Me… cynical

Today I posted a letter to one of the candidates for my electorate in the federal election coming up on September 15.

I’m rather cynical about politicians – whether federal, state or local government, and whatever their party affiliation. They tend to speak a lot without actually saying much, rarely answer questions directly, and are too fond of promoting themselves.

A letter from the candidate, Donna Petrovich, deserved a response – hence my letter.

For your edification, or amusement, or both, I’m posting her letter, as well as mine, here, without further comment.

Letter from Donna Petrovich

Whittlesea, VIC 3757
Thursday 30 May 2013

Ms Donna Petrovich
Liberal for McEwen
PO Box 165
Craigieburn, VIC 3064

Dear Ms Petrovich

Thank you for your letter and the enclosed leaflet. Your letter is undated (yours is not the first; do politicians believe it’s not necessary to date their letters?) but I received it last Friday.

I am the quintessential swinging voter, so please keep in mind as you read this that I do not support, nor am I a member of, any political party. I have a pretty cynical view of politicians of all persuasions; very few give me any confidence that our nation is in good hands, and even fewer strike me as having the best interests of the nation at heart. John Howard’s oft-repeated statement that he would remain prime minister as long as it was in the best interests of the Liberal party exemplified for me the priorities demonstrated by nearly all members of parliament – party first, self second, nation last. In an article in The Age on 27 May [1], Andrew McLeod, ALP candidate for McEwen in 2001, tells why he has since left the party. It’s a good article, and the some of the sentiments he expresses largely mirror my own. I particularly like his statement, “The truth is we don’t need just new leaders of the two main parties. It is not about changing Abbott or Gillard. What we need is new parties.” [2]

The 2007 election gave me hope that this country could get back on track and that I could be proud of it again, as I was before John Howard destroyed it with his divide-and-conquer approach that set us one against the other and created haves and have-nots. Sadly, however, when the Labor government dumped Kevin Rudd they also dumped many of the principles which had brought them to government, and I am deeply disappointed.

While I am critical of some aspects of Labor’s record, I am also critical of the opposition. The thought of the coalition in government with Tony Abbott as prime minister is sickening. I did not like Abbott or trust him when he served under Howard, and nothing that he has done or said in the six years since then has changed my mind. The coalition has produced few policies, and those they have released are hardly worth thinking about. Take the broadband internet policy released recently, for example. It’s a half-baked solution to a problem that has already been solved efficiently, effectively and comprehensively by the government. For the sake of saving a little time and money (and the savings are small given the total cost and timeframe), your party – in deciding to utilise the existing copper cables instead of installing fibre optics cables to the final installation point – would take us back to relying on 1960s technology.
You claim that people complain to you about “out of control spending”, “rising cost of living expenses”, “our borders no longer being secure”, “mounting government debt” and “new and unnecessary taxes”. I don’t know who you have been talking to (I suspect your letter is a generic one written by Liberal headquarters and you haven’t actually been talking to anyone), but I’m not concerned about any of those things.

First, all the indicators show that – contrary to repeated opposition claims – our economy is one of the healthiest in the world, and our debt is small. Ours was the only major Western economy to survive the global financial crisis unscathed. John Howard even admitted recently that “When the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and others tell you that the Australian economy is doing better than most – they are right.” [3] In fact, an article in The Age on 24 May [4] stated that “Australians overwhelmingly see their country as prosperous and fair…according to a new international comparison.” The article also said that “…in Australia, two-thirds [of those surveyed] said the economy was doing well.” Moreover, the OECD has declared that Australia is “the world’s happiest nation based on criteria including income, jobs, housing and health…” [5] That makes your claims sound rather specious. I have been a disability pensioner since 2004; I rent my home, and I have no savings and very few assets, yet I’m better off now than I was at the end of the Howard years. The GST – introduced by a coalition government in direct contradiction of a promise made by John Howard, I might add – caused my cost of living to increase because it taxed items I buy, but the tax offsets brought in at the same time did not benefit me because my income at the time was low and I did not pay income tax. We needed tax reform, but the GST was not the solution. In contrast, the carbon tax that you say people complain about will help the country, and my pension has been increased to offset its effects. The Howard government made no attempt to help low income earners cope with the GST.

Second, about our borders. The coalition is very fond of talking about “illegal” immigrants. Given that the fuss about our borders is all about refugees seeking somewhere safe to live, the word “illegal” is incorrect and you guys must know that. It is not illegal to be a refugee, nor is it illegal to seek asylum. The Howard government damaged our international reputation immeasurably with its treatment of asylum seekers, and it’s reprehensible that the Labor government under Julia Gillard has continued the same treatment. I am disgusted with both parties for the way they have treated (and in your case, intend to continue to treat) these people. The issue has nothing whatsoever to do with border security; it’s a humanitarian problem that needs to be addressed accordingly. Australia’s whole attitude towards refugees needs critical examination and reform. Moreover, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship needs a figurative bomb placed under it. Many of the problems related to asylum seekers appear to be caused by the department’s incompetence, its antipathy towards refugees, and its deliberately slow assessment of refugees’ applications for asylum. According to The Age [6], department secretary Martin Bowles, in a budget estimates hearing on Monday, claimed that asylum seekers are held in detention only as long as it takes to conduct health and security checks, yet he admitted that none of the those who arrived after August 13 (when the government introduced its “no-advantage” policy for refugees who arrive by boat) have had their claims processed. That could take up to five years! A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it was “imperative” that Australia begin a “fair and effective asylum procedure, with due process, as soon as possible”. Our share of the world’s asylum seekers is tiny. Even many much poorer nations cope with huge numbers of refugees. In 2009 we received 0.53% of global asylum applications and ranked 47th in the world [7], yet we have trouble processing their applications. The role of ASIO in deciding refugees’ fates also needs to be reassessed – particularly the policy of refusing to allow people to know why they have been determined to be risks.

Third, Tony Abbott is happy to criticise the government about “great big new tax”es, but where are they? He’s long on rhetoric and very short on actual helpful suggestions. His main policy has been to say a great big loud “No!” to everything the government has proposed. Fortunately, there are some thinking people in parliament and Tony’s ramblings are seen for what they are, and his relentless negativity has had a minimal practical effect. We do have a couple of new taxes, but they are far from unnecessary. Actually, Mr Abbott has his own “great big new tax” – his paid parental leave scheme, funded by a five per cent levy on corporations earning more than $5 million. The government claims that home owners and small business operators will suffer interest rate hikes because of the impact of this tax on the banks, an assertion supported by “an unnamed ‘senior banker’ [who] told The Australian that the Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, ANZ, and National Australia Bank will each pass on the cost of the levy”. [8] Clearly, this tax will have an impact on more than just the corporations that will actually pay it.

Ms Petrovich, you will need to do better in seeking my vote. Spouting Tony Abbott’s various mantras is not helpful – although I concede that it must be hard to campaign with no policies. You would do better to focus on things that matter. Here are some suggestions, in no particular order:

  • Improve and extend public transport. Ours is way inferior to the systems many overseas countries have. I don’t use public transport, but it desperately needs decent funding and efficient organisation.
  • Restore the railway to Whittlesea.
  • Get freight off our roads and back on to rail networks where it belongs, and ban huge trucks that clog up our roads and increase road-maintenance costs. Rail is a much more efficient way to move large quantities of freight, it just needs to be organised properly. Stop pandering to the road transport lobby.
  • Stop further privatisation. It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked where it has been applied, and we do not need any more of it. Public facilities, utilities and land should be publicly owned, and they need to remain publicly owned. I was horrified to read in The Age on May 22 [8] that some Victorian state Liberals are pressing for privatisation of the ABC and SBS. They must have rocks in their heads! At present the ABC and SBS are just about the only remaining independent news sources we have in this country; we cannot afford further concentration of media ownership. I note that Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have both ruled out privatisation of either organisation, but Mr Abbott’s word is flexible, so I don’t hold out much hope.
  • Provide infrastructure – particularly arterial road upgrades – before new areas are opened for subdivision. I came to live in this area in 1991, and Plenty Road between Whittlesea and Mill Park was congested then. Since that time numerous new residential and a few industrial/commercial subdivisions have been opened up and traffic has been increasing accordingly, yet it’s only recently that two short lengths of Plenty Road have been upgraded. It still has only one lane each way past several of the new residential areas. In a Local Today article [9] Cr Rex Griffin, mayor of the City of Whittlesea, highlights the problems caused by lack of planning by successive state governments. I note that your brochure partly addresses this need.
  • Reform funding for health care, particularly hospitals.
  • Put to death and bury the whole idea of performance bonuses and quotas where they relate to public institutions such as schools and hospitals. Make people accountable and institutions efficient, effective and standards-compliant, but do it without using monetary incentives and forcing artificial, arbitrary quotas. Both are open to abuse; neither has achieved its aim.
  • End public funding of private schools and put the money into making our public schools the best they can be.
  • Abolish local government. It doesn’t need to be recognised in the Constitution, it needs to be reformed. Abolishing it would probably be the best way to achieve that.
  • Prohibit the obscenely high salaries and performance bonuses paid to corporate executives. No one is worth the amount some of these people receive as salary, and the whole bonus culture has led to abuse. Since these payments are corporate expenses, both have led to increased costs for all of us.
  • Ban political lobby groups and all donations to political parties. Lobby groups have their own agendas, often at odds with what is best for the nation. Political donations are open to abuse, and create an obligation to the donor on the part of the recipient. Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy has reportedly “called for tough new laws to rein in political fund-raising in Victoria”. [10] Australia should not go any further down the path that politics in the USA has taken – where lobbyists and donors create and control the political agenda, to the detriment of the people of that country. Election campaigns should be funded by the candidates themselves or by an allowance funded by taxpayers – in either case with a limit to the amount spent (possibly on a per-elector basis). Party administration costs must be the responsibility of the parties themselves.
  • Take a more independent stance on the world stage. We do not need to slavishly follow the lead of the US, the UK, or any other nation, and our standing in the international community would benefit. I admired New Zealand’s refusal to get involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Dismantle existing foreign bases and installations on Australian soil, and make it impossible for any to be established here in the future.
  • Introduce stricter rules on foreign ownership of Australian land and businesses.
  • Increase Australia’s foreign aid commitment. As one of the world’s wealthy countries our record in this area is spotty at best.
  • Give same-sex couples the same rights and privileges enjoyed by married people and those in de facto relationships. This is not a question of morality (if it was, de facto couples would not be treated the same as married couples), it is a question of discrimination and fairness.
  • Investigate why interference that suddenly began in February 2012 has caused television reception in my area to deteriorate to the extent that the only digital signal I can receive is SBS’s, and the analogue signal is so bad that only the ABC is watchable – and that barely so. Before the interference started I had very good reception of all digital channels using only a basic indoor antenna.

I know some of these are state issues but the federal government provides much of the funding and surely should be able to influence what happens at the state level.

Finally, a couple of points about public office.

First, elected officials too often seem to forget that they hold office at their electors’ pleasure. John Howard found out the hard way that even prime ministers are subject to that principle. If you are elected, I hope you do not forget how you came to your office, and I hope you do better than the present member for McEwen. I’ve not heard or seen anything of him, or any achievements, since he was elected, except for one propaganda letter in 2011 (it’s possible he would have sent more later, but I asked to be put on his do not mail list). I was very unimpressed because I had only recently written two emails to him about asylum seekers. Neither of those emails was answered, yet he saw fit to send me a letter about nothing, complete with a four-page glossy brochure (which included eleven photos of himself, and otherwise contained nothing of substance) funded from his printing and communications entitlement. Needless to say, I will not be voting for him. Perhaps, if you are elected, you could follow Fran Bailey’s example, because she really was a good local member and achieved a lot for the electorate. I voted for her on occasion.

Second, I have developed a theory that people elected or appointed to public office succumb to “public office syndrome”. The theory goes that no matter how sensible, talented, effective and willing a person appears to be, as soon as they take up their office they are required to check their brains at the door. If you are the successful candidate I hope you are able to prove me wrong!

If you have legitimate aims and intentions for McEwen I will be happy to consider them when I decide how to vote in September. If all you have to offer is further generic propaganda, then please add me to your do not mail list.

Yours sincerely


John Silby


  2. Emphasis is mine.
  7. Fact sheet from Edmund Rice Centre