February 2013

Advancing a fair Australia

The Australia Day long weekend had barely wrapped up – with leftovers uneaten, certificates of citizenship unmounted and sunburn still prosciutto pink – when Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a Federal election for September 14, writes Evan Ellis.

BY Evan Ellis

The Australia Day long weekend had barely wrapped up – with leftovers uneaten, certificates of citizenship unmounted and sunburn still prosciutto pink – when Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a Federal election for September 14.

Our newly-minted Australians, who sang or mimed their way through the national anthem at their citizenship ceremonies, will soon have the opportunity to vote for the next Federal Government.

Last election the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released a reflection entitled A Vote for US All, which reminded us, “to look beyond [our] own individual needs and apply a different test at the ballot box – the test of the common good”. Such an invitation remains current at each and every election.

A surprisingly useful tool in doing this is our much-maligned national anthem. It offers a prism to explore the policies (many still embryonic until the March budget) of the two major political parties. What follows is not so much a how-to-vote form or even a report card, but points for consideration in discerning the common good at the ballot.

Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free

This first line of our national anthem is about being a new nation state and a democracy. It wasn’t intended as a slap in the face to the First Australians, who belong to an ancient living culture and suffer intolerably high rates of incarceration. Nonetheless, it is true that on many indicators Australia remains remarkably free.

Education is inextricably linked with this first line. Providing world class education is a hotly contested election issue. The ALP is pinning its hopes on rolling out recommendations found in the Gonski Report (summary here) which argues that Australian schools need an injection of at least an extra $6.5 billion. The Coalition has questioned the affordability of the scheme. As this figure will be shared between Federal and State Governments, the State Premiers are now impatient for further funding details.

For a thoughtful reflection on the relationship between funding and educational outcomes, read a piece by Jesuit priest, Chris Middleton here.

We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil

The mining boom has proven how gold our soil really is. However, as our great customer China is learning, economic gain at the expense of the environment might not be progress at all.

The challenge is to harness the environment into a modern economy without exploiting it. To do this the ALP remains committed to a Carbon Tax, which will become an Emissions Trading Scheme in 2015. The Coalition is committed to binning it, even to the point of triggering a double dissolution. The Coalition favours a competitive grant scheme that would buy greenhouse gas reductions from businesses and farmers, known as the “Direct Action Plan”. This proposal has been criticised by economists, but is less of a political liability than the Carbon Tax.

While climate change remains a divisive electoral issue, potential governments must also offer a competitive vision for tackling all our environmental challenges (that is, the Murray Darling basin, marine parks, bushfire management etc).

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ll toil with hearts and hands

While economic management is core to any election, our national anthem reminds us of those who toil with their hearts. This is why supporting carers and their loved ones through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is so important. In the words of the Productivity Commission, it aims to improve our “underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient” disability support system.

Despite the vitriol in Parliament these days, the scheme has brought forth a refreshing bout of bipartisanship. Perhaps this is because our leaders are inclined as much to follow as they are to lead. The real test will be for a government to deliver on this popular but substantial reform to a constituency more familiar with toil than adequate support.

For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share

Australia’s border protection policy is the blood sport of Australian politics; brutal, fierce and unrelenting. It also changes on an almost minute-by-minute basis (the East Timor solution anyone?), so that there is little discernible difference between policies and ideas. For example, the Coalition’s recent call to forcibly return Sri Lankan vessels may itself sink to the same watery grave as the aforementioned Timor solution. At other times, a major party might claim a small goal such as the deal brokered with New Zealand to accept 150 refugees a year who arrive in Australia.

The lawyer Kerry Murphy offers a good dissection of the current policies and ideas swirling in the mix. Sadly, the current politicisation of this issue makes it difficult to foresee a time when the painstaking process of crafting a credible solution might actually occur.

With courage let us all combine to advance Australia fair

Combining takes courage. This line of our national anthem invites us to examine the policies of the major parties and have the courage to ask if anyone is being left out. This might be the First Australians and the remaining challenge to Close the Gap, the push for Constitutional Recognition and the many issues surrounding the Intervention. Or it might be the other constituencies that are regularly overlooked, such as the homeless, prisoners, elderly and unborn.

Evan Ellis

Evan Ellis is a freelance writer currently on contract in the public sector.

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