Don’t Tax Our Drinks

It’s a debate that’s been a part of political discussion since the Magna Carta in 1217. A debate about the role of government in our everyday lives – how much say, if any, the government has over our individual rights and liberties. Essentially, it’s Big Government vs Limited Government. Most people would agree there needs to be some form of government: there needs to be rules (laws) to stop people stealing each other’s stuff and being bastards. But above that, there’s an awful lot of debate.

Libertarians like The Cato Institute, or conservatives like the US Republican Party and the Australian Liberal Party advocate for a small, limited government. It is not up to government, they say, to intrude upon how we as individuals run our lives. That notion is anathema to the Free Market principles they champion. As a result, they almost invariably call for low taxation: after all, it’s our money to do with as we please, not the government’s.

The opposing view, taken by progressives like the Australian Labour Party and the US Democratic Party, is that government can do some things better than individuals or private enterprise. That there are some things a government has to do, to provide for citizens who cannot afford it: public education, health and transport for example. These are all expensive services, so advocates of bigger government are usually calling for higher taxes to pay for them.

I should at this point make clear I am speaking principally about fiscal policy, not social policy. Politicians of all sides of the spectrum tend to be only too happy to dictate moral choices, such as abortion or same-sex marriage.

But this, like most debates of political position, is a shallow debate. To break the government of an entire country down to two schools of thought is simplistic and unworkable. Not everything in politics is Big Government vs Small Government, or Left Wing vs Right Wing. Labor or Liberal. It’s not one or the other, because we don’t live in a binary world. We need some Big Government ideas, such as a minimum level safety blanket: healthcare, housing, food. But need room for entrepreneurialism, capitalistic incentive and free markets. As with most things, it’s a matter of balance. And it’s a debate which needs to be applied on an individual case-by-case basis.

Take, for example, the debate taking place right now in the US and other countries about taxes on fast food and soft drink. Thirty-three US States have a ‘soda tax’ aimed and curbing the consumption of high-sugar drinks, and a number of lobby groups are campaigning for taxes on high-fat foods such as pizzas and burgers. The taxes are designed to reduced the level of obesity and related health effects. That’s the Big Government view: individuals need help But it’s not up to the government to decide what we, as citizens, should eat. That’s an individual choice, a decision we can make for ourselves.

Aside from animal-welfare or environmental concerns – which are an altogether different debate – if I eat a burger, the only person I’m possibly doing harm to is myself. Nobody else suffers from my eating habits. To tax junk food, therefore, serves only two purposes: to dissuade people from eating it, or to raise money. If it’s to raise money, it’s a sneaky, nasty way to do it that opens the door to other taxes and levies on our lifestyle. If it’s to manipulate our eating habits, it’s an affront to the ideals of liberty and personal choice.

Similarly, in today’s The Age, health experts are calling for a tax on “energy drinks” – drinks laden with sugar and caffeine and various other stimulants. On the surface of it, this is the same sort of debate as the junk food or soda tax: we can decide for ourselves if we want to drink them or not. The problem in this case, however, comes from the increased health risks from high-caffeine drinks – especially to teenagers. And teenagers, with less developed frontal lobes (responsible for forethought and impulse control) are less equipped to make considered judgement calls on how much is too much. But how high would the tax have to be, to deter teenagers? Dramatically high, I think. So much so that you wouldn’t just be inconveniencing teenagers, but sensible adults as well. Perhaps a restriction on sale to under-18s should be looked at.

As with most things in life, moderation is key. We do not need a Big Brother government that will dictate what we can and can’t eat or drink. But we need some form of regulation to look after those whom the free market fails, and we need better education and critical thinking skills to enable people to make smart, informed choices.

Some Thoughts About Australia’s New PM, Julia Gillard

On 24 June 2010, the Hon Julia Gillard MP was sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, the Governor-General of Australia. And when that happened, she made history. She became the first female prime minister, and the first PM born outside Australia since 1915 (Bill Hughes, who was born in London). She’s the first unmarried PM, although other PM’s have been widowers at the time of office. She’s childless (although a recent letter to The Age stressed we should call her “child-free”, as she hasn’t lost any children) and openly atheist. So what does this all mean?

The Woman Thing.

In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first female Prime Minister in modern times when she was elected PM of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Since then there have been 87 female heads of government, from Indira Gandhi (India, 1966) to Margaret Thatcher (UK, 1979), from Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan, 1993) to Helen Clark (New Zealand, 1999). Who’s to say why it’s taken fifty years for Australia to catch up, but I’m glad it has.

While I don’t see it as quite the fulfilment of the “feminist’s dream” Caroline Overington laudes it as, I do recognise Gillard’s appointment is a symbol of hope. It’s a symbol that says to young Australian women that they really can work at any level in workforce.

The Ranga Thing.

“First woman, first redhead,” joked Julia when asked by journalists about the significance of her gender. It should be noted, however, that she’s not the first redheaded Prime Minister. That honour goes to James “Jim” Scullin, in 1929. Two days after he was sworn in Wall Street crashed, and the next year Australia was in the midst of the Great Depression. Good thing we’ve already put our GFC behind us – although Scullin didn’t have a cashed-up mining industry to draw upon.

The De Facto Thing.

There are some wackos, like Bettina Arndt, who think Gillard is a “bad influence for women” because she’s not married. This is a statement that makes absolutely no sense to me. Last I checked marriage wasn’t a club where you can just apply for a membership – it generally takes two people to get married and they both have to want it. Getting married when you don’t want to, however, THAT I can understand as being a bad rolemodel. In fact so much of Bettina’s article is twisted and illogical that I almost don’t really know how to respond to it. Luckily Mia Freedman and Catherine Deveny have both done exactly that, and done a far better job than I could. Fortunately too, the comments on that article itself – not to mention throughout the blogosphere – demonstrate that Ardnt is well and truly in the minority on this.

And fair enough, too. After all, why should it matter? We’ve had 109 years of married prime ministers, was that the cornerstone of our country? Is that the reason for our success? Of course not. Are there any other jobs where someone’s marital status is subject to such scrutiny? I can think of only one – that of a Catholic priest.

Which is a beautiful segue-way to…

The Religion Thing

“I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel,” Gillard told ABC Radio’s Jon Faine. “I am what I am and people will judge that.”

Wonderful to hear. I am so sick of politicians who profess their strong religious beliefs like it makes them better people. Not believing in an invisible spaceman doesn’t make me any more or less moral than someone who does. It certainly doesn’t guarantee perfection, or even good judgement. So why should it matter what a person’s religion is? It shouldn’t.

That said, it DOES bother me when politicians base policy on their religious beliefs. I don’t want creationists, for example, anywhere near education policy. I want policy to be based on scientific facts, not faith-based ‘beliefs’.

But not everyone shares this view with me. Julia’s revelation about her atheism did upset a lot of people. I think I’ll leave the last word on religion and politics to Senator Arnold Vinick, from the sixth season of The West Wing: “I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to have a religious test, to get into this government.”

It should be noted, of course, that Gillard is not Australia’s first PM with religious doubts. Bob Hawke, the son of a Congregationalist minister, was agnostic when he went into politics. Surely a politician’s religious status isn’t as important to Australian voters as some people claim, otherwise he wouldn’t have become the longest serving Labor prime minister.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that people will look for any fault they can find on a politician. Particularly one that enjoys such popularity. But come on, is this the best they can come up with? Complaints about her gender, hair colour, marital status and religion? Disagree with her policies, by all means. Draw attention to her political positions you think are wrong or ill-advised (I’m very disappointed at her stance on gay marriage, for example). But attacking the messenger, rather than the message, is low and grubby.

Getting Cluey About Elections

“Not even the almost-certain demise of Steve Fielding is enough to make me follow this election. On election night I’m getting as far away from TV, radio, internets and phone reception as I possibly can.”

That’s what a friend of mine said during a Facebook conversation in response to the Just Plain Stupid comments about paid parental leave from Family First Senator Steve Fielding. I can totally understand my friend’s feelings, as neither major party seems a good choice right now. On the one hand, the incumbent Labor Party has failed to achieve many of it’s core election promises, not least of which was action on climate change. Even scarier, the Liberal opposition is a rag-tag basket-case of climate change deniers, xenophobes and far-right dinosaurs. But to give up on the election all together is, I think, the wrong sentiment. This election is not without hope – but it’s up to voters to seize the opportunity and wield the only power they have on election day. To vote with their conscience and their brains.
It’s all too easy, however, to take the easy way out on election day. Most people, I think, decide who they want to vote for – Labor, Liberal, perhaps Greens – and follow the instructions on that party’s how-to-vote card, voting above the line. This is a dangerous method, because deals made between parties for preferences won’t always go your way. Consider the Family First Party in the 2004 Federal election. The Labor Party, so afraid of a growing support among the electorate for The Greens, put Family First well ahead of The Greens in their preferences. This meant that everyone who voted for Labor helped Steve Fielding get a senate seat, despite winning only 0.08% of the primary votes. Is that true democracy?
So the solution, surely, is to disregard the preference deals and vote below the line, according to your own beliefs. But you have to put a vote for every single candidate, whether you’ve heard of them or not! And if you stuff the counting up, your vote is void! That’s where Cluey Voter comes in. Alan Noble, Director of Engineering at Google Australia, developed the site in his free time for the South Australian state election in March. It provides a list of all the candidates, and a drop-down box next to each one with five options. You can choose “Support a lot”, “Support a little”, “Don’t Care”, “Against a little” or “Against a lot”. The default for all candidates is “Don’t Care”, so if you don’t know about a party you don’t have to change it.

Once you’ve told it your preferences, Cluey Voter will automatically generate a printable sheet that looks like the ballot paper. You can adjust the numbers if you like, and press the “Check Numbering” button to make sure you haven’t doubled anything, and then print off the page. Then when you vote, you just copy the numbers into your ballot paper and now your vote really does represent your views.

Cluey Voter has only been done for the SA election so far, but I really hope it’s implemented for the Federal Election. It’s the sort of tool that could really make voting easier – especially for political junkies like me, who always vote below the line!

Is Kevin Rudd the new John Howard?

John Howard was widely regarded a “smart politician” – in many ways a backhanded compliment. But it wasn’t Howard’s policies that made him Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister, it was his opposition. Put simply, until Kevin07 came along there was no suitable alternative. During the Howard Years, the revolving door to the office of the Federal Opposition Leader was almost the laughing stock of the nation. Beazley was the cute and cuddly teddy bear of politics, too soft and wishy-washy to govern. Simon Crean resigned after two years and became the first ever Labor leader to be replaced without contesting an election. And Latham was a disaster: a negative, bullying and spiteful thug who was given the epithet “Mr. Flip-Flop” by Howard. All of them failed to grab the public’s interest, and none of them could match Howard’s cunning and political savvy.

In much the same way, the Liberal party has it’s own revolving door on the leader’s office. First there was Brendan Nelson, who struggled to distance himself from Howard’s policies and plunged in the opinion polls. Turnbull came next, and got outraged over a fake email before urging his party to support the Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme. When that upset Liberal hardliners, they put Tony “Mad Monk” Abbott in charge and it’s been a roller coaster of bungles and gaffes ever since. The one thing all three have in common is an inability to engage the public.

One thing that became clear to me after the Rudd-Abbott Healthcare debate (watch it here) was that the Liberal Party will not – can not – win the next election with Tony Abbot still leading it. In fact, they will have very little chance with any of the currently serving members – with the possible exception of Malcolm Turnbull (probably the reason Abbott has left him sidelined on the backbench). The top echelons of the Liberal Party are filled with dinosaurs – old relics of the Howard Years who still cling to old fashioned notions of xenophobia, homophobia, White Australia and climate change denial. Until those fossils are removed – most likely over time through generational change – they are turning Rudd into Howard. Without challenge, they allow Rudd to get comfortable, to run the country as he sees fit without a serious or credible check on his government.

This, it could be argued, is the nature of all opposition governments. Bush enjoyed the luxury of a weak Democratic Party opposing him in the US, just as Tony Blair faced an ineffectual Conservative Party in the UK. In time, opposition parties slowly realign themselves and build new, fresh leaderships to challenge the reigning incumbent. It took eight years for Obama to emerge from within the rank and file of the Democratic Party and wrest the Presidency from Bush. It took eleven years for Rudd to do the same in Australia. Gordon Brown currently languishes in the polls but there’s still nobody capable of challenging him in the UK, thirteen years after his Labour Party took power. How long will it take the Australian Liberal Party to find its savior?