Me versus we: ‘The Upswing’ - Op Ed, The Monthly


The Monthly, November 2020

On a summer’s day in San Francisco, a university student waited to cross a zebra crossing. Some cars obeyed the law and stopped. Others whizzed through the intersection. A second student observed the cars and recorded their status, grading them on a five-point scale from beaten-up hatchbacks to luxury sedans. Afterwards, researchers tabulated the data. Among the most modest cars, all stopped at the crossing. Of the most expensive, almost half ignored the pedestrian and drove straight through.

Pan across to Australia in early 2020, as the federal government was devising its economic response to the coronavirus pandemic. While other countries had offered wage subsidies, the Coalition was initially reluctant. Then business leaders began turning up the pressure. In one telephone call, retail billionaire Solomon Lew reportedly cried as he spoke to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, urging him to provide wage subsidies to affected firms. At the end of March, a package was announced.

Because Solomon Lew had to shut many of his stores, his company – which owns Dotti, Just Jeans and Portmans, among others – experienced a drop in revenue, and qualified for around $45 million in JobKeeper payments. But it wasn’t long before the firm’s fortunes turned around, helped by strong online sales. At the end of September, Lew’s company announced that its profits had matched those in previous year, and paid shareholders a $57 million dividend. As the largest shareholder, Lew himself received more than $20 million. A policy designed to support workers ended up benefiting an Australian billionaire. And it wasn’t an isolated example. Other firms used JobKeeper to prop up profits, and even paid executive bonuses after receiving the taxpayer-funded assistance.

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A proper COVID-19 recovery must start with big thinking in parliament - Opinion, The Canberra Times


The Canberra Times, 29 October 2020 

At the end of World War II, my grandparents Jean and Roly Stebbins built their own beachside house near the Melbourne suburb of Altona, making the bricks by hand. As a teacher and a railway worker, they raised four children into a society built on the promise that the 1950s would be better than the 1930s.

My mother's family were among the millions of Australians who benefited from the foresighted policies of that era. As the fight against fascism drew to a close, prime minister John Curtin commissioned H. C. "Nugget" Coombs to lead a team to write a white paper on full employment. The two men had gotten to know each other watching Aussie rules matches in Canberra, and Coombs was known for his breadth and boldness.

Produced in 1945, the white paper noted that from 1919 to 1939, "more than one-tenth of the men and women desiring work were unemployed", and it committed the nation to full employment as "a fundamental aim of the Commonwealth government". The white paper emphasised the need for high-skill jobs, harnessing the "spirit of enterprise". It focused on ways of raising productivity, and the importance of ensuring that workers received "a fair share of increased output flowing from the growing productivity of labour".

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Big tech has changed how we live, but we need to wrest back control - Op Ed, Sydney Morning Herald


The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 2020

The US Department of Justice's case against Google is the biggest competition lawsuit against a tech company in two decades. Facebook, Apple and Amazon are reportedly also under investigation. In a relatively short space of time, these behemoths have come to dominate the sharemarket, reshape the economy and change the way we live.

For starters, we are spending more time on our phones, a trend that is worrying mental health experts. Google has been central to this transformation. It now dominates not just the search engine market but is one of the main players when it comes to online advertising, video streaming, online maps, virtual assistants and mobile operating systems.

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Out of the office - Op Ed, Inside Story


Inside Story, October 20 20202

“I’m sitting in a building here that was built for 5000 people… and there are probably six in it today,” National Australia Bank CEO Ross McEwan told me recently during a parliamentary committee hearing. But there’s more: according to the bank’s surveys, four-fifths of staff members don’t want to return to regular working when the pandemic is over.

Despite promises of an economic “snapback,” it’s becoming increasingly clear that the world of work is likely to change significantly as a result of coronavirus. One of the likely shifts will be the rise of teleworking. If Covid-19 has taken us back a decade in terms of globalisation, it’s taken us forward a decade technologically. Large swathes of the workforce are working from home and the trend is likely to endure, with one US study projecting the share of working days spent at home to rise from 5 per cent to 20 per cent after the pandemic passes. Having fewer desks than employees may become the norm for white-collar firms.

One of the valuable changes will be a move away from open-plan offices, which were always more about corporate symbolism than productivity. We know from a bevy of studies that workers are more stressed, more dissatisfied and more resentful when they work in an open-plan setting. Compared with regular offices, employees in open offices experience higher levels of noise and more interruptions. They are less motivated, less creative and more likely to take sick leave.

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The government has delivered a budget that set its sights low, but still asks too much of Australians - Op Ed, The Canberra Times


The Canberra Times, October 10 2020

A trillion dollars is a lot of money – one with twelve zeros after it.

That’s where Australia’s debt will peak. To put it in perspective, when the Liberals launched their ‘debt truck’ scare campaign in 2009, they did so with the figure ‘$315 billion’ emblazoned on the side – one third of the level of projected peak debt under the Coalition today.

So what does Australia get from that spending?

The economy came into this crisis from a position of weakness. Last year, productivity went backwards, investment was in the doldrums, wage growth was among the slowest on record. We had problems in retail and a downturn in construction.

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Fairness is another casualty - Op Ed, The Herald Sun and Courier Mail


The Herald Sun and Courier Mail, 15 September 2020

When coronavirus hit, the Australian Government followed other nations in implementing JobKeeper, the most expensive program in Australian history. It’s also the most effective. Labour economists estimate that JobKeeper saved 700,000 to 900,000 jobs.

To keep the connection between firms and workers, JobKeeper was paid to companies. Most firms did the right thing with the money. But not everyone. IDP Education and Star Casino used JobKeeper to pay executive bonuses. Harvey Norman and Crown Casino paid out massive dividends, benefiting billionaire shareholders.

It ain’t fair. JobKeeper was meant to save the jobs of battlers, not line the pockets of billionaires. If your firm is getting taxpayer assistance, the boss shouldn’t be getting a bonus, and shareholders shouldn’t be getting a stonking dividend.

Some rewarded the top and penalised the bottom.

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Charities dwarf mining and agriculture in our economy, but many face ruin - Op Ed, The Sydney Morning Herald


The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 2020

The charity sector is 8 percent of the economy, 10 percent of the workforce, and mobilises 3 million volunteers. It dwarfs agriculture, mining or manufacturing.

Saturday is International Day of Charity, a day chosen because it marks the passing of Mother Teresa, whose life was dedicated to serving the poor and homeless. It’s a chance to honour Australia’s more than 50,000 charities – but also to recognise that many are doing it tough.

Since COVID hit, two-thirds of volunteers have cut back their hours. Donations are expected to fall 7 percent this year, and a whopping 12 percent next year.

Yet while the supply of resources has plummeted, the demand for help has skyrocketed.

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Nobody likes running deficits, but right now creating jobs is priority number one - Op Ed, The Canberra Times


The Canberra Times, 2 September 2020

‘The first duty of all Governments in the present period of stress is to relieve, as far as possible, the hardships and needs of persons who are willing to work but cannot find employment.’

The year was 1930, and the Canberra Times editorial reflected the anguish of the Great Depression. Around the world, unemployment spiked, and millions of lives were blighted by joblessness.

Nine decades on, the world is suffering the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Yet economic policymakers have a considerable advantage over their predecessors. It wasn’t until 1936 that John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, advising governments to spend in order to support demand. Keynesian economics did not become mainstream until decades later.

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Why are the Canberra Liberals so extreme? - Op Ed, CityNews


CityNews, 18 August 2020

When the marriage equality vote was held in 2017, the Prime Minister supported it. Every premier and chief minister backed it. Every opposition leader – federal, state or territory – voted for marriage equality.

Except one. In the ACT, Canberra Liberal leader Alistair Coe opposed marriage equality. Three out of four Canberrans voted yes to marriage equality, the highest share in Australia. Yet Canberra was the only place where a major party leader voted no.

Marriage equality isn’t just an isolated incident. On a broad swath of issues, the Canberra Liberals have shown themselves not just to be more conservative than the typical Canberran, but to be the most conservative Liberal branch in Australia.

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Carving with the Grain - Essay, Evatt Journal Vol. 19


Evatt Journal Vol. 19 - After the lockdown: Essays on a Post-COVID World – July 29, 2020

Carvers asked to make a bowl from a piece of timber don’t simply pull out their favourite blueprint, says philosopher Peter Singer. Instead, they examine the timber and adapt the design to suit the wood. Likewise, anyone looking to reshape society cannot simply begin with abstract ideas.  Reformers must understand the values, aspirations and needs of the community if we are to make change that does not run against the grain.

Globally, COVID-19 has infected millions, and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The International Monetary Fund expects it to cause the sharpest drop in global GDP since the Great Depression. In Australia, unemployment spiked, with hospitality workers, arts employees, women and young people the hardest hit. The promised Morrison ‘snap back’ seems unlikely. Rather than a V-shaped recession, the best we can hope for at this stage is a recovery that looks like a Nike swoosh.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.