royal commission into child abuse? Labor made mistakes, but arguably their efforts were more broadly in the public interest – more egalitarian – than those of the present government, which are abundantly non-egalitarian.

NBN Policy

The real problem underlying Labor’s program – a problem which still prevails – was not how much they spent, but how little they taxed. If they truly believed these programs were necessary, then it was simply a question of raising revenue to pay for them. There were, and still are, plenty of ways to do that without cutting anything. In a recent article in The Guardian, Luke Mansillo outlined six means by which the government could raise revenue totalling $136.5 billion dollars: through removing unfair superannuation subsidies which are skewed in favour of the wealthiest; increasing taxation on the mining industry; abolishing fuel subsidies for the fossil fuel industry; defunding private schools; introducing more progressive income taxes and abolishing negative gearing.

Surplus - alternative savings

It is worth pointing out just how little mining is taxed – at present, it effectively equates to 13% . This amounts to revenue totalling around $17.6 billion from an industry that was worth $135.6 billion in 2010-11. As Mansillo points out, Norway taxes its industry at a whopping 78%, and it is a thriving, going concern. With a tax of 50% on industry profits, Australia could raise around $67 billion – single-handedly wiping out the deficit and paving the way for a future of generously funded public services. How long is this rort going to continue?

What is most astonishing about the present debate is that it focuses squarely and, to some degree appropriately, on the cruelty and suffering inherent in the budget proposals, but has not as yet centred around alternative measures of raising revenue. Why aren’t we discussing how much more we need to tax the mining sector? Why are we merely imposing a one-off levy on high income earners, rather than increasing income tax for high earners and thus locking this revenue stream into the taxation structure? Do we honestly buy the redundant argument that this will cripple the economy and drive mining investment away?

I voted Liberal...

Of course, with the next election still two and a half years away, Tony Abbott might just get away with it. The bounce for Labor will be unsustainable if they fail to remove the taint of their recent time in office and if Bill Shorten remains as uncharismatic as he is at present. The Greens and Palmer United are more likely to be the longer-term beneficiaries of the present storm – a storm which might herald the beginning of a new politics in Australia. After all, this has been the most volatile period politically since the sacking of the Whitlam government. Are we entering a new era of one-term governments, a far more diverse senate and the greater presence of minor parties in the Lower House?

One thing is for sure, Abbott must resign as minister for women. Winkgate has made his position untenable. It might seem trivial to some, but, wink aside, the contemptuous and disrespectfully glib smirk and body language expressed during the conversation, along with the patronising tone of voice, perfectly illustrate precisely why so many women are so suspicious of Tony Abbott and find him so contemptible. The very fact that there is only a single woman in Tony Abbott’s cabinet sends a clear enough message already.

Abbott on housewives

Right now as Bomber Harris once said, quoting Hosea: “they that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind” and Tony Abbott and co had better batten down the hatches, for they have been flagrantly tossing their seed into the wind for some time. Australians have traditionally punished those they see as elitist or arrogant, those who don’t believe in a fair go. There will be no exceptions for Abbott if he doesn’t win back the public’s trust. I for one, most certainly hope that he fails in that endeavour.

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I recently wrote a piece in response to Kevin Rudd’s return as prime minister of Australia, in which I endorsed him as someone with the potential to be a good prime minister. Over the course of the past few weeks, however, my disillusionment with Rudd has reached such a point that I can’t now express the same sentiments. Let me be clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with any preference for the conservative opposition, a bunch of loathsome worms, but with a sense of moral repugnance at what Labor has ostensibly come to represent in recent times. It is in their handling of the issue of asylum seekers that I have felt most moral outrage, but also in their lack of spine on certain matters of policy.

An old friend and long time Labor supporter recently published a piece in which he stated that the Labor party deserved to be repudiated at this election on account of their inhumane policies on this front, and I wholeheartedly agree. That the opposition policy is no less deserving of repudiation changes nothing – it simply means that both parties, or rather all three, including the Nationals of the opposition coalition – deserve repudiation. In a nutshell, no one should be rewarded for taking a heartless and hardline approach with the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.

asylum seekers

It’s a complex question. Should we attempt to deter asylum seekers who have a right to seek asylum? If so, how do we establish an effective deterrent, whilst at the same time maintaining international obligations to which we are bound under the refugee convention? The problem is that in approaching this question both parties have focussed solely on the question of deterrent, factoring their “humanitarian concerns” only with regard to “stopping the boats” on account of the number of drownings at sea. This in itself is a worthwhile goal – no one wants to see people drown and nor does anyone think it is appropriate for people smugglers to put refugees into boats that are not seaworthy. From this point of view the idea of “stopping the boats” might seem almost admirable, yet the sad truth is that it is all about keeping the bloody wogs out.

When Rudd returned as Prime Minister, it was perhaps inevitable that, with such a short time frame until the election, his priority would be to “neutralise” the issues that were crippling Labor. First of those was Gillard herself, through no fault of her own, the victim of an increasingly hostile press who never had a chance to establish a positive narrative of good governance, despite an impressive record of legislation.

Second for Rudd was neutralising the “Carbon Tax,” another embarrassing failure for the government. The very fact that the government itself began referring to it as the “Carbon Tax” is indicative of how much they were overwhelmed by the negative narrative surrounding it. Julia Gillard had already tarnished the issue with her fatally stupid promise that there would be no carbon tax, turning a moral high ground positive into a broken promise nightmare. Within a few days of returning to office, Rudd effectively quashed the tax by switching a year early to the floating carbon price – a wholly ineffectual licence to pollute. Now, in another pathetic backdown, Rudd has said that Labor never had a mandate for the carbon pricing scheme. Yet, in effect, Labor already had a mandate for carbon pricing as it was on the cards in the 2007 election, which they won handsomely. It’s just that Rudd chickened out once he failed to get his policy through the senate in 2010. A government’s job is to govern – they must make decisions that best suit the public interest, short or long term, and not all of those decisions can be popular. Are we supposed to believe that any decision they make in the course of their term that was not flagged during the election campaign requires a mandate? Labor should own their policies if they have any merit and stop apologising. That is leadership. And yet, in the sorry and apologetic way in which they went about constructing the carbon pricing scheme and the mining tax, they came up with policies not worth owning.

Not quite last, and certainly not least, was Rudd’s attempt to neutralise asylum policy – “stopping the boats”. He was quick out of the blocks in promoting his hardline PNG Solution, denying anyone who comes by boat to Australia the right to seek asylum in Australia – instead being re-settled in Papua New Guinea. This might seem to some like a coup for handwashing pragmatism – keeping the problem entirely offshore and denying asylum seekers any incentive to come here. Other things aside, this policy smacks of a mix of colonial superiority – the idea that no one could possibly want to be re-settled in PNG and would thus abandon their plans to cross the sea smacks of grotesque arrogance – and gross irresponsibility in refusing to accept legitimate refugees into our wealthy, safe country, and instead fobbing them off to a developing country with one of the highest rates of rape, murder and violence in the world and drastic levels of social inequality and dysfunction. If this isn’t bad enough, the refugees are, in the meantime, to be housed in crowded tent camps on poorly serviced tropical islands like Nauru, waiting potentially years to be processed and suffering all manner of anguish and indignity in the meantime.

Nauru

Yes there’s an argument that allowing onshore processing or settlement in the community might encourage more asylum seekers to risk their lives in boats. There are also pragmatic and economic questions to consider. Can Australia support any further intake of refugees? Outer suburban Australia, in contrast to inner city electorates, has largely been suspicious of and hostile to the influx of refugees into Australia. Much of this reflects some degree of neglect by state governments in providing services and infrastructure in places such as western Sydney, where hostility to asylum seekers is strongest. There is a misguided and incorrect perception in the community that asylum seekers get a better deal than locals and that the government favours these groups. The numbers themselves are not significant. Despite arguments by the government that Australia takes its fair share of refugees, on a per capita basis, we are actually ranked 69th in the world and 49th when considering the total number of refugees on a yearly basis. This rather belies the idea that we are drowning in refugees. Jordan, with 73 refugees per thousand people, is drowning in refugees. Australia averages 1 refugee per thousand people.

Yet of course, it’s not really a practical or an economic question. It is a moral question. How do we treat people in need and what do we do to protect the vulnerable? Sending them offshore to a tent-camp hell-hole is utterly un-Australian in my books. Whatever happened to our generosity and hospitality? And yes, many refugees might well turn out to be economic migrants, but why not take them at their word and allow them to live and work in the community until proven otherwise? Or are we afraid that they might take our jobs and fuck all our women?

Irrespective of their pissweak attitude in certain policy areas, and equally irrespective of their policies which I strongly support – the Gonski education reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband network and Denticare to name a few, this wilful demonising of asylum seekers is not something I can support, and I can’t support a government that expresses these attitudes and implements such a ghastly deterrent. This is not good enough from Labor and nor is it in line with my understanding of their core beliefs and principles. As Tom Clark recently wrote:

If you believe the policy of deterrence is immoral – clearly, not everybody does – then you simply cannot give your vote or your money to federal candidates of the ALP. You can argue they are victims of history, naively caught in another prohibition folly; you can argue their approach is less appalling than the Liberals, although this is now a very hard claim to sustain; but I don’t see how you can admit Phillip Adams’ case that it is worth tolerating because Labor is doing good work in other areas. Unconscionable wrong is unconscionable wrong — or else it is not a moral question after all.

For a while there I was flirting with the idea of voting Labor, as I once used to do with regularity – anything to stop the conservatives getting back in – but not now. Only the Greens have shown sufficient humanity in this ugly, quite frankly, disgusting debate and it is they who will be getting my vote. Of course, in our two-party preferred system a vote for the Greens is usually a tacit vote for Labor, and a Labor victory is still my preferred outcome, over the wholly inappropriately named “Liberals”. Yet, as I said above, anyone who pushes this kind of dog-whistle politics is not eligible for my vote.

I conclude with a song by Waiting for Guinness, which pretty much sums up the irony of Australia’s present stance in relation to refugees. Written during the Howard era, it is perhaps even more relevant now than ever – because, don’t kid yourselves otherwise, this is really all about “keeping out the riff raff.”

Keeping out the Riff Raff – Waiting for Guinness

 

I’ll tell you a tale,

about the history of an old floating gaol

about a fact that’s well reported,

the place where riff-raff were transported.

And so they all swam ashore,

murdering thieves and the poor,

a nation made of riff raff,

a nation made of strangers from afar.

 

So in order to last

we wrote a story and extinguished the past

and then we made a few decisions

and put the locals into missions

and then the governing few

set up an orderly queue

to filter out the riff raff

to filter out the strangers from afar

 

That’s why we’re keeping out the riff raff

locking them all away

sending them into darkness

back around the bay

you’ll be re-elected

it’s as clear as day

just keep the whingers in the gutter

and the riff raff away.

 

We’re waiting in line

We wait here while they count our numbers

And keep our eyes out for queue jumpers

Wait for instructions from the bunkers

Keeping our big eyes wide

Keeping the pigs by our side

Keeping out the riff raff

Keeping out the strangers from afar

 

And we’re all keeping out the riff raff

locking them all away

sending them into darkness

back around the bay

you’ll be re-elected

it’s as clear as day,

cos if they sew their lips together,

you can’t hear what they say.

 

Because they’re taking our jobs and fucking our women

and they’re taking our jobs and rooting all our women

and they’re taking our jobs and fucking our women

taking our jobs and rooting all our women

repeat (increasingly hysterically).

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One of the first things I ever posted on this blog, in November 2007, was an expression of my sentiments on the eve of the election which saw the Labor party re-elected and Kevin Rudd become prime minister of Australia. At the time I was ecstatic after eleven and a half years of conservative rule under the much-loathed (by me) John Howard. I’m not about to go over that old ground, suffice to say that I disagreed not just with his fundamental beliefs and policies, but also the tone of his leadership – a brand of dangerously incendiary, flag-waving nationalism that fuelled Australia’s undercurrent of xenophobia and selfishness. Seeing John Howard defeated in that election made me want to return to Australia. I felt a renewed hope that this country might not be so bad after all.

When Rudd became prime minister, his popularity was unprecedented in Australian history. Indeed, he achieved the highest ever positive ratings in polls regarding satisfaction with his leadership and preferred prime minister. It seems almost impossible to believe then that, three years later, in June 2010, he was dumped by his own party in a bloodless coup and replaced with Julia Gillard, the then deputy PM. Rudd’s popularity had certainly fallen considerably in that time, largely on account of the clumsy implementation of otherwise good policy and his failure to get both the mining tax and carbon emissions trading scheme through parliament, yet most leaders lose much of their shine in their first term and come good in the ensuring election. Rudd is such a good campaigner and had, at that time, enough feathers in his cap to defeat Tony Abbott convincingly.

Yet it was not merely a knee-jerk reaction from the Labor party in the face of increasingly bad polls, it was, apparently, also on account of Rudd’s leadership style within the party. Rudd was said to have been dictatorial, inconsiderate, both disorganised and a control-freak, and not adequately consultative. And there were other reasons which say much about the structure of the Labor party – Rudd was unaligned factionally and was often at odds with the unions. This was very much a part of the recipe for his public popularity, yet it did not endear him to many in caucus who felt he was somehow not a  true Labor party member on account of his lacking more traditional affiliations. The Labor party had seen that he was an election winner on account of his appeal to a broad section of the electorate and his personable public style, yet once his popularity was called into question publicly, his lack of broad support within the party left him exposed and they dropped him like a hot potato.

I was, it must be said, totally and utterly surprised when this happened and had not seen it coming. How could a party who had been in the wilderness for eleven and a half years, politically assassinate the very man who had got them so emphatically back into government, before he had even served his first term? I was confused in my loyalties, because I had always wanted Julia Gillard to be the leader of the Labor party and was extremely pleased to see the elevation of Australia’s first female prime minister, yet felt deeply sorry for Kevin Rudd and considered the manner of his ousting to be unfair. I failed to realise at the time just how destabilising this would be and, considering the policy vacuum and low standards on the other side of the house, figured the Labor party would be returned to power in the ensuing election. Ultimately, they were, but as a minority government with the terrible taint of illegitimacy.

In many ways, replacing Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard was the stupidest tactical move the Labor party has ever made in office. I am an admirer of Julia Gillard and think she performed admirably as prime minister. She is tough and intelligent and succeeded in pushing some very important and progressive legislation through parliament in one of the toughest parliamentary environments in Australian political history. The sheer amount of legislation is staggering – over 500 pieces in a hung parliament, all of which had to be negotiated – but it is the big ticket items – the Gonski education funding reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Minerals and Resources tax, the Carbon pricing scheme and the continuation of the implementation of the National Broadband Network which will go down in history as most significant – and, indeed, divisive.

Indeed, Gillard succeeded where Rudd had failed, under even more difficult circumstances, yet these successes often came at a considerable cost to the integrity of the policy. The Carbon pricing scheme has proven deeply flawed on account of the collapsing price of carbon on international carbon markets, whilst the mining tax lost so many teeth in the process of being re-negotiated that it raised only a negligible amount of revenue, far short of the what it was supposed to achieve to fund Labor’s other projects.

Despite various set-backs and public distrust, Julia Gillard’s popularity as a leader remained stronger than that of the opposition leader Tony Abbott’s for much of her prime ministership, whilst that of the Labor party gradually languished. Yet she also created many problems for herself with misguided and unreasonable promises, such as the naïve and frankly stupid promise not to introduce a “carbon tax”, despite clear intentions to do so, and the promise to achieve a budget surplus by 2013. The carbon tax issue is a classic example of how Labor lost control of the narrative. What should have been a positive example of Labor taking the moral highground and acting in accordance with the wishes of the public – remember how much Rudd suffered for failing to introduce this legislation – this issue rapidly became the acrimonious curse of a broken promise. Any sense of the righteousness of the policy was lost in the ensuing bun fight.

Ultimately, however, it was Labor’s handling of the issue of people smuggling, refugees and asylum seekers that brought the most discredit to both the Prime Minister and the party. Faced with a rapid increase in the number of boats carrying asylum seekers coming to Australia, the Labor party was caught between a rock and a hard place and seen to be making policy on the fly, without due consideration or consultation. This is of course a very complex and logistically difficult issue, as much as it is a moral and humanitarian issue, and Labor handled things poorly on all counts. From the perspective of the right, they were far too soft in failing to “stop the boats.” From the perspective of the left, they were far too draconian in insisting on off-shore processing and then adding insult to injury by “housing” refugees in a tent-camp hell-hole. From the perspective of anyone looking on, they were hopelessly incompetent and morally bankrupt.

I’ve been pretty disgusted with the attitudes of both sides of parliament on this issue, and whilst I don’t have all the answers myself, believe humanitarian concerns must trump all others. Of course I want to stop the boats too – because no one should be putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers who stick them in decrepit and overcrowded vessels and send them to their deaths on the high seas – but that we should show such a callous lack of generosity in looking out for those who do come into our care and ask for our help, makes me sick to the core. Whatever happened to the “fair go” for fuck’s sake? Can not one of the world’s richest countries afford to find a place for more refugees in our community – especially when so many good and kind-hearted Australians would be willing to dedicate their time and money to helping them?

To further this digression, it is astonishing how this has become one of the biggest political issues in the country. Yes, it is a moral issue of epic proportions, make no mistake, but to hear people out there echoing Tony Abbott’s shrill wailing about “stopping the boats” – not because people are drowning, but because we don’t like “queue-jumpers” who abuse our hospitality – is alarming. There is little difference between this mentality and the “taking our jobs and fucking our women” paranoia of traditional xenophobia. How many of those voters’ lives have actually been affected by this issue? Almost none, I would venture.

So yes, Julia Gillard struggled immensely with a degree of vituperation usually reserved for people who poison their children. Much of this was legitimate disappointment with policy, but there is no doubt her gender played a significant role. Men are far less fair to women once they decide they don’t like them, and each of Gillard’s mistakes or inconsistencies only amplified the perception amongst many men that she was a “stupid, incompetent bitch,” a variation of which quote I’ve overheard many times in reference to her. With the increasingly rotten albatross of illegitimacy hanging around her neck after the manner of her elevation to the top job, the perception that she didn’t really win the 2010 election anyway, and the widespread belief that she was a tool of the union movement and a product of the “faceless” men, the powerbrokers of the Labor right who had orchestrated similar coups in New South Wales, there was always a lingering distaste in the electorate and potent ammunition for the opposition.

Julia Gillard also suffered considerably from internal destabilisation. Most of this came from supporters of Kevin Rudd or from Rudd himself, who never relinquished the limelight nor accepted his deposition. There were leaks, rumours and the backhanded compliments of his tepid and often deliberately ambiguous expressions of support for his usurper. His failed challenges for the leadership – one in which he was soundly defeated and a second in which he never fronted – caused considerable damage to Labor’s vote and Gillard’s popularity. Indeed, support for the party and PM tanked during and after both of these challenges and only added to Labor’s woes. Whilst Kevin Rudd failed to reclaim the leadership on those occasions, the cumulative damage would eventually make it possible for him to reclaim the office that was taken from him.

Throughout all this, Julia Gillard never flinched nor showed any sign of personal weakness. She was tough as nails and exuded a confidence that is a testament to her fighting spirit. There is no doubt that she came under a dramatically increased level of pressure and scrutiny on account of the tenuous nature of Labor’s hold on power as a minority government, and her being a woman. I said years ago that Australia was too immature to have a female prime minister and feel vindicated after having witnessed the shameful way in which she has been pilloried by both the media and the electorate. There is no doubt that Julia Gillard was subjected to questions and attacks that would not have been directed at a male prime minister, and whereas she was hailed as a wonderfully strong feminist icon by the international community when she spoke out against the evident sexism in parliament and the media, in Australia she was considered to be making excuses and hiding behind these assertions as a means of deflecting attention from her unpopular policy and underlying illegitimacy.

I can’t recall such vituperation and lack of respect for a prime minister, and it seemed largely at odds with the narrative of the economy or the success of policy. How could a prime minister be so unpopular when presiding over such a successful economy in its 21st consecutive year of growth which had grown 14% in the five years since Labor came to power? A nation in which real wealth was slowly but surely growing on account of low inflation and wage increases increases above inflation; a nation with 5% unemployment; a nation which hardly blinked while the rest of the developed world fell into deep recession, high unemployment and austerity-driven stagflation, a crisis that has now lasted longer than the Great Depression. It disappoints me to think how unaware or ungrateful Australians are of their good fortune, both in living in such a lucky country, and in having sufficiently good governance not only to survive the Global Economic Crisis, but to thrive in it.

Yet, of course, there is much complexity to Julia Gillard’s unpopularity, but underlying everything was the sense of illegitimacy that came with the manner of her elevation. Katharine Murphy at the Guardian recently quoted the Irish existentialist Samuel Beckett – “the end is in the beginning, and yet you go on.” Labor’s tactical folly in failing to see how tainted her office would become through the “undemocratic” ousting of Kevin Rudd was their biggest mistake of modern times, short of putting Mark Latham in charge. Ironically, of course, in removing Kevin Rudd, the Labor party was exercising its own internal democracy, and yet its actions revealed that whilst we ostensibly vote for parties and not leaders in Australia, in reality the public very much chooses on account of the person of the party leader. Take away their choice and you, in effect, disenfranchise them. In August 2010, the people took back their right to exercise democracy and showed their displeasure in no uncertain terms. Yet this did not satisfy them. Nothing short of the re-installation of Kevin Rudd as prime minister would close the wound. Now, exactly three years and three days after Julia Gillard became prime minister, the party has acknowledged its error of judgement and handed the crown back to Kevin Rudd.

Wednesday was one of the most extraordinary days in the history of Australian politics. It began with the dramatic announcement of the retirement of two prominent independent members of Parliament – Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor – both of whom came especially to prominence in the wake of the last federal election in August 2010. The result of that election was the loss of the Labor party’s majority and a lengthy series of negotiations to form a minority government with the support of the Greens and independents.

For a while there it seemed as though the conservative opposition might have snatched power, but fortunately Julia Gillard was able to convince Oakeshott and Windsor to support her agenda over Tony Abbott’s. This was a coup of sorts in that both of these independents occupied traditionally conservative seats, and it seemed, at the time, to be a testament both to Gillard’s capacity as a negotiator, and also the fact that, looked at objectively, Labor’s policy was far superior to that of the jokers sitting opposite. Windsor and Oakeshott were the “queen-makers,” and both men impressed me with their refreshingly non-partisan rationality and apparently careful consideration of the nation’s interests over their personal interest, especially as their support for a Labor government went against the wishes of many in their electorates.

So the day began with a farewell to these two prominent independents – fine examples of how important it can be to keep the doors of parliament open to those not affiliated with any of the major parties. They likely made as many enemies as friends, but a large portion of the Australian public have shown appropriate respect for the way they have conducted themselves – with apparent good sense and plain-spoken straightforwardness. Though, it must be said, Oakeshott certainly does bang on a bit.

These resignations soon paled into nothing, however, when it became clear that on this second-last day of parliament before the September 14 election, Kevin Rudd was not only moving to challenge for the party leadership, but that he had the numbers. The so-called Ruddmentum had become so great, so inexorable, that the Labor party had no choice but to accept its inevitability. Realising what was afoot, with rumours of a petition circulating in caucus to call for a vote on the leadership, Julia Gillard called a 7 PM ballot, and the rest is history. Roughly an hour later, Rudd emerged as leader of the Labor party and Prime Minister elect, having secured 57 votes to Gillard’s 45. Six prominent cabinet members, including deputy PM and treasurer Wayne Swan, promptly handed in their resignations. Just under three months before the now doubtful election date, it seemed a change of government had already taken place.

So, what to make of all this? Firstly, it’s bloody exciting. As sad as I am to see Gillard go, and what her treatment by the public says about this country, I’m happy that the whole nature of this election has now changed. Under Gillard, there was no doubt that the Labor Party was facing catastrophic defeat in the upcoming election. They stood to lose almost all their seats in Queensland and western Sydney, along with a whole range of seats across the board. With their primary vote at a miserable 29% and the two party-preferred offering equally discomforting margins of 16 and 18 percentage points, not even the most optimistic Labor pollsters believed there was any hope of avoiding a colossal defeat. Such is life, such is politics. The party quite simply could not go to the election with Julia Gillard on the ticket.

This is also a victory for democracy, of sorts. In the public imagination, where polls have unceasingly shown very high levels of support for Kevin Rudd as an alternative prime minister, and that voting intentions would change were he re-installed as Labor leader, there has long been a perception that democracy was taken out of their hands. I don’t generally like “populism” and it is a dirty word for a reason, because these days it is associated with the base, ill-informed desires of the  “lowest common denominator.” Yet there is no denying that in this case, the public has had a legitimate grievance.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at his first press conference since resuming the prime ministership. He has announced an extension to the sign-up date for the school funding reforms.

Despite deep reservations about how he has conducted himself over the past three years, I am pleased to see Rudd back in office. Only Kevin Rudd is capable of changing the narrative of Australian politics and only Kevin Rudd is capable of giving Labor a chance of re-election. No one was listening when Julia Gillard or Wayne Swan spoke, irrespective of the content or quality of their message. Consequently, Labor could never articulate its successes. This wasn’t helped by an apparently incompetent PR machine – after all, who could fail to sell a mining tax, which creams off the profits of the super rich to fund important public infrastructure and welfare projects, which the public support? – yet in reality, so unpopular had Labor’s leadership become that it no longer mattered what they said.

Kevin Rudd will have a willing audience to whom he can, in his broad-church manner, make a case for Labor’s many successes and its proven record of progressiveness. He has the charisma and rhetorical skill to change the narrative and bring the public debate back to questions of policy, where those opposite will be found seriously wanting. More importantly, however, he also has the moral high-ground. This might sound ludicrous in the light of his deceitful “white-anting” of Gillard’s prime ministership, yet the public, in truth, don’t give a stuff about that, because they have always hailed him as a martyr. Kevin Rudd was wronged, the people were wronged, and now that has again been made right – that is the dominant public narrative which will trump perceptions that he has behaved deceitfully. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and Kevin Rudd is seen to be the latter.

I’m aware of how unfashionable it is to support Kevin Rudd in my own circles. I understand all the reservations and disappointments of many of my friends and peers, most of whom are good lefties with a strong social conscience, and many of whom are women who feel understandably disgusted by how Julia Gillard was treated. I too feel some discomfort about Kevin Rudd’s so-called “humility” and his at times insufferable smugness. But it was Rudd who won the great victory in 2007, it was Rudd who made the apology to the Stolen Generation, it was Rudd who got us through the GFC and it was Rudd who deserved a chance to lead the Labor party to election in 2010. I can hardly blame him for retaining his ambition – he was cut off far too soon and deserved more of a fair go himself. He should have been disciplined from within, warned that his style was alienating people and making internal enemies, not summarily dumped in a midnight coup.

I also genuinely believe that Kevin Rudd will make a good prime minister. There are expectations that he will strengthen the mining tax and make changes to carbon pricing to make it more effective in the long-term, and he has made clear his support for same-sex marriage. Otherwise, what we have is continuity in regards to most other Labor policy, which I broadly support, with some serious exceptions. The difference is that, whilst Rudd has one of the longest shots at winning election in political history, in his case, it is actually possible, whereas in Julia Gillard’s – dream all you like – it most certainly was not. If Kevin Rudd can keep the Liberals out of power, or at least check the degree of power they have upon entering office and save the Labor party from political annihilation, then that is enough for me to endorse him.

Yes, this all sorta stinks, and despite having voted Green for years now, the Labor party is the only credible chance the left have of governing in Australia, which means they have my tacit support. I was for many years a strong believer in the Labor party and though they have disappointed me many times, they will always be my preferred choice in our rather limiting, two-party preferred system. At least now I have some hope, both for their future, and, though it sounds overly dramatic, for ours. And so I say, Go Kevin! And now, can we at last drop all the bullshit and have a real policy debate…

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People keep asking me what Kim Jong-Un is up to at the moment. What is he hoping to achieve? Does he actually want to start a war? Is he really intending to launch nukes? I’m flattered that my friends and acquaintances think I might have an answer for them, but I don’t exactly have a hotline to Pyongyang and am thus privileged to the same information as everyone else outside of the intelligence services. Having said that, I do have an answer of sorts, which is hardly all that original – it’s all just a lot of posturing.

Inspecting weapons

The recent escalation of rhetoric has certainly been dramatic. The bellicose reminder of the state of war between North and South Korea, tough talking about ballistic and nuclear capability, overzealous reactions to even the smallest slight from the south and, more recently, the statement that foreign embassy officials could no longer consider themselves safe in North Korea – all amounts to an alarming increase of tension, but likely little else. As an official at South Korea’s defence ministry quipped – “barking dogs don’t bite.”

Boat trip

Pyongyang’s recent attacks on the south – the torpedoing of the Cheonan, which left 46 dead, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, both in 2010have been by stealth, or come without warning. That doesn’t mean his threats have no substance, but it does suggests that talking and walking are by no means linked, so to speak.

The joys of authorising strikes

Some years ago a wit described the India / Pakistan nuclear arms race as “Viagra Diplomacy,” a term which applies itself well to the current situation with North Korea. There is something ludicrously phallic about rocket launches, a situation not helped by North Korea’s tendency to suffix its rocket names with the word “Dong.” Take the Taepodong for example, a name which lends itself spectacularly to punning, or the even sillier and counter-intuitive Nodong, which was effectively an adapted Soviet SS1 or “Scud” and, dare I say it, a bit of a flop. Joking aside, there’s no doubt that North Korea has made progress with its ballistic capability and just may have the capacity to mount a nuclear warhead, but the threat to rain down missiles on the United States seems farfetched considering their as yet limited range of roughly 6000 kilometres.

Missile test

Having said that, North Korea certainly has the capacity to target its immediate neighbours; the southern capital Seoul, at just 25 kilometres south of the border, is within artillery range. There is no doubt that North Korea could inflict terrible carnage if they wished to attack the south. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons aside, the scale of their conventional forces is staggering. A quick glance at the Wikipedia list of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel puts North Korea on top, with an active military of roughly 1.1 million, bolstered by an incredible 8 million reservists. The Korean war of 1950-53 cost the lives of two million people, and whilst any modern war would prove a very different beast, there is little doubt that it could also cost millions of lives.

Yet what, one must ask, would be the point? Surely, despite the capacity to inflict untold damage on the south, the North would ultimately be defeated. North Korea would have no allies – China would wash their hands of them and Pyongyang would find itself facing off against a broad alliance led by the United States and supported by the U.N. The north might achieve initial successes, but would surely lose the war, and, apart from the disastrous human, social, environmental and economic consequences of a conflict, losing the war would potentially mark the end of the regime, the end of military domination, and the end of North Korea as a state: the end of Kim Jong-Un. One suspects that nothing other than unconditional surrender would be demanded, especially considering how long the situation has festered and how great the desire to avoid any furtherance of this geopolitical cancer. What might follow is anyone’s guess: re-unification, a long and awkward occupation of the smoking ruins… It would all depend on the nature of the war, which, after an initial bout of shock and awe by both sides, could even be over in a couple of days with an internal coup.

Which brings us back to this important question of what the hell Kim Jong-Un is up to? If war is unlikely, what is the point of all this belligerent rhetoric and rocket-rattling? Surely the most likely explanation is that he wishes to shore up support at home.

Hello!

Song Launch

Kim with wife

Just as George Bush, John Howard and Tony Blair all rhetorically escalated the level of external threat to their respective countries after 9/11 in order to shore up domestic support for their imperial ambitions by creating a clear and present external danger, so it would seem King Jong-Un, perhaps struggling to define himself internally and to assert the legitimacy of his rule, wishes to create an almost hysterical climate of fear. If anything this whole business seems to highlight his insecurity rather than his capability or intent. Ironically the very survival of the regime depends on avoiding conflict, but the state largely defines itself through struggle and conflict.

Lovable

The real fear is that with tensions so high war might begin by accident rather than design. Miscalculation, misinterpretation… it seems unlikely, but it is by no means impossible. The levels of readiness are such that hell could be unleashed at very short notice – perhaps before clarity prevails. Should a war begin, even by accident, it will be extremely difficult to stop.

There is also the genuine possibility that Kim Jong-Un is something of a nutcase. He is certainly less predictable than his familial predecessors and less well understood, but he must know as surely as anyone else that war would be the end of his regime with all its privileges.

Kim Jong Un

It’s very easy to parody and caricature Kim Jong-Un as a greedy little brat of a despot, and I have to confess I’ve been guilty of such parody myself, yet whilst it might be childish fun to joke about him, it’s somewhat counterproductive. The belief that he is genuinely mad, propagated by the parodies and caricatures, only fuels the paranoia about his intentions.

Lunch not launch

Keep raffing

Yet, as always with humour, there is a great deal of truth in much of it. He likely is a spoilt brat with delusions of grandeur instilled through constant inflation of his talents and charms, drunk on power. He really does come across as the tubby, nerdy gamer kid with a chip on his shoulder. His recent actions remind me of people on Facebook, including myself, who, when lonely or feeling starved of attention, start posting in a more exclamatory and regular manner. His international threats are like bad-tempered tweets – mouthing off at a world he can neither influence nor change because of his own relative impotence, despite having a vast army at his back.

We must not forget how recent his accession to the throne was. Despite great popular efforts to create a new cult of personality around him, there must be pressure to put his own personal stamp on the regime and cement his rule. Perhaps there is internal pressure from within the military himself. Perhaps he fears the ambitions of those who surround him. Perhaps there is fear of popular unrest. Whatever the case, all this rhetoric seems to be more inwardly focussed, despite its outward broadcast.

The real question now is what happens next, and, to be honest, I haven’t got the faintest idea. I suspect things will die down, flare up, die down, flare up, die down, flare up… for the next decade, possibly even longer. Then again, Kim Jong-Un might be dead next week, assassinated by an ambitious general, or dead by deep vein thrombosis for that matter. Whether North Korea will ever come in from the cold is anyone’s guess, but as unsustainable as the current situation appears to be, we should remember just how long it has been sustained – sixty years this very year. It is hardly possible for this feudal Stalinist regime to become more isolated internationally, and anyway, it is isolation and insularity that allows the regime to survive. Rarely have two nations existed in such contrasting states of connectivity as North and South Korea, the latter the most wired state in the world, the former disconnected from everything, including, it seems reality.

Perhaps somehow the internet will work its magic; perhaps starvation will start a revolution; perhaps there really will be coup, or an unexpected Myanmar-style change of heart. In all honesty I think there won’t be a war and nothing will change. Ten years from today, Kim Jong-Un will still be there, fatter than ever, rubbing his wealth in the face of his own people and waving his latest Dongs at the world.

Lunch - it's alright for some!

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So, it’s goodbye to Eggs, aka, Pope Benedict XVI. I can’t say I’ll miss him a whole lot, but that’s not surprising considering I’m an atheist with a strong dislike for religion and unscientific “belief” in all its forms. In the aftermath of his rather unexpected decision to resign, we’ve been subjected to the usual preliminary obituaries of his papacy, with all manner of people voicing their opinions about whether he was successful or otherwise. Today was his last day in office and now we have the rare and beautiful breathing space of an interregnum or interpontificatus (?)  as it were, during which time the papacy can choose the next man to annoy and frustrate the hell out of us secular non-believers.

"Eggs" Benedict

I have a strange relationship to the papacy, it must be said. Having done a PhD in early medieval Italian history and had a long obsession with the late Roman Empire and the cultural and religious transformation that took place during that period, I have long been fascinated by this ancient institution. It is worth remembering that Julius Caesar himself once held the title of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome, a position that came exclusively to be held by Christians in the fourth century once the Empire had made Christianity its official religion. The transition was not quite as smooth as this, but I’m not about to go into that sort of detail. Even in Caesar’s time, the position of Pontifex Maximus was already centuries old, which does lend the Papacy a certain cred for sustaining such an ancient institution.

Caesar

As an unabashed fan of Roman civilization, culture and law, with apologies for the slavery and warmongering, I found a certain sympathy with the popes of Late Antiquity. With the slow decline and ultimate collapse of the Western Empire (a process by which they practically delegated themselves out of existence) the popes came to the forefront of Roman affairs, playing an increasingly important role in protecting Roman interests. People Leo I “The Great” even went so far as to confront Attila the Hun when he invaded Italy in AD 452 and persuaded him to turn back.

During the sixth century, after the devastating reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565), the papacy became the major player in the organisation and defence of the much reduced city of Rome. Presiding over the depopulated, overgrown wreck of the once-great city, with only one of ten aqueducts still functional, the popes did their best to mitigate the chaos that ensued shortly after the reconquest when the Lombards invaded to find inadequate resistance and easy plunder in the derelict metropolises of the Italian peninsula.

Perhaps the most outstanding figure of this age was Pope Gregory I, also “The Great” (c. 540 – 12 March 604) who held the position from AD 590 until his death in 604. Gregory, a Roman aristocrat with an at times almost desperate nostalgia for the long-passed glories of Roman dominion over western Europe, lamented the moribund state of present affairs and did his best to make a difference. Gregory attempted to re-energise the Church’s missionary work and to re-establish closer contact with Catholic bishops in Visigothic Spain and Frankish Gaul. He is most famous for sending Augustine of Canterbury to spread the word amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons, who had invaded formerly Roman and Christian Britain in the 5th century. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The culture of education and learning promoted by the church during this period, helped significantly to spread literacy and preserve much of the dwindling knowledge accumulated during the heights of Roman power and civilization. On that score, props.

Gregory I "The Great"

During the seventh and eighth centuries, the Papacy worked hard to shore up the pockets of territory it held in Italy, along with those still directly governed by representatives of the Eastern Roman Empire – based at Ravenna – against the further incursions of the Lombards who had established themselves throughout Italy. It also found itself increasingly at odds with and slowly divorced itself from the policies and administrative demands of the Eastern Empire. Indeed, there was a most curious instance in 663, during the time of Pope Vitalian (657-72) when Emperor Constans II (641-68) actually visited Rome from Constantinople, allegedly considering moving his court there in the wake of a string of Islamic conquests of Roman territory in the Middle East and North Africa. In the end he stayed a mere twelve days, during which time he stripped the city’s churches of their valuables, including the gold gilding from the roof of the Pantheon. It’s hardly necessary to say that this did not leave a good impression.

Map of Italy, 7th century

When, in 726, the Emperor Leo III (717-741) decreed a new policy of Iconoclasm, banning the veneration of images, he faced revolts not only in Greece, but in the Italian territories as well. The defiant attitudes of Popes Gregory II and III soured relations with the Eastern Empire even further. Gregory II’s decision to excommunicate iconoclasts in Italy resulted in Leo’s retaliation by which he, on paper, transferred the provinces of southern Italy and Illyricum to the Patriarch of Constantinople. He further attempted to put down an armed outbreak in the Exarchate of Ravenna by sending a large fleet, but its destruction in a storm marked not only the failure of his attempts to bring Italy to heel, but also marked the final separation of the Italian territories from the Eastern Empire. From this period onwards, the destiny of all Italian territories was tied to that of the Papacy.

Likely the most significant figure of this period, however, was Pope Steven II (752-757) who first engineered an alliance with the Franks to protect against the constant Lombard threat. With the fall of Ravenna in 751, the Lombards began to look to Rome to complete their conquest of Italy. Not only did Stephen II prove himself extremely agile in negotiating with the Lombards and preventing further incursions, but he went so far as to travel to Paris to persuade the Franks, under Pepin the Short (752-768), to cross the alps in 756 and chastise the pesky Lombards in a manner they weren’t likely to forget in a hurry. The Franks forced the Lombards to surrender their recent conquests and guaranteed the lands between Rome and Ravenna should remain under the rule of the Duchy of Rome, now very much an independent entity.

It wasn’t, however, until 774, during the papacy of Adrian I, that the Lombard problem was solved once and for all. Distrustful of the intentions of the Lombards, Adrian appealed first to the eastern emperor, who was unable or unwilling to assist, and then to the Frankish King Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne saw it as a great opportunity both to obtain the support and legitimacy offered by the papacy, expand his territories into Italy, and get rid of the nuisance that was the Lombards once and for all. He did all of this and more of course, which is why his name is so well known into the present.

Charlemagne

From here on in the fortunes of the Papacy are far too complex and lengthy to narrate, suffice to say that towards the end of the ninth century, a period of decline set in which resulted in the period between 904 and 964 being referred to as a saeculum obscurum, or dark age. One scholar went so far as to refer to the Papacy of the 10th century as the “pornocracy,” so corrupt and seedy were its affairs.

So, in a nutshell, the early medieval period in Italy saw some rather extraordinary characters fill the role of pope, some of whom had very interesting names. Consider the following monickers:

Hilarius I, 461-468

Simplicius, 468-483

Gelasius, 492-496

Symmachus, 498-514

Hormisdas, 514-523

Agapetus I, 535-536

Pelagius I, 556-561

Sabinian, 604-606

Adeodatus, 615-618

Severinus, 638-640

Donus, 676-678

Agatho, 678-681

Conon, 686-687

Sisinnius, 15 January, 708- 4 February, 708

And the list goes on. All we get these days is boring old John Paul and Benedict. Indeed, I’m desperately hoping the new Pope will have a peculiar fascination with one of these early figures and take on a name not spoken for centuries. How great would it be to have Hormisdas II giving the Christmas homilies instead of the likely inevitable John Paul III or some equally dull name?

Not all of the Popes during this period were Italian either. Some came from Syria, Palestine, Constantinople. Perhaps, should another non-Italian Pope don the mantle and pick up the sceptre or whatever they get up to, we might see a more creative choice of name.

Speaking of the future, one cannot help but keep one eye on the past. It seems ironic, considering how many popes have proven so divisive throughout history, that the title “Pontifex” has a curious metaphorical meaning. It literally means bridge-builder, on account of the fact that the position originally also included these duties. It is fair to say that in more recent years the papacy has attempted to build bridges between itself and other religions, or those who have felt themselves victimised, hurt or excluded by its policies. Of course, it moves with the pace of continental drift, although the shake up of Vatican II was, historically speaking, the earthquake that broke the Richter Scale.

Either way, I don’t hold much hope of any significant change taking place and, on this front, without wishing to sound illiberal or reactionary, I’m not entirely sure I want the Catholic Church to change at all. Not because I support their backward policies on abortion, contraception and er, believing in God etc, but precisely because I want them NOT to be relevant to the modern world. These sorry bastards have persecuted people throughout history, burning them at the stake, sending them to prison, exile, condemning the cultures and religions of whole peoples as worthless pagan shite and brutally enforcing their own dogma, how dare they turn around and say, oh, perhaps we were wrong about that? They should stand by all their sorry and misguided beliefs, especially where people have died opposing them, and be shown up for the uselessly effete bunch of medieval paedophile-protecting snobs they actually are. My fascination with the survival of an ancient Roman institution does not necessarily mean I wish to accommodate its continuation into the future.

One thing I will say about the Pope, which I do consider to be a sort of positive, is that despite the relative hypocrisy of the institution’s history, at least he regularly goes around preaching peace in the world these days. That at least, is a nice thing, and I’ve often wondered if present tensions between “the West” and Islam wouldn’t be tempered by the presence of a similar central figure preaching peace to Muslims the world over. Not to suggest that Islam is intrinsically warlike or even an aggressor, but if such a message were broadcast by a figure of equal authority who garnered an equal degree of respect and deference, then perhaps there would be a few less instances of people resorting to violence. Of course, it is important to note that considering the degree of hostility to Islam offered by Israel, the USA and various other nations including my own, Australia, the anger is justified. But still, non-violence is always preferable and allows one to retain the moral high ground. Controversial as it might sound, and in lieu of people just quitting religion altogether, an Islamic Pope might not be such a bad thing.

So, in brief conclusion, bring on Pope Hormisdas II, I say, and may you oversee a rapid decline in membership and faith in your antiquated institution.

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It never ceases to amaze me which species get picked for special attention. The reasons are easy enough to understand; either they are magnificent, attractive, cuddly, intelligent, or perhaps have some form of cultural significance as a national symbol. The giant Panda and Polar Bear are classic examples of this phenomenon of bias towards saving species that seem ready-made for conservation campaigns on account of their being so photogenic.

In these two cases, however, it is hardly surprising that they have become endangered; both are bears and bears are essentially omnivorous opportunists, yet these particular bears have taken a dangerously narrow evolutionary path into high-risk specialisation. Their sacrifice of flexibility has made them vulnerable. Perhaps, in the end, it’s really just too bad. Enjoy it while you can, adapt or die, has always been the Earth’s motto.

Of course, with the exception of occasional freak events causing rapid transformation of climactic conditions and immediate destruction of habitat – an asteroid impact, snowball Earth, or large-scale volcanic upheaval – most species have had plenty of time to adapt to changing conditions, and those who could not adapt lie frozen in stone; the dead ends of evolution; the leafless twigs that fell from the tree.

The wild populations of giant Panda might be at serious risk from habitat loss, and indeed, a great deal of bamboo forest remains threatened by development, but the campaign to save them has become almost embarrassingly successful, so far as captive breeding programs are concerned. They are not hunted and harvested for food, at least not on an industrial scale, and as a potent national symbol of China and, indeed, as an accepted symbol of international efforts to save species and habitat, they are at relatively little risk of going extinct either in the wild or in captivity.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Polar Bears, whose habitat is shrinking rapidly and whose lifestyle is not readily adaptable to different conditions. Given more time, they would likely adapt or evolve, though there is no guarantee of that. With the retreat of the last ice-age, the woolly mammoth was driven further and further north, until the last populations were restricted to arctic islands in northern Russia where their isolation led to that common evolutionary phenomenon of dwarfism – they shed most of their bulk and shrank to the size of hippos. Polar bears, one suspects, will not have time on their side, yet in all likelihood, if given sufficient territory and left unmolested, small populations will cling on in far northern Canada or Alaska. They may shrink and be forced to significantly adjust their hunting range and habits, but they seem sufficiently clever and resourceful to pull through.

Other species will not be so fortunate, even when their plight garners public attention and attracts conservation dollars. Pity the northern white rhino, a magnificent odd-toed ungulate. There are now five males and two females left on the planet. That number again: five males and two females ON EARTH, all in captivity. It’s enough to make you cry. Pity the primates. More than half of the Earth’s primate species are threatened with extinction. However much we love them, however good they look on posters, television advertisements and campaign leaflets, their vulnerability to the consequences of war, poverty, hunger and greed is all too real. If peace and prosperity came to the jungles of Congo, things might pan out a lot better for the Gorilla and chimpanzee, but as things stand, their situation is extremely tenuous.

As one reader joked in a letter to the New Scientist, the best way for creatures to ensure survival is to evolve as rapidly as possible into a more lovable, cuddly form; big eyes and soft fur can do wonders for a species on the conservation wheel of fortune. Yet, if we can’t even manage to save the cuddly ones, then what hope is there for all the frog, flower, amphibian, bush, beetle, tree, fish and reptile species, many of which have gone extinct in recent times due to habitat destruction and climate change?

There are many and varied estimates of the background extinction rates, and indeed, similarly varied estimates as to how many species there actually are on the planet. Judging from the fossil record, the background extinction rate is estimated to be roughly one species per million every year. Very rough estimates suggest a current total of around ten million different species on the planet, and a current extinction rate of somewhere between 27000 and 30000 plant and animal species per year. Just as geologists have recently agreed that human warming of the planet justifies acknowledging the end of the geologically short and wonderfully mild Holocene epoch, and the commencement, beginning with the industrial revolution, of the Anthropocene, so biologists, among others, agree that we are now in the midst of a mass extinction, the likes of which have occurred several times already in Earth’s history, though not, so far as we are aware, through the agency of one dominant species. Though, having said that, we cannot ignore the climatic impact of, for example, oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, who for millions of years, beginning somewhere between 3.4 and 2.7 billion years ago, exhaled this waste-product on such a scale that the planet could no longer absorb it, until, roughly 2.4 billion years ago, the Great Oxygenation Event occurred, wiping out much of the planet’s anaerobic inhabitants and ultimately triggering the first and longest snowball Earth event.

Still, just because we are in good company does not make being responsible for the sixth great extinction in the planet’s history something to be proud of. As things stand, an estimated fifth of the world’s mammals, a third of its amphibians, more than 25% of its reptiles and up to 70% of its plants face the threat of extinction. That is, to say the least, seriously fucked up, and the only way to arrest the situation is to, quite literally, stop doing everything, switch off the nuclear power stations, disarm the warheads, sit down wherever you are, and quietly die.

More realistic, of course, is the promotion of peace, sustainable development, recycling and efficiency and the end of overconsumption. Yet, sadly, despite the world having become considerably more peaceful on the grand timescale, prosperity is growing at such a pace, irrespective of hiccups, financial crises and what have you, that consumption and atmospheric pollution are increasing very rapidly indeed. With the exception of the species we farm and harvest, and those who are well adapted to our artificial environments, such as rats, cats, dogs, pigeons, squirrels, possums etc, almost everything is under threat, and in recent years, I have become seriously alarmed by the plight of the Tuna.

The tuna is a truly magnificent creature, of which there are over fifty different varieties. The Atlantic Bluefin tuna can grow to a size of four and a half metres long, can weigh as much as 650kg, and can swim at speeds of up to 70kph. Tuna do not have white flesh like most fish, but their muscle tissue ranges from pink to dark red. This coloration derives from myoglobin, an oxygen-binding molecule, which tuna produce in significantly higher quantities than most other fish. Some of the larger tuna species, such as bluefin tuna, have warm-blooded adaptations, and can raise their body temperature above water temperature, thus enabling them to survive in cooler waters and to exploit and inhabit a far wider range of ocean environments.

Tuna not only look magnificent, but they are magnificent. The sad reality, however, is that tuna, the world over, are on the brink of a terrible catastrophe. As Greenpeace’s 2008 report entitled Tinned Tuna’s Hidden Catch states:

“Of the 23 commercially exploited tuna stocks identified: At least nine are classified as fully fished, a further four are classified as overexploited or depleted, three are classified as critically endangered, three are endangered and three are classified as vulnerable to extinction.”

Worldwide, Greenpeace estimates that 90% of large predatory fish have already been wiped out. Catches are down dramatically in all fisheries. In the Mediterranean, the World Wildlife Fund has estimated that tuna stocks will reach complete collapse as early as 2012. In 2007 the breeding population of tuna was only a quarter that of fifty years ago and the size and weight of mature tuna has more than halved since the early 1990s. Attempts by scientists, marine biologists and fisheries experts to dramatically reduce quotas have brought only tokenistic, inadequate responses and led to an explosion of illegal fishing that goes largely unpoliced.

It’s not merely the scale of the industry causing problems, but also the fishing techniques used. The common use of Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs), wherein fish are lured to a particular zone and then scooped up en masse, not only results in the catching of juvenile tuna, but also lures many other species, juvenile or otherwise, which make up an estimate ten percent of the catch. Not only do FADs act as death-traps for young tuna, but they draw tuna away from migratory routes, resulting in loss of optimal feeding opportunities, seriously effecting the life-cycle of tuna which are not caught, and thus having broader impacts on the entire marine ecosystem. Similarly, long-line fishing, where lines of up to 100km are used, are also responsible for significant bycatch.

Big Tuna likes to make a special point of their tuna being “dolphin friendly.” Yet, as Greenpeace states:

“Many fishing practices that are labelled dolphin friendly still result in the catch of a host of non-target species, known as bycatch, including turtles, sharks, rays, juvenile tuna and a huge range of other marine life.”

Some companies have gone a step further and changed their practices. Around the corner from my house is a huge billboard advertising the environmental credentials of Greenseas tinned Tuna. There are, in fact, two advertisements side by side, each with the large happy face of a marine species, pleased to have avoided being caught unnecessarily. Greenseas can claim some credibility on this front, as they have made the important commitment to stop buying tuna caught using FADs. Yet, when we consider the rate at which the tuna themselves are being exterminated, this feels like a diversion; more of the green-washing bullshit we’ve come to expect from big business in the last decades.

The simple fact is that Big Tuna may claim to be dolphin friendly. They may claim to be dugong friendly. They may claim to be turtle friendly, but they are definitely not Tuna friendly. The Tuna, in all its glorious varieties, is, quite literally, being fished to death. In the vastness of the oceans, it would be difficult to hunt down and kill every single tuna available, it would be a hell of a job to drive them to extinction, yet humans are currently giving it their absolute best shot.

The rising popularity of sushi, along with tuna’s longstanding popularity in salads, pasta dishes and all manner of culinary creations, has dramatically increased the scale of the market in recent years. This commercial success guarantees that the industry will pursue tuna for as long as possible, and there seems relatively little effort within the industry itself to harvest tuna in a sustainable fashion. Governments must co-operate internationally to put a stop to current quotas and practices, and actively police illegal fishing.

Greenpeace advises that in order to save tuna populations the world over, the fishing industry must stop using FADs and switch to line and pole fishing, which are highly targeted towards adult tuna; governments must impose and enforce marine reserves to safeguard ecosystems from destructive fishing practices; supermarkets should stop buying tuna products caught using FADs, only support sustainably caught tuna, and help to promote the creation of and awareness about marine reserves.

The issue of bycatch is bad enough, but the scale of tuna fishing must be severely restricted in order to avoid a potential environmental disaster. We cannot even begin to imagine the devastating impact on an ecosystem of removing 90% of its predatory species, but the resulting imbalances are bound to be hugely disruptive.

Sure, it sucks not being able to eat tuna, because I admit, like so many people, I have always enjoyed the taste of it. Yet, for the last three or four years, I have not been able to buy it out of a colossal sense of guilt. I recently swore off eating cephalopods (squids, octopi) after reading a New Scientist feature on their extraordinary intelligence. When, two weeks ago, I broke my pact and ate squid, then, the following day, found myself with food poisoning, I felt a rare case of instant karma. At least I learned my lesson, and I won’t be eating those guys again.

Of course, as someone who eats dairy, I leave myself open to accusations of hypocrisy, for the dairy industry is not an industry known for its sustainability. Of course, it’s not the cows that are threatened – though they are often mistreated – but the environment, on account of industrial scale farming practices.

It would be nice to think that humans will wise up to their destructive habits and avert a major catastrophe, both on land and at sea, but I’m not especially confident. Either way, don’t be surprised if the price of tuna skyrockets in coming years. Some time soon, this already critical situation is going to hit the wall.

ps. apologies for lazy referencing. After doing a PhD, I never want to footnote again…

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This is really a fragment of a rant against the damage being caused by rampant economic growth around the planet. I began writing it whilst in India last year and have fleshed it out ever so slightly. It has no real beginning or ending, but I cannot quite see where it could begin and end, as it treats a subject too vast for detail. I figured that rather than agonising over what to do with it, I ought to just get it out there… So, here it is!

I see a future black with carbon smoke. Everywhere I look, I see carbon rising into the atmosphere. From factories, kitchens, chimneys, cars, bonfires and barbecues; there is a lot of burning taking place. I too am making my contribution; every time I fly or charge my phone; every time I eat, every time I turn on a light to read, even now as I type on my computer I’m emitting carbon into the atmosphere. The world is rapidly being overwhelmed by the stuff; and it’s certainly not just carbon dioxide. Methane, a gas twenty times more effective at warming the planet, is bubbling out of the melting permafrost and sea floor of far eastern Russia, and from the warming seabed of the Arctic. Already our warming has kick-started other environmental mechanisms and feedbacks; already we have reached a tipping point where a certain amount of warming is now inevitable. There has been much talk at an international level, but the biggest dent put in emissions in the last decades did not come from policy or effort, but simply from the Global Financial Crisis reducing demand. As we return slowly but surely to business as usual, the Earth continues to be threatened not by a mild warming effect, but instead by its worst-case scenario.

Such is the strength of our influence on the atmosphere already, that scientists have signalled the end of the Holocene epoch and are pushing for the present to mark the beginning of a new geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene. It may be some time before such a designation is recognised, for one question still to be answered is just how long will the Anthropocene last? Will it last long enough to warrant being labelled as a new geological epoch? In truth, humans have already been altering the planet significantly since they first migrated out of Africa, wiped out the remaining megafauna and took up agriculture and animal husbandry. It is estimated that even as little as 8000 years ago, with a population of just 10 million, humans had altered one fifth of the Earth’s ice-free land, mostly through burning and clearing of forest. The widespread nature of the alteration derives from early practices of clearing, exhausting, then moving on to another location. Much of the land was thus in a state of recovery after being transformed by humans. In the present, the scale of transformation is staggering, and even if some catastrophic event caused a large scale reduction in the use of land, our efforts would still leave an indelible record on the environment, particularly when we consider the ongoing mass extinction of species and the unnaturally high levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

So it is that we are burning, clearing, cutting and tearing up the earth on a scale and with an impact that equates to the natural geological climate shifts the earth has undergone in its four-billion year history. All around me, here in India, the burning is just getting underway. It is happening everywhere. In 2009, I saw the countless fires burning in Bali. Even there, where much forest still remained, above everything a haze of smoke hung. From the hills near Munduk, one could see all the carbon; not black, but white, diaphanous coils of carbon dissolving into a wide flat smog across the land. Hundreds of fires, in every home, in every village. Burning off, cooking fires, fires for the amusement of children. It seemed that soon enough all the fires would join and there would no longer be forest in between. No more would the hills be clothed with trees but tamed and terraced, or stripped to rock and dirt.

Yet, Bali was still a paradise of sorts. Java, however, the most populated island on Earth was, environmentally, sinking like an overloaded ferry. What if anything, would be left in fifty years? Leonard Cohen’s lyric came to mind:

Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.

And what was that hole? It was a general, almost endemic absence of environmental awareness, the great hole in the culture of the entire planet. Because, the simple truth is, we’re all as guilty as sin. In America, it’s mass overconsumption, rampant emissions, car dependence, land-stripping and thousands upon thousands of domestic flights. Europe likes to think they’re moving forward, yet half of what they buy is made elsewhere in unsound conditions. The developing world might pollute at will, but it’s not just domestic demand building those coal-fired power stations and dirty factories nor are they all domestic companies.

Australia, perhaps the most guilty country of all, likes to think any guilt is offset by the economics of scale. Being the fattest, greediest, laziest and most self-indulgent population on the planet, living in the largest houses is nothing to be proud of. It doesn’t matter that there are only twenty-one million of us. It is not a valid excuse.

The Australian economy grew at nearly five percent for fifteen years, with barely a hiccup. But what is the goal of this growth? What’s the point of it all? We’ve long since passed the target of general wealth. Sure, not everyone owns a house and has three cars, but there are very few genuinely poor people, and many many massively fat, greedy people living in houses with far more toilets than necessary. Is it this that we have all been striving for? Cocooning ourselves in layers of flab, lounging in unnecessarily large houses and only shaking a fist when interest rates rise and the mortgage becomes more of a burden? There is no real politics in the Australian mainstream anymore. Or rather, it is all politics and no ethics, morality, philosophy or responsibility. Of course, this is an exaggeration; there are many very committed people who are careful about how they use power, careful about where they shop and what they buy, who are sympathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, yet the bulk of the population seem to be rather selfishly indifferent. I myself could do a good deal more.

The relative indifference to the environment, as epitomised by an unwillingness to act or support government initiatives on this front, is mirrored by the selfish attitudes to refugees. In Australia, attitudes to asylum seekers have been hardening rather than softening. Do we not have enough here to share with other people? I’d consider an enviro-ecological argument against increasing the population in the country, though that rarely gets a look in in the “debate” about refugees, asylum seekers and boat people. And anyway, compassion for those who are vulnerable and in need of help will always trump it in my case. Instead, it’s always the old paradigm; refugees have it too good, they’re taking our jobs and costing us precious tax dollars. Well, the truth is that everyone in Australia could afford to give a little more, not just from their wallets but from their hearts. Two cars, three bathrooms and no fucking heart. We do very little suffering here, but around the world there are millions in a tragic limbo. Not to feel compassion for these people strikes me as a very odd thing indeed.

The Australian public has a terribly disproportionate set of values. It has been said that we are no longer living in a society, but rather, an economy. At election time, the one truly humanitarian issue on the agenda was boat people, which is odd considering that, the total number who have come to Australia in the last thirty-odd years is less than 30000, equivalent to roughly 0.14% of the population. There was no public debate about how to help these people, but only how we could stop them coming in the first place. At the election, voting intention will be dictated by financial concerns, fear and paranoia, not a moral or ethical concern about what is right or wrong. It seems that anything tantamount to making a sacrifice is off the agenda in Australia. The debate about the carbon tax is further evidence of this. Whilst there are legitimate questions about its implementation and effectiveness, the public and media response has been hugely negative, simply on account of its being a tax, irrespective of its goals or intended outcomes.

Meanwhile, here, in India, the fires are burning everywhere. The middle class, now swollen to above three-hundred million, will soon own two cars each and live in India-ready air-conditioned houses. The future is a fat and pampered world of skin-whitening products, dandruff-free hair, big fridges, filtered drinking water, cheap domestic flights, and cricket, cricket, cricket! – the bhang of the masses.

Everywhere the fires are burning. The roadsides are rubbish-heaps. There are few if any garbage bins, and most people don’t use them anyway. The West preaches incessantly, and with immense hypocrisy, yet there is no question, what is happening in India does not look like sustainable development. India will swallow itself whole; the people will cut and burn all they can, they will eat up everything, except the cows who graze the rubbish-heaps, chewing their way through plastic and cardboard. What is dumped is picked over by the poor. Thus, to some degree, recycling is an active, ongoing process. But most of what is dumped is heaped into piles, which are then set alight. One cannot even begin to calculate the sheer amount of carbon that is going into the atmosphere from this source alone. Nor is it any surprise that so many Indians have respiratory problems. The burning rubbish, mixed with human excrement, is, more often than not, plastic waste. How much longer can people go on breathing in burning plastic in the cities?

The roads are already choking with motor vehicles, and whilst many of these, by virtue of their small motors, are, relatively speaking, low emission, they will soon be joined by millions more cars with larger engines and power-hungry air-con. In both India and China the land is drying up. Not only have there been problems with failing rainfall, but the water tables and aquifers have been tapped to such a point that soon there will be no ground water to rely upon as backup. China this year has faced the worst ever drought in its long history, and if the rains fail again and the aquifers are gone, how will they eat but by importing even more food from abroad, thus raising the already skyrocketing price of food.

How anyone could pull a rabbit out of this hat, is a mystery to me. I want to be hopeful, but my inclination is to despair. A respected science fiction author, whose name escapes me, when asked what the Earth might be like at the end of this century, stated, in so many words, “I can’t see over the vast pile of corpses.” I hope to goodness that we can avoid the worst of the harm that is already being done, but the reality seems to be one of putting things off until tomorrow. The only problem is that tomorrow is already yesterday.

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