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Abbott without the attitude

February 5th, 2016 17 comments

Nearly five months after Malcolm Turnbull became PM, it’s finally possible to get a clear view on the big question of what the change means. Has the shift from Tony Abbott has led to a real change in policy approach, centred on growth and innovation? Or is it merely cosmetic, amounting to the end of the tribalist rhetoric and gesture politics that eventually cost Abbott his job.

Based on recent developments, the case for “merely cosmetic” seems overwhelming. Turnbull’s rhetoric about innovation is starkly at odds with the reality of:

* massive job cuts in CSIRO, focused on climate change. The fact that the new entrepreneurial CEO is flogging the dead horse of coal to diesel adds insult to injury; and

* the $5 billion Northern Australia infrastructure fund, a boondoggle based on mid-20th century rhetoric about “unlocking the North”. It was pushed by Abbott as a sop to the Institute of Public Affairs, who underwent a sudden conversion to the cause of publicly subsidised dam projects a little while ago. The political imperative has gone but the money still flows, it seems.

The picture is just as bad on other issues. Turnbull is going ahead with the $160 millikon plebiscite on equal marriage, even though its leading backers, who only pushed it as a delaying tactic, have announced they won’t be bound by the result. Turnbull should have taken these statements as releasing him from any commitments to the anti-equality right, and allowed a free (in both senses of the word) vote in Parliament instead.

On climate change, the rhetoric in Paris sounded OK, but there has been no action to speak of. Turnbull hasn’t even committed to maintaining the Renewable Energy Target, let alone increasing it as he will need to do in the absence of an effective carbon price.

I imagine the appearance of improvement will last long enough to secure an election win for Turnbull. But, unless he starts delivering some change, the reality will become evident before long.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Provocation

January 16th, 2016 47 comments

We’ve had a series of fatal and near-fatal one-punch assaults in Queensland recently, several captured on CCTV. An even worse case, except that by pure luck the victim managed to put out his hands and avoid a severe head impact was shown recently. One attacker holds the victim to let a second punch him, after which the first (much bigger) attacker delivers a “king hit” and walks off.

What shocked me about this was the alleged attacker’s lawyer, who claimed that he might have a defence of “provocation”. This medieval defence was scaled back after it was used, successfully, by a man who beat his girlfriend to death with a steering wheel lock in 2005 as a result of jealousy, but it apparently remains available to street thugs whose attacks don’t cause grievous bodily harm.

When combined with recent “one-punch” laws, the result is an absurdity. A thug who throws a punch in response to an insult* can’t predict what will happen next. If the victim falls the wrong way and dies, it’s a mandatory 15-year minimum. But if the victim is lucky, so is the thug – he can get off scot-free, or nearly so, with a defence of provocation.

Regrettably, but predictably, the Queensland Law Society has sought to maintain this barbaric defence at every stage. The Law Society’s determination to keep every possible defence open, no matter how anachronistic, undermines more reasonable concerns they have raised with respect to issues such as mandatory minimum sentences.

* Actual or claimed

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

More reform threatened

January 10th, 2016 56 comments

The Turnbull government is apparently keen to undertake more reform, in this case applying to the welfare system. This weekend I saw a couple of media reports, unsourced but apparently based on material supplied by Social Services Minister Christian Porter, based on the “alarming” projection that welfare payments will rise from $154 billion to $270 billion in a decade, more than can be accounted for by inflation and population growth.

A huge dollar figure makes for a scary headline but not for sensible analysis. The prosaic facts underlying this projection are
(a) Welfare payments are dominated by the old age pension
(b) The value age pension increases in real terms over time, since it is linked to earnings
(c) Even allowing for an increased age of eligibility, and more reliance superannuation, the proportion of the population eligible for the old age pension is unlikely to fall

Put these facts together, and it’s virtually certain that the welfare bill will grow broadly in line with national income (usually measured by GDP), and therefore will outstrip growth in population and inflation. Indeed, a quick check suggests a compound rate of growth of about 6 per cent*, almost exactly in line with nominal GDP (assuming 3.5 per cent real growth and 2.5 per cent inflation).

The government’s proposed reforms appear to involve attacks on recipients of welfare in the popular media sense of the term (Jobstart, disability benefits and so on). But the only ways in which the growth rate of the welfare bill can be held much below that of GDP are
(i) Freeze the real value of age pensions, as has been done to Jobstart since the 1990s; or
(ii) Reduce access to the age pension, either by further raising the access age or by tigntening means and assets tests.

* Porter’s briefing apparently suggested 7 per cent, which I can’t replicate. Feel free to check.

Directional politics

January 6th, 2016 21 comments

A few Prime Ministers back, Australian politics seemed to be all about Western Sydney. On the conservative side of politics, unremarkable politicians who managed to win and hold former Labor electorates were lionised, while similar wins in other parts of the country were seen as part of the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics. On the Labor side, the region was invoked by the NSW Right (many of whom preferred not to live there) as the basis for its “aspirational” politics. This was all nonsense. The two million or so people who live in Western Sydney vary far more among themselves than they differ from the Australian population as a whole. To the extent that they have any sort of collective identity it hasn’t stopped large numbers of them for voting for (or, for that matter, against) governments led by silvertails from the North Shore, Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs.

But since the brief return of Kevin Rudd, the focus has shifted back to an area of more traditional concern: Northern Australia and its supposed need for development. I had hoped to see the end of this when Turnbull became PM, especially given the government’s fiscal woes. But sadly, this is not to be. Not only is the $5 billion development fund still alive, but we are getting stories about Turnbull’s plans to “unlock the North“.

As it happens, I’m in North Queensland right now, and I lived in Townsville for most of the 1990s. Like everyone else in the region I received a special “zone allowance” under the tax system to compensate me for living in a pleasant (if rather warm) coastal city with all the amenities that would be expected by a resident of, say, Newcastle or Wollongong. I understand that this allowance is still available. Nothing of the sort is on offer to people in poor suburbs or declining country towns in the rest of the country.

Like every other place in Australia, the North has plenty of unmet needs for services and, though to a much lesser extent than people seem to think, physical infrastructure. But it is in no sense “locked up”. There are road, rail and air transport links that meet the needs of the region with the same adequacy or lack of it as most other places in the country. Internet access is taken for granted in all but the remotest parts of the region. Ports, and transport links to them, are well developed to carry agricultural and mineral exports wherever they need to be sent. And so on.

Moreover, as with Western Sydney, the region has much the same diversity as the rest of the country, with a corresponding diversity of needs and wants. The cities of Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and Darwin differ as greatly from each other and from the rural areas they serve as they do from cities and regions in the rest of Australia.

We don’t need a Northern Australia policy any more than we need a Western Sydney policy. Public infrastructure projects should be assessed on the basis of their merits, and not their location. Private investment should be left to the commercial judgement of those involved. The $5 billion development fund should be rolled back into general revenue and used wherever it is most needed.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

What the unions really need

January 2nd, 2016 54 comments

As I observed here, the Trade Union Royal Commission has spent tens of millions of public money to show that the corrupt behavior of a number of Health Services Union officials is the exception rather than the rule. The payments made to a dozen or more TURC lawyers, after a ‘limited tender‘ process of very dubious propriety, far exceed the amounts involved in any of the handful of offences alleged in the Commission’s report.

But that’s not to say all is well with the Australian movement. The steady decline in union membership is mostly the result of external causes (the increased power of employers, a stream of anti-union laws, and so on), but the unions haven’t always helped their own cause.

Here are some changes I think are needed:

* Term limits for union officials. To take just two examples, Bill Ludwig has been Secretary of the Queensland AWU since 1988 while Joe DeBruyn was National Secretary of the SDA from 1978 to 2014. Both men used their entrenched position to exert political power within the Labor Party, in ways entirely unrelated to the interests and concerns of their members. Which brings me to:

* Ending affiliation with the Labor Party (or any political party). Bob Hawke recently pushed this idea as a way of freeing the ALP from the corrupting influence of the CFMEU. But the real problem is the other way around. The ALP, like most Australian political parties is a shell, controlled by factional chiefs, notably including union officials who control important blocks of votes. Obviously, someone whose main role is as a party apparatchik can hardly do a good job of representing workers

* Actual workplace experience for officials. Bill Ludwig was, at least for a few years, a pastoral worker before he was a union official. By contrast, Joe De Bruyn was one of the first representatives of a modern type – the career union official. He went to work in the SDA straight out of uni , getting the job on the basis of DLP political connections, and stayed there until he retired 40 years later.

Feel free to comment or offer your own suggestions.

Update A colleague tells me that, before devoting himself to the concerns of retail workers, Joe de Bruyn had a brief stint as an agricultural economist at the University of Sydney, where I also worked early in my career. Agricultural economics was a formative influence for quite a few Australian politicians, notably including John Dawkins and John Kerin, as well as many who became prominent in the public service and the broader economics profession.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

What about the iceberg ?

December 31st, 2015 40 comments

The Trade Unions Royal Commission report, released in the dead news time between Christmas and New Year has had an extraordinarily soft reception from the media. After spending tens of millions of dollars of public money (not to mention the amount witnesses would have had to spend on legal representation) Dyson Heydon has come up with about a dozen allegations of criminal corruption. By far the largest is one involving his own former star witness, Kathy Jackson. Most of the others are for small amounts, some as minor as using the union credit card to get a tattoo.

Of course, it’s deplorable that the funds of union members should be misused for private purposes, and if the allegations turn out to be true, those involved should face the appropriate penalties. But compare these allegations to the routine behavior of members of Parliament. Under the “Minchin rule”, they can charge almost anything they like, with no penalty greater than being required to repay expenditures found to be unjustified. Even while Heydon’s inquiry was running, we saw revelations of misuse of public funds on both sides of politics, notably including senior figures in the government that launched this inquiry. And the situation in the business sector is no different.

Heydon’s other allegations are directed against union officials for the way they do their job. In this respect, the unions can’t win: the AWU gets hit for sweetheart deals, and the CFMEU for going too far in the opposite direction, with allegations of intimidation and blackmail. It’s important to remember these are only allegations. On past experience, most will fall over in court, if they make it that far.

Heydon claims that his findings represent “the tip of the iceberg”, but surely, after all this expenditure and long running hearings, we are entitled to expect the whole iceberg. The Auditor-General should be called upon to investigate this appalling waste of public money.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A quiet word

December 17th, 2015 51 comments

Apparently, the Director-General of ASIO has been getting in touch, quietly, with a number of government MPs, warning them that their anti-Islamic comments are potentially damaging to national security. They have been complaining about this as an infringement of free speech. Their comments have been made to News Corporation publications (which have published similar comments and could be subject to the same criticism). Julie Bishop has defended ASIO’s actions, but she is in the wrong.

It’s highly unlikely that the MPs in question would have been upset if ASIO had warned off MPs who were seen as being too soft on terrorism. But their hypocrisy doesn’t justify ASIO’s intervention in politics. Both MPs and newspapers are entitled to freedom of speech, and shouldn’t have security officials telling them what to say or not to say.

On the other hand, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Having accepted the judgement that government MPs are acting in a manner prejudicial to national security, Turnbull and Bishop can’t sit on their hands. They should be telling the MPs in question to choose between keeping quiet and moving to the cross-benches, where they can say whatever they like without implicating the government.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Won’t anybody think about the sceptics?

December 15th, 2015 50 comments

Annabel Crabb asks “Who will speak for the sceptics now” and concludes “Watch this space, because it won’t be empty for long”.

In my view, Crabb is relying on two dubious assumptions. The first is that the denialist position adopted under Abbott reflected the “scepticism” of the party base, rather than vice versa. The great majority of “sceptics” are, in fact, credulous believers in what they are told by trusted authority figures, notably including conservative political leaders. Since most LNP voters appear to be happy with the shift to Turnbull, it seems likely that they will adjust their opinions to fit with those of the government. The minority who are seriously unhappy have nowhere else to go.

The second assumption is that any view which is widely held in the general community will inevitably get some political representation. That simply isn’t true. To take a couple of examples, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests strong support (not from the same people, though I’m sure there’s overlap) for the reintroduction of capital punishment and for the renationalisation of the Commonwealth Bank. Those views aren’t represented in the political process and aren’t likely to be.

Coming back to Crabb’s question, if we were going to see a significant backlash against Turnbull on this issue, there would be background leaks from senior ministers, not snarky tweets from insignificant backbenchers. People like Robb, Frydenberg and Dutton, who presumably would prefer the Abbott line, have stayed quiet, as far as I can tell.

The one option for denialists is a minor party run for the Senate. That would create some nasty complications regarding preferences, but wouldn’t really change anything, any more than the election of an LDP senator did last time around.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Meet the new boss …

September 24th, 2015 44 comments

As has happened before, I was travelling when the Prime Ministership suddenly changed hands. I’m still on holiday, though I briefly appeared before the South Australian Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle yesterday. But even without following the news closely, it’s easy enough to see that the Turnbull LNP government is basically the Abbott government with the gratuitous culture war element removed.

On climate change, for example, we’ve seen the end of attempts to kill the highly successful Clean Energy Finance Corporation, but no major change to the absurdly misnamed “Direct Action” policy, and a doubling down on Abbott’s support for coal from newly promoted minister Josh Frydenberg.

In particular, contrary to suggestions that Turnbull is going to push for a more “market liberal” approach, Frydenberg is still touting the idea of subsidising the Adani Carmichael boondoggle. I doubt that anything will come of this (on this score, the supposed deal with Downer EDI to build Adani’s railroad seems to have quietly died), but it’s indicative of the government’s position. And the new coalition deal, handing over water policy to Barnaby Joyce, amounts to a repudiation of everything Turnbull stood for when he was Water Minister under Howard.

The abandonment of the culture wars looks like something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was obviously necessary, given the extent to which Abbott’s absurdities discredited the whole enterprise. On the other hand, much of the LNP base and commentariat are so committed to culture war politics that they will have grave difficulty in supporting Turnbull even if they want to: most of their usual lines against inner city elites, latte liberals and so on are far more applicable to their own new leader than to Labor and the Greens.

My success as a pundit is notoriously mixed. Still, I find it hard to see how Turnbull can sustain his initial bounce in the polls without taking tougher decisions than those he has been willing to make so far.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A CHAFTA election? (updated)

September 17th, 2015 47 comments

Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Abbott has been the subject of much commentary, and I didn’t have anything to add. But now it’s time to look beyond the juggling of Cabinet positions and to consider some of the long term implications. Turnbull’s rise takes off the table, or radically changes the politics of, a number of issues that would have been central to an Abbott election campaign. Most obviously, there are the issues (climate change, equal marriage, republicanism) where Turnbull is known to agree with Labor but has said he will stick with Abbott’s policies. Obviously, Turnbull can’t run hard on these. It remains to be seen whether Labor can make political mileage out of the contradictions involved.

The ground Turnbull wants to fight on is that of economic liberalism, primarily as represented by the so-called Free Trade Agreements with Korea, Japan and, most importantly, China.

Turnbull has the near-unanimous support of the elites on these deals, even though it’s hard to find even a single economist who would support them with any enthusiasm. Anyone who has looked seriously at the issue understands that the trade aspect of these agreements is trivial. What matters are the side clauses on issues like Investor-State Dispute Settlement procedures, intellectual property, environmental protection and so forth. Unfortunately, political journalists, as a class, don’t do much thinking.

Here, for example, is Laurie Oakes, asserting that

>Labor needs to end up supporting this trade deal. That is the bottom line

but not providing a single argument in favour. In typical “Insider” style, Oakes says

The government charge that Labor is sabotaging jobs would not be a difficult one to sustain.

without worrying about whether this charge is actually true (it isn’t).

In the case of CHAFTA (the unlovely acronym for the China deal), the big problem is not in the agreement itself, but in a “Memorandum of Understanding”, which provides for circumstances under which a Chinese company can import its own workforce, without labour market testing (that is, even if there are Australians willing and able to fill the jobs) and without matching existing conditions.
Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

We need a new word for “reform”

August 27th, 2015 44 comments

Hardly anyone bothered to pay attention to the “National Reform Summit” put on by the Oz and the Fin the other day. The word “reform” tells us everything we need to know about this event: yet more invocations of the exhausted policy agenda of the 1980s, all with the implicit message that we need to work harder. Both Jeff Sparrow at Overland and Ben Eltham at New Matilda have pieces today making this point.

“Reform”, meaning “change for the better” was always a problematic concept, but it was a useful word, and we don’t have a good alternative. I don’t think a single replacement is feasible, but I’d like to try out some alternatives, and call for other suggestions

“Redesign” and “restructuring” are reasonably neutral and can be used to indicate a wide range of policy changes, without assuming anything specific. For example, “retirement income policy redesign”.

“Liberalisation” describes a wide range of things for which “reform” is commonly used, for example “drug law liberalisation” or “financial market liberalisation”. This gives a pretty clear indication of the general line of policy change, without the approval implicit in “reform” (except to the extent that support for liberalization in general is assumed).

What is lacking is a good single word term for what was the primary connotation of “reform” until the 1980s, namely, policy changes along social democratic lines. Any suggestions?

Categories: Dictionary, Oz Politics Tags:

Is anyone surprised …

August 25th, 2015 23 comments

… by Martin Ferguson’s emergence as an enemy of the Labor Party and the trade union movement? I’m certainly not. Ten years ago, reviewing Michael Thompson’s Labor without Class, to which Ferguson contributed a laudatory foreword, I wrote

The obvious inference from Thompson’s book is not that Labor should change its position but that he, and others who share his views, should join the Liberals.

In 2009, looking at political nepotism in general, I said,

People like Belinda Neal and Martin Ferguson would never have made it into Parliament on their own merits, and would probably have been on the other side if not for their family ties

In between, I noted Ferguson’s support for John Howard’s climate do-nothingism as an argument against the hereditary principle in politics.

My record as a political prognosticator is notoriously mixed, but I got this one right.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Three word slogans

August 22nd, 2015 18 comments

I have a piece up at the Drum, looking at how the three-word slogan approach of the Abbott government helps to explain their budget problems. Text is over the fold

Read more…

Big Tobacco: A threat to Australian democracy

August 20th, 2015 29 comments

The news that the tobacco industry is seeking to abuse Freedom of Information legislation to gain access to surveys of Australian teenage attitudes to smoking confirms what has been obvious for a long time. The tobacco industry is a threat to democracy. Among its many hostile actions
* Misusing ISDS and other provisions of trade treaties to undermine domestic health policy
* Debasing public debate through the use of scientists for hire, fraudulent lobby groups and thinktanks, vexatious litigation and other tactics. In the use, these actions have led to criminal racketeering. The denialist apparatus set up by the tobacco industry was taken over by the fossil fuel lobby to promote global warming denialism
* Large scale purchasing of politicians and political parties

The big question is, what should be done about this? We need to consider a comprehensive approach to drug policy, which would also take account of the failure of the War on Drugs, and provide a model for legalisation of currently illegal drugs. That rules out prohibition of tobacco, but would leave no role for corporate pushers.

Even if we don’t get there immediately, it’s highly desirable to start the discussion. Big Tobacco and its friends should be warned there is something to lose from attacking democratic government.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Polls and punters, yet again

August 17th, 2015 52 comments

I just read this piece on The Drum, taking the line that it’s better to rely on the betting markets, which have Labor and the government level-pegging, than on the polls, which have had Labor well ahead for a long time. Elections are only held every few years, so they don’t provide much data on which to test the relative performance of the two. But, if markets give better estimates than polls, we should expect to see movements in the poll results follow those in the market rather than vice versa (in econometrics, this is called Granger causality). Digging around, I located a study finding that, if anything, movements in polls Granger cause movements in betting markets.

Since a compelling observation beats an econometric analysis for most people, let’s look at the 18 months or so since I last posted on this topic. Labor started out with a small lead in the polls and stayed consistently in front, with the lead varying over time. Meanwhile, the betting markets favored the government until very recently, before moving to even money. It seems clear in this case, that the markets are following the polls and not vice versa.

Categories: Oz Politics, Politics (general) Tags:

How our Senate (and not the US Senate) blocked the TPP

August 4th, 2015 17 comments

Following the breakdown of talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership last week, I did a quick reaction piece for Inside Story, making the point that our much-maligned Senate was the most important source of resistance to the demands for yet more protection for US pharmaceuticals, demands that make a mockery of both the claim that the TPP is a “free trade agreement” and the “diffusion of knowledge” rationale for the patent system.

The socialist objective

July 31st, 2015 55 comments

There’s a push within the ALP to remove the party’s long-standing socialist objective, which states

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.

Then follows a long list of commitments, notably including
(i) the restoration and maintenance of full employment;
(j) the abolition of poverty, and the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity; and
(k) social justice and equality for individuals, the family and all social units, and the elimination of exploitation in the home

I’m ambivalent about this, both as as regards substance and timing. When I started this blog, I made the decision to describe myself as a social democrat rather than a democratic socialist. In 2006, I gave the following explanation, in a comment

I prefer “social democratic” because it clearly refers to the set of policies implemented and advocated by social democrats in the second half of the 20th century, including a mixed economy, an active welfare state, government responsibility for full employment and so on.

By contrast, socialism is less well defined. It can mean comprehensive public ownership, which I don’t support, or it can be just a general statement of values and aspirations, consistent with social democracy.

So, if the change was simply to replace “democratic socialist” with “social democratic”, and to give a description of goals consistent with that, I’d have no problem. But let’s look at the text proposed by NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley[1]

The Australian Labor Party has as its objective the achievement of a just and equitable society where every person has the opportunity to realise their potential.

“We believe in an active role for government, and the operation of competitive markets, in order to create opportunities for all Australians, so that every person will have the freedom to pursue their wellbeing, in co-operation with their fellow citizens, free from exploitation and discrimination”.

Foley’s further comments make no reference to full employment, equality, poverty or any other social democratic concerns. He goes on to say

We understand that competitive markets are best placed to deliver the economic growth that the people we represent rely on.

We also know that regulation and redistribution are necessary to correct market failures, to ensure dignity and opportunity for all Australians.

Is there anything here that Tony Abbott, or even Joe Hockey, could disagree with?

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Sea change

July 27th, 2015 25 comments

Maybe it’s my chronic over-optimism, but it seems to me as if there has been a sudden change in the long-sputtering debate about taxation in Australia. Until a few weeks ago, “tax reform” was, as it had long been, code a “tax mix switch” which in turn was code for “tax food and use the proceeds to cut the company tax rate or the top marginal rate of taxation”. Joe Hockey was still pushing the second part of this package only a week ago.

But the reports coming out of the recent COAG summit seemed to convey a general acceptance that more tax revenue is needed to fund health expenditure in particular. The two top options were an increase in the rate of GST or an increase in the Medicare levy, with little mention of “base broadening” (more code for taxing food).

Meanwhile, Labor has been talking about a Buffett tax, that is, a minimum rate of tax levied on gross incomes, regardless of deductions. And, while the LNP still assumes that it can win by running against a “carbon tax”, that belief seems to have come unmoored from any general theoretical viewpoint. How can Abbott run against a “great big new tax on everything”, if he is happy to discuss a 50 per cent increase in our existing “great big tax on everything”, the GST?

I’m not clear what has happened to bring this about, or whether I’m misreading the signals. But it certainly looks to me as if the great political taboo against even mentioning higher taxes has been broken.

Nuclear power in Australia

June 7th, 2015 44 comments

I’ve decided to make a submission to the South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. I can’t actually submit until I find a JP or similar to witness it. This is a minor inconvenience for me, but may be a big problem for plenty of interested groups (for example, indigenous people). On the upside, I have time to ask for comments, and maybe make changes in response. This thread will be open to discussion of any issues related to nuclear power. However, in the event of lengthy two-person debates emerging, I’d ask the parties to move to the sandpits and leave room for everyone else.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Profit and public health

June 4th, 2015 74 comments

Amid the abandonment of tariff protection and the continued assaults on trade unionism, one union/lobby group has been consistently victorious. The Pharmacy Guild has managed to restrict competition so successfully that it’s impossible to open a pharmacy if it might hurt the profitability of an existing business, even if that business is failing to serve a significant group of customers. I ran into an example when I was at James Cook University in Townsville. A request for an on-campus pharmacy was rejected because it was within the market area claimed by a suburban pharmacy, more than a kilometre away and inaccessible by public transport.

Far more important to the Guild is the imperative of keeping supermarkets out of the pharmacy business. The key argument is that supermarkets are just businesses, happy to sell anything to make a buck, whether it’s cigarettes or cancer medications.

So, I was interested to read the Guild’s reaction to a proposal that medical professionals should stop prescribing homeopathic products. Whatever you might think about alternative/complementary medicines in general, homoepathy is plain quackery, combining a magical theory of medicine with the preposterous physics of water memory. Unsurprisingly, research has proved beyond any doubt that it’s no better than a placebo. So, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has formally recommended GPs stop prescribing homeopathic remedies and says pharmacists must also stop stocking such products.

The Guild’s reaction:

it is not a regulatory authority, and as such there will be no recommendation backing RACGP’s call for homeopathic products to be taken off the market.

In other words, selling medicine in the same shop as alcohol is unthinkable, but it’s entirely OK for a health professional to promote and sell water as a treatment for serious illness.

This episode demonstrates, to anyone who cares to look, that the Pharmacy Guild is (and in fact claims to be) nothing more than a rent-seeking lobby group, whose sole concern is the profitability of its members. As the Tobacco Institute of Australia would be quick to point out (if it were still around), there’s nothing illegal about that. But when profits and public health come into conflict, the Guild and the Institute are on the same side.

Going early ?

May 2nd, 2015 41 comments

According to the usually well-informed Laurie Oakes, the Abbott government is seriously considering the prospect of a double dissolution election, following the impending Budget. This makes no sense to me, not that this should mean it is unlikely to happen.

To recap, talk of a double dissolution emerged last year, in the wake of the Senate’s blocking of unpopular Budget measures. Facing bad polls, the government abandoned the double dissolution idea, then dumped most of the measures. The new budget is supposed to be pain-free and popular. But, if so, what is the need for a double dissolution to get it through

The obvious inference is that, once returned with a more compliant Senate, the government will return to its true agenda. How can this argument be refuted, given that the same agenda was explicitly repudiated before the 2013 election, only to emerge immediately thereafter?

Then there’s the question of a trigger/pretext. The only current trigger, I believe, is the bill to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. This is hardly a popular cause on which to fight an election, but more so than university deregulation, mentioned by Oakes as a possible second trigger.

Insiders generally assume that the trigger is a mere formality, of no electoral significance. But these are the same insiders who assured us back in 2010 that the Prime Ministership is in the gift of the relevant Parliamentary Party and that voters should not presume to be upset by an unexpected change. Given that it is nearly 30 years since the last double dissolution, I imagine many voters will want to know what is going on, and may have the temerity to take the constitution seriously.

Insiders are also easily impressed by a well-timed early election. Experience suggests that voters are not so impressed, and are likely to punish a government that goes early for no good reason. The most recent example was Campbell Newman in Queensland. He might perhaps have lost anyway, but he certainly didn’t benefit from running a campaign during the school holidays, despite his much-touted cleverness in “catching Labor by surprise”. Similarly, Kevin Rudd went early, when he would have done better (IMO) to take some time pointing out the weakness of Abbott’s position. And back in 1984, Bob Hawke went early to take advantage of his massive popularity, but still ended up with an adverse swing.

That’s my take, but perhaps the insiders know better.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Goodbye to CPD

April 17th, 2015 30 comments

Like Mark Bahnisch, Eva Cox and a number of others, I’ve resigned as a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. It’s a sad day, since CPD has done a lot of great work, and I’ve enjoyed being involved in it. But the leadership of the Centre has taken a decision to move to the right in the hope of being more relevant to the policy process. The most recent outcome has been a paper on tax policy that broadly accepts the Treasury view of the issue, and pushes for a broadening of the GST base, which means taxation of fresh food. This isn’t a new or innovative idea. Rather, it has been part of rightwing orthodoxy for decades. CPDs endorsement allows its advocates to claim some “left” support. That claim obviously gained credibility from having Fellows like Mark, Eva and me. So, we had no alternative but to resign.

I should clarify that, apart from a nice title and a publishing outlet, I wasn’t getting any direct benefit from being part of CPD. So, I’m making a statement rather than a sacrifice.

The Australian Sharia Lobby

April 6th, 2015 49 comments

There were a bunch of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations at the weekend, sparked by supposed concerns about the possibility of Islamic sharia law being imposed in Australia. While the anti-sharia demonstrators were clearly drawn from the extremist fringe, there has been plenty of commentary on this subject from commentators generally regarded as mainstream, and from elected politicians such as Cory Bernardi and Jacquie Lambie.

The prospect of any significant legislation being based on Islamic sharia law seems pretty remote. On the other hand, those who claim to be concerned about sharia law (the Arabic term simply means ‘religious law) might want to consider the much more relevant issue of ‘sharīʿat al-Masīḥ’ (the Arabic term for ‘religious law of Christianity’).

Despite the Australian Constitutional prohibition on establishing any religion, lots of Australian laws are derived from Christian taboos, and many more have been in the past. Equally importantly, there is a group called the Australian Christian Lobby which, as the name implies, lobbies for the imposition of sharīat al-Masīḥ. Its activities are reported as if it is a legitimate political grouping, and not, as concerns about sharia law would suggest, a theocratic danger to our personal freedom.

When you look at the kind of issues being pushed by the Australian Christian Lobby, notably on their signature issue of opposition to gay rights, there’s not much difference from what you might expect from proponents of sharia law.

As I’ve said before, it seems highly likely that Christians will soon be in the minority in Australia. So, my unsolicited advice to the ACL is that they should support tolerance and civil liberties for all, rather than attempting to use the temporary majority status of Christianity to impose their version of sharia law. There’s nothing wrong with political activity being motivated by general religious values, but a lot wrong with attempts to impose your own religious taboos on others.

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How long can Abbott last?

February 25th, 2015 136 comments

Judging by the tone of media coverage, Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership has now entered its terminal phase. Everything he does and says is being judged on that basis, with every slipup a potential disaster.

But having just beaten a spill motion, and with at least moderately good news from the polls, he can scarcely be removed immediately. On the other hand, as long as he stays in office, the government is effectively in lame duck mode, with its every decision open to reversal by his successor. To take the most recent example, if Abbott were replaced by Turnbull, the attacks on Gillian Triggs would cease instantly.

The big timing issue relates to the Budget, due in May. It’s obvious that, if Abbott goes, so does Hockey, which would be highly problematic if the removal took place after the budget was delivered but before it got through Parliament. Yet some reports I’ve read suggest that a lot of senior Liberals want to give Abbott & Hockey a chance to make a success of this Budget, then dump them if it fails.

On a side issue, the fact that the Prime Ministership is decided only by the Liberal Party members of the coalition is quite a big deal. Abbott would obviously do better if the two parties merged, or even if the Queensland LNP were part of the federal Liberal party rather than the bizarre camel it is now.

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Time to abandon ‘reform’ as a policy and as a word

February 12th, 2015 33 comments

In the early years of this blog, I spent a lot of time trying to find a sensible way of handling the word “reform”. But now I think it’s been corrupted beyond any hope of redemption. My conclusion is that we should never use the word, and be instantly suspicious of anyone who does. Most Australian voters have already reached this position, I think (see also, “productivity“).

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Turnbull and the Renewable Energy Target

February 8th, 2015 34 comments

At the minute of writing (1404 Sunday), it looks as if Malcolm Turnbull will replace Tony Abbott as PM tomorrow. Among his many challenges will be climate change policy, the issue that brought him undone last time around. The word appears to be that he will adhere to the platform from the 2013 election, which rules out a carbon price (tax or ETS) but gives him room to move in various directions.The assumption is that this compromise will buy both Turnbull and the climate deniers in the LNP enough time to work out some kind of solution.

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the Abbott government, in defiance of the 2013 platform, has been doing its best to make drastic cuts in the Renewable Energy Target. To the extent that the processes of government are going on during the current mess, negotations with Labor and the minor parties are still under way. Turnbull will have to decide, more or less immediately, whether to keep pushing for deep cuts.

There’s a further problem. Turnbull can’t simply drop the issue and leave things as they are. Abbott’s obvious intention to destroy the scheme has had a chilling effect on investment, particularly in the wind sector. Under the current rules, fossil fuel generators need to offset their generation with certificates from renewable generators. But it now seems unlikely that there will be enough certificates by 2020, which would result in the triggering of penalty clauses. So, the scheme needs some kind of change.

The Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a member put out a report just before Christmas last year, suggesting that the target date of 2020 be shifted out, and that the duration of the scheme be extended past 2030. That’s one possible solution, though not the only one.

The problem for Turnbull is that any realistic solution will instantly enrage the climate deniers, while continuing on the current path will put him in the position of owning Abbott’s broken promises.

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Lib/LNP leadership schadenfreude thread

February 3rd, 2015 146 comments

When I posted on the Liberal leadership, I assumed that the right wing of the Liberal party was organized enough to persuade Abbott to go quietly and to install Bishop rather than Turnbull to replace him. Neither assumption looks safe now, and my overestimation of LNP organizational capacities has been shown up by the fiasco in Queensland. So, I’ll sit back and enjoy the fun, leaving you to offer whatever thoughts you have on the topic, or on related issues.

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Queensland election outcome (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

February 1st, 2015 87 comments

We just had an election in my home state of Queensland, and the outcomes will be of some broader interest, I hope. The governing Liberal National (= conservative) Party has (almost certainly) gone down to a surprise defeat, going from 78 of 89 seats at the last election to a probable 40 or 41 this time. The key issues were broken promises (particularly regarding job cuts) and government proposals for privatisation.

This can be seen either as a reversal or a repeat of the last election when the governing Labor Party went from 51 seats to 7. That election was also fought on broken promises and privatisation, but with the roles of the parties reversed (Labor had won an election opposing privatisation, then immediately announced it would go ahead).

Among the actual or potential ramifications

* The first instance of a woman Opposition Leader defeating an incumbent government at state or national level in Australia (there have been examples in the much smaller territory governments, but I think this is the first case at State level. The more common pattern has been for a woman to get a “hospital pass” when it is clear that the government is on the way out.
* At the national level, the replacement of the current conservative prime minister Tony Abbott
* The abandonment of the biggest coal mine project in Australia

Looking internationally, the outcome can be seen as a defeat for the politics of austerity and maybe as an example to suggest that Pasokification can be reversed, under the right circumstances.

Finally, I’ll link to my analysis of the asset sales, which got a reasonably prominent run during the campaign. It probably didn’t change many minds, but it helped to counter the barrage of pro-privatisation propaganda.

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LNP needs a Plan C

January 30th, 2015 104 comments

There’s been a lot of discussion about the fact that the Queensland LNP needs a Plan B, in case they are returned to government, but Campbell Newman loses his seat of Ashgrove.

No one seems to have noticed that they really need a Plan C, for the case when neither party wins an absolute majority, which would almost certainly imply a loss for Newman. A couple of points arise here

* Both Newman and Labor leader Anna Palaszczuk have ruled out a minority government. But with Newman gone, some other LNP leader might say his position was inoperative

* The Governor needs to call on someone to attempt the formation of a government. That could be Newman, Palaszczuk, some other LNP figure or even an independent.

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Abbott, Knight and Bishop

January 27th, 2015 104 comments

In making my predictions for 2015, I was tempted to predict that Abbott would last out the year, mainly on the basis of inertia, but decided it was too risky (Commenter Fran B sensibly went the other way). I’m already glad of that: even before Sir Phil, it seemed as if he was on the skids.

Assuming Abbott goes (still not certain, but looking more likely with every hour), Julie Bishop looks like a sure thing to replace him. She has looked pretty good as Foreign Minister (if you’re willing to overlook a massive cut in foreign aid), but that’s relatively easy, largely a matter of not messing up. If she does take over, she’ll need to do more than that.

To demonstrate that there’s a real change, she’ll have to break with Abbott on some major issues. Presumably that will include dumping Hockey and the most unpopular of the 2014 budget measures, but most of those are already dead.

The really big break would be to return to some kind of bipartisanship on climate change. There’s some precedent, given the way she stood up to him over going to the Lima meeting. But it would entail a break with the (numerous) denialists and tribalists in the party room and the broader party apparatus (including the Murdoch Press and bodies like the IPA). Still, if she could carry it off, she would be a force to be reckoned with.

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