Categories: It’s the economy, stupid!

27 Aug 2012, Comments (3)

So, Mr Smith.

Author: Helen

You were quoted as saying that cutting welfare is “something we should consider” because you reckon that the only thing preventing unemployed people from moving to remote mining settlements in the Kimberley is that they are living too high on the hog on their overly generous unemployment payments.

According to that article apparently even Bill Shorten, or his Spokesthing, seem to believe this age-old myth that people are having so much fun living on $245 a week they are refusing to take the millions of jobs which are just waiting for them to walk into them.

So, I have a few questions for you.

Many unemployed people have children. Do you know whether these mining towns have suitable primary and secondary schools, kindergartens and childcare centres? Do they have enough places and qualified staff to take the new workers’ children immediately? Given the sometimes temporary nature of mining projects, are you confident that the market can provide these services for every new place they have to move to? Are there hospitals there? GPs?

Given that we know that remote areas have serious problems with infrastructure and staffing, do you think you really thought about this enough before shooting your mouth off offering your considered opinion?

Housing in mining towns is notoriously expensive. How will those unemployed people be able to move into these places? How will they be able to pay the rent, let alone the bond? In fact, how will they get there? Plane tickets are an impossibility for people on $35 a day. Are you proposing some kind of nineteenth century US-style wagon train?

How will they move in? They’ll need at least a minimum of furniture, cooking equipment, crockery, etc. Will these be available at reasonable prices, and how will they afford them on top of the plane ticket, bond, rent, and all the rest of it? You probably don’t know this, given that you live on about $26,000 a day, but in the cities and towns we have op shops and other sources for people on benefits. Are there op shops in the mining towns, Mr Smith? Enough to clothe and house all our unemployed? Somehow I doubt it.

Someone else is asking whether the unemployed people have husbands or wives or partners who are working? Is it a good idea for them to have to pull up sticks and leave their jobs on this fool’s errand?

Then there’s the problem of matching the skills to the mining jobs. Of course, the Victorian government is systematically destroying the TAFE system, so it’s no use looking for your unemployed workers in Victoria.

And today, in the same newspaper which published your utterances, our National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling says the dole is so low that not only is your vision of freeloaders living large on benefits a complete myth. The NATSEM report finds being so skint is actually hindering people from applying successfully for jobs.

Don’t worry, though. If you read the comments on the AGE reports you’ll find the dole bludger myth is alive and well. Good work, Mr Smith! You can go back to counting your money now.

Picture of a Mayan temple with words 2012 DOOMSDAY
There’s a hilarious discussion over on Facebook between my niece, former officeholder of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and her friends.


Friend 1: I’ve used my $160 from the gubbament to construct a rudimentary shelter from the carbon. That’s what it’s for, right?

friend 2: Am I to understand this Carbon Tax will tax me a vital organ per month?

I’ve already had the smarmy letter from our electricity purveyor:

The variation follows a review of Neighbourhood energy’s costs and mainly reflects the impact of the Australian Government’s Carbon Pricing mechanism and Neighbourhood energy’s increased operating expenses.

Of course the red mist is supposed to descend after “Carbon Pricing mechanism”, obscuring “increased operating expenses” AKA “Spending on infrastructure we got away with not providing when the SEC was carved up and privatised and which now is going tits up on a massive scale.

This is my prediction. Thousands upon thousands of businesses will take the opportunity to jack their prices up and blame the carbon tax. The increase will be out of all proportion to any real cost increase the carbon tax has caused. Then the Herald Sun and various other mouthpieces will come out to say “see, we told you so!”

I commented on a post of Legal Eagle’s which mentioned McMansions in passing, with the rider: “(S)ome love to rail against environmentally unsound McMansions (how dare the lower class have a spacious and comfortable house, bigger than middle-class people!)”. I called bullshit. Legal Eagle replied “Explain yourself!” And I thought it was worth a post.

I’m calling bullshit on the popular story that criticising McMansions is equivalent to sneering at the working class, and denying them the good things in life. In this narrative, the people championing the McMansion are the true socialists and stand with the working man and woman in their quest for a truly equal society. This is in no way peculiar to Legal Eagle – I’ve seen it all over the media.

It’s one of the endless riffs on the “elites” narrative. According to this variation, the heroic workers are approaching, under neoliberal capitalism, the egalitarian nirvana which they always sought, and the only truly authentic expression of this is a mock-Tuscan mansion of 215 or so square metres, built to the boundary on a treeless (except for pencil pines) quarter-acre block on a nodule-shaped development far from public transport, shops and services, a hotbox in summer and freezing in winter, costing squillions to heat, cool and furnish. But wait! Who’s this, crouching behind one of the two Yucca plants out the front? Oh, no! It’s those horrible “elites” again, throwing cold water on this wonderful social apotheosis, claiming that McMansions are really a bit crap. It’s because they just don’t want the heroic working class to have nice things!

Here’s the article which provoked Eagle’s reaction. It’s written by someone who knows his stuff. But I see the counter-narrative everywhere. During the last election, I saw a letter by a concerned citizen in our local newspaper complaining that the Greens bad-mouthed mcMansions and by association, ordinary Australians. I recognised the name on the letter as a Labor apparatchik (not local), so I know it’s spin.

Unfortunately for this story, its main premise is a fiction – McMansion owners are more likely to be up and coming IT workers and professionals or semiprofessionals as classic battlers. But let’s put that aside for a minute and consider the idea on its internal consistency alone.

What it comes down to is: we’re criticising a mode of planning and building, and being told we’re not allowed to claim one way of building is objectively better than another, in case we offend the lower/middle class (that is, most of us). Imagine if progressives had been the source of this idea. Political correctness! the media would cry. Po-mo relativism! Emotional!! (In Australia, the most devastating criticism possible.) Yes, built environments have political and cultural significance, but I am willing to go out on a limb and say that people who are fighting for the godgiven right of the Aussie Battlers to buy McMansions are speaking more from financial or political self interest than any warm concern for the battlers themselves.

I’m womanning the barricades, Comrades, for the right to say that McMansions are badly built and badly sited on badly planned developments. I’m not ashamed to say that building houses which regularly feature his and hers walk-in robes, home theatres and “powder rooms” as standard, but describing wall and ceiling insulation and smoke detectors as “luxury inclusion(s)” is doing it wrong. Furthermore, I’ll say these houses are poorly sited with regard to sunlight, lack eaves for shade, have thin walls, have little or no garden space, are built quickly and cheaply, will deteriorate rapidly and need expensive repairs in a relatively short time. I won’t be bullied into praising these white elephants by creative use of the Roveian/Howardian discourse of “elites”.

Now I know you’re going to say: “Yes, Helen, you can state your preference for one kind of dwelling over another, but saying that people shouldn’t want McMansions is telling other people what they ought to want, so, still elitist.” Which would be absolutely true, but don’t forget that there is an entire industry – advertising and marketing – whose job it is to tell people what they ought to want. Buyers aren’t just Choosing their Choice in a vaccuum. The building and development corporations (and the big box retailers who serve them, and the credit companies behind it all) are going to a lot of effort to appeal to aspiration, to snob value, to illusions of community and stability. Buyers adjust their “dreams” to fit whatever display model takes their fancy, while in reality the cookie-cutter homogeneity and cheapness of construction suits the developers and builders first and foremost. In other words, I think people are being told what they ought to want by the developers and the rest of the building/retail food chain, and unlike the McMansion opponents, they aren’t being called on it.

It doesn’t end there. The Big Box retailers love the bigger houses because they need to be furnished, and the pressure is on to furnish them a certain way, not just bring all your stuff from the rental house. There are more rooms, and you can’t just put a squeaky little sound system in that home theatre. Then, of course, there are the credit providers raking in their interest after that 24-month-interest-free period.

I have no doubt that if they had the will, the corporations and their advertisers could use the same lush, descriptive advertising to convince the punters they’d be happier and more comfortable (and richer!) in a smaller but better constructed and environmentally intelligent house. Swap the home theatre and his’n’hers walk-in robes for thicker walls, insulation and better basic construction. Use the Australian vernacular instead of the European, with overhanging eaves and shady verandahs on the western side. Use the space gained on the block to orient the houses for the climate. Have solar hot water and other money-saving goodies as standard, instead of “European tiles”, marble benchtops and such. Those can always come later with the money saved on power and other bills.

You don’t think they could sell this alternative vision? Of course they could. They’re the ones setting the agenda.

I dislike these houses because they are an embodiment of how individual buyers, society as a whole, and the environment on which we depend, are poorly served. I don’t dislike them because I don’t want ordinary people to have nice things. It’s because I would like them to have something so much better!

Update: The Melbourne Urbanist, Don Arthur on Club Troppo.

Update 2: Looks like a lot of people are changing their minds about house size.

The O’Reallys are the typical so-called “well-off” family who are now staring down the barrel of the Gillard government’s crushing “middle-class welfare” reform. Our intrepid editor sent this reporter out to one of the up and coming suburbs to get the real lowdown on how hard hit these families are by this merciless class warfare.

One of the countless Aspirational Families in these tree-lined streets™, Tom and Sue O’Really work as a teacher and a construction estimator. They have two children, Lily and Bradley. Lily, 6, has started primary school and attends after-school care. Bradley, 3, is in daycare. Sue’s income is just over $150,000, making them rich in the eyes of Labor and Leftist types who choose to ignore the stark, brutal reality of their suburban struggle.

“Are you joking?” laughed Sue when we pointed the mike at her so she could tell us how the government, hellbent on redistributing wealth and closing the gap between the alleged haves and have-nots, has reduced their lifestyle to a nasty and brutish struggle for survival. Here is a transcript of the interview which followed:

Newsfax Ltd: Now that the rate at which the family tax benefit cuts out has been frozen at $150,000, will this spell the end of your middle class lifestyle?

Sue O’Really: Well, of course, a lump sum in your tax return is always nice. But really, isn’t government income distribution meant to be targeted at, you know, really struggling families, on $40,000 and less? I mean, of course your wants always expand when you get more money. (Laughs) but shouldn’t we be directing Family Tax Benefit to families who can’t afford to send their kids to the dentist? Or use the money to put dentistry on Medicare?

Newsfax Ltd: But food, clothing, gas electricity — it all adds up. Not to mention childcare and your private medical insurance, for which you now get only 20% rebate instead of 30%. With the cost of living increasing, shouldn’t eligibility for family benefits should have been lifted?

Sue O’Really: Look, of course the cost of living goes up. I’m not arguing with that, I just wonder whether “adrift in ocean of debt and despair” isn’t over-egging it a bit. Half of all workers earn less than $44,146 per year. Shouldn’t you be interviewing one of them? I mean, they’re taking money away from Leonie three doors down, for god’s sake, she’s on the single mother’s benefit and they’re going to put her on Newstart when her daughter turns 12! And… wasn’t it your paper and others like you who used to be against “middle-class welfare”, anyway?

Newsfax Ltd: Well, Wayne Swan said himself you weren’t that well-off!

Sue O’Really: Well, I can see how he would have been under pressure to say that. But it’s something thats easy enough to resolve through 10 minutes on the ABS website and some Year 8 maths. We’re not “battlers”. We’re not even “average”. According to the ABS, I’m in the top three percent of income earners individually and we’re in the top ten percent of households. So, yeah, sure, childcare is very expensive, and we did remodel our California Bungalow to twice its former size, and that means high repayments. And we try to eat healthily, and the cost of fruit is ridiculous. But to claim we’re doing it tough is just an insult to that half of the workforce that’s on less than $45,000 – not to mention disability pensioners, unemployed, single parents…I mean, they’re paying the same for fruit and vegetables as we are!…

[Newsfax Editor’s note: You failed to get a proper response from this interviewee. Bin this story.]

Yes, I’m looking at the Australian Liberal party, who have gleefully piled onto Peter Garrett and called for his resignation over the Insulation scheme debacle (which is predictably being called Insulationgate), but don’t seem to know that their arses are on fire.

Now, sure, I’m predisposed to like the guy. But let it be known I’m not particularly keen to fight Garrett’s corner as a minister in the Labor government. I’m the Voter who Cannot Love*, after all. He, like Julia, has broken my heart over environmental and Arts policies. No, I don’t think parachute-in celebrity politicians are necessarily a good thing, and I also think he’s overfaced. He was given too much responsibility, too quickly. The fact that every right wing hack was automatically programmed to hate him was just icing on the cake.

Should he move aside into a less demanding portfolio to gain more experience? Should he sit down and have a big think about whether the realpolitik of the Labor tent has negated his entire life’s work on environmental issues? Yes and yes. Should he stand aside because his position has become completely untenable and he’s electoral poison? Or because, in some quaint and symbolic way, in the Westminster system a Minister is required to fall on his or her sword for the actions of other people? Probably. But should he stand aside, or be sacked, because he bears some kind of moral responsibility for the four workplace deaths that have happened since the inception of the insulation scheme? That is such a pack of horse hockey I’m unable to contain my rage.

Gosh, it’s touching that the Liberal party has suddenly discovered workplace deaths in the building industry. When they were in power, those despised Unions were constantly trying to tell them. About forty people a year, more or less, die in Australia every year. Are the other thirty-six people who died in Australia in the last year chopped liver, just because they don’t come with a Ministerial scalp? I don’t hear any outrage in doorstop interviews about them.

The four people (some of them boys) died for the usual reason: because their employers ignored occupational health and safety practice (as well as ordinary common sense). The employer of the worker who died in October could possibly claim ignorance about the metal fasteners used with metal foil insulation close to wiring. The others couldn’t, because Garrett didn’t do nothing: he moved to ban the fasteners in November. Two more workers died as a direct result of the employer ignoring a new regulation which Garrett himself had put in place, as well as one from heat stroke, again the employer’s responsibility. To quote one commenter, the responsibility to run a safe workplace lies with the employers.

Now we have the Liberals shouting that Peter Garrett should have micromanaged the scheme to the point of overseeing every employer, perhaps, I don’t know, climbing into every roof space himself. This is the same Liberal party mainly composed of people who see every government regulation as a slippery slope to socialism. This is the Liberal party whose constituency is business groups which oppose industry regulation as “anti-business”.

These are the people who claim to espouse a doctrine of individual responsibility, but because it suits them at the moment, they’re willing to abandon that. “If you don’t like my principles, I have others”, I guess? See Also, the invisible hand of the Market sorting things out? When push comes to shove, this incident has shown that they really know it’s a crock.

So, Libs, if you want to claim your prize Ministerial Scalp at the prize desk, I think you should have to fess up that the despised unions were right all along and that government oversight of private industry is totes necessary (and that at the moment you’re calling for government micromanagement on a scale hardly known except in command economies). Also, that conservatives are for Individual Responsibility, except where you can blame something on someone you don’t like.

Also, that your arses are on fire.
*Just like Chilly, the Elf who Cannot Love.

20 Sep 2009, Comments (12)

What Mr Bucket did next

Author: Helen

As of Monday after next, SO no longer has a job.

He hasn’t been a casualty of the financial crisis. He no longer has a job because things are going so well. Mr Bucket sales are through the roof and he can’t keep up.

You’ll remember that Mr Bucket started Going Off back in March. I forgot to blog about the Rose Street Market fashion-show-with-models for L’Oreal Fashion Week. Which was a whole lot of fun – see the ultra-professional Bucket segment here. Ahem.

He’s started running the stall on St Kilda Esplanade on Sundays and has been included in this book.

Wolf at the Door, a new place in Hepburn Springs, bought a fuckton of T shirts and were sold out by the weekend after that. He also had a writeup in Men’s Style mag – no link for that.

Week after next Mr Bucket moves into his new studio in an old factory in Brooklyn, next to an artisan associated with the Wolf at the Door, who runs a bronze casting foundry.

Oh, and he has bought this thing, which is really cute, but the exciting part for me is that our family mitsu-bashi isn’t the Bucket car any more and I get to do things on weekends like a normal person!

So, life is set to change. It seems all go for the Buckets and unusual and exciting things are happening all the time. SO has his books all in order and is doing his own super and insurance and everything properly. I’ll be looking at the Dow and the Futsi and the All Ordinaries with more than usual anxiety in the next twelve months and hoping we don’t have this W-shaped recession that some party poopers are talking about.

Excuse me while I just go and hyperventilate into this brown paper bag.

11 May 2009, Comments (9)


Author: Helen

It always appears when a Federal or State budget night is – to use the MSM’s current fave word du jour – looming.

I saw it as I was coming out of the turnstiles at Parliament station. The poster for the Herald Sun: TAX SLUG BEER CIGS. Oh. Budget time.

This ghastly gastropod has terrorised the Australian scene for decades. My extensive research (i.e. Wikipedia) has eliminated the common slug, banana slug or even the Red Triangle slug (found in Melbourne snooker halls?) No, this is more of your gigantic mutant movie monster, like the Slugs that Ate Canberra.

The Hun obviously doesn’t approve of the Tax Slug and seems to be urging the citizens of Australia, as in any good B-movie, to band together to fight this mucous menace. Here is how a Hun journo and Aghast of Mt Martha see the Tax Slug:

The Tax Slug: Eating all your money!!1!1

However! We of the social democratic persuasion see the Tax Slug in a more glass-half-full way:

The Tax Slug, the social democratic view

Something I forgot to add when I photoshopped this Tax Slug… We can haz Paid Parental leave? I hear a weak cry of “yes”. But not until 2011, apparently. Bummer.

Some people of a needlessly literal and nitpicking type might drop in at this point to inform me that Slug is used here in the sense of a Tax Hit, as in taking a hit, possibly from the German schlage? Well, I refuse to believe that, that’s all. Not only have I forked out all that money for a mucus-proof suit and slug gun, but that would require me to believe that all these journos all over Australia, people who are paid to write, just keep recycling and recycling a piece of slang that was out of date when my mum was a girl. Say it isn’t so!

Across the US,…of thousands of republican voters have been participating in “Tea Party” protests, because Boston Tea Party and taxes are bad. Just think of your primary school American history and join the dots. (April 15 is the deadline for tax returns in the US.)

Unfortunately, Fox News and the right-wing astroturf organisations which promoted the Tea Parties have decided to try to be all colloquial an’ appeal to the younger generation an’ stuff, so they have referred to themselves as “Teabaggers” and the protests as “Teabagging”.

Much hilarity has ensued.

P.S. Just for comparison, now that you’ve probably seen these entitled babies on the news making fools of themselves, you might be interested in a real (non-astroturf) protest, at real risk to themselves, by genuinely courageous people who deserve our support.

So, to revisit my “Home ATM is out of order” post, I think that while subprime mortgages have been getting a lot of attention with regard to the Great Financial Crisis, the problem we have here in Oz is more to do with all debt and how our whole economy has become dependent on spending more than we earn. Mining home mortgages for their equity, because house prices always rise, don’t they? has been a very popular way to do this for people who are relatively well-paid and settled, but it can’t go on forever. What happens when it stops?

Where did those home equity loans and lines of credit go? Irvine Renter points out that the situation went really toxic when people realised that they could take out money, not just for renovations – which would then increase the house’s value – but for consumer spending. Boats, cars, holidays, that kind of thing. But I can see that many people who would balk at spending on these kinds of things might consider using their home equity for something they consider more important, more reasonable, more of an investment.

Back in the Australian context, I’m wondering how many households have been mining their home equity for education.


You might like to read the first paragraphs and second page of this Bloomberg article.

(Although I have zero sympathy for any of the protagonists in this story, to most of us, “£1.17 million” =/= “broke”.)