Rudd and policy substance

Quite appropriately, since Kevin Rudd’s return to the Prime Ministership, a lot of people are reassessing his record in office. One of the stranger claims I’m seeing from a variety of sources is that he lacked policy substance. It’s fair to say that his election campaign in 2007 (when he had been Opposition leader for less than a year) was a fairly typical small target exercise, and that he didn’t have a big set of initiatives ready to go. But he soon started thinking about them – as the jibe of the time had it, he “hit the ground reviewing”. Among the reviews initiated while Rudd was PM were:

* The Henry inquiry into the Tax System, which gave rise to the mining tax
* The Garnaut review (taken over from the Labor states) which gave rise to the CPRS
* The Productivity Commission inquiry into a National Long-term Care and Support Scheme which gave rise to the NDIS
* The Gonski review of School Education
* The National Broadband Network
* A review of plain packaging for cigarettes, which came into force last year

In addition, of course, the Rudd government managed the successful response to the Global Financial Crisis. At the time, Rudd worked with Treasurer Wayne Swan and Treasury Secretary Ken Henry and it was hard to tell who was responsible for the brave and decisive switch to fiscal stimulus. But given Swan’s subsequent performance, especially after the departure of Rudd and Henry, it’s clear he wasn’t the leading figure.

So, the idea that Rudd lacked policy substance is silly. A fairer criticism is that Rudd was better on getting policy formulated than on getting legislation through Parliament and implemented. Against that

* He could reasonably have expected two full terms, so the fact that much of the agenda was unfinished when he was deposed is not a valid criticism
* Although he had a majority in the House of Representatives, he had to deal with a far less favorable Senate than that of the current Parliament. Despite that, he got a fair bit of legislation through

Finally, it would be worth doing a comparison between Rudd’s achievements and those of Tony Abbott, who held office for 11 years under Howard, first as a Parliamentary Secretary, then as a junior minister and, from 2001 as a Cabinet Minister.

Update In comments, Bronster reminds me of the the White paper on homelessness ‘The Road Home’, which led to a number of improvements. There was also the Dental Health Reform package, which finally came in last year. Then there was the elimination of most substantive discrimination against LGBT couples, the replacement of WorkChoices by FairWorkAustralia, and the abolition of full-fee university places for domestic students. Most of these last initiatives were not just proposed but implemented during Rudd’s first term.

Given what seemed like the certainty of an Abbott victory, I haven’t paid much attention to Labor’s policy agenda for the next Parliament, which Rudd has now inherited. The listing at Ausvotes mostly links to the 2013 Budget, which wasn’t big in the way of new initiatives as a I recall. Can readers point to policy initiatives from the current Parliament that Rudd (and his radically reshaped ministerial team) should be expanding on (or, alternatively, dumping).

Aware of All Internet Traditions

The canard that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet was so widely circulated and so damaging, one would have thought any politician would sew their lips shut rather than speak the phrase “invented the Internet” in any context other than a tribute to Tim Berners-Lee. But Tony Abbott has just described Malcolm Turnbull as the man who “virtually invented the Internet in Australia”. Either this is (a) a devilishly clever plot to lumber Turnbull with the Al Gore millstone, or (b) it is just about the stupidest thing Abbott has ever said. I’m going for (b)

For the record

* From the late 1980s, Al Gore led the work on the the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, which created the National Information Infrastructure, and was vital to the development of the Internet from its beginnings as ARPANET

* In the 1990s, when the Internet was an established reality in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull made a lot of money investing in an ISP

Can Parliament sit again?

If so (advice from anyone who actually knows the rules would be helpful), it should. I assume this would require an election date later than 14 September but I don’t see a problem with that. A

In general terms, the democratic process would be improved by a chance to see the aspirants to the Prime Ministership present their case to the Parliament. The public is entitled to ask for a decent look at the new improved Kevin Rudd, and also for Abbott to present a positive alternative, rather than coasting to victory on the basis of negative views about the incumbent, as was his plan until yesterday.

More specifically, there are a number of issues where Rudd ought to put forward legislation.

One of the most important is equal marriage. Abbott is fudging on the question of a free vote, and Rudd ought to force him to take a stand. He should say that the vote will be either free on both sides, or party-line on both sides. Since the majority of Labor members voted for equal marriage last time, a party-line measure would mean equal marriage passing both houses.

A number of the other suggestions I’ve made, such as increasing Job Search Allowance would need legislation. That would be much better than having them as campaign promises, since it would put the onus on Abbott to endorse them or commit to repeal.

What should Rudd do now?

Regardless of attitudes to the leadership dispute, politics is no longer a question of waiting for Abbott’s inevitable victory. So, for those of us who don’t desire an Abbott government, it’s now worthwhile to consider how Labor, and Kevin Rudd, should use the limited time available before the next election. Here are some suggestions, obviously preliminary

* A root-and-branch review of the Labor Party. The relationship with the union movement, the continued existence of the factional system, the relationship between the PM and Caucus and the need for MPs with real life experience, rather than party/union careerists – everything should be on the table. I’d suggest John Faulkner as the person to lead such a review. Other names that come to mind are Ged Kearney and Peter Beatty

* Take the economic policy debate to Abbott, as he did last night. Instead of Swan’s deficit fetishism we need a full-throated defence of the 2009 stimulus package, and Keynesian fiscal policy in general, and a correspondingly sharp attack on austerity

* The return to CPRS has already been announced. Since I’m part of the Authority responsible for advising the government, I’m not going to comment on the details. But Rudd should return to the attack on Abbott’s scientific and economic delusionism on this issue.

* Fix some of the worst Swan-Gillard decisions, like the refusal to increase Job Search allowance

* Scrap Gillard’s deal on the mining tax

* Mend fences with the Greens – this was one of Rudd’s biggest failings during his period as PM, and one of the things he needs to change

* Get Combet back – of all the ministers who’ve quit, he’s the only one who’s a real loss. The departure of people like Conroy and Ludwig is one of the unqualified benefits of this change, and that of Swan and Emerson a net plus for the government

Feel free to offer your own thoughts. Rehashes of the leadership debate will be deleted with prejudice.

Game on

With the return of Kevin Rudd to the Labor leadership and presumably the Prime Ministership, Australian politics is worth talking about once again. A couple of observations

* It’s worth watching Rudd’s press conference today, and his last couple. More policy substance in a few minutes than Gillard and Abbott between them have provided in three years

* I saw the Libs YouTube ad with Labor figures attacking Rudd – the list included Richardson (the single person most responsible for corruption in the Labor party), Conroy, Latham, Swan and of course Gillard herself. It’s hard to see that being attacked by this crew can be regarded as a bad thing.

Hope and climate change

According to various reports, Obama is making a speech today in which he will announce limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. These limits can be imposed by regulation, and are justified by court decisions requiring the Environmental Protection Authority to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama has been a disappointment in all sorts of ways, but effective action on climate change would be sufficient, for me, to redeem his presidency. None of the other things we are fighting about will matter unless there is a livable planet on which to fight.

Going from realistic hope to wishful thinking, a sufficiently positive reaction on this might give him the nerve to block the Keystone pipeline. But strong action on power plants would be enough for me – it’s really up to Canadians to stop the oil sands menace.

Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail (repost from 2004)

One of the more tiresome points being made in relation to the revelations from Edward Snowden is that there is nothing really new here. And, of course, it’s true that, if you’ve been paying careful attention to all the news on this topic, disregarding both official assurances and the wilder conspiracy theories, and thinking through the implications, the material leaked by Snowden is more confirmation than revelation. But, sad to say, that’s not the case for most of us. I think I’ve been paying more attention than most, and I still learned a lot from the latest news.

That’s all a preamble for a repost of a piece I wrote in 2004, in relation to an earlier revelation along similar lines, with a link to an even earlier piece from 2001, making the general case that secret intelligence is useless.
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The obesity paradox paradox (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

I see lots of stories made up of handwringing over the “obesity paradox”, normally presented as saying that even though obesity is a risk factor for all kinds of diseases, obese people appear to have lower mortality than others. A typical finding is the one reported here

being overweight or slightly obese was linked to about a 6 percent lower risk of dying, compared to people considered “normal weight. Being severely obese, however, was still tied to an almost 30 percent higher risk of death.

People are tying themselves in knots over this, but it doesn’t seem to me that there is any paradox to be explained. The obvious reading of the data is that the Body Mass Index[^1] ranges used for the various categories (20-25 Normal, 25-30 Overweight etc) were set a bit too low when they were originally estimated, or rather, guessed. From my quick look at the data, if you bumped the ranges up by a couple of points, the paradox would disappear. People at the bottom of the current normal range, who tend to have high mortality, would be classed as underweight, while those currently classed as slightly overweight would be reclassified as normal.

Am I missing something?

[^1] This point is logically separate from the general problems of the BMI, regarding muscle mass and so on.

Non-core health promises

When campaigning for office, Campbell Newman promise public servants they had nothing to fear from an LNP government

Breaking that promise, and announcing 10-20 000 job cuts, Newman promised no cuts in staff delivering “frontline” services

Breaking that promise, and sacking large numbers of frontline staff, Newman promised that, even if staff were cut, frontline services would not be

Given this trajectory, it was only a matter of time before the word “core”, made infamous by John Howard’s “core promises”, appeared in government rhetoric. And here it is. Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service chief executive, Adrian Pennington, who is busy abandoning or privatising a wide range of preventative care services, services to the elderly and so on, says, of cuts to emergency staff

There have been no cuts to front-line services in our emergency departments in Bundaberg, Hervey Bay or Maryborough. Emergency departments are core services to keep our people safe.

Pennington’s claim is disputed in the article, but what’s notable here is the emergence, as with Howard, of the implied non-care category of services we will have to do without.

We can all expect plenty more of this under Abbott.