Plumbing the depths

Gonzo Meets the Press #28 October 13, 2011

As the Australian Parliament continues to descend into adolescent antics, the
US Republican presidential campaign is trying to find heroes in plumbers and
pizza magnates and avoiding foreign policy debates. Where have all the
visionaries gone?

Even, Jake the Plumber, he’s a man I
Had the nerve to tell me he’s been married before.

That, of course, is a line from Second Hand Rose which I’ve been singing all
week. Why, you may well ask.
Well, Joe the Plumber, who became famous during
the 2008 US election campaign, has filed papers to run as a Republican for a
House of Representatives seat in the state of Ohio. (Here’s a link to his first
news appearance in 2008:
And every time I hear Joe the Plumber’s name, I think of those lyrics sung by the magnificent Barbra
Streisand. (Thankfully, readers, you do not have to listen to me sing
Remember Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher? Joe confronted Barack Obama on
the campaign trail, and asked him if his tax policy would hurt his plumbing
business.  Obama said it was possible because he wanted to spread the wealth.
Joe suddenly turned into a hero and the Republican presidential and
vice-presidential candidates, John McCain and Sarah Palin, dragged him along to
the hustings to bolster their arguments that the Obama tax policy would hurt the
middle class.
His celebrity was damaged somewhat when it was revealed he was
not a licensed plumber and owed some back taxes. But obviously his 15 minutes of
fame are going into overtime. This year he’s also been on the campaign trail
with Herman Cain, an African American candidate and former CEO of the
Godfather’s Pizza chain in the US, now in second place in the New Hampshire
So Joe the Plumber and the Pizza Magnate are getting into politics.
It shows you the difference between the American and the Australian political
landscape. On Q & A on Monday night, a member of the audience asked
the panel if there was anyone in Australia who could emulate Steve Jobs as an
innovator, a visionary and in the words of Barack Obama be “brave enough to
think differently.” (Here’s a link to the question on the Q & A
website: Australian Visionary:
The non-politicians on the panel mostly pooh-poohed the idea, with barrister Ron Merkel saying “the
problem is that visionaries don’t go into politics. It’s just too hard.”
Journalist Caroline Overington agreed with author Richard Flanagan that
conformity was the Australian disease.
And only assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten and Shadow Foreign Minister named anyone – their respective bosses:
Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. But Shorten did say he’d like to see more people
engage in the political debate and join political parties.
Yet there is no real political debate in parliament, mostly schoolroom shouting and barroom
banter, seldom reaching the wit of Whitlam or Killen. What role models are there
for young Australians who want to have a career in politics? I’d mention Gough
Whitlam, Paul Keating, John Button, Malcolm Fraser in his statesman-like status
in recent decades, and Julia Gillard until she fell in love with offshore
processing. She was the best deputy prime minister in living memory.  And
certainly not Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella whose behaviour this week cost the
Coalition a chance to defeat the carbon tax they hate, and put them into a
position where they could miss out on an opportunity to deliver the government
an historic loss in the House of Representatives.
All of which brings me back to the US election campaign and Joe the Plumber.  Joe Wurzelbacher wouldn’t
pretend to be an expert on foreign policy, but none of the Republican
presidential candidates should either.
As the New York Times has reported, Herman Cain has suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could
countenance a Palestinian return to the lands taken over by Israel, Governor
Rick Perry said US troops could be sent to Mexico if drug violence got worse,
and former Senator Rick Santorum proposed Washington should engage with ousted
Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf to reply to the threat of his country’s
nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands. (A link:
If you think American voters don’t pay much attention to foreign policy, you’d be right. Leslie Gelb,
president emeritus of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, told the
New York Times the Republican candidates’ lack of debate on foreign
policy has been unprecedented: “Beyond the standard Israeli posturing, they
don’t say anything on the Middle East or the Arab Spring. And here the Afghan
war is still an enormous open wound, an ongoing war, and you hear nothing of
There’s a parallel with Australian politics in the US Republican
campaign. Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor and a former ambassador to China
who speaks Mandarin Chinese (wouldn’t you like to hear him and Kevin Rudd
announce a joint US-Australia-China initiative and see who speaks Mandarin
first?), had a go at his competitors (and sounded like Kevin at his boastful
best): “Unlike my fellow candidates, my view of America’s role in the world is
shaped by hands-on experience gained during four stints overseas and serving in
foreign policy positions for three presidents.” Here’s a link to a major foreign
policy speech Huntsman delivered at Southern New Hampshire University this week:
And finally, a problem that both American and Australian politicians are going to have to deal
with sooner rather than later: The Occupy Wall Street Movement. More than 250
cities in the US are being occupied by protestors in front of financial
institutions, City Halls et al, demonstrating against corporate power, Wall
Street greed, the widening gap between rich and poor Americans – in short, a
form of class war.
As a bloke who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in
Philadelphia, I have always empathised with the poor, and never touched the
stock market – except for one week when I bought some uranium shares with two
other journos and after making $30, we felt so guilty we sold them and drank the
profits in an Irish pub – until superannuation forced me into shares. And after
the Global Financial Crisis, I wish I had left my super in a bank.
The best explanation I have read about why Americans started the Occupy Wall Street
protest comes from macroeconomist Dean Baker on the Truthout website:
“The reason that we have 26 million people unemployed, underemployed or out of
the work force altogether is not that we are poor, but rather that we are rich.
The immediate problem facing our economy is not one of too few goods and
resources; it is a problem of too little demand. And this is what should make
the Wall Street Occupiers and everyone else absolutely furious at our
“If people had more money in their pockets, then they would buy more
goods and services. Companies would then hire more people to produce these goods
and services and we would then have more jobs. The unemployment and poverty that
the country is experiencing today is overwhelmingly the result of a failure of
political will.”
A local activist in Philadelphia says 1,400 separate events tied to Occupy Wall
Street are planned or taking place around the US, including not only the major
cities, but wealthy suburbs. And now the movement has come to Australia, with
protests scheduled for Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane this Saturday. There are
two days of protests by two factions scheduled for Brisbane and Kate Haskett of, said her faction had organised activities at Post Office
Square on Saturday as part of a day of protests in 1270 cities around the world.
Sophie Mirabella, whose passionate voice of protest was heard in the House
of Representatives to the detriment of the Coalition, had this to say about the
Occupy Wall Street Movement demonstrations in an article in The Punch:
“I’m sure this Saturday’s ‘occupation’ will give those professional protesters
and Greens voters a chance to voice their anger at some nebulous, greedy
‘machine’ rather than hold to account the Government they helped elect.”
But like the anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the Sixties, which were also dismissed by the US
and Australian governments at first, they could also grow into a powerful
movement – and in this case one that can help make major changes in greedy
global stock markets – changes which are much needed.
Even Joe the Plumber would have to admit that.

Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press. His views are his own; always have been

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