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Oct 20 2014

No country for young people (or almost anyone else)

As far as the government is concerned, the adults are back in charge.

Tony Abbott

Australians were shocked this week when New Matilda revealed leaked emails from Barry Spurr, an
“expert” consultant on the Australian government’s national curriculum review. I have been saying for years that the Liberals have a barely concealed contempt for the public, that they have an extremely elitist hierarchical worldview, that they see us as beneath them and themselves as entitled to rule. The leaked emails are a clear piece of evidence for this.

Spurr is a professor at Sydney University, which was ironically recently accused by The Australian of “brain-washing” students into left-wing views. Spurr doesn’t seem to be in on the conspiracy, saying 95% of Australian students should not be in tertiary institutions. He described his Aboriginal neighbours as a “human rubbish tip”. He predicted “one day the Western world will wake up, when the Mussies and Chinky-poos have taken over”, and praised Youtube videos depicting a bygone Australia with “No Abos, Chinky-poos, Mussies, graffiti, piercings, jeans, tattoos… Not a woman to be seen in a sanctuary anywhere. And no obese fatsoes.” He attacked “bogans”, called Nelson Mandela a “darkie”, and called Aboriginal singer Gurrumul Yunupingu “Wingabanga Gumberumbul”.

(UPDATE: In further material released by New Matilda, Spurr also had a go at the depressed, disabled, transgendered, and asylum seekers; called modern teenage girls “low-grade Soho whores” and boys “monosyllabic scruffy slobs”; speculated about a random girl working at a DVD store “I assume she is or was a druggie or even in jail”; and said a sexual assault victim needed “a lot put in her mouth, permanently, and then stitched up”.)

Spurr did criticize Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin, so maybe he’s an equal-opportunity misanthropist… oh wait, he criticized them because he thinks they’re “Abo-lovers”. How many other powerful conservatives talk like this behind the scenes?

Spurr now says his comments, in emails sent to a dozen people over two years, were “mocking, in fact, that very kind of extreme language”. Abbott says he hasn’t yet had a chance to read the emails but “I’m not easily upset, I’ve got to say, so I’ll study it closely”. Education Minister Christopher Pyne claims the government never appointed Spurr and the curriculum review has an “absence of ideology”.

But the reality is that the government appointed culture warriors Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, who saw fit to appoint Spurr to advise on the teaching of our children, and quoted him extensively in their review released last week. Spurr has also written for the Liberal-affiliated Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), criticizing the former government’s curriculum for including too little Bible study. Spurr’s private (false) claim that “Abo literature” is non-existent is in line with his more politically correctly worded statements in the review recommending lessons focus on Western literature because Aboriginals have made “minimal” contribution. His views informed the review’s recommendation that the curriculum

better recognise the contribution of Western civilisation, our Judeo-Christian heritage, the role of economic development and industry and the democratic underpinning of the British system of government to Australia’s development.

“History should be revised” to emphasise “Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage, values and beliefs”. Abbott has already started on this crusade, having replaced schools’ secular social workers with chaplains. The review also recommends avoiding “overuse” of the concept of sustainability, emphasis on the benefits of economic growth, less science content, less creative writing, and greater flexibility for schools to decide their own approach to sex education.

Perhaps the government is hoping schools will opt for a Christian sex education program like Focus on the Family, recently excoriated by Singapore high school student Agatha Tan for cringe-worthy lessons teaching that girls always mean the opposite of what they say (even using the phrase “no means yes”); girls are innately clingy, jealous, and obsessive; boys inevitably avoid sexual responsibility; and LGBTQ people have unstable relationships. Tan pointed out these stereotypes promote rape culture; I would add that they can be used to justify abuse by and of all genders and sexual orientations.

The review’s recommendations are hardly surprising, as Donnelly’s Education Standards Institute exists to promote “Christian beliefs and values” in education. Donnelly is also an IPA member, in 2005 was chief of staff to Liberal Kevin Andrews, and in 1999 was employed by tobacco company Philip Morris to design a peer pressure school education program that did not mention the health risks of smoking. Over the years, Donnelly has criticized beliefs that “students had to be ‘socially critical’ and ‘empowered’ to enable them to ‘challenge the status quo’”, curricula that “applauds PC fads like black armband history”, schools where “feminists and left-wing advocates of the gender agenda argue for the rights of women, gays, lesbians and transgender people”, and a teachers’ union that “argues that gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals have a right to teach sex education” even though “many parents would consider [their] sexual practices… decidedly unnatural”. He’s also praised corporal punishment:

We had a Scottish phys-ed teacher. Whenever there were any discipline problems he would actually take the boy behind the shed and say, ‘We can either talk about this or you can throw the first punch’. That teacher would probably lose his job now but it was very effective. He only had to do it once and the kids were pretty well-behaved for the rest of the year… If the school community is in favour of it then I have got no problem if it’s done properly. There are one or two schools around Australia that I know where it actually is approved of and they do do it… Parents are their children’s first teachers, and they really need to make sure young children go to school ready to learn respecting authority.

Because that’s what schools teach?

Abbott can’t openly express bigoted views because it would make him unelectable. But his government’s policies are broadly consistent with Spurr’s worldview. I’ve chronicled in detail how almost every policy decision has rewarded those at the top of society and punished those at the bottom, reversing the historical trend toward greater equality. Publicly they justify their sadistic humiliation of low-status groups and individuals by accusing them of “entitlement”, but they are projecting – the age of entitlement continues for the rich and powerful.

Arguably the demographic getting the worst deal from the Abbott government are young people and future generations, and not just because it is children who will be indoctrinated with their propaganda curriculum. Abbott is starving schools of funds and suspending welfare payments for parents of truant children (so basically, school will get even crappier but children will still be forced to attend). He’s holding children of asylum seekers in mandatory indefinite detention although neither they nor their parents have done anything wrong. He’s redirected funds from one Royal Commission on institutional child sexual abuse to another on home insulation, perhaps because he doesn’t want the public to learn about child sexual abuse in said detention centres. He’s revoked the community detention status of two children and kidnapped them from school, frightening other children at the same school into running away.

Abbott is increasing student debt by deregulating university fees and lowering the income threshold for repayment. He’s forcing under-30s to wait up to 6 months before getting the unliveable unemployment benefit, then apply for 20 jobs a month (he originally wanted it to be 40) to be eligible for benefits for 6 months, then repeat the cycle until they get a job. Yet Abbott is simultaneously cutting programs that would have helped people find work, which suggests he is trying to drive up demand for jobs so that people will settle for lower wages. But most of all, Abbott’s absolute opposition to any real action on climate change threatens the entire world in which my generation will live.

None of this should surprise us, as the Liberal Party has been racing rightward for decades. Compare Fraser to Hewson, and Hewson to Howard, and Howard to Abbott (Turnbull may be an exception, but if so he proves the rule because the party swiftly kicked him out). I expect in another decade’s time the party will be led by Cory Bernardi and resemble the US Republicans.

Donnelly and Spurr are just two examples of a broader pattern of government appointees. Under the Abbott government, responsibility for all appointments has been centralized in a “star chamber” committee led by Credlin, who even some government members have accused of “obsessive centralised control”. (A major reason why Credlin has gained so much power is she was needed to prevent Abbott letting slip anything the public aren’t supposed to hear, perhaps including views like Spurr’s.) An anonymous source told The Age appointments have been made based on loyalty to Abbott, Credlin, and former Liberal PM John Howard.

Personal loyalty isn’t the only criterion. Although during the election Abbott paraded his daughters around in front of the cameras to symbolize his supposed tolerance of diversity, in private he (or Credlin acting on his behalf) rushed to surround himself with people who look the same, talk the same, and think the same. That is, far-right, climate-change-denying, Christian, old, rich men (despite Credlin’s own gender). Apparently, “bright young things with boobs” were intentionally replaced with “wise grey beards”. Although I don’t have photos of all the prominent appointees, I’m pretty sure they tend to be white too, notwithstanding Spurr’s perception. As if to confirm his elitism, Abbott also reinstated knights and dames. And most notoriously, Abbott’s Cabinet contains just one woman and no non-Christians.

A more diverse group of advisors would bring a greater range of perspectives and ideologies to the table, making it more likely for potential downsides of policy proposals to be pointed out and resulting in better policies. I’m not saying there’s anything magical about young people (or women or racial minorities or whoever), but people at the bottom of the social hierarchy should have a say precisely because of their low status – that might help move us toward greater equality rather than greater inequality. If you want to argue that age is relevant because older people are likely to have gained wisdom from having been around a while, then I could counter that to solve 21st-century problems we also need new ideas from fresh young voices.

Although there’s nothing magical about young people, we would likely bring a much greater focus on climate change and the environment because we have a much greater incentive to care about the future. I find it offensive that this bunch of privileged old people are making policies that will destroy the future of young people and future generations, and adding insult to injury, they are also trying to brainwash us into complying. Most of them are over 50 and probably betting they won’t be around when the environmental crisis starts to bite hard enough that their money won’t keep them out of trouble. Though Abbott has daughters and his advisors may have children or grandchildren, this does not seem to translate into concern for the environment. They are either selfish or trapped in an old way of thinking, believing the way to a better world is opening up fossil fuel reserves to grow the economy.

Abbott promised a “grown-up” government, and their style is certainly paternalistic. Like many parents, they are doing everything in their power to keep important information from the children so that we only hear the beliefs they want us to learn. Daddy knows best, so we children needn’t worry our pretty little heads about what the adults are doing in our names.

But I should really stop whining. I should be seen and not heard, unless I want to be spanked for failing to respect authority. The adults are in charge.

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