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A minor gloat

March 30th, 2004

I hope readers will indulge me in a minor gloat regarding the defeat of Michael Lee, the Labor candidate for Lord Mayor of Sydney, despite rule changes designed by his mates in Sussex Street[1] to guarantee his success. Fortunately, the voters didn’t feel like being dictated to and went for Independent Clover Moore instead.

Lee wasn’t the worst Communications Minister in Australian history (no prizes for guessing who was), but he certainty didn’t cover himself with glory in this or any of the other ministerial positions he held. I crossed swords with him in the early 1990s over his claim that it was a good thing for Australian to have two (incomplete, but almost exactly duplicate) optical fibre cable networks, rather than one network with proper coverage – perhaps the high point of microeconomic reform-related stupidity in Australia. As far as I can tell his only qualification for public life is that he looks good in a suit, but that seems to be enough to ensure that his patrons keep on promoting him.

fn1. NSW Labor state headquarters and base of the rightwing machine ( the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ have little ideological significance in the ALP these days, so the word to focus on here is ‘machine’).

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  1. derrida derider
    March 30th, 2004 at 16:06 | #1

    his only qualification for public life is that he looks good in a suit

    Of course the worst minister for comms couldn’t even manage that, but he too was protected by mates.

  2. Tom N.
    March 30th, 2004 at 16:28 | #2

    “I crossed swords … over [Lee's] claim that it was a good thing for Australian to have two (incomplete, but almost exactly duplicate) optical fibre cable networks, rather than one network with proper coverage – perhaps the high point of deregulatory stupidity in Australia.”

    WADR, while the introduction of a mandatory network duopoly under Labor may well have been an act of “stupidity”, it was not an act of “deregulation”. In fact, the level of regulation probably increased.

    This is not the first time that John has mixed up deregulation with competition. Without wanting to exaggerate the importance of this distinction, it is more than just semantics. The critics of competition reform (of which John has been one) often use the debating tactic of casting its proponents as “anti-government, deregulatory ideologues” etc. Yet, for the most part, the reformers themselves – such as the staff of the NCC where I used to work – have been acutely aware and supportive of the need for government intervention and regulation. They might be open to the charge of being excessively pro-competition – that is a debate one could have – but that is a quite different charge from being mindlessly anti regulation.

  3. John Quiggin
    March 30th, 2004 at 16:40 | #3

    Tom, I didn’t want to pick a semantic dispute here, so I’ve changed the post to say “microeconomic reform-related” rather than “deregulatory”.

    As you imply, “deregulation” is usually a misnomer, since what we mostly get is “different regulation”. “Labour market deregulation”, typically accompanied by the creation of a range of new criminal offences and causes of civil action, state agencies with police powers, and so on is a typical example.

  4. Tom N.
    March 30th, 2004 at 17:42 | #4

    Fair enough John, although I could continue to be difficult and point out that the term “micro-economic reform” itself has limitations. Indeed, my former boss Graeme Samuel made precisely this point to you in the debate about NCP that you two had in Brisbane in November 1998 when, after agreeing with your analysis that the telecommunciations duopoly was a dumb reform, Graeme pointed out that it was not in fact an NCP reform but an earlier micro-economic reform, and further said:

    “Incidentally, I should say that the term micro-economic reform itself is of questionable utility, as it can encompass a range of measures: from the highly centralised Dawkins reforms to education in the 1980s, to the deregulation of output markets as occurred in the airline industry in 1990, changes in product input regulations such as food safety standards, to a decrease of tariffs on imports. In fact, an increase in tariffs on imports would also be a micro-economic reform, would it not? Micro-reform may or may not accord with mainstream economic ideas, depending on the nature of the reform. Of itself then, the term tells us little about the nature or merits of the reform, just the level of the economy to which it applies.”*

    Provided your criticism of the telecommunciation network duopoly as being “the high-point of microeconomic reform-related stupidity” is understood in this light, then I have no problems with it!

    Tom :)

    ______________

    * http://www.ncc.gov.au/articles/files/CISp98-002.pdf

  5. March 30th, 2004 at 18:11 | #5

    Here’s a Michael Lee story.

    The AFC used to run a “special production fund”, a discrete budget line that paid for investment in feature films and documentaries. It was renewed every three years and came up in the dying days of the ALP government.

    He was apparently given the papers to put the thing through Parliament to renew it – a simple matter of administration. The bugger forgot it.

    When Howard came in and ran his minibudget, the Libs cut the whole thing. Bang went four million dollars, and the AFC has been in dire straits ever since. And (though many readers would question its value) the amount of support for development in the industry decreased significantly, and arguably contributed to the current dire state of play.

    The details are more complicated, but it shows you that a moment’s inattention by Lee had huge ramifications.

  6. John Quiggin
    March 30th, 2004 at 18:14 | #6

    No disagreement with any of the above, Tom, except to say that, at the time I was criticising the duplicate cable rollout and other aspects of telecommunications reform, I didn’t get much support from supporters of deregulation, competition or micro reform, however you choose to define these terms.

    For example, a Productivity Commission report explicitly rejected my criticisms. To be fair, I do recall that the AFR editorial backed me up on this one.

    Sorry if the above sounds snarky, but this happens to me a lot. For example, I got thoroughly bagged for opposing the partial privatisation of Telstra and most of those same people are now criticising it in the same terms I used “no man’s land” “worst of both worlds” etc.

  7. Stalin
    March 30th, 2004 at 18:43 | #7

    In gloating over Michael Lee’s loss you forget that he once was an item with Elle McPherson’s sister, Mimi.

    If he had won, and they had got back together, she could have been the Lady Mayoress.

    I know that’s not a good enough reason to be sorry that Michael Lee did not become Lord Mayor of Sydney, but I can’t think of a better one.

  8. Mike Hunt
    March 30th, 2004 at 21:46 | #8

    My guess for worst communications minister would be either Kim Beazley or Gareth Evans. Pity about there being no prize.

  9. Andrew
    March 30th, 2004 at 22:12 | #9

    Mimi McPherson? That would’ve been like having Paris Hilton. Including the video…

  10. Harry Clarke
    March 30th, 2004 at 22:20 | #10

    It’s good to see the pretty-boys of the Labor Party being seen for what they are even with fashionable suits and forks held proper. Fooled no-one comrades!

    About time too, John, that you got serious about Latham’s haste in seeking to rush out of Iraq. In terms of its obvious adverse incentive effects on terrorism can this be seen as political opportunism of the worst type or simply ‘try-this’ stupidity? (Yes, there are other options but these are most plausible.) Again hopefully the masses will not be fooled!

    Critical noises and a squiggly-eyed, Curtin-like stare provide a fashionably youthful alternative to the aged conservative Howard but do not a credible PM make. Town hall politics and duopolistic telcos less important than the Latham disgrace.

  11. Harry Clarke
    March 30th, 2004 at 22:20 | #11

    It’s good to see the pretty-boys of the Labor Party being seen for what they are even with fashionable suits and forks held proper. Fooled no-one comrades!

    About time too, John, that you got serious about Latham’s haste in seeking to rush out of Iraq. In terms of its obvious adverse incentive effects on terrorism can this be seen as political opportunism of the worst type or simply ‘try-this’ stupidity? (Yes, there are other options but these are most plausible.) Again hopefully the masses will not be fooled!

    Critical noises and a squiggly-eyed, Curtin-like stare provide a fashionably youthful alternative to the aged conservative Howard but do not a credible PM make. Town hall politics and duopolistic telcos less important than the Latham disgrace.

  12. March 31st, 2004 at 01:40 | #12

    “My guess for worst communications minister would be either Kim Beazley or Gareth Evans.”

    Well, just as well there wasn’t a prize, because you wouldn’t have won it anyway. How quickly we forgot Richard Alston…

  13. derrida derider
    March 31st, 2004 at 09:16 | #13

    I was certainly referring to Alston in my previous post – though come to think of it Bomber Beazley looks lousy in a suit too. To be fair, though, the worst decisions that happened on Beazley’s watch came when he was rolled by Keating and Richo in cabinet.

    But we’ve also forgotten that Jackie Kelly was minister for comms for a while – she looked OK in a suit but was certainly completely out of her depth. All in all, we’ve had a very poor run of ministers in that portfolio.

  14. March 31st, 2004 at 12:49 | #14

    Oh, you mean the portfolio for irritating gorillas and running away very quickly?

    Managing the machinations of Murdoch, Packer and Telstra would scare me into the kind of stupidity displayed by all the abovementioned august suitwearers.

    It is one of those fiefdoms where the whole party needs very strong policy. Has anyone provided it?

  15. gordon
    April 1st, 2004 at 13:36 | #15

    Apart from sartorial (is this a pun?) issues, Clover Moore’s upset win, together with the Greens’ strong showing, seems to indicate considerable dissatisfaction with the “development at any price” policies of previous Councils and the present State Govt. Is this the beginning of a more rational approach to planning in our major cities? I hope so, because in Canberra, where I live, we are under increasing pressure to submit to urban infill and densification policies which would destroy all that’s best in the town.

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