Turnbull’s campaign visit spoilt by NBN elephant in the room.


turnbull looking shifty

For all the hullabaloo of the hustings, the black hole ballyhoo, the hoopla and the bloopers, plus a stunning late-night AFP raid on Labor’s Senator Conroy and a staffer who may have been leaked embarrassing proof that his NBN is slow, hugely over budget and way behind schedule, Malcolm Turnbull’s double dissolution election campaign circus is not a total embarrassment.

Unlike his deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce, a one man three ring circus, who links our pause in live cattle trading to an increase in refugees and asylum-seekers via Indonesia.

At least sanity has prevailed on the NBN leaks; now legitimised by an AFP raid. No-one would go to all that trouble if the information were not true. At least, also, our national security laws come in damn handy when it comes to clamping down on any political embarrassment. Or getting back at whistle-blowers.

Had the AFP used journalists’ metadata in its bust? Commissioner Andrew Colvin’s reply evoked the case of Dr. Peter Young who spoke out about Hamid Khazaei’s death on Manus in September 2014 only to have the AFP access his phone records. It was a covert if not undercover “yes.”

“I’m not going to answer what operational tactics or strategies we have employed”.

Ironically, despite the LNP’s best intentions, or the operational tactics of wizard consultants, Crosby-Textor, the protracted virtual selfie that is the PM’s electioneering campaign occasionally permits something else to intrude into the frame.

Before the first flush of his popular appeal disappears entirely, something profound, abiding and true appears amidst the campaign trail litter of high-vis vests, sound-bites and talking points; the real features of a nation in distress. Daily, Turnbull is confronted by first hand evidence that puts the lie to his smug victim-blaming slogan that, for Australia, “there has never been a more exciting time to be alive.”

Australia is hurting and it shows. Visiting the marginal south-western Victorian electorate of Corangamite this week, the PM is shocked to discover that local people are driven by despair to take their own lives. No-one interrupts to pursue the elephant in the room of the NBN which in sucking up 56 billion, leaves less for local hospitals.

NBN is Turnbull’s baby and a federal priority which is yet to improve communications or boost employment in Corangamite, although talk does turn to black spots.

Luckily, residents are spared Turnbull’s view that Corangamite will soon be booming courtesy of a “productivity dividend” as his government cuts taxes to businesses and wealth trickles all the way down to the Western District of Victoria. So, too with his abiding conviction that changes to negative gearing as proposed by Labor will cause local businesses to close their doors.

Oddly he chooses to say nothing about how his government’s cutting of Gonski education funding to a quarter of the original commitment, pledged by Tony Abbott last election will mean that it will be even harder for local youngsters to get the level of education they need and deserve. Over-represented in the statistics of suicides are those who have failed to proceed past Year 10 at school.

Instead, the PM promises to “leave no stone unturned.” Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash chimes in with an equally vacuous pledge to do “everything we can as a government” to address the issue.

Of course, like every snake oil salesman, Turnbull’s has a patent remedy to hand. An app or a phone number or some counselling, although, to be fair, the technological fix is proposed not by the PM but by Ian Hickie, co-director of Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre.

Hickie holds that if you are a suicidal young man at 3:30 am in a rural Western District town in Victoria, you need at least to be able to phone a specialist. He is right. Left out of his equation, however, is a $73 million cut faced by Victorian hospitals, this year, which makes it unlikely any doctor will be available, assuming the young man is not in a telecommunications black spot.

What Turnbull can’t fix, because he is part of the problem, is the truth; his party’s neoliberal and “financialisation” policies are largely to blame for the distress faced daily by ordinary Australians.

Tragically, the Labor Party is equally smitten by the ideology of free trade, small government and leaving it to the market, a laissez-faire abdication of fiscal responsibility which has destroyed car manufacturing at the local Ford factory in favour of a free trade god who exchanges the economic and social security of skilled employment in local manufacturing for cheap Chinese imports.

Men and women who have no jobs, no prospects and who can’t pay their bills are increasingly at risk of suicide because of their poor economic circumstances.

Centrelink’s New Start is a cruel hoax. It provides a series of demeaning experiences in return for a life below the poverty line. Mental health issues are not routinely dismissed, beneficiaries report. All job-seekers must endure the dehumanising jobs merry go round in which they are pawns in Australia’s privatised unemployment services sector.

Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, Bill Mitchell points out: there’s been a whole industry of punishment and coercion and monitoring of the unemployed when there’s not enough jobs anyway.”

Add to this a new industry of surveillance, the institutionalised expectation that each claimant is a fraud. Stuart Robert’s recent Task Force Integrity, increases surveillance to “claw back” welfare fraud.

Corangamite and Casey in Victoria have the highest rates of suicide, suffering 184 and 111 suicides in the period 2009 to 2012, while Longman and Brisbane in Queensland, have had 162 and 105 suicides respectively. John Mendoza, director of consultancy ConNetica announces grim statistics he has compiled from Australian Bureau of Statistics and Public Health Information Development Unit data. It’s a cue for campaigners and others to deplore the figures.

But no-one in government, or the Business Council of Australia, or the IPA, or the armies of other lobby groups for lower wages, penalty rates and “more flexible work options” is listening when Mendoza proceeds to explain that the causes of suicide are embedded in the neoliberal ideology which encourages an increasingly casualised, contract and part time work force.

“It’s what the literature refers to as precarious employment conditions – less certainty,” Mendoza explains. “If you want to give people a mental health problem, if you want to raise their psychological distress, what do you do? Dose them up on uncertainty, dose them up on fear.

“That’s what causes mental illness, that’s what gets them to the point they see no other option but to take their own life.”

Quickly the media focus shifts to dairy farmers who have just suffered retrospective indebtedness, surely one of the most outrageous forms of extortion in farming history. Not only has the price of milk halved, dairy farmers are told by email, it is retrospective. The average Goulburn Murray farm supplier now faces a debt demand for $120,000. Some farmers walk off their farms.

A package is announced. Farmers will be able to borrow half of what they owe – if they can qualify for a loan. Up their burden of debt. No-one in government or opposition has the guts to call big business on its “step-downs,” the industry jargon for abruptly dropping its price.

Somehow, with a bit of media skimming, the consumer is to blame for buying on price alone. Not that Coles and Woolworths and the big dairy providers have extorted primary producers by colluding to get prices so low they are sending some farmers broke. Somehow it escapes the free market antenna of a neoliberal government.

Suddenly it’s all about connections as media attention deficit disorder moves to the next big thing. Improving connections would help small businesses and ordinary people, Regional Communications Minister Fiona Nash pipes up with a pledge to give $60 billion to fix mobile phone black spots, a matter of life and death, which it has taken the coalition three years to notice.

Ms Nash appears oblivious to the fact that before he toppled Tony Abbott as an act of civic duty because he owed it to the nation to bestow upon us his superior skills as an economic manager, Malcolm Turnbull was an under-performing communications minister who has failed to deliver on his NBN promise to build a better, cheaper faster network sooner than Labor.

NBN costs have blown out to $56 billion. His NBN has taken twice as long and double the cost to deliver half the speed promised. Yet, as the AFP raid last week makes clear, or its inspection of Peter Young’s phone records, the Turnbull government is quick to invoke national security law to deal with the political embarrassment of being held accountable.

If the neoliberal Liberal Prime Minister’s visit to Corangamite will do little to assuage voters’ real concerns, let alone ease their suffering, his NBN and his government’s approach to whistle-blowers will do even less for their peace of mind.

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