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Don’t Follow Leaders, Watch The Parking Meters

May 13th, 2014

The dispute over the Greens apparent intention to oppose a more progressive tax system has heated up again, on Facebook and elsewhere, especially given indications that the proposed return to indexation of petrol excise will be passed, as it should be. In combination, if pursued, these policies can be presented, with some justice, as pandering to the self-interest of the stereotypical Greens voter: high income, inner city, with no need to use much petrol.

I haven’t seen anyone defend the pro-rich tax policy on the merits, but I’ve had vigorous pushback from people whose views I would generally respect, taking the following lines

* Labor is doing the same thing, why pick on the Greens
* The policy may be right, but it’s being advocated for the wrong reason (deficit fetishism)
* The policy may be right, but it’s being put forward by the wrong people (evil Abbott government)
* This is only a small step, we need something much bigger and more comprehensive

I’ll respond to these points over the fold, but for the moment I want to observe that these excuses, or minor variants, can be and have been made for every policy sellout in the history of politics. No one gives them the slightest credence when they are put forward by people who aren’t close allies.

The fact that so many intelligent people are willing to buy this sort of case when it’s put forward by the Greens is evidence of the proposition that none of us is immune to the kinds of biased thinking that have completely corrupted the intellectual base of the political right. Fortunately, I think, the left as a whole is more self-critical, so that this kind of reasoning gets a tougher run. But for me, this emphasises the importance of not being aligned with any political party to the extent that loyalty clouds my judgement on the issues. That doesn’t immunise me from various kinds of biases, but at least it helps with problems like this.

Responding briefly to the substantive points, such as they are

* If the Greens want to be held to the same standards as Labor, that’s their choice. Given a choice of two vaguely left parties driven by political expediency, I’ll vote for the one that has a chance of winning government
* The second and third points imply that the Greens should reject everything the government does in pursuit of its fiscal strategy. That will be totally undercut if they (rightly) support the indexation of petrol excise
* If the Greens had a serious prospect of forming a government, there might be some point to going for a comprehensive strategy, and holding off until that could be implemented. As it is, they can only choose to support or oppose government policies (and of course even this is true only until the new Senate takes office).

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  1. derrida derider
    May 14th, 2014 at 16:44 | #1

    @tunic
    You are of course correct – I unaccountably forgot that rather important convention. We don’t want a repeat of 1975. The Greens will have to be satisfied with showing their intentions by sending it to committee and having a minorty report recommend the amendment.

  2. Fran Barlow
    May 14th, 2014 at 16:51 | #2

    @John Quiggin

    If you really care about the substance, no one gets too worried about the process.

    Bad process nearly always results in poor outcomes, and even when, unforeseeably, it doesn’t, the chance that there will be unanticipated an unwanted consequences or that the good outcomes can be overturned is huge. And there’s also no way of repeating the process or learning anything useful from it that can found any other good outcomes. That’s why I reject your assertion.

    This is particualrly so in this case. We have had bad process in government for as long as there has been European settlement — and where are we now? We have two nearly identical parties, proposing very similar sets of truly awful pro-boss class policies and an exercise once every three years where the public, who by and large have nothing like the information they need get to choose which they feel marginally less uncomfortable with.

    As things stand, there a quite limited basis for thinking this basic paradigm will ever change outside of some truly catastrophic turn of events — and climate change looms as the obvious candidate here. Accordingly, we Greens have no good alternative but to try to stir things up — to disrupt politics as normal. Politics as normal will digest us and spit us out.

    You say

    The idea that the Australian public will see your decision as anything other than political cowardice is absurd.

    Misleading. Firstly, there are rusted on members of the public who vote reflexively. Their opinions are moot because they are always voting ALP or Coalition. Whether they think we are cowards or not is not something we need to worry about, whether they really believe it, or are merely saying they do. Nothing we might do consistent with our principles will earn their favour. Pandering to surplus fetishists will mean that we are finished as a distinct political group. We might as well join the ALP or even the LNP with that position.

    Those people who are attempting to think rationally about how Australia got into the political mess it’s in will surely realise that what is needed is not some frivolous levy on 400,000 people raising 1/1200th of the budget or whatever it is but a comprehensive look at how we do governance, what public policies are neded and how we can fund them from our human and material resources, and having decided on that, how we can create a vehicle for getting that done. The word “cowardice” won’t get raised because we have absolutely nothing to win or lose at the next election. We have 10 MPs, only one of whom is in the lower house. What we care about is our outreach not our membership of the club.

    You have the privilege of having been an insider, of sorts and that seems to be shaping your position on this. We are still for all practical purposes, outsiders. In 2010 The Australian, riding shotgun for the right, said it wanted to destroy us at the ballot box. Like you, it imagines that this is what we care most about, but they are wrong. We care most about the chracter and coherence of of public policy and its connection with the interests of the working and marginalised people of this country and those with whom we trade.

    The idea that we would lose site of this because some right wing nut dangles some shiny object in front of us is the greater absurdity.

  3. J-D
    May 14th, 2014 at 18:07 | #3

    @Fran Barlow
    Some people would argue that the whole Australian political system is so thoroughly riddled with bad process that it’s wrong to participate it in any way: that one should not even vote, let alone stand for election, and certainly not take seats in Parliament.

    Evidently the Greens stop short of that conclusion, and so do you. But by what reasoning?

  4. Fran Barlow
    May 14th, 2014 at 18:31 | #4

    @J-D

    Elections afford us an opportunity to educate the public about both the possibilities and the constraints of politics as normal. We might simply explain it to people — and jndeed we do — but participation tends to be far more persuasive than any purely didactic exercise.

    Moreover, the election process brings us into contact with far more people than we could hope to meet purely through issue-based activism.

    Finally, in embryonic form, our party’s internal processes are an exemplar of how governance might be conducted, but testing that theory in an exercise where we press for entry into the legislative and perhaps the executive structure does keep us asking the right questions rather than becoming purely introspective.

  5. Bernard J.
    May 14th, 2014 at 23:55 | #5

    @mandas

    Mandas, I believe that the Greens stance was that they would support a high-end tax if it was permanent.

    On the fuel excise, I thought that the Greens issue was that it doesn’t compensate low-income earners who would be disproportionately affected, unlike the carbon price which actually gave low income eaners a net benefit whilst sending a price signal to polluters and alternative energy developers.

    But I could be wrong!

  6. Terry
    May 15th, 2014 at 06:11 | #6

    If, as Fran Barlow notes above, the Greens’ “internal processes are an exemplar of how governance might be conducted” in a future society, then when will the public be able to see what happens at the party’s annual conference?

  7. Fran Barlow
    May 15th, 2014 at 08:16 | #7

    @Terry

    As soon as they join us and participate, making us analogous to the jurisdiction of Australia, of which we citizens are a nominal part.

  8. Matt
    May 15th, 2014 at 08:17 | #8

    @John Quiggin
    In this instance the practical and political can be hard to separate. If the levy were introduced as a temporary measure to last while the budget is in deficit, with a political intention to repeal it in three years, then I would think the Greens should support it, because that would cement the higher tax rate and require a political argument to repeal the increase. And that would be the time to make stronger equality arguments.

    But as I understand it (and I may be wrong) the proposal is for an amendment which sunsets after 3 years. That it’s more difficult to support because it means the party needs to argue now whether the legislation should be automatically repealed in three years time. This is occurring in an environment where the government I’d putting forward the levy as a share the pain measure, and it is reasonable to question whether it is equitable or adequate given the extent of cuts affecting the poorer in society.

    All that said, there is the underlying point that something is better than nothing and that blocking the levy would do little out nothing to stop other objectionable measures. In other words, is it better to collude on this fig leaf measure and protest the other changes even if that is futile, or to protest the wider package as inequitable?

  9. J-D
    May 15th, 2014 at 08:52 | #9

    @Fran Barlow
    I am not sure whether I have understood you correctly. My best guess is that part of what you are saying is that people pay more attention during election campaigns and that standing candidates in elections enables the Greens to capture more of that attention for what they have to say. If that is what you are saying, I accept it as plausible.

    However, that alone would not explain why the Greens would ever cast their votes in Parliament in the affirmative on any question arising there. If the whole process is bad, why facilitate any result from it?

  10. campidg
    May 15th, 2014 at 09:37 | #10

    There is no room for nuance in Tony Abbott’s Australia. The Greens have chosen to denounce the budget in its entirety because it broadly goes against the party’s principles. In the current atmosphere of politics, support for a few aspects of the budget would either be ignored or treated with distrust and cynicism. Maybe the Green have a big enough voice to start to change this state of affairs and promote a higher level of debate but the past experience is that their more carefully made policies and pronouncements rarely get taken seriously, if they are heard at all.

  11. Terry
    May 15th, 2014 at 11:32 | #11

    Well it looks like Labor may end up supporting the debt levy, so the Greens missed their chance to be seen to be supporting a progressive tax reform.

  12. Fran Barlow
    May 15th, 2014 at 12:47 | #12

    @Terry

    Well it looks like Labor may end up supporting the debt levy …

    It’s a matter for them if they want to endorse the LNP’s surplus fetishist and soak the poor agenda. They have missed their chance to rule a line through those particular canards.

  13. Terry
    May 15th, 2014 at 13:25 | #13

    They may change their minds now that Chris Pyne has called Bill Shorten a c**t in Parliament.

  14. J-D
    May 15th, 2014 at 14:47 | #14

    @campidg
    I am not sure whether I have understood you correctly. It seems to me that the line of reasoning that says that the Greens need to attract favourable attention by taking a position without qualifications leads again to the conclusion that the Greens should never vote in favour of anything in Parliament, and if you stop short of this conclusion it’s not clear to me why.

  15. may
    May 15th, 2014 at 14:54 | #15

    J-D :@may The official AEC statistics show 5.9m primary votes cast for the Coalition parties in the most recent election for the House of Representatives.
    If I have to choose between scenario 1, where that 5.9m figure is largely the result of deliberate fabrication on the part of a few corrupt individuals in the AEC, and scenario 2, where that 5.9m figure is correct but you have not encountered any of those Coalition voters because the people you encounter are all people with whom you have things in common, I am going to rate scenario 2 as the more likely one, and so should you.

    fair enough but i still have a nasty suspicious mind and the best and most successful rorts are the ones nobody can concieve of existing.

  16. John Quiggin
    May 15th, 2014 at 15:20 | #16

    Fran and campdig, you seriously think you can persuade people that Labor, opposing higher fuel taxes and supporting a tax on the rich (while the Greens do the opposite) is engaged in a “soak the poor” agenda?

    If the Greens were committed to voting against everything the government proposed, they could claim some kind of purism, along the lines suggested by campidg. But they are picking and choosing= what to support, so none of these claimas make sense.

  17. Fran Barlow
    May 15th, 2014 at 15:40 | #17

    @John Quiggin

    Fran and campdig, you seriously think you can persuade people that Labor, opposing higher fuel taxes and supporting a tax on the rich (while the Greens do the opposite) is engaged in a “soak the poor” agenda?

    I certainly do. The so-called deficit levy is a metaphoric unicorn. Whether 400, 000 people who can’t be bothered arranging their affairs to avoid temporarily paying sums of money ranging mostly from virtually nothing to a few thousand dollars is neither here nor there. It is in practice a mere snowflake in a blizzard of blows delivered against the poor. To the extent it has any political meaning at all it is an attempt to claim that the ‘heavy lifting’ is being shared by the rich, when this is plainly not the case, and when there is no public policy need for any heavy lifting in any event. The regime wants to pretend there’s one even though no person whose reputation is worth a cracker thinks so.

    If the Greens were committed to voting against everything the government proposed, they could claim some kind of purism, along the lines suggested by campidg. But they are picking and choosing what to support, so none of these claims make sense.

    That’s your strawman. We’re going to pick and choose how best to advance principles of governance and public policy development that we think apt in the circumstances. We won’t be party to this regime’s attempts to mislead the public about the state of the economy or the priorities that should be served. As I keep saying, we seek good process. We set great store by honesty in public policy. This levy is part of a fraud against the poor. I see no basis at all for entertaining it.

  18. Fran Barlow
    May 15th, 2014 at 15:49 | #18

    @J-D

    However, that alone would not explain why the Greens would ever cast their votes in Parliament in the affirmative on any question arising there. If the whole process is bad, why facilitate any result from it?

    Fairly obviously, we believe there are occasions when voting affirmatively helps show the flaws in the process more than it obscures them. As I pointed out to PrQ, the fact that a process is bad does not absolutely exclude good results — it just makes them improbable, unrepeatable by process, and insecure. Sometimes, the best way to illustrate that in circumstances where we cannot fundamentally alter the process, is to vote it through. Whether that applies in any specific case is something requiring some reflection.

    We knocked back the CPRS of 2009 on that basis, but waived through the CEF of 2011 because it was qualitatively better, our reservations notwithstanding.

  19. Fran Barlow
    May 15th, 2014 at 15:50 | #19

    Damn! “we waved through …”

  20. J-D
    May 15th, 2014 at 17:07 | #20

    @may
    I can conceive of the possibility of the entire Australian electoral system being thoroughly rorted. I let my imagination roam widely. I can conceive of many things, far more than exist in reality.

    The utter corruption of the Australian electoral system is conceivable, but that provides no evidential support for the conclusion that it has actually happened. Neither does the fact that you have a nasty suspicious mind.

  21. J-D
    May 15th, 2014 at 17:21 | #21

    @Fran Barlow
    I am still struggling to understand your position.

    If I understand you correctly, you say that the Greens voted against the CPRS in 2009 but in favour of the CEF in 2011 because the 2011 CEF was qualitatively better than the 2009 CPRS.

    But you don’t say that the process that produced the 2011 CEF was any better than the process which produced the 2009 CPRS. Are you in fact suggesting that the decision was justified because it produced a better result, regardless of issues of process? This interpretation of your words seems to derive additional support from your observation ‘the fact that a process is bad does not absolutely exclude good results’ — the only way this can be relevant is if you consider that at least in some cases the merits of a result can justify support even if the process was bad. But if that’s your position, you can’t consistently argue that faults of a process alone can justify opposition — to be consistent, you would have to qualify that position by advocating opposition where the process is bad and where the merits of the result are insufficient to outweigh the faults of the process.

    I also don’t understand what leads you to believe that there are occasions when voting affirmatively helps show the flaws in the process more than it obscures them. I can’t see how that could work. Besides, even if it’s true, it’s a different argument from the other one I just discussed, and the way you’ve jumbled the two together makes it even harder to follow you. (What I mean: ‘We voted for this in order to expose the flaws of the process that produced it’ is different from ‘We voted for this because it’s so good that its merits outweigh the flaws of the process that produced it’. Your first and third sentences seem to reflect one of these stances, while your second and fifth seem to add up to the other.)

  22. reason
    May 15th, 2014 at 18:34 | #22

    Of course the issue of progressivity would completely disappear if the revenue was returned evenly to the population (as it should be for pigovian taxes in general in my view). The marginal and average taxes should always be calculated for the tax and transfer system in its entireity, not piecemeal.

  23. Fran Barlow
    May 16th, 2014 at 07:47 | #23

    @J-D

    If I understand you correctly, you say that the Greens voted against the CPRS in 2009 but in favour of the CEF in 2011 because the 2011 CEF was qualitatively better than the 2009 CPRS.

    That’s certainly part of it but also, the process was

    A) far better

    and

    B) novel, at least in relation to the development of a significant piece of public policy.

    Self evidently, the CEF fell far short of what we would have wanted to implement, had we been in a position to design abatement policy. Nevertheless, it passed the test of being a measurable step towards abatement that did not foreclose a more robust set of measures later.

    Equally, it was the result of the so-called ‘new paradigm’ in which for the first time since WW2 — i.e. Outside the memory and lived experience of perhaps 90% of the citizenry, there was an executive that was answerable in parliament to people outside of the party. People at large were rightly keen, following the ALP debacle of 2009, for there to be an earnest attempt to craft the beginnings of an abatement policy, and had we not participated, few would have understood why. I would not have been one of those few. We were IMO, absolutely required to attempt to craft the best policy that the MPCCC process would permit. By contrast with 2009, we were entitled to think that the regime could not simply ignore us. The process therefore fit the educating the piblic and engaging our activists in practical experience if governance as it is standard.

    But you don’t say that the process that produced the 2011 CEF was any better than the process which produced the 2009 CPRS.

    See above. The process was both about as good as the political realities of 2011 would permit and not impossibly flawed or likely to offer a cover for undesirable ends. Nor was it a piece of misdirection designed to cover regime policy we opposed. It was self-contained.

  24. J-D
    May 16th, 2014 at 08:38 | #24

    @Fran Barlow
    1. Underlying your evaluation of the merits of the CEF, is there a general principle that it’s justifiable to support a measurable step towards a goal that does not foreclose a more robust set of measures later? If so, does that exclude the proposed levy under discussion because it would foreclose a more robust set of measures later? But how? Or what else am I missing?

    2. Again, maybe I’m missing something, but the only meaning I can extract from your reference to, in your words, ‘the so-called “new paradigm”‘ (I never heard anybody call it that) is the context of a Parliament in which the government did not have a majority in its own right in the House of Representatives. But if that’s all you mean (yet again, am I missing something?), there’s no justification from that line of reasoning for the Greens ever voting in favour of a proposal that emanates from a government with a majority in its own right in the House of Representatives. It’s a very narrow exception you’ve indicated.

    3. If the Greens are so deeply committed to good process, why did they vote in favour of the Financial Framework Amendment Act (No 3) 2012, a piece of legislation back in the news with the recent contesting of its constitutionality in the High Court? Could there have been a worse process than that Act? The only explanation given by Green Senators in the parliamentary debate on it was that they recognised that there were a lot of ‘legacy programs’ that the government had to validate. But if they were all products of bad process, why not invalidate them? Why give cover to the regime?

  25. Fran Barlow
    May 16th, 2014 at 09:31 | #25

    @J-D

    Underlying your evaluation of the merits of the CEF, is there a general principle that it’s justifiable to support a measurable step towards a goal that does not foreclose a more robust set of measures later?

    That’s an important consideration, for reasons that should be obvious. It’s a necessary condition, though not a sufficient one.

    If so, does that exclude the proposed levy under discussion because it would foreclose a more robust set of measures later?

    As I’ve explained on several occasions, the problem with the so-called deficit levy is that it is the product of a bankrupt process, and designed to divert attention from the substantive measures in the budget that shift the burden of “contributions” onto the bottom quintiles while reducing their level of service. To support the levy in such circumstances is to ride shotgun both for bankupt process and regressive tax and benefit transfers.

    but the only meaning I can extract from your reference to, in your words, ‘the so-called “new paradigm”‘ (I never heard anybody call it that)

    Then you need to pay more attention. The first references to this date from 10/9/10. Google it with 43rd parliament.

    if that’s all you mean (yet again, am I missing something?), there’s no justification from that line of reasoning for the Greens ever voting in favour of a proposal that emanates from a government with a majority in its own right in the House of Representatives.

    I was merely demonstrating that there are circumstances in which voting affirmatively can be useful. It doesn’t exhaust the possibilities of course. we voted with the LNP to strike down the Malaysian “solution” even though our reasons for doing so were radically different. We support same sex marriage legislation and would do so even if the LNP led it. If the LNP had voted to stop occupying Afghanistan, we’d have supported that too — even though their process would have been poor. If the LNP had an epiphany tomorrow and decided to save money by abandoning mandatory detention, then we’d support that too, even though that is not an important reason in our view for doing this.

    Some things are supportable even though there is bad process because one can still use the behaviour of those involved to open a dialog with the public that can be educative while relieving a malady.

    If the Greens are so deeply committed to good process, why did they vote in favour of the Financial Framework Amendment Act (No 3) 2012

    I’ve never heard of this and therefore can’t comment. I will look it up.

  26. jungney
    May 17th, 2014 at 15:22 | #26

    Albanese rightly points out that re-indexing the fuel excise is regressive:

    It’s a regressive tax because if you live further away from where you work and you don’t have public transport options, you’ll pay more and you’ll pay it every week.

    It is also regressive in so far as fuel costs represent a greater proportion of low income wages. It will have a serious impact on anyone living in rural areas, where there is no weekly price cycle, where the fuel is always at the top of the price range. The impact on people living in remote areas will be hardest hit. That’s anyone living in remote areas of the NT, WA, Qld and SA and probably a fair chunk of NSW too unless you qualify for rebates. The majority of the population in those areas doesn’t qualify for these rebates.

    So it is going to cost more to get the rellos to hospital and the kids to school and food from the shops and to socialise or be engaged with your community because in the bush, where there is virtually no public transport, all of the above usually means lots of kilometres.

    Of course, we should all drive more fuel efficient cars like the Renault, or Citroen, that doesn’t provide a spare tyre, not even a skinny emergency one. That’d be useful. And instead of using a four wheel drive to transit sticky clay roads, we could stay in town for a week or so till the road dries out; or we could park at the flooded ford and walk across a swing bridge to then carry the groceries four kilometres to the house. There are heaps of people with disabilities living in the bush where the low cost of housing compensates for the absence of services. They’re all going to be getting much more exercise, it seems, and a good thing to, the welfare bludgers.

    The absurdity of a tax on a tax appears to have escaped most. We will be paying an inflation indexed tax on the GST we already pay on fuel. The states are being goaded to demand an increase on the GST which will spiral the cost of fuel, with excise, into an unaffordable range for many people who simply cannot do without autos.

    Ridiculous.

    The only thing more ridiculous is the Green’s total political ineptitude in not seizing this opportunity to oppose the tax with a view to causing a parliamentary crisis during the current Senate.

    Hopeless. Not only will I never vote Green again, I’ll be actively dissing them at every opportunity, which is a turn around for a veteran conservationist and environmental campaigner.

  27. John Quiggin
    May 17th, 2014 at 15:30 | #27

    Your tenacity is impressive, Fran, but I’ve followed the debate reasonably closely, and I can report that no-one, except obvious Greens partisans, buys the “process” line, and many of those are under the incorrect impression that the Greens are going to oppose the Budget outright.

    Everyone I’ve read who actually cares about inequality regards this as a disaster, especially now that it seems Labor will move back to the Left of the Greens on economics. Not of course, that Labor is going far Left at all, but a party that votes for lower taxes on the rich isn’t even in the centre.

  28. J-D
    May 18th, 2014 at 10:16 | #28

    @Fran Barlow
    I’ve realised there may be another reason why I’ve repeatedly failed to understand your position.

    I agree with you that good process is important, but what I didn’t give enough thought to was that maybe we don’t have the same reasons for thinking good process is important.

    I know why I think good process is important; why do you think good process is important?

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