July 15th 2000


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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Human Genome mapping milestone?

Editorial: Managing Australia’s interests in S.E. Asia

Canberra Observed: Defence: opportunity beckons for Howard Government

Families: The hollowing of the middle class continues

New South Wales: Follow Swedish model: drug forum told

Trade: Canberra capitulates without firing a salvo

Doctors suspended over 32 week abortion

Straws in the wind

Education: New Queensland syllabus attacked

Economics: UN to look at the Tobin Tax

Media: GST ads unchained media bias

Development: Amartya Sen: the return of humane economics

Comment: The politics of suicide

Law: Death penalty debate resurfaces in USA

United States: Rising tide leaves poor floundeirng

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Straws in the wind


by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, July 15, 2000
Back to the world of William Hogarth

Readers will doubtless remember from last issue a quite graphic account of drugs in a school, and of the blasé and permissive attitudes of teachers and some parents towards these tragic phenomena; and the quite natural temptation on the part of a reader to think that “this must be an isolated instance,” or, even, “that writer exaggerated.” Well ... the Sunday Herald Sun (July 1) has carried an account of the horrendous situation at Renmark High, just over the border in South Australia.

A report by the school chaplain, Ruth Strout, to the Federal Parliamentary Inquiry on Substance Abuse in Australian Communities, spoke of girls, 13 to 16, falling pregnant, after drinking “to the point of being oblivious of the condom in their pocket”; parents, addicted to drugs ranging from alcohol to heroin, using their children as punching bags; teenage prostitution on the rise as youths swap sex for drugs such as marijuana.

The chaplain’s report says that drink driving has killed so many students that the school has “set up a memorial garden to the carnage”. Students are stealing cars and breaking into homes “to fund their drug habit”, while truancy is “chronic”.

This report by Ms Strout to the Committee was made without the school’s knowledge, and she has now been ordered not to talk publicly of the report.

Nevertheless, the school principal, Paul Wilton, said the region was facing similar social challenges “to those in other states”, while according to the Herald Sun, school counsellors have confirmed drugs and teenage sex are “the biggest headaches for the Riverland school and its six hundred students”.

The chaplain is calling for financial help from the Federal Government for, among other things, crisis housing, and foster parents, which were “urgently needed to plug the gaps while students regarded schools as a haven” — from parents who use them as punching bags, presumably. The school itself is considering installing a condom vending machine in the boys’ toilets, to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

This is a portrait from life, of a community that is disintegrating, of families no longer families, but scenes of decomposition, of schools, (for the Riverland principal is right, his is by no means the only one) which are more like field hospitals just behind the lines in World War I than conventional teaching centres, themselves now under such threat from the Spirit of the Age.

How Australian communities — towns, suburbs, schools — have got into this parlous condition, and why so many others are moving into crisis, is a multidimensional story. Suffice to say, that the time for covering up, or for recrimination, is long past.

Let us hope the Federal Parliamentary Committee is trying for the truth and the whole truth; and similar inquiries like that on the effects of gambling and suggested remedies of the same, operate without recourse to party politics; for clearly a whole generation of youth is under siege, not to mention their pathetic elders.

Clearly, condom machines in boys’ toilets, or one of Professor Penington’s shooting galleries here, are not answers. Not answers to teenage drunkenness, car deaths, child bashing, youth promiscuity, truancy. But what of the new catch-all explanation that it is due to youth unemployment in the town or the nation?

I feel the emergence of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, has just been the last straw. It simply lifted the cover from a disintegrating family, private and public morality; and the return of alcoholism.

It had little to do with the Sexual Revolution, or the decline of education which followed upon the decline of authority, even as a concept. These were processes well under way before mass unemployment struck. Unemployment has simply fast-forwarded the process of atomisation.

I had distant relatives of my mother who farmed in that district between the Wars and beyond — soldier settlers. Life sounded hard, poor, joyless — a struggle. And this seems to have been general.

But there were no stories about the indicators of social pathology, which we now accept as commonplace. Nor were there from the poor jobless Melbourne suburbs of my childhood — stricken as they were by Depression.

Of course there were social casualties and dysfunctional families aplenty — but the social bonds held: the practical ideals of education survived. Schools and churches were often havens for many: counter cultures to the absolute stagnation and mute despair outside.

Such supports no longer seem available for our little country town, or the people of the West. But play acting in the House about tax rates, or agonising over ticket sales at the Olympics are just the latest attempts to keep our heads in the sand.

Great anticlimaxes of our time

The political nous of the Labor Party, and the professional competency and general reality sense of the Australian media, have, during the course of the taxation debate, registered very nearly all time lows.

The credibility gap between what Mr Beazley and the media fantasy farms were saying, and their predictions for the Great Day and the start-up of the GST, and what everyday Australians were thinking, could scarcely have been greater. Reminiscent of the Republican Campaign and its Day of Judgment. A tale told by a Fool, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The last sitting day of the House of Reps before that Chamber rose for six weeks, said it all. Having criticised Mr Costello for being absent in Europe to chair an important economics meeting there — the plaint being that he wasn’t game to face the music here — the Treasurer was duly present for that make or break final day. He was not asked a single question during question time; a fact duly pointed out by John Howard, who had fielded nine.

The cameo ended with the Opposition sitting stunned with heads bowed, while Peter Reith delivered an excited panygeric extolling the great achievements of John Howard. What is happening to Labor?

As I write, matters are going from bad to worse. Mr Beazley said the GST won’t be abolished — at least that’s straight — but would be changed under Labor. What are to be the changes? He couldn’t say. Normally, you see things that are wrong, call for changes, and suggest how and which. Not here: you start with a declaration you will change things, then go around looking for things to change. But you assure people that you will come up with the answers before the election. Manana Mary.

In his right of reply, the Opposition Leader did give assurances that Health, Education, and lower income earners will benefit from him — but no details and as yet no costing. Impossible to judge. Mr Crean is not helping matters by putting the Evil Eye on all and sundry, and croaking about crop failures, in-grown toe nails, and hens laying square eggs, from now on, rather like a witch who swallowed the evil potion meant for someone else.

Is there a GST on Word Salad?

If we believed that the economists, market advisors, currency experts, and tax savants who’ve been wheeled in and out of the “debate” over the past year by the media, to vilify Howard, Costello and all their works, actually spoke for their professions, or were in some cases even bona fide members of those professions, then, as of now, we’d be in a condition of despair. If we had a child, we’d steer it towards a stable and plausible calling — like safe-cracking or space tourism. For those tipsters and form advisers have been regularly getting it all wrong.

The Australian dollar has been talked, or should I say shouted down for months and months. Meanwhile the damn thing won’t listen, and has a mind of its own.

Major inflation is periodically surmised as just around the corner more in hope then in conviction, I might add. We’ve all watched the increasingly frantic campaign to talk up interest rates, with the deleterious effect this might have; with the hopes of our “economists” finally resting on Alan Greenspan raising his rates. Then a dead cat from Washington could whistle over our bows, and it will all be John Howard’s fault.

The fact is our “experts” and economic crystal ball gazers have perpetrated one analytic and predictive blunder after another, and if that were all there was available, then we should be hot-footing it back to the older trusted devices: tea leaves, palmistry, flower arrangements and studying the entrails of animals. For our media experts and instant authorities have been trying to work that old Aboriginal procedure for singing your enemies to death — but keep forgetting the tune.

Of course there are plenty of competent economists, accountants, financial analysts in town. But you won’t read them in that thing we once used to wrap up our fish and chips, nor encounter them on our public affairs furphy machines. Many reputable professionals don’t support the Party or any party — poor dears — they are too busy practising their professions. So out with them. Bring on the comedians.

The Reserve Bank, as a consequence, has been treated to a critical report from Labor, declaring it is biased! Yeah! We all remember those champagne Hawke-Keating Years, when the RBA starred the likes of Peter Abeles, Bill Kelty, Janet Holmes a Court, Solly Lew, and before him Brian Quinn; headed by that man who now sells superannuation on TV. What was his name? But Wall Street and Thread Needle Street used to tremble at their approach. Indeed — they were bent double. Yes, those were the days my friend — I thought they’d never end.

The GST has many flaws, often pointed up in this journal, but that is another matter. It is a normal part of a flawed tax culture, itself the reflection of an overall economic social system, domestic and international, which is not distributing the national or global wealth in a just or even rational manner. Nor providing necessary services in many places. Its newest name is Economic Rationalism.

Perhaps the September demonstrations against the World Economic Forum at the Casino (an appropriate place for discussing the way the world is run) will expose some of the real issues, of which the GST is barely one.




























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