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THE WAY WE LOOK AT THE WORLD

Julian Dowse
December, 2019

People often comment that  “things are not often as they seem”.  Well, there is more proof of this, quite literally.

Recently published research by American scientists suggests that for too long people have laboured under the misapprehension that one year in life of a dog equals seven human years. Not so! It is now suggested that by three years of age a dog is the equivalent maturity of a fifty year old human, but then the pace of canine development slows so that a ten year old labrador matches a sixty eight year old person.

So, our belief in the innocence of ‘puppy dog eyes’ may be entirely misplaced. What were thought to be guileless looks of innocence and affection from canine to human may now have to seen as looks of bemusement, if not contempt, as dogs around the world wonder why humans are behaving and talking around them in inane and asinine ways:

Human to dog: “Who’s a pretty, pretty clever, clever boy?”

Dog thinks of human: “Who’s the simpleton?”

As we approach the year of perfect vision- 2020-maybe we need to take inspiration from the American scientists and reassess how we look at all manner of things.

As December is often the month of lists - presents, cards, social functions, school assessment grades - may I present my end of year report list on those matters that command our attention, some of which may require a new vision:

THE ECONOMY:

Australia tenuously holds onto its world record of years of continuous economic growth according to official statistics. Yet, in and out on the shopping centres and high streets of suburban Australia, there is some scepticism about how genuine our economic growth is. Governments, Federal and State may be increasing their infrastructure spending, but the families of Australia do not seem to be replacing their old washing machine or trading in the old family car for the newer version.  Josh Frydenberg must wonder what has to be done to promote household  economic growth if record low interest rates and tax cuts seem to have led only to a whimper of activity and not the much preferred bang.

Mathematicians, people that I greatly admire and respect, have often told me that the premise of continuous economic growth is, mathematically, a false one.

Maybe the time has come to recognise that many of the pre-conditions of economic growth in the post-war period simply no longer exist. Is it a surprise that declining population rates in Europe are accompanying negative growth rates in many countries, including the powerhouse of Germany? It seems unlikely that there will be another baby boom that underwrote a generation of  post-war economic growth. This is especially so when the current ‘under-25’ generation seem to be almost petrified of population growth and its possible effect on the world’s climate.

In Australia, the babyboom era is, ironically, proving now to be a major restriction on economic growth. Governments can simply not deliver swingeing tax cuts when medical and welfare payments have to be paid to the class of 1946-1960.

This year’s Federal Budget allocates a mere $82 billion to spending on Health, $48 billion on the age pension and a mere $132 billion on “other social security and welfare”. $262 billion of health and welfare costs for 25 million people. Almost as much as the cost of a fleet of French submarines! More of that later.

Also, those that the Treasurer looks to “splash the cash” are hamstrung by economic circumstances that the baby boomers did not face.

When people owe so much on their housing mortgages in Australia, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, it is no surprise that any increased levels of cash delivered by tax cuts and/or lower interest rates are not being taken to the nearest shopping centre, but squirreled away to reduce capital debt burdens.

Similarly, many of the demographic who may have been looking to buy a house at the age their grandparents did simply can no longer afford to.  Students are graduating from university at later ages burdened with HECS debts and facing a labour market that is offering fewer and fewer permanent job opportunities. Saving for a house deposit has become a labour of Sisyphus. Without home buyers the multiplier effect of domestic purchases- think fridges, washing machines, dryers, furniture-does not exist. Forget fears of climate change for a moment. When it takes two decent incomes to support a ‘typical’ house purchase, is it little wonder that fewer and fewer people are having enough children to generate population growth, itself a major stimulant of economic activity?

Enter a new factor. I suspect many middle-aged couples are not so cavalier with their economic expenditure as they contemplate what funds from their aging parents’ estates may be required to pay for long-term health care. We are now officially in the era of ever extended living, replete with the mental and physical problems that accompany being an OBE (over bloody eighty!)

Throw in the effects of Australia’s worst drought and it may be fair to say that our ‘lucky country’ circumstances may be chimeric in nature, based on isolated pockets of prosperity.

THE BODY POLITIC:

As always, the compass lurches from left to right and back and to again around the world.

In Australia Scott Morrison’s surprise election victory on 18th May has consolidated the ‘right of centre’ view that competent economic management will always prevail over ideological recipes for broad social and economic reforms.

This theory will be tested in England this Thursday, when Boris Johnson’s “let’s get the job done on Brexit” will be pitted against Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist reform agenda.

In America, another narcissistic billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, has entered the race to be America’s next President. I am not sure the American dream is manifest in a democracy where only the stupendously wealthy can participate at its highest levels. As the year ends, Donald Trump hopes and clearly believes that festive celebrations over the nation’s lowest unemployment rate in 50 years will erase any concerns about allegedly menacing phone calls to Ukraine’s President.

Soft leftist governments hold sway in Canada and New Zealand, but I am worried that Justin and Jacinda are making so many apologies on behalf of the people that it may not be too long before they will be apologising for a misplaced apology.

The elephant in the room in Western democracies is the apparent disinterest, if not contempt, in and for the political process shared by so many. And, to an extent, who can blame the growing ranks of sceptics for thinking as they do?

As Australia heads to Christmas its eastern seaboard is largely covered by a haze of smoke generated by inordinate bushfires. Soaring temperatures and parched earth of much of our interior has only served to focus attention on a political system that appears no closer to articulating policies on water conservation and management, energy usage, and/or energy pricing than it did a decade ago.

Hands up those amongst you that could accurately state what is the basis of the Murray-Darling River Management scheme is and/or the government’s or the Opposition’s energy policies are?

The political was always personal, but recently it seems that development of effective government policies has been thwarted by politics becoming too personal.

It seems every important political issue of the day becomes so embroiled in posturing and point scoring that many of the public are wondering about the whole point of the political process:

Climate change: you are either a coal-loving antediluvian or a hysterical economic vandal ;

Taxation and Welfare reform: you are either a heartless friend of the rich or a compassionate and caring advocate for the oppressed;

Israel Folau: Just as the same-sex marriage debate became trapped in the homophobe/progressive paradigm, so too did debate about Israel Folau’s comments become snared in a vicious personal debate about whether or not one was a “lover or a hater”;

Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution:  A wish to discuss the proposed wording of a change to the Constitution is not seen as reasonable, but as a rancid wish to deny the agonies experienced by indigenous communities. Newsflash-the proposed referendum must be approved by a majority of people in a majority of States, so what is suggested must appeal to the majority of people. 

We all continue to experience the cost of the Greens’ refusal to accept a compromise carbon pricing scheme in 2009, namely that we have none at all. The stakes are similarly high when considering constitutional change to recognise our indigenous people. A defeated referendum will be a far greater retrograde step for national reconciliation  than a partial implementation of the Uluru statement.

Fighting for personal virtue and vindication is rarely a substitute for the development of good policy.

THIS SPORTING LIFE:

It is refreshing that away from drug tribunals, courts of arbitration, policies on transitioning males being allowed to play in female leagues and draft talks a certain amount of sport has taken place.

Australia, bolstered by the return of its two best cricket players, retained the Ashes.

Ashleigh Barty modestly climbed to the top of the world tennis rankings, but could not lead her country to victory in the Federation Cup final. One hopes that Barty will not buckle at the forthcoming Australian Open under the weight hometown expectations of success that cruelled Amelie Mauresmo in so many French Opens.

Australia faltered in the first edition of the abridged Davis Cup competition, losing to unheralded Canada in the quarter-finals.

Lewis Hamilton edged closer to the record of Michael Schumacher by winning another F1 Drivers’ Championship.

The horseracing industry had a year to forget with rivalries between interstate clubs, concerns about animal welfare and dismal Carnival weather in Melbourne eroding the allure of the sport; however, I vow and declare that there was something to cheer about at year’s end with news that Winx is in foal.

Winx won four successive Cox Plates, but New Zealand could not win three successive World Cups of Rugby, losing in the semi-finals to England who, in turn, lost to South Africa in the final.  Japan’s successful staging of the tournament, apart from not being able to prevent Act of God typhoons, bodes well for the success of next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, with or without the participation of Russia.

THE STATE OF THE NATION’S EDUCATION

To paraphrase Churchill’s tribute to the British Air Force following the Battle of Britain: “Never has so much money been spent so often by so many to disappoint so greatly.”

The release of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings at year’s end confirmed that on nearly every measure, the academic standard of Australian students continues to decline.

Complacent certainties about the competence of our students and schools should have long gone.

I have just finished marking Legal Studies papers of Year 12 students from across Victoria. In light of concerns about Australia's falling educational standards, I can confirm that the average standard of expression of our senior High School students is exceedingly average. 

I have been railing for years about the corrosive effect on educational standards of a number of factors that, sadly, have coalesced in recent years: the failure of our universities to produce competent graduates because too many courses are taught through a sociological prism, rather than one based on knowledge, the pitfalls of a crowded curriculum which encourages social awareness about issues du jour and emotions over core knowledge and the proliferation of widespread anxiety about anxiety which means that too many parents and students associate academic expectations and pressure with stress. NAPLAN is yet another example of the truth of the proposition that if you create a common test you will obtain common results. Throw in excessive compliance and bureaucratic regulations that schools must comply with on a State and Federal level, and the pursuit of intellectual development and reason recedes in importance.

Not to forget the effect of demographic changes: with many families having both parents at work, there are not as many parents at home at crucial times to reinforce educational expectations. Technological changes have also had their effect:  “I don’t need to know that, I can look it up on my phone later” is a familiar refrain from too many a student . Victoria and Western Australia, the two States that have legalised euthanasia, have announced a ban on students using mobile phones at State schools from the start of 2020. Maybe the counter-revolution is beginning?

I could go on… And I have. Earlier this year, I had an article published which commented on what I believe to be the ten greatest challenges facing School principals. A copy is attached.  Collectively, these challenges explain to a large extent Australia’s waning educational standards.

THE FUNDAMENTAL THINGS APPLY AS TIME GOES BY

Greg Craven, the outspoken and provocative Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, once quipped, “Sadly, Canberra will always be there in the morning.”

It seems that as the year ends, it is possible to add a few more certainties to the human condition:

If indulgent and self-destructive individuals wish to take drugs at music festivals, they will, so let’s forget pretending governments have any responsibility for such behaviour;

Government infrastructure contracts will never be completed on time and/or within Budget. The Footscray tunnel in Melbourne is already going to costs hundreds of millions more.

Not to be outdone in Canberra, the Federal Government’s “save Christopher Pyne” contract for the French to build and maintain a new submarine fleet for our navy that was originally expected to cost $100 billion is now anticipated to cost $225 billion. The news just keeps getting better. Design difficulties mean that the first submarine will not be constructed until 2022-2023. Luckily, it is not the government’s money, but that of the “quiet Australians” that will be required to foot the bill;

Individuals will continue to demonstrate extraordinary skills and tenacity that sustain us. Think of the efforts of Australia’s firefighters and farmers as they tenaciously seek to save life and properties. Think of the efforts of Rafael Nadal in this year’s Davis Cup final. Playing eight matches in six days, being undefeated in them all and not losing his serve once, Nadal single-handedly gave credibility to the appallingly abridged format of the Davis Cup;

American divorcees and the Royal Family should not mix. The Duchess of Windsor took Edward VIII from the throne and off to the Bahamas and Paris. Megan Markle has taken Prince Harry off to America via Africa to develop his inner organic Zen. Wasn’t winning the War of Independence enough punishment for the Royals?

State governments in Australia that are drowning in debt choose, for reasons unknown to anybody, to dramatically increase it with vain bids to host an Olympic Games. As it was with the Cain/Kirner Victorian bid for the 1996 Olympics, so it is with the Palaszczuk government’s bid for Queensland to host the 2032 summer Games;

There is no weapon against stupidity. Think Prince Andrew, whose vein of stupidity is combined with a princely arrogance that not even the most ardent Royalist can condone. Closer to home consider local government councillors in Melbourne carrying bags of cash to property developers- have they not seen Bill Hunter’s tragicomic portrayal of the shyster Mayor in Muriel’s Wedding who wields his corrupt influence over the development of Porpoise Spit? Think Nicola Gobbo and the Victorian Police Force for thinking that the ends could justify the means and believe that criminal convictions could be sustained on the basis of many perversions of the course of justice; and

There are certain sets of words that sink ships: “the Board expresses its full confidence in the Coach”, is usually an utterance made on the eve of the coach’s dismissal. Similarly, promises by former Prime Ministers, especially those who have not left office on their terms, that is all of them, not “to leak” or to become “miserable old ghosts” are guarantees that this is exactly what they will do. Malcolm Turnbull’s appearance on the final Q & A programme for the year would have made Banquo proud as he railed from his political cemetery about the insurgents that put him there.

Of course, the insurgents that assisted Malcolm to oust Tony Abbott were not wreckers but rather enlightened devotees of the Turnbull vision.

FINALLY, THE HUBRISTIC PREDICTIONS

In the tradition of all end-of-year commentary, now comes the punditry:

  • 1.     UK Election- Boris Johnson’s Conservative government to be re-elected with a working majority of 20-30 seats;
  • 2.     2020 Presidential election-Donald Trump, unimpeached, to be re-elected. The Democratic Party have less than 12 months to whittle down 18 candidates and finalise the nomination of their contender. This will probably leave a divided party little time to unite to successfully fight the incumbent;
  • 3.     Australian Open - Tsitsipas. Goffin and Zverev all to wilt in the heat- Djokovic or Nadal to claim the Men’s title; Halep to win the Women’s; and
  • 4.     Cardinal Pell to be acquitted in a majority verdict of the High Court on the basis of an “unsafe” jury verdict.

May some or all of these claims come back to haunt me!

So, remember as another human year ends that your ‘puppy’ is older and wiser than you think! For that reason and many others, do not feed your pooches chocolate covered raisins at Christmas time, even if the cocoa is harvested under the Fair Trade code of practice. I was told this year that these human treats are the equivalent of a canine cyanide capsule.

Compliments of the festive season to you all and may safety, prosperity and contentment be abundant in 2020 when State and Territory elections are to be held in Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

2020 is also the 250th anniversary (sestercentennial seems to be the preferred word) of James Cook sighting the eastern coast of Australia in April of that year and Beethoven’s birth later that year in December. Christmas table conversation starter-what event was the more significant?

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