Four stars in the night sky have been formally recognised by their Australian Aboriginal names.
The names include three from the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory and one from the Boorong people of western Victoria. The Wardaman star names are Larawag, Wurren and Ginan in the Western constellations Scorpius, Phoenix and Crux (the Southern Cross). The Boorong star name is Unurgunite in Canis Majoris (the Great Dog).
They are among 86 new star names drawn from Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, South African and Aboriginal Australian cultures.
These names represent a step forward by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global network of the world’s roughly 12,000 professional astronomers – in recognising the importance of traditional language and Indigenous starlore.
What’s that star called?
Many cultures around the world have their own names for the stars scattered across the night sky. But until 2016, the IAU never officially recognised any popular name for any star.
Instead, each star is assigned a Bayer Designation, thanks to a book published in 1603 by German astronomer Johann Bayer. He systematically assigned visible stars a designation: a combination of a Greek letter and the Latin name of the constellation in which it is found.
He gave the brightest star in a constellation the letter Alpha, then the next brightest star Beta, and so on down the list. For example, the brightest star in the Southern Cross is Alpha Crucis.
The IAU recognised that the lack of official star names was a problem. So the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) was formed in 2016 to officially assign popular names to the hundreds of stars visible in the night sky.
That year the working group officiated 313 star names, derived mainly from the most commonly used Arabic, Roman and Greek names in astronomy. But the list contained few Indigenous or non-Western names.
That changed last year when the WGSN formally approved the 86 new star names drawn from other cultures. Aboriginal Australian cultures stretch back at least 65,000 years, representing the most ancient star names on the list.
The WGSN is looking to identify even more star names from Australia and other Indigenous cultures around the world. As Indigenous cultures have a rich collection of names for even the faintest stars, many new star names could gain IAU recognition.
So what do we know about these four stars and the origin of their names?
Wardaman star names
The Wardaman people live 145km southwest of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Wardaman star names come from Senior Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, a well known artist, author and musician.
He worked with Dr Hugh Cairns to publish some of his traditional star knowledge in the books Dark Sparklers (2003) and Four Circles (2015). These books remain the most detailed records of the astronomical knowledge of any Aboriginal group in Australia.
Larawag (Epsilon Scorpii)
The stars of the Western constellation Scorpius feature prominently in Wardaman traditions, which inform the procedures of initiation ceremonies.
Merrerrebena is the wife of the Sky Boss, Nardi. She mandates ceremonial law, which is embodied in the red star Antares (Alpha Scorpii). Each star in the body of Scorpius represents a different person involved in the ceremony.
Larawag is the signal watcher, noting when only legitimate participants are present and in view of the ceremony. He gives the “All clear” signal, allowing the secret part of the ceremony to continue.
Epsilon Scorpii is an orange giant star, lying 63.7 light years away.
Wurren (Zeta Phoenicis)
Wurren means “child” in Wardaman. In this context it refers to the “Little Fish”, a child of Dungdung – the life-creating Frog Lady. Wurren gives water to Gawalyan, the echidna (the star Achernar), which they direct Earthly initiates to carry in small bowls. The water came from a great waterfall used to cool the people during ceremony.
Just as the water at the base of the waterfall keeps people cool and rises to the sky as mist, the water in the initiates’ bowls keeps them cool and symbolically transforms into clouds that bring the wet rains of the monsoon season. These ceremonies occur in late December when the weather is hot and these stars are high in the evening sky, signalling the start of the monsoon.
Zeta Phoenicis comprises two blue stars orbiting each other, 300 light years away. From our perspective, these two stars eclipse each other, changing in brightness from magnitude 3.9 to 4.4 every 1.7 days.
Ginan (Epsilon Crucis)
Ginan is the fifth-brightest star in the Southern Cross. It represents a red dilly-bag filled with special songs of knowledge.
Ginan was found by Mulugurnden (the crayfish), who brought the red flying foxes from the underworld to the sky. The bats flew up the track of the Milky Way and traded the spiritual song to Guyaru, the Night Owl (the star Sirius). The bats fly through the constellation Scorpius on their way to the Southern Cross, trading songs as they go.
The song informs the people about initiation, which is managed by the stars in Scorpius and related to Larawag (who ensures the appropriate personnel are present for the final stages of the ceremony).
The brownish-red colour of the dilly bag is represented by the colour of Epsilon Crucis, which is an orange giant that lies 228 light years away.
Boorong star name
Unurgunite (Sigma Canis Majoris)
The Boorong people of the Wergaia language group near Lake Tyrell in northwestern Victoria pride themselves on their detailed astronomical knowledge. In the 1840s, they imparted more than 40 star and planet names and their associated stories to the Englishman William Stanbridge, which he published in 1857.
In Boorong astronomy, Unurgunite is an ancestral figure with two wives. The Moon is called Mityan, the quoll. Mityan fell in love with one of the wives of Unurgunite and tried to lure her away.
Unurgunite discovered Mityan’s trickery and attacked him, leading to a great fight in which Mityan was defeated. The Moon has been wandering the heavens ever since, the scars of the battle still visible on his face.
Unurgunite can be seen as the star Sigma Canis Majoris (the Great Dog), with the two brighter stars on either side representing his wives.
One of the wives (Delta Canis Majoris) lies further away from Unurgunite and is closer to the Moon than the other wife (Epsilon Canis Majoris). This is the wife Mityan tried to lure away.
On rare occasions, the Moon passes directly over the wife of his desires, symbolising his attempts to draw her away. He also passes over Unurgunite, representing their battle in the sky. But Mityan, and Moon, never passes over the other wife (with the Arabic name Adhara).
Delta Canis Majoris is an orange-red supergiant that lies 1,120 light years away.
With the inclusion of the Parramatta Female Factory institutional precinct on the national heritage list, the federal government has recognised for the first time that institutionalisation is and has been a central part of Australia’s welfare system over two centuries.
The listing is testament to this precinct’s unique capacity to tell the stories of institutionalised women and generations of Australians who experienced out-of-home care, known as forgotten Australians, child migrants and Stolen Generations. It is now up to national, state and local interests to embrace this change.
The Parramatta Female Factory was identified as a site of abuse by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which has now made its final recommendations.
It is timely to ask how past sites of institutional abuse can be transformed from places of incomprehensible violence and suffering into places that can be harnessed to achieve the commission’s goals of redress, justice and the prevention of future institutional abuse.
The long wait for justice
The Parramatta Female Factory institutional precinct has been in continuous use since an assignment depot for female convicts was established there in 1821. In 1847, the original site was repurposed as Parramatta Lunatic Asylum, and again, in 1983, as the present-day Cumberland Hospital.
The adjacent Roman Catholic orphanage site, founded in 1844, became Parramatta Girls Industrial School in 1887, and operated as Norma Parker Women’s Detention Centre until 2010. An estimated 30,000 women and children passed through the portals of the child welfare and Female Factory institutional complex alone.
This is Australia’s longest-operating site of institutional incarceration and violence against females. It is also a place of punitive incarceration of children, women and Indigenous Australians and those labelled as mentally ill. Why did it take so long for this site to be added to the national heritage register?
If not for former residents of Parramatta Girls Home this listing would have never happened. Parragirls founder Bonney Djuric lodged the original national heritage application in 2011, which was the basis for its final listing in 2017.
Parragirls have continuously fought, for more than a decade, to preserve this place so that the injustices they suffered will never be repeated again.
But, until today, the neglect of the girls’ home and the entire precinct has replicated the abandonment the women have experienced in seeking justice for themselves and the thousands who passed before them.
Girls interned at Parramatta Girls Home experienced systematic and endemic levels of violence and neglect – the effects of which are endured by survivors to this day. These violations have been recorded by the royal commission.
Findings from the commission’s investigation into the girls’ home catalogue a regime of discipline and punishment and emotional trauma, including physical and medical control, and physical and sexual abuse. Compensation and civil claim processes related to the home also came in for criticism in its report.
The problem confronting both the commission and Australians more generally is how to contend with personal and collective trauma on this scale. With the site now earmarked for redevelopment under the Parramatta North urban transformation plan, the New South Wales government faces this same challenge.
Creating a site of conscience
Apologies, stone memorials and trauma tourism no longer suffice for those living with the consequences of serious abuse. We urgently need a new imaginary for our past, where we make use of Australian heritage to do justice.
Former residents of Parramatta Girls Home have shown us how this is done by implementing a singular vision to transform this forgotten place. It’s called a site of conscience.
In principle, the site of conscience global movement proposes the reclamation of places of human suffering to make common ground for dignity, respect and civil participation, instead of abuse and neglect.
Engaging with a site’s history in this way, government, civil society and the public can better understand contemporary social justice issues and build a future society that does not repeat the wrongs of the past.
In practice, on the grounds of Parramatta Girls Home, a site of conscience has been brought into being through the community activities of Parragirls and PFFP memory project. Launched in 2012, the memory project has enabled Parragirls to supplant isolation, shame and silence with shared memory, creativity and social gathering.
Activities include inaugurating an annual children’s day and memory garden, collaborative exhibitions and performances, and Stolen Generations’ songwriting and live music events. The memory project has also enabled Parragirls to contribute to the design of the Parramatta Girls Home memorial and to impact academic research on ethics and policy on child welfare records.
Agency is crucial to the activation of this institutional precinct as a site of conscience. This means, first and foremost, those who experienced injustice – its former occupants – are empowered to determine how we remember the past and how to use it build a better present and future.
Imagine a living public memorial that includes all Australians in the commitment to ensure our children are protected both now and in the future.
From this precinct, we can learn how past legacies and social issues impact contemporary practices of institutionalisation and systemic violence against women and children.
It is here, in this very place of inordinate pain and loss, that we can best put justice to work and make use of past wrongs for future good. And this enables us, as a nation, to put into action the royal commission’s goals of redress, justice and the prevention of future institutional abuse.
This vision calls for our collective embrace of transformative justice. It also demands our civic engagement to hold the government to account in the development and future use of Australia’s principal site of institutional welfare heritage.
The White Paper called Working Nation became the Labor government’s major economic statement in Paul Keating’s second term. However, the policy was principally an after-the-fact attempt to clean up a mess in the labour market and be seen to be doing something even if a little belatedly.
Cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia show the white paper began as a rational exercise but was soon overtaken by pressing contingencies and the desire to make the policy everything to everyone. While concerned ministers were anxious to reposition the government in the midst of an ongoing recession, the process of preparing the new White Paper became an exercise in opportunism and bureaucratic capture.
How Working Nation was formed
On 15th December 1993 the Keating government released a significant draft policy entitled Restoring Full Employment – a nostalgic resonance to the original war-time Full Employment paper of 1945. Australia’s unemployment rate at the time was a staggering 10% and while younger school leavers found it hard to find work or were actively discouraged, many older workers (especially males) were being thrown out of jobs, many never to work again.
Paradoxically, unemployment had not featured significantly in the 1993 election (which was fought on the GST), but Labor was now worried that if nothing was done about the deterioration in the labour market (and specifically job creation) then the government would not hold onto office in 1996.
In early February 1994, the Keating cabinet began work on a follow up government policy statement provisionally entitled: a White Paper on Employment and Industry.
The resulting Working Nation paper was one of five “Nation” statements favoured by the two Keatings (Paul the PM and Mike his head of department, not related). The cabinet papers show it began life with the worthy goal of “achieving sustainable high economic growth,” but soon became a “jobs and training compact” to reduce long-term unemployment.
What Working Nation was designed to do
Working Nation was meant to provide an employment strategy, stimulate regional development, introduce a new industry policy, and assist Australia “going global” in expanded trade opportunities. Ministers hoped the policy would lead the economic transformation of Australia.
It began life under ministers Kim Beazley (then head of the Department for Employment, Education and Training) and Peter Baldwin (Department of Social Security). The focus was on the job seekers who would be helped by individual case management, but with the insistence on “reciprocal obligation” – that those on income support had a responsibility to stay in education, be in training or doing other productive work.
But this obligation could easily be evaded through the misuse of medical certificates. Only women over 40 whose partners were unemployed were spared these expectations.
In its implementation by the federal bureaucracy, and the beleaguered Commonwealth Employment Service in particular, the policy descended into a treadmill of labour market programs. There was a saturation of jobs advertisements in the media – that even according to senior administrators led to considerable “churning” of people through 12-18 month job compacts back onto the unemployment queues.
Cost blow outs
Cabinet deliberations at the time show two prominent political aspects of the policy. First, when money was up for grabs the policy intent expanded exponentially and ministers from tangential portfolios rushed to put their hands up for a share of the proceeds.
Second, fiscal circumstances were tight at the time, but costings for the multi-faceted White Paper went from estimates of A$200 to A$300 million for income support, to A$1 billion to A$1.4 billion a few days later. Then it became a maximum of A$1.7 billion.
When the program was announced in May 1994 it came in at an annual cost of A$2 billion, with claims of a total cost of A$6.5 billion before it was wound up in 1996.
The formulation process showed how a determined bunch of policy entrepreneurs, senior bureaucrats led by the head of Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and academic economists, were able to drive a policy response based on detailed research and theoretical propositions. Social Security bureaucrats were also able to exploit the opportunity to implement their own preferred policy adjustments, almost unrelated to the main thrust of the policy statements. At the same time these bureaucratic players largely marginalised ministers in the process. Indeed, the 1994 Employment Minister Simon Crean had to be briefed by officials on the content of the policy when Working Nation was released.
Moreover, these insider policy entrepreneurs carefully sidelined the government’s main economic adviser, the Treasury department, during the whole process. This perhaps reflects the deep suspicion of some of these actors to the ideological bent of the then Treasury officials.
While a jobs training package sounded a simple response to a pressing problem, the Working Nation policy created more headaches for a government with umbilical links to the trade union movement. There was contention over a “training wage,” whether it should be greater than the Newstart allowance and how it related to the minimum wage. There was also debate on whether workers could jobshare (which was not endorsed by cabinet) and how increased income support impacted on housing and rental relief measures.
Working Nation was a classic case of just how complex and interrelated such well-intentioned policy statements can become when they cut across other areas of established policy.
Even before it was wound up, there were concerns, noted by cabinet, that the program was not achieving its objectives and that those on the Job Compacts program remained without work when their program entitlements expired.
Even after economic growth in Australia improved, the unemployment rate remained stubbornly stuck at 8.5% before the 1996 election, – an election at which Labor suffered a heavy defeat. Working Nation led to the Commonwealth Employment Service being disestablished and replaced by the now familiar network of private or community job-seeker agencies delivering services under competitive contracts.
While Working Nation was a major economic and social policy statement of the government, it was an inadequate response (too late and too slow) to the imperatives of the 1991-92 recession. And in the process of producing the White Paper, strategically placed insiders grabbed the opportunity to flex their own policy muscles inserting their preferred options into the statement.
Once released, Working Nation had a short-lead in time for implementation (eight weeks) placing huge burdens on a centralised bureaucracy, not generally equipped to respond so receptively to such demands. Working Nation highlighted not only the policy-making inadequacies of the federal government but also the tardy delivery capacity of large unwieldy bureaucratic organisations.
A highly publicised international deal on climate change is two years old. Australia’s federal government, under pressure from environmentalists and with a new prime minister at the helm, signs up and quickly ratifies it. However, its emissions reductions actions don’t work, and the government faces a dilemma: strengthen the measures (including perhaps carbon pricing), or keep cooking up voluntary measures, spiced with a dash of creative accounting.
While the paragraph above might just as well describe the present day, it also sums up the situation in 1994, when Paul Keating’s government was wrestling with Australia’s climate policy. The period is better remembered for angry timber industry workers blockading Parliament, but there were also important battles over carbon pricing and Australia’s international negotiating position.
Cabinet papers from 1994 and 1995, released today by the National Archives of Australia, show how Keating’s cabinet fought an internal civil war over how to respond to climate change, while working hard to protect Australia’s fossil fuel exports.
International pressure building
Two years previously, in 1992, Australia’s environment minister Ros Kelly had enthusiastically signed up to the new United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit. Australia’s willingness to support targets and timetables for emissions reductions (something the United States ultimately vetoed) gave it credibility.
Australia used this credibility to propound a “fossil fuel clause,” which made the now-familiar argument that:
…economies that are highly dependent on income generated from the production, processing and export, and/or consumption of fossil fuels and associated energy-intensive products and/or the use of fossil fuels … have serious difficulties in switching to alternatives.
The cabinet papers released today reveal that defending this clause was a major preoccupation of the government of the day.
In early 1994 Ros Kelly’s political career was brought low by the “sports rorts” affair. She was briefly replaced by Graham Richardson, and then the highly respected John Faulkner.
By this time, all climate eyes were on the first UNFCCC summit, to be held in Berlin in March-April 1995. As an August 1994 cabinet memo noted:
…international pressure is mounting to strengthen the Convention’s emission reduction commitments,
…Australia’s measures will fall short of reaching greenhouse gas emission targets and that Australia’s greenhouse performance is likely to compare unfavourably with that of most other OECD countries.
This was a reference to the 1992 National Greenhouse Response Strategy, which was already being shown to be toothless, with state governments approving new coal-fired
power stations and renewable energy ignored. Environmentalists wanted more mandatory action; business wanted to keep everything voluntary. After a roundtable hosted by Keating in June, cabinet debated climate change in August.
The political calculations involved are evident in the official record, which states:
[Australia’s] ability to influence international negotiations away from unqualified, binding uniform emissions commitments towards approaches that better reflect Australia’s interests will be inhibited by a relatively poor domestic greenhouse response.
And what are Australia’s national interests? It won’t surprise you to learn that the government worried that:
…action by the international community could have a major impact on Australia’s energy sector and on the economy in general, by changing the nature and pattern of domestic energy use and/or by changing the world market for energy for Australian exporters.
Cabinet pondered finding international allies – such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand – for the get-out-of-jail idea of “burden sharing”, which would allow countries to finesse their climate commitments by funding emissions reductions elsewhere.
Cabinet also canvassed the possibility of adopting either a proactive or reactive stance, or even withdrawing from the UN climate negotiations altogether. That last option – one that in essence would be adopted by John Howard, at least after George Bush opened up that space in 2001 by withdrawing from Kyoto – was seen as too risky. While the UNFCCC didn’t contain provisions for banning imports from recalcitrant countries, nevertheless:
As a major exporter of energy and energy intensive products, Australia would need to be involved in the negotiations to guard against the possibility of this occurring.
Faulkner had already flagged that he would bring a proposal to December 1994’s cabinet meeting, possibly including a small carbon tax – something the Greens, Democrats and Australian Conservation Foundation were all pushing for.
His opponents were ready, with a two-pronged approach. First, they produced economic modelling (with, it later emerged, significant help from fossil fuel companies), which warned that “to stabilise emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, taxes per tonne of CO₂ would need to be around US$192 for Australia and US$24 for the OECD.
So far, so frightening. But given that decisions reached at the Berlin summit might have consequences for Australia’s prized coal exports, some sort of
response was necessary. Fortunately, the Department of Primary Industry and Energy had prepared a document, called Response to Greenhouse Challenge “in consultation with key industry organisations” such as the Business Council of Australia. This had provided a “basis for discussions with industry and incorporates the key principles that industry wants included in the scheme”.
The carbon tax decision was deferred, and ultimately after a series of meetings in February 1995, Faulkner was forced to concede defeat. A purely voluntary scheme – the “Greenhouse Challenge” – was agreed, with industry signing on to what was essentially a reboot of the demonstrably ineffective National Greenhouse Response Strategy.
The Berlin meeting did lead to a call for binding emissions cuts for developed countries, and
Australia signed on, albeit grudgingly. By the end of the year, the same industry-funded modelling was used to produce a glossy report which argued that Australia deserved special consideration because of the makeup of its economy. Australian diplomats would use this argument as a basis of their lobbying all the way through to the 1997 Kyoto climate summit.
In one of history’s ironies, on the same day that this report was released – December 1, 1995 – Keating’s cabinet discussed “the development of a more comprehensive effort in greenhouse science”, noting that:
Climate change is capable of impacting severely on coastal infrastructure, living marine resources and coastal ecosystems such as reefs. The Australian
regional oceans strongly influence global climate, and Australia is vulnerable to oceanic changes affecting rainfall and possibly the incidence of tropical cyclones.
A look at 2017’s weather tells you they may have been onto something there.
The ominous parallels
As I pointed out in last year’s cabinet records article, “when it comes to climate policy, there are no real secrets worthy of the name. We have always known that the Australian state quickly retreated from its already hedged promise to take action, and told us all along that this was because we had a lot of coal”.
Reading these documents is a bit like yelling at a person in a horror movie not to open the door behind which the killer lurks. You know it is futile, but you just can’t help yourself. The December 1994 cabinet minutes contain sentences like this:
Greenhouse is expected to generate future commercial opportunities for Australia with increased export of renewable energy technology e.g. photovoltaic, wind and mini-hydro technology, especially in the Asia-Pacific Region [to] support renewables.
At yet, several governments later, we’re stuck having the same debates while standing by and letting other countries embrace those exact opportunities.
If Labor was surprised by its re-election in March 1993 – the “sweetest victory of them all”, as Paul Keating claimed – there was, for months before the 1996 election was called, much less confidence in government ranks that it could hang on.
They were right. A 6.17% first-preference swing against Labor in 1996 confirmed the momentum John Howard’s Coalition leadership had built over the previous year. The political mood was shifting decisively.
Howard pitched to the values of the “battlers”, affirming “the Australia I believe in”. In contrast, Don Watson, Keating’s speechwriter, recalls that the “big picture” reforms of Keating’s prime ministership “never found a place for the people” in testing those values.
Political scientists Paul Strangio, Paul t’Hart and James Walter add that, after 1993, Keating became ever-more dominant in “a small clique of very senior colleagues”. He drove a policy agenda that had been rallied after the 1993 victory.
There were big ambitions, like Working Nation, and big symbols, like the republic. These initiatives were part of a push through 1994 and 1995, as revealed in the cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia, to ensure a legacy for the program Labor had crafted since 1983.
In that process, the term “benchmarking” figured repeatedly in the cabinet submissions ministers debated. It was time to take stock of what had been achieved, in terms of reform, expectations of it, and principles that could not be undone by their successors.
Changing attitudes to social policy
The measures of such impact included a vital element of attitudinal change.
In social policy, ministers were assured that the past ten years marked a decisive shift for people with disabilities from a welfare approach to a “human-rights-based focus”, measured in labour market access. Cabinet called for regular reports to track how effectively this support continued to move from the margins of specialised programs to mainstream provision.
Other measures included a standard pension rate of 25% of male total average weekly earnings, a target of 100 residential care places per 1,000 population aged over 70 by 2001, and a child support system that fostered “a change in the community ethos” with regard to the obligations of separated parents.
In May 1994, cabinet endorsed tackling the more “legally complex or controversial issues” identified in the 1992 Half Way to Equal report on women’s rights. Among them was a commitment to target potential pregnancy “as a ground of prohibited discrimination”.
As Labor’s 1994 national conference adopted a commitment to a 35% quota of safe seats for women candidates by 2002, these issues achieved a clearer place in public debate.
Reforms in public and community housing were aimed at increasing the co-ordination of federal and state governments in delivering stock to meet diverse needs. The beneficiaries of such attention, it was argued, would include people with psychological illness. The minister concerned, Brian Howe, pushed for the principle that rent in such housing should not exceed 30% of income.
Progress on Indigenous Australians
For Indigenous Australians, ministers agreed that “priority be given to social benchmarks” for housing and also health and community support, employment and education. Together they would hold agencies accountable for the delivery of services, rather than simply describing the conditions to those receiving them.
The minister, Robert Tickner, urged that consultation with Indigenous clients must take into account that their “reluctance … to provide information” reflected “a more complex, historical issue”. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s work as a national representative body was seen as integral to overcoming this challenge.
The new National Native Title Tribunal brought sharp focus to these concerns. Keating urged that this body must have sufficient authority to counter the “implacable” opposition of interests and governments such as that in Western Australia.
Cabinet also moved to establish an Indigenous land acquisition program. The May 1995 launch of a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, followed by the official gazettal of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, further consolidated a network of recognition it would not be easy to unravel.
Labour market reform
Indigenous affairs had some of the elements of “compassion” and “justice” Keating spoke of returning to politics. This pushed the boundaries of prevailing values.
Yet, with promising economic forecasts in early 1994, ministers were also keen to ensure there was no backsliding in the stricter discipline of microeconomic reform.
Having recently bedded-down principles of enterprise bargaining, cabinet was advised in March 1994 that the still-fragile foundations of a “productivity culture” were too vulnerable to “unrealistic” expectations developing in workplaces across Australia to risk any further iterations of the Prices and Incomes Accord.
A cabinet submission claimed that “it may be necessary to push the limits of what is acceptable” to the unions, and instead “establish benchmark criteria to assist employers in responding to claims”.
While sticking to this message, ministers still worried that the people seemed not to be travelling with them. In mid-1994 they decided to appoint an independent consultant to probe the question of why reported poverty levels had not declined, “despite all the measures taken over the last decade”.
Cabinet’s Social Policy Committee regarded the evidence informing such analysis as a “statistical artefact”. The Department of Social Security ventured that the long-term impact of labour market deregulation might help explain such sentiments. Finance countered that an already overgenerous social welfare system acted as “a disincentive to efforts to improve private incomes”.
As economic signals wavered through 1994 and 1995 – despite Keating’s assurance with the 1995 budget that “this is as good as it gets” – the challenge of inclusion grew.
There were some benchmarks, clearly, that were up for debate within a cabinet still pushing Australian economic as well as social transformation.
Climate change becomes a more pressing concern
There were also some benchmarks that were troubling on a larger scale.
Over 1994 and 1995, the government was briefed on the extent to which global commitments were already proving insufficient to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations:
… at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.
And even within the concessions Australia had won in those formula as an “emissions-intensive economy”, it was “only likely to achieve 46–53%” of its target by 2000.
Enhanced support for “greenhouse science” was identified as one option Australia might pursue in preserving its international reputation on these issues. More was required if we were to hold our standing in relation to vulnerable island states of the South Pacific. And more was required at home.
Major decisions were being taken that were “contrary to the terms of the 1992 National Greenhouse Response Strategy”. As ministers were told, Western Australia’s new Collie Power Station would “provide electricity at a higher cost than gas-powered alternatives”. The “extension of the electricity grid to outback areas of NSW ignored the potential for lower cost solar energy”.
Decisions to defer minimum energy standards for appliances showed “little more than lip service” to the fundamental issues of climate change. What was the point of such benchmarks if nothing was done to observe them?
If the 1996 vote reflected an electorate wearied of “big picture” reform, it was clear that the Keating government itself was seeking indicators that could affirm and entrench its achievements. Not all were easily found.
But, in retrospect, several do still stand up as enduring principles, and/or as markers around which a good deal of political conflict was to come.