Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Choosing lifestyle

“Lifestyle” is now surely a self-parodying word.  Its main current usage seems to be by real-estate agents hyping the location virtues of otherwise perhaps unliveably-small inner city apartments – they are invariably on “lifestyle strips”.  Presumably meaning an area with two or more copycat, hipster-rent-a-crowd cafés – so if your apartment is not sufficiently claustrophobic, you can take the lift down, to where you can soak up your new “lifestyle” in all its deafening, crowded and bum-numbing glory.  (If you’re under 35, I do appreciate that these things are actually positives, and indeed the Most Risky Thing in The World for a hipster to do would be to patronise a new café in which there is not already a “hipster quorum” – a dozen or so near identically-dressed other hipsters sitting on milk-crates, or similar stools cunningly and expensively designed for maximum discomfort.  And if there's a queue to get in, I also appreciate that this is to hipsters what the "Sanitized" strip on motel toilet seats is to Middle America - a ring of confidence, worth its weight in gold).   

A secondary real-estate use of “lifestyle” is probably even more risible – it simply means what until yesterday would have been called a retirement community, but today, thanks to a few pieces of gym equipment thrown into a room, is now a “lifestyle village”.  You no longer move to such a place to quietly live out your twilight years – sweating them out instead is a much better deal.  Oh, but I’m sure there’s an in-house café too – thus meaning that the dwellings are unliveably-small (see above), or if not, that your neighbours are not the inviting-you-home-for-a-cuppa type, in which case you’re not really living in a “community”, in my opinion.  

It thus seems fair to say that people who choose “lifestyle” are gullible, insecure herd creatures.  And also, as of this morning, Indigenous Australians living in remote communities – according to Tony Abbott, anyway.

Presumably, these Indigenous Australians have fallen for a real-estate spiel also; poor dears.  It might have gone something like this: 

“Move out of the town camp, and back to your country.  It will be a dry community, so your less functional neighbours and relations won’t be there much.  You may find it a good place to create some art – and the local art centre is a big employer in town.  If art is not your thing, there’s usually a mining company sniffing around nearby – meaning there’s a fair chance, if you don’t mind the lost land trade-off, of living sweet on royalty cheques.  And if by some chance, your chosen remote community doesn’t have any real economy, you will still live the good life, spending your days and nights sitting on whacky, ramshackle furniture communing with your neighbours, happily ever after.  Best of all, you won’t even need to move to ‘lifestyle village’ when you get older – this community already has a few pieces of gym equipment no one ever uses.  In fact, you’re probably sitting on it right now.”

Thursday, January 08, 2015

 Charlie Hebdo – too soon (?), two different ways

Unfunny jokes have an interesting place in the pro-free speech pantheon.  Much as some would deny it, not all forms of speech are equally worthy of protection.  That which one vehemently disagrees with – but is cogently argued or is just plain hilarious – must count as an “in”, of course.  The right to swear at a cop for the thrill of it, or to picket, with homophobic placards, the funeral of a US solider killed in combat?  Possibly “in”; this is the zone where the potential hurt caused by the words seems disproportionate to their objective mundanity (swearing and homophobic comments are ubiquitous, so to proscribe them in one narrow context is hardly riding roughshod).   And unfunny jokes are even more everywhere.

Nearly ten years ago, I thought that the Danish cartoons were unfunny.  Which doesn’t mean that (and I don’t think that I should have to spell this out, but I will, just in case) vigilante action or violence is an appropriate response.  The two main options in dealing with unfunny jokes are to ignore them, or to make an immediate, but considered, withering response.  The second option is not straightforward – it runs the acute risk that the joker will then respond that the listener/jokee doesn’t have a sense of humour, or some such.  A repetitive loop, for the recital of unfunny jokes ad infinitum, is thus probably created.  In an extreme case, unfunny jokes can hence develop into being a psychic assault; the joker metaphorically holding the listener/jokee hostage.  The only escape here is to go back to Plan A:  ignoring the joke.  But sometimes, I dare say, there is too much water under the bridge for this to be a viable option for the repeatedly harangued jokee.

From what I’ve seen of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, they also seem unfunny.  Here, I disclose my bent for what some would consider transgressive humour – I thought that the Chaser’s “Make a realistic wish” skit from 2009 was hilarious.  I was stunned at the blowback it received – and most especially at the side-stepping of the real issue:  was it funny or not?  I’m sure it wasn’t funny to “Make a wish” type foundations, or to the stressed-out parents of kids-with-cancer etc (I wouldn’t be so sure about the kids themselves here).  But it was funny to many others – and it did not fall into that type of speech that, if censored from broadcast TV, would have plenty of other avenues to makes its point.  Let’s be clear about it, then:  Australia has its own Taliban tendencies, and most worryingly, in my opinion, these people don’t stop at censoring unfunny jokes.  Indeed, they probably just ignore these, and only really become censorious when funniness strikes.

“Too soon” is not an objective measurement.  In this post, I don’t intend to cause disrespect to the families of the deceased and injured Charlie Hebdo editorial staff.  They certainly didn’t deserve what has happened.  Some may even be heroes, but if so, they didn’t die in the service of comedy in my book, at least.  All were victims of Islamic terrorism, but some were also, I fear, dupes of a peculiarly “Christian” mindset (see below).  A satirist’s solemn duty (other than being funny) is to lampoon their own culture, and purported even-handedness across cultures that the satirist barely knows is a certain – and tired – short-cut to being unfunny.


To understand what was motivating the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, it may be useful to compare humour across Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  I’m no expert in comparative religion, much less humour as a specialist sub-topic, but here goes, anyway.

In Judaism, the coming of the Prophet still awaits.  In Christianity, the Prophet has been and gone, but we await a second, more spectacular, coming (talk about hedging your bets).  In Islam, the Prophet-waiting caper seems to be firmly over.  

To illustrate what this means for humour I will draw – drum roll, please – a cartoon.  However, due to my drawing and technology skills, this will have to be a “text” cartoon.

A Rabbi, a Christian cleric, and an Islamic cleric are each looking at a cartoon which separately insults, with purported humour, their respective religion’s most sacred personage.

The Rabbi responds:  “That joke was already old at the time of Solomon, you second-rate schmuck!”

The Christian cleric responds:  “I bet you wouldn’t dare make the same joke about Islam or Judaism!”

The Islamic cleric responds:  “We’re outraged!” and “Too soon!” (though almost certainly not in those exact words; “too soon” is a piece of Knowing Insider-speak, an exquisite formulation that is half-comment and half command to desist).
In religion, then, a framework of waiting appears to be paradoxically good for the development of quick repartee. Conversely, a condition of post-Prophecy seems to encourage tetchiness in thought and deed. Neither of the above Christian nor Islamic responses engage in humour, and they share a wounded defensiveness.  One difference is that the Christian response, in seeming defiance of any and all New Testament imperatives, provokes the joker into finding another, probably more vulnerable, victim. It is personally delivered – and if taken seriously, it is potentially very nasty.  

The Islamic response, in contrast, is said on behalf of the group.  It directly aims to shame – and shut up – the joker.  Like the censorious stressed-out parents of kids-with-cancer, its “we” is both a strength and a weakness.  It is an-all-or-nothing, us vs them, proposition, as to what is fit to pass before their minority’s ears and eyes – making the outrage understandable in the heart, but at another level, deeply unreasonable for the rest of us.  If such communal outrage is taken to its extreme, as we have just seen, it is also very nasty. 

Censorship of funny jokes is the worst cancer of all.  So chill out, world – either turn the other cheek, as the (never-was/penultimate) prophet once said, or use your brains for a change and fire back with a better, shinier joke.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Border Security Australia – 1825 style (includes pirates!)


The Timor-Arafura Gap

“To benefit fully from Asia's rise, we need to truly understand the diverse ‘Near North’, as opposed to colonial notions of a ‘Far East’”.

-          Bill Shorten, Aug 2013

Quite.  But sadly, Bill Shorten is not talking literally about Australia’s near north (which I’d define as PNG, West Papua and the south-east Indonesian/Timor islands (say, south of latitude 3ºS, and east of longitude 123ºE) – but about the far north (or more accurately, from the main population centres, the far north-west).  If Indonesia gets even a look-in in Shorten’s world view, it apparently goes no further south-east than Bali/Lombok.  

Overwhelmingly, though, Bill Shorten’s “Australia’s near north” is north of the equator, and the colonial/northern-hemisphere notion, say, of India as “south Asia” would not be inconsistent with it.
Anyway, I want to move beyond these clichéd north vs east, and colonial vs modern dichotomies.  Newsflash:  Asia has a south-east, a farsouth-east, in fact (Tenggara Jauh).  Yes, it’s obscure, particularly the central (yes, central) parts of it that I’ll be focusing on here.  But this is where it’s at – where the backyards of Australia and Asia meet, 300km apart.

The 19th C history of either side of this 300km gap is poignant (but, cue the boys’ own sidebar, it also contains pirates!).  But most of all, it is deeply confronting to many of Australia’s colonial founding myths – which is no doubt why the events of 1825 on a new (and thereafter, doomed) British colony on Melville Island and the Dutch-occupied (sort-of) islands to its immediate north have until now, never been properly told, let alone analysed for their present-day ramifications, which include Australian policies re immigration, China trade, and settler/Indigenous relations.
But first, to home in on the “far south-east” area I’ll be talking about.  I’m excluding Indonesian (West-) and East Timor, and the islands to their north and west.  In the other direction, I’m excluding PNG, West Papua and the Kai and Aru archipelagos, which are firmly in the orbit of Papua.  In turn, Papua is arguably more anchored in the south-west Pacific than in south-east Asia.  What’s left over, then is south of latitude 6ºS (and north of present-day Top End Australia), and east of longitude 127ºE and west of 132ºE.

I’ll call these islands 300-500km N and NNW of the Tiwi Islands (and 400-600km ditto from Darwin) the “Serwatti Islands”.  They have the Arafura and Timor Seas** on their eastern and western fringes respectively, and the straits between them are/were shipping lanes on the direct route between Macassar (present-day Sulawesi) and China on one hand, and Top End Australia on the other.  However, note that there was quite possibly more shipping going through these obscure straits in the 19th C (and even 17th C), to and from and Top End Australia, than today – the wounds of 1825 are thus arguably still raw here. Certainly in 2013, without a private boat (the only airport I’m aware of is at Saumlakki on Tanimbar, which in turn is only serviced via Ambon), you cannot do the short hop between Darwin and the Serwatti Islands, and I imagine that the immigration authorities would rather frown on anywhere the Serwatti Islands as an entry/exit point for Indonesia.
“Serwatti Islands” was a label in popular use in the 19th C, that in present-day geography  corresponds with most of the islands in the “remote” (as it is invariably described) south-western area of the Maluku/Moluccas province of Indonesia, about latitude 8º S, between and including Kisar and the Tanimbar group.  Note that I’m excluding Wetar here, which is officially in south-western Maluku, but doesn’t much concern my subject.  Also note that the Serwatti Islands, aka “Serawatti Islands”, both historically and in present-day conceptions of Maluku’s south-western islands, usually do not include the Tanimbar group.  But for present purposes, the islands of Babar and Yamdena (the main island in the Tanimbar group, aka “Timor Laut”, and also the largest single island, by far, in my Serwatti Islands grouping) are peas in a pod, as well as being only 130km apart. 

As for the 20-odd minor islands west and north-west of the Babar/Barbat group, up to Kisar, which I’m also labelling “Serwatti Islands”, these are too dispersed, and also too peripheral to my subject to be worth a separate nomenclature.  And one more clarification:  confusingly perhaps, Ambon locals (in Maluku terms, big-city folk) refer to the south-western Maluku islands as Tenggara Jauh, or the far south-east – despite some them being due south, and even slightly south-west, of downtown Ambon (at 128º E).
But in this part of the world (not to mention most of Australia, north-west of Cape Howe), south-east is destiny – and going to or from the south-west is only a Sunday ramble in a cross-wind.

** Darwin sometimes is also caught between deciding whether its harbour abuts the Arafura or Timor Seas – although the case for the latter seems geographically overwhelming, IMO.  Perhaps, in occasionally wistfully batting for Team Arafura, Darwin – ever eager to snuggle up to Asia – wishes to metaphorically bridge the Timor Trough, a rather non-snuggly natural feature running the entire length of the Timor Sea, whose eastern end is smack-bang between Babar and Yamdena – at the very middle, then, of my erstwhile, archipelagic centre of Australia’s “near north”.

The bare facts of the several failed, short-lived attempts to set-up a British outpost in Australia’s Top End between 1824 and 1849 (Alan Powell, Far Country, p 45)  –  are well-enough known, especially the case of the last, longest and most successful of these, at Port Esssington (1839-49).

However, there is perhaps a tendency for this comic-heroic pattern of repeated failure to blunt the edge of the historical record of the first – and most abject – failure, at Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas*) on Melville Island (1824-1828 #).  [*Fort Dundas would have been the name of the military base within or adjacent to the settlement, had it prospered, at least; q.v. Fort Wellington for Raffles Bay, and Fort Concordia for Kupang].  [# Some sources put the demise of Port Cockburn at 1828, others as 1829.]

Helping to obscure the record here is the overlap between Port Cockburn and its twin/replacement settlement at Raffles Bay/Fort Wellington, on the mainland’s Cobourg Peninsula. Raffles Bay was geographically close to, but did not overlap with, the later settlement at Port Esssington.  Port Esssington itself was almost the second, rather than the third, British settlement in the Top End.  Though already reconnoitred, Port Esssington lost out to Raffles Bay either because it was closer to Croker Island, per Bath’s original instructions, or because the reconnaissance of Port Esssington had been only superficial.

Conversely, Raffles Bay’s overlap with Port Cockburn was more temporal than geographical – the former was settled in 1827, when the fate of the latter, 200 km east, was already sealed on paper.  However the actual dates of demise of the twins are quite close – Port Cockburn had a protracted demise, while Raffles Bay’s own, also in 1829# was speedy.  But it is not only their close dates of demise that qualifies them to be called “twins” – London’s original intention and official instruction was to establish Port Cockburn and Raffles Bay (or Croker Island, at least) at the same time, and when low staff numbers meant that only one of these could initially proceed, it was a spectacular mistake, in hindsight, to have chosen Port Cockburn.

Since 1835, commenters and historians have invariably noted the irony of Raffles Bay being closed just as it was finding its feet; albeit this took a hard couple of years to achieve. In contrast to the unfortunate on-the-fly decision to choose the Port Cockburn location over the alternative (or both), the abandonment edict from London was carried through to the letter, however palpably misjudged it was at the time, according to those on the ground.   

While this irony/farce sits well with the plucky-diggers-vs-incompetent-British-toffs recurring theme in Australian history, an alternative interpretation is that it was the Port Cockburn fiasco – which couldn’t much be sheeted home to incompetent British toffs – that sealed the fate of the Raffles Bay settlement. The older, but feebler, twin thus took its more vigorous twin to the grave with it – and, however un-Australian this may sound, there was little plucky heroism in this.  For both, the die had been cast in 1824 when Port Cockburn was mistakenly chosen as first priority, which is why it is necessary now to look at its surprisingly little-researched, brief heyday in early 1825.   


The bleak, doomed British garrison on Melville Island wasn’t always so.  It’s just that early on, it needed Asia very badly, and upon reaching out in a moment of vulnerability, Asia ferociously bit back.  And in response, as is often the way, rather than admitting humiliating defeat, the British doubled-up their efforts, to make the end defeat vaguer in cause, and so more glorious to posterity. Or until I came along (sorry).

Raffles Bay thus is easily cast as an aspiring player on the Asian main-stage – a nascent mainland entrepot**, a la Singapore (which was just a fishing village at the time).  This makes Port Cockburn all the more forgettable, as an entrée or mere rehearsal.  On a scrubby island (although if truth be told, not that different from the mainland, in terms of terrain and settlement potential), Port Cockburn was not much talked up as a stillborn entrepot, during its brief life, or subsequently.  There is searing irony in this; it traded with Asia (or attempted to, at least) just to survive, while mainland Raffles Bay, perhaps better provisioned by the British and conceptually anchored to Sydney (there was excited talk of building a road between them!), got the glamorous – if  hypothetical, hype aside – role of bustling entrepot where all manner of exotica were to be traded; of which incoming survival basics would have been the least interesting items on the list. [** But Raffles Bay's ostensible success arguably hinged on large-scale Chinese immigration, which may have well been a step too far, for Sydney and/or London]. 

The provisioning question turns on luck, in part – two ships sent from Port Cockburn to near Asia for supplies were lost to pirates in short succession, while Raffles Bay had no equivalent interdictions. But pirates usually only thrive where their home bases are beyond the law, and here there were delicate matters of empire, with the long-established Dutch and the interloping British, flexing their ascendant military muscle and keen to consolidate their hold on the whole Australian continent, facing off across the Arafura Sea.  An indication of just how up-close this face-off was is that Melville Island was formally ceded by the Dutch in an 1824 treaty.  Though it seems obvious now that Melville Island belongs to Australia, and not to Asia, that small, insular Serwatti part of Asia just to the north of it, barely belonged to the Dutch (or any other colonial power), despite the Moluccas, just further north in turn, being a Dutch economic powerhouse for centuries.  The spice-less Serwatti Islands were, like the depressing but closely-charted Gulf of Carpentaria, too Australian for the Dutch – although the Dutch were happy to fly their nominal flag over them, if nothing else as a buffer against British interests on mainland Australia.  Otherwise, bar a minimal handful of Dutch-administered port (and not fort) outposts, the islanders were left to their own devices – and, when it came to non-Dutch ships, their own murderous plunders.

Unfortunately, the plucky Brits at Port Cockburn on Melville Island also had a strongly independent mindset, when it came to where to go to obtain much-needed provisions:  the (theoretically) Dutch-administered Serwattis, or the free port of Kupang on West Timor.  The former had the advantage of being quite a bit closer to the Top End, but the disadvantage of being closed ports (to non-Dutch), under a recently-signed British/Dutch treaty.  Oh, and also of being notorious pirate hotspots.   

Why two ships apparently disobeyed their instructions, or at least common-sense (the supposed instructions are rather vague), to go to Kupang for supplies; instead choosing to land at the nearer but much-riskier Serwattis, will probably never be known.  Assuming that there wasn’t a planned and pointed provocation to the Dutch, possibly there were issues with the boat or crew, making urgent landfall – anywhere – the priority, and this factor, by curious coincidence, happened twice in a few months.  

I like to think, however, that there was a crushing geographical fate at work, beneath which the Brits on Melville Island were mere pawns.  If the Serwatti Islands were too Australian for the Dutch, Melville Island was – similarly – too Asian for the British.  United by a sort of Arafura zeitgeist – of feisty independence from European colonisers, as enabled by a paucity of Euro-coveted resources ## – it was always Melville Island’s destiny to cast off its British veneer as a passing aberration.  [## One account has it that the Dutch chopped down every nutmeg tree on Babar, because it was too small and island and too far away from East Indies HQ to bother exploiting, but equally they didn’t want those who could be bothered to do so.  No doubt this fuelled Babarians [?] sense of grievance, and so propensity to piracy]

It is sweet and fitting, then, that the two sides of this Arafuran family drama have slumbered on ever since, although in separate ways.  The Serwatti Islands remain bizarrely remote, despite their proximity to Darwin, which in turn trumpets its proximity to Asia (perhaps justifiably, but if so, then its own backyard is rather unkempt).  While the Tiwi Islands are now fairly assimilated geographically into Top End remote Indigenous Australia, the site of Port Cockburn, and the story of how it went so wrong, seems bizarrely forgotten.  As Crocodile Dundee would never have dared to say, at the pointy end of a Serwatti sword:  “Now THAT’S proximity to Asia!”

Sidebar:  Aggregated facts on the two 1825 ships ex Port Cockburn attacked by pirates

Lady Nelson

Feb 1825: military ship Lady Nelson departs Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas) to trade with near Asia.  Attacked by pirates on the Serwatti island of Babar; all crew murdered.

Carried to sell: firearms and ammunition
Looking to buy: cattle and/or buffaloes, tortoise shell and drinking water


April 1825: trading ship Stedcombe arrives, unloads, and soon after departs Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas) to trade with near Asia, and to investigate the disappearance of the Lady Nelson.  Attacked by pirates on Yamdena/Tanimbar/Timor Laut; all crew were murdered except for two members, Joseph Forbes (“Timor Joe”, who retired to Williamstown, Victoria) and John Edwards.  Both were kept as slaves in the village of “Laouran” on Yamdena.  Edwards died at some stage during the following ten years, while after 14 years a slave, Forbes was liberated in 1839 and given a hero’s welcome in London.

Carried to sell: beads, knives, axes, mirrors and cloth
Looking to buy: cattle and/or buffaloes, pigs and fruit.  Note that a scurvy outbreak at Port Cockburn had intensified after the mysterious (at that stage) non-return of the Lady Nelson.
Actually offered on Yamdena:  coconuts, pigs and parrots


Friday, November 14, 2014

Boomers booing at Gough’s funeral, retrospectivity and pauperism

By chance in Sydney last Wednesday, I thought I might as well go to Gough’s funeral at the Sydney Town Hall.  I didn’t have a ticket to get in, but reading online news reports that morning made me sanguine as to the worst case scenario: turning up only to be turned away. The reports were of quite a few actual ticket holders – not VIPs, but ordinary members of the public who had applied through a ballot – being turned away, despite having got there good and early.  For such a (legitimately) disappointed crowd, there would have to be an overflow event near the Town Hall, I figured.  And sure enough, despite nothing being officially announced or advertised, there was a video screen, and a gathering crowd, on the south side of the Town Hall.

I was a free-rider, in other words – which was, I now realise, a wholly appropriate status for the occasion. As for the general crowd, this carnival of the ticketless was always going to be a textbook occasion for crowd dynamics.  Possie sorted, I was squarely surrounded by baby boomers and still older generations (who may or may not have been a fair cross-section of the total crowd).   

Being a crowd-pooper anyway, and with 45 minutes before kick-off, I sat down on the paved ground and read a book.  A breach of (a) crowd-bonding etiquette, (b) funeral-respect etiquette, or more specifically, (c) overflow-funeral-crowd mob-think fever-pitch etiquette?  Who knows, but clearly I therefore didn’t join the boomers booing, at various perceived anti-Gough VIP attendees, as they walked in the doors (I couldn’t see who, but I couldn’t have cared either). 

When it comes to etiquette, the top-down model is redundant; the personal is the etique-able, I believe. In a very small way, the booing plainly emanating from my immediate patch may have been compensating for my tacit boycott of it, via a one-person sit-in (that wasn’t actually protesting anything, but crowds leap to conclusions like the proverbial).  Less personally, the fact that some of the overflow crowd at least, had gone to the Town Hall as legitimate ticket holders, and been rudely shrugged off, must have fuelled some of mob’s propensity to boo.

VIPs having ran the gauntlet, the even proper was commenced; those inside now presumably smug, while those of us in the locked-out rabble outside were now looking or thinking elsewhere to maintain the rage; none of the speechmakers appeared to be heckle-fodder. 

Of the speeches, I thought it interesting that two Xers got to give the seeming keynote ones – meaning Gough’s legacy.  Noel Pearson spoke the obvious, about Gough’s dismantling of  the Old Australia, although with too much I’m Making a Serious Speech thumping inflection for my liking. Cate Blanchett’s earlier speech was much easier to digest, but it did contain one tidbit that had me stumped – itching to reach for my smartphone to fact-check her, but you’ll be pleased to know I desisted from so doing until after the formalities (if that’s the word to describe being in the middle of a twitchy  boomer mob). 

Anyways, Ms Blanchett, who as I later found out was born in May 1969, said that she had Gough to thank for her free tertiary education, without which she wouldn’t be where she is today.  AMEN to that – but I just couldn’t work out how she’d got through a degree unscathed prior to the introduction of HECS at the start of 1989 (I didn’t, and I am five years older than her, albeit I was a positively ancient nearly 20 y.o at the start of first year, did a double degree, and took a year off to work mid-way).  From what I gather, Ms Blanchett did a year or two only of a double degree at my alma mater Melbourne Uni in 1987 and/or 1988, then dropped out and went to Europe for a year or so; thus indeed missing the introduction of HECS in 1989.  However, she then studied at NIDA in Sydney for the 3 years 1990-1992.  I would have thought that NIDA at that time was HECS-able, and so not “free”, but maybe it was an enclave holding out from the buccaneering capitalist Labor government of the time. 

Alternatively, maybe she was just referring to her 1987/1988 Indian-summer free year/s.  If so, I wonder if Ms Blanchett’s stated gratitude at her only partially-free degrees (if she had not dropped-out) actually refers to the doors that opened when she dropped-out and went to Europe as a HECS-exile.  This is the most coherent explanation I can find for her gratitude, although it may be drawing a long bow.  If this was the ultimate lesson, and price, of her free tertiary education, it is a thank-you speech that went way over the heads of most of the crowd.

A necessary disclosure here.  At the start of 1989, I was one year from finishing my Law degree, and after that, a further year from doing my Arts Honours year.  While I briefly considered dropping-out when tertiary fees were introduced, crudely and without distinction including those well into the degrees alongside those who could make a less loaded choice to pay or not, in the end I compromised.  I sucked it up and finished my law degree, albeit feeling cheated and demoralised.  Not paying to do my Arts Honours year was a fairly easy decision; as I could graduate with an already-banked, “free” pass degree; a far more honourable – and also life-changing – course.  I should also add that, had HECS been introduced prior to my starting university, I categorically would not have gone there.  And one more thing – I now toy with what could have been, had I, possibly like Ms Blanchett, dropped out of uni at the end of 1988, and gone to Europe as a HECS-exile. 

At this point, I’m sure a fair chunk of you are thinking that I should have just been grateful for an 80%* free tertiary education (* if you don’t count the aborted Arts Honours year).  Perhaps, but retrospectivity is an interesting psycho-political beast.

Hearing retired politicians recently cry “retrospectivity!”, when their Gold Passes are threatened with forward cancellation, and similar arguments being made to make negative-gearing for existing property owner-speculators sacrosanct makes me shake at the extreme sense of entitlement felt by some.  Or more specifically, by the boomer crowd in general (not just the mob outside Gough’s funeral). 

Certainly, if travel already undertaken on a Gold Pass, in good faith, is then billed at full cost to the pass-holder, then that’s retrospective. Likewise, if negative gearing is abolished mid-way through a tax year.  But I don’t think that either of these prospects is remotely on the cards.  Gold Pass holders will have the choice for future travel – they can pay for it, or stay at home.  Likewise, negative-gearing speculators will be able to either sell-up, or wear their future losses on an unsubsidised basis.  Meanwhile, back in 1989, I was in the position of being on the last stopover of a started-in-good-faith, long tertiary education “Gold Pass journey” – only abruptly to be held to ransom by my own government, and forced to pay dearly, just to get home.  Held to ransom is how I saw it at the time – it didn’t cross my mind to see the potential upside, such as going to Europe as a HECS-exile. 

In fairness to gravy-training boomers, no entitlement is ever painless to lose.  Indeed, the choice that inevitably comes after the end of the entitlement will perhaps always be subjectively disquieting, however rational it may look from above.  There used to be a quasi-science devoted to just this phenomenon, called “pauperism”.  Unfortunately – that is to say etymologically – defined in most dictionaries, the called pauperism’s operative meaning has veers well away from poverty-central.  If poverty is usually grinding and/or intractable, then the most common form of pauperism is comfortable poverty, as an alternative to paid employment.  Whether this is a chosen alternative is a matter of hot debate.

I was inspired to veer from Gough into pauperism by a reference to Alexis de Tocqueville’s treatise on the subject (in Richard Cooke, “Much obliged”, The Monthly, Nov 2014) p 28.  While the word sounds quaint, like it belongs in the era of workhouses and debtors’ prisons, it was still in use in 1950s Aboriginal policy in Central Australia, and often came up in the recurring debate/spot-fire over whether to ration (for free) adult Aborigines who were deemed capable of working.

Pauperism also has a fair overlap with entitlement-cancellation angst (aka faux “retrospectivity”) – so making the psychology of the Old Gold Pass brigade a case-study illustration of a pauperism’s newer variants.  Although no longer anchored to poverty as such, the moral hazard of classic pauperism is still there – the status quo is too comfortable; or conversely, the prospect of choice, in the wake of entitlement withdrawal, is too daunting.

Textbook pauperism sees its subjects choosing the lacklustre status quo.  Here, time is palpably ticking; their prospects go increasingly backwards the longer they delay making the better choice.  Pauperism is compounded zero-rate interest then, while a risk taken with alacrity can pay handsomely, or if not, allow time for return to equilibrium.  Time also counts in second, subtler way:  the person or system rationing the pauper usually envisages a time-limit on such sustenance – although this is rarely expressed

But even without this latter factor, there is a strong asymmetry in time-sense between recipient/pauper and provider – for the latter, pauperism is plainly evil, for being unsustainably open-ended, if nothing else.   For the recipient/pauper, however, the future is fairly abstract; pauperism is an encompassing present, a day-to-day reality with a myriad of challenges and choices.  That is, nothing but the status quo appears to be sustainable.

Back to Gough, this time-asymmetry is writ large.  His reform agenda’s three years in power were only partly undone later – free tertiary education leading the axing moves of  later governments calling “It’s time” on Gough.  Despite this swingeing attack to the belly of the best of Whitlamism (I think, anyway), in the public mind the Whitlam years have had a curiously long afterlife as an intact status quo. 

With free tertiary education now decades in the past, pauperism and open-ended entitlement are, from the outside, safely, or at least symbolically slain.  Yet from within, they are as functionally strong as ever.  Gough Whitlam’s genius was to perfect entitlement, and so to abolish the taint of pauperism for the boomer generation. Gen X’s unfortunate fate was to be the ceremonial sacrifice upon the altar of post-Gough economic rationalism.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Being afraid of the Muslim bogeyman – Australia’s cowardice and double standards

Nine years ago, I wrote cryptically about the legal dubiousness of what has since publicly been named as Operation Pendennis.  I would like to refine my opinion, somewhat, on the advisability and effectiveness of citizen intervention on crimes as they unfold – as opposed to crimes in the anticipation.  And certainly to change my opinion entirely on what we have learned from September 11.  Never mind the apparent cowardice, or more charitably, the rote by-the-book-adherence by the passengers on the first three planes; we are now all firmly on the fourth plane, United 93, as it were – well I am, anyway.  

Inchoate offences are a fraught area, because unless a line is drawn around a small minority class of the surveilled, the only alternative is a total police state, aka a permanent State of Emergency.  But even under the less draconian scenario, defining the unfortunate subject class is, of course, hugely fraught.  The majority can keep living their lives much as before, but the singled-out, intensely-surveilled minority – which in the present case is young Muslim men – will have their lives (and those of their families) turned upside down.  For this reason alone, I predict that the main outcome of Thursday’s raids will be the creation of a dozens, at least, of new terrorists.  And if they are squashed with another pre-emptive raid in a few years’ time, hundreds will then fill the void.  And so on: nice one, Tony Abbott.

Of course, I am not a fan of terrorism, nor opposed to legitimate law enforcement.  What happened on Thursday, however, was abhorrent – if, as was widely reported, 900 police were mainly there to stop a Lee Rigby-style planned public beheading of a (i) random stranger, or (ii) uniformed soldier, that would be filmed, presumably by an accomplice.

Here’s a shocking thought:  two evil-, and You Tube-, minded terrorists, one armed with a knife, and the other with a phone-camera, probably cannot do that much damage in a crowded public place – unless we stand by and watch.  Someone can be easily fatally stabbed, sure, but to slit a throat, on camera, requires a reasonable amount of choreography in the lead-up.  Meaning that there may well be enough time and opportunity for one or more passers-by to (a) jump, or incapacitate the knife-wielder by heavy blow using anything at hand (fatal or otherwise, I think it matters not), and (b) at the very least, jump the phone-camera wielder.  Is mainstream Australia really so cowardly that we cannot see this common-sense approach as a viable alternative, at least, to pre-emptive mass raids of the sort that happened on Thursday?  If so, then I suggest that the terrorists have already won.

Corroborating this, albeit unintentionally, are the words on Thursday of former judge Anthony Whealy (who was the judge in Pendennis), who said that his lot, arrested in 2005 and some still in jail, were mere bumblers in comparison to those recently raided:

So “horror” is no longer a physical thing, apparently, but relates to You-Tube viewer statistics, including whether they are domestic/Australian or international (larger numbers of the latter make for “more horrific” horror, because it is propaganda, see).  And indeed, personally I am shaking my head in horror right now – as to how someone with as limited a set of insights as Wheatly ever became a judge.

There are also two related double-standards that concern me, and may explain why what I term a common-sense approach is not that common, apparently.  One is Australia’s extreme tolerance, in my view, for young, law-breaking bogan men – other than Muslim bogans, of course.  Steal a car, and then die driving the stolen car, at a dangerous speed in a police chase?  Apparently, that death is the police’s fault, unless proved otherwise.  This situation is somewhere between an anomaly and an outrage.  Statistically I imagine that a random, innocent Australian is far more likely to die as collateral damage in the stolen-car chase scenario than in a public-place terrorist beheading, but not only are likely car-thieves not comprehensively pre-emptively surveilled (as far as I can tell), but they are not subject to murder charges, if they kill an innocent stranger, and live to face court.   Personally, I think that if the stolen-car driver is the only person killed, then the cops deserve a medal and this is a win for just about everybody.  Except the owner of the stolen car, now a wreck – but if this was me, I’d be sending the bill to the family of the deceased.     

The second double-standard concerns why we have singled-out young Muslim men only (again, as far as I can tell) for pre-emptive surveillance, while there are other categories of men – non-bogans, this time* – who seem reasonably prone to the mass-murder of innocents.  Forty-four year old farmers, apparently happily married, for instance (44 being the age at which depression peaks for men).   And recently-separated fathers of young children, who have an access visit arranged for Father’s Day.  If our police and intelligence forces are as good at thwarting murderous plots as the generally obsequious media coverage of Thursday’s raids suggests, then eradicating, in the near future and throughout Australia, the murder of children and/or (ex-) partners by men (none or few of whom are Muslim, as far as I can tell) should be a cinch for them. 

Such raids/surveillance would’t get the same applauding, banner headlines, though – and in fact the biggest headlines would probably come from the protests of innocent men, outraged that they have been targeted unfairly, as one of a high-risk minority.  Treated like a Muslim man in Australia in 2014, other words.

* I am trying to be an equal-opportunity offender 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Alice Springs’ first Aboriginal hospital – or concentration camp?

The documented history of Alice Springs’ town camps is patchy as to places and dates, and yet historically sweet, if not downright rich with the recurrent heavy-handed gestures of whitefellas.  Like an epidemiology, there appears to be a pattern, but it will take an expert more than me to translate it to text with some justice. 

The town camps recrudesce with perplexing (to most outsiders, but to me, pleasing) inevitability, but rarely if ever simply so, as in re-forming in the same place after an x-year hiatus.  Indeed, “the same place” – any place, for that matter – is one of the elements that just floats in the town-camp pattern, resisting isolation as a single empirical datum.  Time likewise appears malleable here, surprisingly so – while the camps are, of course, intrinsically mobile “places”, the two I want to reconstruct in words here have been of a reasonable permanence, if not also of bi-cultural historical importance.  Plus, we are not talking ancient history, nor beyond the black stump – 1927 to 1960 is my ballpark date range, and the locations are all well within present-day suburban Alice Springs.

In case it’s not clear, I’m framing this somewhat artfully as epidemiology, rather than epistemology, for a reason – a poignant one, yet one that seems to have escaped whitefella general knowledge.   But I should say now that there is no literal, Ebola-like metaphor or comparison intended.  Indeed, as we will see, the epidemic seems to have long ago declared a truce, of sorts, when the concentration camp was “liberated”.

East-side and west-side camps

As a long-time (but recently, now former) Melburnian, one of Alice Springs’ most pleasing aspects is its east-west (of the Todd) bi-polarity (Melbourne’s is, of course, “north” and “south” of the Yarra).  

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there were two competing, or at least simultaneous, town camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s – an east-side one, on the bank of the Todd, just (half a mile, or 800 metres) south-east of the present-day CBD (it is unclear whether north or south of Annie Meyers Hill/Tharrarltneme), and a rather more emphatically west-side one about 2 miles (3km) west of town, at or in the general area of a town camp famous in the 1950s called Morris Soak.  

But sorry, west-siders – after that mention, I’m shortly going to snub you for the rest of this post.  I will mention, however, that the west-side/Morris Soak camp was about two miles from town possibly for a reason, as a two-mile radius (from the Residency on the corner of Hartley and Parsons streets) exclusion zone for Aborigines (other than employees going to/from/about work, during daylight hours only) operated from 2 Jan 1930 (Fiona Coughlan MA thesis, "Aboriginal town camps and Tangentyere Council" p 36).  However, the camp was clearly there before this, so the law – as is often the way, although they don’t teach you this in law school – merely codified the status quo, which is turn was a necessary by-product of the geography of apartheid – the underclass live apart (of course), but for practical reasons (whitefella access to a nearly-slave labour force, without private transport), not too far beyond the pale.  I call this the “just outside” shanty sweet spot.

East-side concentration camp?

The east-side camp is a tempting topic for several reasons, starting with its defiance, by its very existence, of the 2-mile radius prohibition law*.  Well within this radius, Aborigines would be doing things other than whitefella work by day, and doing their own business there by night, to boot.  But again, the camp was there first, so perhaps it was “grandfathered” against the letter of the new law. 

Certainly, the whitefellas had a fair reason for some leniency here; with the east-side camp seemingly being a shoe-in for the Central Australian Tidy Town (-Camp) award of 1927. Here’s the breathless “reveal” (as they say on reality TV) of the camp’s makeover, in the words of a government official:

“the camp has been laid out in blocks, subdivided by streets, and the natives have vied one with the other in building up-to-date wurleys.  They cleaned up the deserted camp and now take pride in their new surroundings.” (NT Administration’s Annual Report 1926-27, cited Rowse p 71)
If this is not just official humbug, then it seems to me that the Australian home renovation mania (which always has been personally inexplicable), might have similar deep roots, as AFL football does to marngrook (“Always start with the worst humpy in the best Mission”, anyone?).  And even if it’s just fluff, the phrase “up-to-date wurleys” excites me anyway; it sounds like a jazz-age reference to some fancy lightweight camping kit (the acquiring and/or coveting of which I do find somewhat more explicable than jumping on a treadmill of cosmetically-enhanced ruins that are dated as soon as you finish, aka home renovations).

But in any event, the Central Australian Tidy Town (-Camp) award was not to last (and because it was proverbial anyway, the eastside camp was to be spared that dubious honour of that long-ago Tidy Town award plaque swinging in the breeze at the town limits (It’s time to renovate your “Welcome To X” sign, folks - dare I suggest that houses can age more gracefully than provincial, boastful signs).  1927’s “up-to-date wurleys” were, by 1933, to be no more than utilitarian cells in an isolation camp, or worse, during an epidemic (I note here that – again – it is unclear whether the 1927 and 1933 camps were in the exact same location; however, they were both definitely in the inner-east side, by the Todd).

Tim Rowse, in White Flour, White Power, Cambridge UP (1998) p 77 writes up the “Aboriginal medical hut” in the east-side camp as a very basic proto-hospital.  And indeed, there was absolutely nothing, in terms of medical treatment personnel or facilities available to Aborigines in Alice Springs before this.   John Flynn’s fine stone 1926 proto-hospital building, Adelaide House, which still stands in the middle of Todd Mall, was for whites only.  

However, in his autobiography, Medicine Man (1959), Alice Springs’ only doctor in the early 1930s, FW McCann, places the “Aboriginal medical hut” at the centre of a much less salutary place than a basic proto-hospital.  At the time, there was an epidemic of gonorrhoeal ophthalmia among Aborigines at the east-side camp, a disease of the eye that could cause permanent blindness, with a venereal connection, but for present purposes apparently spread by flies.  The whitefellas’ acute concern, as you may have guessed, was to prevent this spreading to their own eyes.  But I’ll leave the rest mostly to Dr McCann’s own words.  Before doing so, I should stress that he was apparently one of the more enlightened whitefellas in power around Alice Springs at the time, and certainly much less racist than John Flynn.**

“Drastic action was certainly needed urgently, since before long there were more than one hundred cases in the blacks’ camp alone, and it was easy to picture what a conflagration there would be if they decided to wander off into various parts of the country in their infective state.  There was, as well, the ever-present danger of the disease being carried to the white population of the town, particularly by those blacks who were casually employed in various jobs around homes [and who also, apparently, wouldn’t let a spot of serious eye disease, if not casual blindness, stop them from going to work] …

Thanks to the initiative of the district engineer – a well-known Territory character, ‘DD’ Smith, who was prepared to take action without waiting for any formal approval from Canberra – a form of barbed-wire compound was hastily erected and all communication between the native camp and the township stopped.  A hut was built inside the compound to serve as a medical centre, but the best that could be done by way of a nursing service was to install an old pensioner volunteer# as superintendent, matron, and cook combined.”

FW McCann, Medicine Man (1959), p 164.

As you would expect, the disease nonetheless spread – perhaps the flies even jumped the barbed-wire fence to the white CBD/west-side (I may be being facetious here; possibly the disease-thingy could only live on the fly at very short range, like a Bluetooth connection).  Dr McCann's book suggests that it was close proximity, if not person-to-person contact, emanating from an Aboriginal house-maid who should have been inside that barbed-wire compound, which caused a 12 y.o. white boy, “the son of a well-known family”, to get the disease from his house-maid.  Scores of other Aborigines were also infected when the disease spread to “The Bungalow”, then at the Old Telegraph Station. And then – somehow – the epidemic just stopped in its tracks.  A “few” Aborigines did permanently lose their eyesight, while the fate of the 12 y.o. white boy (the only white victim mentioned by McCann) is unknown.

As I said near the start, this epidemic seems to have ended in a vague truce.  It would be nice, of course, to have an account of that happy day when the barbed-wire was torn down, and the isolation/concentration camp was “liberated”.  But I may be dreaming here – that happy day might well have been the same one when the former showpiece camp of only a few years earlier, was unceremoniously torn down, and its residents forcibly moved on (a familiar pattern)

Finally, I will venture to say that this lack of a “liberation” story – as a closing bookend to the strange, short history of the inner east-side town camp – is surely a notable gap; a deep whitefella shame.  And part of a pattern too, of course. 

Even if there was a “liberation” story in general circulation, that would not be the end of it, either. At the conclusion of Albert Camus’ The Plague (1960 translation by Stuart Gilbert), there is a moment of liberation, of mass jubilation, that the book’s ostensible narrator/conscience Dr Rieux can feel part of, on one level.  But he also, more or less alone, knows that the plague is never truly vanquished, and so resolves to “compile this chronicle”.  I hope that the horrors of the inner east-side camp, too, will one day live large enough allow us to see the pattern.


* Pauline Cockrill, Healing the Heart, 60 years of Alice Springs Hospital 1939-1999, p 3 quotes Rowse p77, but also inserts an erroneous gloss that the east-side camp was “about two miles” from town.  This error is logical enough for anyone with the 2-mile law in mind, but when the logic is followed through, it becomes an empirical quagmire.  A camp on the east-bank of the Todd, about two miles from the CBD, would place it near either the Old Telegraph Station, or the present-day casino - but she doesn't specify either site.  Cockrill’s gratuitous extra tidbit here is the tip of an immensely frustrating (for me) iceberg of (often unintentional) misinformation on Central Australia.  Why is it so hard, apparently, for whitefellas to specifically check-off fairly-recently vanished sites with their present-day incarnations? Cockrill, like many others, choses to “camp out” in the data, rather than build a more lasting structure – which is a cultural irony indeed). 

** Charles Duguid vouches for McCann in Doctor Goes Walkabout (1972) p 102 (and more ambiguously, p 104), while John Flynn’s racism is cogently also put by Charles Duguid in Doctor Goes Walkabout on pp 97, 100, 104, 125 and 146.  Maisie McKenzie, in Flynn’s Last Camp (1985) pp 59-61, attempts a defence of Flynn against Duguid’s allegations (without naming Duguid).  However, she doesn’t grapple with what it for me the crux of the matter:  that Flynn’s Australian Inland Mission contemptuously disregarded the donor’s intent in the (Mrs Henrietta) Smith of Dunesk Bequest – to help Aborigines (see Duguid pp 122-123).  This Bequest appears to have provided a large proportion of the early AIM’s funding for its whites-only operations.  In Flynn’s defence, he was far from being the only cynical “nigger (dollar) farmer” with an outwardly respectable occupation in Central Australia at that time, if not also now (especially per the NT Intervention since 2007).       

# Rowse p 77 has him paid 10s a week.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Missing episodes

According to Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews, mental illness is “episodic”, rather than permanent – and so it makes sense for people to work during the “good” times, at least.  Why set the default for the “bad” times; i.e. pay the DSP in both sickness and in health? Yes, but is this quite a glass half full/empty situation?

To answer this, let’s look forward at what happens when the next mental illness “episode” occurs during a work spell.  Quite possibly, the person will be unable to continue working.  Even if the ill person wants to continue working, the employer will likely want them stood down (to use a vague term), for the duration of the episode, at least.

And there’s the rub.  Generally speaking, it is illegal to sack, or otherwise penalise an employee on the grounds of ill-health.  So the employer will dread the prospect of a mental-illness prone employee becoming unwell – they will then either have to be paid for not working, or surreptitiously cut adrift, in a usually prolonged process which just scrapes in on the side of what is legal. 

The former means that the insurance aspect of the DSP is outsourced to the employer.  Which is a win for taxpayers, I guess, but a huge disincentive for employing anyone with a mental illness – the employer knows that they may be writing a blank cheque, that is, underwriting the employee’s wages during their episodes of illness.

The latter means that the employer gets to shift – eventually – financial liability for the person’s support back to the state (after all the paperwork has been done, and the waiting periods served, of course).  The biggest cost here, however, will be borne by the person with the mental illness – having lost their job on vague and/or technical grounds (but well knowing why they really lost it), the “episode” will almost certainly be deeper and longer for this experience.  That is, the end of the “health” phase – which is generally foreseeable as, for all concerned, a nasty HR process – adds greatly to the accumulation of “sickness”.  Put another way, if the person had never got that job, their total “sickness” most likely would have been less.

So what’s the answer? Clearly a person with a mental illness needs an income, from the DSP and/or employment.  Losing the DSP, even if in seamless association with a new job is likely to leave the person much worse off  upon the happening of the next “episode”.  There is nothing that will be seamless about this unravelling.  Perhaps part-time work at most – that keeps DSP eligibility – would be a wise compromise, but this doesn’t appear to be what Kevin Andrews and Patrick McClure really have in mind.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A great deal of warning

The year 2040 as the date when the 70 [qualifying age for the age pension] would kick in was speculated on, but there has also been talk of 2029.  Of course, for us oldies, it is neither here nor there because these new arrangements will not affect us.

The point of giving the youngies a great deal of warning is that they can think about their retirement plans now, about how long they should stay in the workforce and how they might structure their assets”.

-          Judith Sloan, “Age-old question needs answers, and soon”, Australian 26 April 2014

Five years ago, when the increase in the qualifying age for the Australian age pension from 65 to 67 was announced in the May 2009 budget, I predicted that this would be an interim increase only.  Sure enough, a further increase to 70 now appears certain.

There are two kinds of demographic reality at stake here. One is objective reality – we are living longer on average, and that the boomer wave in retiree numbers will be cresting for another 15 years or so, and only break c.2030, when the oldest boomers hit their mid 80s.  

The second kind of demographic reality/“reality” is Boomer-Think – that they are not the problem, and therefore the solution need only slightly involve them.  The generally unspoken corollary to this is that the problem just needs to be moved on by a few years, to become a hangover for the next generation.  How this naked blame-shifting has become an entrenched reality is a whole separate essay, however . . .  

Judith Sloan, who I presume is a boomer (i.e. born before 1/7/1962), has been unusually candid in her above choice of words.  Her gloating that “for us oldies . . . these new arrangements will not affect us” may seem somewhat misconceived, as the 2009 qualifying age increase, phased in between 2017 and 2023, affects those born between 1952 and 1957, so leaving the youngest boomer cohort still subject to an older qualifying age.  But this is small bikkies, or as Sloan says, “neither here nor there”.

The boomer pain is inconsequential because the main pain – as always – falls on us Xers.  Not that Sloan quite needs to spell this out; it’s easier just to forget our existence.  Hence, straight after reassuring her boomer cohort, Sloan clinches her case by pointing out that the “youngies” can hardly complain either, as they’ve got plenty of notice to get their house* in order, so to speak. I assume that Sloan, if she thinks about it at all, lumps in Xers as “youngies” – but as someone turning 50 this year, I am more disgusted than flattered at her dismissive labelling.

If you think about it, financially planning a late retirement is very simple.  You will work until you can afford not to.  But setting even an approximate date for this, decades out from the actual event, is ludicrous for most individuals, as it will depend on well-into-the-future income levels, asset prices, and tax and superannuation laws (which are currently ridiculously generous to over-60s, and so, I would suggest, have zero chance of still being in place when Xers start turning 60 in 2022).  All that a far-forward announced increase in the age pension qualifying age actually means for now is another signal to Xers that their lifetime tax dollars are already spoken for.

Not getting back what you’ve put in seems to me to be a dangerous thing to be legislating, en masse and in advance.  Recent debate around upping the pension age has had its useful distractions. (Manual workers will be worn-out by age 65?  That’s what the DSP is for. On average, Xers are going to live to our late 80s, at least?  That’s why compulsory superannuation was introduced, more than 20 years ago.)  But these skate around the much bigger issue – that the tax dollars of ageing Xers will, for the next two decades, be all used up in subsidising the retirement lifestyles of boomers who are, on average, much richer than the Xer worker bees.  When this party starts to end, c.2030, Xers will not – and could not – look to the next taxpayer generation to write our retirement cheque.  If then we don’t have enough super to be self-funded retirees (and most won’t, see sidebar below), then we’ll have only ourselves to blame, using Sloan’s logic of being a 50 year old “youngie” in 2014, pondering “how long [I] should stay in the workforce and how [I] might structure [my] assets”. 

So do your own math here, Xers – and if you also conclude that you are getting shafted, then it’s time to make some noise, if not revolt. Otherwise, the boomers are relying on you not to even notice what’s happening here until the late 2020s:

“Lifting the pension eligibility age further from 67 to 70 by 2034# [I predict 2035; see table below] appears tough, and may be prudent, but it will have no impact on the budget, or any voter, for more than a decade”.

-          Adam Creighton, “Audit commission prescribes some harsh medicine”, Australian 26 April 2014 (emphasis added)

Sidebar:  Compulsory superannuation is an abject failure

Judith Sloan also notes:

“At the moment, more than 80 per cent of those aged 65 or older collect the age pension, in full or in part.  On the current projections, this proportion is not expected to change much at all, although there is a change to the mix of full and part recipients.

Amazingly, the projections do not envisage much change to the proportion of those 65 or older who receive no pension by 2050 — which is nearly 60 years after the introduction of compulsory superannuation”.

I assume that these figures are adjusted forward for the currently confirmed retirement age (i.e. 67, from 2023), but if not, the real figures are even more damning – or “amazing”, if you’re a by-standing boomer voyeur looking at a demographic car crash, like Sloan.

Until now, the main demographic motif with compulsory superannuation has been that it came well into the working life of most boomers, and so they couldn’t be expected to have as much (and/or “enough”) retirement money as younger generations.  Here, older Xers like myself fell into a similar – if much more silent – boat, having also started our working lives pre-1992.  But anyway, now it matters barely a jot whether you’ve had compulsory superannuation for some, most or all of your working life – YOU ARE STILL GOING TO NEED THE PENSION, in part at least, and ASSUMING THAT IT’S THERE, after the boomers are gone.

For Xers, this is a dirty little secret indeed.   Compulsory superannuation was (and I remember this vividly) sold to my generation in the early 1990s on the basis of our expected higher longevity.  Set originally at a modest 3% of income, the magic of compounded returns was spruiked so that it plausibly seemed a viable vehicle for self-funded retirees, en masse – at least when perhaps supplemented by some voluntary contributions in late working-life, when we had money to spare**.  While the delusion of high returns over patient decades has long since gone (in 2008, if not before), and the compulsory percentage rate has gone in the other direction (“compounded compulsion”, anyone?), compulsory superannuation still has an aura of thrifty benevolence around it.  As though someone older and wiser is finger-wagging at us Xers:  “You may not appreciate the forced saving now, but you sure will when you’re 80”. 

That is, our (mostly) modest nest eggs are going to spare us, at least, from the ravages of needing the full age pension c.2050.  But they will have to, as I’ve pointed out above, and the prospect of even a part age pension c.2050 is looking like a 1980s Moscow supermarket – the shelves are bare, whatever the commissars’ bright rhetoric and stern compulsions may be. 

The bottom line is that Xers will be financially-strapped in retirement – I am talking much worse off than the current generation of full old-age pensioners – because they mistook, until it was too late, the state’s compulsion as some sort of guarantee of a comfortable retirement.  On the contrary, compulsory superannuation is a cynical double tax-grab – a means of ensuring Xers pay for boomers’ comfortable retirements while impoverishing our own future, as we meekly add fresh tokens to our steaming token piles – our token futures.

Update 4 May 2035

Told you so; re the pension age of 70 starting in 2035.  No report, that I have seen, has filled in the blanks, aka the taper, between the 2009 changes and the latest ones - thereby implying that (only) the post-1965 born will now have a particularly high pension-age hurdle to leap.  In reality, this age qualifier is only six months older than the 69.5 years that applies to the cohort 18 months older, and so on.  But "sticker shock" headlines, regarding quite distant dates, usefully hide the real story - that ALL Xers are getting shafted by these changes, whatever specific 18 month cohort they fall within.

*  House – Xers’ home-ownership rates are much lower than boomers’, so there is intended irony here.  The role of home ownership in a financially-secure retirement is also a whole other essay.

** Money to spare.  Since PM John Howard created the loophole, every middle or high-earning working boomer aged over 59 has furiously money-laundered as much of their income as legally possible (generally $50,000), by channelling it into voluntary superannuation “savings”, and then immediately withdrawing it, tax free.  Neat trick, eh?  You don’t actually lock a single dollar away, but you get more spending money now, and for free!  And not a loophole that will be around much longer, I am quite sure. But the putrid (bi-partisan) stench – of voluntary superannuation contributions being a transparent tax-dodge, and not a nest-egg builder – will linger long after, for Xers.    

# Here’s my projection of what the 13 May 2014 Budget will bring, if it continues the taper set in 2009 – the age of 70 won’t be bedded down until July 2035.  Note that the first six-months for each taper increase are “downtime”, when no one will actually become eligible.  Hence, the lucky Xers born on 1 January 1966 will become eligible for the age pension (if it still exists) when they turn 70 on 1 January 2036.     

Pension age for those born on or after 1 July 1952

Affects those born (both dates inclusive)
Pension age
01/07/1952 to 31/12/1953
65 years and 6 months
01/01/1954 to 30/06/1955
66 years
01/07/1955 to 31/12/1956
66 years and 6 months
01/01/1957 to 30/06/1958
67 years
01/07/1958 to 31/12/1959
67 years and 6 months
01/01/1960 to 30/06/1961
68 years
01/07/1961 to 31/12/1962
68 years and 6 months
01/01/1963 to 30/06/1964
69 years
01/07/1964 to 31/12/1965
69 years and 6 months
01/01/1966 to  . . . ?
70 years, then . . . ?

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