Without jobs we're Scrooged

In both the United States and Australia, General Motors has been portrayed by cynicalcommentators as a government-sponsored employment agency and not a proper business. They miss the point that subsidised companies and their government patrons are investors in human capital, and that it's human capital — rather than money — that makes a society work. 

Human capital is the combination of competencies and creativity that enable a person to perform a task that produces both personal fulfilment and economic value. The idea is that the subsidies will contribute to both the wellbeing of the workers and financial profits of the company in a manner that brings mutual benefit without exploitation on either side. In the case of car manufacturing around the world, the alternative is workers without jobs and companies without profits.

Pope Francis says that workers without jobs adds up to workers without dignity. 'Work means dignity, work means taking food home, work means loving!' A society where 'money is in command' inevitably lays waste its workers, and the young and old people who depend upon them. 'We must say: "We don't want this globalised economic system which does us so much harm!"'

A successful nation doesn't need a car industry, but it must have its working age citizens employed, or they and their families will suffer the depression and economic hardship that are characteristic of a society where money comes before love. If a government kills a car industry by withdrawing subsidies, it must have in place a secure plan that will ensure those who lose their jobs retain their dignity. The best way to do this is to make sure they have jobs to go to. The government is effectively an employment agency, with employment so fundamental to the wellbeing of the citizens that make up the nation.

Because a government must avoid taking its workers for granted, decisions that have consequences for employment are among the most serious it needs to take. The reporting of the current government's actions with regard to Holden suggest it may have been cavalier in the way it dealt with the parent company General Motors when so much human capital was at stake. Moreover it has no obvious plan for dealing with the total fallout for employment, including the likely flow on for Toyota workers. 

The loss of jobs in the automotive industry has occurred against a background of rising unemployment, according to figures announced on Thursday. But the trend is even bleaker, with NSW treasurer Mike Baird gloomily predicting an extra 20,000 unemployed workers in the next financial year. He says 'this is not the time to be complacent'. 

While it seems he might be playing the role of Scrooge at Christmas time, Baird has the right attitude and a lesson for his Federal Liberal colleagues. In the end, peace on earth and goodwill to all men and women will not be a reality for those out of work.

Don't cry for the flying kangaroo

Discussion of government assistance to Qantas is inevitably clouded by emotion, despite increasing commentary on management blunders. No patriotic Australian wants to see the ‘flying kangaroo’ go out of business, as Australia’s other airline icon Ansett did a little more than a decade ago. But if Qantas is to properly serve the Australian people, it has to be on the basis of good business and not emotion.

There is a real possibility that the world’s oldest continuously operating airline could fail, in a fast changing aviation marketplace that requires companies to have the ability to attract vast amounts of capital in order to survive. The bad news for Qantas is that the credit rating agency Standard and Poors has downgraded Qantas to junk status, which means it will lose comparatively easy access to the funds it needs to survive. 

This follows the airline’s advice to the Australian Stock Exchange on Thursday that it is in big trouble. It cited an underlying  $250-300 million loss  before tax in the six months to 31 December. This is forcing the loss of another 1000 jobs, and the share price has plunged in recent days. 

There is consequent pressure for a massive government cash injection to help Qantas return to profitability and put the brakes on its successful competitor Virgin by halting a $350 million capital injection by its foreign shareholders.

However lessening competition means only one thing for the Australian people, and that is higher fares. This would mean a reversal of one of the great economic miracles of recent times that has proved capitalism can promote social inclusion. That is the explosion of competition in the global aviation marketplace and the low fares revolution this has produced. 

As recently as two decades ago, low income citizens of western countries could not afford to fly. In the new age of competition and low fares, many people living close to the poverty line can fly interstate or even overseas to visit family or attend to their business and cultural needs. But if the Australian Government helped Qantas out of trouble by making it less attractive for foreign airline interests to invest in the Australian market, fares would rise significantly and flying would once again become the preserve of the wealthy.

The improvement in the access of ordinary people to the skies ranks alongside advances in health an education that have improved the lives of many. Pope Francis said as much in his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium when he suggested ‘we can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications’. In the section headed ‘No to an economy of exclusion’, he insisted that ‘those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it’.

According to the pope’s critique, any government assistance to Qantas that thwarts competition will also thwart those on the margins of society who have been enabled to fly by the low fares that are the result of competition. If the flying kangaroo cannot compete, it should be put out of its misery, or at least change its management. 

Abbott should not punish the ABC

Prime minister Tony Abbott chose his words carefully when he said in Parliament on Tuesday that he 'sincerely regret[s] any embarrassment that recent media reports have caused' Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. 

It is always good to express regret in these situations. But did he mean that the media was doing its job and that the embarrassment was collateral damage? Or was he regretting that the media was out of line when it published details of Australian spying on Indonesia?

Some conservative voices have made no secret of the fact that they blame the media for damaging Australia's relations with Indonesia, and they should be punished. Outspoken monarchist Professor David Flint tweeted that the Government should retaliate against the ABC by reviewing the ABC's overseas broadcasting contract. 

Significantly, Murdoch commentators Chris Kenny and Rita Panahi berated the ABC and The Guardian for what Panahi called their 'callous disregard for the consequences'. 

This utilitarian argument of Kenny and Panahi violates the fundamental principle of virtue ethics. Its ideal is that we should give priority to doing good and avoiding evil over consideration of the consequences of our actions. The same can be said for the campaign of vengeance and intimidation that Flint seems to propose, in that it targets the principle for the sake of achieving a particular political and diplomatic outcome for the nation at this time.

At stake we have freedom of the press, and the independence and integrity of the ABC. These should not be given nor taken away on the whim of political or diplomatic expediency. The same can be said for spying itself, which is a potentially justifiable offence against human dignity. As such, it is akin to the just war and cannot be sanctioned lightly.

ABC managing director Mark Scott made the distinction between the national interest and the public interest when he was before a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Tuesday. There's no doubt that publication of the Edward Snowden leaks damaged Australia's short-term national interest, but the more fundamental public interest is served by keeping intact the democratic principles embodied in the above mentioned principles.

As it happens, Scott had his resolve tested during the week when The Australian published a leaked document containing salary figures for key ABC staff members. This publication will cause untold inconvenience and embarrassment for management, and also damage ABC staff morale. But it will also strengthen respect for these principles if the ABC is dogged by them at the same time as the Government. If the ABC can avoid hypocrisy in its response to the salary leaks, the short-term pain will no doubt lead to long-term gain.

It's also important to note that adherence to these principles is not blind. The ABC's guidelines stipulate that its 'editorial decisions are not [to be] improperly influenced by political, sectional, commercial or personal interests'. 'Proper' influence might involve action to avoid endangering the lives of particular individuals. This was the case in 2010 when western newspapers blacked out the names mentioned in Wikileaks information where publication would have left the individuals vulnerable to retaliation in foreign countries. 

Guardian Australia editor Katharine Viner told Crikey that The Guardian acted responsibly in Australia this week, in the way it has overseas in the past: 'We liaised carefully with the relevant government agencies, in order to give them the opportunity to contextualise the document and to express any concerns that were genuinely about threats to national security rather than diplomatic embarrassment.'

An important early measure of Tony Abbott's statesmanship will be whether he manages to rise above the present embarrassment, and resists the temptation to punish the ABC, so that media practitioners can serve our democracy for the long term.

Business voices competing for Tony Abbott's ear

Prime minister Tony Abbott's post-election declaration that Australia was 'open for business' needed fleshing out. Possibly it got that on Monday evening in a strident landmark address given by the chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council Dr Maurice Newman. Newman said the economy was 'running on empty' and needed radical reform and fiscal discipline to avoid 'the prospect of growth with a zero in front of it'.

He criticised Labor for 'five long years of reckless spending, economic waste, class warfare particularly aimed at business, the mindless destruction of Australia's international competitiveness and the reintroduction of workplace rigidities'. He was referring to 'common good' policies such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski school funding reforms, which he believes are a waste of money (implicitly he discounts the role of education in boosting economic productivity). 

Newman regretted that the Coalition had 'limited its options' by making 'hasty' election promises to avoid necessary cuts to such reforms. He also urged measures to shift the balance of power from ordinary Australians towards big business. These include the easing of competition laws to give big companies the 'necessary critical mass in a small domestic market' to become 'national champions'. Is he talking about going soft on any collusion between Coles and Woolworths, or perhaps even allowing a merger?

At his media conference on Tuesday, Abbott denied that Newman holds sway over government policy. But Newman has been meeting with Abbott at least weekly since the election, and it's said that Newman's speech was prepared after close consultation with Abbott. 

It's Newman's job to lobby for big business against, as it happens, the common good. But even among some of his peers in the business world, he is regarded as arrogant and aloof, particularly on his unwillingness to accept the need for a reduction in carbon emissions. The Financial Review'Chanticleerobserved that 'his strident position on climate change was contrasted with the balanced views taken by Santos chief executive David Knox and Nestlé Australia director Elizabeth Proust on Q&A on ABC later the same night'.

It's to be hoped that Knox and Proust are among the 'range of voices that the Government takes very seriously', which Abbott alluded to in his media conference while trying to hose down suggestions that Newman is writing his government's business policy.

Another voice that merits a hearing is that of ANU economics Professor Ross Garnaut, who talks about 'policy making in the public interest' in his new book Dog Days: Australia After the Boom. Garnaut is one with Newman in advocating the need for fiscal restraint, but is critical of Newman's wish to 'put all the adjustment burden on vulnerable Australians when that's neither economically rational nor politically feasible'. Instead Garnaut wants what he calls 'shared sacrifice'.

Newman argues for tax reform that will shift the burden away from business towards workers, and does not mention a key concern of Garnaut's, which is the cost to our productivity of Australia's high rates of executive remuneration when compared with similar economies.

We can only hope that Abbott is in fact true to his word when he tried to assure journalists that he listens to a range of voices on how to sustain the wellbeing of all Australians, and not just big business people.

Eddie Obeid's need for legal aid

Corrupt former NSW Labor minister Eddie Obeid has sought public funds to cover his legal fees. In July the Independent Commission Against Corruption found Obeid and his family had made $30 million by rigging the tender for a mining licence. But Obeid and his legal team have argued the seemingly unlikely case that he was eligible for legal assistance under guidelines that take into account the public interest and the 'prospect of hardship to the witness if assistance is declined'.

The wealthy are more likely to know and exercise their legal entitlements than the poor. They can afford expensive professional advice to help them find loopholes in the law. This often involves self-delusion and spurious argumentation in an attempt to have it accepted that they are 'doing it tough'. Obeid is worried his costly legal battles are swallowing his ill gotten gains and that consequently he will end up penniless. He has already put his $10 million Hunters Hill mansion on the market.

Meanwhile those who are genuinely disadvantaged are too often crushed by poor self esteem, or are simply ignorant of their entitlements, and often fail to claim the assistance that is rightfully theirs. That is the conclusion from the recent Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) Survey that shows high levels of disadvantage are associated with a lower likelihood of taking action and seeking professional advice in response to legal problems.

The survey's key findings indicate that people with a disability, and single parents, are twice as likely to experience legal problems. The unemployed and people living in disadvantaged housing also have heightened vulnerability. The survey also found the Indigenous people are more likely to experience multiple legal problems including government, health and rights related problems.

It found a lack of awareness of free legal services, and that this is associated with lower levels of taking action and consulting legal professionals. In particular, Indigenous people are less likely to take action and use legal professionals if they live in more remote areas. 

A society that cares for its citizens should ensure that publicly funded legal assistance is delivered to those who need it, and not to those who simply want it. It seems our system is geared towards people who are capable and practised in helping themselves, such as Eddie Obeid, and that it leaves out in the cold those who live a more passive existence, often involuntarily. These people are the ones who really struggle to make ends meet and to resolve the conflicts that life serves up to them. They need our help.

Ja'mie's disability

TV viewers are alarmed that they can so easily identify with Ja'mie King, the studiously unlikeable comic creation in Chris Lilley'sJa'mie: Private School Girl, currently screening on ABC1. The 17-year-old school captain at the fictitious Hilford Girls Grammar on Sydney's North Shore is proudly racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and more. 

Lilley developed the character with the use of recorded interviews with private school girls and a certain amount of strategic eavesdropping. It seems he also consulted textbookdescriptions of narcissism that point to shamelessness, distorted thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, and lack of respect for the boundaries of other people.

There's another critique of educational privilege in Christos Tsiolkas' new novel Barracuda. The character Danny Kelly is from the other side of the tracks and was sent to a prestigious private school in Melbourne's east. But he remains an outsider. He calls the school 'Cunts College' and ruminates on the finer points of his classmates spending their summer holidays at Portsea and Sorrento as opposed to Rye and Rosebud. 

The novel reflects on a society that is crippled because it is beholden to a privilege that fosters class division, racism, and hostility to Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, and others on the margins. 

But privilege can also work the other way. If the privileged are so disposed, their resources can be shared with those who are disadvantaged. But what matters most is not the amount of the resources that are shared, but the attitude of the privileged persons doing the sharing.

Ja'mie showed the wrong attitude when she appeared in the earlier series We Can Be Heroes (2005). She was sponsoring underprivileged Third World children about whom she knew little and cared less. The fundraising was all about her, and not the other people who could use her help. She could not feel their need.

People like Ja'mie have a pathological disability when it comes to being genuine in their attempts to do things for others. A few years ago, some privileged schools started to encourage their students to be 'men and women for others'. There were students who mocked this. Perhaps they shared Ja'mie's disability, or maybe they were just having fun at the expense of their more earnest teachers. Either way, some students took the message to heart and into their lives and careers, and found what it led to deeply satisfying.

While the character of Ja'mie is set up to be judged for her callous disregard for the feelings of others, it is not for us to judge her and people in real life who are like her. In time, they come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with their lives when they constantly feel empty when not performing for their friends.

For us, it is better to allow those who are 'men and women for others' to inspire us towards a life of empathy. Whether or not we ourselves are economically and socially privileged, the ability to feel the pain and discomfort of others is a personal asset that leads to deeper contentment and a life fully lived. 

Chopper Read and other people like us

Most people will not miss Mark 'Chopper' Read, because of his reckless attitude to human life and law and order. The 58-year-old standover man died from liver cancer last month. In his last interview, screened last night on60 Minutes, he boasted about killing four people, speaking in a manner reminiscent of the subjects of the current film about the 1960s Indonesian genocideThe Act of Killing.

Read's pride in his criminal exploits, and indeed Channel 9's giving him a platform to boast about them, stands at odds with much of what we value in a civil society. It is hard to conceive of him as anything other than a seriously negative contributor to the community. Yet at master of his own destiny, he had an ability to maintain his dignity, and in that sense it is possible to argue that he was — like Ned Kelly — a partially positive role model for today's prisoners, and indeed all human beings whose behaviour makes them an outcast and an object of scorn. 

The majority of prison inmates have come to crime through circumstances not of their own making, such as mental illness or a disadvantaged upbringing. They are further crushed by the system and objectified as 'monsters' by the media and public, even though in fact they are 'people like us'. Joe Caddy writeselsewhere in Eureka Street that labelling people as criminals denies that we have a good deal in common with them as fellow human beings. 

It is good that Read overcame this 'other-ness' but regrettable that he remained unrepentant and thoroughly evil in character. He was able to win a kind of public respect that is routinely denied to prisoners who are contrite but lack Read's celebrity. 

There are various ways of dehumanising people, and it is always wrong to do so, no matter what the circumstances are. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is doing this with his instruction that departmental and detention centre staff must publicly refer to asylum seekers as 'illegal' arrivals and as 'detainees', and not as clients.

Asylum seeker advocates work tirelessly to restore the dignity that these people have lost through being outcast in this way. The asylum seekers are being made faceless through government policy. 

The creator of the sievx.com website Marg Hutton attempts to reverse this objectification of asylum seekers with her publication of names of some of those who perished in the SIEVX tragedy in 2001. 'Ghazi Alghizzy — wife Fatima Jabbar Alidawi and four children, Mohammed (age ten), Hussein (age seven), Zahraa (age eight) and Alyaa (age four) all drowned.' Her meticulous research has yielded names for many of the ''illegals, and this brings home the humanity we share with these people. Like us, they all have their own stories.

There is also the example of one asylum seeker who has been able to resist this objectification. Hazara refugee Barat Ali Batoor is a photojournalist, and his image of a group of asylum seekers emerging from a makeshift gap in the deck of a timber boat bound for Australia was last week named Photo of the Year in the 2013 Nikon-Walkley Awards for Excellence in Photojournalism. His story is in The Global Mail, which published the award winning photograph.

Batoor is no longer an unnamed asylum seeker. He is an inspiration, in that he was able to rise above his circumstances, and in that sense he has won public respect like Chopper Read. Some would say that he simply jumped a few queues in order to be accepted as a refugee by UNHCR and gain resettlement in Australia, but it's also true that allowing human beings like him to master their own destiny will bring out the best in them and us. 

Canada shames Australia on CHOGM boycott

Canada's conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put Australia to shame by confirming that his country will boycott next month's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka over human rights concerns.

Canada has criticised the Commonwealth for 'accommodating evil' by allowing Sri Lanka to host the event, while Tony Abbott has said simply that 'different countries have different national priorities'.

After returning from a visit to Sri Lanka in August, UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay expressed grave concern about the lack of accountability, unresolved enforced disappearances, and decreasing fundamental freedoms.

This prompted Human Rights Watch to urge Commonwealth heads to boycott CHOGM, with Asia director Brad Adams declaring Sri Lanka's government should be shunned — not rewarded — for failing to hold anyone accountable for war crimes during the country's recent conflict. 'Attending a summit in Sri Lanka so soon after the UN rights chief decried a worsening situation sends the wrong message to the government and to victims.'

Abbott made it clear that Australia has no intention of following the lead of his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper. 'Look, I explained to him that I think the Commonwealth is important and that's why I'll be there. Obviously, Australia has some significant bilateral dealings with Sri Lanka over people smuggling as well.'

At least the Australian Government has come clean and admitted that it is conflicted. In saying we have 'different national priorities' to Canada, Abbott has conceded that securing and maintaining Sri Lanka's cooperation in our efforts to 'stop the boats' trumps using the leverage we have at this moment to try to persuade Sri Lanka to respect the human rights of its citizens.

As long as Sri Lanka refuses to respond to the concerns expressed by Pillay, Australian Government claims that Sri Lanka is safe enough for the return of asylum seekers from Australia will look as ridiculous as those of Iraqi information minister 'Comical Ali' when the fall of Saddam Hussein was imminent. 

That is the impression given by Peter Arndt of the Brisbane Catholic Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission, who has just returned from a visit to Sri Lanka as part of a group of 30 Catholic justice and peace workers from across Asia and the Pacific. He said: 'It is outrageous that Mr Abbott is prepared to ignore the suffering and fear which is rife in the north of Sri Lanka in order to keep his commitment to stop the boats.'

Arndt suggested that the systematic way in which Tamil men are being arrested and detained indefinitely 'looks suspiciously like ethnic cleansing'. 'I wish Mr Abbott could meet with the women I met whose husbands and sons have been detained, tortured and, in some cases, killed over the last four years. I wish he could have heard the pain in their voices and seen their tears.'

Perversely it seems Australia's vow to push ahead with CHOGM in Colombo is largely about mateship. The Commonwealth, Abbott says, is 'amongst our oldest international associations'.

'There is, I suppose, familiarity amongst members of the Commonwealth which doesn't always exist in every other forum and I think it's important that those friends we have, we should keep. You do not make new friends by rubbishing your old friends or abandoning your old friends.' 

If mateship had prevailed during the apartheid era in South Africa, the apartheid regime might still be in place.

Tolerating corruption will destroy Australia's brand

Australia tied with Denmark, Finland and Japan for the title of the world's least bribe-ridden country in 2013. According toTransparency International'sGlobal Corruption Barometer, only 1 per cent of Australians surveyed admitted paying bribes for services.

Our cultural resistance to corruption has long been a major contributor to Australia's reputation as a good global citizen. From time to time there are well publicised cases of corruption within Australia, but they are the exception rather than the rule. 

However a few years ago we had the AWB oil-for-wheat scandal, and now there are allegations of corruption in the international dealings of the large Australian construction company Leighton Holdings and the Reserve Bank subsidiary Securency. The Reserve Bank scandal has been described by Dr David Chalkin of Sydney University as the 'worst corruption scandal in our history, not because of the amount of money that's been involved, but because the most respected institutions of our country have failed to discharge their responsibilities to the public'.

It's argued that it is impossible to do business in some countries without engaging in bribery and corruption, often at the highest levels of government. As a Sydney Morning Herald letter writer put it, if you insist that Australian companies are 'squeaky clean' in their international dealings, 'be prepared to see your superannuation funds shrink rather than grow'. The reasoning is that our companies can only expand overseas and grow their dividends by 'adhering to the local standards of business behaviour', however corrupt they may be according to our standards.

It is true that turning a blind eye to what we perceive as corruption may bring us a greater financial dividend in the short term. But in the medium and long term, it will make us poorer. Corruption and bribery increase poverty in poor countries that have the potential to be among the world's most prosperous. These include Iraq and Indonesia, where Leighton is alleged to have bribed officials. It is no coincidence that the least corrupt countries — Australia, Denmark, Finland and Japan — are among the wealthiest, while some of the most corrupt — such as Zimbabwe, Paraguay and Liberia — are on the list of the poorest.

This argument will appeal to you if you agree with British prime minister David Cameron, who this weektalked up the profit motive. But being 'squeaky clean' is not just good business practice. It's also an admirable quality to have attached to Australia's brand and the Australian character, so that if we believe in ourselves, we believe in transparency. 

It is a particular value that we have to promote to the world, in an almost evangelical sense. As Pope Francissaid in his La Repubblica interview a few days ago: 'Everyone has his own idea of good and evil, and must choose to fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.'

School sport's level playing field under threat

Five of Sydney's prestigious GPS schools have boycotted competition with another member of their association, The Scots College. The five accuse Scots of offering sports scholarships, in breach of the GPS code of ethics, which stipulates that 'financial assistance to talented sportsmen shall not form part of the enrolment strategy of any member school'.

Scots principal Ian Lambert denies the school awards sports scholarships as such, and refused to tell Fairfax Media whether any premiership-winning basketball players were on a bursary or scholarship, citing privacy reasons.

Callers to talkback radio claim the practice of recruiting gifted sports people is widespread. The head of another GPS school — Kings — admits his school has 'offered inducements to a few good sportsmen' and that 'schools have long learnt the rhetoric needed to defend the deliberate importation of gifted sportsmen'.

The five GPS schools are taking their stand in an attempt to preserve the 'level playing field' that is necessary to ensure that everybody plays by the same rules and there is no external factor affecting the ability of players to compete fairly. It's about protecting amateur sport in schools from the professionalisation and commodification that has come to dominate sport in Australia and overseas.

Fairfax reports that Scots has embarked upon a program of 'buying' students of sports star quality in order to promote an ethos of winning ahead of the more traditional values that encourage the participation of all students. The school is equipped with a new high-performance centre and has a dedicated director of sports science who worked with controversial Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles rugby league consultant Stephen Dank. It would seem that it has moved far beyond what the GPS code refers to as 'the spirit of the amateur' that 'should remain the ideal'.

If teenagers with sporting talent are being 'bought' for the purpose of boosting the school's brand and business, it has to be seen as an exercise in human trafficking. Arguably pressure is being placed on these minors to produce a marketable commodity, and that's child exploitation. It's an an altogether different activity to 'playing' a 'game', which is what school sport has traditionally been about.

Amateur sport stresses participation and promotes the development of character, resilience and teamwork ahead of winning. It is opposed to the commodification of sport that is associated with the cultivation of an elite of highly paid athletes equipped to perform at a high level. Many would-be amateur sports people are not up to the standard of the professionals and are relegated to a passive spectator role in front of a TV screen. That's not what schools are educating students for.