Tag Archives: Paul Toohey

Andrew Charlton’s Dragon’s Tail

Andrew Charlton, Dragon’s Tail: The lucky country after the China boom (Quarterly Essay 54, Black Inc July 2014)

9781863956567As with every Quarterly Essay, I turned first to the back of this issue for correspondence on the previous one, Paul Toohey’s essay on asylum seekers, That Sinking Feeling (which I blogged about here). The correspondence is excellent, with contributions from asylum seeker advocates (a lawyer, the caseworker and adviser who was responsible for the TV show Go Back to Where You Came From, a Jesuit detention centre chaplain), a journalist and – the one I was particularly struck by – Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association. I just looked up the Australian Defence Association, and see from their recent tweets that their military-focused point of view may be impervious to evidence on at least some issues, but here James puts his case in a way that invites reasoned debate rather than the flinging of books across rooms. As Toohey remarks in his ‘Response to Correspondence’, the discussion manages ‘a rare achievement in this particular debate: that those who took issue did so without hostility’. Partly this is because for once party politics is laid aside. That Rudd and Gillard stuffed up seems to be generally agreed, but no voice is raised in defence of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison’s opportunistic and hypocritical cruelty.

As for Andrew Charlton’s essay, which accounts for the previous 71 pages, I had to overcome a knee-jerk aversion to reading about economic matters to tackle it at all. But though it is indeed one more lecture on how important China is to the Australian economy, and although it does use words like leveragedistortion and correction in ways that have nothing to do with engineering, funhouse mirrors or blue pencils,  the essay is mostly very readable, with engaging anecdotes, carefully structured argument, and at least one arresting chart. Here’s the chart:

Charlton graph

In case that print is too hard to read:
‘In the 19th Century Australia was the world’s richest country by 1885.’
‘In the 20th Century Australia fell down the list of the world’s richest countries, falling to 21st in 1988.’
‘In the 21st Century Australia has rebounded.’

Australia’s prosperity in the 1880s came from its great success as a supplier of resources – wool and gold – to a leading economic power – England. It was followed by a devastating Depression in the 1890s. Our current prosperity, Charlton argues, has a similar genesis – vast amounts of Australian iron ore has fuelled China’s phenomenal growth over the last 20 years. China’s industrialisation, he writes,

is perhaps the most significant economic event since the Industrial Revolution that transformed Britain in the eighteenth century and laid the framework for the modern world. And China’s industrialisation has occurred 100 times more quickly and on a scale 1000 times larger than Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

The essay builds to a cogently argued warning: China’s growth, which has brought 100 million people out of poverty, is built on an unsustainable model, and the Chinese economy is heading for a crash unless the government’s current attempts to change course succeed. Either way, Australia risks being a goose laying golden eggs that no one wants – that is to say, just a goose. (Blame me for the goose metaphor: Charlton wouldn’t stop so low.)

The essay ranges back in time, travels to many parts of the globe, draws the connections between a café owner in Cairns and global economic abstractions. I look forward to the correspondence on this one, hoping we won’t be treated to someone dismissing it as Labor Party propaganda because a) Charlton used to work for Kevin Rudd, and b) it doesn’t praise the brilliance of John Howard (the Australian Spectator has indeed published such a piece).

What I particularly appreciate is the broader perspective the essay brings to Australian affairs, striking a blow against the resolute insularity of much discussion (about the economy, but also – shockingly – about asylum seekers and climate change). Here’s a paragraph from early in the essay:

Our national debates are frequently partisan and parochial. For example, if you are on the right, you know that the budget is now in deficit because Labor wasted money; if you are on the left, you know that a deficit was necessary to save hundreds of thousands of jobs. On the right, you know that Australian manufacturing jobs are disappearing because we are uncompetitive with our Asian neighbours; on the left, it’s because Australian industry doesn’t receive the same subsidies that those of other countries enjoy. On the left, you would argue that  the global financial crisis was caused by greed and lax regulation of financial markets; on the right, you might point the finger at excessive government debt. If you are on the right, you know that Australia pulled through the financial crisis because John Howard left Australia with a strong surplus; on the left, it was because of Kevin Rudd’s economic stimulus. On the right, you know that productivity growth is low because powerful unions disrupt workplace efficiency; on the left, it is because Australia hasn’t invested sufficiently in skills and infrastructure.
These positions are easily digestible and often self-serving, but they are all either wholly wrong or drastically incomplete because they overlook the events beyond our borders that have shaped us.

Charlton’s account of the global financial crisis refreshingly avoids the other pitfall of writing about these matters: he doesn’t go into the technicalities of dodgy financial instruments and manoeuvres, but sticks to the big picture, and as a result remains comprehensible.

Paul Toohey’s Sinking Feeling

Paul Toohey, That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution (Quarterly Essay Nº 53, 2014)

qe53Possibly the most hope-inspiring thing about this Quarterly Essay is that a journalist who works for the Murdoch empire is writing for a publication whose presiding intellectual presence is one of that empire’s most stringent critics. Perhaps Australia isn’t Echo Chamber Land after all.

Toohey spent time in Indonesia interviewing refugees who planned to travel to Australia with people smugglers. He observed the different attitudes and behaviours of the different groups (Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis, Sri Lankans). He visited the villa of at least one people smuggler, and told a number of people the latest developments in Australia’s policy regarding the boats (this was before last year’s election). He was there at a small coastal town soon after a boat foundered after setting off with a full load of would-be asylum seekers, interviewed the survivors and did what he could (which turned out to be nothing) to help a small orphaned girl. These passages convey a vivid sense of the desperation that leads people to become ‘boat people’, and the tragedy involved in just one of ‘the boats’ going down.

He went to Texas, where he explored the differences between our response asylum seekers and the USA’s to illegal immigrants from Mexico. (The main difference is that the USA knows that the ‘illegals’ who survive serve a useful function in the economy, whereas refugees who arrive in Australia by boat are perceived, absurdly, as a security threat and a potential drain.)

He visited the detention centre on Manus Island after the riot in which Reza Barati was killed, and spoke to some of the locals.

He argues for an ‘Indonesian solution’, that is, cooperation with Indonesia in processing asylum seekers there, which would indeed stop the need for boats. The main obstacle to such a solution is the general misperception of Indonesia in Australia, fostered by the media and pandered to by governments. He doesn’t say in so many words that this misperception is grounded in racism, but that’s how I understand him. He is particularly scathing on Tony Abbott’s mishandling of relationships with Indonesia and his deliberate thwarting of Julia Gillard’s attempts to solve the problem, but equally scathing about all three recent Prime Ministers playing the politics rather than seeking a real solution.

Toohey may be a Murdoch man, but he’s one with mud on his boots. He makes it clear he’s not an ‘asylum-seeker advocate’, a member of the ‘detached elites’; he does some muted ABC-bashing, and he misrepresents the ‘pro-asylum view’ as supporting the ALP, but he has a journalist’s admirable commitment to getting at the truth that puts our political leaders of every stripe to shame. It’s a serious, challenging, grounded contribution to this important debate.

As I finished his essay, I read an article in The Big Smoke, in which by Julian Burnside made a proposal that Toohey would probably see as so much wishful thinking, but looks good to me:

• Boat-arrivals would be detained initially for one month, for preliminary health and security checks, subject to extension if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer;

• After initial detention, they would be released into the community, with the right to work, Centrelink and Medicare benefits;

• They would be released into the community on terms calculated to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;

• During the time their visa applications were being processed, they would be required to live in specified regional cities. Any government benefits they received would thus work for the benefit of the regional economy. There are plenty of towns around the country that would welcome an increase in their population.

Burnside continues:

Let us make some bold assumptions. Let’s assume that the spike in arrivals that we saw in 2012 became the new norm (highly unlikely); and let’s assume that every asylum seeker remained on Centrelink benefits (also highly unlikely: they are highly motivated). It would cost us about $500 million a year. We would save $4.5 billion a year by treating them decently. And the $500 million would be spent in the struggling economies of regional towns and cities.

I wish I could have some faith that our government, committed as it now is to silence and three word slogans, or the opposition, which shows no sign of diverging, might give serious attention to some of the actual thinking that’s going on.

As always, up the back of this Quarterly Essay there is correspondence about the previous issue. Sometimes the correspondence includes stringent debate. This time, responding to Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation, it gives a tiny glimpse into the community of translators, the people who struggle valiantly to break down the parochialism of our alarmingly monolingual society.