The unsavoury parts of Australia’s right wing are gloating about events at the University of Sydney:
A male staffer for a Liberal MP attempted to identify himself as a woman as part of a sneaky factional deal to win a $12,000 executive position in a student election.
Alex Fitton, who works for New South Wales state MP Mark Taylor, vowed he was not a cisgender male in order to become joint general secretary of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council on Wednesday night. [Source]
One of Australia’s right wing commentators claimed that this was ‘perhaps the single greatest prank in the history of University of Sydney student politics’ and said that Fitton’s gender was ‘as plain as the penis between Caitlin Jenner’s legs’. For any person of ordinary intellect, such crassness would suggest that the problem was some toxicity within their own views, but not so for the contemporary mainstream right wing in Australia. Where once the conservative right stood for the preservation of culture and tradition, now conservative values seem only to protect moral imbeciles and degenerates.
It will become obvious that the problem is obviously not with the University of Sydney’s policies, but with Fitton.
Let’s begin somewhere else: welfare policy. If you missed Eleanor Robertson’s piece in the Monthly blog about Australia’s welfare policy being about bullying the poor into work, stop reading this ramble and read that instead. There are parts to her argument with which I disagree, but the relevant part for my purposes is this paragraph:
Despite “welfare dependency” in Australia being at historically low levels, and despite 3 million people living in poverty, the Turnbull government’s welfare policy is becoming more and more extreme. Zed Seselja, the assistant minister for social services, commented recently that “we simply can’t go on assuming [that for] huge numbers of Australians welfare will just become the norm”. Minister Christian Porter has called for a “welfare revolution”, which seems mostly to consist in targeting the vulnerable for further persecution.
There’s a well-known policy design problem that pushes people’s intuitions the wrong way: is it better to have too many people eligible for welfare, or too few?
The fear of the ‘bludger’ is prevalent in our discussions about welfare. Everybody seems to have a story about a person they know about who is just lazy, doesn’t want to work, and claims benefits from the government. Maybe they have an iPhone, proving that they don’t really need income support. Maybe they have three kids to five different dads. Maybe they enjoy surfing and do that on the weekend instead of toiling in the GDP mines.
The bludger is convenient because we can stick a camera in their face and put them on A Current Affair or splash them across the tabloid pages of News Corp. It is significantly more difficult to talk about the person who can’t access services that they need. The classic example is the survivor of domestic violence who can’t get services to protect herself, but there are many more.
So we end up with the design problem: knowing that we can’t design an efficient system which perfectly ensures both that only the ‘deserving poor’ receive welfare and that none of the ‘deserving poor’ are left without welfare, is it better that we suffer the bludger or that we deny the domestic violence sufferer services?
The absolutely bonkers aspect of this discussion is that the intuitions rapidly flip when we change the topic. I know a guy that would prefer denying welfare to everybody simply to prevent the single dole bludger, but he completely lost his mind when council regulations prevented him from renovating his house in the way he wanted (long story). The council regulations were there to prevent certain kinds of environmental damage that ordinarily flow from the sort of thing he wanted to do, but those damages were unlikely to arise in his case. We want systems that are permissive when we are affected, but want systems that are restrictive when others might benefit.
And there’s a final step to this: why is regulation needed? Isn’t the problem that we have a bunch of people who think it’s fine to scam the welfare system? Why has this antisocial attitude emerged, and shouldn’t we do more to focus on individual responsibility? If it costs $3 to chase $1 of overpayment, is it really worth it? And if the cost of chasing overpayment is distress and frustration to people who are paid correctly, is it worth it? Why is our first response to tales of the bludger to increase regulation in the system?
Now we can return to USyd!
Is it better to suffer the douchebag who claims to be transgendered than to design a system that would make it more difficult for transgendered students to benefit?
The problem here is that there is a group of people who think it’s either funny or clever to trash something that’s been designed for the benefit of others. This isn’t the greatest prank ever played at the University of Sydney: this is a celebration of the antisocial contempt that the mainstream right appears to champion.
I do think there’s a problem with our current understanding of gender identity and transgender politics, but Fitton’s atrocious behaviour does not open up any discussion or challenges to those issues. It is simply destructive, contemptuous, and antisocial, and the conservative right should not be condoning it.