It is just over a fortnight since the end of the US Open. Former English Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously quipped that “a week is a long time in politics”. Living in Melbourne, Australia- the city which now has the ignoble distinction of being the most ‘locked-down’ metropolis of the pandemic- the passage of time seems even odder: there are days that seem to stretch for an eternity and there are those that seem to flash past. Time changes again this week in many States in Australia as we start summer daylight saving.
Canadians must believe time has frozen still. Justin Trudeau was returned to lead a minority government after their September 20 election, exactly as he was two years ago. Germans are spending their time considering who will emerge as their next Chancellor after elections that saw the retirement of Angela Merkel after sixteen years leading the nation. It is a tribute to the departing Chancellor that most regard her time in office as being beneficial. It is time for a new Prime Minister in Japan. Britons are wondering whether they will have enough time to wait at the petrol station to obtain their ration of dwindling supplies. World leaders prepare for another summit on Climate Change in Glasgow, wondering how much time is left for nations to agree on a binding timeline to reduce carbon emissions. Ironically, many would say that of all cities in the world Glasgow’s dreary climate has remained remarkably predictable!
The time it will take for the nation’s population to be 70% and 80% ‘double vaccinated’ has become Australia’s burning question as these inoculation milestones are critical triggers for the easing of lockdown restrictions.
In the sporting world, time and timing is everything. Novak Djokovic was one match away from a remarkable Grand Slam. His defeat in the US Open final by Daniil Medvedev meant that his previous 27 Grand Slam victories were in many ways no longer of significance. Will Djokovic have time to come close again to the glory that eluded him? Nick Kyrgios said after his performances in the Laver Cup (and if we had our time over again would we have created this event whilst at the same time destroying the gravitas of the Davis Cup?) that time is drawing to a close on his career. I would like to say, “thanks for the memories, Nick”, but there are none that are either significant or edifying.
In Ireland’s Gaelic Football world, time continues to be a curse for the Mayo side who have now lost eleven Grand Finals since 1954, losing this year to Tyrone. In Australia, supporters of the Melbourne Football Club, saw 57 years of accumulated time and heartache disappear when they emphatically won their first premiership since 1964.
Suddenly the extended time of despair that Melbourne supporters thought would never end is now forgotten! Tinges of agony remain, especially considering those that could not celebrate Melbourne’s victory, including Irishman Jimmy Stynes. Stynes, who converted from Gaelic to AFL football, played a record number of consecutive games for Melbourne and won the AFL competition’s Best and Fairest award. Tragically, his time was too brief as his life was cut short by brain cancer. His time and influence on the game are remembered with a statue outside Melbourne’s famous cricket ground and last week the time had come for remembering him once again.
Margaret Mitchell quipped that there was never a perfect time for either death or childbirth. However, timing can be serendipitous. Last week, a day after violent demonstrations by Melbourne’s building workers against obligations to be vaccinated led to the closing of the city’s construction sites, Melbourne was jolted by a 5.3 Richter scale earthquake. It was the city’s most serious seismic event since 1966. Thankfully, the epicentre of the quake was 130 km away, meaning that there was relatively little structural damage and, most importantly, no loss of life. Imagine what might have been if building workers had been working on scaffolds when the quake struck! They may have alienated the public but saved themselves. Now it is time for them to recognise the lifesaving qualities of vaccination.
Whilst we cannot control the timing of many, if not most, events, there are important principles of our society that have had value and importance since time immemorial, Judea- Christian traditions arguably being the most important. The value and importance of democratic government has been built on a number of these cardinal values.
Growing up, I was often reminded that an unarguable strength of democracy was that those that represented and led us would always be accountable. If our leaders betrayed our trust, they would face censure. After all, “lilies that fester are more foul than weeds”. I was a child of the Watergate scandal and was told that not even the most powerful and important are beyond scrutiny and must never be. I remember Ministers offering to resign or being forced to resign over minor indiscretions e.g., a wife advertising sheets and for not properly filling out a customs declaration form. It is not that long ago that a Premier of New South Wales resigned for not declaring a gift of an expensive bottle of wine on a Gifts’ Register. Ministers now resign when the political damage of their conflicts of interest or policy failures become too great and very rarely on the basis of principle.
As a law student, I learnt about the sovereignty of a contract and the almost sacred bonds that the law created between offeror and offeree. The law reinforced the idea that a person’s word was their bond. The French, British, American, and Australian governments were established on the principle of the “separation of powers”, meaning that their nation’s Parliaments, Executive and Judiciary acted to prevent any arm of government accumulating unlimited and dangerous amounts of power.
It may well be necessary to revisit these principles after the pandemic is deemed under control. Notions of scrutiny, accountability and responsibility seem to have deserted our rulers far too often in recent times. Far from fearing the shame and censure of the populace, governments have too often acted shamelessly and have strained the democratic trust given to them.
The French, English, American and Australian governments used to be friends until the Australian government unilaterally decided to end its submarine contract with the French government and enter a tri-partite defence alliance- AUKUS now exists alongside ANZUS-with Britain and America. It’s what we needed to do says our Prime Minister. So that’s that. We know that in the world of foreign relations there are no “permanent friends, only permanent interests”; however, if governments can annul contracts with impunity, what message do they send?
Remember, the outbreak of Covid-19 caused by allowing passengers from the Ruby Princess to disembark in Sydney? To this day, not one person has been forced to take full responsibility and account for this calamitous failure of policy.
This week it was time to remember the deaths caused during the pandemic in Victoria by a failed hotel quarantine system and lack of oversight of quarantine standards in aged-care hospitals. Victoria’s workplace agency has recommended fines of up to $95 million be paid by the Health Department. Yet not one official or politician has accepted responsibility for this tragic mismanagement. The absurdity of a Government Department being found to be at fault, but no one being able to recollect or remember who made decisions that led to the Department’s abject failures is beyond insulting.
Recently, the Victorian Premier was quizzed about his conduct before the last election when the ‘caretaker’ period before an election began. There were concerns that some of his demands expressed in correspondence breached constitutional conventions. His reply was that “I doubt many Victorians think that constitutional conventions are a major concern right now.” Sorry, Premier, they always are. The wish of some leaders to annul probity because there are “more important things to worry about” is a dangerous one. Political and social crises cannot be an alibi for a lack of accountability. Quite the opposite.
One day after Melbourne’s earthquake I walked to visit my mother. It was a warmish early spring day. It was not a day when I thought I would confront the existential crisis I sense this abandonment of accountability has created. You can never predict the timing of these things!
Two builders, renovating a home were wheeling their barrows across the street. One said to the other, “I thought F**** Dan Andrews about this demonstration, but then I realised they (meaning our politicians) are as all bad as each other.”
There it was: the cynicism, scepticism, mistrust, suspicion, and doubts that too many have about our rulers all wrapped up in one politely offensive outburst.
When a nation’s voters decide who governs us based on who is the least objectionable, we have something to worry about. Anyone for a career in politics?
Speaking of things to worry about, there is another pressing problem to consider when the pandemic is deemed manageable: the cost of housing in Australia.
Quite simply, things are out of control. On average, it now takes seven years to save for a house deposit in Melbourne and nine in Sydney, where a typical house costs well over a million dollars. Even last year during the pandemic, there was an annual increase in Australian house prices of just under 17%, the highest since 1989. Twenty-one percent of housing loans in the June quarter were classified as having “high debt to income ratios” with borrowers loaning over six times their gross income. All this at a time when interest rates are at historically low rates and will inevitably rise.
A house is not a home if you cannot afford to live in it comfortably. Mortgage stress is a social timebomb. The high cost of housing is straining many of our social norms. Boomer parents are ‘trapped’ in homes unable to downsize because their children demand they live in the family home until their late 20s and beyond so they can save a deposit. The Bank of Mum and Dad is now the ninth busiest lender in the country. There go the funds that they may need to fund their geriatric years. Homeowners, or should that be over-committed house purchasers, will need to use their superannuation funds to discharge mortgages.
Many a grandparent is marooned in a family home, struggling to pay property and land taxes, but anxious about diminishing the inheritance needed by children and grandchildren. People are having fewer children and later in life: it seems a foot in the housing market is a greater priority than a booty in a crib. Perhaps, most worryingly, the cost of housing has become a dominant topic of social discussion in a market awash with cheap and speculative capital.
When the price of housing becomes the dominant social narrative of our time, then spiritual and philosophical considerations, such as the standards and accountability of our rulers wane. There are few rewards for a society in which home ownership becomes a rarefied dream. Without having the social and economic benefits that affordable housing provides, many aspects of our luck will be jeopardised. Over to Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
PS : A consequence of our recent churn of Prime Ministers is that too many of them, especially Messrs. Keating, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull, cannot resist churning out their opinions on how the nation should be run. Whilst they all clearly miss having their hands on the levers of power, they should remember the famous advice that “there is nothing as ex as an ex-employee”, especially when the employee has been expelled by either their party or the electorate.
PPS: Forget about a week being a long time in politics- try five hours! No sooner had I posted my blog on standards of accountability that news of Gladys Berejiklian's resignation came through. Well, well, well.
In pre-ICAC days Neville Wran stood aside whilst a Royal Commission investigated a Four Corners allegation that Wran had tried to pervert the course of justice and returned to office. In post-ICAC days of a 24/7 media cycle it is not politically plausible for a person the subject of an investigation to hold office. Gladys' decision to quit Parliament speaks to a political culture where rehabilitation is seen as well nigh impossible;
The personal and political are devilish factors to successfully combine. Former Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns lost all credibility because of his "certain kind of love for Junie Morosi." Would Gladys have forfeited her gravitas if she had admitted her/ relationship with a lowly backbencher? Is it impossible to successfully 'fish off one's own pier' when you are a Premier?
Are intra-party working relationships ultra vires of common sense?
In demanding the same standards of herself that she had required of her Ministers, one of the nation's hardest working and competent Premiers leaves office without any allegations of misconduct against her having been proved.
By her departure, Gladys has reminded us that there are expectations and standards associated with public office that are vitally important. She has fallen on her sword to ensure that the office of Premier can remain "beyond reproach". This is not an insignificant legacy of a Premier who history will judge as being one of the more significant NSW Premiers.