In the absence of strategy


In the news the last few days has been reports about how China wants to build a base in Vanuatu. It’s caused consternation and controversy and the Australian government has spoken out about it for the obvious reason that a base so close to our mainland – and so far from China – poses a potential threat. And it won’t be an isolated incident.

I rolled my eyes when I read the news. I was totally unsurprised, but experienced a sinking feeling. For me it’s another example of the Australian government’s short-sighted incompetence. This situation could never have developed had we not dropped the ball so badly.

Foreign aid and foreign assistance has been steadily dropping for a few years now, particularly to the Pacific islands. This follows on from the decision a few years back to stop radio and television broadcasts into the region and through Asia. Many a time on my travels I’d flick the dial and come across a familiar accent broadcasting familiar news and views. No longer. This was very popular, not just with expats, but with locals too. All this has been ditched, along with the cuts in aid, for economic reasons.

What price a few million dollars of extra expenditure? Well, now we know. Into that vacuum the Chinese with their expansionary policies have rushed. Once upon a time we exported culture and influence, which was the intangible benefit of our investment. Once we stop making that investment our influence has retracted, and the previous beneficiaries now look elsewhere. Enter the Chinese.

It would be nice to say that none of this could be foreseen, but you have to presume there are some very highly paid people in government departments who would have warned about this. God knows there were voices in the media who did that. Unfortunately the government – and I’ll point the finger at Morrison (and Abbott to a large extent) – chose to ignore those warnings.

Now there is a mad scramble to undo the damage but seriously, I don’t know how that can be achieved.

This is what infuriates me so much, the blind short-termism and the total lack of an actual strategy.

Had there been a proper strategy appropriately championed by the minister, and with a PM a bit brighter than Abbott, then Australia would be continuing to influence and embrace the region – China could never have got a foothold.

Unfortunately this sort of thinking – or unthinking – is not uncommon. The government is rife with it, with energy policy being another prime example. It also happens in the corporate world. I fight an uphill battle every day trying to suggest that the initiatives we take on should be a part of a broader strategy. There is a bigger picture we should be adding to.

In my experience in my present job is that it’s all pretty random. To a large degree that’s structural, with no capacity for a guiding principle. It’s also people, a form of ignorance combined with opportunism leading to misdirected effort. The result is that a bit happens here, a bit there, nothing in concert, with wasted and unnecessarily duplicated efforts, and occasionally contradictory elements.

If it’s a bigger picture then some are working on a landscape, others a portrait, and some an abstract. There is no coherence, sense or overarching purpose. That sums up our government pretty well, too.

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Why it means so much


Cricket Australia made the first of their announcements this morning following their investigation into ball tampering. My first reaction was disappointment at the tepid response.

My very strong view is that CA must be transparent in every aspect of the investigation and findings, and be brutal in its penalties. As they say, justice must not only be done, but seen to be done. The Australian people demand it.

What we got instead was news that the three players at the centre of this scandal had been stood down and were returning to Australia, and their replacements announced. No penalties were detailed, and Darren Lehmann continues as coach. Nothing was revealed of the investigations findings.

Cricket Australia is in a difficult situation, but they have to give more than this. I understand how the penalties may not be determined yet, but what is the process? And what have they discovered? What was the chain of events?

As for Lehmann, I can understand his survival only in terms that he has been allowed to coach on for the final test before announcing his resignation. Even so, I think it is a weak response as there appears no out for Lehmann – either he knew and he’s guilty; or he didn’t know when he should have; and in any case this occurred under his stewardship and symptomatic of a culture he has enabled. I’ll be gobsmacked if he’s not gone after the next test (rumour has it Ponting was approached to take over, but refused as he has too many commitments).

I want to comment on why this is such a big deal. Cricket is one of those sports more than others that pays heed to the spirit of the game. That’s the headline, but the fact of the matter is that there’s always been controversy, and some of it pretty ugly in recent years, including match fixing and other instances of ball tampering. That this has made a bigger splash than most is because of the deliberate nature of the offence, and because it is Australia, and the Australian captain, involved.

That explains the rampant schadenfreude around the cricketing world. Must of the reaction this has been unseemly rejoicing at Australia’s plight. While I’m disgusted by the cheating some of the published responses by notable ex-cricketers (particularly English) have been pretty disgraceful. It’s understandable though, because Australia has had this coming.

Australian cricket has been a combination of brutal on field attack – either with bat and ball, or verbally – and a kind of superior puritanism. Australia might play hard, and celebrate, but we would never stoop to the level of other playing nations and actually cheat. That was not in our make-up, and it was an attitude that pissed a lot of people off. Now of course it’s been revealed as rank hypocrisy, and there’s a queue around the block of those looking to sink the boot.

This is much of the reason it’s had such a profound impact in Australia too – we believed that we were above that. It was an Australian sporting mythology we all bought into. The Australian way was as hard as nails, but never less than fair. We were incapable of such behaviour because our culture wouldn’t allow it, or so we all blithely presumed. The betrayal and hypocrisy cuts no deeper anywhere but in the heartland, and hence the violent reaction.

In a lot of ways I find it heartening. Condemnation of these acts was near universal. Almost everyone felt shame. Even the Prime Minister felt compelled to comment – what other place would that happen? The Australian team on the weekend put victory over morality, but it’s clear to me that for the Australian public – who love to win as much as I do, and expect it – would rather lose a game than stoop to such depths. In fact victory seemed irrelevant – I was one of many who advocated that Australia should declare their second innings without facing a ball.

What it tells me is that the actions of those few in the Australian cricket team remain totally at odds with the Australian national ethos. I’ve wondered at that sometimes in recent years. Others commented quite reasonably how ridiculous it was that we get worked up over a cricket game while we turn a blind eye to our treatment of refugees, and other national disgraces. It’s not that we as a people don’t care, I think we’re largely oblivious, for which our politicians particularly, as well as our media are complicit. We’re lazy about it in a way we never are when it comes to sport. That’s not meant as an excuse – it’s our responsibility as citizens to be informed.

I think we have some evil politicians, but I’m certain the average Aussie remains a decent human being. He shouldn’t be decried for being roused to passionate anger about a game of cricket; what we need is the same level of passion for those other issues which speak equally to the national character.

Ultimately it is threats to the meaning of that character that have provoked such a spirited response. Rightly or wrongly we define ourselves on a sporting image. That was betrayed by a few individuals and left our reputation in tatters. Quite rightly we’re outraged by that. Our honour, for that’s what it amounts to, is worth more than a tawdry victory in a distant test match.

And this too is why it must be made good.

Human grace


https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/17/the-crisis-in-modern-masculinity

Hand-wringing about masculinity, manliness and what it means to be a man is a popular pastime these days, and an interesting read. It’s very much a sign of the times, and symptomatic of many of the issues highlighted by recent headlines. It’s a complex, messy topic I think is fundamentally misunderstood, and ultimately mislabelled.

For a start, what is manliness? A lot of the problem is that many men define it in terms that very easily become toxic. I would argue that notions of masculinity have been corrupted by a culture removed from the heavy work from which concepts of masculinity arose originally: pioneers and explorers, adventurers and men bravely blazing a path for their family. It was a simple doingness, men willing to take on the challenge without shirking from it, men – and women – who possessed a stoic strength and determination to keep on going. I think compassion sits in there too, kindness, human grace. All that has been lost along the way because the opportunity to live so rawly has become rare. Instead, when some men – not all, and men I would argue less secure in themselves – come to assert themselves as men they choose to do so with bravado, by being aggressive, by being controlling, by imposing their will, not to mention in displays of physical posturing. Above all else, it seems to me such men define themselves by external elements – against other men, certainly in comparison to women, and by ego enhancing proclamations, rather than by inner qualities.

As an outsider it is silly and transparently feeble, but it also false. False to the original ideal certainly, but false also when it’s so narrowly defined as a male attribute.

I have two things to say about that. So-called manliness can be possessed by women too, and often is; and ‘manliness’, in terms I recognise, is about being brave and honest, no more than that. I think it is essentially humble, with no need to assert itself – in fact, any need to assert itself contradicts its existence.

That’s the problem today though, the almost obsessive need to assert itself, the manifestation of which is often ugly.

It’s a curious age we live in. I’m old school because I was brought up in a different time. It seems a simpler time now because there was not the same focus on manliness, probably because it was a more self-reliant age when such true virtues were more prevalent. There was no need to proclaim something that was virtually taken for granted (albeit in an age that was much more basic in other senses too, if not more socially rustic).

It’s become more today because many men are confused and poorly educated about what it means to be a decent human being. We live in a much more fluid time where traditional gender roles have been given a stir, causing some to question their place in society. Rather than accept the fluid dynamics and multiplicity of benefits society derives from it, fragile egos feel obliged to challenge it because it defies their masculine identity. What was muted becomes loud, in inverse ratio to insecurity.

At the same time, the world is crying out for many of the virtues traditionally associated with manliness. There’s no secret that there’s a drastic shortage of real leaders. What we used to term as ‘character’ has become a rare commodity. The only people who act with any decision are the toxic, ugly, and often stupid – the Trumps of this world, and Putin. It’s no wonder they draw a crowd because they mirror the virtues the insecure cherish. (The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity – Yeats, The Second Coming).

Where are the decent, humble leaders who will yet stand steadfast on principle and for just cause? We yearn for that, and so in its place come myths of manliness.

Referenced in the article above is Jordan Peterson. I’m actually reading his 12 Lessons to Live By right now. I’m only a few chapters in and find myself agreeing with chapter headings, but lost in the mumbo jumbo and mysticism he clutters his elucidations with. I think it’s a messy book, and while it has interesting elements it gets carried away. I haven’t read myself some of the comments attributed to him, which I think are nonsense, but symptomatic of a movement these days to elevate such notions of self into mystical realms. I think that’s dangerous and pretentious, but it describes much of modern masculinity as it strives to express itself.

I’ve been saying for years that true strength is in being humble and true, in allowing vulnerability and expressing compassion, in being yourself completely and without shame. I can’t say I’ve yet achieved that, but I believe in it. Unlike exclusive notions of manliness these days, true strength is inclusive. Call it what you will, but I would contend that someone like Obama is much more manly than Trump will ever be – and so too many women.

I’m a proud man, and in ways, I suspect I’m a bit of a throwback, but I think we have lost a lot when we define these qualities purely in gender terms. I’m suspicious of some of the new-fangled ideas, but in the end what we’re talking about are human qualities. Times might have changed, but there’s always a need for strength, fortitude, honesty and courage.

This is the lesson. We need more people willing to stand for something, and boys more capable of understanding the true grace of being a worthwhile human being. We are human beings first, men and women second.

Go further


Further to my post yesterday there’s a report in today’s newspaper that Labor’s policy on dividend imputation could be implemented with exemptions to anyone over 65 – pensioners – with minimal impact to the bottom line. For mine this is looking more and more like good – and just – policy.

To be clear, what we’re talking about is tax refunds being given to people who haven’t paid tax. In very simple terms the current policy allows for people with a taxable income at level where little or no tax is applied to claim the difference on their share portfolio when tax has already been paid by the business. For example, if a company has paid their 30% company tax when they issue dividends then someone on a 15% tax rate can claim a refund for the 15% differential. For those with zero taxable income – for example, superannuation payments – then they can claim the full 30% refund, even though they haven’t paid a cent of tax. Obviously this adds up to a lot – billions of dollars, in fact.

This is a ridiculously generous policy that benefits a lot of wealthy and clever Australians, and does nothing for the economy. It’s overly generous when you consider that retirees already get their super payments tax free. In terms of the world, we are an outlier in this regard – most countries have much more sensible policies, as we did ourselves until Costello changed it (as a salve for another policy initiative that ultimately wasn’t passed). It used to be that the recipients of these dividends would get a pass on tax, rather than a refund – that’s what it should return to.

All commentary about double tax is tabloid nonsense, unfortunately some of it coming from the mouths of ministers who know better, and should be more responsible. It isn’t double tax, and in any case we are taxed double whenever we pay for something inclusive of GST. It doesn’t bear scrutiny.

As I said yesterday, I think it’s time for us to get bold on policy initiative. Times have changed and we are stuck with a bureaucratic, inefficient, out of date and unfair tax system. I support initiatives on negative gearing similar to what Labor has proposed on the basis that the current policy is inflationary, and more importantly, the benefit is to the few rather than the many. I don’t see the point in giving a tax-break to those who invest in current property. That’s a circular jerk, and there is no incentive to develop new properties, which is what we need. If we restrict the benefit to those who invest in new property only then it will have a direct bearing on the market. This is what policy should be about – not hand-outs, but shaping the economic landscape for the common good, and using incentives to encourage it.

There are a couple of other areas that need to be looked at. Stamp duty is iniquitous and as Ken Henry suggested, might be better replaced by a land tax, which would be much fairer. And I am in favour of a user pays model when it comes to car registration, which is a state issue. As it stands everyone pays the same amount of registration whether they travel a 100 kilometres a year or a hundred thousand. That’s unfair, but it also has an impact on livability. Theoretically registration fees go towards the upkeep and maintenance of roads and traffic infrastructure, and it’s only fair that those who travel most should pay more. The other aspect very relevant to our times, is that a user pays system of registration will likely take drivers off the road and into public transport. That’s good for the environment, good for traffic movement, and ultimately good for the bottom line because we can’t keep building new freeways, or adding new lanes to existing.

With all these things there has to be another, smarter way. Look again, go further.

Bold and revolutionary


Unlike most people, I find economics fascinating. It’s the science of it that first got me interested, which was back in high school. The thought that there were economic mechanisms that if enacted produced reasonably predictable outcomes was a wonder to me. I remember Keating – the man who made economics sexy for a while – talking about levers and buttons and stimulus as if it was a machine. As it became clear even in his time, it is far from an exact science, but that did little to diminish my interest – just the opposite. I came to believe that economics was a science in which human nature, sentiment and the voodoo of international affairs contributed their unpredictable elements.

I’m now at an age when I’ve experienced the application of economic theory for many years, and not just in Australia, but internationally. I retain my interest in it, but have formed my own views on it.

This is apropos recent economic discussion in Australia. I always welcome the conversation, even when it’s superficial, as so often it is. We should be talking about these things. Economic policy should be a matter we all take an interest in. It’s so easy in this political climate to bury our heads and take no notice, but if anything is ever to change than these serious discussions need to be common.

Unfortunately these discussions, as they are, are heavy on polemic and light on substance. And they are always contested, regardless of whether opposition is sincere.

A few weeks ago the company tax rate became a talking point. As tax goes, this is a bit of an old chestnut. The federal government wanted to reduce the rate to 25%, claiming it would make Australian business more competitive and attractive to investment. Most contentiously they claimed it would kick-start stagnant wages growth. The opposition ridiculed that of course, trotting out the line that the government only looks after the big end of town.

One of the arguments trotted out was a variation on the old, and long discredited trickle-down theory – in this case the argument went that if you give tax cuts then business will pass on much of that windfall to employees in the form of pay-rise. This flies in the face of experience. The credo of ‘shareholder value’ (a poisonous credo, btw) means that most gets passed to shareholders, rather than reinvested in the business, or to pay rises (excepting executives). Outside of the government you had such mediocrities like Jennifer Westacott and Tony Shepherd bleat on about it, a sure sign it’s rubbish.

As it happens I support the tax cuts now as I haven’t in the past, though not in the form the government proposes. With drastic tax cuts recently in the US and other parts of the world I think we need cuts to stay competitive. At the very least I think if cuts are to be implemented they should be tied to investment, and encourage wage growth (which is in everyone’s interest), but I would favour something bolder and more comprehensive than that.

Back in 2010/11 the then head of treasury, Ken Henry, produced a massive, detailed and bold proposal to overhaul Australia’s antiquated tax system. It was too strong, and too politically unpalatable for the mealy mouthed politicians of the day, and but a fraction of it was adopted. In the years since it is often referenced, and elements of it are coming into favour, and it is just the comprehensive approach we need.

I think the time has come that we must be bold, and look at left field, revolutionary solutions, rather than evolutionary tinkering. That won’t happen of course, because there’s no appetite for anything bold.

In recent days the Labor party has come up with a controversial policy to do away with dividend imputation and franking credits. It took a little while for me to get my head around this and form an opinion, but when you look at it closely it’s actually amazing to consider that this was ever implemented as a policy. It’s ridiculously lucrative, and extremely costly – and seemingly unnecessary. It’s complex, so I’m not about to explain it here, but fair to say I think this is a bold bit of policy initiative which – with some exceptions – I agree with. The country will be better off doing away with these hand-outs, and I think it’s inevitable they’ll be closed down, whether it be by Labor or Liberal. The only thing I would change is perhaps to incorporate a means testing element, or implement a threshold, as has been rumoured.

For me this would be a part of a larger taxation change that would allow for company tax rates to be cut, potentially to something less than 25%. Why not take the opportunity to get ahead of the curve, rather than forever chasing it? Together with some targeted policies addressing productivity, innovation, investment, in combination Australia would see a net gain to the bottom line, and a more agile economy.

Shifting the goalposts


https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/24/opinion/sunday/real-men-masculinity-rejected.html?ribbon-ad-idx=4&rref=opinion&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=article

I think this article is right on the money. I have to say I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of months about what women have had to put up with from men. I’ve spoken to women friends who have told me very matter of factly how they’ll cross the road as a matter of routine to avoid the possibility of cat calling and wolf whistling, and how so often they’ve had to shepherd amorous men away from themselves or each other. What I’ve learned is that, like racism, most sexual harassment should be judged on how it’s received, rather than how it is intended.

That’s a shift for me. I suspect many of the episodes we discuss are the result of clumsy or ignorant men, but that’s not an excuse anymore. Up till now – as my friends affirm – most men aren’t called out for this boorish behaviour. It’s as if women have been conditioned to this unpleasant behaviour as a fact of feminine life. It shouldn’t be. I may be upset at the time, but I’d much rather be told so that I know than allowed to perpetrate such behaviour again and again. To be fair, the reasonable amongst us deserve the opportunity to reform and redeem our behaviour.

In any case this article goes to the root cause of a lot of that behaviour, and I agree entirely. For me it all goes back to education and upbringing, and what it means to be a man. I can say this with some authority because I have been subject to these same forces, and the same forces have shaped and developed me. Much of my behaviour is a product of that – I’m a masculine, hard driving, aggressive character, attributes which have been admired amongst the brethren since I can remember; and I’ve been a womaniser, and encouraged in that with a nod and a wink by the brotherhood (what a double standard that is). Fortunately, in my case, I’m also self-aware enough to overlook those attributes. I can see how silly they are more often than not. I can take the micky, and have moved long past the point where they define me as a man.

The problem is for many that they don’t get to that point. Instead their childhood innocence is gradually corrupted by the expectations and demands of a male society. Any sign of being sensitive is viewed as weakness (when in fact it is a strength), as is many of the notions we associate with gentle reflection. When it’s challenged, as it is more frequently these days, many men react with hostility because it is as if their very self is being attacked. It’s not surprising so many react with violence – it’s binary age we live in (something else that needs changing).

The better educated, the more intelligent, may escape this, but the rest become conditioned much like Pavlov’s dog. These are learned responses, and the solution is to change the learning. That must be society wide, but also down to parents and the education system actively guiding our children to a general belief in respect, regardless of difference. We need to shift the goalposts from what it means to be a man to what it means to be a human being.

That doesn’t undercut our maleness. It’s still there, but it shouldn’t be something you need to prove or validate. No-one doubts my masculinity, but I’m much prouder of being a decent human being than I am a formidable one.

Aggression is not strength; strength is having to the confidence to be your true self, in being selfless, kind and sensitive. Strength is being above judgement, and possessing the generosity of spirit to embrace other ways and points of view.

Time to change it


Australia Day has come and gone for another year, once more drawing outrage and dissent. Most Australians – if the polls are anything to go by – are happy to retain January 26 as our national day, though without a burning passion. I can’t blame them, a national day celebrating a bunch of ships reaching shore is pretty lame in my book.

It’s awfully contentious too. On Australia Day there were marches to celebrate the day, and marches to condemn it. Much of the language on the extreme ends of the conversation has been way over the top, and often times completely offensive. In this day and age it seems impossible to have a reasoned, civilised debate about important issues such as this. Too often vitriolic nonsense is offered in place of intelligent analysis.

I don’t buy into the violent rhetoric about invasion day, but I’m sympathetic to the genuine feelings of those who feel excluded by a national day that basically celebrates white settlement – and at the expense of the indigenous people. But while I accept there were many unforgivable atrocities committed against the indigenous people I cannot accept that white settlement has been the pure evil that so many paint it as. Regardless, I think the day must be changed, and inevitably will. Our national day should embrace all Australians. It should be a unifying event and cause for celebration no matter your heritage. Clearly that’s not the case with Australia Day in its present form, and never will be.

I offer no alternative. For me Anzac day has always felt the more meaningful day in Australian history, but I would hope our national day becomes the anniversary of us becoming a true republic (and if not, then it should commemorate the day we sign a treaty with the first peoples).

Come next year I expect the clamour to be louder. I hope it to be more intelligent, but hold little hope of that. Discourse all over the world has deteriorated terribly. The stupidity of it is that so often it’s counter-productive. There are many Australians happy to be swayed to the argument to change the date, but the case is not advanced one whit – and probably suffers – when one of the loudest voices proclaiming for it cries to the gathered crowd that she hopes Australia burns to the ground. Way to get the moderate undecideds offside.

That’s the standard of leadership all over these days. Not just puerile, but plain dumb too.

Me, I base my decision on facts and analysis. That tells me it’s time to make a change.