Impressions of the Australian Conjecture

 This is my third visit to Australia in the last 12 months.  Aussie friends accuse me, tongue in cheek, of having an undeclared fondness for their country on account of my frequent visits to a country such a long way away for me to get to, which may or may not be true.  This time a few of them even suggested it might be time to move Down Under after Trump’s election.

Australia is indeed a long way away from Virginia, but the effort to come here is always worthwhile.  Not just because the country really has all the qualities extolled in a relatively honest tourist brochure.

Australia’s political conjuncture is fascinating for me because it is poised in front of thresholds the US and UK crossed decades ago.  The country has thus far survived the neoliberal onslaught better than its two anglophone counterparts.

Australia has not had a recession for 25 years.  As the Washington Post put it (September 15, 2016): “The last time Australia had a recession, the Clintons had never run for president, Donald Trump had never had a business go bankrupt, and the Soviet Union was still a country”.

An American or Brit can only scratch their head at such macroeconomic competence or good fortune (or both).  In the period 1990-2015, average Australian GDP growth was 3.3%, whereas in the same period the US only had 8 years, and the UK 5 years, in which their GDPs matched or exceeded the Australian average.

A primary reason for Australia’s relative success has been a booming economy propelled by its extractive industries, which benefitted from the huge demand for coal and minerals generated by China’s economic expansion.  Australia is thus a major contributor to global environmental pollution.

Now that China’s economy has slowed down, the pinch is starting to be felt by Australia.

The votes for Brexit and Trump indicate (among other things) that the structural problems confronting capitalism, for which neoliberalism has been a disastrous fix except for the extremely wealthy, are starting to register at the most fundamental political level.

Being shielded from these structural problems by the consistently large revenues generated by its extractive industries, Australia has not so far seen the kind of “backlash” politics underpinning the votes for Brexit and Trump.  But the lack of demand which is slowing-down its extractive industries has put an end to any unbridled boom-time optimism, and shows Australia to share in principle the economic quandaries of its western capitalist counterparts.

Euro-America has been defeated by these quandaries, while Australia is weathering the economic challenges posed by a tepid global economy.  The historic compromise between labour and capital remains intact here.

It remains to be seen whether this historic compromise will survive in Australia if there is a worsening of the global economic environment.  The indications thus far are that it will, with some blips.  Neoliberalism will make inroads, simply because handing things over to the private sector is an easy way for governments to let themselves off the hook.  What transpires of course is a giant rent-seeking racket in which citizens are turned into consumers and fleeced accordingly.

Reading today’s Sydney Morning Herald I came across an article which screamed “British Rail” at me– BR’s privatization by the Tories now enabling buccaneers like Richard Branson to have his over-crowded and clapped-out Virgin trains carry disgruntled but hapless passengers who pay exorbitantly for this privilege, while Branson runs all the way to his offshore banks with their money and the handsome subsidies he receives from the British government.

According to the Morning Herald, the New South Wales Auditor-General has revealed that the projected construction and operational costs of Sydney’s upcoming light-rail project, entrusted to a private consortium, will now over-run by a whopping 70%.

This kind of thing has been par for the course where BR is concerned.  Every time BR outsourced this or that part of its operation to the private sector, the bids came in at the low end of the cost-spectrum to serve as bait for the BR executives in charge of the bidding process.  Once the contract was secured, however, the invariable multiple cycles of over-charging can begin.   Regulation by neoliberal governments is typically “light touch” — a slap on the wrist is administered occasionally– and consumers are ripped-off methodically as a result.   Costs eat into profit margins, so services provided are pared to the bone to keep costs low.

Conflicts of interest are also rife, as many of the politicians who make privatization decisions have a financial stake in the private enterprises rewarded with outsourcing contracts.

The most blatant example of such a conflict of interest in living memory (mine at any rate) was the decision in the early 1960s of the UK’s Tory transport minister, Ernest Marples, to appoint the corporate downsizer Richard Beeching as BR’s chairman.  Beeching duly delivered by closing a third of Britain’s railway lines, triggering a rapid growth in road traffic.  This suited Marples nicely– his family owned the UK’s largest roadway construction company.  For his work the egregious Beeching was made Baron Beeching (a typical British touch), when he deserved to be sent to the scaffold (capital punishment was only abolished in the UK in 1965, so in principle Beeching could have been eligible for the ultimate sentence).

Donald Trump must have found a way to channel the scoundrel Ernest Marples, what with the Orange Man’s decision to appoint a political ally of corporate polluters in Oklahoma to head the EPA, a CEO opponent of labour to be labor secretary, an opponent of public housing (despite having himself grown up in public housing) to be head of the Housing and Urban Development department, and an opponent of public education to be education secretary.

Alas, no critic of the US’s out of control military spending will ever be put in charge of the Pentagon.  During his campaign, Trump railed against out control military procurement, but his decision to surround himself with generals of the “mad dog” variety tells a different story.  Hugely expensive “stealth” fighters and navy destroyers that turn out to be as easy to detect as a gorgeously variegated tropical bird will continue to be built under Trump. The mad dogs won’t have it any other way.

Most of Euro-America has ditched this compromise between capital and labour by opting for an austerity agenda of the kind crippling the UK and the EU.

Or there is the faux populism resorted to by the Orange Man, whose nebulous promise of a return to former glories is not going to do anything to raise the living standards of ordinary Americans, no matter how often he repeats his “I feel your pain” refrain in front of the television cameras.

“America First” clearly resonated with the Orange Man’s base, but there are multiple tiers of Americanness, economically and socially, and those on the bottom tier economically are not going to be helped by a shameless plutocrat who said throughout his campaign that “wages are too high”.

Another reason why Australia has been able to hold on to some kind of social democracy is an inbuilt cultural iconoclasm and a collective distaste for snootiness or snobbery (not a good way of putting it, but it must suffice).

Toffs and arrivistes like Margaret Thatcher (she with the elocution lessons so as to sound less like the grocer’s daughter she was) are given short shrift here in ways moderately thrilling for anyone coming from a culture deadened by centuries of stifling deference and anachronistic flummery—the royal family with its massive retinue of toadies and flunkeys, the myriad aristocratic throwbacks, and such Ruritanian decorative waxworks as Black Rod, Gold Stick and Silver Stick, Warden of the Queen’s Swans, Ladies of the Bedchamber, the Clerk of the Closet (not that closet!), the Yeoman Usher, the Serjeant-at-Arms, Beefeaters, the whole rotting carcass dressed up for Ukania’s royalist psychodrama.Prince Charles is a jackass royally incapable of good judgement on all manner of issues from architecture to blood sports, something which can barely be whispered aloud in the UK.

Here by contrast even parts of the ruling elites are open in their lampooning of the heir to the British throne.  Charles gets heckled during his visits to Australia and in a 2005 visit Aussies yelled taunts at him about Lady Di.  He may even have at the back of his mind the discomfiting fact that the first British royal to visit Australia, in 1868, received a bullet to his rib-cage. Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, survived the assassination attempt made in Sydney.  A mortified Australian elite was impelled to name the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in his honour, as well as a street near my hotel.  His would-be assassin, known to be mentally unstable, was nonetheless sent to the gallows.

(I’m in Sydney, struck as always by its vibrant diversity of cultures and ethnicities.)

The Australian prime minister, the rightwing Malcolm Turnbull, is a republican despite his political affiliation, something that sinks a fledgling political career in the UK like a ton of lead.

Turnbull’s reasoning is impeccable:  what kind of country has a foreign head of state as its own head of state?  This Saturday, Turnbull, an otherwise craven plutocrat (he is one of the richest people in Australia), will speak at a gala fund-raising dinner for the Australian Republican Movement.

Nearly everyone with whom I discussed this issue said most Aussies are waiting for Elizabeth Windsor’s state funeral before they made their next move on Australia’s link to this foreign monarchy.

The Australian political system has wood rot in places, but as long as the compromise between labour and capital that was the bedrock of European social democracy and the American New Deal is not overturned, Australians seem less likely to give in to the widespread cynicism, disenchantment, and apathy prevailing in the neoliberal US and Europe.

An indication for me of how this compromise survives in Australia is provided by my hotel.  Part of an American global chain, its US hotels offer members of its rewards programme the abomination of an extra 500 points for each day they don’t want their rooms cleaned.  The intention of course is to reduce costs by hiring fewer staff to clean rooms.  No such inducement is offered by the hotel in Sydney– not that I would take it– and there seem to be more staff here than in the chain’s US hotels.

(Brexit and the vote for Trump are mirror images of this systemic economic and political debilitation.  Both are incoherent ideologically and a dead-end politically.  Little Englanderism and American white nationalism are simply not going to cut the mustard.  How anyone can think a jittery and opportunistically short-termist Theresa May is capable of orchestrating a Brexit likely to be to the long-term benefit of the UK, or that Trump’s coterie of avaricious billionaires and retired generals masquerading as a cabinet can safeguard the future of Joe and Jill Normal of Pulaski, the struggling small town in rural Virginia, is almost beyond belief.)

The Australian electoral system has a preferential/transferable-vote form of proportional representation.  As is the case with the US and UK, the lack of a full-blown PR system makes a duopoly of power almost inevitable.  I was told the introduction of a fully-fledged PR system would lead to coalitions more reflective of the interests of voters.  This of course is true of every electoral system without PR.

With PR, the Australian right-wing party, the Liberals, would probably split between its hard and soft right-wings, with a small ultra-nationalist grouping forming a third component on the right.

The Labor party would split between its neoliberal “centrists” and old-school social democrats (shades of what seems imminent within the UK Labour party today!), with the latter almost certainly forming an alliance with the Greens, while the Labor neoliberals enter a possible coalition with the soft-right faction in the Liberal party.

Almost certain to be left out any such reconfiguration would be the indigenous people and their interests.  Australia, like the US, is a settler-colonial nation founded on the genocide-ethnocide of its indigenes.

Responses to this brute historical reality, as is the case with the US, extend from outright evasion (“Well, we’ve been good for them despite some bad stuff in the past”) to hand-wringing guilt.

All such responses are predicated on the erasure of enmity lines which the indigenous people had, and still have, every right to maintain, if only they possessed the requisite power.  They have every right to fight back, but alas don’t have the political, let alone military, means.

As is the case with the US, governmental responses to the dire predicament of the indigenous people are largely cosmetic, with a specious multiculturalism and “heritage culture” serving as a camouflage for inactivity in nearly every official sphere.

The other stain on the country’s historical record, not yet as ineradicable as its treatment of the indigenous people, is its utterly shameful response to the now global crisis of refugees and asylum seekers.

Australia’s response to this crisis has been to create refugee camps, as part of the Orwellian sounding Operation Sovereign Borders– the idea that hungry and petrified refugees on leaky boats pose a threat to Australia’s sovereignty is simply laughable– on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus.  Impartial observers say these camps are a combination of Guantanamo and the recently-demolished refugee camp in Calais commonly referred to as the “jungle”.

The Nauru and Manus gulags have rudimentary medical facilities, are beset by food shortages, provide very limited educations for their child inmates, and are chronically over-crowded.  Their inmates are humans in dire need who are guilty of no crime, despite being placed in conditions no Australian convicted murderer has to endure.

Many of the Australians I spoke to, mindful of their country’s colonial origins as a convict colony in which cruelty and abuse were systemic, regard the Pacific gulags as a national disgrace, especially for a very wealthy country that purports to be a democracy.  But of course, their government does nothing.  Even the opposition social-democratic Labor party is committed to retaining the offshore refugee gulags, though it pledges to make them less gulag-like, perhaps less like a prison and more like a horribly run down one-star motel.

Australia has thus joined the EU countries in fashioning, for the so-called popular consciousness, an ugly and coldblooded notion of the refugee as one of the criminal or borderline-criminal archetypes (typically to be found in the spread ranging from literature and film to criminology)— other such archetypes include the figures of the thief, murderer, sexual predator, paedophile, gangster, hooligan, vandal, drug addict and dealer, counterfeiter, swindler, kidnapper, smuggler, slave trafficker, hacker, and so forth.

In numerous conversations, nearly everyone asked me how Americans could bring themselves to vote for Trump, the quintessential anarcho-capitalist, with his numerous bankruptcies, failed businesses, fake enterprises such as his “university”, habitual stiffing of contractors who work for him, and so on.  I tried to answer, giving reasons well-known to every regular reader of CounterPunch.

Far more interesting to me were their responses to my own question “what would it take for its version of Donald Trump to emerge in Australia?” (my having agreed with anyone who said the Orange Man is a no holds barred plutocrat who campaigned deceptively as a “man of the people”).

With Trump’s ascendancy, America is moving from its phase of a minimally regulated anarcho-capitalism (Reagan to Obama) to a virtually unregulated phase of this anarcho-capitalism.

Aware of this, most of my Aussie interlocutors answered my question with brevity:  to elect its version of Trump a massive breakdown of Australia’s social and political order would have to occur.  Ummm.

And so, the following thought intruded when thinking about the answers given by my Aussie friends.  Has something like this breakdown already happened, or started to happen, in the big country which had its recent presidential election?

Incidentally, the only positive outcome looked forward to from a Trump presidency by the university-based Aussies I spoke with is a boom in international students wanting an English-speaking education, but now eschewing the US and the UK (because of Brexit) and coming to Australia instead, since they don’t want to contend with Brexit’s unpredictable outcomes and the xenophobia already being unleashed by the Orange Man.

The Aussie universities, eager for almost any extra revenue source, will welcome them with open arms.

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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