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Be careful what you wish for

January 11th, 2014 155 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Time for Turnbull …

January 1st, 2014 56 comments

… 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[1] 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.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Everyone does it and in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

December 21st, 2013 26 comments

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.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags:

A free vote on equal marriage

December 13th, 2013 18 comments

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[1], 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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Money for nothing

December 11th, 2013 7 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Hockey or Turnbull

November 29th, 2013 38 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Crikey goes Godwin on tiny uninhabited islands

November 28th, 2013 18 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags:

Sauce for the goose

November 23rd, 2013 23 comments

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.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, Oz Politics Tags:

Konfrontasi

November 21st, 2013 85 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags:

For the record

November 20th, 2013 25 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The Rudd-Gillard government: An appreciation

November 15th, 2013 66 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Fiasco

November 13th, 2013 69 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Smokescreen (updated)

October 31st, 2013 13 comments

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[1] 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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Abbott’s Sister Souljah non-moment

October 25th, 2013 40 comments

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.

Read more…

Falling off the tightrope

October 24th, 2013 56 comments

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[1], 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[2], 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.

Moral panic on bikies

October 20th, 2013 68 comments

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

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Can you run an ironman and run a country?

October 13th, 2013 150 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics, Sport Tags:

A rocky start

October 10th, 2013 83 comments

The Abbott government has had the rockiest start of any newly-elected government I can recall[1]. 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[2].
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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Victori spolia

September 12th, 2013 74 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

An undeserving alternative PM

September 3rd, 2013 233 comments

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Launch delayed

September 1st, 2013 21 comments

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[1]

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.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Reading the economic theories of Rudd and Abbott

August 20th, 2013 53 comments

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Crikey, over the fold

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

I’m underwhelmed …

August 15th, 2013 43 comments

… 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.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

We’re only ‘doing it tough’ out of envy

August 14th, 2013 58 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in Crikey, over the fold

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Labor, hiding its light under a bushel

August 7th, 2013 96 comments

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.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Oz, NZ and the election

August 5th, 2013 46 comments

Following my earlier discussion of relative economic performance in Australia and NZ, I’ve been chatting with people in the NZ Treasury, and also with some of the macroeconomists in my own department. Its given me a number of research ideas I hope to pursue in the future, both with respect to possible ways the NZ-Oz gap might be bridged and more general implications about macroeconomic theory.

In the circumstances of the election what matters is the suggestion by Tony Abbott and others on the political right that New Zealand is a model for Australia to follow as regards macroeconomic policy. The key point is that NZ had a smaller stimulus than we did, and looks set to return to surplus a little earlier, though of course we know how unreliable such projections can be.

If, like Abbott, Hockey and (on even-numbered days) Robb[1], you regard budget surpluses as the paramount measure of good economic performance, there’s a case to be made here. But if you think that employment and economic growth are more important, Australia looks a whole lot better, as you can see from the graphs below.

Standard economic theory suggests that, when two countries have access to the same technology, comparable education systems, free labour and capital movements and so on, any initial differences in income levels should gradually be evened out. Instead, the Oz-NZ gap has widened since the GFC. Anyone who could seriously suggest NZ as an economic model should not be entrusted with the management of our economy.

OzNZ002
NZandothers

fn1. Not to mention Peter Costello and Wayne Swan, who seemed to view the stimulus that saved us from recession as an embarrassing departure from normality.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Election on 7 September

August 4th, 2013 87 comments

At least that’s what I’m reading. As I’ve argued before, I think this is a mistake for a number of reasons. In fact, I spent a fair bit of yesterday working up a piece arguing the case for allowing Parliament to sit again, and holding an election in October. [Irony on] If only I had run it on Friday, the course of history would doubtless have been changed [Irony off]. It’s now only of academic interest, in the pejorative sense of the term, so I’ll turn my attention to issues that actually matter.

My views on the election are simple. Whatever the weaknesses of the Rudd government, it’s far preferable to the disaster that Abbott would give us. So, I’ll certainly be putting Labor ahead of the Coalition in the House of Representatives. I’ll probably give my first preference to the Greens, though if my vote matters in Ryan, Labor will have swept Queensland. Both Labor and Greens have good local candidates, so I’d happily support either, and I’ll equally happily give my last preference to the LNP incumbent, unless someone truly awful runs.

The big issue is the Senate. Regardless of the Lower House outcome, it’s critical that a Labor-Green majority should be returned, and therefore that Labor and the Greens work together. This was one of Rudd’s big weaknesses last time round, and hasn’t been helped by some statements from his frontbench, or from perceptions on both sides of the way the last Labor-Green deal worked out.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Is there a solution to the refugee problem?

July 21st, 2013 161 comments

The announcement by Kevin Rudd and PNG PM O’Neill that asylum seekers arriving by boat would, from now on, be settled in PNG came as a shock to most of us. I’ve waited a while to respond, because I’m neither happy with the policy nor satisfied with the critical responses from the Left. It also remains unclear whether the policy will actually work as planned, but that will take some time to determine.

The benefit of waiting is that I’ve had time to see this piece by Tad Tietze, who I think sums up the issues pretty well, making the point that, while Rudd has outflanked Abbott regarding a hard line on boat arrivals, he has also outflanked critics on the left by increasing the total refugee intake, which is already claimed by the government to be the highest in the developed world on a per capita basis. [1]

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Rent-seeking rampant

July 19th, 2013 86 comments

The Rudd government’s proposal to tighten up documentation requirements for the very generous tax concessions provided for people who receive motor cars as a fringe benefit has produced some striking examples of rent-seeking from the Australian right, notably including Catallaxy and the Australian Financial Review. Catallaxy has a string of posts defending this rort.

The Fin gives lots of space to bleating rent-seekers, while imputing to “academics” the opinion that this is a subsidy. I guess that’s fair enough, given that the Fin regards basic science as a matter of academic opinion, while treating the failed dogmas of the 1980s as proven facts. And, of course, the Opposition has promised to oppose the measure, while weaselling out on the question of whether it would reverse the changes if elected.

This really is a test for Rudd. If he wants to refute the oft-repeated claim that he is all spin and no substance, this is his first chance, and one of the best he is going to get.

The return of the ETS

July 17th, 2013 56 comments

As a member of the Climate Change Authority, I’m constrained to some extent in what I can say about the plan to bring forward the date at which emission permits will become tradeable, so I’m going to make a few points, and leave discussion to others

* The really big change, which went largely un-noticed, was the link to the EU scheme, announced by Greg Combet shortly after the carbon price came into effect. Bringing this forward by a year is a minor adjustment by comparison

* The offsetting savings announced today are mostly good, the most obvious exception being the biodiversity fund. I supported assistance to Carbon Capture and Storage in the past, on the general principle of backing every horse, but it’s time to admit that this horse won’t run

* The tightening of Fringe Benefit exemptions for cars is, I hope, a recognition that subsidising motor vehicle use in general isn’t going to save the domestic car industry, which has a small and shrinking share of the market. The impending demise of the Falcon should kill the presumption that fleet cars are likely to be Australian-made I hope this view is taken more generally. Preservation of the domestic industry is probably a lost cause, but if governments are going to try, they should do so with direct subsidies to domestic production not subsidies to car use in general.

* I hope Parliament sits again, and that the government puts the necessary legislation forward. The amusement of watching Tony Abbott voting *for* the carbon tax would be well worth the price of admission.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags: