The (presumably) forthcoming double dissolution will raise many issues. But most of them can be summed up as the defence of Australian institutions that have been under attack by radical extremists. I’m referring to such institutions as the ABC, CSIRO, the weekend, public education, the union movement, the fair go and our natural environment. Mention of any of these is enough to raise a derisive sneer from the radical rightwing apparatus that dominates much of Australian politics, most obviously the supporters of Tony Abbott who (ludicrously) call themselves “conservatives”. Turnbull promised something better but he is campaigning against all the institutions I’ve mentioned. It’s time to tell those who want to undermine our way of life in the name of free market ideology and rightwing tribalism where they should get off.
In political terms, it’s hard to fault Labor’s call for a Royal Commission into the banking system. It’s a neat riposte to the government’s Double Dissolution trigger, the ABCC bill derived from the Royal Commission into trade union corruption, which spent $100 million to announce that it had discovered a handful of cases of petty corruption*, claimed to be “the tip of the iceberg”. (That was one of a string of Royal Commissions set up as political vendettas by the Abbott government, none of which found anything useful.) The hypocrisy of this effort, when we are daily bombarded with evidence of corruption in business, finance and the LNP itself is obvious, and the proposed Commission provides a convenient political hook. And doubtless there will be plenty of evidence of individual wrongdoing, real or alleged.
However, I don’t think this proposed Commission will be any more useful, in practice, than Abbott’s. The problem with the banks is not so much breaches of the rules but the rules themselves. What we need is another inquiry which, unlike the Campbell, Wallis and Murray inquiries is not run by advocates of financial deregulation.
The Royal Commission we should really have is one into Abbott’s Royal Commissions, taking the same nakedly political approach as those Commissions did. The Commissioners, the counsel assisting and the government ministers who called the Commissions should be questioned on the political understandings with which they approached the job, the waste of public money involved. With luck, that would deter any future use of Royal Commissions as partisan vendettas, and leave them to inquire into real issues of public concern, where the powers of Royal Commissions really are necessary.
Finally an observation and a question: Having been critical of the TU Royal Commission, I’ve tried to be consistent in the prediction that this one will be similarly ineffectual. Did any of those now arguing that we don’t need a Royal Commission into banking make the same observation about TURC?
* As far as I know, no union offical has yet been convicted of a corruption offence as a result of the Commission’s work, while at least four prosecutions have failed or been dropped. My guess is that the total number of convictions will end up below 10, and the total amount of money involved not much more than a million dollars. That’s a pretty appalling return for $100 million of public funds that could have been used to protect the community against armed robbers and burglars, not to mention white collar criminals.
Rather inconveniently for the government, it had no sooner dismissed calls for more tax revenue from the usual lefty suspects (including me), when Moody’s came out with a warning that the much-loved AAA credit rating couldn’t be saved with expenditure cuts alone*.
Scott Morrison came back with a line that must have sounded like a good idea at the time. On the one hand “of course there will be revenue measures in the budget”. But, unlike Labor “additional revenue would be applied to reducing the tax burden in other parts of the economy”
That sounds good if you say it quickly enough. But let’s put some specifics in there. It seems clear that “revenue measures” means higher tobacco taxes. and “reducing the tax burden in other parts of the economy” means cuts in the company tax rate and the budget repair levy. So, Morrison’s budget message is
we’re going to tax smokers to fund cuts in company tax and tax relief for top income earners.
Good luck with that.
Of course, Labor is also planning higher tobacco taxes. But they will be able to say that they are using the revenue to fund better health services. And, of course, Labor has been consistent while the tobacco hike will be another backflip for the LNP (unless they get cold feet and do a double backflip, as seems entirely possible).
I’ve given up betting on elections after being unable to collect my winnings when Intrade collapsed a few years back. But for those so inclined, I’d recommend a look at Sportsbet, who are still offering 3.5 to 1 against Labor supplying the next PM (minor aside: most scenarios for so-called “hung” parliaments would lead to this outcome)
* I’m not a believer in ratings agencies, as I’ve said many times, and I don’t think a AAA rating is particularly meaningful. However, the core input to the rating is an estimate of future budget balance, so it’s not all that surprising that Moody’s, looking at the same data, have reached the same conclusion as I did.
A couple of days ago, I was one of fifty signatories to a letter opposing the proposed cut in company tax rate and rejecting the general idea that Australia needs lower taxes. We got excellent coverage from the ABC, Fairfax papers and so on. But by far the most extensive was from The Australian. I counted at least four stories all with a prominent run on the website
* A straight new story, though of course replete with phrases like “the left wing establishment”
* The IPA attacking the signatories as the “fatuous fifty”
* Shorten also attacking the company tax cut as a recipe for “mayhem”
* A front page piece saying a tax increase is a lazy way of solving our problems
Not so long ago, the Oz would have ignored a statement like this (or stuck it in a short story on the inside pages) with the plausible justification that it’s just a bunch of lefties saying what lefties usually say. The fact that they felt the need to reply over and over is revealing, in two ways.
Until quite recently, any discussion of income inequality in Australia was met by howls of “class war” from the political right. Particularly under Abbott, the right wanted to fight on culture war issues, while treating economic policy as a matter of competent management, in which the conservative parties were assumed, by default, to be superior.
Suddenly, however, it appears we are going to have a class war election, largely because of the choices made by the Turnbull government.
With the ebbing of Turnbull triumphalism, it’s become evident that the forthcoming election may produce, as in 2010, a House of Represenatives in which neither Labor nor the LNP has an absolute majority. Such an outcome has been common at the state level for some time, and is the norm in upper house elections based on some form of proportional representation. It has proved entirely consistent with stable governments, productive legislation and full-term Parliaments.
Yet commentators persist in calling this a “hung Parliament”, at least when it appears in the lower house. By analogy with a “hung jury” we might suppose a “hung Parliament” is one that proves incapable of reaching a verdict on who should form a government or what legislation should be passed. We have plenty of experience to show that this is not the case.
If we take the jury analogy seriously, it’s worth extending it to the case where the Parliament contains a majority committed to obeying whatever order it receives from the Prime Minister of the day (or, perhaps, the Cabinet). We have plenty of terms for juries and courts that work in this way, none of them complimentary: ‘packed jury’, ‘kangaroo court’, ‘frame up’ and so on.
Those are unduly harsh metaphors when applied to majority governments. But the experience of Queensland, the only Australian jurisdiction without an (invariably ‘hung’) upper house, suggests to me that the cause of good government is greatly enhanced when Premiers cannot rely on a pliant majority to push through whatever laws they like. Admittedly, we’ve had some really good independents, most notably Peter Wellington. But even independents I would never want in government have proved useful as a check on the overweening power of the executives.
So, in the cause of linguistic improvement, I offer the term ‘deliberative Parliament’ for a legislature that actually considers legislation rather than casting votes as ordered by the leader of the day.
The LNP, with Turnbull as frontman, will be campaigning on the Abbott government’s record and policies. Apart from a few symbolic and rhetorical shifts (the re-abolition of Knights and Dames, for example), Turnbull has neither deviated from, nor added to, Abbott’s policy program.
There’s a notion being pushed in the media that a big win for the LNP would constitute a mandate to “let Malcolm be Malcolm”. This is nonsense. A mandate isn’t a free pass. It is, literally, a command, to implement the policies on which you have campaigned 
Turnbull can’t campaign on Abbott’s policies, then say he has been commanded to implement his own (whatever they might be). So, unless he breaks with Abbott before the election, he might as hand back the job to someone who really believes in the program he is proposing.
Update 25/3 Turnbull has obviously been stung by Abbott’s attack, and is spinning some minor course adjustments (explicitly dumping some policies from which Abbott had already resiled) as a major break
fn1. The mandate idea is most powerful in a bicameral system with an unelected or highly unrepresentative upper house. In Australia, the unrepresentative aspects of the Senate (equal state representation and long terms) are matched by the spurious lower house majority produced by single-member constituencies. So, senators have just as much a mandate to block legislation they have campaigned against as the government has to push it forward. The Double Dissolution is, of course, the way we can resolve this.
Apparently, we are likely to have one, unless the Senate passes the legislation to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission. I predicted a month ago that the Turnbull government will lose office, and I’m more confident now (though far from 100 per cent) than I was when I made the prediction. So, I’ll leave it at that, and open the topic up for discussion.
Whenever I raise the observation that navies are essentially obsolete, someone is bound to raise the cry “What about the sea lanes”. The claim that navies play a vital role in protecting trade routes is taken so much for granted that it might seem untestable. But it turns out that most of the information needed for a benefit cost analysis is available. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), the claimed benefit of keeping sea lanes open doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’ve spelt this out in my latest article in Inside Story, reprinted over the fold.
After a fractious debate, the LNP and Greens have combined to push through changes to the system of voting in the Senate. The primary change is to introduce something like optional preferential voting above the line, replacing the system where party apparatchiks got to allocate preferences. While not perfect, this is an improvement on the old system.
It points the way to a much simpler system. I suggest scrapping the below/above distinction, and moving to a standard optional preferential system, except that we would vote for named party lists. Independents could pick a party name describing their objectives, or just run under their own names.
The main objection to this system is that it rules out the option of voting for (say) Labor candidates in an order different to that of the party ticket, which is currently possible below the line. But, as far as I know, in nearly 100 years with the current system, no candidate has ever been elected ahead of someone higher up their own party list.
Against that, it would be simple, familiar and easy to count, with a greatly reduced risk of accidental informal votes.
Laura Tingle had an interesting piece on political memory. in Quarterly Essay recently, and my response (over the fold) was published in the latest issue (paywalled)>. Tingle is the most insightful observer of Australian politics writing in the mass media, but she has always taken the inevitability and desirability of market liberal reform for a granted. I detect a bit of a shift in the latest piece, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.
In keeping with his commitment to do exactly what Tony Abbott would have done, but with more style, Malcolm Turnbull has just announced that we are to spend a trillion dollars on fighter plans and submarines. Apparently, there are lots of problems with the hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Australia has on order. Rather than look at the details, it’s worth asking we are, yet again, arming ourselves to refight World War II.
World War II was fought on land, sea and air. Submarines and fighter planes played a crucial role. But since 1945, things have changed. The 70 years since 1945 have been marked by near-continuous land warfare in various parts of the world . On the other hand, there has been essentially no naval warfare, in the sense of battles between ships or carrier based aircraft, with the exception of the absurd and unnecessary Falklands conflict. Air combat between fighter planes lasted a bit longer after 1945, playing a big role in the Korean War, but has been pretty much non-existent since the 1980s. All warplanes, these days, are effectively bombers, usually hitting targets that have previously been rendered defenceless by missile attack. Yet the problems of the F-35 stem, in large measure, from its capacity to engage in hypothetical dogfights.
Fighter planes and their pilots still attract most of the attention, and nearly all the glory, in air warfare. But the real work is increasingly done by drone operators, commuting from the suburbs to undertake their task of destruction in air conditioned offices: since they see exactly what they have done, the job is apparently much more stressful than that of a fighter pilot. So far, only the US is using military drones on a large scale, but it’s obvious that this is the way of future wars. The specific problems of the F-35 are irrelevant in this context: it will in any case be obsolete by the time it’s delivered.
As for submarines, Wikipedia gives a list of submarine actions since 1945. There have been six of them, three involving the sinking of surface ships, and three involving the firing of cruise missiles, something that can be done from craft as small as corvettes.
Submarines have been much more notable for sinking themselves. Wikipedia lists four US submarines sunk at sea since 1945, two with all hands. The Russians have done far worse, losing 18 subs, most notably the Kursk, lost with all hands in 2000.
Submarines aren’t obsolete in all their possible uses. If the world ends in a nuclear holocaust, the final missiles will probably be fired from nuclear-armed submarines. But the revival of old-style submarine warfare, using our subs to sink (say) Chinese naval vessels seems remote: the increasing power and range land based anti-ship missiles will soon make naval power obsolete. Even more remote (thankfully) is the use of submarines to attack merchant ships without warning, as was done in both World Wars.
Of course, no one can be certain that seemingly obsolete modes of warfare won’t be revived: For example, there was a cavalry charge during the Afghan war. But spending a trillion dollars on weapons systems that haven’t been used anywhere in the world for decades does not seem like a sensible use of public money.
Having posted this, I’m fully prepared to get a hammering from military buffs who will point out that I have got this or that detail of air and naval warfare wrong. But the idea that detailed knowledge of tech specs or the minor points of military history constitutes expertise is, in this context, quite wrong. In the absence of any significant air or naval warfare within living memory, supposed expertise is about as useful as Scott Morrison’s knowledge of unicorns. The only important thing to know is that, like nearly all military expenditure and nearly all wars, these proposed purchases haven’t been subject to a cost-benefit test and would fail it if they were.
fn1. There’s a case that land warfare has become less frequent, or at least less bloody over time. But it’s hard to tell.
Responding to Labor’s proposals on negative gearing and capital gains tax, Malcolm Turnbull has warned that property values will fall as a result. He is surely correct. To put the same point in different words, Turnbull agrees that Labor policy will make housing more affordable and thinks that this is a bad thing.
There are some obvious electoral advantages in Turnbull’s scare campaign. As I observed when this topic came up during Abbott’s Prime Ministership, most voters own houses and therefore benefit from making housing less affordable. For this reason, Australian public policy has long been to make housing as unaffordable as possible.
The difficulty for Turnbull arises from precisely this point. He has more or less promised to do something about the tax treatment of property. But, from our current starting point, almost any change must make existing owners worse off. So, when and if he does anything, he will be hoist on his own petard.
Labor’s response to Turnbull has been interesting and, I suspect, effective. The line has been to accuse him of a dishonest scare campaign, without explicitly denying that property values will decline with the removal of unjustified tax concessions.
While this is an example of a non-denial denial, it is I think, defensible. Turnbull is mounting a scare campaign, and doing so dishonestly, attacking policies he might otherwise embrace. This is a much fairer use of the term than when it was used to apply to Labor’s reiteration of its longstanding opposition to expansion of the GST at a time when the government was clearly floating the idea. Pointing out that it was never formal government policy is a silly evasion – it wasn’t as though Labor was inventing the idea.
As longterm readers know, my record on political and other predictions is mixed, not as bad as some have made out, but by no means uniformly accurate. Still, I’m going to venture my most fearless prediction in some time.
Bill Shorten will be Prime Minister after the next election.
Like most Australian voters, I have no great enthusiasm for Shorten. But, I’ve come to the view that Turnbull is, as the Fin remarked recently, “all hat and no cattle”, and the same can be said of most of his ministry. In particular, Scott Morrison is the most striking instance of the Peter Principle I’ve seen in some time. Brutally effective as Immigration Minister, he handled the Social Services portfolio quite deftly, but has floundered as Treasurer.
Turning from personality to policy, Labor certainly deserves a win. They have stuck to their guns on issues like carbon pricing, and advanced serious and credible policies on tax and public expenditure, something that hasn’t been attempted since John Hewson’s Fightback! disaster in 1993.
By contrast, the Turnbull government is an enigma. Will it go to the election with the policies Turnbull inherited from Abbott? Or will be asked to “let Malcolm be Malcolm”? Or will we see a continuation of the studied ambiguity of the last five months? No one seems to know.
For the moment, Turnbull’s popularity looks like the trump card. The experience of his last stint as leader suggests that this is a fairly weak reed.
The best hope for the government is that the post-Turnbull surge was not so much driven by support for Turnbull as by an underlying LNP majority, submerged by Abbott’s absurdities.
The papers are abuzz with speculation about an early election. This is one of the favorite games of the political punditariat, and it usually comes to nothing, but the story this time seems to make even less sense than usual. Part of the problem is that there are three different ways an early election could be held, and the proponents seem to be assuming a “unicorn” or “Pixie horse” (to use Scott Morrison’s evocative terminology) that combines the best of all three from the government’s position.
First, we could have an immediate dissolution of the House of Representatives. This would have a chance of achieving the biggest selling point of the early election idea, cashing in on Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity while it lasts. But such obviously cynical moves have failed in the past, as Campbell Newman could tell you. Also, it would (as I understand it) necessitate a separate half-Senate election in the second half of the year. The political class, with the exception of minority and micro-parties, really hates this idea.
Second, we could have a double dissolution, based on the Senate’s failure to pass anti-union laws, and held under the existing rules. Apparently, the election would have to be called the day after Budget Day (11 May), and couldn’t be held until July. So, it would only be a few months early, invalidating the whole idea. And, of course, it would guarantee a Senate with lots of micro and minor party members.
The third idea, is the second, plus a deal with the Greens to reform the Senate voting rules to allow preferential above the line voting. This would kill off the “preference whisperer” deals that have allowed the election of candidates with almost no votes. The reform makes sense, but why on earth would the Greens rush it through to make life easy for the government? All they have to do is hold off until the Budget session and they can get the reform with no possibility of a double dissolution.
Also, the idea that the reform will kill micro parties seems to be oversold. Automatic preference exchange might be gone, but there will still be “how to vote” cards. With a DD quota of about 7.5 per cent, a candidate with a 4 per cent primary vote, or even less, could easily get in on preferences.
However, no one seems to be making any of these points. Have I misunderstood the arcana of our system, or just got the strategy wrong? Over to you.
Update In comments, Lt Fred makes a convincing case that the Greens want and would benefit from a Double Dissolution. They did much better in 2010 than in 2013, so a DD would be good for them.
Bill Shorten doesn’t have a lot of public support, a fact that reflects his background as a machine politician with a penchant for self-promotion. For a long time he has been accused of pursuing a “small target strategy”, hoping to win by default against Tony Abbott.
The latest developments in tax policy ought to prompt ] a reassessment. The nature of policy debates like this is that the government holds all the cards: control of the political agenda, expert Treasury advice, and the capacity to manage the media with judicious leaks.
Despite all of this, Shorten has left Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison looking flat-footed. Their preferred option of raising the GST rate and expanding its base is dead in the water, but not yet formally disavowed. Opposing it was an easy choice for Shorten, but still one that required him to override some supporters within the ALP.
The general assumption was that the government would soon announce Plan B. But Shorten has now beaten them to the punch. His proposals to limit negative gearing and scale back the concessional treatment of capital gains are more substantial than anything they are likely to contemplate in relation to property taxation. And Labor has already signalled willingness to limit tax concessions for superannuation.
So, unless the government is willing to do something really radical, involving an explicit break with the Abbott era, anything announced in the Budget will look like “me too”.
Update Immediately after posting this, I found this piece by Laurie Oakes, arbiter of the Australian political zeitgeist, making an almost identical argument.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
… 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.
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
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.