Saturday, January 14, 2017

So, we round up the usual suspects...

I have just the thing, an apartment on the Gold Coast (Kodakotype by Pants)

The Oxford Dictionary defines 'entitlement' as

1. (mass noun) the fact of having a right to something.

and then offers the interpretations,

1.1 The amount to which a person has a right.
e.g 'her annual leave entitlement.'

1.2 The belief that one is inherently deserving of special privileges or treatment.
e.g. 'No wonder your kids have a sense of entitlement.'

Two stories running concurrently in Australia this week have been providing us with the kind of political ouroboros that we find gruesomely compelling. The first is linked to interpretation 1.1. The Government has been using an automated service to dispatch demands for immediate return of benefits money it says has been overpaid. The system is obviously and fatally flawed. Even the guy the Prime Minister hired to oversee digital transformation, (whatever that means in the post-digital era), says that if it were a private company, Centrelink* would either go broke or be shut down for committing fraud. Many of the people getting these demands say they don't owe anything. The Government apparently knows that it is demanding money that isn't actually owed from the nation's most marginalised people. And yet it has no plans to discontinue the practice, because 'it is working'. Well, yes, armed robbery generally does work if the aim is to collect a lot of money and scare the fuck out of the populace.

The second story relates to interpretation No. 2. The question of parliamentarians' expenses claims pops up fairly regularly in this country. Every now and then one of them does something truly over the top like take a helicopter ride a few miles down the road or use their taxpayer-funded credit card for a drunken night out at a strip club. A 'review' is called for, and duly promised. Last week a cabinet minister was suspended after it was revealed that she bought an investment property whilst on a work-related trip to the Gold Coast. It didn't help that the minister brushed off the $800K purchase as an 'impulse buy'. Tangerine lip gloss is an impulse buy.

I wonder if the image consultants who thought up the name of the agency overseeing benefit entitlements knew that a centre link is the piece on a leg iron that connects the two chains to the leg shackles. Perhaps that's the point. Anyone claiming unemployment or student allowance in this country is presumed to be a criminal. The Government plans to conduct 1.7 million of these 'compliance interventions' in the coming years. By my calculations, just about every claimant will get tapped. If a government agency is making that many mistakes, then we can safely assume that many more people will fall victim to this unseemly racket. Although our welfare safety net can sometimes look like it has been mauled by a Great White Shark, it still exists and people still have rights.

Add to the mix the peculiar spectacle of the Deputy Prime Minister saying that people who access social security payments must understand that they are getting 'other people's money', so therefore must comply with any and all demands, no matter how outrageous or arbitrary. On the other hand, we have a cabinet minister refusing to hand over her diary for last week. Her movements ought to be a matter of public record, especially since we're paying for them. And then yet another minister claiming that attending sporting events and parties on the taxpayer dollar is not only righteous but expected.

As I've been writing this, Sussan Ley has resigned as Health Minister. Bruised but unrepentant, she says,

"Whilst I have attempted at all times to be meticulous with rules and standards, I accept community annoyance, even anger, with politicians' entitlements demands a response."

There's that 'entitlement' word again. More of a 1.2 than a 1.1. Ley's meticulousness did not, on this occasion apparently, extend to evaluating her moral responsibility to her employers - the people. And a rather grim-faced Prime Minister has agreed to finally get around to doing something about this perpetual mess. Not only will the 36 recommendations of the last 'review' into parliamentarians' expenses be 'implemented' but an attempt will be made to clarify what exactly constitutes 'official business'. It has come to this. The privileged need to be given quite explicit guidelines on how not to behave like a complete cunt. It might be more useful to append a long list of what is not 'official business'. Accepting invitations to parties given by wealthy business people who wish to 'showcase themselves and have conversations in relation to important matters' should not qualify. Some of us would call that lobbying.

Either we have got the world's dumbest politicians, (and I wouldn't entirely rule that out), or they must know that they're transgressing. They clearly think it's worth the risk. Occasionally one of them gets caught. Cue dramatic dive onto nearest available sword. There may be a longer-term strategy in play. They just keep pushing the boundary in the hope that we'll eventually give up trying to temper their greed and amorality. With Donald J. Trump leading the charge now, the conventional view of what constitutes acceptable behaviour for a politician is about to be challenged in ways we haven't yet conceived. Not only are we no longer in Kansas, we could be so befuddled by the constantly moving goalposts, we could even come to believe that Kansas never existed in the first place. The endgame, a suspicious mind might conclude, is to re-establish the old notion that a small number of 'haves' ruling a mass of 'have nots' is the natural order of things.

In a rare betrayal of self-reflection one of our politicians recently gave us a glimpse into the way these people think. Sam Dastyari was caught out forwarding a bill for travel expenses to a private company because he'd maxed out his own allowance. When questioned by journalists as to why it never occurred to him to cough up himself, he said, 'I just didn't want to pay it.' And there you have the exquisite juxtaposition. The powerful senator, with the means and obligation to reach into his own pocket for a relatively tiny amount of money but not the slightest inclination to do so. Compare and contrast with a single mother being forced into a debt recovery agreement for a vast amount she doesn't actually owe. And you can immediately see why the word 'entitlement' needs two very different interpretations. Claimants of public money through Centrelink face jail if a machine makes a mistake while those grabbing their obscene overshare from the parliamentary purse may have to sit out a paltry penance on the back bench until their malfeasance is forgotten if not exactly forgiven. There is no question of them even having to pay interest on the misappropriated funds, much less serve jail time.

The concept of a 'meritocracy', as proposed by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s seems almost twee now but I'm wondering if that didn't set the stage for the establishment of a new ruling class of people for whom the rules, assuming there are any at all, really are different. I'm thinking of the interview David Frost did with the impeached President Nixon in 1977, the one where Nixon, apparently completely believing this to be true, says,

'When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.'

Perhaps there's a hint in that of what was to come. The idea that there's any way to fairly assess merit without first achieving racial and gender equality is preposterous anyway. But somehow, it's embedded itself quite firmly in the psyche of the political class. They've proved themselves capable of high levels of self-delusion. They seem to truly believe that any which way you can manage to claw your way to the top can be attributed to 'merit'. There is no qualitative distinction between acts or methods. All that matters is the goal. Now with Trump as their standard-bearer, who knows how much further they'll advance that project? All that stands between us and authoritarian rule is the strength of our institutions. Dismantling them is a high priority for a lot of people running countries these days.

I've signed two online petitions this week. One calls for an inquiry into the Centrelink fiasco and the other for an independent anti-corruption regulator at the federal parliamentary level. (Just to be clear - I'm not a prominent Australian.) The second is more likely to succeed than the first. If there were to be an inquiry into the Centrelink scam, I would hope there would be some assessment of the institutional damage as well as the trauma suffered by individuals who've been egregiously set upon. As citizens, we have a right to expect that our institutions do not suddenly go rogue on us. One has to consider a possible motivation in all this might be to discourage people from claiming their due entitlements. There is likely to be an unintended consequence - it may well discourage people from undertaking part-time work. Most errors have occurred through crude and flawed data matching when people have worked for a while and claimed benefits when they had no work, as is their right.

If there is a review of parliamentary entitlements - the 1.2 kind - the scope should be expanded to test some of the other glaring conflict of interest issues. Sussan Ley's troubles began when she took a side-trip to buy an investment property - her third. Australian federal parliamentarians own an average of 2.5 properties per member. Is it any wonder that none of them have an appetite for reforming the laws that currently give them huge tax advantages when they buy and negatively gear investment properties? Sitting parliamentarians should be banned from owning investment properties.

*Centrelink is our national social security agency, within the Department of Human Services. When did we get all of these creepy names? I know, I know, the names are the least of it.