There are many different angles one can come at the Jenny Macklin/Newstart/Adam Bandt/political stunt/$35-a-day/single mothers brouhaha that has fairly dominated a day and half’s worth of empty news cycles. So naturally I’m going to try all of them.

$35 a day for all! For those who are blessedly unaware, the story is vaguely thus: during late 2012, the government decided that, in its then-fetishistic pursuit of a surplus (a pursuit since abandoned, incidentally), it would save a cheeky $728 million over four years by moving about 100,000 single parents from their existing payment to the Newstart allowance. Of course, this received little to no coverage as it happened the day of the Prime Minister’s ‘misogyny speech’. Colour and movement and all that.

Then, on Tuesday, Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, was asked whether she felt if she could survive on $35 a day (presently she survives on about $900 a day). A question which, in my mind seems quite legitimate. Her answer:

“I could, and of course we understand that what’s important for people who are unemployed is that we do everything possible to help people get work.”

A bold claim, suggesting in a couple of words that a 96% pay cut was something fairly manageable. But obviously, such a claim would not go unchallenged. Acting Greens leader Adam Bandt – or perhaps his media adviser – smelled an opportunity, immediately challenging the Minister to join him in living on $35 a day for one week.

This set off the usual round of discussion on Twitter about, well, everything. Preston Towers felt that the original question in the presser was ridiculous. Liam Hogan saw it as the latest in a never-ending round of stunts, as did Megan Clement. All of Twitter started talking about what it’s like to live on $35 a day.

And they were right. It’s a stunt. A stunt performed, incidentally, by Greens senator Rachael Siewert last year – something she blogged about.

The Herald Sun got in the action with this 'one-egg family'I’ve never lived on $35 a day, at least not in any situation that compares even remotely to that of someone with dependents and everyday cost of living, but I know it’s sweet fuck all, an amount so pitiful as to actively inhibit the search for work, rather than support it. If the choice is public transport to job interviews for a month, or $200 for your kids dentist, I reckon the young ‘uns molars win every time. Everyone knows that this is a dud move by the government that will win nary a vote.

But what about the ‘stunt’? The act of challenging the Minister to go without for a week. It was met resoundingly with scorn across most media I consume, yet it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there is a chicken/egg blame game at work.

Most of the criticisms of Bandt’s challenge are around two things: its efficacy, and the slippery slope towards a dumber media environment that it embodies/encourages.

Anyone who feels that, if she takes this challenge up, Macklin would change her mind is, frankly, deluded. If you go for seven short days on not much money, it’s not too much of a hassle, particularly if you have this kind of motivation to manage it. There will be no emergency dental work, or a job interview to get to. She’ll make it, then give a press conference saying that she understands that it’s tough, and that’s why she’s so focused on helping people find work.

Bandt, likewise, will find it similarly easy to fail. I imagine that his daily rent in inner Melbourne probably exceeds $35, so there you go. Everyone continues to hold the position they held before.

But what this stunt has achieved is to get a great many people talking about the government’s policy shift, and in that sense, it’s worked tremendously well. So the stunt has been effective, yes. But also, it does embody the slide into ephemera and triviality that our media increasingly embraces. As David Paris said on Twitter:

The meedja ignored all of the inquiries, reports, experts. This seems to be all they pay attention to.

But whose fault is that? Adam Bandt, as far as I can tell, has close to zero responsibility for making the media grow up. His job is to bring issues that he is politically strong on to the front of the debate. Mission accomplished.

The media report on stunts, scandals, outrages and heartfelt underdog stories. And lists (oh, how they love a good list). If one of these can be harnessed to someone’s ends, go nuts.

And the media does it because we (you, me and everyone we know) read about stunts, scandals, outrages and heartfelt underdog stories. Unless you’re primed to get riled up about impoverished single parents, a headline like ‘100,000 single parents $100/week worse off: report’ isn’t about to get your pageview.

So, while my last post unambiguously lay the blame for bad reporting at the feet of the media for shoddy reporting of the AWU ‘scandal’ (there’s that word again), this time it’s back to the capitalist response. We get the media we deserve. Even more so now that they can see, in real time, what we click on. You want change? Read the worthy, if tiresome, articles quoting experts. Convince friends and family to do the same. It’s not Macklin’s fault. It’s not Bandt’s. It’s not even the journo who asked the question’s fault.

It’s ours.

Crocodile tears

Having been away for several weeks far from the nearest internet station or telegraph pole, it was ferociously depressing to return to reality and spend a week freebasing Australia’s news media in an effort to recalibrate.

Funnily enough though, it really only took about three seconds. On one of the last days of my trip, I stumbled across a TV in Perth showing ABC News Breakfast, on which the story was of the Prime Minister’s recent bump in Newspoll. This just happened to be effectively the same news story as the day I LEFT for my holiday three weeks prior, only shifting ‘bump’ for ‘dip’. The same talking heads, basically the same stock footage, the same politicians spouting the same lines about polls not mattering, and so on.

It was deeply depressing. Depressing to realise that my news fetishism is utterly redundant, that Australia’s news landscape is effectively the same as a US daytime soap, in which one can tune out for three to four months, only to find the same two characters in the same jacuzzi having the same conversation about the same infidelity.

But something more depressing occurred with the handing down of the Houston Report into asylum seekers and the official response to it.

Honestly, we may as well just take the ALP out back and whack it with a shovel for all the moral authority it retains. Time and again, this party that has for decades campaigned as one of the progressive-centre fails on questions of conscience.

There are so many impractical, expedient, callous and contradictory positions in this debate now that it’s hard to know where to start, but here goes.

First and foremost, it’s truly difficult to believe that members of the ALP who are voting for these law changes are doing so for any reason other than fear of electoral punishment, having been comprehensively cornered for a decade by their opponents. Julia Gillard has spoken, several times, about the immoral nature of Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, yet now stands astride a policy that happily detains the world’s most disenfranchised individuals for an indefinite period without having committed a crime.

Sinking migrant ship. In the Mediterranean.

ALP MPs who attempt to stay on their moral high horse, claiming that their decision has been a hard one, but they feel they must act to resolve the problem, overlooks the key question: no one can adequately describe what the problem is.

For all the frankly unbelievable displays of tearful compassion on display, it is evident to me that the ‘problem’ is not that people are dying at sea, but that the broad national consensus is that we simply don’t want these poor, needy brown people in our country.

The idea that all of  sudden our politicians are motivated by compassion for people ‘dying at sea’ is beyond belief. People have been dying on crappy boats since before SIEV X in 2001. Ben Pobjie has already said this best. This drastic shift in approach by Labor under the guise of ‘compassion’ simply shows that when events conspire to keep the issue of asylum seekers in the public mind, even Labor’s ‘left’ feel compelled to ditch their morals for fear of electoral reprisals.

The real question of what the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers is, is the debate that actually needs having, yet is one that our politicians studiously avoid, knowing that they simply lack the ability to solve it in an electorally expedient manner.

Presently, the problem is people ‘dying at sea’. The sudden change in rhetoric to compassion does little to shield its true meaning – that we simply don’t want these people. The ‘problem’ is ‘foreigners coming unbidden’. The solution, therefore, becomes, stopping their arrival, hence Stopping The Boats.

But going back to first principles, let us reconsider the problem. It is in no way a practical problem for us to accept more migrants. We have a labour shortage, and long-term capacity constraints that are best solved by a vibrant migration program. The ‘problem’, as it stands, is that we have regions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East with enormous numbers of displaced people and refugees. These people have few places to go that have effective resettlement programs. In the Australian instance, Afghans and Sri Lankans cannot seek asylum in Indonesia or Malaysia.

They cannot get work, or educate their children. They can only wait for an indefinite period of time in camps, in the hope that they will be accepted by another country like us. If you’re in Jakarta somewhere facing this, and the prospect of constant harrassment by police and locals, the prospect of a detention centre on Christmas Island (or Nauru for that matter) seems appealing. Indefinite detention in a camp with food and support is better than the threat of having your tent burned down by corrupt local police.

In other words, there’s no real guarantee that this new plan will do much to deter anyone. If the prospect of death at sea won’t deter you, why on Earth would imprisonment? So, even in the face of this new regime, the answer remains a no-brainer. You get on the boat. And even if we manage to stifle the approach of the boats to our shores, the ‘problem’ doesn’t go away. Asylum seekers don’t just vanish because we don’t accept them. If they did, then perhaps the ‘compassion’ argument will carry weight. Instead, these asylum seekers can simply die elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind.

One final thought: the fact that we routinely, and thoughtlessly, use the word ‘processed’ to discuss the manner in which we treat these people speaks volumes. Would it be too much to ask to stop using the word ‘processed’ to discuss human beings?

It’s a measure of Australia’s collective conscience that we measure the success of our refugee program by how many people we can keep away. Irrespective of how well the ALP have ‘managed’ the ‘economy’ since their election, their complete forfeiture of any claim to moral authority is a sad indictment of a once proud political establishment that occasionally, just occasionally, would do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

At least Gillard’s ‘problem’ of having to deal with the asylum seekers issue is solved. I hope that helps her sleep at night.

What if Labor has already won?

What is the point of winning elections? The question seems redundant to the point of irrelevance. But the tenor of Australian politics in the present day suggests otherwise.

Consider the behaviour of the bulk of the ALP and its associates since their election in 2007. If there has been one overarching criticism of the party, it has been their incessant reliance on focus groups and polling to shape messages, prioritise policies, even swap leaders.

For a decade, barely an action has been taken by either major political party that has not passed through the prism of popular approval. Schoolkids’ handouts targeted at disaffected Labor families, paid parental leave and nanny support to animate Tony Abbott’s appeal among that renowned block of unitary voters, women. Tax cuts in the tens of billions of dollars when interest rates were already on the way up. David Bradbury. On a boat. North of Darwin.

So much of the recent coverage and discussion of the government’s predicament (including my own) has focussed on how awful things are and what the government can do (if anything) to retain office at the next election.

Kristina Keneally, in The Drum recently, made that case that dumping or watering down the price on carbon/emissions trading scheme/carbon pollution reduction scheme/great big new tax on everything and everything’s family was the last chance. The ‘hail mary’ pass that maybe, just maybe, could resurrect the ALP’s fortunes.

Michelle Grattan suggested that Julia Gillard step aside (although the metaphor was a touch more militaristic). So did Chris Kenny. The Daily Telegraph has wanted Gillard to call a new election from the minute that the last one finished. Alan Jones wants to chuck her in a bag and leave her to the elements. The obituaries are, no doubt, already written.

In all of this prognostication and opinionating, perhaps we’ve all forgotten what this winning and losing caper is all about. What if Labor has already won?

In this world of desperate quantification (numerical support providing objectivity in all things), there appears to be a fierce urge to measure something as unmeasurable as politics.

Presently there are two ways of doing this: polls and elections. Thus, if a party is polling poorly, they are likely to lose an election. They have therefore failed. QED.

But what if – what if – by achieving its stated aims from 2007, the ALP have already won? There’s something cheapening, and frankly distasteful, about the idea that the purpose of winning election is winning further elections.

Pricing carbon pollution has been an incredibly hard task in Australian politics. John Howard couldn’t do it. Kevin Rudd (and Malcolm Turnbull) couldn’t do it. Yet in only a few weeks, Julia Gillard’s ALP will begin implementing this major economic and environmental reform.

Of course Gillard said one thing before the election and another thing afterwards (granted, an unusual deviation from politicians’ normal behaviour), but surely passing the law is more important than winning the election.

Everyone’s talking about what the ALP should do to retain office. But that is based on a flawed premise: that retaining office is the purpose of government. Surely that is at the heart of the trauma our government is being inflicted with.

Perhaps implementing a legislative agenda, dare I say a vision for Australia, is the victory. In that case, the ALP can be at least a little proud. WorkChoices is dead in a ditch and still hated by the electorate. A carbon price is in, and despite the desperation of the likes of Keneally, it’s unlikely to be repealed unless Abbott slaughters them next year, or calls a successful double dissolution. They hauled a recalcitrant electorate through a potentially massive recession pretty much unscathed. The national disability insurance scheme. The apology to the stolen generations. Signing Kyoto. The mining tax, watered down as it is. And so on.

It’s no floating of the dollar, but hey, Rudd/Gillard is no Hawke/Keating.

Even if much of the government’s legislative agenda has been driven by a desire to appease key constituencies (in which case, great job!), it has manoeuvred this agenda through a minority government, a ferociously hostile opposition and an electorate that stopped paying attention ages ago.

Most people would like to believe that those who enter parliament choose to do so in order to Make A Difference. In which case, ALP mission accomplished. The carbon price is a major structural reform that will likely be looked back on as an important step in the fight against climate change. The NDIS looks like being another winning policy in the Labor tradition. There was no recession here.

Labor may well lose the next election, but perhaps they’ve won this war.