The thing you have to understand is this: this is not about those terminations

Victorian Senator John Madigan introduced a Bill into the Senate last to ensure that Medicare funding is not available for ‘terminations carried out on the basis of gender’.  Let’s ignore the fact that he fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the word ‘gender’, for a moment, and look at the intent of the Bill itself.

It looks pretty innocuous, doesn’t it?  It’s not banning anything, even, despite the fact that it’s being picked up as a ‘ban on sex selective abortions’.  It’s just asking that those abortions are not funded by Medicare.  Well, and who could argue with that?  Performing terminations based on the sex of the foetus is hardly the sort of behaviour one expects from proper members of Team Australia, after all.

This bill, though, is not about those terminations.

Do those terminations even occur in Australia?  There’s scant evidence that they do.  Madigan himself has only come up with the less-than-compelling position that, since sex-selective abortions probably happen overseas, and in certain immigrant populations in the US (as evidenced by the prevalence of male babies born to those populations), it is ‘likely to be occurring in Australia’.  None of the submissions to the 2013 Federal inquiry into the issue could come up with any proof that it was either, focusing instead on other countries.

Cory Bernardi, in the Senate hearings, even acknowledged this, saying that there was “very little, maybe no evidence” of termination for sex selection purposes in Australia.  But that doesn’t matter, says Bernardi – a man who, lest we forget, also talks about abortion as being a ‘death industry’ – even one procedure, one, which attracts Medicare funding for the purpose of terminating a foetus on the basis of sex, is one too many.

Now, at first blush, this might all seem a little bit over the top.  With an Ebola crisis killing hundreds of thousands of people in West Africa, 600 Australian troops committed to intervention in the Middle East, and one woman killed in Australia every week as a result of a violent partner or ex, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is a huge, blatant waste of Senate time to be debating whether or not a single hypothetical termination attracts Medicare funding.

One would be wrong.

The point is not to prevent a single hypothetical termination. The point is to introduce the idea that it is reasonable, and acceptable, for the government to enquire as to the motive of a woman seeking to make a decision about her own body. At the moment, if a termination is done, it is assumed that the decision was made by the woman whose body it is for the appropriate reasons; beyond that, we do not enquire. But this Bill introduces a very dangerous precedent: suddenly, there are terminations done for the right reasons, and terminations done for the wrong ones.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily that concept can be expanded.

As it stands, the Bill is also logistlcally unworkable, on all readings except one. And it’s that one that’s the real danger.

Under this Bill, a Medicare rebate is not payable if the termination is done ‘solely for the reason of the gender [sic] of the foetus’.

There are, roughly, 70,000 pregnancy terminations in Australia every year. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t; bear in mind that there is no differential in the statistics between terminations done for medical reasons, ‘elective terminations’, and spontaneous termination of pregnancy (ie., miscarriage) that requires medical assistance. There is no differentiation precisely because we, as a country, do not consider it appropriate to categorise pregnancy terminations by moral weight.

Those procedures are done by doctors and partially funded by Medicare.

So, what happens here? Those 70,000 terminations are performed, the claims are duly submitted to Medicare Australia, and…? Does some poor work experience kid have to ring up each of the doctors and ask what the recorded motive for the termination was? The answer will be this: there is no recorded motive, and if there was, there is such a thing as client confidentiality you acned squirt, get a sub poena and then we’ll talk. Or, perhaps, does one legislate further and put the onus on the doctor to warn her patient: based on the motives you’ve disclosed for seeking this procedure, I am legally bound to inform Medicare that they should withhold payment? Of course not: Doctor/patient confidentiality is a well documented and extremely important guarantee in our society. It can be broken under very well defined, narrow parameters, where the reason for breaking it is extremely compelling, and where that is done, the onus rests on the medical practitioner to prove that it was deserved. Trust me when I say: that’s a legal precedent that you really, really don’t want to fuck with.

So, obviously, there’s only one possible way that this Bill could ever be implemented, and that is to put the onus on the patient to prove that her termination was not solely for the purpose of selecting the sex (SEX. SEX, DO YOU HEAR ME?) of her child. So you’re requiring women to disclose the other motives (remember, the Bill only operates where sex is the sole motive) to seek a termination. Perhaps there could be tick boxes: ‘too young’, ‘too poor’, ‘health condition that makes a pregnancy untenable’, ‘I already have three children and my family is large enough’.

But no matter what you do, or how it’s implemented, you’ve opened a door to the idea that women’s reproductive choices can be scrutinised by government officials to determine their merit.

So this Bill. Don’t be tempted to write it off as irrelevant, just because it is biologically impossible to determine gender in the womb and therefore it is completely fucking nonsensical and who the hell drafted this shit anyway. Or because there is no evidence that sex selective abortions happen.

Don’t write it off. This Bill is not about those terminations. It’s about all of them.


Letters to my daughters #1

Dear E,

This is something that happened when you were five, in your first year of school.  You and your classmates were very invested in who had lost a tooth yet; at five, gappy teeth is a milestone on the road to adulthood that you were fiercely proud of.

At the time that this story takes place, you had already lost three teeth.  Only one other girl in the class could boast that, and she was already six, so you were very proud.  Your best friend, on the other hand, hadn’t lost any despite being only two weeks younger than you.  She was happy for you when you lost your first, slightly sad when you lost your second, and when you lost your third she spent a week trying to manually wobble her own teeth right out of her head.

One day, she told you that her tooth was finally a little bit wobbly.  At the end of the day, sitting on the mat listening to a story, you looked down and saw something small and white.  You were so excited for her that you picked it up and gave it to her; L, look!  Your tooth has fallen out!  And you didn’t even notice!  L was so thrilled.  Her first missing tooth!  She held it aloft and squealed, and your classmates clustered around her, and you were so happy that your friend had finally lost her tooth that neither she nor you actually stopped to see if there was a gap in her mouth.

Her mother came to pick her up, and she ran to her, waving the white thing aloft.  Mummy, mummy, my tooth came out!  All in one day, it got wobbly and came out all in one day and I didn’t even feel it!  And you ran up to her as well; it’s true, L’s mum, it did, it really did, I found the tooth on the ground and L didn’t even know!

And her mother stopped, and looked carefully at her daughter.  There was, of course, no gap.  Gently, she asked ‘but, darling, if you didn’t feel it coming out of your mouth…?’.

‘I know!’ cried L, exultant.  ‘It must have come out of my VAGINA!’.



Why there will never be a revolution, and why there should be

Ross Gittins wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other week reporting on a fascinating study which should have been, but wasn’t, titled Why There Is Never Going To Be A Revolution.

The study found, basically, that the majority of Australians in every income bracket thought that most people lived on roughly what they themselves did. This was true for households living on between $20,000 and $40,000 per annum; it was equally true for households living on $120,000 to $150,000. More of those on over $150,000 had the grace to admit that perhaps they were more affluent than most – presumably because this income band includes the mega-rich, who one assumes have the grace to realise that most people don’t buy an extra Lexus just for the nanny – but even then close to half thought of themselves as normal.

There are, of course, a number of flaws with the study, one of which is that it doesn’t take into account fixed costs. The day to day life of a family of six in Sydney on $120,000 may not bear many similarities to that of a 20 year old apprentice plumber living with his parents – for one, I suspect more housework is involved – but the amount of disposable income at the end of the week may be comparable.

So, let’s discount fixed costs. Has our family of six burdened themselves with an $750,000 mortgage in order to live in an old Glebe terrace? That’s $4000 per month they’re up for, and don’t even talk to them about rates and utilities, you wouldn’t believe the prices, so you can’t tell them they’re richer than Dave the not-quite-a-plumber, who pays his Mum $200 board a week. Well, hang on, says Dave. I’d bloody love to live in Glebe, not stuck here in a dank bedroom in Gagebrook, Tasmania. Just because they choose to spend their money that way doesn’t make us even. It’s like saying that you have to deduct the caviar from their food bill. Their lives are richer for having the option to live somewhere like Glebe.

Well, alright. Is housing a fixed cost or not? What about transport? We all know that poor people don’t drive, but they do have to spend a lot of time in their imaginary cars, which are usually older and less fuel efficient than the real and not at all made up cars of the rich. Is that a fixed cost? What about children? I used to earn exactly the same as another friend; we started our law careers at the same time, in the same firm, and merrily broke our contractual obligations by comparing our salary raises, so I know this to be true. But five years down the track, I was paying $1000 a month from my after-tax salary in childcare, and it was only that low because I’d dropped to part time, which means I also lost 20% of my salary before we started. But then again, having children was my choice; in a way, that’s discretionary spending too. What’s a fixed cost? At what point in the monthly ballet that is income and expenditure do you start calling money ‘disposable income?

The flaws are many, is my point, and to make a proper, scientifically rigorous comparison is beyond my abilities, although one of these days I’m going to have a damn good crack at it. What I’m interested in today, though, is the fact that, flaws aside, the study feels instinctively correct. Everyone does, in fact, basically assume that most people are on sort of around what they themselves are. And in fact, everyone I know looks at everyone else I know and thinks well, hang on, how is it that they can afford to do A Thing when I cannot? They can’t earn that much more than me, surely? Or can they? Am I, in fact, massively underpaid compared to my peers?

It’s because we notice the things we don’t have rather than the things we do. There’s probably some fancy sociological term for this, covering the human desire for status, and awareness of one’s position within any given group because we’re social animals by nature, and good old fashioned grass-is-greener syndrome. But it happens all the time. I notice that one friend sends her children to a private school whereas mine are state; how does she manage that? But I’m not exaggerating when I say that as I typed this, I just realised that my annual budget for books is probably equivalent to the fees for one child. (In my defence, it’s a cheap private school) (I actually can’t believe I just admitted that). Another friend buys entirely organic food, but cuts her hair at home, which I have to make myself remember. And so on.

What I’m saying, really, is not about their expenditure at all. It’s that my own expenditure feels invisible. I have to really think very hard about it to realise that actually quite a lot of my spending is discretionary, because it doesn’t feel like it. Most of the money I spend isn’t fun to spend (books excepted), it’s just…what I feel like I need to keep up with the people who are my peers. And because it isn’t fun, it doesn’t make me feel well off to spend it. I felt richer when I was 14 and my birthday cheque from my Dad arrived and I had to decide whether to buy three new CDs or a dress. The limitless horizons!

It’s awkward, talking about money, and this whole post makes me feel very vulnerable. But although on a broad, intellectual level of course I know that I’m better off than most people in the world who would love to have fresh water and good sanitation and food left on the plate at the end of dinnertime, on a day to day basis it never feels like that at all.

I wonder if there’s a way to go back to the feeling of one’s first paycheque and make it fun again. Maybe if we had some sort of system whereby the basic needs of everybody were met from a communal pool of money, after which the little disposable income left was shared out, and although it was very little, it would be for frivolous spending only, like my birthday CDs, and all the more valuable for it.

We could call it something like…I don’t know.!

Inequality is a feature, not a bug: How to make sense of the Federal Budget.

We’ve all had that conversation at a party.  The one with the person who turns out to hold such staggeringly bigoted, or illogical beliefs that it is impossible to argue with them.  And yet you can’t tear yourself away.  You keep thinking, against all evidence, that if you just explain things to them properly, maybe they’ll come around; look, here are some statistics!  And here, see, here are some well-respected, peer-reviewed studies by experts in the field!  Maybe if I appeal to their better instincts, or draw an analogy with something tangible from their own lives?  No? 

But the reason you can’t connect with them is because the fundamental axioms of their life are so different from yours that there is, simply, no common ground.

That’s the fundamental disconnect that is happening between the Abbott Government and, well, everybody else, from the AMA to the IPA.  Outraged articles reporting on leaked documents that prove the Government knew that the budget would hit the most disadvantaged the hardest miss the point completely.  Of course they knew that.  You’d have to be a completely illiterate idiot with no rational thinking skills at all to miss the point that, if you take a young unemployed person and give them absolutely no money at all for six months, they might find it a wee bit hard to make ends meet.  And this Government is not full of idiots.  To assume that it is, is also to miss the point.  Of course you don’t get to occupy the most privileged positions in society, even if you are a white privately-educated male and therefore have one fuck of a head start on everyone else, if you can’t grasp the basics of budget modelling and social policy.

So, no, they’re not idiots, although I can see that it feels like the only logical explanation once you’ve discounted all the others.  Somehow, believing that a group of highly educated men who are being advised by specialists in their field are idiots is more palatable than believing the truth.

The truth is that they understand entirely the impact of the Budget.  And they’re not only fine with it, they see it as desirable.


Classical conservatism, remember, predicates that society benefits from inequality.  Adam Smith talks about maximising state wealth by paying workers the bare minimum that is necessary for survival.  John Locke considered the main function of government to be the preservation of private property.  Edmund Burke, who was a bit of a dick but meant well, was absolutely convinced that there was a line to be drawn between the ‘common people’, who weren’t worthy of a vote, and government, which featured the best and brightest.  These are guys who are still studied today, because their politics, whilst a tad quaint, have been formative to Western society.  At the heart of their philosophy is the assumption that inequality is good for a country.  It might not be great for individuals, obviously.  But it’s good for the country as a whole.

When left wing commentators write in outrage about the fact that the Government knew that their budget would disadvantage the poor, they’re assuming that this is considered to be a universally bad thing.  They’re appealing to a particular view – that all individuals should be given a fighting chance and a minimal standard of living to preserve their self-respect – and assuming that it’s the only view.  To advocate for anything else would be such insanity that it can’t be contemplated.

But that’s exactly what this Government is doing. They’re thinking about the country as a whole, and approaching the question of governance with a completely different view.  They’re saying that it is only by encouraging inequality that we, as a country, can grow great.


Once you accept that, the Budget makes sense.

Let’s look at education, because to look at everything would be beyond the reach of a humble blog post.  As I dash past the other areas of the Budget, though, let’s not forget that the proposed $7 fee payable by patients as a Medicare gap was specifically modelled to discourage people from going to the doctor.  It’s a feature: not a bug.  

We’re squawking about the fact that deregulated university fees will discourage people from poorer families – those who will be less able to pay off their HECS early – from going to university.  How can the government not see this, we cry.  How can they be so blind?  But that’s because we’re assuming that they’re not trying to orchestrate just that result.  The University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor believes that too many people are going to university; policies that force people into accepting blue-collar careers are considered a positive thing.  Catherine Livingstone of the Business Council of Australia agrees.

Even if people do still go to university, the policies will help ensure that the best and brightest careers are retained by the people who deserve them: upper-class men.  Here’s Christopher Pyne, on the 7.30 Report yesterday, where he was asked whether he accepted that changes to HECS will disadvantage women:

women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn.

So that’s alright then.  Women can’t earn high incomes, like dentists or lawyers can. Nothing to see here, carry on with your ironing.  

Quite apart from the fact that Pyne’s answer is completely disingenuous, ignoring as it does the fact that over 60% of law graduates are female, it betrays a deeper assumption about the way that society should work.  A different person, acknowledging that women ‘will not be able to earn the high incomes’ might present that fact as one that needs to be addressed.  Pyne presents it as a defence of his policy.  A feature, not a bug.

I did it again, didn’t I?

Just popped out for a second and failed to come back.

There’s a better excuse this time.  I’m pursuing a career in freelance writing, so when I think of something I want to spend serious time on writing about, I want to sell it.  Also I have another blog under a pseudonym, which is gaining in popularity and takes up quite a lot of time.  And I’m studying, which is involving weekly writing assignments.  Oh, and also writing a novel.  And part of my day job involves writing and editing a bi-annual industry journal, which is due out at the end of this month. So there’s that.  Goodness.  Actually that’s quite a lot now I think about it.

So maybe what I’m going to do here is use this blog for the rough drafts, the things that I might not have the energy to write about in full, the frothing outrages that don’t have a natural home.

Turn up the music.