Rent-seeking rampant

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

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.

Westminster in the Antipodes

I’ve written a piece for the Conversation about a side issue in the Rudd-Gillard contest, namely the view that, under the Westminster system, voters elect the politicians who then choose the PM. Rudd’s proposed reforms obviously contradict that. I argue that Rudd is effectively codifying the existing system, as established by the bulk of historical precedent and understood by voters, and rejecting the view of insiders (especially the kind who appear on Insiders, or so I’m told – I’ve never watched the show and plan never to do so).

As a side issue, my piece was extensively edited for publication. With the natural pride of authorship, I thought my original (over the fold) was better. But I’d be interested in a reality check on this from readers here.

As I’ve said before, I don’t want to rehash the substantive merits of Rudd and Gillard at further length here. If you want to have your say on this, go to the Crooked Timber post I’ve linked.

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Tony Abbott, fact-checked and FOI'd

The Conversation has now launched its election fact-checking site. The opening set includes a factcheck I’ve done, on a claim by Tony Abbott that it now takes three years to get a mine approved compared to less than twelve months six years ago. This is wrong on about as many levels as it can possibly be, the most important being

* The claim rests on a single coal mine in NSW, which was initially rejected, then approved on appeal
* The implied blame is directed to the Commonwealth government, which changed in 2007. But mine approval is mostly a state function, and most states have switched from Labor to LNP governments in the last six years

Meanwhile, there was a Twitterstorm over the weekend, about a story run by independent journalist Margo Kingston, who used FOI to determine that Abbott had been made to repay $9400, claimed as expenses while he was promoting his book Battlelines in 2009. MSM weren’t much interested, but the barrage of tweets has elicited at least one story, here in the Age.

The Strange Case of James Cartwright

That’s the headline on my latest piece for The National Interest. It looks at the case of (retired) General James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under investigation for a leak relating to the Stuxnet worm, a US-Israeli cyberwarfare exercise directed against Iran. The key points

* Like most leaks, the one for which Cartwright is being investigated revealed nothing that wasn’t known to the Iranian targets of the exercise or easily inferred by anyone who had followed the story in public media

* Unlike the leaks for which whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden have been prosecuted/persecuted, this was an absolutely standard Washington leak, done for personal gain. Assuming the facts are as alleged, Cartwright, an insider, gave information (classified as secret, but actually well known) to a journalist, in return for favorable coverage. This is such standard practice that it would be hard to find anyone in government (in DC or elsewhere) who hasn’t done it

But, Cartwright had made lots of enemies and so appears excluded from the general immunity that covers such leaks. Moreover, thanks to Obama, the stakes are high. Based on the Manning precedent, he could be charged with aiding the enemy, a crime that carries the death penalty. The only comparable case of an insider prosecution is that of Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, who leaked the identity of an active CIA agent for political gain. He got a three-month slap on the wrist, which was immediately commuted. Even then he was prosecuted for perjury, not for the actual leak.

Having reached the point where the weapons of the security state are being turned against insiders, it will be interesting to see how things play out. Hopefully, those involved will look over the precipice and pull back.