I’ve been too busy to post much, but I’ve written a number of articles over the past month or so that might be interesting to readers here. This one, published by various Fairfax papers looks at the damp squib of the G20 finance ministers meeting, and links it to the Abbott government’s elevation of tribalism over good government, and even over market liberal ideology.
Former Queensland Transport Minister Rachel Nolan (whose argument for privatisation I discussed here) has a piece in the Brisbane Times attacking the Electrical Trades Union (disclosure: I produced a report on electricity privatisation for the Victorian branch of the union). The headline is “The ETU is nobody’s friend“, and that pretty much sums up the article – Nolan’s complaint is that the ETU has had the temerity to attack both the previous Labor government and the current LNP government over the same issues, broken promises and support for asset sales.
As Nolan admits, Labor suffered from a
a widely perceived breach of trust – the fact that Labor went to the 2009 election on a slogan of “Jobs, not cuts” and then announced a program of asset sales seemingly as soon as the result was declared
With the exception of the weasel words “widely perceived” and “seemingly”, this is spot on. And the voters reacted long before the ETU had a chance to mount a campaign. Labor’s support plummeted in the polls and, with the exception of a brief blip after the 2011 floods, never recovered.
Now, Nolan complains, the ETU is doing the same thing to the LNP government whose victory they assisted by campaigning against the asset sales. Why? Well,
LNP members’ willingness to stand by the ETU, hands on hearts telling us they didn’t believe in Labor’s asset sales, is an act of breathtaking hypocrisy – perhaps bettered only by the pre-election reassurances they gave public servants – with which they now have to live.
So, the crime of the ETU is not to criticise asset sales or dishonesty. It would be fine, according to Nolan, if they made these criticisms of one side (preferably the LNP) and ignored similar actions by the other. But to attack both sides indiscriminately is to undermine the very foundations of the two-party system.
All of this makes sense in Nolan’s world view. As she says in her Monthly article “ Australians have little philosophical grasp of the (rightful) diminution of governmental power which deregulation has brought”. Hence, it is necessary for the two major political parties to lie at election time, in order to secure office and implement the policies on which they both agree. A good friend, in Nolan’s world is a person who picks one of the interchangeable teams, and sticks to it.
And finally, there’s this little gem where Nolan (Ipswich Girls Grammar and UQ alumna) makes clear her contempt for ordinary workers, and for hard-won working conditions, abundantly clear
It might be fun for the bruvvers to chant on their RDO before heading off for a few beers but most people aren’t just troglodytes who are opposed to everything – they do not share the distorted world view of the ETU.
Perhaps if she rechecked the results of the last election, she might conclude that “most people” with whom she mixes are not a particularly representative sample of the Queensland public, and that the “bruvvers” are actually a bit closer.
fn1. As far as I can tell, the claim of “standing by the ETU” is bogus. To the best of my knowledge, the ETU never gave the LNP any support or expressed any faith in their promises. But, thanks to the two-party system, attacking one party is seen as equivalent to supporting the other.
fn2. Thanks for alerts on this from my wife Nancy and from commenter Megan.
I’ve had a few responses to my recent report on the history of electricity privatisation and market reform in Australia. There’s one here from Lynnette Molyneux, who’s with another research group in my own school, and one from the Electricity Supply Association (doesn’t seem to be online, I’ll post a link shortly). Most interestingly, one from Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy who starts with a couple of points of agreement.
A couple of thing where we agree:
Economists, at least when they were thinking clearly and speaking honestly, were as one in rejecting the most popular political reasons for privatisation: as source of cash for governments or a way of financing desired public investments without incurring public debt.
I made a similar argument recently in New Zealand.
Then he is critical of Public-Private Partnerships. I am too – albeit for different reasons. All too often, I suspect, they are financing mechanisms looking for infrastructure to finance, as opposed to being a positive NPV infrastructure project looking for financing.
before going on to quibbles and more substantive criticism.
I’ll try to present a proper rejoinder to the criticisms later, but for now I want to observe the striking fact that the point on which Davidson and I, and (AFAICT) all Australian economists, agree is also the focus of agreement between Campbell Newman and his predecessor, Anna Bligh, along with Peter Costello, Barry O’Farrell, and the great majority of Australian politicians. The only problem is that the politicians agree on a view exactly opposite to that of the economists
There’s been quite a lot of discussion about the political views of former Senator Arthur Gietzelt, who died recently at the age of 93, and in particular about claims that he was a secret member of the Communist Party.
Although it’s scarcely conclusive, this is one of the few occasions when I have some direct evidence to contribute to a discussion of this kind. In the aftermath of 1975, I formed the view (ill-advised in retrospect) that I could help fix Australia’s problems by becoming a Labor party staffer. I wanted to move to Sydney, so I applied to all the shadow ministers based there, receiving replies only from Doug McClelland and Arthur Gietzelt.
I can’t remember much about McClelland, or even for sure if I met him. As I recall, he was associated with the Right, but didn’t have the thuggish persona that generally went with that group, especially after the rise of Graham Richardson.
But, although I didn’t get the job, I did have a brief conversation with Gietzelt, who said something to me along the following lines “When I was your age [I was in my early 20s at the time], we all thought the Soviet Union was the way of the future. But you young people will have to find a different way forward”. My politics then were much as they are now, on the left, but strongly anti-communist, and of course, I was puzzled as to how the left should respond to the resurgence of neoliberalism/market liberalism, represented at the time by Malcolm Fraser(!). So this resonated with me in a number of ways, and I’ve never forgotten it.
I took it to mean that Gietzelt had once been a communist sympathizer (whether a party member or ‘fellow traveller’) but had ceased to be so. That wouldn’t be totally inconsistent with an association with the then Communist Party of Australia, which had broken from Moscow after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but that wasn’t the impression I had: I assumed that his views had changed well before that, presumably in the wake of the Hungarian invasion and Kruschchev’s secret speech.
As I say, this is scarcely decisive evidence, but Gietzelt had no reason to mislead me, and no need to say anything at all to me along these lines: in all probability we were never going to meet again, and we didn’t. So, my own guess is that, if Gietzelt was ever a member of the Communist Party, it was well before he entered the Federal Parliament.
[fn1] Made most prominently, I think, by Mark Aarons, who, however, wasn’t drawing on personal knowledge but from a reading of ASIO files – scarcely a reliable source as anyone who remembers the ASIO of the Cold War era will attest
[fn2] It was a long time ago, and it’s possible that I was still a candidate for the job. But presumably, in that case, a secret CPer would be dropping hints in the other direction, to see if I was likely to be OK with the idea.
I don’t usually watch much TV, which doubtless hampers me in keeping in touch with the mood of the Australian electorate, most of whom still get much of their political news from this source. But, over the summer break, I tend to take things easier which means watching more TV, and taking less interest in politics. So, I don’t think the following observations are way out of line with general public reactions
* When it limped into the end of its first session, the talk coming out of the Abbott government’s media cheer squad was that they would let us watch the cricket in the hope that we’d forget the fiascos of their first few months. Instead, they’ve generated more and worse political coverage than I can ever remember for this time of year, floating trial balloons, rerunning culture wars and so on
* As I remember them from Opposition a fair few of our new rulers are reasonably personable types. But the government’s media strategy has been to keep them all in the background, and to push the most appalling thugs and fools (Pyne, Morrison, Bernardi, Newman (Campbell and Maurice), Andrews) to the forefront. Or maybe there is no strategy, and they are just letting everyone do what comes naturally
But perhaps there is a brilliant plan here, and I’m missing it. Any thoughts?
So, Kevin Donnelly, newly installed as Pyne’s curriculum advisor wants more religion in Australian public schools. Donnelly bases his arguments on the claim that “Australia is a predominantly Christian country“. More generally, his argument is that we need to inculcate a commitment to the”institutions, values and way of life” of the Australian majority.
Before making arguments like this, Donnelly might want to take a look at the 2011 census data which shows that barely 50 per cent of those aged under 25 stated a Christian religious affiliation. In a dicussion of this last year, we found a combination of demographic effects and switching, which implied that Christians will probably be a minority of the population by the 2020s, as they already are in the UK.
Since around 30 per cent of young people attend private schools most of which state a Christian affilation, it’s a safe bet that the majority of public school students are non-Christian. Certainly, “no religion” is the biggest single denomination for the under 25 age group. So, if you accept Donnelly’s “majority rule” argument, there’s a strong case for saying there should be more explicit atheism in public schools.
More generally, Christians should think carefully before lining up for this kind of culture war. Australia has been mercifully free of the kind of “new atheism” represented by people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Atheists, agnostics and the religiously indifferent have been happy to live and let live, without feeling the need to engage in denunciation of religion. But if Christian activists like Abbott and Donnelly want to use their current bare majority to impose their religous views on the rest of us, they ought to expect the same when they become a minority, as is virtually inevitable.
Religion is currently favored in all sorts of ways in Australia, from tax deductions and exemptions to publicly funded chaplaincy programs. There hasn’t been much fuss about this, but if the right chooses to engage in a religious culture war, all that will change.
… to speak up in defence of climate science, or give up any pretense of being better than the rest.
If there is one prominent figure on the right of Australian politics who could plausibly claim to be both sane (on issues such as climate change) and honest, it’s Turnbull. He has stood up in the past, notably against Abbott, but has said nothing (AFAICT). Until relatively recently, he could reasonably claim that the government’s policy was based on acceptance of mainstream climate science, and that, even if he disagreed with Direct Action, he was bound by the principle of cabinet solidarity. But a string of events, culminating in Maurice Newman’s latest idiocy have made this position untenable. If Turnbull remains silent, he is tacitly accepting denialism as the view of the government of which he is part.
It’s possible that speaking up could cost him his ministerial view. But, as Tony Abbott observed recently, that might be a liberating experience. And, unlike the GMH workers to whom Abbott was referring, it’s not as if Malcolm needs the money.
fn1. Two former leaders of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson, have taken a strong stand on climate change. But Fraser has quit the party, and Hewson was threatened with expulsion over this and similar remarks.
Everyone does it and in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it (crosspost from Crooked Timber)
The general reaction to various revelations of spying by the US on its friends and allies, particularly in contexts such as trade negotiations has been “everyone does it” and “in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it”. And, as regards direct retaliation against the US, that’s pretty much right. The situation is a bit different for junior members of the Five Eyes[^1], such as Australia. A case now being heard at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague could set a precedent that will make such spying a high risk exercise.
The High Court has ruled, correctly in my view, that the ACT legislation which briefly established equal marriage was in conflict with Commonwealth Law clearly intended to do the opposite, by defining marriage as “between a man and a woman”. We might not like the practical result, but consider how things would be if the court had gone the other way and was then confronted by a state trying to ban equal marriage after a change in Commonwealth law.
And, this is clearly a matter for the Commonwealth to decide. Abbott implied before the election that he would be open to a free vote in the New Year, and Labor should push him on this. The politics of this are pretty awful for Abbott – he’s using his control of the LNP to block a reform supported by the majority of Australians and already in place in most civilised parts of the world. On recent form, he’ll probably try to tough it out for a while, but will cave if enough pressure is applied.
The final question is whether equal marriage would pass on a free vote. The last vote wasn’t encouraging, in view of the number of Labor members who opposed it, but some of them have gone and others, I think, have followed Rudd and Obama in “evolving” on the issue. The Nats will presumably be solidly against, so the real question is: how liberal are Liberals?
fn1. In my view, Rudd should have bitten the bullet after his change of view, and demanded a free vote from Abbott (the alternative being a party line vote with Labor and Greens in favor). But, the same advisers who gave us the early election and the Northern Australia nonsense thought otherwise, with results we now have to live with.
In the midst of proclaiming a budget crisis and sacking thousands of public servants, Campbell Newman’s LNP government announced that they were going to demolish the tired Executive Building, in which Newman and other senior ministers work, and get the private sector to build them a new one. This, we were told would cost the Queensland public nothing. As I pointed out at the time
it’s blatantly obvious that if you tear down a building and put up a new one with exactly the same purpose, you are taking on additional debt, whatever the accounts can be made to say.
That was obvious from first principles, but now the Auditor General has pointed out that the deal is even worse than that, saying
“Without a competitive sale process and given the significant difference between the book value and the sale price achieved, prima facie it raises the issue of whether the state can demonstrate that it obtained best value for money for the assets it sold.”
. This isn’t surprising. Whenever one of these “money for nothing” deals is pushed through, you can be sure that the public is being ripped off for more than if the payment had been out in the open.
The Opposition has estimated the net loss to the public at more than $2 billion, and that looks to me to be in the right ballpark.
As a comparison, if you take $100000 as a round estimate for the savings in salary, on-costs and so on from dismissing a public employee this luxury project blows, over its lifetime, the annual savings from cutting at least 20 000 jobs, the number originally proposed by Newman. This was later cut to 14 000, quite a few of them replaced by outside contractors. So, it’s probable that, over the first time of the LNP government, the loss on this one piece of public extravagance will wipe out more than half the savings made by the sackings. Let’s hope the first term will also be the last.
And, with the Abbott government doing its best to help at the Federal level, reports like this might finally help to demolish the silly idea that the LNP has some sort of advantage in economic management.
The election that brought Abbott and the LNP to power is so three months ago, and the Christmas plotting season is nearly upon us, so it’s time for some good old-fashioned leadership speculation, with the Libs as the target this time around. According to Laura Tingle, most of the interest in the business community is in Turnbull. I think that would be a bridge too far for the Liberals, having dumped him once. So, my money would be on Hockey as the replacement if Abbott keeps messing things up as he has done almost continuously since taking office. While the accuracy of my political judgements is pretty variable, this one from a year ago is looking fairly good.
Hockey has indeed backed off the surplus, showing more good sense than Abbott. I’m nearly alone in this view, but I think he is under-rated. Not a towering intellect, but still among the stronger performers on the LNP front bench.
The usually sensible Crikey team has gone off the deep end (in an editorial sent out as email, can’t find it on their site) on the Australian government’s response to the recent dispute between China and, among others, the US over a group of “tiny uninhabited islands” (even the name is disputed). The longstanding policy of Australian governments, very sensibly, has been to avoid getting between the US and China on issues like this, of which there are a huge number, involving many parties and incomprehensible claims. Crikey not only endorses Julie Bishop’s abandonment of this policy, but uses the loaded term “appeasement” to describe opponents. So, a refusal to get involved in a game of posturing and sabre-rattling that has gone on, in one form or another, since 1949, is equivalent to selling out the Czechs to Hitler.
Crikey draws a comparison with Kevin Rudd’s willingness to take the Chinese leadership to task over human rights abuses, a willingness criticised by Bishop at the time. To see how absurd this is, you need only ask whether Chinese dissidents, who mostly endorsed Rudd’s speech (some thought it did not go far enough) are going to welcome our support for the anti-China position in this territorial dispute. The answer is obvious: for the most part, Chinese democrats fully support the government position on these issues.
The idea that, having just ignored human rights issues in Sri Lanka, the Abbott government has suddenly developed a concern with these issues in China is equally absurd.
Among those hyperventilating about the ABC decision to publish the information about the spying fiasco, Andrew Bolt has been every bit as vociferous and hyperbolic as you would expect. Of course this is silly: the UK based Guardian was going to publish anyway, and if they had, for some reason, chosen not to do so, Snowden and his team could have given it to the Indonesian press, which would have been an even worse outcome for the Australian government.
In this context, it’s worth recalling that Bolt wasn’t always so highminded about protecting our nation’s secrets. Back in 2003, when Andrew Wilkie resigned from the Office of National Assessments because he could not stand the way Iraq intelligence was being “sexed up”, Bolt was denouncing anyone and everyone who suggested that the Iraq war was anything other than a brilliant success based on overwhelming evidence. Somehow, he received a leaked copy of a report written by Wilkie, which, with his characteristic method of selective quotation, he used to attack Wilkie’s credibility. The Howard government (which could not, of course, quote the original report) used Bolt’s article to attack Wilkie. As Mike Seccombe observed at the time
You have to admire the neat circularity of it: top secret information is leaked to a government-friendly journo, who puts bits of it deemed damaging to Wilkie on the public record. Downer’s office briefs Senator Macdonald using that information.
This is part of a more general information. When secrets embarrass the government, leaking them is a major crime. When the government wants to attack its opponents, leaks are just part of politics. I don’t have a problem with journalists who publish leaked information without fear or favor. But someone like Bolt, willing to be used as a conduit for leaks that make the government look good, and then to pontificate about the immorality of leaks that make the government look bad, isn’t a journalist – he’s a lackey.
And looking back again, it’s worth remembering that Wilkie was right, that every word Bolt wrote about Iraq turned out to be utterly, howlingly wrong, and that he has never apologised or retracted. The credibility of anything he writes now should be assessed in that light.
I was going to write something about Abbott’s mishandling of the latest spy fiasco, but I don’t think I can improve on Tad Tietze at Left Flank. I’ll just stress a few points
(a) Indonesia is now a democracy which means that the kind of cosy deals between military/security apparatchiks we used to do are just as constrained by Indonesian public opinion as by Australian if not more. I don’t know who the Indonesian equivalents of Ray Hadley and Alan Jones might be, but I can imagine what they are saying
(b) The idea, still underlying a lot of the discussion, that we can and should dictate terms to the Indonesians is nonsense. The US can get away with this kind of thing (though Obama was wise enough to end the bugging of Merkel’s phone), but we need the goodwill of the Indonesians at least as much as they need ours. The fact that neither we nor they are paragons of human rights policy or the treatment of minority groups is a case of attending to our own problems before lecturing others.
I just read Peter Hartcher’s series on the meltdown arising from the rivalry between Rudd and Gillard. A pretty good summary, I thought, though of course Hartcher was, like me, more in sympathy with Rudd.
The account clarified one point for me. A crucial element of the anti-Rudd story was the supposedly critical impact of leaks before the 2010 election, for which Rudd was widely blamed. I couldn’t remember thinking of these as a big deal at the time, and Hartcher explained why. The most damaging leak (Gillard making some dismissive remarks in Cabinetabout age pensioners) occurred on the same day as Gillard announced the Citizens Consultative Assembly. As this post shows, this appalling idea permanently changed my view of Gillard, which, even after the coup against Rudd had remained broadly positive. “Cash for clunkers“, which came shortly afterwards, cemented my view. By contrast, the leaks were the kind of insider gossip which excites the Press Gallery, but had absolutely no impact on my thinking.
As Hartcher points out, while he was sensible for most of his brief second term, Rudd spent the first two weeks of the 2013 campaign pursuing ideas that were just as silly.
This will, I think be my last word on the Gillard-Rudd rivalry. Feel free to comment, but please avoid attacks on other commentators. Obviously, political figures are fair game, within the usual limits.
A lot has already been said on the occasion of Kevin Rudd’s retirement from politics. Having already written a great deal about Rudd while he was active in politics, I’m not going to add to it. Rather, I’ll reflect on the achievements of the Labor governments of the past six years, which were substantial. They included
* The uniquely bold and successful management of the Global Financial Crisis
* The creation of the NBN
* The design and implementation of a price on carbon
* The National Disability Insurance Scheme
* Plain packaging for cigarettes
among many others. How much of this will survive what, I hope will be one term of LNP government remains to be seen, but Labor can campaign for years on defending and extending this record.
Against that, there were some failures. Most obviously, the government failed to come up with a workable solution to the problem of asylum seekers, and eventually capitulated to the xenophobic rhetoric of Abbott and Morrison (though with the important qualification that Labor greatly increased the total refugee intake, while Abbott has cut it). In addition, despite Rudd’s recognition that the GFC marked the breakdown of the post-Bretton Woods capitalist order, he(and even more, Wayne Swan) rapidly came to treat it as a momentary aberration, and to return to the policy orthodoxy that created the crisis in the first place.
The biggest failures, though, were personal, not political. Rudd’s abrasive egotism was matched by Gillard’s unprincipled tribalism (for her, Labor was an extended family, not a political movement) to produce a series of catastrophes that eventually destroyed the government. If they had managed to work together, as they did with reasonable success for the first two years of the government, they could have been a better team than Howard-Costello or Hawke-Keating. But it seems to be the nature of Australian politics taht such partnerships never worked for long.
If you want a single episode to summarize the fiasco that is the Abbott government, the first working hour of the 44th Parliament would be hard to beat.
First, the government had to gag the Opposition seeking to get any kind of information about the government’s signature issue, Stopping the Boats. If anyone had said, 20 years ago, that it would be necessary to read the Jakarta Post to find out what our own government was doing, they would have been greeted with incredulity.
Then, having specifically nominated juvenile insults like “Electricity Bill” as the kind of thing his new Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop would rule out of order, he had to watch as his attack poodle, Christopher Pyne used that very insult and was supported by Bishop. Then, of course, Abbott voted to uphold Bishop’s ruling.
Then, having wasted the first hour of the Parliament, Abbott announced his discredited bill to repeal the carbon tax. Meanwhile, the vice-president of our most important neighbour, representing a government Abbott has already insulted half a dozen times in as many weeks, was left to wait in an anteroom.
The Labour government of the last six years had its low points, to be sure. But it’s hard to imagine that those who voted for this crew (or for their former ally, Clive Palmer) aren’t experiencing a fair bit of buyer remorse.
Brsbane has had its second CBD lockdown in a week with another false alarm prompted by the fear that outlaw bikies will launch a terrorist bombing campaign against the forces of law and order. We’re already on the verge of a constitutional crisis as Newman intervenes directly in court cases, claiming a mandate from the masses, and running smear campaigns against judges who defy him.
What is going on here? The actual threat to society represented by bikie gangs (a few public brawls and some low-level drug dealing and protection rackets) isn’t remotely commensurate with this response.
I suspect that the answer is to be found in the fight between Newman and Tony Fitzgerald and, in particular, Newman’s suggestion that bikie crime is worse than the corruption exposed by the Fitzgerald inquiry. Of course, that corruption didn’t involve bikies, or any kind of outlaw gang – it was run from the top, by senior National Party ministers, and the corrupt police they promoted. Its exposure left the conservative parties in the wilderness for nearly 20 years.
Clearly, Newman and the LNP have forgotten none of this. Almost their first act on taking office was to nobble the Crime and Misconduct Commission that arose from the Fitzgerald report. Pretty clearly, Newman and Seeney don’t intend their government to share the fate of Bjelke-Petersen and Hinze. Equally clearly, they intend to reward themselves and their mates as liberally as possible at the public expense. For a government that’s only half way through its first term they’ve already accumulated a track record of nepotism and cronyism that would be impressive after a decade or more in office. It’s obvious that, sooner or later, something big will blow up with the CMC, criminal charges and so on. That is, of course, unless the CMC can be neutralised and the judiciary reduced the position of tame compliance we saw in the Joh era.
A politician who preaches law and order is almost certainly picking your pockets as he does so. That certainly looks to be the case in Queensland.
Update The evening after this was posted, there were calls for the Acting head of the CMC, Ken Levy, to resign because he had written an opinion piece endorsing the Newman government’s policy. It turns out that he’s a former director-general of the Department of Justice forced out by Labor because of the fiasco over the disgraceful prosecution of Pauline Hanson. That led me to the discovery that Newman’s review of the CMC was conducted by Ian Callinan, who has ethical issues of his own. Readers can judge whether Levy’s leadership is such as to inspire their confidence.End update
fn1. The most serious case was when where a fight in a shopping centre resulted in a bystander receiving gunshot wounds. But that didn’t require new laws. One participant was convicted of affray, while the other (the alleged shooter) is in jail awaiting trial.
As I said in my last post, Tony Abbott has set himself the tightrope-walking task of maintaining his government’s official endorsement of mainstream climate change, while keeping his denialist base happy. Having made a mess of this with his bushfire comments, he had a chance to rectify the situation when he gave an interview to denialist and conspiracy theorist Andrew Bolt. Newscorp ran in under the headline “Andrew Bolt tackles the PM on the big issues”, but Bolt was playing touch, not tackle.
The interview was a sycophantic exercise in mutual admiration, with all the tough questions you might expect from, say, Anne Summers interviewing Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd interviewing himself. But such interviews present smart politicians with the chance to play against type, by disagreeing with the interviewer on an issue dear to the base, but politically problematic for a would-be statesman. Presented with a soft lob question about the bushfires, Abbott could have taken the chance to define his own position as the “sensible centre”, by repudiating both Bolt’s denialism and the “alarmism” of those stressing the link between bushfires and climate. Bill Clinton famously did this when he denounced radical rap artist Sister Souljah, signalling the shift to the right undertaken by the Democratic Leadership Council of which he was part.
Instead, Abbott chose to dig himself deeper, extending his denialism on bushfires and further claiming that the observation of record high temperatures is not evidence of climate change. I mentioned in my last post that he would have a problem in formulating a response to the likelihood that 2013 will turn out to be the warmest year in the Australian observational record. He’s chosen his answer now, one that is unlikely to carry much credibility except with those already committed to denialism.
His summary of climate science, previously reported as “crap” has been replaced by “hogwash”, perhaps in deference to the sensitivities of Greg Hunt, who took strong exception to being confronted with the previous term by a BBC interviewer. I won’t link to Bolt, but the relevant passages are quoted over the fold.
Having gained office on the basis of three-word slogans, the Abbott government has the problem that it now needs to answer questions in complete sentences. As a result, Abbott has immediately faced some tricky tests, and failed most of them. “Stop the Boats”, for example, ran into the problem that it assumed the Indonesians could be strong-armed into doing our government’s bidding. Unsurprisingly, that proved false, though the inevitable backdown was managed reasonably smoothly.
The trickiest balancing act, though, is on climate change. The government needs to balance its base, the vocal elements of which are almost uniformly denialist, with the risks of adverse consequences to Australia if we repudiate our commitments on the issue, and the risks to its own credibility of being openly anti-science.
After only seven weeks in office, both PM Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt, have fallen off the tightrope, rejecting the clearly established (and intuitively obvious) IPCC findings on bushfire risk in Australia [AR4 (2007) , WGII , Chapter 11, Executive Summary]
“The climate of the 21st century is virtually certain to be warmer, with changes in extreme events. Heatwaves and fires are virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency (high confidence).”
These findings were reinforced in an interview with the head of the UN’s climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres (listen to the audio,as the report may mislead)
Abbott’s response was to accuse Figueres of “talking through her hat”, while Hunt went to Wikipedia to discover that “bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year”.
This was really an unforced error by both Abbott and Hunt. They could have ducked the issue by resorting to the standard formula that climate predictions are about frequencies, not about individual events. Abbott could even have cited Figueres who was careful to say that “the World Meteorological Organisation has not yet established a direct link between the these fires and climate change.” (emphasis very clear in audio). Hunt scrambled back to the script at the end of his interview, but after the Wikipedia reference, it was far too late.
Given Abbott’s earlier “total crap” statement, it’s going to be hard for him to walk back a second time. He now faces two problems. On the one hand, now that he’s outed himself as one of them, the denialist base will be encouraged to demand the scrapping of his Direct Action policy. On the other hand, locking the LNP into denialism is a recipe for long-term disaster, especially with Malcolm Turnbull waiting in the wings.
It’s highly likely that 2013 will turn out to be the hottest calendar year on record for Australia. The frequent occurrence of record highs like this is a predictable consequence of climate change. Abbott had better get his spin doctors working on a form of words to handle the inevitable questions.
fn1. I’ve decided to abandon “delusionist”, my own coinage, in favor of the more standard term “denialist”. I’ll write more on this later.
fn2. In fairness, this statement was presented as a view his audience might hold, rather than as Abbott’s own. But since he’s held every possible view on this topic, and some that seem impossible, fairness can only go so far.
I won’t say much about Queensland’s new anti-bikie laws since they are so obviously indefensible, and will surely be struck down by the High Court. Unless AG Jarrod Bleijie was deliberately seeking this outcome, it seems that he is as wet behind the ears as his public appearances suggest and as his legal experience (limited to conveyancing it is said) would suggest. A couple of observations
First, although bikies are involved in crime, it appears to be limited to things like taking rake-offs from drug dealing (who would be at least as common if they were independent operators not obliged to pay off gang leaders) and to rackets around tattoo parlours. The public brawling we’ve seen recently, and the various piece of inter-gang violence seem to be controllable by ordinary law enforcement
Second, I don’t think freedom of association should be absolute. If it can be proved, in open court, that an organization is engaged in facilitating crime, there ought to be legal remedies (US RICO legislation is a possible model, though it has its problems). But the Queensland Legislation simply declares a large number of bikie clubs to be illegal, without any chance to have their day in court. Such laws could be applied to political parties, trade unions, companies or even individual groups of friends. Menzies tried this with the Communist Party (which at least had aspirations to be dangerous to the existing order of society, unlike, say the Bandidos) and was rightly rejected both by the High Court and the Australian people
I’m not generally a fan of political scandals: at worst, they are spurious, at best, they involve random exposure and punishment of misdeeds that usually go unchecked. But there’s one big exception for me, and that’s when political scandals intersect my sporting interests.
Last year, the high-profile case was that of Republican VP nominee, Paul Ryan, who claimed to have run marathons in his younger days, with times in the 2:50s, an impressive achievement at any age. It turned out that he had run a single marathon, in 4:01:25. As all runners know, no one who has put the effort to run a marathon makes that kind of mistake. Ryan’s time is better than either of mine (4:37 and 4:24), but I’m aiming to break four hours in the next year or two, and I have a good few decades on him.
Now there’s Tony Abbott, who seems to have claimed expenses for everything from weddings to music festivals. But the only one that really interests me is the $2100 he claimed when he went in the 2011 Port Macquarie Ironman. I couldn’t find a time for 2011, but he did the 2010 event (3.8 km swim, 180 km cycle 42.2 k run) in 14 hours, whereas I took 8 hours to do half as much in the Cairns 70.3 in June.
What strikes me about this is not so only the expenses issue (although that obviously irks me) as the training time that must be involved, and the implications for the rest of Abbott’s commitments. Preparing for a marathon or a 70.3 while working full time, even in a flexible job like mine, requires putting most other things, like social engagements, on hold. If he’s training for a full ironman and managing the commitments inherent in being a politician, it’s hard to believe he can have any significant amount of time free to study policy issues and consider the best responses (as I know, you can’t think about these things while you’re running an endurance event – there’s not enough blood flow to the brain to think about much more than keeping your legs moving).
Looking at Abbott’s actual approach to policy, the three-word slogan approach is unsurprising. He can’t have had the spare time or energy for anything better. That worked fine in Opposition, but it hasn’t been great preparation for government.
The Abbott government has had the rockiest start of any newly-elected government I can recall. Opinion polls are already showing the government trailing Labor, even before the election of a new opposition leader.
The failure has two main elements. The first is the consequence of gaining office on the basis of slogans and personality politics rather than any coherent set of policy proposals. ‘Stop the boats’ was a great vote-winner for the LNP in opposition, but in office it’s a hostage given to fortune. Maybe the boats will stop and maybe not, but bombastic rhetoric will have no effect one way or the other.
The implication for Labor is not to respond in kind with wrecking and cheap slogans. Rather, it’s to make the point that, however dysfunctional the previous government may have been terms of leadership, and whatever the problems of implementation, it was in the right (or at least better than the LNP) on all the major policy issues.
The implied political strategy is to defend and extend the key policies of the Rudd-Gillard government, with the exception of the mistakes driven by short-run political exigencies (the archetypal example being the withdrawal of benefits from single parents, and the associated failure to do anything to improve the treatment of unemployed people in general).
That means treating the Abbott government as a temporary interruption a program of reform that includes carbon pricing, the NBN, NDIS and Gonski reforms. The only big gap in Labor’s program is the absence of a credible plan to finance these policies in the long run, while allowing state governments sufficient revenue to do their work. Labor needs to use the time in opposition to break with the low-tax rhetoric of the past, and work out a coherent plan to increase revenue. In practice, there’s no real chance of increasing the rate or coverage of GST, so the options will have to come on the income tax side. More on this soon, I hope.
The second factor in Abbott’s poor start is the ‘born to rule’ mentality that we’ve already seen in Queensland. Newman and his ministers have been shameless in grabbing more and better perks, giving jobs to their mates and so on. Abbott has started in the same vein, with examples such as the sacking of Steve Bracks, and his rumored replacement with a mate such as Nick Minchin. The contrast with Rudd, who left Liberal appointees in place, and gave plum appointments to well qualified Libs, is striking. Although the travel expense scandals now coming to light date from the past, they fit into a pattern that is already evident.
Of course, Labor is hardly innocent in this. But the isolated examples that have come to light, and the near-total absence of ministerial scandals in the Rudd-Gillard government suggest that this is not a case of ‘everybody does it’. Labor should join the Greens in pushing reform of the entire system.
fn1. The arguable exception is the Labor minority government that emerged from the 2010 election. But this wasn’t a new government or a new PM: Labor had a couple of years on top after 2007 and Gillard had already had her honeymoon period in the immediate aftermath of the deposition of Rudd.
fn2. ‘Better than Abbott’ was a pretty low bar when it came to refugee policies. But Labor did at least increase the refugee intake, while Abbott has cut it.
We haven’t yet seen much indication yet of the policy line the Abbott government will take. On the one hand, their election commitments suggest that, with a handful of exceptions such as climate policy, Abbott will carry on the policies of the Labor government, including DisabilityCare, the Gonski reforms, and the NBN (in a cut-down version). On the other hand, historical precedent, recently reaffirmed at the state level by Campbell Newman, and the urgings of people like Bob Officer, who ran the Howard-Costello government’s Audit Commission, suggests the government will discover a spurious budget crisis, dump its promises and introduce big cuts to health and education. Even if they do this, it’s clear that they have no real ideas beyond scraping the barrel of the 1980s microeconomic reform agenda. The worthwhile parts of this agenda were pushed through long ago, and the failures in areas like financial deregulation, Workchoices, Public Private Partnerships and so on are now obvious. The only positive initiative associated with Abbott’s win, the Paid Parental Leave scheme, is directly opposed to the microeconomic reform agenda, and hated by Abbott’s big business agenda. So, beyond it’s three word slogans, I doubt that the government has much more idea about its plans for office, than I do.
We didn’t have to wait long, however, to see how the government would work in process terms. Julie Bishop’s sacking of Steve Bracks as consul-general in New York (rumored replacement, Nick Minchin) is the most notable example of a vindictive tribalism that is evident throughout the right. We’re already hearing talk of cuts aimed at right wing betes noires like the arts, and there is bound to be more of this. The contrast with the last change of government, when Rudd left LNP appointees in place, and even gave jobs to retired opponents, as well as playing down the culture wars, is striking. For the LNP, long accustomed to see itself as our natural rulers, it’s all about getting into office, and sharing out the spoils.
Unless there’s a sudden turnaround in the polls, Tony Abbott will become Prime Minister of Australia. This will be the third time in my life that a Federal Labor government has been defeated, the other two occasions being 1975 and 1996. On both those occasions, despite substantial and enduring accomplishments, the government had made a mess of macroeconomic management, and the electorate, unsurprisingly, wanted to punish them. And, despite my strong disagreements with them (and with the way Fraser came to office), the incoming Prime Ministers had serious views on how best Australia’s future could be managed. Fraser has only improved since leaving office, making valuable contributions on the national and global stage. My evaluation of Howard, following his defeat, starts with the observation that he was ‘the most substantial figure produced by the Liberal party since the party itself was created by Menzies’.
Nothing of the sort can be said this time. The case put forward by the LNP is based entirely on lies and myths. These include the claims that
* Labor has mismanaged the economy and piled up unnecessary debt and deficits
* Australian families are ‘doing it tough’ because of a soaring cost of living
* The carbon tax/price is a ‘wrecking ball’, destroying economic activity
* The arrival of refugees represents a ‘national emergency’
None of these claims stands up to even momentary scrutiny.
Then there’s Abbott himself. After 20 years in politics, I can’t point to any substantial accomplishments on his part, or even any coherent political philosophy. For example, I’m not as critical of his parental leave scheme as some, but it’s totally inconsistent with his general political line, a fact that his supporters in business have been keen to point out. On climate change, he’s held every position possible and is now promising, in effect, to do nothing. His refusal to reveal policy costings until the second-last day of the campaign debases an already appalling process. He treated budget surplus as a holy grail until it became inconvenient, and has now become carefully vague on the topic.
Obviously, the fact that such a party and such a leader can be on the verge of victory implies that the Labor side has done something dreadfully wrong. It’s the oldest cliche in politics for the losing side to claim that the problem is not the policies but inability to get the message across. In this case, however, I think it’s true. Gillard lost the voters early on with stunts like the consultative assembly, and never managed to get them to listen to her for any length of time. Rudd was doing well in communicating his vision from his return to the leadership until he called the election. He then wasted three weeks on small-bore stuff apparently aimed at Katter party preferences. He seems finally to have rediscovered his voice, with the launch speech and his Q&A appearance, but I fear it’s too late.
Still, in the unlikely event that any undecided voters are reading this, I urge you to take a serious look at the alternative government, and place the LNP last on your ballot in both houses of Parliament.
After a disappointing campaign, Kevin Rudd’s “launch” speech was excellent, both as a defence of Labor’s record and in setting out an agenda for the next term, notably with a long-overdue focus on the TAFE sector. Unfortunately, this announcement wasn’t the only thing that was overdue. What possible sense is there in “launching” the campaign with a week to go, when most voters have already made up their minds or turned off? This isn’t one of the quirks for which Rudd has been criticised – Gillard did the same thing in 2010, and the Liberals were only a few days earlier. I have no idea how the supposed experts who run campaigns cna think this is a good way to do things – it’s obviously not a good way of presenting voters with a reasoned argument
If Rudd had given this speech three weeks ago, and campaigned around it, Labor would be in with a good chance. As it is, their best hope is that the corresponding piece of trickiness on the other side will backfire. This is Abbott’s decision to release his allegedly independent costings on Thursday, with the advertising blackout in place, and only a couple of days to go. It’s hard to see any creditable explanation of this, and it ought to be reason enough not to elect him as PM. But that seems unlikely.
fn1. In fact, I have no idea why these “experts” are given any credence. As the debate between pundits and psephbloggers has shown, here and in the US, the alleged experts don’t even have the basic (first-year uni) statistics needed to interpret an opinion poll, which means that they can not have, and never have had, the slightest idea whether their strategies were working. It’s just that one side always wins, and victory has a thousand parents, at least until failure the next time around shows them up. The classic example is Karl Rove, acclaimed or dreaded as an electoral genius, who humiliated himself by refusing to believe the 2012 election results, even when they were beyond doubt. Then there’s Dick Morris, the famed inventor of “triangulation” who also predicted that Romney would win in a landslide.
… to put it mildly, by Kevin Rudd’s endorsement of the Coalition/IPA proposals for a variety of tax and policy distortions to subsidise economic activity in Northern Australia.
I get that a certain amount of this kind of thing is to be expected in an election campaign, but I hope we don’t see too much more of it.
A bit belatedly, a piece I posted on Crikey a couple of days ago, bemoaning Wayne Swan’s failure to tell the story of the government’s success in managing the GFC. His obsessive pursuit of a return to surplus with a fixed target date suggests to me that he never really saw Keynesian fiscal policy as anything other than a once-off emergency measure, and that the credit for the government’s courage in 2009 must go to Ken Henry and Kevin Rudd. Regardless, the government should be winning the economic debate hands down, instead of being on the defensive.