On the matter of his paid parental leave scheme, Tony Abbott has got religion. He’s been using every occasion in the run up to Saturday’s International Women’s Day to sing hymns to what he’s determined to make a legacy policy.
(Abbott’s functions have even included hosting drinks in the cabinet suite for women from the media, where his chief of staff Peta Credlin also gave a speech.)
The Prime Minister’s PPL message has not just been for women at large. He is, in effect, saying once again: party colleagues, of either gender, who have doubts, listen up. There might be many critics out there - including the Audit Commission, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group - but this is my baby and I’m protecting it like any devoted father would.
Abbott emphasised the plan’s origins and his ownership. “This is a proposal which I first put forward quite some time ago, well before I became opposition leader,” he said on Friday. “It’s a proposal that the Coalition took to the 2010 election, we took to the 2013 election and we well and truly have a mandate to introduce it in the form that we took it to the election.”
It’s notable that two of Abbott’s signature issues – PPL and his deep commitment to indigenous affairs – are ones he says he’s come to after personal journeys (and in each case, he’s willing to give some credit to Labor predecessors for what they did).
The strength with which he is prosecuting these signature issues reflects the assertiveness he is bringing to the prime ministership, which is being seen also in his stand on industry policy.
On PPL, he acknowledged people saw a certain disconnect between the scheme and its sponsor.
“It’s always a bit disconcerting when something happens that you don’t expect. … when a conservative, when a traditionalist such as myself, comes up with something which is not regarded as a conservative and a traditional position,” he told a breakfast on Tuesday.
He drew a very stretched comparison. “It is a bit like when Nixon went to China. Conservatives thought, ‘my God, has he suddenly abandoned the faith?’ Progressives thought, ‘my God, is China no longer a progressive country?’ The truth is this was a historic breakthrough. This was one of those moments when people from all sides of politics needed to realise that a watershed had been reached.
“So, it is, I like to think, with the Coalition support for a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme.”
That must have produced some sharp intakes of breath on the Coalition side.
Abbott argued that if “a progressive”, rather than “a conservative” had produced the scheme, “the usual suspects would have been cheering and saying ‘about time’”.
Well, not exactly. What “progressive” critics don’t like is that it is not means tested – that there is too much largesse to the well off.
Abbott’s counter – it is a workplace entitlement, not welfare - doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about a government scheme financed by a tax (on big companies).
The critics on the other side of politics just think it is an unnecessary burden on the budget, and also on the 3000 companies levied.
Legislation for the scheme, due to start mid-next year, is being prepared. But, like much else this government hopes to do, what happens will depend on the Senate.
There the scheme has Green friends. They like the outline, but will want its generosity pared back (thank God for the Greens, Joe Hockey might be thinking). The vote would presumably be in the new Senate but the Greens would still remain the government’s best bet.
Abbott (half jokingly) likes to present himself as the latter-day convert to feminism. This week he repeated wife Margie’s line: “what is it that turns an unreconstructed bloke into a feminist? Three daughters.”
But Michaelia Cash, his Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, is stuck in a more rigid groove.
Cash told Fairfax Media this week: “I have never been someone who labels herself.
“In terms of feminism, I’ve never been someone who really associates with that movement. That movement was a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now,” though she acknowledged it had done “wonderful things for women”.
Given her position, her unwillingness to call herself a feminist was not the best of messages.
But in Victoria the Liberals sent out a far more unfortunate message ahead of International Women’s Day, when Mary Wooldridge, one of their more impressive state ministers, went down in a preselection battle last Sunday. Josh Frydenberg, who is parliamentary secretary to Abbott, was a supporter of the candidate who defeated her.
Coming after the PM last year including only one woman in his cabinet, Wooldridge’s rejection left a sour taste with many Liberal women, amid all the high-flown rhetoric.
Postscript: Abbott’s sister Christine Forster told Sky on Friday night the government’s biggest mistake had been not having more women in cabinet.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane here.
The stipulation that Qantas must remain majority Australian-owned is, above all, a legacy of 1990s Labor politics. There is little logic in keeping it today.
When the ALP government of that time walked boldly down the road of airline privatisation, this provision made the journey easier for the party and reassured the public. But things have moved on.
The argument that Qantas’s ownership rules should be treated differently from Virgin’s makes little sense, and is counterproductive when that holds back the Flying Kangaroo’s access to capital.
The opposition has dug in against lifting the 49% foreign ownership cap on the ground that to do so would lead to jobs being exported. Labor is also playing on the traditional sentiment towards Qantas as the Aussie airline (though Virgin is also an Australian national carrier).
But if insisting on keeping the cap weakens the airline, jobs will be lost anyway (and 5000 are going already, with majority Australian ownership).
As for sentiment over iconic brands: firstly, consumers have less of it these days and secondly, to the extent they do, it can co-exist with foreign ownership (think Vegemite). Anyway, to meet agreements Australia has with other countries, the international operation of Qantas would still have to be majority locally owned, which should satisfy any “patriotism” imperative.
Labor’s insistence that Qantas must be majority Australian owned is being undermined by some from its own side.
Former ALP minister Martin Ferguson last week supported a level playing field.
He said on radio that given Qantas and Virgin were both privately owned, “why should Qantas potentially have a higher cost of borrowings because of the nature of the Qantas ownership act?”
Ferguson isn’t too popular among some Laborites at the moment because of his comments on industrial relations but others admire his economic hard-headedness.
David Epstein, chief of staff to then prime minister Kevin Rudd and also a former Qantas executive, has been scathingly critical of Labor’s support for a debt guarantee (which has been rejected by the government).
“It’s puzzling when a party claiming to be progressive wants to compound out-dated interventionism with a market distorting loan guarantee specific to Qantas. This is a step down the Argentine road,” Epstein wrote in an Australian Financial Review opinion piece.
He also said the Qantas sale act, with its foreign ownership cap, should go “and the ALP should not stand in the way”.
Labor is willing to compromise on the lesser limits in that act (35% for combined foreign airlines, 25% for individual foreign entities). Indeed it proposed this in government, when the Coalition was the side worrying about foreigners.
Having taken such a hard stand on the overall cap, it would be difficult for Labor to back down now.
But its stand on Qantas is another reminder that the opposition’s economic message tends too often to be populist and short term, rather than part of a well thought out, longer run strategy.
As blame flies on the Qantas issue, the company itself is copping quite a lot of it, primarily for not doing enough to help itself.
Or to help the government. It infuriated the Coalition by its comments on the politically charged carbon tax, when it said on Monday: “the major issues Qantas faces are not related to carbon pricing”.
This was a red rag to the government but what followed was extraordinary. By Wednesday the carbon price had become “among the significant challenges we face”, in a statement from the company.
CEO Alan Joyce gave this explanation for what to the naked eye was a blatant turnaround.
“There was some commentary, maybe misunderstanding out there, about what our position was on this …. we’re having to respond to rumours and comments that are being made about how we actually stand,” he said.
“And what we issued today was just the normal daily clarifications that we’re making on everything that we do. And it’s absolutely no different or not inconsistent with what we’ve said before.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott denied he or his office had leaned on Qantas between Monday and Wednesday.
They wouldn’t have had to. You could have fuelled a small plane on the steam that had been coming out of government ears.
In coming weeks Joyce can expect a grilling from senators over the state of the company. The Greens have won the support of Labor for a Senate inquiry into what should be done to keep the airline “a strong national carrier supporting aviation jobs in Australia”. The Greens want Qantas’s books to be opened.
Joyce has some bad memories of facing senators. When he appeared before a committee in 2011, after his dramatic and controversial grounding of the airline, Labor’s Doug Cameron told him, “You’re a bit like Richard Nixon… trying to talk your way out of everything.” To which Joyce replied: “You’re a bit like a McCarthy trial”.
On that occasion, Joyce declared that “Qantas proudly calls Australia home and we will always do so”.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull here.
As Liberal MP Ewen Jones walked out of the Coalition parties meeting, Tony Abbott gave him a pat on the back and some praise. “Well said,” the PM told the Queensland backbencher.
Jones had just delivered a strong defence of non-traditional families, after right wing South Australian senator Cory Bernardi commended a weekend article by Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews.
Andrews' article stressed the importance of keeping marriages together and defended the government providing couples with a $200 voucher for marriage and relationship counselling.
It quoted Barack Obama’s statistics about the risks for children who grew up without a father (although Andrews wrote that this was not to criticise single parents “who often do a heroic job in very difficult circumstances”).
Reading from the article, Bernardi joked that such references were fraught with danger, adding that “if you get enough of these dangerous ideas you can put them in a book”. In his controversial The Conservative Revolution published a few months ago Bernardi wrote that “it’s clear that married heterosexual parents are the best role models for children”.
The Bernardi speech prompted Jones to jump up. He said he had a relative in a gay relationship and he himself had been a single parent. A good family was one where the child was loved, he said, adding in comments outside the party room that it was “not up to a senator from South Australia with no constituency” to be the judge of family structure.
After Jones’s speech Abbott intervened to tell the meeting: “We need to be as supportive as possible of people regardless of their circumstances.”
Later Abbott’s gay sister Christine Forster chipped in to the fray via Twitter, endorsing a tweet that said it had been an excellent slap down of Bernardi by his colleagues. “Couldn’t agree with you more”, she tweeted.
Forster told The Conversation that Bernardi’s view on families didn’t represent mainstream Australian or mainstream Liberal opinion, and should not be the view of elected federal Liberals. “Loving same sex or sole parent families are every bit as successful as traditional nuclear families,” she said.
In the scheme of things, the Jones/Bernardi clash was a small frisson.
But as it played out it threw up a contrast between Abbott and his Liberal prime ministerial predecessor John Howard. Can anyone imagine Howard telling Jones “well said”?
It also raises the question of whether Abbott’s opposition to same sex marriage is now rather more a formality than a deep personal belief.
As a strong Catholic he will never vote for gay marriage. But it may be that the influence of his sister has worn away at the strength of his conviction on the subject. It has certainly educated him in the reality that these can be very loving relationships and well-functioning family units.
Not that he wants the gay marriage issue to come to parliament.
Labor’s deputy Tanya Plibersek is attempting to find a Liberal co-sponsor for her marriage equality bill. She has said that ‘'the introduction of the bill will be contingent on Tony Abbott allowing his MPs a conscience vote.”
The question of a free vote on the Liberal side, which Abbott has said would be up to the party room, would divide his troops.
If a bill reached parliament and there was a free vote for Liberals, he would then have to decide whether to push his personal view on colleagues or stand above the battle. It’s a dilemma he’d prefer not to face.
For her part, Forster says that it is “extremely important a bill only goes before Parliament again when it has the best chance of success”.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull here.
It’s passing strange to hear Tony Abbott advancing the gung ho “dry” argument that Qantas must not be treated as a special case.
But after he crossed that line in the sand by rejecting aid for SPC Ardmona and any attempt to rescue the car industry, his position on Qantas was a logical extension.
Not an automatic one, however. Qantas is an iconic Australian company. There was a great deal of pressure to treat it favourably. And indeed Treasurer Joe Hockey last month had set out the reasons why Qantas was different. He let hang out the prospect of it receiving a debt guarantee.
The airline wanted the guarantee as well as being freed up from the constraints of its sales act, specifically the ban on majority foreign ownership.
Until late last week, the guarantee or credit facility appeared almost certain to be extended. But then Abbott slapped it down in parliament, and suddenly all the emphasis was just on “unshackling” the airline.
Hockey looked awkward at the news conference when Abbott, deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and he announced the decision to lift all ownership restrictions but not give the guarantee. The dynamics between the PM and his Treasurer on the issue are unclear.
When he was asked about the special case criteria he laid down last month Hockey said the first one he’d pointed to were the government-imposed conditions on Qantas that didn’t apply to competitors, “Well, today we are resolving to get rid of that discrepancy that works against Qantas”.
He also recalled that he’d said the government was being dragged “kicking and screaming” towards helping Qantas “because we do not want to be in the business of subsidising any single enterprise. It’s not sustainable in the long term”.
The government’s decision is economically sound.
First, it is sensible to level the playing field, and secondly it is correct, as Abbott says, that if one airline were to be given special consideration, the others would have a case too.
We are past the stage of a sentimental attachment to Qantas.
And remember too that Qantas’s overseas operating arm would still have to remain majority Australian owned, for reasons to do with Australian treaties on landing rights. These provisions are not being changed. So if there was majority foreign ownership the company would have to be split, as Virgin is.
Abbott produced a useful quote from former Labor minister Ralph Willis from the time of the Qantas sale act; Willis said that the Commonwealth could not countenance the possibility of still being potentially liable for Qantas debt once control of the airline was with the private sector.
While the government is on sound policy ground, it is also much driven by the politics. Labor privatised Qantas but now won’t go the next step to allow the majority foreign sell off (although it’s willing to negotiate on subsidiary limits – what foreign airlines and individual foreign entities can own).
Labor condemns the government for potentially facilitating the outsourcing of Australian jobs.
Bill Shorten declared: “Under Tony Abbott, Qantas will be Australian no more. Under Tony Abbott we will see thousands of jobs go overseas; cabin crew, flight attendants, maintenance workers, the majority of the board of director positions, the head office, even the chairman.”
The PM says, in essence, you might have to lose some jobs overseas in a longer term overall quest for jobs.
Abbott says he believes Labor will give in because it won’t let Qantas “bleed”. But if the opposition doesn’t capitulate, or some compromise isn’t reached, the implication is that the government will let the airline “bleed”.
Quite how that would play out would depend on how the company fared in the immediate future. Qantas has talked up its need for help – if the levelling of the playing field was blocked and there was no debt guarantee, it would be tested to the maximum.
Most immediately, the pressure is on the company, to lift its game, and on Labor, to accept the consequences of its original privatisation. If things don’t work out, the heat would come back on to the government. Qantas has given notice that if the sales act change is not passed, it will be knocking on the door. Very loudly.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull here.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison’s weekend talks in Papua New Guinea have led to belated efforts to better co-ordinate “the PNG solution”.
His visit reflects what must be deep disquiet in the government about the way things have gone – and not gone – on Manus Island, despite its refusal to acknowledge many of the obvious problems there.
But while there were some steps forward out of Morrison’s trip, there should also be questions and concerns about the two countries' plan to “synthesise” the various inquiries into the recent rioting that saw one death and many serious injuries.
Let’s start with the positives, as reflected in Morrison’s statement on Sunday.
There is to be a new “monthly joint ministerial forum”, starting in April, “to directly oversee implementation of the regional resettlement arrangement”.
This forum will involve Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as well as Morrison.
“It will provide clear direction and oversight to the implementation of the RRA and provide a timely and accountable process to ensure that the arrangement is being converted into tangible and practical outcomes.” The recent “tragic incident” and the joint response will be an early focus “to ensure a co-ordinated and co-operative approach”.
Morrison said he and the PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Rimbink Pato, and Attorney-General Kerenga Kua had agreed that central to the arrangement between the two countries “is the processing of asylum claims and the resettlement of genuine refugees in PNG”.
The forum “will enable progress on processing and resettlement arrangements to be reported on a monthly basis to ministers, to ensure that the momentum that is necessary to fulfil the objectives of the agreement is maintained”.
The first thing to say about this is that such co-ordination should have been set up long ago. And before Morrison uses as an excuse that he was left a blank sheet by the Rudd government, let us note that even accepting his point, he’s had months to do something about it.
Secondly, talk of “momentum” should be in the future tense. There has been none so far in terms of processing results.
Morrison said Australia and PNG “will work to synthesise, as appropriate” the inquiries each country has on the go into the rioting. These include the Australian investigation being done by Robert Cornall, a former secretary of the Attorney-General’s department, the PNG police investigation and the PNG coronial inquiry.
The aim is “to ensure a clear statement of the facts and a shared understanding of the findings and implications of these events for the ongoing management of the centre and the resettlement process”.
The ministers agreed the Cornall review “should be conducted in partnership and with the participation of the PNG government”.
At one level this seems sensible co-ordination.
But at another, it raises some worries. Isn’t it odd to have a coronial inquiry “synthesised” – a strange word in itself – with other investigations?
And once the Cornall inquiry is conducted “in partnership and with the participation of the PNG government”, surely there is a risk that the imperatives of diplomacy compromise its “independence”?
Meanwhile the Greens' Sarah Hanson-Young is proposing a Senate inquiry into Manus and the recent incident in particular. But she needs Labor support; she will have talks with opposition spokesman Richard Marles on Monday. Labor, as the instigator of the “PNG solution”, is in an awkward position on the whole Manus issue.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, pressed on whether he had had a “moment of doubt” about what Australia was doing, given the death of young Iranian Reza Barati and the injuries, told Ten Network on Sunday:
“Look, people should not engage in riotous affray. Now if they do engage in riotous affray, they’ve got to be dealt with humanely as well as sometimes firmly, but we are going to get to the bottom of this particular tragedy. Scott Morrison has been in PNG over the last 24 hours or so, amongst other things, to try to ensure that this happens.”
Let’s hope that in the end, we get the full truth, not a version varnished to preserve the niceties between the two countries in relation to a policy where Australia depends on PNG goodwill and PNG depends on Australian money.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer here.
As federal Labor backbencher and former state minister Alannah MacTiernan tweeted after Friday’s announcement that Western Australians will go to the polls on April 5 for the re-run Senate election, “Game on! For the next five weeks WA will be the centre of the national stage.”
The last thing the Abbott government needs, as it tries to frame a difficult budget amid scary speculation, is a giant byelection, which is what this poll will be.
On the other hand, if it has to face such a test, there could be worse places than WA.
On the day the date was announced, the Liberals received a windfall, with former Labor minister Martin Ferguson, speaking in Perth, declaring: “we must reduce red and green tape; commit to market-based policy, and re-evaluate how our workplace relations framework influences access to labour and how it affects the economic viability of new projects.”
The sentiments of Ferguson, who is chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Advisory Board, reinforce those coming from the Coalition in Canberra.
The government’s rhetoric about Labor holding up the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes is tailor-made for electioneering in the west.
But Labor will have plenty of ammunition for a fear campaign about all the nasty things that might be in the still-secret Commission of Audit report now on Treasurer Joe Hockey’s desk.
The federal Liberals also have to hope that not too many voters use the occasion to send a message about their gripes against the Barnett government.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten immediately linked the two governments.
“Already too many Western Australians are feeling the pressure of the cost of living without paying more to visit the GP. Western Australians are already suffering from Colin Barnett’s cruel cuts to education,” he said. “Western Australians cannot afford a Barnett-style government in Canberra without a strong Senate.”
The poll is risky for the Abbott government because, if things go badly, it could find its position in the post July 1 Senate somewhat worse than it had expected. This would make harder what was already set to be a challenging process of negotiating legislation through the upper house.
At the September election the Liberals won three Senate places. They can do no better – it’s a question of whether they can hold on to the third.
Labor won two seats on one count and one on the recount. On its recent polling it believes it can secure two in the new election.
ABC electoral analyst Antony Green summed up the broad picture in a recent blog. “If the left, [as] in Labor plus the Greens, won back their traditional third seat, and a minor party won the third Coalition seat, the Senate balance of power would be changed.
“A Labor or Green gain would give 36 seats to the left in the Senate [compared with 35 on the September result], meaning only two votes from the cross bench would be needed to block government legislation. This is only a minor change from the three … required in the Senate that had been due to take its place on 1 July, but could be an important influence on certain types of legislation.”
The election is a significant moment for Clive Palmer’s PUP, which won a seat on the first count but not on the recount.
Palmer, cashed up with public funding from the last election, will throw big dollars into trying to improve his parliamentary numbers.
He already has two senators and an alliance with a third in the post July 1 Senate. To have a bloc of four among the key crossbench players would give Palmer even greater power.
He announced his ticket on Friday with Dio Wang, who won on the first count, as lead candidate.
Palmer’s mantra is that a vote for one of the major parties is a “wasted vote”, while electing PUP will give WA a key voice in the balance of power.
Palmer’s PUP has become a minor rather than a micro party. One would guess that voters are likely to be wary of the micro odds and sods after their successes in various states in September. But whether they can be kept in the game in this election by some preference whispering remains to be seen.
Ahead of the unprecedented Senate poll we’ve seen the resignations of Australian Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn and WA officer Peter Kramer. It is extraordinary that 1370 lost votes could force about 1.5 million people back to the ballot boxes and cost the taxpayers up to $20 million. One can only guess at the paranoia that will be around the AEC count in April.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer here.
Before the election Stephen Conroy inflicted severe damage on his own side with his ill-fated media reforms. Now his badly judged attack on Angus Campbell, the military man in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, has derailed the opposition’s parliamentary week.
There’s no doubt the Abbott government has dragged the military into the political process – and that the military has been unhappy about that, at one stage obtaining a clearer delineation between immigration minister Scott Morrison and Campbell at their joint news conferences.
But for Conroy to accuse the well-respected three-star general of being “engaged in a political cover-up” was to go on a reckless, undisciplined mission that was doomed to end in disaster.
One of the ALP’s hardmen of the Victorian right, Conroy is Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate. After the election the former communications minister became defence spokesman – and stayed a very quiet one until Tuesday.
With Senate estimates hearings underway, Conroy first lashed out at Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of NBN Co, Conroy’s former area of responsibility. He accused Switkowski of lying.
A few hours later he harangued Campbell, saying: “You can’t tell the Australian public the truth because you might upset an international neighbour. That’s called a political cover-up… You are engaged in a political cover-up.” Campbell, only too aware of what an awkward situation he’s been placed in by his job, told the hearing he took “extreme offence” at the remark. Conroy withdrew the comment but the damage was done.
With a more subtle approach and without playing the man, Conroy could have made his point about the government using the military as a political shield.
Instead, his outburst turned into a cluster bomb exploding all over Labor’s backyard.
At Wednesday’s estimates hearing, Australian Defence Force chief David Hurley hit back, saying that while Conroy had withdrawn the accusations, “unfortunately, once said the shadow will linger”.
Conroy, who had been spoken to by an unimpressed Bill Shorten, told the hearing (after the Hurley contribution) that he wanted “to make it absolutely clear that I have no criticism whatsoever of military personnel carrying out government orders”.
He did not apologise to Campbell.
The government had plenty of ammunition for a question time attack. But it was independent Andrew Wilkie, a passionate opponent of the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy, who put Labor on the spot, moving for Conroy to “be admonished for calling into question the integrity [of Campbell]”.
Wilkie had decided on the motion during question time. He had trouble attracting the attention of Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, and approached Leader of the House Christopher Pyne for help getting the call. Wilkie’s plan was for Victorian independent Cathy McGowan (who sits near him) to second the motion but Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rushed to do so.
“I think a line was crossed yesterday,” Wilkie told the House. “General Campbell is a classmate of mine [from Duntroon] and someone I know a little, and I know that he is a good person and I know that he will do a good job following the orders he is given by the government of the day, as unpalatable as those orders are.”
The motion found Shorten having to strongly back the military without deserting Conroy.
Saying the opposition would not support the motion, Shorten went on the front foot, condemning “the sanctimonious, finger-wagging, lecture-giving, sermonising, false patriotism where those opposite would seek to use the military as a stick to beat Labor about the head with”.
As for Campbell, he deserved better than “having you use him as a political football to pursue your grubby culture of secrecy”.
Shorten revealed he had tried to contact Campbell “to indicate, on behalf of Labor, our ongoing respect and support for him” (the two spoke later in the day).
The fiery Shorten speech impressed his followers, many of whom had been dismayed by Conroy.
Conroy had cost Labor the chance of making the most of the forensic work it did in another estimates hearing, where opposition Senate leader Penny Wong relentlessly grilled Assistant Minister for Health Fiona Nash about her former chief of staff Alastair Furnival, who had to resign over an apparent conflict of interest.
The short version of the Furnival affair is that he’d been supposed to divest his interests in a family lobbying business, but hadn’t done so until the matter blew up this month. The firm’s clients included Kraft, Cadbury and the Australian Beverages Council (although it had not lobbied the Coalition government for them on health issues).
Furnival seems to have thrown his weight about; he made the first of several calls from the minister’s office to tell the Health Department to take down a website displaying health ratings of food products. (Nash said it was her decision to have the site removed.)
The hearing exposed differences in the accounts given by Nash and Tony Abbott. Quizzed in question time about the discrepancies, Abbott stonewalled with minimalist answers. He makes the point that the man has gone and he takes the view that the affair will blow over.
It will, but it could have been given a lot more exposure but for Conroy.
A visitor from Mars might wonder how Conroy (who went overseas during the election campaign) regained in opposition Labor’s Senate deputy job (from which he had stepped down when Kevin Rudd returned to the prime ministership). But someone would then explain to that visitor how thickly factional blood runs.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson here.
Tony Abbott told Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting that in the 1980s “we thought to ourselves, do we really think this economic rationalism stuff is going to work? But, mirabile dictu, it did”.
He went on (according to the official briefing) to talk about the Howard government’s enormous success in adopting the dry economic policies that had been coming into vogue in the 1980s.
Abbott, as much as anything, was describing his own journey to a somewhat “drier” view of economics. When he worked for the dry as dust John Hewson, he used to shock his boss with some of his views.
Before the election, the purer “dry” Liberals – Society of Modest Members types - worried whether there would be rising damp in an Abbott government.
So far, he’s mostly passed their test, especially with his hard line on industry assistance, denying aid to SPC Ardmona and the car industry (he referred at the party meeting to the difficult situation the government had had of “certain iconic businesses coming to us as an ATM of last resort”).
That icon Qantas is already inserting its card. It will receive no capital injection but is expected to get a debt guarantee (this was attacked in the party room by Queensland Liberal Teresa Gambaro as unfair to Virgin - “Qantas is an 800 pound gorilla and if we do this we will turn it into a Godzilla,” she said.) In line with the “dry” approach, the government is also preparing legislation to lift the 49% limit on foreign investment in Qantas, although that seems unlikely to pass even the new Senate.
But the measure of “dryness” goes beyond refusing to put public money into businesses with their hands out. It’s also about how deeply and extensively a government is willing to cut – to hoe into what Treasurer Joe Hockey dubs the culture of “entitlement”.
Here, as the budget approaches, Abbott is finding himself buffeted by cross pressures.
Hockey is setting the pace, as he casts himself as the chief reform voice in the government, building a profile for his own eventual leadership ambitions. He will bring to the table the 900-page report of the Commission of Audit, packed with slash-and-burn ideas. He has even unleashed a debate about raising the pension age further.
But Abbott has his promises from the election, in particular what he said he would not do - notably, that he would not make overall cuts to education and health. And he has the constraint of what the voters will bear. Even though it is the first year of the term, which should encourage bravery, going too far can be counterproductive. It doesn’t want to be a “do little” administration but over-reach can end up with not much achieved (remember Rudd).
With the latest Newspoll showing the Coalition trailing Labor 46-54% two-party preferred (compared with 49-51% earlier in the month), Abbott told his troops this year will be “the most difficult time in the parliamentary cycle and it will be a test of character for all of us”.
Inevitably, speculation will be rife in the pre-budget months, much of it sparked by the government, but at present the government is at risk of throwing out too many confusing messages.
What’s not yet clear is whether there is a significant gap between Hockey and Abbott in what they believe can and should be done in the near term. Hockey’s emphasis is always on the ambition; Abbott tends to point to the limits. Hockey’s rhetoric is hard; Abbott’s is softer. Maybe they are playing bad cop-good cop, or perhaps they really are bad cop-good cop.
Asked in question time whether he thought there was over-servicing in general practice, Abbott did not take the opportunity to drive home the Medicare reform message run out by Health Minister Peter Dutton last week. He said: “I have nothing but admiration and respect for the GPs of Australia, and we will do what we can to make their job easier, not harder.”
In his Monday speech to the Australia-Canada economic leadership forum, Abbott sought to reconcile the constraints with the ambition.
“We will keep our pre-election commitments to maintain health spending and school spending but must reduce the rate of spending growth in the longer term if debt is to be paid off and good schools and hospitals are to be sustainable.”
One course that’s been floated to get around the “broken promise” barrier is to load big cuts into the last year of the forward estimates, beyond the 2016 election. That way, the government could argue no promise was breached – the public would have their say at the election.
But that’s tricky, in more ways than the obvious, and Abbott is thought not to be attracted to it. What if the government was travelling badly by the time the cuts came around? They would be great fodder for the opposition.
The government has already said that it will take the results of various reviews – including of industrial relations – to the next election. If it was not careful, it could find it had a very scary platform of negative pre-election messages.
Abbott told the party room that the public, while knowing it had to be a tough budget, were anxious about what it might bring. “It is our job to reassure them and to demonstrate our plan for the future.”
For that to happen, the government has to get its own story written in clear, easily understandable terms, which involves hard judgments about how far the initial chapters should go.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson here.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has promised the independent inquiry into the Manus Island rioting will examine his own and the government’s conduct since it assumed responsibility from Labor for the PNG solution.
The government is consulting Papua New Guinea on the inquiry’s terms of reference, as it comes under pressure to have at least an interim report presented in a reasonably short time frame.
The Coalition is also making sure the opposition wears some of the grief as well – the investigation, conducted by former secretary of the attorney-general’s department Robert Cornall, will look at how the centre was set up under the Labor government.
The opposition targeted Morrison in question time on Monday. But the ALP’s own difficulties with the issue are apparent. It reopened Manus and later then-PM Kevin Rudd came up with the “PNG solution”.
Labor also knows that “stopping the boats” - which the government has done - resonates with the voters, and it is fearful of being seen on the wrong side of that message. Indeed, it periodically points to Rudd’s action, saying it was the king hit against the people smuggling trade.
Bill Shorten started the opposition’s question time attack on the subject of jobs, despite Morrison being in the media spotlight after being forced to admit at the weekend that he had initially released incorrect information about where most of the violence had occurred (and where 23-year-old Reza Barati had been killed, although he had qualified his claim on that quickly).
While the Greens have called for Morrison’s head, Shorten has not done so. But the asylum seeker issue always produces differences (on substance and tactics) within Labor and shadow minister for human services Doug Cameron, from the left, went further than the leadership, saying Morrison should step down.
Morrison’s ministerial colleagues reached for the superlatives about his performance in stopping the boats, after Tony Abbott’s declaration on Sunday that “you don’t want a wimp running border protection”.
Queensland Liberal backbencher Andrew Laming did say Australia had to take responsibility for the death if it was in the centre. “We are obviously responsible because we hired the contractors who run that camp,” Mr Laming said to Fairfax Media.
Later Morrison told Parliament that the centre was run by PNG. “The Australian government supports the government of Papua New Guinea in running that centre through the arrangements established under the former government.”
This duality goes to the heart of the problem. The Australian government pays the bill for dealing with what is an Australian problem. The ultimate responsibility is Australia’s, but the grunt work is done by PNG. The result has been that both operations and accountability have been poor and a big price – in loss of life and injury - is now being paid.
In parliament Labor pressed for details of when Morrison knew what but failed to push for some important information – for example what Operation Sovereign Borders supremo Angus Campbell had found when he was sent there last week, or what, if anything, is being done to have processing (conducted by PNG officials with Australian mentoring) speeded up.
Nor, inexplicably, was Foreign Minister Julie Bishop quizzed by Labor about her just-completed talks in Cambodia. After her meeting her counterpart Hor Namhong said she had proposed Australia send a small group of asylum seekers there to live, and told reporters Cambodia would “very seriously” consider the request.
Asked by the media in Canberra about what she she had put, Bishop refused to be drawn, referring to co-operation under the Bali process. She cited confidentiality. When the Cambodians are apparently more forthcoming than our own government, you know the penchant for secrecy has indeed crossed into some crazy place.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Labor’s Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Richard Marles, here.
“What goes around, comes around,” cabinet minister Kevin Andrews said, when defending government attacks on the ABC’s reporting of allegations the Navy mistreated asylum seekers. Indeed it does, as Scott Morrison has found in relation to his initial reporting of the Manus Island violence.
At 8.43pm on Saturday night – the deadest news time of the week - the Immigration minister issued an I-was-wrong, backtracking from his initial claim that most of the Manus rioting took place outside the detention centre. Now he had been told that “the majority of the riotous behaviour” (which cost one life) occurred inside the perimeter.
In other circumstances the admission of incorrect information might have been excusable. The situation had been chaotic and the briefing was given very soon after.
But Morrison should not be cut any slack.
First, he cuts no one else any (viz, his tirade about the ABC’s coverage of the burned hands allegations).
Second, he was dismissive of various claims about the causes and nature of what might have happened on Manus. On Wednesday, for example, he said he had given “very fulsome press conferences … If others want to provide speculative reports and noise and chatter, well I’d encourage people to ignore that and stay focused on the official reports that I have provided.”
And third, for him to take nearly a week to sort out whether the disturbance was inside or outside the centre suggests, at the least, incompetent administration – a failure by his department to extract accurate information from the service provider (G4S) and others.
Morrison now seems to know a good deal more about the incident, and the role of the firm, G4S, that has run security at the centre, than he is revealing.
On Friday, when announcing an independent review by former head of the Attorney-General’s department Robert Cornall; in Saturday’s statement, and at Sunday’s news conference he was putting a lot of emphasis on the behaviour of the service providers from G4S.
During riotous behaviour within the centre, “service providers must conduct themselves lawfully and consistent with the service standards set out in their contract,” he said on Sunday. The review will look at their conduct, along with any other people found to be in the compound that night or otherwise involved (there have been reports of outsiders getting in).
G4S (which is handing over to Transfield, its contract having ended) has changed its tune too. It had first said a number of detainees “were injured after they breached the perimeter fence and the matter became a law enforcement issue for PNG authorities”. Now it is promising “the strongest disciplinary action against any employee found to have been involved in any wrongdoing”.
Morrison suggested on Friday Cornall would get his inquiry done “over the next few months” but if necessary this could be extended.
A long time frame for the inquiry (its terms of reference will be released Monday) would be unacceptable. It might have been a dark and chaotic night, as Morrison notes, but the investigation is unlikely to produce greater clarity by being strung out. There are interviews to be conducted but not some heap of complex documents to trawl through. We are not talking about the royal commission into union corruption here. Weeks, rather than months, should be the appropriate timetable.
The only advantage (and that is to the government) of prolonging it would be that the incident might be out of mind when the report came.
Morrison’s inaccuracies over the Manus events also strengthen the case, incidentally, for investigation of the burned hands allegations. The minister and others, including the Prime Minister, shrugged off calls for these claims to be probed by demonising both the asylum seekers and the ABC. The Manus affair shows the dangers of excessive certainty.
On-the-ground reporting from Manus has been difficult enough – but the government has tried to hamper it, as shown when Fairfax Media on Friday attempted to photograph Operation Sovereign Borders supremo Angus Campbell inside a police station cell where asylum seekers had been held.
According to the Fairfax Media account, an Immigration department official told the local police commander Fairfax Media had no right to take photos at the station. The commander then confiscated the equipment, later returning camera and computer after deleting the photographs.
The government’s mindset came through loud and clear in Tony Abbott’s Sunday comments, when he declared Morrison “an absolutely outstanding minister”.
“You don’t want a wimp running border protection, you want someone who is strong, who is decent and Scott Morrison is both strong and decent. … The important thing is that we are stopping the boats, we are ending the [drowning] deaths.”
Those are important things, but they are not be the only important aspects in running this policy, and you don’t have to be a “wimp” to appreciate that.
Michelle Grattan has a regular spot on ABC Radio National.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Labor’s Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Richard Marles, here.
The Abbott government, so scathing in opposition of Labor’s administration lapses, is now coping with the fallout of two serious foul ups in its asylum seeker operations, as well as the Manus Island disaster.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison has been forced to admit his department had “inadvertently” provided access through its website to the personal details of about 10,000 asylum seekers.
The government had not, incidentally, voluntarily ‘fessed up to these mistakes. The gross breach of privacy was revealed by Guardian Australia on Wednesday. The Australian got on to the border breach in January; the government had to make a grovelling apology to the Indonesians and set up an inquiry.
The government is now on the warpath for culprits on both these fronts.
The private data of thousands of asylum seekers was linked by mistake to a regular statistics report the department posts. Guardian Australia reported it contained names, nationalities, locations, arrival dates and boat arrival information. It said that everyone held in a mainland detention centre and on Christmas Island was there, and several thousand people living in the community.
Morrison, who accepted responsibility as minister, described it as an “unacceptable incident” and a “serious breach of privacy”; his departmental head would keep him informed of what was being done “including any disciplinary measures that may be taken”. The department has called in KPMG to investigate; it will provide an interim report next week. The privacy commissioner is also on the case.
The disclosure of the personal details could be a risk for some families in asylum seekers' home countries and may complicate the assessment process and the return of people whose claims are rejected. Morrison says that there will be no general ruling – to the extent the disclosures have to be taken into account, that would be on a case-by-case basis.
The report into the Indonesian border breach, done under the auspices of the chiefs of the defence force and customs, goes out of its way to stress it was all a ghastly mistake - that government policy is for ships not to go over the line.
Each of the six incursions by navy and customs vessels “occurred as a result of miscalculation of Indonesian maritime boundaries by Australian crews” who had “intended to remain outside Indonesian waters”.
According to the report, headquarters identified the need to obtain authoritative information on Indonesia’s sea boundaries. Despite this, staff supervising the tactical missions “effectively devolved the obligation to remain outside Indonesian waters to vessel commanders. Headquarters staff accepted, without proper review, that the proposed patrol plans would result in vessels remaining outside Indonesian waters,” the report said.
“The focus of mission preparation, planning, execution and oversight was on the safe conduct of operations. Despite clear guidance to operational headquarters and assigned units, the imperative to remain outside Indonesian waters did not receive adequate attention during mission execution or oversight.”
In a nutshell, too much was left to the crews and they were more focused on the dangers of what they were doing than precisely where they were.
Although there is no mention of specific tow backs or turn backs, the import seems clear. The crews' overwhelming preoccupation with “safety” suggests they were trying to get in as close as they could to the Indonesian shore to ensure there were no accidents. Morrison refused to say whether the ships turned their lights off, as has been alleged.
The report found that headquarters should have given commanders information about Indonesian maritime boundaries, and this should also have been available to shore HQ overseeing operations.
Navy officers had received the required training and experience to calculate the boundaries; customs officers had not. The review recommended better training, procedures and documents, and there is to be scrutiny to determine whether there have been “any individual lapses in professional conduct”.
We only have the unclassified version of this report, so we don’t know the specifics that might give a better explanation of how the seemingly inexplicable happened. Opposition spokesman Richard Marles, who received a briefing on the report, has called for the release of the full version.
The political “pub test” for this particular document will be how it is received in Jakarta. The Indonesians have been briefed and given the unclassified version. Earlier there have been accounts of Indonesian navy scepticism about the breaches being inadvertent; Morrison professes optimism that Jakarta will now be convinced.
Morrison’s most difficult front at the moment remains Manus, with more details emerging about the clash that killed one man and left many people badly injured. The latest information is coming from the media rather than the government (which has ordered a standard inquiry, fending off calls to make it more independent). The accounts point to the problems raised when so much of the law and order responsibility is in the hands of the Papua New Guinea police.
The government has dispatched to Manus 51 of the 100 extra security personnel it put on standby, as well as the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, Angus Campbell, who will do whatever he thinks is needed and provide the minister with more information from on the ground.
As for Morrison, who is notorious for acting as all supreme: this week he is receiving a salutary lesson about the limits of control.
Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Labor’s Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Richard Marles, here.
Manus Island is a wretched place for those incarcerated and now it has become a national shame – Australia’s shame – with an Iranian asylum seeker’s death and many serious injuries in Monday night’s riot.
For the Abbott government, Manus is a literal and political nightmare, as immigration minister Scott Morrison admitted he was unable to guarantee that there wouldn’t be further disturbances.
Other countries, with much more serious pressures from asylum seekers, might wonder how Australia’s outsourced “PNG solution” has come to this. But there was an inevitability about it when detainees live in distressing conditions with no clarity about their future.
Morrison’s answer – that they should not have got on boats – is beside the point.
Following the second consecutive night of violence, this one with a fatality, Tony Abbott spoke with his Papua New Guinea counterpart, Peter O'Neill.
No doubt to his considerable relief, Abbott received assurances that PNG remains committed to the Manus detention centre and to resettling in that country asylum seekers found to be refugees. If PNG tried to go back on its deal, the Australian government would have more trouble.
In the wake of the violence, Abbott also called a meeting in Canberra of cabinet’s national security committee and the government put 100 security personnel on standby.
At morning and evening news conferences, Morrison looked a little shaken but retained some of his usual defiance. Tensions had been there, he said; such a situation had been anticipated, security had recently been strengthened.
People would seek to tear detention centres down; they would make wild allegations, Morrison said. He highlighted that “despite what is a terrible tragedy, the centre stands, the centre operates and the centre was operating first thing this morning.” Breakfast had been served.
The whole thing was cast as another front in the government’s border security war.
So far, a lot of detail is missing about what happened on Monday night. The Iranian died from head injuries but Morrison could not say how or where they were inflicted. Shots were fired by the PNG police, but the circumstances aren’t known. Nor is there any information about how one asylum seeker was shot in the buttocks. Morrison rejected unverified claims that outsiders had attacked the centre and the asylum seekers, but could not be sure people from outside hadn’t gone in.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR visited Manus in October and its report paints a graphic picture of the harsh physical conditions and the detainees' mood, including their fears about safety following a clash between PNG police and military outside the centre.
The report said bluntly that the PNG practice of detaining all asylum seekers at the closed centre “on a mandatory and open-ended basis, without an individualised assessment as to the necessity, reasonableness and proportionality of the purpose of such detention, amounts to arbitrary detention that is inconsistent with international law”.
It also pointed out that Australia’s responsibilities under international instruments to which it is party “remain engaged and cannot be extinguished by the physical transfer of asylum seekers to PNG”.
The UNHCR made one very key point among many findings and recommendations – and this would surely seem to go to the nub of what the Australian government should be doing.
“UNHCR’s view is that reasonable and appropriate time frames should be implemented and communicated to asylum seekers. This is integral not only for a fair and efficient asylum system, but also for the psycho-social well-being of asylum seekers.”
Uncertainty can be deeply debilitating for people in quite ordinary circumstances, let alone for those who have often been through traumatic experiences and are now locked up in bad conditions.
Setting, in conjunction with PNG, timetables for processing the more than 1300 people on Manus would not be a softening of policy (which the government is determined to avoid at all costs). It would the humane, decent and competent way to proceed.
The processing is done by PNG with Australian mentoring. Somehow Australia has to find a way to have it done more expeditiously. So far, not one person has been found to be a refugee, and Morrison did not think anyone at all had been fully processed.
Asked whether he had a date or a time in his mind for having Manus empty, Morrison said he was “not about to make any sort of speculative forecasts”.
The boats appear to have stopped, with no arrivals for two months. This gives the opportunity to tackle the Manus issue, because it would not be exacerbated by new arrivals. The qualification is that Morrison is threatening to send more people there from Christmas Island.
Forcing the pace of processing would be a start to dealing with the Manus problem, although it would then bring other difficulties including repatriating reluctant people whose claims failed.
The government is determined, as part of its deterrent, to insist that those found to be refugees must be settled in PNG and PNG only. This is something the UNHCR is “very concerned by”. It said in its report that from its nearly 30 years of firsthand experience in the country “it is clear that sustainable integration of non-Melanesian refugees in the socio-economic and cultural life of PNG will raise formidable challenges and protection concerns”.
For people granted asylum on the basis of a genuine fear of persecution in their home country to then need protection from the citizens of their new one would be a cruel twist indeed.
After five months of the Abbott government, no finality has been reached with Papua New Guinea about what sort of life Manus Island detainees found to be refugees will get.
The government’s response to Sunday’s violence at the detention centre, where there are more than 1000 people, again sends the strong message that humanitarian considerations are secondary in its border security policy.
As long as the boats are stopped – which they have been for two months now – never mind too much about those who got through previously. And indeed, never mind if the Indonesians relationship continues to deteriorate further because of the in-your-face border security tactics.
In the Manus incident some 35 detainees (whom Immigration minister Scott Morrison calls “transferees”) escaped, damage was done, eight were arrested and 19 received medical attention.
As of Monday morning, five were still at the clinic. But at his news conference Morrison could not specify their injuries except that they weren’t “life threatening”.
The future of the people at the centre is full of uncertainties.
Australia and PNG are working towards getting people processed “as soon as that can be practically achieved”, Morrison said. That’s not very soon, it seems - no one has as yet been judged a refugee.
Resettlement of those who eventually are is “a further challenge”, he said. This was why the government had been “moving so quickly to establish that accommodation on Manus Island that provides a place for people to be accommodated post assessment if they are found to be refugees.”
So could people found to be genuine refugees stay on Manus indefinitely?
“Well, if people are resettled there, then that is a possibility but those sorts of details haven’t been confirmed. It is not restricted to being temporary accommodation, but that’s a matter that can be considered down the track,” Morrison said.
And why is it taking so long to sort things out with PNG?
This, Morrison said, was because the previous government “left us a blank sheet of paper on this issue”. (It might be mentioned that that government also left the PNG solution, which this administration has taken up with a vengeance).
The government gives little away on what sticking points there might be in its talks with PNG.
Tony Abbott said on Monday, in response to suggestions (which the government denied) that the violence followed detainees being told they would not be resettled in PNG: “Well, that [resettlement] is still very much available and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has reassured me repeatedly that the same deal that was on offer to the former government remains on offer.”
There seems considerable confusion over where things are at. Morrison said the centre manager had confirmed to the detainees “that those found to be refugees will be offered settlement in PNG”. They were also told “that a third country option will not be offered and that neither the PNG nor Australian governments will be acting on behalf of the transferees in seeking alternative settlement countries to PNG.”
But PNG’s foreign minister Rimbink Pato said last week the PNG cabinet had decided “to appoint a group of eminent Papua New Guineans who will be assisted by relevant expertise from the UN, from the Australian Government, and other responsible stakeholders, to come up with relevant policy framework determining the question whether those asylum seekers will or will not be settled in PNG”.
The Australian government should be judged culpable unless those people now on Manus who are eventually found to be genuine refugees get proper rights and the opportunity for a decent life in that country.
Abbott and Morrison – who, it should be remembered, made much fuss about human rights when opposing Labor’s Malaysia solution – cannot wash their hands of these people.
Those on Manus Island have little redress but protest. The Indonesians, whose objections have been swept aside as a second rate concern as the Abbott government stops the boats, do have muscle.
Last week Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was highly critical of Australia sending people back in life boats, saying “this cannot be accepted.”
The heightening irritation, or worse, over Australia’s refusal to heed Indonesian sensibilities about border protection activities has merged with anger over the disclosures, in the Snowden revelations, of Australian spying. Tensions increased again with the latest Snowden material revealing Australia passed on information to the US which it obtained while spying in 2013. This concerned an American law firm representing Indonesia in a trade dispute with the US.
The initial spying revelation led to a diplomatic freeze, which has hit, among other things, co-operation to fight people smuggling, and to Indonesia demanding a code of conduct on intelligence. Abbott on Monday admitted the negotiation of this was “progressing slowly. I’d like it to progress much faster”.
But why would the Indonesians progress it faster? Going slowly is surely an easy way for them to underscore the wider point that they don’t like Australia thumbing its nose at them by turning back or towing back boats.
Reuters reported on Monday a document from a January meeting organised by Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs which noted “that Jakarta did not expect full diplomatic links to be restored until October.”
The next test is about to come. The government is about to release the report into the Australian Navy’s breaching of Indonesian maritime borders several times. The government insists this was unintentional, a claim treated with some scepticism in Indonesia.
How the Indonesians react to the official explanation of these alleged accidents will indicate whether that country is in the mood to escalate the bad feeling even further.
Overreach seems to be endemic in this government. One would think that, after Tony Abbott laid it on far too thick about workers' conditions at SPC Ardmona and received a tongue lashing from one of his own, Treasurer Joe Hockey would have been extra careful.
But no. Hockey fell into a similar trap – and his slap down came from a rather bigger player.
When it announced that it planned to shut down its Australian manufacturing, Toyota cited a range of reasons. But Hockey wanted to put as much blame as possible on the costs imposed by the workers' conditions.
So a story was given to the Australian Financial Review, which on Wednesday splashed with a report of a December meeting between Hockey and Toyota Australia president Max Yasuda in December.
“Sources familiar with the meeting said that Mr Hockey asked Mr Yasuda whether Toyota would also leave if Holden departed,” the story said. “Mr Yasuda said he could convince Toyota headquarters in Tokyo to stay in Australia as long as it could pare back the [workplace] conditions which the company contended were hampering productivity.” These included a long Christmas shutdowns and 10 days paid leave for union delegates.
On radio Hockey described the report as “accurate”. But unfortunately for him, Toyota didn’t take the same view.
“Toyota Australia denies the allegations in today’s front page Australian Financial Review story, ‘Toyota blamed union',” the company said in a bluntly-worded statement.
“Toyota Australia has never blamed the union for its decision to close its manufacturing operations by the end of 2017, neither publicly or in private discussions with any stakeholders.
“As stated at the time of the announcement, there is no single reason that led to this decision. The market and economic factors contributing to the decision include the unfavourable Australian dollar that makes exports unviable, high costs of manufacturing and low economies of scale for our vehicle production and local supplier base.
“Together with one of the most open and fragmented automotive markets in the world and increased competitiveness due to current and future Free Trade Agreements, it is not viable to continue building cars in Australia.”
Tackled later in question time, Hockey sought to maintain there was no inconsistency.
But if you are a politician trying to punch through a point, best make sure you are not standing on a rug someone is able to pull away. It’s one thing to send out a message that over-generous working conditions are harming an industry’s competitiveness. If, however, exaggeration opens the way for a credible challenge, the result is the message is lost and the messenger discredited.
Toyota was able to land a clean blow after the story. The ABC, which has sustained for weeks a torrid campaign of overreach by the government and News Corp - alleging bias, lack of patriotism and much else - has not been able to counter so effectively.
In its case, the pushback potentially comes from the public. This week’s Newspoll found that about half of all voters believed the ABC’s treatment of different political parties was “fair and balanced”, and around a quarter were uncommitted on the matter. Some 18% said it was biased in favour of the ALP; 19% said it was biased against the Coalition. The Australian, where the ABC often gets page one treatment, ran the story on page two.
Coalition politicians who say they are getting so much negative feedback about the ABC seem to be mixing in selective circles.
Another, quite different, case of overreach came from Labor on Wednesday.
After bipartisan speeches earlier on “closing the gap” of indigenous disadvantage, opposition leader Bill Shorten chose to open his question time attack by referring to Abbott’s “election promise to visit East Arnhem Land in his first week as prime minister”. Shorten asked why the PM hadn’t been to Gove, given that Rio Tinto would close its aluminium refinery by the middle of the year. Shorten wanted to know what was Abbott’s plan to help the 1200 people losing their jobs there.
The reference to the election promise, repeated in Labor’s second question, went to badly-worded language by the PM when he was in Arnhem Land before the election. Abbott on that occasion was trying to say that his first stay-over at an Aboriginal community as PM would be in Arnhem Land.
While it was appropriate to ask about the job plan, the implication that Abbott, who will spend a week in Arnhem Land this year, had broken an election pledge was off key on the day.
Knowing when not to play politics is a political skill in itself.
Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Small Business Minister Bruce Billson here.
Bill Shorten’s blaming of the Abbott government for the death of the car industry and condemning the royal commission into union corruption were entirely predictable positions.
But they also highlight the major challenges ahead of the opposition leader – positioning himself on key economic issues and loosening the constraints imposed by his union past.
It’s easy politics for Shorten to target the government over the exit of Holden and Toyota. Losing this particular industry and the high cost in jobs make it a hot button issue. And advocating more government assistance fits into Labor’s tradition.
At least, into one strand of that tradition. In the Hawke-Keating period, Labor established another tradition, when it promoted extensive change in the economy, including dismantling protection.
Later, Labor for a while turned its back on those years but then re-embraced them.
Shorten has to ask himself: does he want to stand for economic reform, as Hawke and Keating did?
Doing that is harder than putting “oppositionist” politics first and foremost (in the mould of Kim Beazley and, of course, Tony Abbott). It would be especially tricky given that the interventionist approach has strong followers in Labor.
But if Shorten’s aim is to cut a credible figure in the years ahead, he will have to look to the economics. And, as Paul Keating puts it, “good policy is good politics”.
Interestingly, on the issue at hand, voters don’t necessarily default to giving more aid to the auto industry. This week’s Essential poll showed more people against than in favour of production subsidies for motor vehicle manufacturing – 47% to 36% (Labor voters were more likely than Coalition voters to approve support – 45% to 32%).
Shorten in parliament on Tuesday resorted to the line that “this North Sydney-based government does not understand manufacturing in the southern states of Australia. They have never seen a Victorian or South Australian job they would ever fight for other than their own marginal seat MPs.” It sounded like a twist on the so-called “class” swipes made in the Gillard-Swan time.
But it is a simplistic attack, which doesn’t do justice to Shorten’s own economic knowledge. Shorten’s attention should be on the creation of a forward looking industry policy, because the end of the auto sector will be a fait accompli (production is due to finish in 2017) by the time of the next Labor government.
Even more difficult and important is how Shorten deals with the union connection.
Aware that Labor had to put up an alternative to the royal commission, he proposed a police taskforce. It was clear however that, despite the government’s political motives for the royal commission, Labor’s arguments against it (lack of criminal charges out of the previous Cole commission; the high cost) sounded weak.
Shorten has robustly condemned corruption in unions but his opposition to a royal commission undermined the strength of what he was saying.
The commission holds dangers for Labor because of its institutional and financial links to the unions; the union backgrounds of so many leading parliamentary figures, including Shorten; and the current personal networks.
Shorten now should be seen to take the line of letting the cards fall where they will in the investigations ahead.
More generally, cementing himself in as an alternative prime minister requires drawing a boundary line between himself and the unions – no small task but one better tackled early in his leadership.
Kevin Rudd had little time for the unions and paid a price; Julia Gillard was too beholden to them, and that had a cost too. Shorten is of the union movement, and so will try to use it. But it will try to use him too and there lies the risk for him.
Tuesday’s Newspoll found that after a solidly increasing satisfaction rating last year (as people took their first look at him as opposition leader), Shorten had gone backwards, with a fall from 44% in December to 35% (Abbott was stable on 40%). Labor’s vote had fallen but on a two party basis the ALP was ahead of the Coalition 51-49%. In the Essential poll, also released on Tuesday, Shorten’s approval was down 5 points to 30% from mid January (Abbott’s approval fell 6 points to 41%).
Although it is the start of the term, the coming months will be crucial for Shorten. It’s not just the voters who will be getting a handle on him in his new role - his party will be too. In areas such as Labor’s economic approach and its stance vis-a-vis the unions, this is the best time for Shorten to set his tone and establish his authority.
Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Chief Scientist Ian Chubb here.
If there was ever a symbol of the trauma industry restructuring brings - to the national psyche as well as affected workers - the impending death of Australian car manufacturing is it.
“This decision will change the face of industry in Australia forever,” industry minister Ian Macfarlane said after Toyota’s announcement that 2017 will see the end of its local production.
When Holden said it would pull up stumps, Toyota was widely expected to follow. Labor critics have attacked the government for not trying to prop up the auto industry, but even if the ALP had still been in power and inclined to do that, it almost certainly would have been only a matter of time.
Ford announced its planned shutdown in the Gillard days. The evidence around the GM decision indicated that extra aid would not have changed the Holden story.
Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda said in Monday’s announcement: “We believed that we should continue producing vehicles in Australia, and Toyota and its workforce here made every effort. However, various negative factors such as an extremely competitive market and a strong Australian dollar, together with forecasts of a reduction in the total scale of vehicle production in Australia, have forced us to make this painful decision.”
It had became a domino effect.
Significantly, even opposition leader Bill Shorten has conceded that Labor might not have been able to hold back the tide in the longer run.
Criticising the government’s failure to act, he told the ABC’s 7.30: “We would’ve worked on a transition which would’ve seen this bad news avoided. And even if it wasn’t possible in the long term to avoid it, there’s a big difference between Labor and Liberal. We won’t stop fighting for people’s jobs until we’ve turned over every rock and we’ve tried every trick.”
The auto industry has had an iconic status, and obvious importance for the nation’s skills base. The textile, clothing and footwear industries weren’t in the same league. Nevertheless, when dramatic structural change downgraded (though didn’t close) that sector, there was deep concern and many businesses and workers were hurt. But looking back, most people would believe there was little choice, and certainly consumers were better off.
The global economy really does mean that countries have to play to their strengths, and that can become harder if the mindset is on trying at all costs to prevent the weak spots collapsing. (One wonders whether there was a lively debate about the fate of the coach building industry when the horseless carriages displaced it.)
At the level of individual workers, the consequences of the structural changes range from merely disruptive to absolutely catastrophic. Some, especially older, autoworkers will never get other jobs. Others will move to new careers, but the state of the economy and opportunities for retraining will be crucial in how readily they will be able to do this.
In Monday’s Australian Financial Review (before the Toyota announcement), Liberal pollster Mark Textor had an interesting take on Australians' dual attitude to restructuring.
“More than a decade ago I reported to a national industry group that Australians believed that a two-pronged approach was required for Australia to survive and/or thrive in a global economy,” he recounted.
“On the one hand they sought an offensive strategy, ensuring that the investment in and development of ‘clever’ industries was accelerated as much as possible to ensure that Australia was not left behind in a race with the rest of the world.
“On the other hand they sought a defensive strategy to ensure that any restructuring (or destruction) within traditional industries and to traditional work practices was as slow and as painless as possible, and as ordered and structured as possible.”
All Australians had now largely embraced the opportunities created by the emergence of the global economy, Textor said. “However, the distress surrounding the collapse or imminent closures of Ford’s, Holden’s and SPC’s Australian operations demonstrates that despite the number of jobs lost being dwarfed by those created by industries such as gas, voters still display insecurity about any reduction in control over our own economic destiny.”
Even if it is accepted that Australian auto manufacturing did not have a long term future, no government would welcome the funeral notice being placed on its watch.
This adds to the cross-pressures on the Abbott government, which is faced simultaneously with an uncertain economic outlook and a long list of recommended cuts from the Audit Commission. And all against the background of its bold promise, already looking shaky, to create one million jobs over five years.
Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Chief Scientist Ian Chubb here.
The result in Saturday’s Griffith byelection has something for both sides: Labor has saved the seat and the Liberals have got a swing towards them.
It is more than usually complicated to identify the role of various factors in the result.
The government and the ALP have tried to portray it as, respectively, a rebuff to opposition leader Bill Shorten or a warning salvo to Tony Abbott. But if there were messages, they were mixed up with the influence of highly popular Liberal candidate Bill Glasson, people’s annoyance at having to vote again, lower turnout than at the general election and the like.
The Liberals looked ridiculous by not conceding defeat on the night and Attorney-General and senior Queensland Liberal senator George Brandis over-claimed about the history of swings against oppositions in byelections. The value of a touch of grace in politics is underrated by politicians – one of the reasons Glasson is so liked is that he displays that unusual quality.
Tony Abbott was more measured in his statement than some Liberals. “The Griffith by-election was a fine result for Bill Glasson and a poor result for Bill Shorten. It was a clear rejection of the negative scare campaign undertaken by the Labor Party, with the LNP recording a swing towards it.”
It was vital for Shorten to hold the seat – a loss would have been a serious setback early in his leadership. But the modest swing to the Liberals (on the latest figures, 1.4% on primary votes and 0.7% two party preferred) is useful for Abbott, most immediately as the government prepares to announce on Monday a royal commission into union corruption and in the medium term as it works up to what will be a difficult budget containing unpopular cuts.
Whatever the weighting of reasons for the swing, if it had been the other way, it could have unsettled some in the Coalition ranks.
The royal commission will be difficult for Labor, which opposes it and says a police taskforce would be the better alternative. Given the Health Services Union scandal and now fresh claims of bribes, threats and criminal associations in the construction industry, Shorten’s case against a royal commission is hard to run. The government’s actions may indeed by inspired by politics but the union movement has provided the grist that allows a political assault.
The allegations in the construction industry, however, obviously involve employers too, so some in business will be vulnerable in this inquiry. The precise terms of reference, including “off the books” transactions, will be significant both to what comes out and to whether it is perceived as fair and reasonable.
The government has chosen former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, who was appointed to the court in the Howard years. Heydon is a conservative who opposes judicial activism and often dissented while on the court. After he retired he was described in one report “the most solitary figure on the bench in recent years”.
Cabinet on Monday will give the tick to the royal commission’s detail before it is formally announced.
In a Sunday interview with Sky Abbott was honing the political lines that Shorten will have to deal with.
“Sometimes you need to shine … a great big spotlight in the dark corners of our national life,” he said.
“We’re on the side of the honest unionist, we’re on the side of the honest worker against the dodgy official,” while “Bill Shorten wants to run, to coin a phrase, a protection racket for a protection racket.”
If the royal commission takes Labor into fraught territory, Abbott is sharply aware how difficult the next few months will be for him and the government, with many tough decisions to come.
He stressed the government “motif” of 2014 is keeping its commitments. “Some people are scared that we will go further than our commitments. Some people are scared that we won’t go further than our commitments. I say to all of those people: don’t be scared – we will keep our commitments.”
As to how he personally is finding things: asked whether he was concerned about his lack of popularity he said, “well I wasn’t too displeased with the fact that there was a swing towards us in the Griffith byelection”. Is he enjoying the prime ministerial job? “Mostly. There’s a bit of pressure, I’ve got to say.”
What’s happening in the debate over asylum seeker allegations of mistreatment by naval personnel is extraordinary and alarming, both for public accountability and for journalism.
It’s also hard to credit the way the issue has unfolded.
We’ve seen concerted government and News Corp pillorying of the ABC over its report of claims that people had been made to put their hands on a hot engine pipe.
Tony Abbott has accused the ABC of being unpatriotic. The Australian has run enough pieces on the public broadcaster’s sins to wallpaper a small house. The government has refused to release the Navy’s account. Navy chief Ray Griggs has taken to Twitter, of all places, to reject the claims. Labor has been too nervous to push hard. After being criticised by its own Media Watch program, the ABC this week acknowledged its original reporting should have been “more precise”.
Fast forward to Friday’s Fairfax papers, in which Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard reports his in-depth interview with Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, who made the original claim. The crux of his allegation is that naval personnel restricted when people could go to the toilet and, during an altercation about this, grabbed the wrists of three men and forced their hands onto a hot pipe.
Fasher, the translator, who says he witnessed the contretemps, claims he was told: “Say to anyone: if you want to go to the toilet again, we will burn his hands”.
Fasher also alleged that two navy ships taking the boat back turned off their lights when close to the Indonesian shore.
Bachelard says two of the three men referred to refused to be interviewed; the third agreed but Indonesian authorities would not allow the interview in the hotel where he was being held and he wouldn’t leave it.
Defence did not answer 21 questions put by Fairfax. Immigration minister Scott Morrison responded that “the government does not give credibility to malicious and unfounded slurs being made against our navy personnel”.
However, defence minister David Johnston did appear on Friday (in another context) and it was a truly remarkable performance.
He explained he hadn’t said much about the ABC commentary on navy personnel because “I was extremely angry and have required a period of time to cool off”.
On the latest story and why Defence hadn’t answered the 21 questions, Johnston said border protection “is a civil public policy issue. It is not a military exercise”. Why didn’t the government put doubts to rest by investigating the allegations? “Because the ABC has a responsibility. If ever there was an event that justified a detailed inquiry, some reform, and investigation into the ABC, this is it.”
As the questioning went on, he said: “Let’s see the allegations first …. Let’s have more than just rumour, innuendo and hearsay”, adding that senior command had assured him there was nothing in the claims.
When asked whether he could explain the circumstances of the burnt hands, he said: “No I can’t. They are on-water matters that are not my responsibility because it is a civil public policy matter.”
Whatever the lines of responsibility in Operation Sovereign Borders, if the defence minister doesn’t have responsibility for the Navy, it’s a very odd situation.
The government has adopted the approach that if it simply denies everything, treats asylum seekers as people never to be listened to, and makes the ABC rather than the allegations the issue, it can get away with putting up the shutters.
Asked whether the navy should release material to settle any ambiguity, Abbott said: “What I am interested in doing is stopping the boats … I don’t want to do anything that might complicate that task.”
All usual practice is being flouted. Anyone who suggests more detail should be provided is apparently sledging stressed personnel who would never put a foot out of place. Yet when there were allegations of any irregular incidents involving Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, they were investigated by the authorities and reported on. And that was in a war situation. More recently, some personnel on a ship in Operation Sovereign Borders were taken ashore because of bad behaviour towards each other.
Morrison talks about “unsubstantiated claims”. Those sorts of claims are made all the time in different situations; if they are serious, they are looked into.
There are various possibilities here. That Fasher is a good liar (though as he said, it is not to his advantage to lie); that he’s a poor observer; or that what he says contains a greater or lesser degree of truth. The Bachelard story reinforces the strong case for having Navy release what it knows (including what inquiries it has made), and for Australian authorities to interview Fasher and properly investigate the allegations, making public the results.
Resorting to bluster, demonising, and flag waving doesn’t wipe away the questions. The government has succeeded in making this about the ABC’s credibility when its own credibility should be equally, and increasingly, in the frame. In these things the truth, good or bad, comes out in the end.
Paul Howes wanted to create a splash with his radical proposal for a business-unions-government “grand compact” to create a less adversarial industrial relations system, but the union leader is jumping into very chilly water.
The current mood is brittle. Unions are on the defensive, deeply hostile to the Abbott government and fearing a royal commission into corruption. The government is twisting employers' arms to get them to push back against demands in enterprise bargaining. The Fair Work Commission’s review of the award system has led to a new debate about penalty rates.
Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union and a political player with an eye to a future parliamentary career, declared in his address to the National Press Club on Wednesday that the ALP “needs to embrace the grand compact agenda with both hands”.
Labor responded tartly to this exhortation, with workplace spokesman Brendan O'Connor saying Howes was “entitled to his views”.
“Of course employers, the government and unions should work together cooperatively. Instead of a waging a war on penalty rates, the government should outline its jobs plan. There’s no doubt that the greatest enemy of a fair industrial system and workers is Tony Abbott,” O'Connor said.
Howes anticipates hostility from some union colleagues to his reach-out and no doubt he’s right.
This is especially so given his call for the unions to concede some points as a starter, such as that “there has been a pattern of unsustainable growth in wages in some isolated parts of the economy.”
Hardly more than a statement of fact but this line prompted a call from Greens deputy leader and workplace spokesman Adam Bandt for Howes to “resign as union secretary and join the Liberal party if he is going to just parrot Tony Abbott’s attack on people’s wages.”
While he is not suggesting a return to the 1980s “accord” between the Labor government and union movement, Howes urged a revival of “the same spirit” - rather than industrial relations being a “bloodsport” involving constantly changing legislation.
His “grand compact” would have business, unions and government “all work out a deal that we all agree to live with for the long haul”. They would create “an industrial engagement pursuant to agreed national goals”, that would promote decades-long certainty and thus confidence, and make productivity a shared responsibility.
But apart from business and unions making some concessionary statements, how precisely the compact would come together and operate is unclear. Howes admits his idea is sketchy.
He said: “If we are to achieve a grand compact it will not be the detail of the new framework that is critical – it will be the trust and good faith we breathe into the new system.” The system needs “social capital”.
But it could equally be argued that the specifics would be the test.
Getting beyond the feel good aspiration and putting flesh on the plan would be extraordinarily difficult.
What tangible form would the compact take? Remember the accord was a formal agreement between the union movement and a Labor government (although Bob Hawke, newly elected, did convene a major summit, including employers, which was useful).
The decentralised nature of the modern wages system, based on bargaining, complicates any attempt at broad efforts.
The big step between an in-principle idea for a consensus approach and any hard reality can be inferred from the comment of Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd (who chairs the government’s Commission of Audit).
He said the BCA “looks forward to a mature conversation between government, business, and unions” but “we can only have a meaningful conversation about fixing our flawed industrial system if nothing is taken off the table”.
When it comes to industrial relations, as Howe recognises, the default position is more often confrontation rather than a search for consensus. While there might be limited room for change, too many leopards would have to change too many spots for the transformation Howe seeks.
Even though he is talking about three parties to the compact Howe wants government to step back, enabling industrial relations to be dealt with as an economic workplace issue rather than a political one. However the economics and the politics are closely interwoven.
Howes argues the government, from a more withdrawn perspective, should start fostering harmony and co-operation. It’s near impossible to see this happening when the Abbott government is urging employers to muscle up.
Howe, though, doesn’t share the view of many fellow unionists about the PM. “I don’t believe for a second that the Abbott government is un-turnable on industrial relations. Despite the more cartoonish portrayals, the Prime Minister is far more a politician than he is an ideologue.”
Howes is ambitious for profile and advancement and the compact falls into the category of a “big idea” that attracts attention. But its chances of being taken up appear remote, and Howes could find himself subject to some “bloodsport” for his trouble.
Listen to the newest episode of Politics with Michelle Grattan with Guest Paul Howes below.
Liberal backbencher Sharman Stone has taken the political row over the government’s refusal to aid SPC Ardmona into new territory by bluntly labelling the Prime Minister a liar.
At the same time the company has rebutted claims by the government and others that its workers enjoy excessively generous conditions.
There are several issues entangled, including the role of workers' conditions in both the cannery’s problems and in the government’s decision, and what those conditions actually are.
When cabinet last week rejected the request for $25 million, Abbott highlighted the conditions as something the company must address.
Stone, in whose Murray electorate the business is situated, says one of the things upsetting her most is that the government didn’t say it would love to help but couldn’t for budgetary reasons, but “what they said was ‘we’re not going to help because it is the amazing wages and conditions that have knocked this company for six’”.
“That is not true,” she said on radio. “If I was in Parliament I couldn’t say ‘liar’ because it’s unparliamentary, But it’s just not true. .. This is a witch hunt.”
Pressed on whether Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey were really lying when they said it was about this issue, Stone replied: “That’s right, it’s lying.”
Stone’s account somewhat verbals Abbott’s line of argument on the day. He said that, as part of the government’s general approach towards restructuring, dealing with SPC Ardmona was the responsibility of parent company Coca-Cola Amatil, which had the financial capacity to do it. Reducing workers' conditions was imperative in the changes.
Abbott described the existing enterprise bargaining agreement as “way in excess of the award”.
“There are wet allowances, there are loadings on top of overtime, there is the ability to cash out sick pay, you get two weeks redundancy for every six months of service up to 104 weeks. This is a pretty extraordinary EBA.”
In its statement SPC Ardmona systematically addresses the claims that have been made by the government and others.
“Recent claims that SPC Ardmona is a ‘union shop’ or that the cause of its difficulties are because of ‘over generous’ allowances and conditions to staff, are mistaken and need to be refuted by the facts,” it said, giving this list.
“Claim: SPC Ardmona employees get “over generous” allowances.
Fact: The total allowances paid to SPC production staff in 2013 was $116,467, which represents less than 0.1% of the business’s cost of goods for the year.
Claim: There is a generous “wet” allowance of 58 cents per hour for cleaners
Fact: Zero ($0.00) paid in 2013.
Claim: SPC Ardmona employees get nine weeks paid leave a year.
Fact: SPCA employees get 20 days annual leave.
Claim: a five-day Melbourne Cup long weekend.
Fact: Production staff accrue rostered days off (RDOs) during the year which SPCA requires them not to take during the peak season. Instead these RDOs are taken at the start of November, the optimum time for a plant shutdown to allow maintenance in preparation for the canning season from December to April. RDOs are not additional leave.
Claim: Sick leave is cashed out each year.
Fact: This was removed from the EBA in 2012.
Claim: Loading, or shift penalties are above the award.
Fact: SPCA’s are the same as industry standards and common to many Australian EBAs. Afternoon shift is at 20% and night shift at 30%.
Claim: Loadings on top of overtime.
Fact: Production workers do almost zero overtime.
Claim: Redundancy is in excess of the award.
Fact: This old condition was reduced in 2012 to a 52 week cap."
Managing director Peter Kelly (who earlier has been praised by the government) said the company had been assessing work practices for many months and had made significant improvements in productivity.
But “the serious problems that have beset SPCA have not been because of labour costs and certainly not from the allowances, a fact borne out by the Productivity Commission’s recent analysis.
“The business has been severely damaged in recent times by a ‘perfect storm’ created by external economic factors – the high Australian dollar, which appreciated more than 50% from 2009 to 2013, has both enabled the flood of cheap imported product to be sold in Australia below the cost of production here, and also decimated the company’s export markets.”
The government says it stands by the accuracy of Abbott’s statements about conditions. (In relation to redundancy it says the reduced provision applies only to recently-employed workers.)
But in playing to the government’s wider message Abbott’s appears to have distorted this particular situation, making it harder to sell a difficult but reasonable decision.
In pushing the government’s broader pitch - that employers should to be tough in EBA negotiations and resist union demands - he wasn’t too concerned about whether he was giving an accurate impression about the relative role of the conditions in SPC Ardmona’s problems.
Stone had every incentive to redress the balance.
A backbench critic highly committed to her electorate and with nothing to lose can deliver a potent punch.
The well-credentialed Stone, who has a PhD in economics and business and was manager of international development at Melbourne University before entering parliament, served as minister for workforce participation at the end of the Howard government. She was shadow immigration minister when Abbott became leader. He shifted her and then dumped her from the frontbench altogether after the 2010 election.
Where another MP might have shut up for fear of damaging future promotion chances, Stone has no reason to hesitate in calling Abbott out.
One feature of this government is that it doesn’t mind showing what, to adapt a Labor term, are its policy “internals”. This is notable, given its penchant for secrecy and control on other fronts.
So we knew that Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane differed from his colleagues on aid to the car industry and help for SPC Ardmona (and lost on both). We were aware of varying views on the foreign bid for GrainCorp. We know Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has a more benign opinion of the ABC than many in cabinet.
And now we are seeing Agriculture Minister and Nationals deputy leader Barnaby Joyce using the media to try to leverage his case for help for drought-stricken farmers in Queensland and NSW.
That’s another feature of this government. The Nationals, collectively and individually, are willing to fight their battles on open ground. They are determined to show they won’t play second fiddle to the Liberals (especially the Liberal dries) in the name of the “team”.
Joyce is by nature an individualistic, high-profile political operator although as a minister he has mostly turned down the volume.
But on Monday, the dial went right up, with a headline in The Australian: “Joyce pushes for $7 bn in relief aid to farmers”. The opening paragraph said Joyce had vowed to wage “a mighty battle” in cabinet to convince colleagues “to sign off on a $7 billion bailout of ‘distressed’ farm loans and avert a ‘complete and utter financial meltdown’”.
The story followed Joyce’s tour of Queensland and NSW drought areas and was a deliberate attempt to exert public pressure.
But the report was overcooked. Joyce says he was not actually calling for a $7 billion package. His office said he’d come back full of ideas but was yet to work up a submission.
Later on the ABC’s Q&A he made it clear he was pressing most immediately for a more generous drought policy. But he also said he had “no philosophic objection” to a proposal being promoted by some farmers for a rural reconstruction and development bank to buy bad rural loans, although “I didn’t promise to push that idea”. He said that was more appropriately considered in the coming white paper on agriculture.
When the Australian story appeared Joyce had to do some explaining to colleagues, notably Treasurer Joe Hockey, although their conversation was described as cordial.
Coming while the government is under attack over failing to assist SPC Ardmona, Hockey didn’t relish a public argument about what is Joyce’s still-phantom package.
In response, the Treasurer sent out multiple messages.
He pointed out that drought-stricken farmers are already entitled to aid when the area is considered subject to exceptional circumstances, and that under arrangements announced by Labor this is set to be replaced on July 1 by another scheme (a form of the dole, a farm household allowance).
People legitimately had the right to expect the new government would look at better ways to enhance agricultural production – and it would, Hockey said. The Labor government “didn’t have a single farmer in its ranks”; “this government has a multitude of farmers” (he himself owns a cattle property in north Queensland).
But as for help with rural debt: interest rates were at all time lows and “if people are having problems coping with interest rates now, then there is a bigger systemic issue at play”.
Joyce would bring to cabinet a review of the aid on offer. “But if we are going to make Australia sustainable as an agricultural food bowl for Asia and particularly in a market that is changing enormously in relation to agriculture, then we’ve got to look at medium and long term challenges as well.”
More generally, Hockey declared that “everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting now. The age of entitlement is over. The age of personal responsibility has begun.
“We need to help those people who are most vulnerable in our community. That is our duty. We will do that, but we can only do that on a sustainable basis. It can only be done if everyone who has the capacity to lift, does indeed lift”.
Translated into policy terms, the logic of Hockey’s argument is that while farmers should get aid in times of severe drought and other natural disasters, there is not a case for the government to cushion unsustainable enterprises or to hold back necessary restructuring. Restructuring is happening in the farming sector just as it is in manufacturing (and in the process many “family farms” are being squeezed or forced out).
When it finally gets to cabinet, the shape and fate of Joyce’s submission will be a test for the minister, the Treasurer and the power of the Nationals.
The Liberals have the star candidate but Labor has the potent scare campaign, as both sides slug out the final week in Kevin Rudd’s old seat of Griffith.
Since Rudd’s resignation, a couple of developments have brought specific issues into sharp focus. Speculation about a possible Medicare co-payment has played to the ALP’s strengths, while last week’s allegation of corruption involving Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union officials has been fodder for the Liberals.
Tony Abbott wants to make this a contest of personalities. Not his or Bill Shorten’s, but Bill Glasson versus Terri Butler.
At the Liberals launch on Saturday, Abbott devoted his whole speech to the qualities of Glasson, ignoring wider issues.
“I’ve almost never met a man who is turning his back on so much to go into the Parliament of this country,” he enthused. “We know this man, we love this man.”
Abbott is elevating the highly respected eye doctor to the edge of sainthood, but Labor acknowledges his political fire power too – it came through when he scored a 5.5% swing against Rudd in September and in polling for the byelection. One ALP source privately describes Glasson as the “most popular politician in Queensland”.
Nevertheless, a week out, most Liberals don’t think he’ll make it. One Liberal National Party source says it would need “a wet sail” to get the 3% swing for victory.
But the Liberals have been given some handy ammunition with the corruption allegations. Labor’s Butler is an employment and industrial lawyer with the firm Maurice Blackburn. Her clients have included (among many others) the CFMEU, although she has not acted for its construction division since before being employed at Maurice Blackburn.
At 36, with two young children, Butler falls into a good demographic for the electorate (something Glasson, 61, can’t match; he plays on “experience”). But a husband who works for the Australian Workers' Union reinforces the image the Liberals want to promote – Labor can’t get away from the unions.
At Saturday’s launch deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop described Butler as “a creature of the unions”, who’d be their “puppet”. In a swipe back at Bishop, who formerly practiced law, Butler says: “I’d rather have had my clients than hers. I haven’t represented companies defending asbestos claims”.
LNP state director Brad Henderson says Butler’s union backing shows in Labor’s greater presence on the ground than in September. Pressed about help from the CFMEU, Butler tells The Conversation she is “getting help from a lot of unions” and that from the CFMEU is “about the same as everybody else”.
She’s had assistance of a different kind from publicity surrounding a recent submission to the government’s Commission of Audit from a private health think tank, written by a one-time Abbott adviser, urging a Medicare co-payment for bulk billed GP consultations. The speculation has coincided with Medicare’s 30th anniversary, which Butler and supporters marked on Saturday with a cake at a park in a suburb not far from the Liberal launch.
Abbott sought to bat away questions on the issue. “Nothing is being considered, nothing has been proposed, nothing is planned.” Asked what would be wrong with a co-payment, Abbott was brusque. “I’ve dealt with this issue. Now are there other questions?”
For Labor the spectre of a co-payment is not just a strong campaign tool in itself but a way of reinforcing its message about the cuts Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has made and what may lie ahead federally after the Audit Commission.
Send a protest, Labor is saying; fire a warning shot.
Butler says: “People are really concerned about health care; they don’t trust the LNP on health.” She says Abbott’s “no plans” language hasn’t ruled out a “GP tax. We know what that means. It’s not a categoric ruling out. It’s an attempt to fool the electorate.”
Glasson reinforces Abbott’s message that the byelection should be all about him. He says he would be a strong voice on the side of the parliament that has the power, and that this isn’t a general election. “One day post the election, Tony Abbott will still be the prime minister of Australia and the LNP Government will still be in power.” Other matters, the cost of living (including the need to get rid of the carbon tax), are tucked in behind this central pitch.
Both sides continue to insist the contest is tight. Labor polling is believed to show the ALP a fraction ahead, although its primary vote is lower than in September and Glasson’s is up.
With preferences crucial and Glasson not doing well in that hunt, he is adopting a very different tone to the Abbott government’s usual stridency towards the Greens.
At his joint news conference with Abbott on Saturday he made a direct and conciliatory appeal to Green voters: “If you want to put Green [number] 1 so be it, but where you put number 2 is really important and then ask the question ‘do you want Bill Glasson or do you want his Labor opponent?’ because a Green candidate is not going to get up. So I suggest to my Greens that are listening – come with me, trust with me and I’ve a fair environment rub on my shoulder. I believe in the environment and I want to work with the Government to make sure that environment in this country and also overseas is better.”
Glasson says he hasn’t got a feel for where things are. A huge number of those crucial swinging voters who will decide the result are undecided – not yet engaged, he says. “This [last] week they will engage”.
Victory would be “a big ask. My first barometer of success is to hold my vote”. He would be “very disappointed” if it went backwards. “I’d be ecstatic if I could increase the vote. It would be historic to win.”
Butler describes the byelection as “emblematic” for both sides. Abbott and Labor leader Bill Shorten (who spent most of a week there earlier in the campaign) will visit in the next few days, as the indications are that there are people still to be swayed.
The Abbott government is dancing along a fine line as it deals with speculation that it might consider a co-payment for GP bulked-billed visits.
Campaigning in the Griffith byelection Wednesday, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop said: “I’m in the cabinet. This has never been proposed. This is not before the cabinet.” The idea had been in “a submission made to the Commission of Audit by an entity … We have no plan for a co-payment”.
On the ABC later, Treasurer Joe Hockey wasn’t ruling it out. Asked whether it was a viable option he said: “That is a matter for the Commission of Audit.”
And a close listen to Bishop’s “we have no plan” line isn’t a rule-out either. It was just designed to leave the impression of doing so. Notably she also said “let the Commission of Audit do its work”.
Bill Glasson, the Liberal candidate in Griffith (one-time president of the Australian Medical Association), who a few weeks ago was open to the idea provided there were adequate safeguards, has received a hammering from Labor. On Wednesday he was also pushing the “no plan” line – and pointing out that the one party that had introduced a co-payment was Labor. That was back at the end of Bob Hawke’s prime ministership.
In political terms the co-payment packs quite a punch. Hawke, with left winger Brian Howe as health minister, brought in a modest payment. It became a potent weapon that Paul Keating used in his bid for the leadership. Keating scrapped it when he took over.
Howe today doesn’t regret the 1991 co-payment, saying it was part of a mix of policies on GP reform as well as a budget measure, although at a political level there were problems with touching Medicare.
But he opposes going down that route now, which he argues would be just a savings measure rather than more widely policy-based. “I wouldn’t start with a co-payment, I would start with thinking about what is the key problem – that is the ageing of the population. And you don’t want to discourage older people from going to the doctor.”
From Bishop’s and Glasson’s comments, they obviously think Labor can do some damage with the spectre in Griffith, Kevin Rudd’s old seat, where the contest is said to be tight, the ALP just a nose ahead.
The current debate about a co-payment was sparked by a submission from a health industry think tank, the Australian Centre for Health Research (headed by former state Labor politician Neil Batt) which had Terry Barnes, a former adviser to Tony Abbott when he was health minister, update the Howe co-payment scheme. The Barnes proposal for a $6 co-payment, which would save about $750 million over the forward estimates, was submitted to the Commission of Audit.
The submission said that further research was needed but concluded that “the risks of GP co-payments can be managed by sensible parameters; prudently setting any co-payments at modest levels; and by keeping their operation under continuous expert review to ensure against the unlikely possibility of unintended clinical consequences”.
It would be surprising if the Audit Commission didn’t think very seriously about the proposal. Among other things, it has been asked to report on “savings and appropriate price signals – such as the use of co-payments, user-charging or incentive payments – where such signals will help to ensure optimal targeting of programs and expenditure (including to those most in need), while addressing the rising cost of social and other spending”.
The debate about the co-payment highlights one feature of our politics. Often parties' stands on policy are determined not so much by objective analysis but by their political need at the time. What the Hawke government thought sensible, the Shorten opposition condemns.
In the past it was the same with the debate that ended with us getting a GST. A broad based tax on consumption went in and out of favour with Labor.
And the Coalition, which on all philosophical grounds should favour targeted welfare, screamed blue murder at some of the Labor government’s means testing.
A modest co-payment, with proper safeguards for low income people, seems a defensible policy when savings are being sought. But it is undoubtedly politically risky.
There is a high attachment to Medicare and any tampering invites a strong reaction. The co-payment would have to be struck at a level where, while sending a price signal, it did not discourage necessary visits to the doctor. But, the argument would run, it can be difficult in marginal cases for the patient to judge when a visit is necessary or at least prudent.
While the co-payment is simple in principle, complications arise in practice – such as the need to extend it to emergency departments, if distortions were not to be introduced into the system. Barnes has subsequently favoured this.
Abbott will be pressed on the co-payment when he campaigns in Griffith. Politics will tell him to put a dampener on it; policy considerations will press him to keep it on the table.
Going down the co-payment road would take political courage and cost political capital. If the Commission of Audit recommends it, will be be one of those litmus test issues for the government.
Before the election, there was speculation in business circles that an Abbott government would launch a far-reaching royal commission into the unions.
But the Coalition’s public focus was an inquiry that would probe the old AWU slush fund that had come back to haunt Julia Gillard. This looked like a political exercise.
Now, with the Fairfax/ABC dramatic allegations of corruption in the construction industry – involving companies with criminal and bikie gang connections and officials from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union - the government has a convincing trigger for a much wider investigation that would have extensive implications for the union movement and potentially the Labor party.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott pointed in this direction today. Asked whether there was now scope to broaden the promised slush fund inquiry, he said: “I obviously have read the papers today. I have been following this issue … over the last few weeks and months. I notice there have been various calls including from people inside the union movement, inside the Labor movement more generally, for a fuller inquiry and the government will be making appropriate announcements in due course.”
For the ALP a royal commission with sweeping terms of reference would present multiple political difficulties, in an area where it has already paid a high price, through the HSU Craig Thomson affair (now in court, with salacious evidence) and the attacks on Gillard over her connection through a one-time boyfriend with the AWU fund.
It will be hard for Labor to maintain its current argument that a wide inquiry is not justified, given the extent and seriousness of the construction industry allegations.
These include union officials being bribed in the quest for contracts and, tonight, claims by former long-time CFMEU official Brian Fitzpatrick that he received a death threat from a senior official in the union.
Fitzpatrick told 7.30: “A fellow official called me and threatened to kill me. Twice. I knew I had to report it in case there was something in it.” The official (whom Fitzpatrick named) had said “you’re dead … bang”, with colourful expletives. Fitzpatrick said he had identified the official’s number on his phone. The threat followed Fitzpatrick’s objections to the help given by union officials to Sydney crime figure George Alex to win work on construction sites.
The official has denied making a death threat, according to Dave Noonan, secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division.
The revelations and allegations are all bad news for opposition leader Bill Shorten (currently overseas), not least because they come just before the byelection for Kevin Rudd’s former seat of Griffith.
If it were Rudd leading Labor, the situation would be different. He didn’t care too much what the unions thought (which got him into trouble with them).
Shorten must and will take a hard rhetorical line against bad union behaviour but he’s also constrained.
He’s from the heart of the union movement (moreover from the AWU, which is to be inquired into).
To make matters more awkward, his workplace spokesman Brendan O'Connor is the brother of Michael O'Connor, national secretary of the CFMEU.
Brendan O'Connor argued today that allegations should be taken to the police, rather than having a judicial inquiry.
Labor and the union note the Cole royal commission into the building and construction industry, which Abbott set up when he was minister in the Howard government, cost $66 million and produced only one prosecution, for perjury (although it gave authorities material for many possible actions).
Noonan today wrote to the NSW and Victorian police commissioners calling for the investigation of any allegations.
He told The Conversation: “We are very confident the overwhelming majority of the officials, delegates and members are honest.” But if there was credible evidence against any individual, they would be dealt with and the union would co-operate with any police investigation, he said. One official has already had to resign in light of the current allegations.
Given the strength and nature of the claims, ordinary people are likely to think they warrant a general inquiry. In resisting this, Labor runs the risk of reinforcing the image that it is beholden to the union movement.
The allegations also damage its case for opposing legislation now before parliament to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission. In response to union pressure Labor scrapped the ABCC, replacing it with a weaker new entity, Fair Work Building and Construction.
There is a Senate inquiry underway into the legislation for the proposed revival of the ABCC.
Any royal commission into union corruption is obviously going shine a light on employers too, a point Workplace Relations Minister Eric Abetz made today. This is a two-sided affair.
Indeed, one never knows where royal commissions lead and precisely who will end up feeling some of the pain. The Fraser government’s Costigan royal commission into the Painters and Dockers became a dramatic expose of “bottom of the harbour” tax evasion, which brought that government, and especially its treasurer John Howard, great political grief.
Listen to the latest episode of Politics with Michelle Grattan with Tanya Hosch, deputy campaign director for Recognise.
The choice of Peter Cosgrove as Australia’s next governor-general has been one of the worst-kept secrets in the history of vice-regal appointments. The Coalition has encouraged the speculation since opposition days. Tuesday’s official statement will be an ante-climax.
The former Australian Defence Force chief, who is chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, will be a popular choice. Cosgrove, who served in Vietnam, became widely known to the general public when he led the international peacekeeping forces in East Timor – a military man with high media exposure who helped in that country’s successful quest for nationhood. It was a tough gig with a happy ending.
Who it selects as governor-general tells something about both a government and the times.
Malcolm Fraser chose the respected and eminent legal figure Zelman Cowen because he wanted a consensus “healer” after John Kerr’s divisive dismissal of Gough Whitlam. Bob Hawke installed Bill Hayden to reward and see off the man from whom he had seized the Labor leadership a few years before.
Paul Keating found in William Deane, a High Court judge, a combination of impeccable legal qualifications and progressive social views, especially on indigenous affairs and multiculturalism. Kevin Rudd saw in Quentin Bryce the opportunity to appoint Australia’s first woman GG as well as someone whose record was congenial to a Labor government.
Historically, some appointments (notably of ex-politicians) have prompted an outcry, at least initially, such as that of former NSW Labor premier William McKell. While there were certain doubts in Labor about Whitlam’s choice of Kerr (a legal man who’d had some involvement in politics), the huge backlash came after his unprecedented action.
John Howard’s choice of churchman Peter Hollingworth ended in tears. The government had not done adequate due diligence about his handling, as Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, of sexual abuse allegations. Eventually Hollingworth had to quit.
Although the vice regal post is centrally ceremonial and symbolic, the “reserve powers” and the events of 1975 show the governor-general can have a pivotal role in extraordinary circumstances. And indeed a significant one, especially in terms of process, in more ordinary situations. In 1983 Ninian Stephen required Malcom Fraser to provide extra information before he would grant him a double dissolution.
Stephen, incidentally, expanded the overseas role of the governor-generalship. His biographer Philip Ayres says he gave much more of an international focus to the position, travelling widely and also reporting to the government (especially the Hawke government) on his discussions.
On some occasions abroad a governor-general is effectively a fill-in for the PM at formal functions. Usually these trips are unremarkable. But Kevin Rudd’s use of Bryce to blitz African countries as part of Australia’s campaign to secure a United Security Council seat was in a special and more questionable category.
Of all the personally awkward situations a governor-general might face Bryce encountered one of the most unusual, when her son-in-law Bill Shorten became opposition leader after the election. She offered to resign. New prime minister Tony Abbott said there was no need – the government had a solid majority and her term was coming to an end. If, however, Shorten had become PM, as a compromise candidate, during the hung parliament, Bryce would surely have had to step down.
Abbott sees in Cosgrove someone with support across the political spectrum and public appeal, who’s particularly appropriate as the nation heads into four years of commemorating the centenary of World War 1 and, in 2015, Gallipoli. (Apart from his own career, Cosgrove’s grandfather served in the First World War and his father was in the permanent forces.)
Cosgrove published a best-selling autobiography, My Story, in 2006; he expounded his views in his 2009 Boyer Lectures titled A very Australian conversation.
His wide-ranging lectures include strong support for action on climate change, the idea of Australia forming an economic relationship with Pacific countries, and stress on the importance of co-operation with Indonesia.
On the key question (for a governor-general) of a republic - which Bryce backed in her Boyer lectures late last year - Cosgove told his listeners that he was in East Timor when the 1999 referendum was held and his “major challenge was not agonising over my personal position” but making sure the Australian troops there would all get a chance to vote on polling day.
Looking back, he dismissed as “simplistic” and “rubbish” the view that the outcome was a blow to the republicans and triumph for the monarchists.
“To me, the nub of the issue was the public’s uncertainty about the desirability of particular republican models—directly elected presidents or presidents appointed or elected by the parliament.
“In the end I think the public rightly took fright at the thought of somehow dismantling the main working parts of our mature and successful Westminster system of government, even if that meant maintaining the antiquated oddity of a British monarch to an Australian government and people.
“To what degree were we prepared to empower a president vis-a-vis the prime minister, his or her cabinet and the elected government? If on the other hand we weren’t happy to have the parliament appoint the president as was proposed in the first of the referendum questions then were we ready for any such change?
“We can witter on about the framing of the referendum questions and the fractured nature of the factions on the republican side but Australians felt to some degree to say yes was to buy a pig in a poke. …
“This certainly doesn’t imply to me that the republican issue is a dead duck. But the duck is presently in a coma. I do have a feeling though that if and when the duck awakes, the ‘directly-elected president’ model will still struggle for acceptance!”
In My Story Cosgove writes: “You can seek public profile or it can be thrust upon you. You can embrace it or run a mile from it. I am guilty of embracing it.” He is about to re-embrace it with one of the biggest jobs in the land.
Scott Morrison is right in declaring that thwarted asylum seekers have a strong motive to advance spurious claims of bad treatment at the hands of the Australian Navy. But he is wrong and politically unwise to treat allegations that have been made with searing contempt.
Morrison could defend the navy’s reputation while saying that the claims - of people getting their hands burned from being made to hold hot engine parts, and other injuries - did need to be properly investigated.
Instead he today resorted to a diatribe.
“The Australian government is not going to put up with people sledging the Australian Navy with unsubstantiated claims when they have high levels of motivation for spinning stories in order to undermine this government’s very successful border protection program and policies,” he told a news conference.
“There is no substantiation to the sorts of allegations that are being made and publicised and put around.
“I think the mere publication [by the ABC] of things that are clearly so unsubstantiated is unfortunate.”
The minister said he had been given assurances about the conduct of the naval people and “I believe those assurances because I believe in those individuals”.
On whether an independent investigation was needed, he said: “I think I’ve made my position on this crystal clear.”
Morrison’s comments are over-the-top and ill-judged on a number of fronts.
You would think the government would have absorbed the lesson from its unfortunate experience last week. After an unequivocal declaration that no Australian ships had entered Indonesian waters, information suddenly came to light that forced it to admit this had happened on a number of occasions.
Go back a lot further, to 2001: the Howard government was equally unequivocal that asylum seekers had thrown “children overboard”, when it had not happened.
It’s always best to be a little cautious. The government probably would be if the allegations did not involve asylum seekers.
If it were dealing with, say, a claim that a sailor had sexually harassed a colleague on a navy ship, does anyone think the allegation would be tossed off in such language?
Morrison is demonising the asylum seekers, setting up the argument that any claims made by these people can be ignored because of who they are and their likely motive. On this reasoning, if an Australian in custody claims to have been ill-treated by a guard, do we automatically dismiss the matter?
While the asylum seeker claims might be “unsubstantiated”, they do come with video footage. The video shows people apparently being medically assessed. This is alleged evidence – it’s a question of what it is evidence of.
The ABC reports Indonesian police saying they had to get treatment for 10 people, seven with severe burns on their hands. The people were picked up in Indonesian waters on January 6, after a boat was turned back.
The fact there is a video and the comments from the Indonesian police make a nonsense of Morrison’s assertion that the ABC should not have aired what he describes as “unfounded, unsubstantiated, outrageous allegations”. Not content with exercising as much censorship as he can get away with in relation to his own information, Morrison obviously thinks the media should follow the same policy.
Last week Angus Campbell, military head of Operation Sovereign Borders, was asked about the claims. “They have been looked into, internal to our operational arrangements,” he said. When pressed, he said this did not involve contacting people making allegations.
The ABC tonight reported that Indonesian police are investigating the allegations.
“Local police from Kupang, where the asylum seekers were taken, say they have statements from the passengers. Chief detective Sam Kawengian says the claims warrant investigation and he has invited Australian authorities to travel to Kupang and view the evidence,” the ABC said.
Given the Indonesian agitation over the ships' incursions, this is not a helpful development from the Australian government’s point of view. It needs to get a hold on this issue.
Either Campbell should be asked to provide a full statement detailing the examination he referred to and demonstrating that it was satisfactory, or a proper inquiry should be ordered. It could be grafted onto the one under way about the incursions.
If such an investigation showed the claims to be unfounded this would discourage future ones.
Australia is too far on the back foot over how it is treating asylum seekers to be cavalier about this latest matter.
Today Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs said the commission will set up an inquiry into the children in immigration detention. Holding children for months or even years “does really raise the question of Australia’s compliance with its international obligations”, she said.
The international organisation Human Rights Watch has criticised Australia in its just-released report, saying “Successive governments have prioritised domestic politics over Australia’s international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers.”
Over in Switzerland Abbott, asked about the ships' incursions, followed his positive comments about Indonesia and its president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with the declaration: “All of that said, for us, stopping the boats is a matter of sovereignty and President Yudhoyono of all people ought to understand, does understand, just how seriously countries take their sovereignty. So we will continue to do what we are entitled to do to secure our borders.”
His line was heavy-handed. With the Indonesian relationship delicate, this is hardly the time for lectures by Australia about sovereignty, or for venting in general.
Whichever side won the September election, Australia’s policy on asylum seekers was destined to take on an even harsher edge.
The Coalition campaigned for zero tolerance; Kevin Rudd sought to more than match it. If the boats were really to be stopped, there would be a lot of ugliness.
Even so, the regime under minister Scott Morrison never fails to produce new shocks.
Boat arrivals have slowed dramatically, no doubt about that, with several weeks of none (leaving aside tow backs and turnarounds), although Angus Campbell, military commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, withholds a broad assessment until after the late March end of the monsoon season.
But bungling incursions into Indonesian waters, revealed last week, have raised the already high price to the bilateral relationship of the turn back/tow back policy, while the current legal shenanigans in Nauru underline how Australia is hostage to the countries to which it has outsourced its problem. Both Nauru and Papua New Guinea are less than “best practice” in various spheres.
And infusing all aspects of the government’s approach is the arrogant style. The Coalition, just because it can, withholds information on the most spurious grounds, excuses the inexcusable, tolerates what it would have vociferously condemned in Labor’s day. Moreover, learning only selectively from the Howard experience, it has compromised the military, using it not just to execute policy but as a political shield.
The past week’s developments have been particularly unfortunate – ironically accompanying the lack of arrivals.
At a briefing last Wednesday, Campbell made a special point of declaring that “our activities and assets have never and will never violate the sovereign territory of another country.”
Ooops. Within hours he was reading an official report indicating vessels had made several incursions into Indonesian waters.
This led to grovelling Australian government apologies to our annoyed neighbour, and to an inquiry, to be done by Customs and the Australian Defence Force.
Campbell said at Friday’s news conference that those on the vessels “believed they were at all times outside Indonesian waters.”
But he and Morrison would not say how this breach of government policy had apparently happened. Were there wrong orders given to the ships, faulty instruments, maps lost overboard (figuratively speaking)?
They would not pre-empt the (in-house) inquiry, which was to determine its own terms of reference.
It will investigate the period from December 1 to January 20, assessing the sequence of events and cause of incursions. Last night’s statement said the inquiry, co-chaired by senior officers from Customs and the ADF, would “identify any potential procedural weaknesses or deficiencies in maritime operations and make recommendations to ensure that any immediate operational policy or procedure issues are highlighted and rectified promptly.”
Reporting date is February 10 but could be extended. At that time the heads of Defence and Customs will “consider release of the review’s findings”. The report is likely to have unclassified and confidential sections.
The Indonesians will be awaiting it with interest.
Hard on the heels of this debacle has come the shenanigans in Nauru. That country’s government sacked and deported the sole magistrate, Peter Law, an Australian, and then barred Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames, a former Victorian Supreme Court judge, from re-entering Nauru after he tried to intervene.
Although these events were unrelated to the asylum seekers Australia has sent there, many cases involving the 2013 rioting are coming before the court. Australia needs to have confidence in the legal system.
Morrison was publicly unconcerned, saying it was an internal matter for the Nauruans. “We are not seeking to over-react in any way. Things will take their course and the matter will be resolved and we’ll get on with things.”
Eames said he’d have thought that “a government which has got such close ties with Nauru [would] have more than a passing interest in such instability in the judicial system in the Pacific region.”
Especially, one might add, when during the debate about Labor’s attempted “Malaysia solution” the Coalition had made such a hoo-ha about human rights.
(The Nauru government has now appointed another Australian as magistrate.)
Australia is even more at the mercy of the PNG government. Last week Morrison couldn’t or wouldn’t give a proper update on what will be the arrangements there for asylum seekers found to be refugees. Australia won’t take them but how will they be treated in PNG? All under still-to-be-finalised discussion apparently.
In line with its wider secrecy policy on border protection, the government is trying to suppress information about self-harm incidents. Publicity only encourages such incidents, it says. Maybe. But there are competing imperatives – and a strong one is that the public should know what is going on. Otherwise there is no proper accountability.
Transparency is especially vital, and hardest to achieve, when the centres are in places like Manus and Nauru. Nauru has just increased the cost of an entry visa for a journalist from $200 to $8000.
Morrison has given up his weekly briefings and will now appear on an ad hoc basis. The opposition calls for more information but has no answers. It too just wants the boats to stop; Labor doesn’t want to make asylum seekers a political battleground.
The government is working on the principle the end justifies the means and believes as much as possible of the means should be kept out of sight. It is confident that the end – stopping the boats – has strong public support and that voters either don’t care about the means or like to see them tough.
Today’s Essential poll gives some backing to that view but the picture is mixed: 47% believe most boat arrivals are not genuine refugees; a combined 60% think either the government is taking the right approach on asylum seekers or is too soft; on the other hand, 46% say boat arrivals should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be genuine refugees.
It seems likely that the government will eventually achieve its end, more or less stopping the boats, which means also stopping the drownings. But neither it, nor Australia, can avoid the stain on the nation that comes from the policy’s extreme means and scant regard for process.
Voters in Kevin Rudd’s former seat might be groaning at another bombardment, but the February 8 Griffith byelection has enough tactical importance for both sides to ensure this campaign won’t be a low-key affair.
The Liberals would dearly love to bloody the nose of the as-yet- untested opposition leader by seizing the electorate, held by Labor since 1998. Bill Shorten needs the ALP to keep Griffith and indeed improve its vote, if he is to take advantage of Tony Abbott’s early problems and vindicate blocking the carbon tax’s repeal.
History is on Shorten’s side. ABC electoral analyst Antony Green points out that a government has won only one seat from an opposition in a federal byelection - Kalgoorlie, 1920. (Oppositions have lost byelections to crossbenchers, but that’s not a chance here.)
The Liberals need a 3% swing to take the seat – very difficult after the 5.5% they secured in September.
Rudd had a personal vote but Labor says its size varied in different parts of the electorate and it obviously took a knock as some people sent a message about the leadership in-fighting.
Shorten was in Griffith today and will be campaigning there until Thursday. Abbott, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, will hit the ground for his good mate Bill Glasson.
Both sides say that, at this stage, the contest is tight. Labor has polled extensively and declares it is just ahead. Glasson says: “I think we are line ball”.
The 61-year-old popular eye doctor is the best thing going for the Liberals. He wasn’t too keen to saddle up again after his marathon election run, but not to do so would have given the ALP an easy run. Labor’s Terri Butler, 36, also a local, is head of the employment and industrial law section of legal firm Maurice Blackburn in Queensland, but she has nothing like the profile of her opponent.
Glasson’s pitch is that Griffith’s interest will be best served by a strong local member who, as part of the government, is a relevant voice. He’s also highlighting the carbon tax.
With significant hospitals in the area, Labor is exploiting the state government’s health cuts, which Glasson describes as a reshuffling with very few lost jobs, and his support for a Medicare price signal for those who can afford it. It is raising the spectre of what the Feds might do after the Commission of Audit.
Butler says: “People are not happy with the Abbott government and they are pretty unhappy with the state government”.
Shorten, appearing today with a local disabled child, Freddie, and his mother Louise Kelly, said: “Mrs Kelly [is] worried that under Tony Abbott the National Disability Insurance Scheme is at risk to the slashing cuts, the same that we’ve seen under the LNP in Queensland.”
Although the byelection comes at the term’s start and so its implications shouldn’t be exaggerated, the outcome could be significant for the mood in Canberra. A bad Liberal vote could make the government backbench jittery about tough measures. A big rebuff for Labor would hit that party’s morale.
Griffith will be the first of several elections this year, all with direct or indirect federal implications.
One is still a “maybe” election. The High Court will soon rule on whether there will be another West Australian Senate poll because of the lost ballot papers.
The result wouldn’t change the basic fact of crossbench control of the Senate – which passes from the Greens to a gaggle of micro-players on July 1 - but the precise numbers would be up for grabs. If Labor and Greens between them got an extra seat out of a fresh WA poll, their potential to muster enough support to block legislation after July 1 would be marginally improved.
The Liberals won three WA Senate seats at the election, while Labor scored two in the first count but only one in the second. Palmer’s party got a spot only in the first count; in the recount, the Australian Sports Party was successful, as were the Greens.
Clive Palmer says that in WA his Palmer United Party is polling between a quota and a half and two quotas.
Before a WA poll (if it happens), there will be state elections in Tasmania and South Australia, both on March 15.
In Tasmania, Labor is set for defeat. Much interest will be in what happens to the Greens and how PUP does.
The Greens are in transition from having great power (federally and in Tasmania) to being the kids no one wants to know. Their federal vote fell; they’ll soon lose their Senate clout. A desperate Tasmanian premier has thrown them out of the state cabinet. A slump in what has been their heartland state would put tremendous pressure on the party, internally as well as externally.
Palmer is making a big push in Tasmania; he believes PUP could get the balance of power - which would give it a fillip federally. But a challenge to its registration has raised doubt about whether its name can be got on the ballot paper in time (meaning its candidates would lose their distinctive labelling). Palmer dismisses the challenge and the problem.
In South Australia, the debate about Holden has complicated the situation but the Liberal opposition remains in a strong position.
Assuming Labor lost both states, there would be conservative governments everywhere except the ACT, although the ALP would have the opportunity of a comeback in Victoria later in the year.
Blanket “blue” across the nation would in theory give the Abbott government no excuses in its push to reform federalism. But experience has shown that in this area, when it suits them friends can play hardball as readily as political opponents.
The big message out of the updated, gloomy budget figures released today is: prepare for some shocker spending cuts to come.
The strategy is obvious, learned from forebears. Present a black picture. Heap blame on your predecessor. Have the answers. But make it clear these will involve bitter medicine.
“Living within our means requires the elimination of waste, but it will also require people to adjust to reductions in some spending to which they have become accustomed,” the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook document says.
Treasurer Joe Hockey was blunt: “Over the next few months Australians will be asked to accept the decisions that help to make our quality of life sustainable.” Shades here of Hockey’s speech last year about the end of the age of entitlement, though he’s more careful with his language.
The government is trying to wipe the slate as clean as possible for its coming changes, that will follow the Commission of Audit findings and be in the first Hockey budget in May.
This year’s budgets revenue estimates have deteriorated significantly since the election but the Coalition is also punching home the dire message by adding to the bad numbers itself.
What Labor left, what has changed in the underlying situation and what the Abbott government has done all blur into the new bottom line. The result provides a rationale for doing things that might otherwise be harder to justify.
It’s notable that the government has been able to come up with a massive black hole since the pre-election update (nearly $17 billion this financial year and more than $68 billion over the forward estimates) even when we have the Charter of Budget Honesty.
That charter, put in place by former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello, has Treasury and the Finance Department issue an update early in an election campaign. PEFO, as it’s known, is designed to prevent nasty post-election surprises.
The current black hole is a combination of worsening circumstances since PEFO, decisions and revisions by the new government (including an $8.8 billion injection for the Reserve Bank) and methodological changes in projecting unemployment and the terms of trade in the out years.
The Coalition used to accuse the Labor of over-optimistic budget figures. Now in power, it is producing what may be pessimistic numbers. That improves the chances of the results later looking positive, at least compared with this benchmark.
Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos said the projections should now be more realistic and believable. If the reality turned out better, that would be a pleasant upside surprise, he said. Precisely.
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen pointed out that the old methodology, which had unemployment in the out years based on “trend”, was used by the Howard-Costello government as well as Labor. Using the PEFO methodology would have meant the unemployment projections in today’s MYEFO would have been lower.
Either way can be justified but the method does affect the numbers. Just as statistics can often be cast in different ways, so the assumptions on which projections are based will feed through into the figures. It’s a reminder that budget numbers always contain “rubber” of one kind or another.
In making its savings for the May budget the government will be hemmed in by election promises. For example Tony Abbott said before the election there would be no net cuts to health and education. But there will be “efficiencies” within these broad areas - almost certain to mean sweeping changes.
While Abbott stresses promises matter and has relearned that lesson from the character-forming experience over the Gonski school funding, it’s clear the government is willing to stretch promises when it thinks it can get away with it.
Apart from the pre-election pledges, it is saying that everything is on the table for review.
In 2014, the Coalition will need to alter its messaging. As the election recedes it can’t play the blame game endlessly. The relentless negativity of opposition has turned into the relentless negativity of government but that will alienate people if it goes on too long.
The electorate is impatient and fickle. If the government is successfully to sell a difficult and likely unpopular package, it will need a narrative that better sketches a picture of the Australia to be created. Just as it has updated the budget numbers, it will have to revise its rhetoric, in order to take the voters along with it.
Kevin Rudd cast the Council of Australian governments as the workhorse of the federation. For Tony Abbott it is more of a hacking pony, good to have but with relatively light duties.
Abbott’s first COAG was overshadowed by the Holden announcement and the demands for large scale assistance from the Victorian and South Australian premiers. The federal government will respond early in the week, with cabinet on Monday considering a package.
Despite the public attention on Holden, the COAG meeting and its communique gave a clear sense of the priorities of Abbott and his government.
The standard joint news conference was preceded by a signing ceremony to implement “one stop shops” for environmental consideration for projects. When this system is fully operating, the states will handle not just the assessment part of the process but approvals as well. Not surprisingly, there are concerns from the environment lobby at so much state power.
The agreements are part of the attempt to reduce “green” tape but also reflect Abbott’s view of how federalism should work. (Note that he went through a “centralist” phase when and after he was a minister in the Howard government but he’s over that now.)
The approach was spelled out at the start of the communique. The states “are sovereign in their own sphere. They should be able to get on with delivering on their responsibilities, with appropriate accountability and without unnecessary interference from the Commonwealth.”
COAG is not to get too deeply into the weeds. “In future, COAG will focus on a few important national priorities, and on outcomes rather than process.”
Abbott wants to be known as the “infrastructure prime minister” and COAG is on the job. It asked for “urgent” work on how to speed up the delivery of projects (including fast-tracking planning approvals), advice on the next major transport reforms, ways to boost private sector investment in projects, and how to give priority to projects that increase productivity and growth.
Abbott’s determination to try to make a difference in indigenous affairs came out strongly; he is focusing on getting children to attend school every day. He told the news conference: “We all know that for far too long, too many excuses have been made for indigenous kids in particular not being at school. This must stop. It must stop soon.”
There are to be some tough measures involving both shaming and direct enforcement, including publishing twice-yearly data on school attendance for all students broken down by indigenous and non-indigenous; truancy officers, and spot audits.
COAG’s councils are to be shrunk in number from 22 to eight): federal financial relations; disability reform; transport and infrastructure; energy; industry and skills; law, crime and community safety; education; and health. Indigenous affairs and deregulation are to be in the terms of reference of each of them, and considered directly by COAG as standing items, reflecting the importance the government attaches to them. COAG itself will meet twice a year.
Abbott has used COAG to reaffirm that his controversial, generous paid parental leave scheme will go ahead on July 1, 2015. State public servants are to be covered by it; the federal government says the states won’t be left worse off under the new arrangements.
On one crucial issue, a big danger sign has gone up. The costs for the national disability insurance scheme are blowing out.
Abbott reaffirmed the strong general support for the scheme. But he also stressed it must be sustainable.
The “launch” sites have been renamed “trials”, with the emphasis on lessons to be learned. Disability ministers will report in March on progress with the trials, “including options to improve the implementation of the scheme and ensure the scheme operates on insurance principles to deliver positive outcomes for people with disability in a fiscally sustainable way”.
It’s early days, but the signs are there that this could become a problem area over the next couple of years, regardless of its bipartisan support.
Listen to the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, on rss and iTunes.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari is best known as former secretary of the ALP in NSW and a right wing power broker. Although he hadn’t expected to arrive in the parliament so soon, he followed what has become a well-worn path for party officials from his state and his faction.
He replaced Matt Thistlethwaite, also a one-time NSW secretary, who ran for and won former minister Peter Garrett’s lower house seat at the election.
Dastyari, 30, has said he is anxious to make a mark in the debate over the next three years about Labor’s directions and he used his maiden speech today to launch into two contentious issues. He urged a more compassionate discussion about asylum seekers and embraced a “big Australia”.
After the Labor government lost much political ground over its asylum seeker policy, it sought to out-tough the Coalition, with the so called PNG solution, which Kevin Rudd unveiled after returning to the prime ministership.
Dastyari’s family fled from Iran after “a secular political tyranny had been replaced by a religious one” and came to Australia as migrants in the 1980s. He said his personal story had had a profound effect on his views and aspirations for Australian society.
He said the rhetoric of Australia’s national discussion about so- called “boat people” lacked compassion.
“It is time for us to have a real conversation in this country about asylum seekers. A conversation that isn’t about the number of boats, but about the names, faces and stories of the people they bring.
“A conversation that isn’t about how we stop the boats, but about what we can do to improve the situation of those so desperate, that they consider getting on boats in the first place.
“It is far too easy for us as politicians to exploit our communities' natural fear of differences and of change.”
A better conversation about asylum seekers did not mean sacrificing values or silencing honest criticism, he said. But what was needed was for the politics to be taken out it.
The reason people risked their lives to come to Australia was “the hope of a better future that this country has to offer for a persecuted people and their children”.
On the question of immigration generally, Dastyari declared it was “nation building. Immigration makes us strong.
“The people who come here will drive Australia’s economic prosperity for decades to come.
“And immigration is one of the great signs of optimism, of activism, of faith in the future in all of human history
“Let me be clear, I unequivocally believe in a Big Australia.”
The notion of a “Big Australia” has been contentious within Labor in recent years. Rudd was a big Australia man, but ran into criticism. After Julia Gillard replaced him in 2010, the party pointedly moved away from the idea.
Dastyari said: “It is no coincidence that a country whose conversation about immigration is so poor is also one where we are far too willing to predict hard times and focus on the negative.”
He said Australia’s politics had become cynical and negative, and the media was too focused on “our weaknesses rather than our strengths”.
“We can achieve far more as a nation by working together than we can working against each other. Whenever possible, we must focus on the things that we have in common.
“We must stop letting the issues that divide us dominate our political landscape.
“It is our role as politicians not just to focus on winning votes through cynical and negative politics. It is our role to remain optimistic and to remind people how great Australia really is.”
Listen to the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, on rss and iTunes.
While most in the big end of town are relieved at the Abbott government’s arrival, Holden is getting more than the cold shoulder. The Coalition is aggressively taking on the car maker that has its hand out.
Today saw a major tussle, as government frustration escalates at Holden’s refusal to say whether it intends to cut and run from Australia.
Appearing before the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the car industry this morning, Holden chief Mike Devereux said General Motors had made no decision on its future in Australia; he also declined to say when it would do so.
This is despite reports that the company’s head office has already settled on pulling out. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that according to people in the know “GM intends to close its two Australian plants and separately slash production in South Korea by as much as 20% by 2016”.
On Friday Tony Abbott tried to flush out the company, urging it to stop keeping everyone on “tenterhooks”.
In Question Time today acting Prime Minister Warren Truss increased the pressure, declaring he had written to Devereux in the wake of his PC appearance.
The letter is tough. “I note your statement today that ‘there’s been no decision made at this point’. However, your comments failed to provide a commitment that Holden will remain in Australia well into the future,” Truss wrote.
“Instead, your comments merely confirmed that a decision to end manufacturing in Australia remains a live option and has not been ruled out.
“As you will be aware, this growing uncertainty is impacting on Holden’s workers, their families and the supply chain.
“It is the Australian government’s view that GM Holden must immediately provide a clear explanation of its future intentions and explain what its plans are for its Australian manufacturing operations.
“An immediate clarification of GM Holden’s future plans is needed to end the uncertainty for Holden’s workforce, its suppliers and the people of Australia.”
In his letter Truss noted that through the Automotive Transformation Scheme, more than $1 billion had been made available to the industry in recent years, with another $1 billion there between 2015 and 2020. The Coalition had also scrapped Labor’s $1.8 billion change to FBT arrangements that would have hit the industry.
At the PC hearing, Devereux would not be specific about what further assistance the company would need. The government knew, he indicated.
“The budgetary cost … of losing this industry would dwarf the cost of keeping it,” he told the hearing.
“We need a public/private partnership over the long term to be able to be relatively competitive and to have GM be able to do what it wants to do which is build where we sell.”
Holden claims the $1.8 billion of federal money it got in the past decade has led to $33 billion in “economic activity” and $127 million a year of PAYE taxes.
In face of the government’s demand for Holden to come clean, Labor says it should be the other way round. “How are they able to actually make a call on their future plans when the government refuses to reveal its plans?” said former industry minister Kim Carr in the Senate today.
The debate about Holden’s future is another early test of the “dries” within the government and, after a big rebuff on the ADM bid for GrainCorp, they are clearly winning this one. Having Abbott on Friday say without qualification that there would not be extra money for the industry was critical. He is locked in.
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane remains a voice for Holden but colleagues appear to have their hands over their ears.
Treasurer Joe Hockey told Parliament there were “a hell of a lot of industries in Australia that would love to get the assistance the motor vehicle industry gets”, including foreign owned businesses that would love to be able to remit taxpayer money to their head offices.
The language is significant. The Coalition is not talking about the car industry or Holden as iconic or even vital, as politicians have been wont to do (and some still are). Hockey’s reference to Australian taxpayers' money going abroad was pointed.
Holden’s shilly shallying about its intentions is also making it easier for the government to push the company onto the back foot. While the government’s motive is to try to shift blame, it is also not unreasonable for it to seek greater transparency, as the PC sought.
That the government has set up the PC inquiry but has now pre-empted it (with Abbott’s comments) is less than best practice in how to make policy. On the other hand, it would be a turn up if the PC recommended new handouts.
If Holden does announce it is going, following Mitsubishi in 2008 and Ford’s 2016 manufacturing shutdown, there will be a backlash against the government. The issue’s timing generally is awkward given the March election in South Australia, where the car industry is crucial
But on a longer view, it would be better to take the pain earlier than later, after yet more money was poured in to no avail.
Listen to Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The government has taken the first step in exploring how to curb the scope for “micro” parties to win Senate places through elaborate preference deals.
Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson has asked a parliamentary committee to investigate “Senate voting reform”.
Ronaldson announced he had provided the “usual reference” to the joint standing committee on electoral matters which reports after each election. But he spelled out particular areas he expected the committee, chaired by Victorian Liberal backbencher Tony Smith, would specifically examine.
Apart from Senate voting reform, these are requiring proof of identity at voting places; the electoral roll, including the impact of direct enrolments, and public access to the roll; the circumstances surrounding the lost Senate votes in Western Australia; and the feasibility of and options for electronic voting.
Complicated preference arrangements among micro parties resulted in the election of a range of crossbenchers, in some cases with tiny proportions of the votes.
“Preference whisperer” Glenn Druery advised on some of the arrangements.
There is now considerable support across the political spectrum for change that would limit the potential for such elaborate preference deals.
Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, who won nearly two quotas, has already introduced a private member’s bill to reform Senate voting.
It would establish a system allowing voters to number more than one square above the line on the ballot paper, or at least six squares below the line. Voters would also no longer have to number all the squares if they voted below the line.
The Greens have previously said they want the joint committee to look at optional preferential voting for the Senate.
Those urging reform say the present system means that often voters' intentions are not reflected because of the complexity of the preference flow. Opponents of change say the micro parties won fairly and squarely under the current system and the major parties are just unhappy with the result.
The loss of nearly 1400 ballot papers in the WA Senate vote has led to greater interest in the possibility of electronic voting, although it would be a very big operation to go down that route.
An inquiry into the affair, in a report released last week, criticised the processes for handling the papers.
The inquiry, done by former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty, criticised a culture of complacency in the Australian Electoral Commission’s WA office and pointed out how the impact of a mistake could be disproportionate to its size. “The loss of a box of ballot papers with a market value of perhaps $30 could, in the event of High Court ordering a fresh election, have a $13 million consequence.”
The WA Senate result is now before the High Court and a new election appears the most likely result.
Electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn has apologised for what happened and committed to implementing Keelty’s recommendations but remains under pressure from the government. Asked on the ABC whether he has considered resigning he deflected the question to his efforts to improve the system.
Ronaldson has been scathing in his comments about the AEC.
If the High Court says there should be another WA Senate election, it would would need to be held by April to ensure the new Senate would be in place by July 1. Clive Palmer has claimed that his PUP could win two Senate places if there is a new poll.
Members of the ALP national executive will vote tomorrow to preselect candidates for Victorian legislative council electorates. Executive members from as far away as Western Australia and Queensland will be making judgements about the people who will seek the support of Victorian voters.
It’s another triumph for Labor’s faceless men - another indication that, for all the talk of making the party more democratic, you can’t keep the factional chiefs down.
The cost of this exercise in factional muscle is anger and disillusionment among those grass roots members who thought the move to give the rank and file a say in electing the national leader might be the start of a new way of doing things. Silly them.
The latest episode in power broking played out after Victorian opposition leader Daniel Andrews told the state branch he wanted preselections done by year’s end.
The administrative committee said it could conduct plebiscites for lower house seats but it was all too hard to meet the timetable for upper house ones.
It referred the matter to the party’s national executive (the state committee doesn’t have the power to do these preselections itself).
In a phone hook up on Thursday the national executive decided to conduct the ballot. It was a stitch up between right and left. Victorian left winger Kim Carr moved the motion; South Australian right factional heavy Don Farrell seconded it.
Left wingers Mark Butler and Tim Ayres spoke against. Compromise was proposed. To no avail.
Victorian sources who support the decision say the move had overwhelming support from the state party and nothing should distract from fighting an election Labor could win. They point to the difficulties of having a postal vote for the multi-member electorates.
The excuse of inadequate time is just that - an excuse. Anyway, it would hardly have mattered if the upper house preselections had run into early next year. The Victorian election is late 2014, unless something untoward happens – if it did, the national executive could always have intervened then.
The fact is that the Victorian factional bosses, who include Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate, Stephen Conroy, wanted to manage the result. A plebiscite could have seen some stoushes (aka serious contests). A national executive ballot helps manage divisions on the right.
Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten, who committed himself during the leadership ballot to extending party democracy, did not take part in Thursday’s hook up.
The Border Mail reported yesterday that several candidates in the north east region feared being “rolled” by people from Melbourne. The report said Labor members had threatened to boycott helping run the election effort.
Race Mathews, patron of Local Labor which has been fighting to advance the cause of party reform, has described the national executive decision as an “insult to the intelligence of rank and file party members.”
“Secrecy and deals reached behind closed doors have become the ruin of our party, and a recipe for the sort of outrages and ill-repute which have so disastrously overtaken it in New South Wales,” Mathews said.
He said the justification offered for the referral of the upper house pre-selections to the national executive - that acceptance of the referral was an “administrative necessity” – was “a lie”.
“If the party’s new generation of ‘faceless men’ (and some women) had ever seriously contemplated allowing the local plebiscites to go ahead, contingency plans for enabling it to happen would have been put in place.
“The original timeline for the pre-selections was established by the administrative committee itself, with preliminary indications that there would be a members’ ballot. And it failed to meet its own deadlines.
“The fix was sitting on their hands to the point where it could be claimed there was insufficient time left to start from scratch for voting before Christmas, or room in the state election cycle for it to be postponed until early next year.”
Mathews said that “those responsible for this debacle must be shown that they may run but they can’t hide. Candidates for election as state conference delegates at the forthcoming federal electorate assembly elections should be required to disclose publicly their factional affiliations and endorsement or condemnation of the referral decision.”
He said explicit undertakings should be sought that these people would support the various recommendations for party reform that have been made by reviews.
It would seem optimistic, however, to think that undertakings would mean much. It is all a matter of the numbers, based on mutual benefit alliances between the factional chiefs.
Listen to Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The Abbott government is, as a new administration, being tested out on various fronts. A very obvious one is industry policy and whether it is going to hold firm against providing more subsidies.
Both the car industry and Qantas are applying pressure for some sort of assistance – extra help in the case of cars and new aid for Qantas.
The demands haven’t yet been formulated but the cries of woe are in the air. There have been reports that Holden is planning to pull out of Australia as early as 2016 (the company has responded by saying no decision has been made). Qantas this week revealed that it was looking at a pre-tax loss in the first half of the financial year and and would shed 1000 jobs.
In their separate ways, both the car industry and Qantas have a certain iconic status. The auto industry is regarded as of wider importance to the manufacturing sector. The Flying Kangaroo has been seen as not just any old airline but a national symbol.
(It should be noted however that Australians neither choose to buy locally-made cars in any numbers nor usually fly overseas – as distinct from domestically - with Qantas. Qantas International had a market share of 18 per cent of total air traffic in and out of Australia in 2012. The Australian motor vehicle industry had an even lower market share in 2012 - of about 1.1 million cars sold, only 10.3 per cent were manufactured domestically.)
There has always been some question mark over where Tony Abbott will stand when the industry hands go out. His critics see him as potentially flaky or, put in less pejorative terms, as pragmatic.
So his comments today are significant. He strongly ruled out additional assistance to the auto industry and also threw cold water on calls for the government to inject capital into Qantas, or give it a guarantee. His words will give heart to the ‘'dries’‘ in cabinet that he is in the tent.
Speaking on radio, Abbott said there was already half a billion dollars a year available for the car industry “but there’s not going to be any extra money over and above [that]”. Presumably thinking Holden is playing a cat and mouse game, the PM also called on the company to clarify whether it was going or staying, rather than have “everyone on tenterhooks”.
On Qantas, he said that a subsidy or guarantee raised the question of why other businesses shouldn’t be treated the same. That would lead to a “bottomless pit”.
Abbott’s hard line may have in mind that after Treasurer Joe Hockey’s rejection a week ago of the US company ADM’s bid for GrainCorp the government needs to reassert its “dry” economic credentials. The PM would also have an eye to a budget under stress.
Abbott’s stand comes ahead of the findings of a Productivity Commission inquiry the government commissioned on the car industry which makes an interim report by December 20 and a final one in late March.
The PC was asked “to examine the best way that the Australian Government and Australian economy can ensure the ongoing viability of the automotive industry.”
While the final report is months away, there is some pressure for earlier government decisions. There is also the complication of the election in South Australia, where the auto industry is particularly important (the final PC report is just after the election.)
The issue is potentially divisive for the cabinet with Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane more sympathetic to calls for aid than colleagues such as Hockey.
When it comes to “dry” economics the PC is up there with the best of them, so it is unlikely to be urging large dollops of money.
One of its terms of reference, however, is to look at “retargeting of assistance, including within the Automotive Transformation Scheme”. This may be a route the government could go down.
On Qantas Abbott, like Hockey, is wanting to open up the debate about whether the legislative cap on the level of foreign ownership (49%) should be lifted.
It was a big step for Labor in the early 1990s to privatise Qantas and the condition that it should remain in majority Australian hands was important at the time. Labor is still sticking to that policy.
But a lot has changed since, and there are some strong arguments for removing the cap, including that it would avoid having to give the airline government support.
The government is aware, however, of the political sensitivity - hence its stress on a public debate. It is couching the question for taxpayers as: are you prepared to pay to keep majority Australian ownership?
The discussion ahead will gauge how much support there is for insisting that a majority of Qantas should stay in local ownership, but for many people the time has passed to think of an airline in nationalistic terms, even if its planes do have kangaroos on them.
Queensland Liberal senator Ian Macdonald is not prominent and he has an axe to grind. Shadow parliamentary secretary for northern Australia, he didn’t even make the “third eleven” of the frontbench in government, and he was pretty upset.
Nevertheless, his attack on the Prime Minister’s Office today will resonate with more senior colleagues.
That Office, Macdonald told the Senate “seems to have an almost obsessive centralised control phobia”.
Macdonald was cross because he had been told in response to his many inquiries about the terms of reference for the parliamentary committee on northern Australia, “we will let you know when [they] are eventually decided”.
When he later discovered them “almost by accident” after they’d been passed by the House of Representatives, he was “incensed” that important matters had not been included, one a reference to zonal taxation.
Macdonald moved amendments to which the government agreed. The matter was smoothed.
But the PMO remains a point of discussion in Liberal circles. Even those with no particular beefs are making frequent pointed little references to Tony Abbott’s ever-present, all powerful chief of staff Peta Credlin.
There’s now some concern that PMO might try for an even tighter control after the schools funding fiasco.
Yet the attempted iron grip has not made for the smooth, measured start for which Abbott was hoping.
Neither Credlin nor anyone else can make the new opposition pliant, nor stop assorted spy stories breaking out (though someone could and should have prevented the schools frolic).
Abbott’s annoyance erupted on Tuesday when he threatened to keep parliament sitting beyond next week. It was the political equivalent of kicking the cat. There’s not the slightest expectation it will happen.
The Coalition is frustrated that it has power but when it comes to key promises it finds itself impotent.
Labor is revelling in an Indian summer of power – the opportunity for a few months to say no, to give Abbott back something of what he gave it. Plus, on the carbon and mining taxes, and in its opposition to temporary protection visas, it has strong positions.
The government is railing and ranting, but to no avail.
On the Senate’s disallowance of TPVs there has been payback. That won’t hit the ALP and Greens, but those asylum seekers waiting on bridging visas. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said today no more onshore protection visas will be issued this financial year.
None of this Senate obstruction matters much for the moment. But the impasse over the debt ceiling did matter, with the limit about to be hit.
And here Treasurer Joe Hockey found an unlikely dancing partner in Christine Milne. A deal was finalised late today, a problem solved. Who needs a ceiling anyway? Not Joe. Not Christine.
Hockey sounded genuinely surprised that the Greens made such moderate demands. Milne put aside any offence at those labels the Liberals attach to the Greens. Mutual interest made them a happy couple.
Mostly, the new government is just going to have to wait for the new Senate, which tilts to the right and where Clive Palmer’s PUP will have a significant share of the balance of power.
But as Palmer makes his presence felt around Parliament House, they must be wondering in the Office how they’ll go about trying to “manage” him.
PUP already has two senators-elect and the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir in an alliance. Palmer claims he could win two seats in the expected new West Australian Senate poll (surely impossible but that’s what the main parties said of his bid for Fairfax).
He is already campaigning on the pitch of using the balance of power to pursue a better deal for WA in the allocation of GST revenue. (PUP has decided to keep out of the byelection for Kevin Rudd’s former seat of Griffith to concentrate on WA and the Tasmanian state election.).
In Parliament today Palmer was on the spy trail. He wanted to know from Abbott whether crossbenchers' phones and emails were being tapped and offices bugged. After uttering the usual no comment line Abbott assured Palmer he could “speak in peace”. Palmer then told a news conference his phone had been bugged for 10 or 15 years. (Good luck to the spooks if they are trying to summarise his politics.)
The spies are having almost as hard a time as the government. As the intelligence community still reels from the Indonesian affair, it is now alleged that East Timor’s 2004 commercial negotiations with Australia were bugged by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. An ASIS whistle blower has materialised.
This week ASIO raided the home of the whistle blower and the premises of a Canberra lawyer who is acting for the Timorese in a case they are bringing against Australia at The Hague. Another leader, this time East Timor’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, is now criticising Australia for spying.
Some things are way beyond command and control.
Listen to Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The ABC and its managing director Mark Scott are caught in a perfect storm.
Critics variously driven by ideology, commercial interests or a combination have found in the ABC’s decision to partner with Guardian Australia to publish the Indonesia spy story a big opportunity for the broader attack on the public broadcaster that is their recurring theme.
Conservative commentators, The Australian newspaper, and government MPs have all been outraged about the ABC co-reporting the story.
Crucially, they are as much reflecting their wider anger about the ABC, as well as other agendas.
The ABC came under fire in the Coalition party room this week, with Speaker Bronwyn Bishop among those flailing it.
There are two issues in its decision to join with Guardian Australia to run the revelation that Australia monitored the phones of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and other prominent figures.
One is whether the story should have been published at all. The other is: should the ABC have united with The Guardian?
Clearly the story, based on Edward Snowden’s material, has produced great difficulties in the Australia-Indonesia relationship.
But to suggest it should not have been run for that reason is both wrong in principle and impractical. It did not compromise national security; it seriously compromised diplomatic relations – which is not sufficient reason for refraining from publication.
What should be the boundaries of spying is a legitimate issue (whether one thinks that particular bugging was reasonable or over the top). This is reinforced by the unrelated story now being reported of alleged spying on East Timor by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service during 2004 oil and gas negotiations between the countries.
Does anyone think that if outlets now criticising the publication of the Indonesia story had had it exclusively they would not have published?
At one time, such a story would have been covered by the old D-Notice system, under which publishers agreed not to run certain information (including anything relating to the Defence Signals Directorate, which did the spying on the Indonesians). But those days are long gone, not least for practical reasons.
In the digital world, if something is not published in one place it will be published in another.
The ABC has noted it often partners with other media organisations. The reason this partnership raised a storm was because of the content of the story (and that the co-partner was The Guardian, which the critics denounce for its leftist slant).
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, seen as a champion of the ABC, has accused Scott of making an “error of judgement”.
He told a Liberal function last week that it was The Guardian’s story “and they just basically wanted a partner to help them amplify their publication.” The ABC should have declined to do that, Turnbull argued.
Tony Abbott echoed the words on Tuesday: “I think the ABC were guilty of poor judgment in broadcasting that material which was obviously difficult for Australia’s national security and long-term best interests. …. I think they were also guilty of poor judgment in acting as an advertising agent for The Guardian. I mean, why would Australia’s national broadcaster be in the business of touting for a left wing British newspaper?”
On an earlier occasion Abbott (a former journalist who hasn’t lost his news instincts) distinguished between the ABC reporting the story (ie following it up) and amplifying it. “I think it’s fair enough for people to question the judgement of the ABC, not in failing to cover the story … because plainly it was a story, but in choosing to act as … an advertising amplifier for The Guardian.”
Would the same point about initial reportage be made if News had decided to partner on the spy story? Or are the critics saying there should be different standards for the ABC from those that should apply to other media organisations?
Scott says: “Were we really going to walk away from that because it was controversial? Were we going to walk away from that [story] because it might generate some political heat? That’s a very tough thing for a public broadcaster to do, if in fact we are an independent public broadcaster.”
Scott might ruefully feel he made an error of “political” judgement, given the situation in which he finds himself, but it is hard to argue convincingly that he made any error of journalistic judgement.
The ABC satisfied itself the story was correct. Yes, the ABC “amplified” it but, given its explosive content, it was going to “amplify” pretty damn quickly, with or without the ABC.
Critics have seized on the ABC’s action as an opportunity to denounce what they see as its view of the world. The Australian’s Greg Sheridan wrote at the weekend that “the rank enthusiasm of the ABC in this story suggests it will go to great lengths to prosecute its endless war against the dark forces of conservative Australia”.
Another line of attack has been that the organisation that provides Australia’s overseas news service (the Australia Network) to the region has undermined the nation’s interests.
The Australian argued in an editorial: “The Australia Network means the ABC has a duty to foster the national interest in Asia. The Guardian and other commercial media outlets have no such duty.” The editorial wanted a review of the Australia Network contract.
It is not hard to see the element of commercial competition in this assault. In a very messy process under Labor, the ABC retained the Australia Network contract despite a strong challenge from Sky, which is part-owned by News Corp.
But what if Sky had had the contract and the opportunity to jointly break the story? On the editorial’s reasoning, presumably it would have had to decline it.
Some Coalition party room critics want an ABC that is constrained and shrunken, without the resources and the right to compete so effectively against increasingly financially stretched commercial media.
The more successful the taxpayer-funded ABC is in the competitive market place, the less that is liked by some who in other contexts preach a free market philosophy.
The ABC has become victim of its own success.
Conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has described the ABC as a “taxpayer-funded behemoth” and accused it of “cannibalisation of commercial media”.
He objects to the ABC’s online competition with the newspapers, which are charging for their content, and says there should be “structural separation”, with the online part removed from the TV and radio functions.
“The ABC has grown exponentially over the years. And now it’s basically encroaching into the newspapers of the 21st century, which is the online space,” Bernardi said today (on ABC radio).
Bernardi believes the online section should have to sustain itself in commercial terms, be shut down, or be sold off.
Tony Abbott, despite his criticism, is not showing any sign of doing anything drastic about the ABC (not that it would want to be asking for money any time soon).
It would be a foolhardy PM that went down the path of trying to emasculate the organisation. It is a highly regarded Australian institution. An Essential poll in August asked: “How much trust do you have in the way the following media have reported and commented on the election campaign so far?” ABC TV rated top (58%), followed by SBS TV and ABC radio. The newspapers and commercial TV and radio were well behind.
Abbott, who tempers his ideology with pragmatism, probably understands this point. Asked by Ten’s Andrew Bolt whether the ABC needed a new charter, he said “Andrew, I’m not in the business of making unnecessary enemies and I’m not in the business of further inflaming critics.”
The ABC also has an important ally in Turnbull, despite this week’s criticism.
Nevertheless the anti ABC crusaders will continue to push and it will be a risky time for the national broadcaster.
Michelle Grattan has a regular spot on the ABC’s Radio National.
Listen to Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
It was the messiest back down imaginable but Tony Abbott knew he had no choice. The row over school funding had turned into a hurricane blowing away his credibility on the key question of trust.
So Abbott has dramatically walked away from positions that Education minister Christopher Pyne stated last week and he himself put as recently as Sunday.
The retreat followed some hasty negotiations to get in-principle agreements from Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory – the jurisdictions that hadn’t signed up to Labor’s new funding arrangements - so the federal government could declare it had national agreement.
Pyne last week said Labor in the forward estimates had ripped out $1.2 billion from the proposed new funding (the slice for those jurisdictions that hadn’t signed), leaving only $1.6 billion in extra money. This was what the Coalition would deliver, he said, plus throwing in $230 million for next year to be shared between the non-signatories. He also said he would unveil in 2014 new arrangements to apply from 2015.
This tore up Abbott’s core election promise to match Labor’s $2.8 billion over four years.
Things got worse for Abbott on Sunday when he refused to stick with his and Pyne’s election guarantee that no school would be worse off and claimed people had misunderstood what the Coalition had said (despite a string of explicit quotes that showed there was no misunderstanding).
But by this time it had become obvious to those within the government that this was a crisis running out of control. Attempts to manage it incrementally had failed.
The attacks from the Coalition states of NSW and Victoria, which had done deals with the Labor government, had been highly damaging, especially with Abbott’s first meeting of the Council of Australian governments looming at the end of next week.
Also, at some point later a lot more money would have to be put in. There was no practical way that funds could be removed from NSW and Victoria, while Queensland and WA would demand additional money in future years.
Worst of all for the government, Labor had Abbott cornered on broken promises.
The only way out was backwards, however difficult, embarrassing and financially costly that might be.
The talks with Queensland, WA and the NT have been rudimentary – just enough to get them on board. And why would they not agree? They are now being promised all the original money with no strings, except some weak moral pressure not to reduce their own funding for schools.
The $1.2 billion will be found from within the education portfolio. Parents, teachers, and students will not be caused particular difficulties by the savings, according to Abbott. We’ll find out in the mid-year budget forecasts who will feel the pain.
The government says no school will be worse off “because of anything that the Commonwealth does”. What the states do is another matter.
While the government walked backwards it tried unconvincingly to maintain it was standing in the same spot all the time, promises always intact. Abbott said that Pyne had done the deal with the non-signatories, so now the government was putting in the $1.2 billion. Simple as that. Pyne in a later TV interview described today as “quite a good day at the office”. Colleagues feeling the heat in the electorate might be shaking their heads.
It is still unclear how the whole mess was allowed to happen in the first place. One suggestion is that it started with Pyne wanting to play politics with what Labor had done in the forward estimates and then later to be seen to fix the situation. Or maybe the government just wanted to throw off any trace of Gonski and save some money too.
At the end of it all, the government is back where it started, with Abbott and Pyne looking as though they have been very dodgy.
It is true the government now has all states in some sort of model. It is a model that is all give by the federal government with no responsibilities imposed on the states. The latest deals do not require undertakings by the states and the government has always planned to remove accountability requirements from the legislation to which the other states signed up.
The Abbott government doesn’t believe in imposing conditions on the states because it says they should be treated like “adults”. A better concept is that there is a strong case for taxpayers knowing they are getting value for their money.
Tony Abbott enters the last parliamentary fortnight highly vulnerable on that familiar issue of “trust” – and it is all his own doing.
The Prime Minister today added to the ammunition the opposition has over the government’s breach of promise on the Gonski funding, by going further in trying to whitewash the record.
Appearing on the Ten network, Abbott was asked about a pre-election statement by Christopher Pyne, when the education spokesman said “You can vote Liberal or Labor and you will get exactly the same amount of funding for your school.”
Having had the “grab” played to him, Abbott declared that “I think Christopher said schools would get the same amount of money and schools - plural - will get the same amount of money.”
He then went on: “We are going to keep the promise that we actually made, not the promise that some people thought that we made or the promise that some people might have liked us to make.”
This really is claiming black is white. There are not only Pyne pre-election quotes but pledges from Abbott too, reassuring voters that individual schools would receive the same deal under both Liberal and Labor.
The schools funding row has immense potential to damage the Abbott government in its early days.
In terms of raw politics it dwarfs other problems the new government has.
The Coalition has broken a promise, and Abbott continues to make things worse.
After everything that Abbott said on trust, it is inexplicable that he would have chosen to land himself into this situation.
He could not have picked a more dangerous area. Education is an issue on which voters feel strongly; school funding affects millions of people.
And by buying a row with the states, Abbott finds himself being called out by critics who are politically credible on the issue because they come from his own side – the Coalition governments of NSW and Victoria.
The debt ceiling is not as potent politically as schools, but it is something the government has to resolve in these last parliamentary days. The present $300 billion limit is less than $4 billion away from being reached, and the Senate is refusing to accept the government’s legislation to raise it to $500 billion.
Labor and the Greens amended the bill to make it $400 billion, which the government says is not enough (a buffer is built in for safety). The Coalition does not want to have to return to Parliament later for another increase.
The government is now hoping to break the impasse by a deal with the Greens to scrap the ceiling altogether.
It says it will only accept either $500 billion or no ceiling at all.
After hearing evidence from Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, who made the case for $500 billion, the Greens said they did not believe that level was urgently needed.
But they are willing to consider scrapping the ceiling in exchange for improved reporting conditions.
Greens leader Christine Milne says the whole debt ceiling debate “is a phoney one imported from America by someone in Canberra who watched too much West Wing.
“Rather than having a debate over the level of debt, we should be talking about what the money is being used to fund and the extent to which debt is being raised to cover a shortfall in revenue,” Milne said.
A spokesman for shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said Labor was sticking to its position that the ceiling should be raised to just $400 billion.
The opposition was not willing to consider a higher figure without the government producing updated debt figures. The government says it can’t update the figures before this week’s national accounts are fed into the mid year budget figures.
Labor brought in a ceiling and is not supporting abolishing it.
The Coalition’s legislation to remove the carbon tax is due to come before the Senate in the next few days. It will be voted down.
The Abbott government is sailing in heavy waters, in a boat that is less than entirely shipshape. It’s fighting with the states over schools funding, with Indonesia over spying, with China over that country’s provocative new maritime air defence zone.
Would it want, right now, a full scale crisis within the Coalition? One wouldn’t think so.
And that very likely would have been the outcome if Treasurer John Hockey had approved the bid by US company Archer Daniels Midland for Australia’s major agri-company GrainCorp.
The Liberals were themselves divided, but the Nats were feral. As late as yesterday Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Warren Truss was dismissing a $200 million sweetener from ADM. Truss made his comments still not knowing Hockey’s decision.
Far from doing ADM’s cause any good, the sweetener may have had the opposite effect. Indeed, ADM’s various changes to its bid were seen as signs of unprofessionalism.
The decision was Hockey’s alone. But while he’s an economic “dry” the Treasurer is not insensitive to his political environment.
It had seemed earlier that he was headed towards approving the bid with conditions. He explored that option, but decided it wouldn’t fly.
Although he has knocked back the takeover as being against the national interest, Hockey has encouraged the company to increase its shareholding (now 19.85%) to just under a quarter, saying that “would also provide a platform for ADM to build stakeholder support for potential greater participation in the Australian industry”.
There was not a clear right or wrong position on this bid, highlighted by the fact, revealed by Hockey, that the Foreign Investment Review Board was split. It all depends on priorities and assessments of ADM and how it would see GrainCorp in its wider corporate empire.
The decision does mute Tony Abbott’s election night message that Australia is “open for business”, especially as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission had put up no impediment to the takeover. Hockey, asked about being out of line with the ACCC, said the issues he took into consideration were “much broader” than those looked at by the commission.
Centrally, Hockey argued that approval might have lessened community support for investment from overseas. He also pointed out that this was the only one out of more than 130 significant bids that had been knocked back.
Though it muddles the “open for business” message, presumably big investors should be discerning enough to understand that this decision is in a category of its own. Given the sensitivities (at both ends) about Chinese investment in Australia it is at least a good thing that the first big controversial case did not involve Beijing.
Hockey’s decision has made for some interesting bedfellows. The Nats are tucked up with the Greens and Clive Palmer in welcoming the outcome. The Liberal “dries” are ensconced with Labor, which once would have been firmly on the side of refusing to sell off the farm (and is opposed to allowing majority foreign ownership in Qantas).
Some Liberal “dries” are shocked, having expected conditional approval, and critical of the success of what they see as squeaky wheel politics.
The Business Council of Australia is concerned too, and calling for more transparency. “It’s crucial that, where possible, the government further details the competitive issues that it was concerned about and how this relates to the national interest test so it is clear to global investors what the unique circumstances of this case are. It is important this decision does not increase uncertainty in the global community about the rules of the game on competition and Australia’s policy settings on foreign investment generally,” the BCA said.
The opposition is casting it as a judgement on Hockey’s economic credentials. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the government was discouraging investment just when, with mining investment beginning to decline, “investment in non-mining sectors will take on a more critical role”.
Hockey will lose a bit of skin over this, whatever the pros and cons are objectively.
Saul Eslake, chief economist of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says this was a litmus test of whether the Abbott government was going to be more like the Howard government or the Fraser government. Under Fraser, “the genuine economic liberals were routinely repulsed by the Country party and the PM”, who shared the CP’s economic views. “That is the big risk in the present government. It’s too early to draw firm conclusions but the first signs are not encouraging”. But, despite this decision, Eslake would still put Hockey as “one of the good guys”.
Sone critics say that Peter Costello would never have made this decision. Maybe. But today’s lines had echoes of Costello, when he rejected Shell’s bid for Woodside in 2001. Costello explained he hadn’t thought imposing conditions would be appropriate; he revealed that the FIRB had been split; and he pointed out how few foreign investment bids had recently been rejected.
The squeaky wheels on Woodside had been the Western Australian Liberals who claimed the rejection as a great victory.
Costello said: “It’s one of the hardest decisions that you’ll ever come across in public life and the reason it’s hard is that there are arguments both ways.” To which Hockey would say, hear, hear.
Declaring he would be looking for a new “tone” at COAG, Barnett said other priorities would be education funding and whether there were to be “any changes to the goods and services tax distribution”.
In an interview with The Conversation on Tuesday, Barnett also backed Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s retreat on the Gonski schools funding plan, and bluntly described the problems with Indonesia as “a fumble by Australia and an embarrassing one”.
Abbott has indicated he wants to scale back COAG’s activities, as well as rebalance responsibilities between the federal and state governments. His first test will be the December 13 meeting, immediately after Parliament rises for the year.
While Barnett will be an ally on some issues, the Premier indicated that he will continue to fight to get a better carve up of GST revenue for WA. The federal government has said the distribution is a matter for the states. Barnett also argues for a broadening of the base.
After a meeting of federal and state treasurers today, Joe Hockey said that on the GST “the states were provided with the material they had previously requested on the costs of any changes to the online threshold.” The states want the threshold for imported goods lower. Hockey said there was no agenda item to discuss any changes to the GST base or rate.
Barnett is keeping up pressure on the carve up. “For Western Australia we will continue to bang on about the distribution of the GST” between states.
He also said the base should be widened with all exemptions removed except for health and education.
But WA wants the distribution addressed before any broader reforms dealing with the exemptions from the base.
WA, as a prosperous state, accepted it had a responsibility to subsidise weaker states “but there is a limit”. At the moment virtually all the cross subsidy was coming from WA. “So we think that other states can share that burden and maybe the Commonwealth can pick up a bit of its responsibility particularly to the territories.”
He wanted a decade-long plan to improve WA’s share, and rejected the argument that the carve up was a matter for the states. “It requires some national leadership.”
Barnett said the exemption of fresh food from the GST did not make “any kind of sense at all”. About about Abbott’s election promise not to broaden the base or increase the rate he said: “That’s a political judgement but if we are to have the GST serve its original purpose as a reliable source of income for the states, there needs to be some reform.”
The Premier said the cost increase in the disability scheme was “a big blowout, it is not a small one. Although he was tentative about any estimate he suggested it might be up to 50%.
“We are not talking about $1 billion or $2 billion.”
The scheme was a signature policy of the Gillard government which received bipartisan support from Tony Abbott in opposition. But Hockey has always less enthusiastic and worried about the large cost.
Barnett said that “I think we’ll probably find out around COAG that the cost estimates are way, way above what has even been speculated.”
“And then it’ll come down to the question, can the Commonwealth really contribute what it has promised?”
He said the states “have got a pretty good idea of what it costs and if you’re going to expand the scheme, extend it to more people, which is a good thing, the cost is extraordinary”.
On current figures (before any blow out) the scheme has a gross cost of $22 billion a year when fully operating. It will require an additional contribution from the federal government of more than $8 billion each year from 2019-20. That is on top of current Commonwealth spending.
Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield last week indicated that in the first quarter of trial sites, the cost of plans are exceeding the modelled average costs by around 30 per cent. Demand has been greater than anticipated and package costs higher.
With the Abbott government under fire from states that agreed to Labor’s Gonski plan, including the Coalition states of NSW and Victoria, Barnett – who refused to sign up - is firmly on the side of Pyne, who has walked away from the Coalition’s election position of a “unity ticket” on the issue over the forward estimates period.
Barnett said that instead of talking about education principles and improving standards “it ended up with the federal government under Labor trying to pick off one state after another with offers of more money”.
“You cannot have a consistent education scheme on that basis, so I would hope Chris Pyne … does what he is saying, goes back to square one … let’s get our principles set and let’s have consistency across the country. At the moment we’ve got inconsistency across the country and that’s not going to work.”
He said states might grizzle but “at the end of the day as far as Commonwealth funding, the Commonwealth will call the tune”.
WA, along with Queensland and the Northern Territory, will benefit from the $230 million for next year that Pyne announced today, to be shared among the non-signatory jurisdictions.
Barnett said he would like to see at COAG a more “broad ranging, high level, philosophical” discussion, rather than the level of detail that happened under Labor.
“What I’ll be looking at will be the tone of the meeting,” he said, describing himself as now the “longest survivor of COAG meetings”.
He said Kevin Rudd had “almost elevated the role of COAG to a parliament” – which was not appropriate - while Julia Gillard “resented its existence and really didn’t want to be there”.
“I would hope that Tony’s approach will be to sit down with premiers and talk about some of the bigger issues for Australia and try to get some sort of agreement, consensus if you like, about how we go about education, how we go about [the] disability scheme, how we go about boosting productivity.” The bureaucrats would then deal with the detail.
Speaking in his Perth office Barnett said: “Tony Abbott’s told me around this table that he was a centralist but he’s reformed. So we’ll see how he goes in a couple of weeks time.”
Listen to the full interview with Colin Barnett on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
In recent years, we’ve become increasingly conscious of the need to preserve and make accessible the heritage of our prime ministers, although we are still well behind the attention the United States gives to the legacy of their presidents.
The John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at the Curtin University is an important centre for scholarship and for making new generations aware of a leader that many if not most historians put among the best of Australian PMs.
But in getting the feel of a leader, there is something special in being able to look at where they lived - not just walking in their shoes along the corridors of the Old Parliament House, but in their slippers, as it were, in their own home.
So it’s great that the Curtin house at Cottesloe is being preserved for the nation, and I am delighted to be able to stay there.
I put the finishing touches on this speech in the Curtin dining room where “in the evenings, the dining table would become a desk for the children’s homework and a place where Elsie Curtin read all of the newspapers and cut out items of political interest, often until midnight”.
I want tonight to look at some of the challenges facing Labor, after what has been a very difficult and in many ways quite extraordinary several years.
I’d like to begin by speculating about what Curtin might think of contemporary Labor and how modern politics is conducted.
Let’s imagine him, a traveller in time, walking along the Cottesloe beach, as he loved to do, musing with some of Labor’s current generation.
The conversation would surely first turn to a dramatic and very obvious difference between his parliamentary Labor party and today’s.
Look at the old black and white photos of the caucus of the 1930s - there is not a female face.
Curtin might point out, however, that it was during his prime ministership, and from his home state, that the first woman caucus member came. Dorothy Tangney was elected a senator in 1943, the same year as Enid Lyons entered the House of Representatives on the conservative side.
But would he be surprised that Australia had had a woman prime minister? He probably wouldn’t be surprised that the nation’s first female PM had come from Labor.
In the discussion, today’s Laborites would be full of tales of the trouble and strife of recent times: the debilitating three years after the coup against Kevin Rudd.
Well, he might point out, you should put that into perspective.
In 1931 (before the disastrous election in which he temporarily lost his seat of Fremantle), Labor split for the second time in less than a generation, with Joe Lyons “ratting” and going on to lead the conservatives, while on the other wing the forces of Jack Lang fractured the party.
During his years as opposition leader, Curtin - as he tried to get a federal party that had been shattered by the Depression back into shape for office - had a constant battle with the followers of the “Big Fella”.
When the talk on Cottesloe beach turned to the nightmare of the 2010-13 “hung parliament”, Curtin would remind his modern listeners that he had trodden that rocky path first, after two independents crossed the floor in 1941 and brought him to the prime ministership.
He might be too tactful to recall that following that hung parliament, Labor won an election - and with a thumping majority - rather than lost one.
He would be familiar with the problem of a low primary vote. Labor polled 33.4% in the recent election. In the 1934 election, the one before Curtin gained the leadership, the ALP polled 26.8% of the national vote, with Lang Labor polling another 14.4%.
He would remind his modern friends how he rebuilt the vote. The ALP primary vote in the next three elections was 43.2% in 1937, 40.2% in 1940 and 50% in 1943.
But his companions would say: it’s harder these days - people are less rusted on to the two blocks in politics, Labor and conservative, and more inclined to register a protest vote.
They would tell him about Clive Palmer, and the power he will have in the Senate. That would prompt a few questions about the Senate voting system – proportional representation came after Curtin’s time.
Curtin would be surprised by Labor’s experiment (now ended) under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard of the leader selecting the front bench.
In his day, caucus was more powerful and independent than under Rudd or Gillard; it is hard to see the 1930s caucus tolerating such a change of Labor tradition and culture.
He’d be surprised too at the loss of clout of Labor’s extra-parliamentary organisation, which has happened progressively since the 1980s.
Steering his marquee issue, the introduction of partial conscription, through the party was a major enterprise, compared with, say, the cakewalk Julia Gillard had when she sought to get a tick from the 2011 national conference for selling uranium to India.
As he contemplated Labor’s modern national conference, Curtin might wonder at how it had become a mass stage-managed event, so different from the small but powerful gatherings he attended.
He might marvel that trade unions still retain great power in Labor, and wonder how this could be so, given the plummet in the proportion of Australians who are union members. Only 18% of Australian workers are in unions; only 13% of private sector workers.
But Mark Latham, among those there on the beach, would point out that unions still have 50% representation at state conferences and direct Curtin to his book Not Dead Yet, in which he writes: “Union power is now exercised through centralised control: union secretaries donating money and staff to marginal seats and rounding up the numbers at state and federal Labor conferences.”
Perhaps Curtin would raise an eyebrow at how many MPs who get into parliament through their union affiliation have never been blue collar workers, but are university educated men and women who have often served as political staffers.
Curtin was all too familiar with Labor power groupings, but he’d need a mud map to get round the organised factions and sub-factions of today.
Similarly, he could tell plenty of tales of trouble makers and backstabbing, but he would wonder at the Rudd-Gillard story of disloyalty and mutual destruction. He’d contrast the loyalty and support, political and personal, he received from Ben Chifley, his political partner and his treasurer in government (though not his deputy PM).
Still, an agoniser by nature, he’d be thankful he didn’t have to live with the fortnightly opinion polls that fed so powerfully into the leadership instability during recent years.
Looking out at the other parties, Curtin would easily recognise the Liberal party and the Nationals, despite name changes. He was familiar with the conservatives as the United Australia Party (the Liberal Party formed the year he died) and the Country Party.
But, he’d ask his modern Labor friends, whatever happened to the Communist party? And who are these people on your left now? These Greens?
Curtin, with his plain style, would be uncomfortable with the celebrity aspects of the modern prime ministership. Even if Australia had had TV in those days, one can’t quite see Annabel Crabb in the Curtin kitchen. Nor Curtin, who was fond of his roast lamb, whipping up a dish for her.
A former journalist, Curtin had good relationships with the Canberra hacks, but he’d wonder at the intrusiveness of the modern media. At the same time, he’d also note today’s leaders were much more reluctant than he was to risk trusting journalists with serious secrets.
When he was PM he gave twice daily briefings to journalists in his office: much of the war information he passed on was highly confidential, to be relayed on to the proprietors rather than published.
But he might be uncomfortable with media dogging his every step, and startled by both the need and the capacity for a prime minister to be constantly in touch.
In a speech last week the former head of the Productivity Commission Gary Banks, talking about the intensity of modern media pressure, contrasted Curtin’s situation.
Banks had seen at the Niagara Cafe in Gundagai a plaque in honour of a visit there by Curtin. It was dated 1944.
Banks noted that: “In the depths of war, Australia’s Prime Minister would have been driving to the nation’s capital on important business and chose to stop, like my family, for a cup of tea. Wartime Gundagai would have been a media free zone.
“If our Prime Minister had tripped and fallen over on the way out of the Niagara, or had had a heated exchange with the local Country Party member, hardly anyone would have known about it. Curtin may have made some phone calls once in the town, but for much of the slow journey to the nation’s capital he would have been incommunicado.”
Curtin would have been amazed, incidentally, at the sleek VIP planes on which modern PMs travel, but not necessarily envious – he hated flying.
He’d be very curious about some issues in today’s politics – for example the intense debate about the environment. Climate change as a great moral challenge of our time would be an eye-opener. And he’d be gobsmacked that one of the main debates at the last national conference was the party’s position on gay marriage.
He’d be interested that the Rudd government tackled the global financial crisis with traditional Keynesian policies – he was an early and big fan of Keynes.
But he might say, when the Labor figures talked about this as the greatest crisis since the Great Depression: well yes, but the Depression was just so much worse for the ordinary people who were our constituency.
He’d note how not even those on the left of today’s party mentioned “socialism” anymore; that the party had become, albeit with some qualifications, a devotee of the market; and that far from wanting to nationalise anything – like Chif’s dream about the banks - Labor had in the Hawke-Keating days got the privatisation ball rolling.
A great reader, he would have already bought a copy of Chris Bowen’s Hearts and Minds: a Blueprint for Modern Labor, and noted Bowen’s blunt statement that “Labor’s official socialist objective gives no guidance as to Labor’s practical governing philosophy”.
With Bowen among the luminaries walking the Cottesloe beach, the two might have a vigorous discussion about the shadow treasurer’s advice that: “It’s time to scrap the socialist objective and have a clear, concise and modern explanation of Labor’s governing philosophy.”
And what would he think of Bowen’s observation that: “Promoting the use of market forces to drive economic growth and using the national wealth created by economic growth to drive greater opportunities for people from all walks of life is Labor at its best. And we need to be much more upfront about this than we have been.”?
On the interpretation of John Edwards in Curtin’s Gift: Reinterpreting Australia’s greatest Prime Minister, he would likely empathise: “the socialist who believed that capitalism would always produce so much and consume too little became the Prime Minister who acquired for the Commonwealth the means to balance supply and demand in a successful market economy”.
Curtin would find much of the modern Labor party unrecognisable. But, being a pragmatist as well as an idealist, he would no doubt rethink many of his old positions in light of modern circumstances. And he would turn his mind to giving sound advice on coping with the exigencies of opposition.
Curtin, who became leader by one vote in 1935 and led Labor out of the wilderness and into minority government in 1941 and election victory in 1943, was a party unifier and builder. He was a plain man who could crystallise his messages (in those days, that was via compelling oratory rather than the short grab). And he connected with the public.
Now, in another century and other circumstances, Labor and its leaders have a rebuilding job; challenging, but much easier than that faced by Curtin.
Leaving the days of Curtin, it is worth comparing the situation of contemporary Labor with the two most recent experiences of defeat, which also requires comparison of the three preceding periods of government.
After Gough Whitlam’s dismissal and subsequent election loss, Labor was left with a record of poor economic management, the image of bad administrators, and the taint of scandal from the loans affair.
Labor had had only a brief period in office after 23 years in opposition. So the failures of that government made a deep impression on the voters. The ALP had in particular to convince the public that it had learned about the economy.
The public would not revisit Whitlam – 1977 was another landslide – but by 1980 there was a swing to Labor and a victory at the following election.
The Keating 1996 loss was more a case of Labor, in office since 1983, having worn out its welcome and Keating himself having lost focus and community support.
The subsequent opposition period was difficult because Labor was not sure how much to “own” the Hawke-Keating period. It was reluctant initially to claim the reforms, perhaps because it failed to see they could be distinguished from the later personal unpopularity of Keating.
While these Labor governments were very unpopular at the time of their defeats, their legacies have been substantial, and increasingly recognised as the years have gone by.
Whitlam’s initiatives in education, health (even though Medibank was scrapped it came back as Medicare), the environment, law reform and much else were transformational.
The reform record of the Hawke-Keating years in opening up the Australian economy now wins praise across the political divide.
Labor in each of those periods did more of lasting substance than it achieved in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd time.
Leaving aside the important and symbolic apology to indigenous people, the biggest single achievement of Labor in this last period was getting Australia through the global financial crisis without it falling into recession.
This should not be underestimated. It was in obvious sharp contrast with the experience of the Scullin government, in which Curtin was a backbencher and indeed with the Whitlam government’s handling of the international oil shock.
But it was a negative achievement rather than a positive legacy – saving the house from a fire rather than building or remodelling a house. And because of program glitches, and the voters' inclination to downplay the significance of something avoided, Labor never reaped full credit.
One could point to the carbon price as an achievement - but that will not be lasting in the immediate term, and there must be doubt whether it could become a repeat of the Medibank-Medicare story.
Although it is a long bow, if Rudd had been better as a negotiator, it is conceivable he might have got the carbon price through parliament, so that it would have been embedded earlier, and therefore harder to dismantle.
The Rudd government had a tax inquiry but the big thing that the government picked up out of it, the mining tax, was botched.
Starting the National Broadband Network will be a legacy, but the rollout was slow and by 2013 the program was still partial enough to allow the conservative government to take it in a less comprehensive direction.
The Gillard government produced the Gonski blueprint for schools funding but failed to leave itself enough time to get it in place. Although Tony Abbott partially took it over, the extent to which it is implemented will be limited.
Julia Gillard started the progress towards a national disability scheme, but the work is in its infancy.
Let’s glance back for a moment and contrast Curtin’s use of his time.
The Rudd and Gillard governments were in power for a combined six years, half of it a hung parliament. Curtin was in office for less than four years; about half of it was a hung parliament. Apart from running the war effort, during his administration Curtin put in measures and work that shaped post-war Australia, including most importantly the introduction of uniform taxation which made possible the expansion of social welfare and much else.
In being impressed with how much Curtin got done, one qualification should be made. The war emergency provided him both with additional powers and, to some extent, an easier political climate than he would have had in normal times.
Of the three modern Labor eras, it was the Rudd-Gillard period when Labor squandered power, and it did so mostly by its own hand - because of leadership flaws, and the failure of cabinet ministers and the caucus to speak up when they needed to.
The Hawke-Keating period had its leadership problems and saw Hawke brought down by Keating. But that decision was later on and the process more understandable to the party and the public.
While parties will often have to cope with leadership tensions and battles, Labor in the last few years let them consume its governments.
Yet out of the destruction has come a big and radical step forward in party democracy: a new method of choosing the leader. The rank and file now have 50% of the vote.
One of the tasks in opposition will be tidying the leadership election rules at the 2015 conference. There is no way the power will go back to the caucus alone. But there could be a push to give the unions a say – which would not be a good idea - and there may be questioning of the thresholds to trigger a spill (currently at 75% for a PM and 60% for an opposition leader).
Dealing the grassroots into selecting the leader reflects what happens in many parties overseas.
The new system cushioned the ALP in the immediate aftermath of this year’s defeat. The party gained new members, and the leadership contest absorbed interest and prevented what would normally have been serious bloodletting.
The ballot between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was a downbeat, respectful contest, a restrained, managed battle, in dramatic contrast to the years of leadership backstabbing that preceded it.
Does this dose of democracy have any potential downsides for the party? Some would argue that giving a say to the rank and file – who lean further left than the caucus – could result in a leader who is less representative of the community.
But in the recent ballot we saw a sort of adjustment factor in the caucus part of it – Shorten received a bigger vote than just that of his right faction.
Another, more serious issue is whether this system builds in too much rigidity.
For example, should a leader who is performing badly have as much protection as these rules give? Has the party, reacting against “rotisserie” leadership, gone too far the other way?
And there is one very practical complication. If a leader did fall over mid-term, the month-long election process could be difficult.
It worked all right after the election, but two years into a three year term it would be another thing.
That would put on pressure to avoid a contest by having only one candidate, thus defeating the whole object of a more democratic system.
More broadly, the period in opposition will see a push to further democracy in the party. Whether it will come to much is another question.
One notable feature of the post-election period is that the factions have been as powerful as ever, regardless of more democracy in the structure. We saw this to an extent in the leadership ballot but also especially in the ballot for the frontbench, which was all neatly tied up at a factional level before people went into the caucus meeting.
Although the leadership ballot produced something of a mini-surge in membership, I think Labor will continue to face difficulties getting people to join. There is just not that much interest these days, even aside from the deterrent provided by the heavy factionalism.
Mark Latham in his book characterises the party’s present situation in this description: “The grand old party of working class participation has become a virtual party, top heavy with union/factional bosses.”
A way that has been canvassed to get more people involved is through a system of primaries, which is being trialled. This brings in registered supporters rather than just party members in the choosing of MPs. I must say I would have concerns about the potential for stacking and rorting, but it is worth the experiment.
One thing Labor needs to do, by whatever means, is attract a wider range of strong candidates and candidates from more diverse backgrounds. Although it has quite a talent pool even in its reduced caucus – and Rudd’s saving of some seats helped this – it should aim for top-of-the-range and diverse candidates for 2016.
In opposition, Labor has to show that it can manage itself, and the trauma of recent years will help it there – it knows the consequences of failing to do so.
But maintaining unity can’t be carried to a point where it stifles internal policy debate. Because Labor’s big challenge is defining what it stands for and convincing the public of the worth of its policies.
This is more complex than when Curtin was opposition leader – in those days the parties were more sharply defined.
Rebuilding after the Rudd-Gillard era requires Labor to acquire again credentials on economic management (which it should never have forfeited, given it handled the fundamentals of the GFC fallout well, as distinct from the administration of key programs such as home insulation). It must convince voters a new Labor government would manage administration competently.
In positioning itself Labor has its usual challenges of a base split between the battlers (broadly defined) and middle class progressives.
It faces not just its traditional electoral battle with the right but the threat from the Greens on the left (although the September vote suggests this might have peaked). It has the further complication that its main base spreads from aspirational voters to what Mark Latham calls an “underclass” surviving on welfare.
Carbon pricing highlights the problem of juggling the various constituencies. The party is sticking to its election policy – support for an emissions trading scheme - at the moment. But once the tax is repealed, as it almost certainly will be by the new Senate, and assuming global warming doesn’t revive as a huge issue of community concern, how difficult will it be to go to the 2016 election proposing a new impost?
The progressive part of the base would support it but the battlers are another matter.
With money tight, it is difficult for Labor to carve out new initiatives that will catch the imagination of the electorate.
In making Shorten leader the party has chosen on the basis of potential rather than experience, capacity for ideas rather than combat-readiness in the parliament.
Shorten’s natural pitch is more consensus than confrontation. There is a touch of the Bob Hawke approach. He often describes himself as a negotiator. If he can build on this, it is an approach that could have appeal to an electorate that is jaded and sick of all the shouting.
Shorten is looking to tap into particular constituencies, especially the female vote, where he thinks Abbott is vulnerable. He also wants to make Labor competitive with the small business sector.
One of his early efforts needs to be to regain some Labor credibility with big business.
This will be among his hardest tasks. Business was relieved to see the change of government and has been given a special “in” with the new one. The head of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Shepherd, chairs the Commission of Audit.
Shorten can’t win over the big end of town, but he will need to blunt its ill feelings about Labor.
Shorten has shown that he can identify and push good ideas. His seizing on and pushing of a disability insurance scheme, when he was a parliamentary secretary, highlighted an ability to understand needs and opportunities.
In updating its agenda Labor doesn’t necessarily have to toss overboard all it was doing before (just as Abbott refreshed, rather than replaced, his 2010 agenda).
Labor’s problem was not so much what it proposed and promoted, but that it failed in execution and explanation.
But it will need to review and update, to drop some things, and to add some fresh policies.
Labor cannot rely on the Abbott government handing the sort of electoral gold to its opponents that Labor did, although given the way today’s politics and the news cycle operate, there is likely to be reasonable ammunition.
This week’s Nielsen poll, while it may be a flash in the pan, reminds us that Labor could become a competitive force again reasonably quickly. But that will require the ALP to handle itself very well and the government to run into considerable problems.
And, of course, it will require leadership of high quality, in the best of Labor’s tradition. That leadership has to be all about trust – the leader winning the trust of the frontbench, the caucus and the community.
Curtin historian David Black says that ultimately “John Curtin’s greatest ally and strength was trust”.
Listen to Carmen Lawrence on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
WORK UNTIL YOU DROP screamed Sydney’s Daily Telegraph headline. The story related to the Productivity Commission canvassing the desirability of lifting the pension age – already slowly heading for 67 – gradually to 70.
There are excellent reasons for considering this. An ageing population needs more people working longer. And there are advantages for individuals. As life expectancy rises, staying at work (full or part time) can help health, finances and social circumstances.
But the Tele’s headline shows the difficulty of getting a sensible reform debate off the ground in any positive way.
It’s a pointer to the forces working against reform more generally. While we should be careful not to romanticise the past, there is not the appetite for tough but advantageous changes that there was in the 1980s, and there are more hurdles.
There are many reasons for this. One canvassed by Gary Banks, former head of the PC, in his Garran Oration this week is the lack of trust now afflicting the political system.
Banks points out that few people get across the policy detail, so “if the public is to support – or at least not actively oppose - many policy initiatives, it needs to have some confidence that a government’s decisions would have been well informed, and that the policy in question will operate as intended.” Even potential “losers” may accept a reform if it is widely believed to be beneficial to society generally, especially if losses are likely to be transitional, he said.
Australia isn’t alone in this fall in trust; it’s a feature of western democracies. But politicians should remember, when they trash trust by their behaviour, that they are making it harder for their own efforts to achieve worthwhile changes.
There will be legitimate political fights over specific reforms, but sometimes the differences are substantially driven by the politics. Remember the saga of the GST. As we’ve been reminded in the ABC Keating interviews, Labor supported a broad based consumption tax in the 1980s, but Bob Hawke aborted it in the face of union and business resistance. When John Howard later introduced it, Labor was implacably opposed.
It’s always hard to argue that politicians should stay their hand for the sake of the greater good. It’s in their DNA to go for the main chance against opponents (or even within their own party – remember those Liberal supporters of carbon pricing who somersaulted). But some degree of bipartisanship is vital if progress on reform is to be made.
Admittedly we’ve seen this on disability insurance. But that is an easy case. Yes, the scheme will cost a lot but it will not have losers, and so there won’t be political pain.
The media have become less helpful to the reform cause. There are fewer policy specialists and diminished detailed policy analysis in the mainstream media (and the “mainstream” still carries most clout). Attention spans are shorter (of both media and audiences). And, as Banks notes, there has been a decade “in which ‘spin’ has often triumphed over substance in policy-making.”
In his new book, economist Ross Garnaut writes that after the “Salad Days” of the mining boom “Australians now have to make the best of the Dog Days”. The options are a “business as usual” approach or a “public interest” one that involves hard choices for more straitened times, including “some loss of income for some people, and some sacrifice of short-term comfort for future gain”.
Garnaut, who had a big hand in the 1980s-early 90s Labor reforms, is torn between pessimism and a reluctance to concede the reform is lost. “An Australian leadership committed to the public interest approach, supported by a substantial community of concerned and engaged Australians, could achieve the better outcome for the nation,” he concludes.
Launching Dog Days last week, cabinet minister Malcolm Turnbull had an exhortation for fellow policy makers. “We are entering an era when we will be forced, more than ever, to explain to the public the difficult trade-offs that are being made, the true costs of populist policies and the need for individual sacrifices to achieve wider economic benefit.”
Tony Abbott has locked out much reform for his first term. But he is setting up a raft of inquiries which will inevitably produce challenging recommendations. He says he’d seek a mandate at the 2016 election for whatever he wants to pursue. In the present climate, opting for even a few robust changes would require considerable political backbone, and selling them to the voters would need consummate skill. But that’s what is needed for Australia’s good, and Abbott’s legacy.
Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson today mounted a strong case for the government’s proposed $500 million debt ceiling in a Senate committee hearing, where he got a hard time from his former boss Penny Wong.
But in vain: the Greens, who hold the key Senate votes on the legislation, immediately interpreted his evidence to insist that $400 billion would be perfectly adequate for the time being.
Parkinson argued that the $500 billion was “prudent if the Parliament places a premium on ensuring financial market confidence”.
With the legislation for increasing the ceiling at an impasse, Parkinson told a Senate estimates committee that at the time of the fiscal update during the election campaign (the PEFO), Treasury estimated debt would peak at $370 billion. When a safety “buffer” was included, a ceiling of $430 billion was needed.
But it was now “highly likely” that the amount required would “significantly exceed” that sum later in the forward estimates period.
Future nominal GDP growth was likely to be weaker than at the fiscal update, meaning larger deficits and “significantly higher peak debt”. A more precise forecast would be made when the September quarter national accounts were available.
Parkinson warned that “were we to settle on a debt limit that was less than the anticipated prudent amount, it would be entirely reasonable for financial market participants here and overseas to wonder what might happen when what was clearly inevitable on current pathways came to occur.
“It is up to the Parliament to decide whether this sort of risk is in the national interest,” he said.
A good deal was hanging on Parkinson’s evidence. Labor and the Greens have amended the legislation to raise the present $300 billion debt ceiling – which will be hit next month - to only $400 billion. The Greens had indicated, however, that they could be influenced by what Parkinson said.
The play at today’s hearing had plenty of ironies. Wong and Parkinson used to be bound at the hip when she was climate change minister and he the secretary of her (now abolished) department. Now here she was being snippy at him. Meanwhile he was buttressing the case of a government that is pushing him out of his Treasury job.
Wong, finance minister when Labor lost power, was clearly frustrated at having to ask for information rather being the one to give or withhold it. She was particularly irritated when the public servants indicated they’d have to take her request for an updated table about debt back to Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Wong argued the merits of approving a $400 billion ceiling with a clear signal that the government could get a later increase if needed.
Parkinson pointed out that if the amount sought was cut back this would be the first time a government had failed to get approval for what it had asked.
The ceiling was brought in by Labor in 2008 (set at $75 billion) and has been raised three times since.
Under questioning, Treasury said that in 2015-16 the debt level (excluding the buffer) would be close to $400 billion. It would not reach that level this financial year; the officials were not able to provide a figure for 2014-15.
Parkinson ran into heavy weather when he said that we’d seen in the US the politics getting in the way of good government.
Greens leader Christine Milne said any comparison with the US was “ridiculous”. The political systems were quite different, which should be obvious to foreign markets. Parkinson agreed with the theory but pointed out that financial markets often took out wrong impressions.
New senator Sam Dastyari, former secretary of the NSW ALP, zeroed in on the government’s moving Parkinson on from his position. Dastyari wanted to know who he had spoken to before Tony Abbott’s statement on September 18 that Parkinson “has advised the Treasurer that he will be standing down next year. He has agreed to stay on to the middle of 2014. The government will be discussing a further appointment with him next year.” Parkinson said the only minister to whom he’d spoken was Hockey.
Trying to fend off the probing, he said that by next year he’d have been seven years as a secretary and would be 56. There were a lot of things in life one could do, notwithstanding that this was the best job in the public service and possibly in Australia.
Parkinson and Hockey get on well, and is it known that Hockey would have been happy for Parkinson, whose contract doesn’t expire until 2015, to stay on. It is being speculated that he now may remain until after the G20 at the end of next year.
This has been the most difficult year of Parkinson’s bureaucratic life. In the election campaign, he and Finance Department chief David Tune were caught in the controversy over opposition costings – they distanced themselves from the government attack on the Coalition.
Today Parkinson found himself again in the political crossfire. Milne later said he had made it clear there was no urgency for the $500 billion ceiling.
It’s the fate of the public servant – shields for a government, sometimes targets for those hunting the government.
Meanwhile the impasse over the debt ceiling legislation remains. Unless something unexpected happens, it seems the government will have to blink and accept the rise to just $400 billion.
Dealing with the problem by more roundabout routes would be complicated, and do little to inspire confidence in the overseas markets.
Listen to Andrew Wilkie on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Tony Abbott has declared he doesn’t need to apologise for Australian eavesdropping on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other leading figures, as he tries to deal with Indonesia anger while not giving too much ground.
In a statement to Parliament, Abbott today said he sincerely regretted any embarrassment recent media reports had caused the President.
But “Australia should not be expected to apologise for the steps we take to protect our country now or in the past, any more than any other government should be expected to apologise for the similar steps that they have taken”.
Australian National University strategic expert Hugh White, a former defence department official, predicted Abbott would have to give the President as assurance his phone would not be monitored, if the situation is to be calmed.
Abbott’s office declined to say whether the Prime Minister had spoken or would speak personally to the President.
Before the Abbott statement, Yudhoyono increased the public pressure on Australia, issuing his several tweets about the affair in English.
One said that Indonesia demanded an official response “that can be understood by the public”. He also said: “We have expressed our strong protest” and, in a very direct hit at Abbott, “I also regret the [Monday] statement of Australian Prime Minister that belittled this tapping matter on Indonesia, without any remorse”.
The Indonesian ambassador, who has been recalled, flew out of Canberra today. The President said Indonesia will review a number of items on the agenda of bilateral co-operation.
The eavesdropping occurred under the Rudd government in 2009, and was done by the Defence Signals Directorate (now called Australian Signals Directorate).
Abbott said that national security required “a consistent determination to do what’s best for Australia, and that’s why this government will support the national security decisions of previous ones, as we will expect future governments to respect ours”.
“Australia shouldn’t be expected to detail what we do to protect our country any more than other governments should be expected to detail what they do to protect theirs. Others should ask of us no more than they are prepared to do themselves.”
Abbott stressed he wanted to make it “crystal clear that Australia has deep respect for Indonesia, for its government and for its people.
“I regard Dr Yudhoyono as a good friend of Australia, indeed as one of the very best friends that we have anywhere in the world” which was why “I sincerely regret any embarrassment that recent media reports have caused him”.
But it was in everyone’s interests, both Indonesia’s and Australia’s that “cool heads prevail”, and to have the relationship grow closer, not more distant. “I pledge myself to build the strongest possible relationship with Indonesia”, Abbott said. “It is the most important single relationship that we have.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Labor supported Abbott’s commitment to national security, and it believed the relationship could recover.
He urged the government to consider the same course followed by the US after the revelation that the phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel was tapped.
Later a Shorten spokesman said he was not seeking to be prescriptive but to note that President Barack Obama had found a way through by direct engagement, with the two speaking.
Shorten told Parliament: “We should not allow these matters to fester for very long at all. We should not allow this matter to taint our relationship going forward, and we encourage the government to redouble its efforts to ensure that this is not the case.”
It was a relationship that would prospectively thrive but it did require “Australia to recognise that our Indonesian friends have been offended”.
The opposition did not underestimate the issue’s seriousness. “We say to our Indonesian friends it’s impossible to imagine our futures without positive and constructive friendship and dialogue between our governments and our peoples.”
Shorten assured Abbott the opposition was “willing to join with the government in any effort, in any briefings, in any discussions in the pursuit of the task of rebuilding trust in this most important key relationship”.
“Labor wants the government to be successful in rebuilding the relationship with Indonesia.”
White said Abbott’s statement was inadequate. “He’s still not taking seriously SBY’s expressions of concern.”
While it was true all countries collected intelligence, Australia and its Anglo-Saxon partners were much more active and technologically sophisticated about it than Indonesia, so Australia should not be surprised at SBY’s concern.
“Abbott can’t afford to brush aside SBY’s concerns because Abbott has made the relationship with Indonesia the test of his foreign policy – Jakarta not Geneva – and SBY has all sorts of ways of making sure Abbott fails that test.
“So Abbott has to find a way to satisfy SBY.”
White said it was very unlikely that SBY would be satisfied with anything less than the assurance Obama gave Merkel. This was that the US was not now monitoring her communications and would not do so in future.
Abbott would not be able to hold the present line and would have to retreat further, White predicted. “The sooner he gets there the less the damage.”
He said an Obama-type assurance was less important than an apology.
The Indonesian crisis is playing out as Senate estimates hearings are on in Canberra, which is enabling questions to be directed to some peripheral players.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison refused to say in Parliament this week whether the government had purchased any Indonesian fishing boats under its anti people smuggling policy, but the military head of Operation Sovereign Borders, Angus Campbell, admitted boat buying was not happening.
He told a hearing today that while this measure remained available it “isn’t one the Indonesian government wishes to see being applied right now as part of our cooperative activities - which we respect.”
The ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott, also happened to be before a committee, where he defended the ABC running the phone spying story, which it had with The Guardian. “We’re seeing a big international debate on intelligence activities in this digital age; what information can be procured, what information can be shared”, he said.
The story “centrally went to that and therefore I think it was an important story that should have been told, and that’s why we told it.”
Listen to Andrew Wilkie on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The Australian-Indonesian relationship has plummeted - with Jakarta withdrawing its ambassador because of Australia’s eavesdropping on the Indonesian President and other top figures.
The latest very detailed revelations about Australian spying in Indonesia – documenting phone monitoring at the highest level - come at the worst possible time for the Abbott government.
The Coalition has been trying to bed down the relationship. This was already made more difficult not just by the earlier disclosures about spying but also by the tug of war about boat returns, including the recent public stand off over a vessel that Australia finally had to accept after Indonesia refused to do so.
The initial disclosures about the use of the Jakarta embassy for spying, based on information from US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, led to Indonesian please explains.
The revelations about the assault on the phones of public figures are more confronting for the Indonesians. The targets are a political who’s who, including both President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, and vice president Boediono, who was in Canberra last week.
The Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate) accessed the phone activity in 2009. The activity on Yudhoyono’s phone was tracked for a fortnight in August that year and there was one attempt to listen to a conversation. The material, obtained by The Guardian and the ABC, had the DSD’s motto “Reveal their secrets – protect our own” stamped on it.
The Snowden disclosures have led to a situation where all the players are locked into inescapable lines.
The Australian government won’t confirm or deny particular spying. The Indonesians are registering their strong displeasure, which is no doubt genuine but also driven by domestic politics, especially with next year’s presidential elections approaching.
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa declared the behaviour “violates every single decent and legal instrument that I can think of … it is nothing less than an unfriendly act which is having already a serious impact on our bilateral relations”. He said Indonesia was “not satisfied with the kind of dismissive answer provided as if this is an activity that is being carried out as a matter of course in the relations among countries.”
Indonesia has indicated that agreements with Australia could be reviewed.
The idea that Australia is spying on the leadership just inflames anti Australian feeling in Indonesia.
It makes the situation worse that the spying extended not only to a president but one who has been such a good friend to Australia.
Labor (on whose watch these particular incidents happened) is not making an issue of the latest information, but is highlighting other issues difficult for the relationship (today asking about the Coalition’s policy to buy Indonesian fishing boats).
It was left to Greens Adam Bandt to ask Tony Abbott about the tapping, whether it was still going on and whether he supported it.
Within the framework of not commenting on specifics, Abbott said:
.. “All governments gather information and all governments know that every other government gathers information.”
.. “The Australian government uses all the resources at its disposal, including information, to help our friends and our allies, not to harm them.”
.. “My first duty is to protect Australia and to advance the national interest.”
.. “I will never say or do anything that might damage the strong relationship and the close co-operation that we have with Indonesia, which is all in all, our most important relationship, a relationship that I am determined to foster.”
Opinion is divided about how damaging to the relationship the latest disclosure will be. One school of thought among some experts is that it will give the Indonesians greater leverage.
Greg Fealy, from the Australian National University, predicted that “this is likely to be an ongoing problem for the Abbott government”, even though the revelations went back to Labor’s time. “It is going to make Indonesian political leaders increasingly irritable about this matter.
“The longer there are headlines about Australian intelligence activities against Indonesian targets, the more that there is going to be a build up of resentment and the more criticism we can expect of Australia, not just from within government circles but particularly from within parliament.”
Bob Lowry, a longtime observer of the Indonesian military and politics, doesn’t believe the spying affair will have a fundamental effect on the Australian-Indonesian relationship. There may be some impact on co-operation on people smuggling and other areas of a “symbolic” nature that are politically sensitive to Australia, he says, but it won’t hit matters of substantial mutual interest like counter-terrorism co-operation.
Independent Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence officer who when working with the Office of National Assessments would have seen much material gathered from our spying efforts, today applauded Snowden. “It is in the public interest that a light is shone on the way these agencies do business”.
For the politicians in Australia and Indonesia, that light has been embarrassing, provocative and unhelpful.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison loves to cast the battle against the boats in military terms. So we might apply that language to assess the continuing struggle between government and media over the secrecy surrounding the absurdly titled Operation Sovereign Borders.
Operation Transparency is still losing badly. But Morrison and Angus Campbell, the military commander of Sovereign Borders, have suffered some flesh wounds. They’ve made certain tactical adjustments.
Since the official briefing last week, which turned into a fiasco as they erected the wall of silence, there has been a bit of soul searching.
Morrison announced today the weekly briefings would in future be conducted in a new way. Lieutenant General Campbell would leave the news conference after giving his report and taking questions, rather than staying to the end as previously.
Finally, someone had realised that when you line up the military with a politician, it doesn’t necessarily enhance the politician, and it often compromises the military. Not that Morrison is going the full way and doing the briefing alone, which would be the most appropriate course.
Morrison said he changed the format at his initiative but there is a suggestion that it came from higher up the food chain.
Meanwhile the unfortunate Campbell must have shuddered at the endless replays of his stonewalling last week when questioners sought some detail. He looked appalling.
So today, apparently at his own instigation, he gave a long explanation of the case for secrecy. He argued that people smugglers used information about vessel arrivals “to market ventures to prospective passengers, and to maintain the momentum of their businesses”.
“I do not believe in secrecy for secrecy’s sake,” he declared.
Campbell said he hadn’t sought to clear his remarks with anyone. “They are based on my judgement as the commander of this operation”.
The obvious question was asked. Had the military raised these problems under the previous government? Campbell said he was “unaware of circumstances that might have arisen before Operation Sovereign Borders”.
If one was trying to make a convincing case for secrecy, a more detailed assessment of the past might have been useful.
As Morrison and Campbell were attempting to shore up their defences on one front, the minister was under attack on another – the allegation an asylum seeker who had been brought from Nauru to give birth in Brisbane had been denied after-hours access to her sick baby. The woman had spent the days with the baby but gone back to the detention centre at night.
Comments by Morrison and the hospital were at odds about access. Morrison said he had ordered a review after “mixed reports”. Tony Abbott, who is in Sir Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, regretted what had happened but said: “we’ve got to ask ourselves, why have any of these things happened? They’ve happened because people have come to Australia illegally.”
The ins and outs of the case may be complicated but the public takeout would be that a new mother was not given all the support she needed.
On yet another front comes the revelation that Serco, the company running the detention centre on Christmas Island has sacked one worker and disciplined others over sexual and other misconduct.
The opposition sees Morrison as currently the most vulnerable minister. In parliament this week much of its attack was concentrated on him.
A motion was passed by the Senate for him to table reports of boat arrivals as they happened – the very disclosure that the weekly briefings are designed to avoid.
The government would respond “in due course”, Morrison said today, then went on to list many orders for production of documents that Labor had failed to meet. It was passing strange, he said, that Labor would now be insisting on something it never complied with in government.
Presumably we can take that as a no.
Although the optics surrounding Morrison are dreadful the policy itself – to stop the boats – is making progress, despite three arrivals being reported at the latest briefing.
In time – no doubt quite a while off - Morrison might be able to claim “victory” in his military operation. But in the process he will have lost much skin. Philip Ruddock went through a similar experience in the Howard government. Once enjoying a reputation as a moderate, Ruddock’s period in Immigration dramatically changed perceptions of him, while the tough policy worked.
Morrison may think that so long as he delivers results for the government, nothing else will matter. But he has given colleagues, media and public an insight into his character and style as a political operator that might be unhelpful for his future ambitions.
The new Parliament is starting its work on a narky note, as if still suffering a hangover from the old one.
The government today quickly asserted its authority by changing the House of Representatives' standing orders to its advantage.
No more supplementary (that is, follow up) questions, and the time reduced for “matters of public importance” (debates initiated mostly by the opposition) and private members business.
When the numbers were “hung”, there were maximum opportunities for the parliament and individual MPs. A powerful cross bench could and did twist arms to change the rules. Now majority government is back, the majority dictates the rules.
But it does not entirely dictate what happens, as the government quickly discovered.
You don’t have to have the numbers to cause trouble. You just have to have a secondhand copy of the old Tony Abbott/Christopher Pyne playbook.
So when Parliament assembled today, the PM’s plan to introduce his carbon tax repeal legislation was disrupted by Labor trying to demand an explanation from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on boat arrival policy.
Bad went to worse when Leader of the House Christopher Pyne called Bill Shorten “Electricity Bill”, and new Speaker Bronwyn Bishop allowed the term. Even Abbott had admitted on Tuesday that would be unparliamentary, so it was foolish of Pyne to put the new Speaker in an awkward position. The opposition moved dissent from Bishop’s ruling.
Bishop is having a rough initiation into her new role; when she was being elected to the post on Tuesday Labor MPs had a few unpleasant things to say about her, not surprising given how tough a politician she has been previously. Her challenge now is to move beyond the old warrior, if she wants to go down as a good Speaker.
Of course Labor did not have a hope in hell of winning any of today’s votes, and eventually the carbon legislation was introduced. But Labor’s tactics chewed up time. And unfortunately Abbott had the Indonesian vice president waiting to see him. Awkward.
It remains to be seen how vigorously Labor will pursue the tactical war, or whether this was about inflicting a bit of pain just because it could.
On substance, Labor is being very confrontational. It is opposing the government’s three legislative priorities: repeal of the carbon and mining taxes and raising the debt ceiling to $500 billion.
Its stand (backed by having the numbers in the Senate, in combination with the Greens, for the next few months) is frustrating for the government. It carries some risks for Labor, however, because it is opposing such a broad front of measures.
The first Question Time was inconclusive, in terms of winning and losing.
Both opposition and government put forward a range of frontbenchers to ask and answer questions.
Abbott was carefully aware of “tone”; Bill Shorten was finding his way; Treasurer Joe Hockey and his shadow Chris Bowen seemed in their element; Morrison was typically aggressive.
Barnaby Joyce, in a new House as well as being a new minister, forgot where he was and addressed “Ladies and gentlemen” – which Bishop thought everyone would rather like to be called today.
Listen to Mitch Hooke on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Almost all the politicians sworn in today for the new Parliament are much constrained, glued to the parties that put them there.
That imposes disciplines at multiple levels. Clive Palmer, as he showed again in today’s appearance at the National Press Club, is neither constrained nor disciplined.
He built his own party and, though he would insist otherwise, it remains substantially his personal possession. With at least two senators-elect (whether there is another is hostage to what happens in the West Australian Senate imbroglio) and an alliance with the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, he will from mid year have huge power.
Palmer gives the impression that he doesn’t give a damn about his critics (though his frequent reference to The Australian newspaper – which has pursued him relentlessly – suggests he might care rather more than he acknowledges).
We are used to politicians who dodge and try to avoid the difficult balls. Palmer just picks up the ball and throws it off the field. Asked today about his business interests, he declared, “I’m a retired person in business. I’m a politician now. I’m not in business.
“I haven’t run most of my businesses recently. That’s the reality. We’ve got an executive team that runs our businesses. I’m just an investor. I might be on the team, but I’m not certainly in charge of all that – no more than Rupert Murdoch runs The Australian”.
As to whether his company should pay its $6 million carbon tax debt, especially now he is a legislator, Palmer was equally dismissive. “We’ve got a High Court challenge to the validity of the law”, he said. Anyway, “you should be asking the ATO [Australian Taxation Office] why aren’t they issuing writs against us?”
“It’s not me complying with anything. Companies I own are not me. I’m a different person. Companies are not flesh and blood. We can justify it to our shareholders.
“The government, if they think they’re owed the taxes … should commence legal proceedings against us. We’ve commenced legal proceedings in the High Court of Australia against them”.
Palmer is no respecter of persons and those who criticise him are derided. Independent senator Nick Xenophon has become “Xenophobia”.
But his tone when talking about Tony Abbott is interesting. The two had a big row over Palmer’s push for a ban on party officials being lobbyists, and Abbott did not want Palmer to become an LNP candidate (a decision he may regret – that would have at least avoided a PUP party).
Now Abbott is PM and Palmer has parliamentary power, the relationship has moved on. Abbott can’t be cavalier about Palmer. Palmer will be negotiating with the government in situations when it will want things and so will he. He praised Abbott for “courage” in adopting the lobbying ban. “I think political courage in politics is a very rare commodity and Tony Abbott showed great political courage by doing that”.
With Labor and the Greens determined to give the government a hard time on core issues including the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes, Abbott will want PUP (including ally Muir) on side not just to get key legislation through the new Senate but to do so quickly if possible, especially to minimise business uncertainty over the carbon tax.
More routine discussions with PUP will be handed by others, notably Senate leader Eric Abetz. But Abbott acknowledged today: “I certainly expect that from time to time he will want to see me. From time to time, I may want to see him”.
Palmer boasts that his party’s polling is showing support of more than 10% nationally. On state elections he said that “it’s very possible based on our polling that we can win the balance of power in Tasmania, and also in Victoria”. Both elections are next year. ABC election analyst Antony Green believes this is a possibility in Tasmania but unlikely in Victoria.
More immediately Palmer claims that if there is a fresh WA Senate election, “our polling is showing we’ll win two senators … you might start to consider that as a real possibility”.
PUP got a WA seat in the first count and lost it on the recount. If the High Court decided a fresh election was needed, it would be a critical moment for PUP.
Only occasionally, in the odd byelection, do voters get a chance quickly to review their decision.
Second time round, they could decide they really were impressed by the man with a political swagger, or that voting PUP had been a bad idea.
If PUP’s support crashed in a rerun WA election, it would not change materially the power it will have in Parliament. But psychologically, it would prick the balloon. On the other hand, if PUP’s vote grew noticeably, there would be some sharp intaking of breath in all sorts of places.
You can be sure, if there is another WA Senate poll, that Palmer will be throwing massive resources at the challenge.
Footnote: the chef at the National Press Club cooked Filet Mignons Lili for today’s lunch, the fourth course for first class passengers at the last dinner before the Titanic sank.
Listen to Mitch Hooke on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The opposition is going into the new parliament with something of the “relentlessly negative” frame of mind that it used to attack in Tony Abbott.
It will try to deny the government its way on the three key legislative items to which Abbott is giving priority - including attempting to cut back the amount by which the Coalition can increase the debt ceiling.
As well as fighting the carbon price’s repeal, caucus today agreed to resist treasurer Joe Hockey’s plan to raise the debt limit to A$500 billion, and to oppose the abolition of the mining tax and the associated measures.
The government has to get the present $300 billion debt ceiling increased quickly because it will be hit by December 12. Hockey has said he is advised debt will go significantly higher than the $370 billion predicted under Labor, and recently announced a $200 billion lift in the ceiling.
But Labor said today it would seek to allow an increase to only $400 billion and if its amendment succeeded in the Senate, it would press it.
The Greens, who take a lenient position on debt, do not have a position yet and are expected to discuss their stand in their party room tomorrow.
If the $400 billion limit was imposed, the opposition would get another opportunity of a parliamentary debate when the ceiling had to be lifted again.
A spokeswoman for Hockey said tonight that Labor had lacked the courage to raise the limit when it should have. “Now because of their failed policies, their debt will continue to grow to more than $400 billion. Labor would rather play politics than admit their own economic mismanagement has left the Government with no option but to raise the limit.”
The government points out that in May 2012 then treasurer Wayne Swan tabled a minute by the Australian Office of Financial Management which said there needed to be a limit $40-60 billion higher than the peak projected. This meant that even on Labor’s own numbers in the pre-election Economic Statement a $400 billion limit would not be enough.
But shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said Hockey “must release updated budget estimates – and the impact his budget blow-out is having on peak net debt – before he can seriously expect the parliament to consider the debt limit legislation.”
“The only reason the Treasurer has put on the table for the 66% increase in the debt limit, is that it would be politically inconvenient to have to come back to the parliament again,” Bowen said.
“Just because Joe Hockey doesn’t want to answer questions isn’t a good enough reason to justify this massive increase in the debt cap.”
Bowen said Hockey had gone from promising to pay back the debt before the election to wanting to double the debt now.
Labor’s fight against the repeal of the mining tax will have the support of the Greens, so the government could have to wait for the new Senate’s arrival in July to get this through.
The mining tax repeal legislation also includes the repeal of the schoolkids bonus and the low income superannuation contribution.
The low income super contribution is a annual payment of up to $500 to help people earning up to $37,000 to save for their retirement. Abolishing the scheme saves $3.7 billion over the forward estimates.
About 1.3 million families are due to get the biannual payment of $410 for a high school student and $205 for a child in primary school in January. Abolishing this scheme would save about $1 billion a year. The next instalment will be paid if the legislation does not pass by Christmas.
The draft legislation would repeal the mining tax, which has raised far less than earlier anticipated, from July. Scrapping the whole package would save a net $13 billion over the forward estimates.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten told caucus today that this was not the government Australians voted for in September. “This is a government that told the Australian people one thing before the election and is now doing something else.”
Shorten said that going into the new parliament, “our party is united…We will take the fight up to Tony Abbott and this government”.
At the meeting of the Coalition parties, Abbott called on his troops to show the same discipline in government as they had in opposition.
Tomorrow will be taken up with the formalities of parliament’s opening, with Wednesday the first face off between Abbott and Shorten in their new positions.
New crossbench MP for Fairfax Clive Palmer is aiming to ensure he gets a slice of the attention. He has already notified the media of an 8am appearance tomorrow, to be followed later in the day by a National Press Club lunch.
Listen to Brendan Nelson on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Delivering the Remembrance Day address at the Australian War Memorial, Paul Keating has highlighted the protection that unifying Europe gave from the sort of dangers that led to “Armageddon” last century.
Keating described the First World War as “a war devoid of any virtue”.
“It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism,” he said.
“The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.
“But at the end of the century, from the shadows, a new light emerged. Europe turned its back on the nation state to favour a greater European construct. Individual loyalties are now directed from nationalist obsessions towards an amorphous whole and to institutions unlikely to garner a popular base. It is difficult to imagine these days, young Europeans going into combat for the European Commission, or at a stretch, the European Parliament.”
That meant European leaders were no longer in a position “to ask or demand the sacrifices which once attended their errant foreign policies. A century beyond Armageddon, young men and women are now freed from that kind of tyranny.”
Keating was invited to give the address 20 years after, as prime minister, he delivered a much-praised eulogy on the occasion of the interment of the Unknown Soldier, whose remains had been brought from the Western Front.
Keating said that today’s young Australians, like the young Europeans, could “no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesman”.
“They are fortunately too wise to the world to be cannon fodder of the kind their young forebears became – young innocents who had little or no choice.”
He said the “virulent European disease of cultural nationalism and ethnic atavism” had not just destroyed Europe but the world’s equilibrium.
A century ago Australians - moving through the processes of federation to new ideas of themselves – had no need to reaffirm their European heritage.
“We had escaped that mire, both sociologically and geographically. But out of loyalty to imperial Britain, we returned to Europe’s killing fields to decide the status of Germany, a question which should earlier have been settled by foresight and statecraft,” he said.
“Those Australians fought and died not in defence of some old world notions of competing empires and territorial conquests but for the new world - the one they belonged to and hoped to return to.
“Australia was never in need of any redemption at Gallipoli.
“There was nothing missing in our young nation or our idea of it that required the martial baptism of a European cataclysm to legitimise us.
“What the Anzac legend did do, by the bravery and sacrifice of our troops, was reinforce our own cultural notions of independence, mateship and ingenuity. Of resilience and courage in adversity.
“We liked the lessons about supposedly ordinary people; we liked finding that they were not ordinary at all. Despite the fact that the military campaigns were shockingly flawed and incompetently executed, those ‘ordinary people’ distinguished themselves by their latent nobility.
“The unknown Australian soldier interred in this memorial reminds us of these lessons as much as he reminds us of the more than one hundred thousand Australians lost to us by war.”
Words from the 1993 eulogy - “He is one of them, and he is all of us” – have now been placed on the stone surround to the grave. An earlier plan to remove the iconic phrase “Known unto God” from the tomb and replace it with the Keating words was abandoned after protests and intervention by the Abbott government.
Listen to Brendan Nelson on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
National politics has moved on a long way but it’s the familiar Paul Keating - pugnacious, brooding, reflective, funny - who bursts through in the first of a series of interviews with the ABC’s Kerry O'Brien.
As O'Brien says, the former prime minister has written no autobiography. These interviews, done in his Sydney office – the room and its contents testament to his artistic taste as well as his political career - are something of a substitute, as well as an important exercise in oral history.
We see glimpses of the political scrapper, proud of his battle scars, still bearing some grudges. Equally on display is the sentimental figure, casting back to the deep, nurturing love that flowed from his grandmother and mother and became his “asbestos suit”.
Keating had been a junior minister a matter of weeks when the Whitlam government was sacked by Governor-General John Kerr on November 11 1975.
“I just briefly raised the idea that we should arrest this guy, lock him up”, he says, adding that “of course it was just met with complete derision” from colleagues.
Gough Whitlam, he thinks, went too quietly when the “coup” was mounted. “Gough was a legal, constitutional kind of guy. … I knew that the blade had been lowered, that this was a coup.
“They are just dead lucky that I wasn’t the Prime Minister, because even I wouldn’t have known what would happen – but it wouldn’t have been to take it lying down”.
Much of this initial discussion – there are four programs in the series, which starts on Tuesday night - is about his early life, and its influence on him for later years, especially the role of his mother and grandmother who “invested a ton of love in me”.
“If someone puts you on a pedestal – and the big pedestal builder first was my grandmother – something sticks with you all your life.” He recently went to his grandmother’s grave “because I thought, there is the person who most believed in me.
“You’ve got to go through life with someone thinking you’re special. You know, when you’ve got to get the sword out for real combat, I think having the sort of love quotient working for you is very powerful.”
This grandmotherly and motherly love “radiates for you and gives you that kind of inner confidence. It’s almost like wearing that asbestos suit – you go through the fire but you’re not going to be burned because someone loves you, you are complete, you are together.”
His father, who began as a tradesman and then started a business with two others making concrete machines, was a “sweet-hearted guy” who “didn’t believe in the conflict model at all … whereas Mum would be into the conflict” – she was “an absolute killer”.
His father died suddenly at the age of 60. He’d walked down the street to put a bet on the races and “he died sitting on the side of the road”. Keating was washing the car when someone came along looking for his father’s house. It was a decade before be could even talk about it. “It’s always with me. You kind of never get over it. But you never want to get over it. There is a place for sadness and melancholy.
“We don’t want to be sparkling and happy all the time. You need the inner life, the inner sadness. It is what fills you out”.
One of young Keating’s heroes was the legendary Labor figure Jack Lang, a firebrand who had been sacked as NSW premier by the governor (and had considered arresting the governor). Keating recalls his visits to the old man twice a week for about seven years. Lang was very formal and called him Mr Keating, even though he was only 18.
He remembers Lang saying: “Mr Keating, you’ll never be anyone until you have a reasonable stock of enemies”.
“It is just so true … And of course having enemies worries some people; for me, it is a badge of honour. I don’t care about it – it has never worried me that a group of people would have not a bar of me”.
Asked why at 18 he was so interested in power, he says, “Because that was the business I’d then determined I wanted to be in”.
Keating - who had been elected to Parliament in 1969 - describes his first ministerial meeting in 1975 as “a bag of fun.”
“There was a long dissertation by [minister Kep] Enderby … I saw Gough grimacing, annoyed, and finally it gets the better of him and he says, ‘Enderby, you garrulous so and so, when will you shut up?’ And Enderby says, ‘What, me?’ And he says, ‘Yes, you!’ And Gordon Bryant, another minister, says ‘you shouldn’t speak to him like that.’ And he says, ‘You shut up’. ‘Don’t speak to me like that either’, said Bryant back.”
The interviews, revealing, meaty and provocative if the first is a guide, will probably set off a round of “Keating wars”. His admirers will love to see their man in fine verbal fettle, feisty as ever. The detractors will have new fuel to stir old fires.
Listen to Senator Sam Dastyari on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Those in the Abbott government are not great fans of the United Nations or of multilateralism in general.
Yet the government has inherited from Labor the two year temporary seat on the Security Council. And next year Tony Abbott will host the G20 meeting. Circumstances have built a strong strand of multilateralism into the Abbott government’s foreign policy.
Tomorrow the secretary of the Foreign Affairs department, Peter Varghese will deliver a forceful case for the continued significance of both the UN and multilateralism more widely, in an address that also recognises the stresses on the multilateral system and looks at paths for making it work despite its difficulties.
In his Sir James Plimsoll lecture, Varghese argues that multilateralism is vitally important for both Australia and the global community.
“In a broader sense, it is almost the only way we can deliberately make our world. That statement is particularly true for Australia, even more so than for many other states, because we belong to no natural geo-political or cultural grouping,” like the European Union or ASEAN, he says.
“Australia cannot bully or buy its way in the world. An international rules-based order is therefore in our best interests, and an effective multilateral system is the surest way to get there.”
Multilateralism and bilateralism “go hand in hand”, Varghese says. Bilateral relationships will remain the core of our diplomatic statecraft, but foreign policy is more than the sum of our bilateral relationships.
“Multilateralism is the practice by which we democratise the rules and norms of international behaviour; the process by which we weigh and value the interests and perspectives of all of our partners, even as we pursue our own national interests.”
The UN in particular holds a special place, Varghese says.
Its record is mixed, its political posturing can be frustrating, its inability to agree on decisive action can be annoying. But “for all its flaws the UN does possess a unique legitimacy and it has played a pivotal role on issues such as decolonisation … If we did not today have the UN we would have to invent it – warts and all.”
Varghese says that despite the gains of multilateralism, such as in advancing economic reform, democracy and the rule of law, “in 2013 we have a sense that multilateralism is under intense pressure”.
There is the feeling that “we need the multilateral system more than ever, but it is not delivering on our expectations”, for example on trade (with the Doha round stalled) and security issues. Reform of the UN remains urgent, but as far away as ever.
“There is a scepticism, in the public mind, that the international structures we have established can achieve the ends we, as an international community, identify as critical to our progress. That scepticism extends deeply through the United Nations itself. Our international institutions are perhaps poorly understood, but they are judged even more poorly”.
The pressures facing the international system include the increased number of participants, the fact its structures date from earlier times, the unprecedented speed of technological change, and the complexity and workload of today’s world.
The present multilateral system is largely the invention of the United States and Western European countries but now the dynamics are altered fundamentally, Varghese says. Emerging powers are no longer willing to accept outcomes they do not perceive take their interests into account, and some do not share the core values and interests of Australia and other Western countries.
“The multilateral system’s ability to deliver co-ordinated results is in decline as effective action no longer rests in the hands of a few relatively like-minded states, but requires co-operation from an increasingly diverse and more competitive group of states.”
Varghese canvasses various ways of advancing reform in face of the stresses.
He points to the positive development of the “lightning-quick evolution of the G20 into a leaders meeting in the wake of the global financial crisis and its status now as the premier institution of global economic reform”.
“Reform of the UN is hard to envisage but other structures have and are emerging to help us deal with security and economic challenges – like the East Asia Summit, the critical institution in these areas for our region.”
Varghese argues it needs to be recognised that the “grand bargains” of the past – such as the Uruguay trade round, the Kyoto Protocol - may not be a model we can always emulate.
The way the World Trade Organisation stalemate has driven trade liberalisation into the territory of bilateral, regional and sector-specific reform may be a model for other contexts, he says.
Climate change is a global problem but its solution may not be a grand bargain including all countries. “We should also look at alternatives that have more scope to deliver actual emission reductions – for example, a greater focus on practical mitigation initiatives and the legislative and regulatory frameworks in the countries that are the greatest polluters.”
Varghese points to a paradox of multilateralism - unilateral steps can often have large multilateral consequences.
“We all, for example, want a global agreement on climate change and we all hope it can be agreed by 2015.
“But consider this: if the US and China were to take serious unilateral steps significantly to reduce carbon emissions it would cover something like 40% of global emissions – and exert a powerful gravitational pull on what the rest of the world may be willing to do.”
“My point is this: multilateralism is not dead. It is under immense strain and it is changing its shape and nature.
“But in trying to find solutions to our most pressing global problems, we have to keep an open mind, and be prepared to consider work-arounds. The global solutions we find may or may not be global multilateral ones.
“We have to balance our desire for universality and common agreement with our interest in progress in the company of those nations who share our views and are willing to act.
“And we have to have a clear view on what the UN system does well, and what it does less well.
“But the art of finding global solutions remains as important as it ever was.”
Listen to Senator Sam Dastyari on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The big brothers and sisters in the Prime Minister’s Office have been on the job in vetting the troops' media appearances – right down to a backbencher on pay TV.
Jane Prentice, a Liberal from Queensland whom many thought should have got a spot on Tony Abbott’s frontbench, was due today to appear on Sky News' Lunchtime Agenda.
The program gives the guests a rundown of topics – a courtesy that is often not extended by media to politicians. These included Australians spying on Indonesia, and Holden.
Prentice ran them by the PM’s office. The response was that she should not go on, and she pulled out 90 minutes before the show. The government had obviously felt enough had been said on the spying and the car industry.
Prentice was scheduled to spar with Labor’s Kelvin Thomson, but the Greens Sarah Hanson-Young had to be substituted.
After the election, an edict telling frontbenchers to clear their media appearances with the PM’s staff was an early sign of how things would be.
The Prentice incident is just the latest (small) example of both government information management and the centralised control exerted by the Abbott office, under the guiding hand of chief of staff Peta Credlin.
Liberal backbenchers don’t always have to be told. They are being very cautious in their comments about everything just now. One reason may be that the chairs of parliamentary committees are yet to be announced. These much sought after positions are in the gift of Abbott.
It’s rather an irony that while the Abbott office is trying to micromanage a lowly backbencher, the Nationals at cabinet level are free-ranging on the contentious issue of GrainCorp.
On the control and secrecy front, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is in the gold star class, delighting at his weekly briefings in saying what he won’t say.
After coming under criticism for his approach a defiant Morrison wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday last week that the government was not going “to provide open access to [detention] centres for media as not only does this raise false hopes among detainees who believe media coverage of their plight will change the outcome of their case, but also can encourage non-compliant behaviour within the centres that can make a difficult job even harder for those who work there”.
But how does that square with the report, released later in the week, done by a former head of the Attorney-General’s department, Robert Cornall, into allegations of sexual and other assaults at the Manus Regional Processing Centre?
Cornall wrote: “The [immigration] department should press the PNG government to co-operate in allowing media access to the Manus Regional Processing Centre in accordance with the government’s policy and the department’s established procedures for media access to onshore detention centres.
“Appropriate media reporting about the Manus RPC could reduce the likelihood of the dissemination of the sort of misinformation or misunderstanding which led to this investigation.”
The Cornall report was not issued with any announcement. It was just put up on the Immigration department’s website on Friday. So when Morrison had his weekly briefing that day, the journalists were not yet on top of it. (Anyone starting from scratch to look for the report needs a packed lunch – it has not been made easy to find on the site.)
The media and Morrison are now in a perpetual tug of war about secrecy.
And as time goes on, the more bolshie among the Liberal backbenchers might decide they will fight back against the PMO’s excessive control.
Joe Hockey is being prodded by Labor to follow his free market instincts over the controversial foreign takeover bid for agri-giant GrainCorp, while the Nationals continue their assault on the proposal and most Liberal “dries” stay out of the action.
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen today gave in principle support to the bid by American company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), saying foreign investment was good for agriculture and good for the economy.
“If the Treasurer chooses to knock [the bid] back he would need to have a very good reason indeed, and would need to be very clear about that reason,” Bowen said.
Hockey has said he will decide on the $3.4 billion bid by December 17. In formal terms, the decision is his alone.
In a dramatic upping of the stakes, on Sunday Nationals leader Warren Truss declared that if the sale proceeded, “international companies will control our ports and our handling facilities. … If we want to export grain to other parts of the world, grow our industry, that decision will ultimately be made in a foreign boardroom rather than in Australia.”
Bowen said that the “spectacle of a deputy prime minister trying to publicly bounce the Treasurer into a particular decision on national TV was extraordinary, and clearly underlines deep divisions in the government on this issue”.
The strongest opposition to foreign investment in the Australian parliament was actually coming from within the government, Bowen said. “The Coalition government is sending troubling and poor signals to foreign investors.”
At the weekend Labor trade spokeswoman Penny Wong pointed to “an awkward clash and a tension between National Party protectionism and [Trade Minister] Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey’s neo-liberal bravado.” She suggested the bid could properly be approved with conditions.
Nationals federal president Christine Ferguson today warned that GrainCorp was a defining issue for the party and for Coalition relations.
Ferguson said the Nationals had different policies from the Liberals on some issues. “Most of our members are very keen that they stand firm on this.
“Hopefully Hockey will see the dangers of letting the sale go through,” she told The Conversation. “It’s a big issue. Most grain farmers are behind our position.”
She suggested that maybe there should be some cross negotiation involving this issue and paid parental leave, about which the Nationals have doubts.
Although the issue is very serious for the Coalition, Nationals sources play down weekend speculation it might cause resignations from the frontbench if Hockey approves the bid.
Liberals who support the takeover have been reluctant to buy into the public debate.
But Victorian Liberal Dan Tehan, a one time diplomat and former adviser to then Nationals leader and trade minister Mark Vaile, today called for a “very balanced discussion about the pros and cons” of it.
Tehan, a strong backer of foreign investment in general, said that among the arguments in favour of the bid were that GrainCorp had said it needed capital, and ADM ownership would give growers increased access to overseas markets at a reduced cost in transportation and logistics.
Tehan met ADM today. “They made it very clear this is the biggest investment that they will have made in an overseas market and that you don’t invest that amount of money without being serious about ensuring the investment will bring benefits to that market.”
Some Liberal sources expect the issue to be raised in the party room when Parliament begins, although the decision does not go to cabinet, the party room or parliament.
Meanwhile on another sensitive issue facing the government, the car industry is increasing its public pressure for assistance.
The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries released a report commissioned from the Allen Consulting Group which said that automotive manufacturing in Australia got about $500 million annually in government funding. For this investment the economy was $21.5 billion larger (based on an economic welfare net present value calculation) for having the industry.
“Government assistance to automotive manufacturing is around $18 per person – a very low figure by international standards. The $21.5 billion return equates to $934 per person,” the report said.
Listen to ALP National Secretary George Wright on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
When Deputy PM Warren Truss today drew a line in the sand against the takeover bid for the agri-giant GrainCorp, it was a big reminder that the government has serious internal differences which will test Tony Abbott leadership skills.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s economic rationalist credentials are also on the line over both GrainCorp and the car industry, where the pressure is coming from another cabinet heavyweight, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane.
Truss dramatically upped the ante for Hockey, who is to decide by December 17 whether to approve the $3.4 billion bid from the US-based company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).
His comments would have shocked Hockey, both for their directness and because the Nationals leader is the government’s second most senior member (outranking the Treasurer). And Truss is not one to shoot his mouth off. He’s no Barnaby Joyce – he is cautious and experienced.
The takeout seems clear: the Nationals are determined to fight on what they consider their core interests.
Truss told the ABC: “It’s very important for Australia to maintain control of its own food security.
“If we don’t own any of the supply chain, it’ll be very difficult for us to ever make decisions which can in fact influence whether or not our grain industry is to prosper.
“There is no doubt that if this sale proceeds, international companies will control our ports and our handling facilities. And therefore, if we want to export grain to other parts of the world, grow our industry, that decision will ultimately be made in a foreign boardroom rather than in Australia.”
He pointed out that GrainCorp was the largest listed agribusiness in Australia. “If we lose this business to foreign ownership, then we will lose the potential to have an international standard agribusiness trading around the world.”
So GrainCorp was important for Australia’s food supply, its capacity to control its export markets and even for Australia as a financial centre.
“If we lose our biggest agribusiness from our stock exchange, that weakens Sydney as …an international financial market, and then opens questions about whether Australia is really going to be a major player and an international centre for commerce, for agriculture and for industry in the future.”
Truss said he was certain Hockey was “well aware of the importance” of the decision.
The issue has not just the Nationals agitated but also some rural Liberals (including NSW senator Bill Heffernan).
Laurie Oakes wrote on Saturday of talk of resignations by frontbench Nationals if the sale were approved. Truss said he had not heard that from his colleagues “but certainly the Nationals' views on the issues are well known”.
Joyce, who is deputy Nationals leader and Agriculture Minister, on Thursday repeated his opposition to the sale. Previously the Nationals deputy leader in the Senate Fiona Nash, a junior minister, spoke out publicly.
Some Liberal “dries” would be very concerned to see the bid rejected. It would send a major message on foreign investment just when Abbott and his government are declaring Australia is again “open for business”.
There has been a feeling that the way out would be to approve the bid with conditions, but given Truss’s stand today it seems hard to see any conditions being adequate to satisfy the Nationals.
While GrainCorp is currently the most dangerous division in the government, the question of how much should be spent on propping up the car industry, with Holden applying the heat, is also causing angst.
In Japan for talks with Toyota last week Macfarlane was upfront about the differences. “If you don’t subsidise the industry, it won’t be there,” he told the Australian Financial Review. “I accept that argument, I’m not sure that my colleagues do yet.”
Now who would he be referring to?
Perhaps the Treasurer who says: “We don’t negotiate when it comes to taxpayer’s money with a gun to our heads, we won’t do that,” and who wants to “ensure that Australian taxpayers are not being held to ransom by any company.”
Truss today was having a bob each way on cars. “It would be a tragedy for Australia to lose the car industry,” he said. “But of course you can’t keep subsidising an industry forever.”
The government has sent a reference on the industry to the Productivity Commission which will give a preliminary report in December. The PC usually adopts the economic rationalist approach.
Aside from economics, the looming South Australian election – shortly before the PC’s final report early next year – is another factor in the mix. The state Liberals want to maximise their chances of taking government and the automotive industry is very important to SA.
Abbott has tried to insist everyone is on the same page on cars.
Asked last week about a cabinet split he said: “No … inevitably there is a tendency on the part of the media to ask the same question or a slightly different question of different people and if there aren’t robotic answers, to say, ‘aha, so and so is at odds with such and such”.
“Well, I just want to assure you that the Government is absolutely at one in its commitment to give the car industry every chance of success.”
Which could cover a variety of responses.
The government has already moved to close down differences on another front - the Chinese communications company Huawei’s wish to bid for NBN contracts. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull left the door ajar but it was quickly slammed shut by Attorney-General George Brandis and Abbott on national security grounds.
Then there are what might be termed the underground differences.
Turnbull was asked on Network Ten today about the Greens wanting a $50,000 (rather than $75,000) ceiling on Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme (something that would please the Nationals, by the way).
When it was put to him that a less expensive option would be a good thing, as would Greens support, his reply said it all: “Well, you may very well say that. But in the words of Francis Urquhart [from House of Cards], I couldn’t possibly comment. That’s a matter for the Prime Minister.”
Turnbull, a believer in emissions trading, an issue that precipitated his loss of leadership, was also asked whether scrapping the carbon tax and putting the Coalition’s Direct Action plan in place would be the end of carbon ever being priced in our economy.
He pointed out that the Coalition’s policy was only designed to get to the 2020 target of a 5% reduction in emissions. “What we do later than that is something that will be reviewed and discussed,” he said.
“The Coalition’s policy is avowedly interim, in the sense that it takes you to 2020. The policies that will apply out into the future will depend, no doubt, on the success of .. the direct action policies … and also, of course, global action. So if there is more global action to reduce emissions, then that would prompt different policies and different measures in Australia,” he said.
“If climate change is real, if global warming is real, if human-induced emissions are making a difference – and I have no doubt they are – then this debate, and the appropriate policies to deal with that, are going to be a subject of discussion for a very long time.”
There is not much question that Malcolm still believes that he (like Labor) is on the right side of history when it comes to emissions trading.
AusAID on Friday formally became part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with the road ahead including a drastic shrinking of the planned aid budget, redundancies, jostling for jobs, and cultural re-education.
When he briefed DFAT and AusAID staff recently, departmental secretary Peter Varghese had some unpalatable messages, especially for those from AusAID, and was frank about the challenges.
Varghese said that in the integration, to be finished by July 1, “we are bringing together two moving and shrinking parts, and that’s going to be a very, very complicated process”.
He warned: “We are operating in a budget environment which is only going to get more difficult”.
The department’s numbers would be cut under the Abbott government’s existing plan to reduce the bureaucracy generally by 12,000. “We don’t know what our share of that reduction is going to be, but we know that we will have to deal with a reduction in staff”.
As well, the Audit Commission might well make “recommendations which contain further reductions in staff numbers across the public service”, he told the October 24 meeting.
DFAT has 2521 Australian staff (of whom 1875 are based in Australia), plus another 1771 locally engaged staff, a total of 4292. AusAID had 1724 Australian staff (1484 of them based here), plus 651 locally engaged people, bringing the total to 2375.
The aim would be to manage job losses through redeployment and voluntary redundancies, with anything else “very much as a last resort”.
But he was “not sugarcoating” the situation ahead – which would be “a challenge for all of us”.
One issue that had to be addressed was the different conditions enjoyed in the two organisations. AusAID, having been on a growth trajectory, had been able to enjoy better conditions of service. “We will have to narrow the gap in conditions of service and it would be terrific if we could narrow that gap by bringing the lower conditions up to the higher levels, but I suspect it’s going to be the other way around”.
The Abbott government plans to use the aid budget as one of the major areas for getting savings. It announced before the election that it would cut $4.5 billion over four years from the projected budget.
Varghese pointed out that the current structure of AusAID “reflects the nature of an organisation that’s required to get to an $8 billion aid program.
“Now that trajectory today looks very different. We have an aid budget of around $5 billion, and the projected increase isn’t to $8 billion – the projected increase is $5 billion plus the consumer price index”.
Varghese stressed that: “Our aid program will be designed and implemented to support Australian foreign and trade policy.
“It’s very important that we all understand that is where the government is coming from, and that is what the government wants us to do… I don’t think we’re going to get where we want to get unless everyone signs on to that fundamental principle, and I would urge you all to do so right from the start”.
He emphasised the importance of forging a unified culture. In an implied recognition that AusAID has its own culture, he added “I hope that we can do that because we’re all professionals in the end and because we are all, in our own way, I think, committed to the same objectives”.
Around the government there has been talk of some problems with AusAID’s “culture”. Fairfax Media has reported bad blood between AusAID and DFAT staff.
Asked about the desirable culture Varghese noted points he had made on becoming secretary of DFAT last year. One of those points was the importance of seeing “ourselves first and foremost as public servants rather than having a more tribal loyalty”.
In handling the aid program, the department would have geographic divisions that dealt with foreign, trade and aid policy. There would also be functional specialisation because “you cannot run a $5 billion program with generalists”.
“But it will be a model with a bias towards integration rather than running aid policy and aid programs separate but sort of co-located”.
Probed on whether the aid program was likely to still have a poverty reduction focus, or would be primarily focused on countries that Australia had trade negotiations with, Varghese said economic growth and poverty reduction went hand in hand.
“It’s also important to understand that when the government talks about aid and trade, they’re not talking about using the aid program to promote Australian exports”.
“Their front-of-mind concern is the role for the aid program in building up the capacity of developing countries better to engage in the international trading system”.
Questioned about how a duplication of jobs would be handled when people in DFAT and AusAID have been doing the same job, Varghese said there would not be a spill of positions – it would just cause a “hell of trouble if we started off doing that”.
“There has to be a general acceptance that we’re going through this integration process but that the spine of our organisational structure is going to rest with the DFAT organisational structure”.
He also said there was a broad recognition across government, and certainly well beyond government, that in relative terms Australian had a much smaller footprint than most comparable countries.
“If you look at G20 countries, I think we’re either right at the bottom – in terms of the number of people we have posted, and the number of posts we have – or second bottom. It might be a tussle between us and Saudi Arabia perhaps”.
There was a recognition that we ought to have a bigger diplomatic footprint but it was a matter of money.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s instinct was not to close any posts. “She ideally would like us to be expanding and not contracting”.
After Labor today decided to dig in on carbon pricing, it now seems almost certain that Tony Abbott will have to wait until the new Senate arrives next July to get his repeal legislation through.
In opting to vote against the repeal, Bill Shorten and his shadow cabinet have taken the best of the poor political options available to them.
In parliament the opposition will move amendments for the carbon tax to be terminated and replaced by an emissions trading scheme – the position Kevin Rudd took to the election. When that is rejected Labor will vote no on the repeal.
In the Senate Labor and the Greens have the numbers to block Abbott’s plan until mid next year.
Labor has immediately got flak for not rolling over. Business is unhappy - it does not like the prospect of having to make decisions in the next few months on the basis of a government promise that the legislation will be passed eventually. There is money at stake and in politics the unexpected can happen.
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the opposition should “respect the outcome of the election and not get in the way of what is a clear and fundamental Coalition government policy.” The Australian Industry Group said tartly: “We’ve had a lot of political upheaval over climate policy in the past few years, and disappointingly it looks like we’ll see more.”
Collateral political costs were inevitable, whatever Labor did.
Some pragmatists have wanted the party to avoid the fight, and move on, but the political gains would have been mostly illusory and the divisions in Labor likely to have wiped them out anyway.
Given that it was not going to accept the argument that the government had a “mandate” from the election, the opposition would have just looked tricky if it simultaneously said it supported carbon pricing but would allow the removal of that pricing. National secretary George Wright earlier this week warned of the danger of trying to be too cute.
Such contortions would have confused, disillusioned and perhaps angered Labor’s supporters and raised questions of what the party stood for.
They would have been hard to explain and could have sparked a nasty a row in caucus in the early days of Parliament and of Shorten’s leadership. It would have sent out the message that Shorten was expedient - a weathervane - when he needs to define himself in clear terms, and look principled and grounded. He already has some baggage from switching his support on the leadership twice.
Shorten made the best of Labor’s been caught between the rock and hard place. “Labor will never be a rubber stamp for Tony Abbott”, he said. “We accept the science of climate change and Tony Abbott doesn’t. … We won’t be bullied and I won’t be bullied by Tony Abbott, merely because he doesn’t accept the science of climate change.”
But he will have to be clear in stating the position. In trying to explain how Labor backs terminating the tax in favour of an ETS, it’s easy to muddle the listeners, as when he said at one stage “we’ll vote for the repeal”.
The general consensus is that the new Senate, with its gaggle of right leaning crossbenchers, will tick off the repeal after July 1 (although the fiasco of lost ballot papers in Western Australia means we won’t be sure for a while the precise Senate makeup).
The prospect of the new Senate doing what Labor says it won’t do is helpful for Shorten. It means the row over the carbon tax should be over by the latter part of next year (of course the Coalition will still be able to hark back to Labor’s intransigence).
As the Labor now faces up to its first serious tests of opposition – parliament starts on November 12 – the look backs continue, with Kevin Rudd’s confidant and political advisor Bruce Hawker next week releasing a book, The Rudd Rebellion, based on his diaries, in which he describes Rudd and Julia Gillard as the “yin and yang of the Labor party”.
“The public respected him and the party loved her,” Hawker writes. “He could woo the electorate and she could pull the caucus in behind him. … Together they were indomitable, but apart they were vulnerable: he to the faction leaders and she to public opinion.”
In an analysis similar to that given by Wright this week, Hawker argues that the “slow death of the Labor government started with that fateful evening in June 2010” when the coup was mounted, and says that before Rudd’s return Labor was facing having as few as 30 MPs in the 150 member House. When Parliament resumes it will have 55.
Listen to ALP National Secretary George Wright on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The Australian Electoral Commission, which should be above controversy, finds itself at the centre of a perfect storm.
In recent weeks Clive Palmer, albeit without evidence, has blackened its name at every opportunity.
Now (on the day Palmer was finally elected in Fairfax by 53 votes) the AEC has announced it has lost more than 1300 Senate votes in the knife edge Western Australian contest.
On worst scenario, this could force a fresh Senate poll in that state, which would be a huge cost, annoy voters and put the upper house numbers to a fresh test.
The WA disaster is against the background of Coalition hostility towards Electoral Commissioner Ed Killestey. The then opposition was angry when Labor re-appointed him, although his existing term did not expire until the new year. The Coalition wanted to make its own appointment.
The AEC said in today’s statement that in the WA Senate recount “a serious administrative issue” had come to light. Some 1375 votes, all counted first time round, were missing. These included 1255 formal votes and 120 informal ones.
The commissioner said he had “initiated an urgent examination into the circumstances which led to the apparent misplaced ballot papers”. He’s called in former federal police chief Mick Keelty to get to the bottom of it.
The recount came after the Palmer United Party candidate and Labor won the final spots, with the Greens and the Australian Sports Party missing out. At a crucial choke point in the complicated count, it had come down to 14 votes.
The recount will be finished (with the missing votes excluded) and the outcome examined by the AEC, which will also have the Keelty report, before it decides whether the matter should go to the Court of Disputed Returns.
The AEC, a candidate or a voter can petition the court (which is the High Court). It is hard to see it not ending up there (unless the votes suddenly materialise) but what the court would do can’t be predicted.
The government today lashed out, with Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson declaring he had “personally expressed to the Electoral Commissioner my strong view that this situation is totally unsatisfactory and that I, as the responsible Minister, view this matter very dimly.”
In opposition Bronwyn Bishop, then shadow special minister of state claimed the AEC and the then government were too close and said a Coalition government would have a review of the commission.
Palmer jumped on the WA affair today to accuse the AEC of fraud, saying the commission “may have burned” the ballot papers “or put them in a rubbish bin or shredded them”.
“There needs to be a full judicial inquiry into the AEC officers that have been involved in this fiasco,” said Palmer, who wants the original Senate count to stand.
The embattled Killesteyn was sensible to call in the former police commissioner. But it’s hard to see where he is going to get any political protection.
Listen to ALP National Secretary George Wright on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Bill Shorten can’t win the test he faces on the government’s legislation to repeal the carbon tax - it is a matter of what will do Labor least damage.
Tony Abbott is trying to psyche the opposition into capitulating and allowing the repeal though. Fairfax Media, under a “Backflip” headline, today claimed that “Labor is expected to support axing the carbon tax.”
The opposition has made no decision yet on how it will vote on the repeal legislation.
The superficially easier course on the repeal would be to “wave it through” - as the professionals like to describe the process of allowing bills to pass while holding one’s nose.
If Labor had said at the start “we totally condemn repeal of the carbon price but we recognise the government has a mandate because this was a central issue at the election we lost”, a “wave through” would be a credible position for it to take. Arguably, it would have been the best position.
But it didn’t say that. Instead, it has got itself in something of a tangle. Based on its policy in the campaign, it says it no longer supports a carbon tax, but backs an emissions trading scheme. (Kevin Rudd promised that if he won the election, he would bring forward to mid next year the morphing of the carbon tax into an ETS.)
On one view this position could be used to justify the opposition going along with the tax’s repeal while advocating an ETS and concentrating on the alleged faults of Abbott’s direct action climate plan.
But such a course could simply be seen for what it was – Labor trying to find an quick way out of its awkward spot.
In declaring it backed an ETS but would not fight the carbon tax’s repeal, Labor would send a confusing message, as well as raise questions about its backbone. It would disillusion many in the party’s rank and file and supporter base, raising questions about what the ALP stood for.
In practice, it would make it harder for it to maintain its advocacy for pricing carbon when it came to the 2016 election - if that’s what it wants to do.
ALP national secretary George Wright has some sage advice on the matter – which amounts to warning the party not to let the message get lost in the tactics.
“I’m not sure that this is an issue that you can be very cute with,” he told The Conversation. Two things would be important: “not just what the Labor party does, but what the Labor party communicates about itself and about its position on this issue.
“We have to make sure that what we wish to communicate is not lost in the complexity of what we might do,” he said. “I think the challenge is to make sure that our position on this issue is clear and well understood.
“I don’t think it would be the right outcome for anyone to perceive that the Labor party does not support an emissions trading scheme and does not support action on climate change,” he said.
“I think we’re on the right side of history, the right side of science, the right side of economics, and I think we need to take a stand on that and prosecute it.”
Earlier, in his post election appearance at the National Press Club Wright said specific issues were very important in the election result but they were not the deciding factor. Kevin Rudd had addressed asylum seekers and the carbon tax with some success.
“If you looked at our polling throughout that campaign, issues like asylum seekers and particularly carbon pricing have become very low order issues compared to issues around our performance more generally in government.”
Wright said that by changing leaders, Labor had limited its potential losses. In the second quarter of this year, “our polling was telling us Labor was looking at being reduced to as few as 30 House of Representatives seats.
“Western Sydney looked like it would become a Liberal heartland. Queensland, WA and SA all risked being reduced to a single Labor seat each. And we fully expected that Tasmania and the NT would return no Labor seats at all. Labor ended up holding 55 seats.
“A solid loss, a bitter disappointment but as one commentator wrote, we pulled off Dunkirk. Suffering a major defeat but managing to escape with our army intact.
“As Bill Shorten’s new frontbench proves, Labor’s generation X saved its seats and that means Labor has good grounds for future optimism,” also boosted by “the entry into the caucus of a new generation of high calibre MPs.”
Wright said that having changed leaders so close to the election Labor’s campaign had to emphasise Rudd and his strengths and work the party strategy into making the most of these, not the other way around. “To do anything else would have been implausible.” He said Rudd had earned the right to campaign to his strategy. But in retrospect, it would have been better to call the election earlier, he said.
Wright added his voice to the push across the political spectrum for reform of the Senate voting system, in the wake of the election of a number of “micro” players.
He told The Conversation that a proposal would go to Labor’s national executive on Friday that the next national conference be after the NSW and Queensland state elections. “So that would put it somewhere in the second quarter of 2015.” He said he planned to stay national secretary to fight the next federal election.
Listen to ALP National Secretary George Wright on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
We used to wait 100 days to draw up an initial report card on a government but now we’re down to 50 days. Today is that milepost (since the election) and Tony Abbott made something of it at the weekend, telling the Tasmanian Liberal council on Saturday the government had made a “strong start” and listing what it has done.
The Coalition wants to appear to be operating in a more orderly fashion than Labor did, but also to give the impression of much activity.
It can point to producing draft legislation for the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes. Four weeks of parliament, starting mid November, have been scheduled.
The Audit Commission has been announced, with the task of recommending savings that would get the budget to a surplus of 1% of GDP before 2023-24. (A smaller surplus is being promised for earlier. Abbott said in an interview with Andrew Bolt last week: “We will get back to surplus at least as quickly as the former government claimed that it would get back”. That was 2016-17.)
The new government is seeking to re-energise the negotiations for a free trade agreement with China in particular. It has started to re-orient the NBN.
Abbott has been to Indonesia to discuss the boats issue (apparently the Indonesians were quite impressed with him, but less so with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who followed separately).
So, 50 days and a reasonable amount started of its pre-election undertakings. But some uglier features are appearing too.
Abbott just after the election declared: “I am very conscious of the fact that opposition leaders are tribal chiefs but prime ministers have to be national leaders.”
Despite this fine sentiment he and his government are being very tribal.
It is not just that ministers spend much of their time harking back to Labor’s record when they are answering questions about the economy and the like. That’s standard operating practice for new administrations.
More unjustifiable is the sort of spray Abbott gave the former government in an interview with the Washington Post, published last week. The convention – and surely Abbott, who prides himself on being a conservative, would like to see himself as a man who recognises convention – is that politicians show a certain restraint in talking to an overseas audience about their opponents.
But Abbott was entirely off the leash. Asked about Labor wanting under its NBN to extend fibre to every household, he said “Welcome to the wonderful wacko world of the former government”.
When pressed he went on: “I thought it was the most incompetent and untrustworthy government in modern Australian history.
“They made a whole lot of commitments, which they scandalously failed to honour. They did a lot of things that were scandalously wasteful and the actual conduct of government was a circus.
“They were untrustworthy in terms of the carbon tax. They were incompetent in terms of the national broadband network. They were a scandal when it came to their own internal disunity. They made a whole lot of grubby deals in order to try and perpetuate themselves in power. It was an embarrassing spectacle.”
Tell us what you really think, Tony!
It is reported today that the government is drawing up terms of reference for an inquiry into the Rudd government’s home insulation scheme, which saw several deaths.
Obviously still grieving families would like further investigation. But inquiries have already been held, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a very political operation.
Even more political is the proposal raised before the election to have an inquiry into the old AWU scandal involving Julia Gillard’s former boyfriend, in which she gave legal advice (she has always maintained she did nothing wrong).
The Coalition moved heaven and earth last term to use this affair against Gillard. If there is anything more to be done, that should be left to the relevant authorities.
A new prime minister does well to avoid trying to hunt down his predecessor, in this case predecessors. The people have made their judgement on them – it is unfortunate Abbott is not willing to be satisfied with that.
Listen to Nick Xenophon on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The government’s forcing Barrie Cassidy out of the position of chairman of the Old Parliament House Advisory Council seems a particularly partisan and graceless act.
Cassidy, a senior and respected journalist with the ABC, and one time president of the parliamentary press gallery (in the old House), is a former Hawke staffer.
He was appointed by Labor to the chairman’s position (for which he would not be paid) just before the caretaker period, but no announcement was made. Old Parliament House is the Museum of Australian Democracy.
In the latter days of opposition, the Coalition was critical of Labor for making last minute appointments. At one stage it talked up a storm about the possibility Labor might name a new governor-general (which never appeared on the cards).
When the Coalition came in it quashed the posting of former Victorian premier Steve Bracks to New York as consul-general, shortly before he was about to depart.
On Wednesday Chris Kenny, a former staffer on the Coalition side and a strong critic of the ABC, wrote in The Australian that “claims of ‘political favours’ have enveloped one of the ABC’S most senior political commentators following revelations he was secretly appointed to a government board just hours before the election caretaker period kicked in”.
In the wake of the story Tony Abbott, critical of Labor’s behaviour, sent rather mixed messages. “Barrie Cassidy is a good bloke. I don’t begrudge him the appointment. But it did all seem to be done with a certain unseemly haste.”
George Brandis, Minister for the Arts, pressured Cassidy to quit, which he has done today. Cassidy said he didn’t want the board caught up in ongoing controversy.
In a letter to the director of the Museum of Australian Democracy he said: “The minister explained to me that he has a high regard for me personally, but nevertheless has (a) concerns about the process leading up to the appointment; and (b) a strong view that it is not appropriate to have anybody currently involved in the political process, whether they be politicians or journalists, sitting on boards such as these.
“He prefers people retired from any involvement in politics and I respect that view.”
Brandis has a point about the process; he may even be right that it is better to have retirees, although it is hard to see in relation to this particular body that it matters.
But with the appointment having been made, and with every prospect that Cassidy would do a good job, going after him retrospectively does not look like the behaviour of a minister simply determined to enforce high standards. It smacks of a strike in the culture, political or some other “wars”. It is the sort of pettiness that you’d hope a minister was above.
Michelle Grattan has a regular spot on Radio National.
Listen to Nick Xenophon on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Winners write the history. Well, sort of. In politics there are always history wars.
In his post-election narrative today, Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane, reporting on the fourth national campaign he has run, argued that positives had driven the Coalition’s victory.
Tony Abbott wore the “Mr Negativity” label during much of the last term, but Loughnane said he “wasn’t negative” but was presenting “a very clear cut-through alternate to Labor’s policies. People knew exactly what our priorities were”, and that resonated with “the mainstream of the community”.
Political commentary on elections tended to dwell on negative campaigning, Loughnane said, often missing significant changes occurring.
“The focus of successful campaigns around the world over the last decade has increasingly been on the positive rather than the negative. This is certainly the case with the Coalition.
“To emphasise our positive alternative was a key strategic decision we took early on in our campaign preparations and it drove much of what we did. But because of the chaos in the Labor party much of the commentary missed this important development,” Loughnane told the National Press Club, in an address partly based on the party’s post-election survey.
“The community wanted something to vote for, not just against.
“The Coalition’s positive plan, strong leadership, united team and outstanding candidates, together with a clear strategy which was followed throughout the last term with great discipline, drew strong community support. It is why the Coalition won the election rather than Labor losing it.”
Loughnane identified Abbott’s budget reply speech in May as “the moment he came to be seen in the community’s mind as an alternative prime minister, rather than simply leader of the opposition”. He also underscored how containing the losses in the 2007 defeat had enabled the Coalition to rebuild quickly.
While many Labor figures and commentators believe Kevin Rudd saved much “furniture”, Loughnane said that irrespective of who the leader had been “I think the result would have been pretty much the same”.
Loughnane’s “essential thesis” about Labor “is that leadership is not their core problem”. He claimed that Rudd’s and Gillard’s leadership had marked the end of the Whitlam era of Labor seeking the middle ground.
“In common with a number of centre-left parties around the world, Labor has retreated to a mix of pre-Whitlam class war prejudice and inner city trendyism, overlaid by factional warlordism. They are internally obsessed, schizophrenic on policy and completely disconnected from the community.
“Leadership is therefore just one of the challenges facing Labor. I believe Mr Shorten understands this but his capitulation to the left of his party in order to gain the leadership has compromised his authority from the start.”
Among key statistics Loughnane highlighted were
.. The average two party preferred swing in the 17 seats that the Coalition won from Labor was over 6% - close to double the national average (3.6%).
.. This was the first time the Coalition had received a majority of the two party preferred vote in every state since 1977.
.. In 2013 Labor received its lowest primary vote since 1903.
.. Labor’s primary vote under Rudd in 2013 was 10% lower than it was under Rudd in 2007.
.. The Greens Senate vote of 8.6% was the lowest since 2004, when it was 7.7%.
Loughnane has joined the growing chorus of political players who want changes to electoral arrangements in the wake of the success of micro parties at the Senate election.
“It is now almost 30 years since the last major change to our Senate voting system. It is therefore an appropriate time to review the operations of how we elect the Senate.
“The large number of candidates for the Senate in some states clearly created confusion. The distortion surrounding deals on preferences between some micro parties produced results which did not reflect the will of the people. The inconsistency with which parties are permitted to change their names created brand confusion for voters. The need to strengthen the enrolment and voter identification rules is also clear.”
Earlier today Labor’s Bob Carr, announcing his retirement from the Senate, said something needed to be done about the upper house voting system; to see the current system giving “over-representation to pocket handkerchief political effusions is pretty strange”.
The parliamentary committee on electoral matters will review a range of issues arising from the election, including those relating to the Senate.
Loughnane admitted that the Coalition had to look very carefully at the reasons for the large vote for Clive Palmer’s PUP, and expressed concern at its huge spending.
Labor’s national secretary George Wright will give his election post mortem next week.
As participants pick over the election’s entrails - and votes are still being recounted in Fairfax, which Loughnane expects Palmer to win, and for the Senate in Western Australia - Abbott mused on juggling his old and new lives.
Defending his continued fire fighting, he admitted his security detail was not very happy about this extra curricula activity, which saw the PM doing a shift of backburning last weekend.
“I’ve explained to them that we don’t go out there to take silly risks … I’ll be with the crew and I’ll act under the instructions of the deputy captain and other officers.”
Asked on 3AW whether he should be taking such risks, Abbott said they were well within the bounds of what was acceptable.
“Even as a prime minister, you’ve got to be a human being first and it is a normal part of a normal Australian life to serve in various community organisations … I will do my best to continue to be a citizen as well as a prime minister.”
Listen to Christopher Pyne on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Tony Abbott’s gay sister hailed it as an “historic day”, after jubilation broke out in the ACT Assembly at the passage of Australia’s first marriage equality legislation.
Meanwhile an Essential Poll published today showed 57% of Australians believe people of the same sex should be allowed to marry.
But the Abbott government is determined to try to thwart the ACT move. It will commence a High Court challenge ASAP.
The federal government says its advice from the acting Commonwealth Solicitor-General is that the ACT Marriage Equality legislation is invalid because it was inconsistent with the Commonwealth Marriage Act.
A spokeswoman for Attorney-General George Brandis said: “Irrespective of anyone’s views on the desirability or otherwise of same-sex marriage, it is clearly in Australia’s interests that there be nationally consistent marriage laws”.
The government asked the ACT not to implement the new law until the High Court has pronounced, but it has declined. The first weddings are due in early December. The federal government says it would be “very distressing to individuals” if they entered a marriage ceremony, to then find their marriage was invalid.
Brandis' spokeswoman says the government will ask the High Court to give the case an “expedited hearing”.
It is open to the federal government to seek an injunction to stop marriages until the case is decided.
Both governments claim to have legal right on their side. The ACT slightly amended its bill at the last minute to try to fireproof it against successful challenge, after lawyers urged it to do so.
Constitutional expert George Williams, from the University of NSW, said the ACT did not go as far as some lawyers advised. The ACT law seeks to fill a gap left by the federal marriage law; Williams says that it would have minimised the constitutional risk if it had set up a distinctive form of same sex marriage.
Abbott’s sister Christine Forster is lending moral support to the ACT but she and her partner Virginia (they are engaged) won’t be taking advantage of its law, even if it stands up.
“Virginia and I have talked about it at some length,” Forster told Sky TV today.
“We’re both Sydney girls, we live here, our families are here. … We’ve decided that for us, we want to wait until we can get married here in Sydney.”
In the federal parliament, the question is whether the issue will come up this term, in the form of a private member’s bill - and then whether the Liberals would decide to have a conscience vote, which Tony Abbott has said would be up to the party room.
Forster assumes the matter will arise this term and says “I fervently hope that there will be strong voices in the [Liberal] party room for a conscience vote”. Labor already has one.
A spokesman for the Greens, who pushed the issue in the last parliament, said: “we are contemplating introducing a bill and believe there needs to be cross party sponsorship”. But the provisions for private members' bills are likely to be much less generous in this parliament than in the “hung” one.
Forster doesn’t think Abbott will ever change his opposition to gay marriage. “But that doesn’t mean that he would stand in the way of the change happening, if he saw that it was the view of his party.”
Williams says it is hard to predict how the High Court will go. Two of the seven judges are new; this sort of issue was not envisaged when the constitution was written.
If the ACT law held up, it would be an enormous fillip for the gay marriage cause, and would likely hasten federal action. If the law fell over, the implications are less clear.
It would be a set back. But Williams points out much could depend on the nature of the judgement – whether, for example, the judges gave an indication that the different drafting approach being taken at the state level - NSW and Tasmania – might survive challenge.
The government has decided on a legal challenge because the alternative course - trying to override the ACT legislation by means of a federal bill - would raise problems of Senate numbers and perhaps argument in the Liberal party room.
If the High Court upheld the ACT law it would be still open to the Abbott government to attempt parliamentary action. But the politics of that would be messy – apart from the existing difficulties, the government would seem to be thumbing its nose at the umpire.
Listen to Christopher Pyne on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison has embraced secrecy with indecent relish, and it is starting to get him into trouble.
His policy of announcing boat arrivals once a week, when they are transferred offshore, in the “Operation Sovereign Borders” news conferences is looking slightly ridiculous.
“We’re running a military-led border security operation,” Morrison told Sky today. From what we glean, those involved – military and civilian – are doing much what they were doing before.
It’s just that Morrison - and the government generally - has imposed a silence on all relevant authorities. Even the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which used to speak directly to the media on rescue operations, cannot do so. Queries must go to Operation Sovereign Borders.
Morrison’s attempt at information minimisation is never going to work because a lot of people (casual observers as well as officialdom) know things and both mainstream and social media will rush to get the stories out. The minister risks looking like the man who holds a leaking hose and gets sprayed in the process.
His secrecy can backfire in another way. Morrison has made a hash of dealing with an incident at Manus Island that occurred late last week. He was caught short when asked about it at a Friday news conference – he didn’t intend to raise it - and later had to correct himself.
Today he complained about “hysterical claims” about the incident, which involved a clash between PNG police and defence force personnel. Failure to provide quick, accurate and full information have possibly led to exaggerated allegations.
Morrison’s general approach, including questions not being answered for “operational” reasons, smacks of arrogance. “Operational” is being given a absurdly wide definition. Refusal to disclose arrivals boat by boat makes even less sense considering boat numbers have declined.
The minister is desperately trying to deny any credit to Kevin Rudd for the reduction, but the former PM’s draconian PNG solution was the big strike, with the new government backing up with its own actions.
Morrison’s instruction that arrivals are now to be called “illegal maritime arrivals” rather than “irregular arrivals” is another sign of his attitude.
Put aside the argument about whether “illegal” is correct terminology (each side can make a case). Why would he bother? Mainly to try to attach, in the public mind, the label ‘'bad’‘ to these people. “I’m not going to make any apologies for not using politically correct language to describe something that I am trying to stop,” he declared today.
One would have thought he would have more to occupy his attention. With so many people on Manus Island and Nauru, Morrison is sitting on a powder keg. It’s a situation where anything could go wrong at any point, made more difficult by the fact that it will take a long time to clear this backlog of people, quite apart from future arrivals.
The Abbott government has already indicated in its brief time in office that it wants to exercise as much control over information as possible. The PM’s office, for example, is anxious to have broad control of ministerial media plans.
Last week also saw another example of official secrecy when the Treasury rejected a freedom of information request to release its “blue book” advice to the incoming government.
The decision has been made by the department – rather than the government - and can be appealed. Redacted advice came out after the last two elections. But Treasury noted in 2010 “the strong views” of Tony Abbott that “the release of incoming government briefs would contravene the Westminster conventions”.
Among factors against disclosure the Treasury gave last week were that: “It is imperative that the Treasurer be provided with the opportunity to consider and reflect on the contents of the incoming government brief as he prepares to implement the government’s election commitments.”
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen says the opposition will pursue trying to get the information made public.
The emphasis on secrecy and control comes as new evidence shows the public’s distrust of government and political institutions.
Research out today tells a now familiar story. Monash University’s survey “Mapping Social Cohesion”, financed by the Scanlon Foundation found that between 2009 and 2013 trust in the government in Canberra “to do the right thing for the Australian people” had declined by 21 percentage points.
In 2009, 48% of respondents thought the government in Canberra could be trusted “almost always” or “most of the time”. In a big shift, only 31% had trust in 2010. By 2012 this was down to 26%; this year it was 27%.
The proportion believing government can be trusted “almost never” rose from 8% in 2009, to 15% in 2010, 20% in 2011 and 24% in 2012; in 2013, however, there was a fall to 19%.
Interestingly trust is related to age. It is relatively high among the young. In 2013 40% of those aged 18-24 believe the government in Canberra can be trusted “almost always” or “most of the time”. This fell to 26% among those 25-34%; 26% among those 35-44, 28% among those 45-54% and 27% in the 55-64 age group. Only 20% of those 65 and over thought the government could be trusted.
When people were asked about institutions, the lowest levels of trust were in trade unions, federal parliament and political parties.
The Australian distrust and disillusionment are in line with trends overseas, but are of concern nonetheless.
The Monash report says: “While issues of trust in Australia reflect global trends, Australia does not have the level of economic difficulties that characterise much of the developed world.
“Negative factors specific to Australia include the tone of Australian parliamentary debate, the extent of personal attacks on politicians in the media, and the fierce politicisation of climate change and asylum seekers issues.”
The latest survey of 1200 people was done in July and early August – before the change of government, reflecting a significant decline of trust in the Labor years, and before the revelations of over-claiming and rorting of parliamentary entitlements. Funds now paid back have varied from claims for attending political colleagues weddings, including by Abbott and now Attorney-General George Brandis to Liberal backbenchers Don Randall claiming for a trip from Perth to Cairns with his wife in relation to the purchase of an investment property.
Nothing is more likely to boost public cynicism in politicians. Although the guidelines are clear enough and don’t objectively require strengthening, there is an argument for doing so to increase public confidence in the system. On the other hand, people are so distrustful of politicians' motives they’d probably view that totally cynically.
Listen to Christopher Pyne on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
The more things change… Labor is making a new start with Bill Shorten but the old ways are alarmingly entrenched in the form of ALP factional power.
One small episode tells the wider story. Right wing power broker Senator Don Farrell, among the so-called faceless men who helped oust Kevin Rudd in 2010, has himself been ousted by the voters of South Australia. The 59 year old Farrell is due to leave the Senate mid next year.
Despite this, earlier in the week he was chosen for the frontbench by his faction and rubber stamped by caucus. Bill Shorten, in his allocation of positions, has now made him shadow minister for the centenary of ANZAC.
That commemoration falls in 2015. No matter. Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek tried to argue that this job was not to attend the event, just to make preparations. If this sounds a stretch, it is. The truth is that the ALP is expected to punt one of its own SA senators so Farrell’s parliamentary career can continue.
This is not the only current example of Labor treating the electorate with contempt. Bob Carr, recruited by Julia Gillard to become foreign minister during the last parliament, has just been elected for a six-year Senate term. Now Carr is set to announce his departure. He had a great time, albeit a very short time, in federal government, mostly spent travelling the world, but he’s not going to hang around for the drudgery of opposition.
The NSW right has already lined up a defeated MP, Deb O'Neill, to get his spot. It’s all neatly sorted.
It is one thing for a leader to bail out of parliament immediately after a defeat but another for others to do so in this cavalier fashion (or, in Farrell’s case, to push someone else out so you can stay there). In the Senate these shenanigans are temptingly easy because replacements don’t require byelections but that’s not an excuse.
In doling out jobs to his team, Shorten has flagged significant personal priorities. He will himself be taking on specific responsibility for science and for small business. The first signals that he wants the opposition to develop and push clever country ideas, a smart tactic because it should give the opportunity for some innovative policy. Small business has been a natural constituency for the Coalition, but there are many “battlers” there; Shorten will seek to reach what he described as “the backbone of many communities of Australia”. It is an example of his wider desire to broaden Labor’s base and appeal.
Among the winners in the jobs carve up is Tony Burke, from the NSW right. When he regained the leadership Kevin Rudd put Burke, a solid Gillard man, into the immigration portfolio, perhaps the worst ministry. In opposition he’s escaped to one of the best positions, becoming finance spokesman. This provides an insight into every area of policy. He’ll also be manager of opposition business (both Shorten and Anthony Albanese promised him that). It’s a role bringing constant exposure when parliament sits, useful for Burke, who harbours long term leadership aspirations.
Jason Clare, another NSW right winger also in the queue of aspiring leaders (probably ahead of Burke), will be pitted against Malcolm Turnbull in communications. The western suburbs of Sydney versus the eastern suburbs, as one ALP source described it.
A couple of clear winners are Kate Ellis (education) and Catherine King (health). They are in traditional core areas for Labor. Ellis will be particularly tested against minister Christopher Pyne, but should have some fertile material as the government grapples with the Gonski patchwork.
The well qualified and just elected Jim Chalmers, former staffer to then treasurer Wayne Swan, has a couple of plum shadow parliamentary secretaryships – to Shorten and to Penny Wong (who will shadow Andrew Robb in trade and investment).
One interesting move is Stephen Conroy (former communications minister) to defence. After he quit the frontbench on the demise of Gillard, Conroy virtually opted out, spending some of the campaign overseas. It was thought he might leave parliament. Taking defence suggests he is re-engaging. This is a challenging job, where substance is more important than the short term politics.
A number of frontbenchers stay in their areas, including the capable former treasurer Chris Bowen and environment spokesman Mark Butler, who will be in the front line of the imminent battle over the carbon price legislation.
In detailing his team’s statistics, Shorten said almost half of the shadow executive would be women and “there will be more working parents than ever before in the shadow executive”.
“In fact, in our leadership group, all of us have a child that is six or under, as we perform our tasks at work. There’s generational change. There’s more Gen X in the shadow line up than has existed before in Australian politics.”
At least child care policies should be top of mind.
Listen to Clare O'Neil and Angus Taylor on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
As Labor’s recent period of extraordinary internal harmony shatters, former cabinet minister Nicola Roxon has excoriated Kevin Rudd, forensically detailing his bad behaviour and declaring he should leave parliament for Labor’s good.
Delivering the John Button lecture, Roxon said that removing Rudd in 2010 “was an act of political bastardry, for sure. But this act of political bastardry was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to many people already”.
His colleagues had “got overcome by politeness” and thought it would save him pain to move on quickly and say as little as possible, but this “polite white lie” turned to poison. “It was something that Julia Gillard wore as a heavy chain around her neck for her entire prime ministership,” said Roxon, a former health minister and former attorney-general who quit parliament at the election.
“In the absence of a more accurate explanation, Julia was painted as a treacherous deputy, although it was spectacularly unfair and way off the mark,” she said.
“If Kevin was an employee … he would have won his unfair dismissal case, not because there wasn’t cause to dismiss him but because we didn’t explain the reasons properly to him, let alone to the voting public.”
Roxon warned that the “bitter truth” was that as long as Rudd remained in parliament, “irrespective of how he behaves, pollsters will run comparisons with him and any other leader.
“For the good of the federal parliamentary Labor party and the movement as a whole, Kevin Rudd should leave the parliament, otherwise the actions of any Labor leader will always be viewed through the prism of popularity compared to him.”
Rudd has also come under criticism from Maxine McKew in her just released update of her book Tales from the Political Trenches.
McKew, who beat John Howard in his seat in 2007 but lost in 2010, was close to Rudd. But she writes he was off his game in the 2010 election and had created confusion around his own persona.
While the leadership ballot, which elected Bill Shorten, kept the ALP together and in good spirits, this week has been marked by infighting over the frontbench, a bitter outburst from former speaker Anna Burke about the influence of the “faceless men”, and the obvious fact that the factions are still having massive influence, which has stopped as much new blood coming into Labor’s front line as would have been desirable.
Roxon, who criticised Rudd at the time of the 2012 challenge, in tonight’s speech painted him as appalling to other people, a treacherous leaker and stalker of Gillard, unable to deliver on commitments and with a shambolic method of governing. She documented his behaviour in an address framed around “practical tips” for the next Labor government and ALP MPs on how to conduct themselves.
She recounted that when Rudd was barnstorming the country visiting hospitals, on one occasion “over 20 hotel rooms had to be paid for, as the hospital we were scheduled to visit the next day was changed en route in the PM’s plane” and it was too late to cancel the booking.
Several times she, Gillard, treasurer Wayne Swan and senior staff were as told on Friday or Saturday to be at The Lodge on Sunday.
“On one occasion staff spent the whole day on the lawn playing handball, not allowed in but not allowed to go home and rest or be with their partners or family. More than one relationship was destroyed by this relentless disorganisation.”
In 2007 “Kevin was great at the cut through and then struggled at the follow through. In contrast, Julia was brilliantly thorough at delivering but couldn’t always deliver the message.
“Kevin had a fatal attraction to everyone else’s problems. He never saw a problem that he didn’t believe he should try and fix.” Two examples were his interfering and demanding approach to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster and the Victorian bushfires. “Neither of these were situations where the Commonwealth could have much of a direct role and these excessive meetings called by Kevin in the middle of a crisis took up valuable time of the frontline officials.”
Rudd had “a terrible habit of attending meetings not having read detailed papers that he had commissioned at the last meeting, often very complex ones at short notice.
“I remember one meeting only days before Christmas in 2009 when a total rewrite of health policy was demanded before Christmas. Despite many hours of work into the night, I do not believe that paper was ever to this day read by the PM, let alone over a Christmas holiday he had already ruined for others.”
Roxon said that some issues seemed to run for months, even years without them able to be brought to a head. There was no avenue for ministers to bring legitimately tricky issues to cabinet for real discussion.
“Kevin as PM simply refused to list contentious and often strategic items for cabinet.” She admitted she and other ministers should have insisted on bringing on those discussions.
Rudd had “an overwhelming inclination to focus on the minutiae as a way of avoiding the big, harder decisions”.
Roxon said the outcome from the Copenhagen climate change conference could have been prepared for differently if Rudd had allowed then climate change minister Penny Wong to bring a proper discussion to the full cabinet.
“In addition to the lack of cabinet engagement on some big strategic calls, cabinet was misused by being asked to deal in enormous detail with material it could never hope to be fully across.”
Roxon said that because of Labor’s leadership tension since 2010 “and the relentless stalking of Julia by Kevin’s supporters” every substantive policy issue or decision was viewed through the unhelpful prism of personality or leadership. The leakers and those playing kamikaze politics used issues day in and day out “to keep the leadership issue burning”.
Even if one accepted that the method of Rudd’s removal was unfair “nothing excuses persistently destabilising and leaking against your own team during an election or as a senior minister or as a backbencher.
“I don’t think anyone can any longer be in doubt about how trenchantly and continuously this occurred at both Kevin’s hand and his supporters.”
“Although his removal was dramatic and brutal, it was his refusal to recover with dignity, to rise above the treatment he was meted out … that in my view showed his true nature.”
Urging in one of her tips the need to be polite and “keep yourself nice”, Roxon recalled TV footage of Rudd ignoring the then NSW premier Kristina Keneally during the health negotiations, which had given NSW the upper hand for the first time. “Disparagingly calling her Bambi behind closed doors was silly when in fact she was whip smart and went on to run rings around us.”
She said the Garden Island announcement in the 2013 campaign – when Rudd disparaged NSW premier Barry O'Farrell - “underscored this lesson hadn’t been learned”.
Rudd had always treated her respectfully, Roxon conceded. “Although I was frustrated beyond belief by his disorganisation and lack of strategy, I was never personally a victim of his vicious tongue or temper. I did however see how terribly he treated some brilliant staff and public servants.”
Roxon said Labor had become risk averse, trying to avoid ballots rather than recognising “it is good to have a go and you will win some and lose some”. She said local members should be given more autonomy to raise and campaign on issues for their community.
The government has declared that it won’t extend the carbon tax beyond June 30, even if the Senate does not pass the repeal legislation by then.
The draft legislative package was released late today, and business and other stakeholders will be briefed tomorrow, as a new round of the game of bluff and blame begins over the first item of legislative business when the new Parliament commences in mid November.
The consultation paper states: “The Government will not extend the carbon tax beyond 2013-14, even if the Parliament does not pass the carbon tax repeal bills until after 1 July 2014.”
The government is telling business it would eventually get the repeal through and it would retrospectively remove liability for the tax. A spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt said tonight: “There is no requirement for businesses to purchase permits beyond the current 2013/14 year.”
Another (unstated) message is also loud and clear: don’t hold your breath for the double dissolution that Tony Abbott has threatened if he can’t get his way. The government says it wants the repeal asap but in fact it is willing to be patient.
The government today wanted the emphasis on the politics. Holding a news conference before the legislation was released, Abbott, invoking religious rhetoric, insisted that Labor would pass it before June 30.
“The new leader of the Labor party is nothing if not a political pragmatist - he is nothing if not a political survivor.
“The absolute lesson of recent Australian political history is that political parties cannot defy the public view, and the public view is overwhelming that they don’t like this toxic tax.
“Now we are giving the Labor party a chance to repent of its support for the carbon tax.
“We are giving the Labor party a chance to repent of its massive breach of faith with the Australian people in the last parliament. I think the Labor party, being pragmatic political survivors, will ultimately embrace that opportunity.”
So far, there is not much sign of “repentance”.
Labor’s spokesman for climate change Mark Butler said Labor “won’t back down on acting on climate change”.
Noting Kevin Rudd’s pre-election promise to bring forward the move to an emissions trading scheme, Butler said that “Labor stands by its election commitment to support the termination of the carbon tax provided that a market mechanism that reduces carbon pollution is put in its place”.
He said the Coalition intended to throw out the baby with the bathwater and leave Australia with no credible policy on climate change.
Bill Shorten during his leadership campaign indicated he believed Labor should stand by its carbon pricing policy. Labor is expected, as a tactical move, to introduce a private member’s bill or an amendment for an ETS. It is assumed that it will oppose the repeal legislation.
While there are some political costs in not accepting the government’s “mandate” – and the issue is complicated by Labor’s pre-election adjustment of its own policy - there would be difficulties within his party for Shorten in appearing to roll over.
If Labor does hold its line and the government has to wait for the new Senate, businesses in making their decisions would have to take the government on trust that after June 30 they would not be liable for the tax or if they became liable the government would give them a refund.
The expectation is that enough of the new crossbench senators, who include those from Clive Palmer’s party, would back repeal. How much time that would take is another matter, Clive is not beyond playing hard to get for a while, and so may others.
Although much of business is looking forward to the end of the tax, for some companies that will bring fresh challenges, including dealing with contracts that have some carbon factors built in and with later arguments about whether they have reduced prices sufficiently.
Labor has returned the right to choose frontbenchers to the caucus but today’s results show that whether it rests with the leader or parliamentary party, the party’s factions remain at the heart of the process.
At the caucus meeting everyone who stood for the shadow ministry was elected. And no one ran for it who had not been put up by the right or left faction, except Andrew Leigh – and he had been given the nod to get the one spot set aside for an independent.
There was one contest – for the position of chief whip. Anna Burke, the former speaker, lost to Chris Hayes, and immediately (and not for the first time) lashed out at factional stitch ups.
“Having left a room where I must admit the bulk of people… didn’t vote for me … not on the basis of merit or perceived capability but on the numbers and the deals done beforehand, one has to question the newly found "democracy” in the Labor party, and the notion that we all have a say,“ she wrote for Guardian Australia.
“The current outcome of the shadow ministry reflects an immediate reversion to the ‘faceless men’ being firmly in control … Caucus voted on factional lines for the leadership and then sub-factional lines for executive positions.”
Burke has also turned it into a gender issue, saying it looked like a “couple of blokes” sitting round carving up the spoils, with the right putting up hardly any women, and none from Victoria.
At the start of his campaign for the top job Bill Shorten nominated former health minister Tanya Plibersek as his preferred deputy; predictably she was unopposed.
Plibersek is a good choice. From the left, she is articulate and an impressive television performer; her experience in cabinet should have given her a grasp of issues across the board. She’s the woman Julia Gillard indicated (in a post election interview) that she would like to see as leader one day.
There are two women in the four person leadership team (and 11 in the shadow ministry), with Penny Wong retaining the position of Labor leader in the Senate.
But a third woman, Victorian right Senator Jacinta Collins, who was previously deputy leader in the Senate, has fallen victim to former communications minister Stephen Conroy, who had the weight in the Victorian right.
Conroy, who was Senate leader when Gillard was overthrown, quit the frontbench then. He and Shorten fell out bitterly over Shorten’s desertion of Gillard. But mutual aspiration reunited the factional brothers, and Conroy threw every effort into helping Shorten get elected.
The right gave each state its shadow ministry allocation, which meant that if Conroy was to be accommodated, one of Mark Dreyfus, David Feeney or Jacinta Collins had to go. Dreyfus, former attorney-general was considered too good, Feeney was too powerful. That left Collins, even though, in formal terms at the end of the government she was the most senior of the trio. So the woman who had had an extraordinary ride up the escalator in the last days of the Labor government has gone down as rapidly.
In the ultimate measure of factionalism, South Australian right powerbroker Don Farrell remains on the frontbench even though he has lost his Senate seat from mid next year (although there is talk of pushing another senator out so he can survive).
Labor’s shadow ministry differs only marginally from its old frontbench at election time, perhaps not surprising given the loss of many seats. There are half a dozen newcomers (some of whom had been parliamentary secretaries): Feeney, Doug Cameron, Andrew Leigh, Shayne Neumann, Claire Moore and Michelle Rowland.
Leigh, briefly a parliamentary secretary under Julia Gillard, is a talented economist, Rowland (from the right) got a swing to her in her western Sydney seat, courtesy of the appalling performance of Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz.
Warren Snowdon and Kate Lundy, junior ministers in the Labor government, did not make it onto the left ticket. They both bucked the left line and voted for Shorten rather than Anthony Albanese. They were among nine who did – which cost Albanese the leadership.
Leftwinger Laurie Ferguson (who voted for Shorten) tweeted that Lundy was victim of “collateral payback”. But other left sources say it was not “ratting” that cost the pair places. Within the left, there were twice as many in wanting positions as there were spaces in the left allocation.
It’s the leader’s right to appoint the shadow parliamentary secretaries although these positions have also been part of the wider negotiations. This level is a “nursery” for the more senior positions so Shorten needs to load as much talent into it as possible.
Shorten will announce his distribution of portfolios late in the week; he can’t afford to put the wrong people in key jobs because underperformers would hold him back and trying to shuffle them later can end up a difficult and politically costly exercise.
Jim Chalmers is the guest on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.
Bill Shorten’s becoming opposition leader gives Tony Abbott greater reason for concern than an Anthony Albanese victory would have done.
The ALP has opted for the man seen as more likely to take Labor into a new era, with the better chance of reaching out to the aspirational voters that the ALP will need to re-attract.
Shorten might not have Albanese’s aggression in Parliament, but that is not what’s most important for Labor’s leader just now. The main imperative is looking forward, to identify where the party should be when the next election comes. Holding the government to account is a necessary part of the opposition’s role but it is not sufficient.
Certainly voters are sick of the high octane mutual attacks of the last few years. Abbott won with negativity primarily because it resonated with voters' opinions of the Labor government, not because they liked it per se. Anyway, to the extent it’s needed, Albanese is there to help with the negative side of the heavy lifting.
Shorten will also have other strong players around him: Tanya Plibersek, his choice for deputy, is due to be elected tomorrow (good to have a woman when the government has so few, and Plibersek’s media savvy); the competent and experienced Chris Bowen will be shadow treasurer. The new leader’s first test will be how he allocates portfolios among the frontbench the caucus elects. It will be bad news if factional hacks do well.
Shorten, who entered parliament on the 2007 Rudd wave, has shown policy and political skills. As parliamentary secretary for disabilities (a position he was initially dismayed at being given) he started the ball rolling towards disability insurance, one of the most important legacies of the Labor government. He made a fair fist of workplace relations; in the government’s last days he negotiated well on the Gonski package.
But opposition leadership is an entirely different game, especially for someone who has spent his whole parliamentary career in government. Suddenly, there is no department to call upon, resources are short, relevance is more limited. The job is not called the hardest one in politics for nothing. It takes stamina, patience and (as Abbott showed so well) discipline. Shorten will have to make sure his short fuse is always under control (think previous altercations in a pie shop and taxi).
Shorten was the preferred choice of the caucus by almost two thirds to one third, but only won just over 40% of the rank and file vote. It would have been potentially more difficult if the winner had lacked caucus support; and the rank and file are more left, so their opting for Albanese wasn’t surprising. But Shorten acknowledged that he has work to do with the party at large.
Critics will point to Shorten’s role in first knifing Kevin Rudd and then switching back to Rudd, deserting the woman he helped install. Some in the party regard him with great distrust. Will voters care? Not so much if he does a good job, and can tap into what is concerning ordinary people.
He will carry some scars for his behaviour but the difference with the scars that did so much damage to Gillard is that he has always been seen as the schemer while she enjoyed a more benign image, and so people were shocked when she struck. His background as a former union heavy also has its drawbacks. But offsetting that is the fact he has good links into the business community.
Some would argue it would be better for Shorten not to be in the job at the moment because the leader now is unlikely to be the next Labor PM – that Abbott will get two terms at least and Labor will change leaders.
But Shorten had no choice but to run. When he has worn his ambition on his sleeve probably from kindergarten days, it would have looked odd or opportunistic not to have fronted. In politics you take the opportunities when they come.
Also, anything can happen. Who would have thought Abbott, who got the leadership by one vote, would have lasted four years as opposition leader and done so well at his first election?
Unless there is a change in ALP rules Shorten’s leadership is safe for this term. Under the “Rudd rules” it takes 60% of caucus to initiate a spill against an opposition leader. Assuming the Coalition does win next time, Shorten would face another ballot (if he was opposed). By then, there could be other ambitious people with eyes on the prize such as Chris Bowen and Jason Clare in his own right faction. Shorten would need to have done well enough electorally to earn a second go.
The political rise and rise of Clive Palmer has a long way to play out. Tony Abbott is no doubt rejoicing that from July the Senate will lean more to the right - he should be okay to get the carbon and mining taxes repealed. But the power of the Palmer United Party looms as something of a nightmare.
Palmer will play things toughly and shrewdly. His huge resources enabled him in effect to buy a big junk of political power – through the amount he could spend on advertising and the number of candidates he could run, which maximised PUP’s Senate vote (he has got $2.2 million back in public funding).
He has three senators (subject to a recount in Western Australia, announced today), half the number of crossbenchers the government needs to pass legislation. Today he announced an alliance with a fourth, Ricky Muir from the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. A “memorandum of understanding” has been signed; PUP and Muir will work and vote together. That leaves two other newbies who will be sharing the balance of power (when the Greens side with Labor), Bob Day of Family First and David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party, plus existing senators Nick Xenophon and John Madigan.
That means PUP will be able to stop the government passing bills it opposes and its support will be necessary (but not sufficient) to get bills through.
If PUP lost the WA seat on a recount, it would no longer be in such a pivotal position, with only two of the magic number of six. But Palmer’s arrangement with Muir has given him insurance against that contingency.
The government will be looking with some alarm at that deal. It hoped to be able to negotiate with the “micros” individually. Palmer is alert to that tactic. He noted on the ABC’s Lateline on Wednesday that Senate leader Eric Abetz had said he wanted to deal with senators one by one. “That won’t be happening with us or with our friends. He’ll have to deal with us as a group, otherwise he won’t be dealing at all.”
At the moment Palmer is ahead by a handful of votes in the seat of Fairfax but there is a recount underway, so it’s not clear whether he personally will be in parliament.
That recount, incidentally, is another example of Palmerism at work. Electoral officials have never seen the like of it. More than 20,000 votes that have been challenged for one reason or another by PUP or the LNP. It is estimated that the recount in this one seat will take until the end of next week. Imagine what the Senate recount in WA will be like.
Political sophisticates have been inclined to say dismissively that if Palmer is elected he’ll not bother turning up much in Parliament. One is reminded of the Labor people who used to write off Tony Abbott as unelectable. It is too easy to underestimate political players.
Palmer’s achievement in starting a party from nothing and in the same year garnering enough votes to grab partial Senate balance of power (and not just with one fluked place) indicates what he can do. Why, with so much scope for influence, would he not be focused on how he would use it – and on how to get more? Even if he didn’t hold Fairfax on the recount, he is likely to remain engaged. (On the other hand, over time he might find his team tricky to handle.)
The first thing he is trying to get is extra resources. Those are in the gift of the government. “We’ll be seeking from the Prime Minister the same level of resources that the Greens had in doing the same job”.
But the Greens have party status and many more senators. No matter, in Palmer’s view. “It’s not about the number of senators, it’s the volume of work”. He warned: “We won’t vote for legislation till we fully understand it”. Abbott is unimpressed, flagging today there would be no largesse for the PUPs – he would stick to the staffing convention.
PUP is still a micro party but it is possible that it is on its way to becoming a minor party, like the Australian Democrats were. Palmer plans to run candidates in state elections. How he does at the next federal election will depend on many factors, not least the way in which he uses his influence. If he overplays his hand, that could rebound on him.
It is very unlikely that PUP will become a long term part of the political system. But a small party that is centrally placed can have a substantial influence for some time, as the histories of those as diverse as the DLP (in its heyday) and the Democrats have shown.
What will be interesting about PUP as this parliamentary term goes will not be just its role on the carbon and mining taxes but how it behave on a whole range of other issues.
It could have been all very different. Palmer originally canvassed seeking Liberal National Party preselection to fight Wayne Swan in Lilley. Abbott didn’t want that to happen. It was important to have a grass roots candidate, Abbott said, “someone who is going to do the hard yards”.
The LNP did not win Lilley. If Palmer had run for the LNP and won that seat (only a possibility) he would have been a noisy irritant on Abbott’s backbench. He would not be determining the fate of legislation. Maybe in retrospect, Tony might be wondering whether he made a bad call on that one.
Before the election, I asked Tony Abbott how he saw the prime role of higher education – as a contributor to boosting Australia’s productivity, or as education for its own sake?
I had rather expected him to mouth the mantra of productivity, which has become the usual one from politicians recently. His answer surprised me:
He said: “Well I’m pretty old fashioned. Obviously the higher education sector is a contributor to GDP, and it is important for our economy, but in the end universities are there to pursue learning, they’re there to be the guardians of truth, they’re there to push the boundaries of knowledge.
“And while there are all sorts of economic spin offs as a result of that, my conservative old-fashioned view says these things are worthy in and of themselves, not just as a means to an end.”
An attitude, he said, that he took from reading Cardinal Newman. It’s also the sort of view held by a former Liberal prime minister, Robert Menzies.
At one level Abbott’s view is reassuring. But I don’t think it is the way most people are regarding education these days. It seems to me that it is increasingly being viewed in highly commercial terms, as a commodity, and operating in a marketplace.
Indeed this is much more so now than when I was tutoring at a university in the 1960s and early ‘70s. It is a quite modern phenomenon. And we may only be at the start of a more dramatic process.
The new view has consequences for what is taught, how it is taught, where it it is taught, and the relationship between teachers and students. Students don’t, in the old romantic notion, sit (figuratively speaking) at the professor’s knee; they rate the professors and demand value for money.
And so do governments.
So in thinking about education and its place in the future political landscape we need to look at its several faces, each with its own purposes and demands. The faces are inter-related and sometimes interdependent but can be conflicting.
Before we explore these faces, let’s briefly reprise how big political decisions have transformed Australian education. I’ll mention here some of the major changes at both tertiary and secondary level.
Going right back to the late 1950s and the 1960s, Menzies took important decisions on both tertiary and schools education.
Incidentally, I don’t think Menzies ever called himself the “education prime minister” but he actually was.
His prime ministership started the dramatic expansion of Australia’s universities. His funding for science blocks moved the Commonwealth into schools policy, a state area, and took on and politically exploited the state aid issue.
Menzies regarded his role in growing, fostering and funding the university system with special pride. He wrote later that he had had a strong feeling that the Commonwealth must be “the saviour of the universities”.
He also, incidentally, was a pioneer in getting Australia into international education - although in a very different way from what’s happening today.
The Colombo plan that was started in Menzies' time brought students from the region to study in Australia. It was part of a wider aid program - the drivers were diplomatic as well as centred on the needs of recipient countries. The legacy has been manifold – generations of Asian leaders and movers and shakers had a great deal more exposure to Australia than they otherwise would have. This was a very special educational “export”.
The next big landmark was the move by the Whitlam government in the early ‘70s to make university education free. Such a decision is inconceivable today, when money is very tight (it should have been tighter under Whitlam but that’s another story) and the principle is user pays.
But that change was transformational for many people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and mature-age women who had not had the opportunity for university.
Whitlam in 1973 described it as “the greatest thing we have done so far… Even if our government was to disappear from the scene within the next few months this is an enduring legacy. This will mean that every Australian will have a better opportunity in life than he would normally have had. This has been a great breakthrough.”
It also highlights the different way higher education was viewed, compared with now. It was seen as a right to which people were entitled, a opener of opportunities, which also involved the opportunity to earn a better income. There was not the belief that having gained something that would lead to better earning power, one should be obliged to pay for it.
In the 1980s, under another Labor government, we saw the trend in the other direction, with the advent of the HECs scheme, which contributed (perhaps not intentionally on Labor’s part) to the idea of education as “product”.
The chill winds of financial strictures were blowing. That caused the imposition of HECs but the notion of the market was starting to intrude. It was not just a matter of people who benefitted from education repaying their general debt to society; there was a feeling that those who had received a personal gold card, as it were, should pay it off when they reached a certain income.
Former education minister and now interim Labor leader Chris Bowen writes in his book Hearts and Minds that he was among the first university graduates to pay HECs for his whole course and recalls the debate among students and in Young Labor.
“I supported it because I could see the inherent logic: our incomes would be higher because we had been to university. By paying for part of our degree as our income increased, we could make a contribution to improved opportunities for so many other people who had previously been denied that opportunity. … Those opposed to HECs argued that a university education was a right that should not be paid for”.
In a ground breaking development, the 1980s also saw universities opened up to full fee paying students from overseas.
At the same time there was a revolution in the structure of the tertiary sector with the abolition of the wall between universities and colleges of advanced education – the changes brought in by Labor minister John Dawkins.
The Howard government made an important change at the schools level, giving encouragement to the setting up of small, low fee schools at a time when parents were wanting to move outside the state system.
Parents liked these schools in part because of the problems in some of the state schools, in terms of learning but also other aspects such as discipline.
Philosophically, the move to the low fee independent schools fitted with the Howard government’s thinking – chiming in with the notions of choice and diversity and moving away from state systems, where teacher unionism was entrenched.
Education was front and centre for the former Rudd-Gillard Labor government’s agenda. At a tertiary level, it made a big change by removing the cap on university places – deregulating the system - and setting a goal of 40 per cent of 25 to 34 years olds having a university degree by 2025. It also set a 2020 target of having 20 per cent of undergraduates from a low socio economic background.
At the schools level, that government brought major change too. Julia Gillard’s My School website, an initiative when she was education minister, enabled parents to be much more informed, discerning, and demanding about the schools their children were attending.
This introduced greater transparency; we can also see it as an element of market forces being brought to bear.
As PM, Gillard’s contribution was the Gonski report on school funding, which proposed directing more money towards schools with greater numbers of students who are disadvantaged, according to a range of measurements.
I referred before to the various “faces” of education; let’s consider some of these.
The most obvious face is education to prepare young people for life and, at a higher level, education for the advancement of knowledge. Education can also be seen as a cultural instrument; a social instrument; and an economic instrument. It can be regarded as a tradable commodity, and as an industry.
These various aspects affect how political decision makers view education and what demands the education sectors can and will make on politicians.
The basic starting point is that education’s function is to prepare the young for their future lives as individuals, workers and citizens. This is the core business of the schools system.
We are in a period of transition and uncertainty here. While there was much praise for the Gonski report and its model, which framed funding on a general per pupil entitlement with various add ons for a range of needs – based around socio-economic status, disability, indigenous background, remoteness, English language proficiency, school size - the planned implementation of Gonski has been progressively “de-Gonskied”.
Firstly, the Labor government did not have the money to fully fund the proposals on the original timetable and also, for political reasons, had to make sure that all schools were winners. So the offer the Gillard government made to states was Gonski on a diet.
Secondly, only some states signed up to the plan. So we had a hybrid situation.
Thirdly, the then opposition, now the government, disputed some of the Gonski plan and preferred the old model, which based funding on the socio economic areas from which students came.
But then, for reasons entirely of political expediency – it did not want education to be a major election issue – the Coalition capitulated and said it would take over the government’s program. But it would only do so for four years of the six year Gillard blueprint (when the major funding was to come in the two years after that).
The Coalition also has different priorities, believing that the main problem is not a major funding gap but the need for better teaching (which does of course cost more money) and the content of teaching.
Christopher Pyne has said in one of his early interviews as education minister: “We have an obsession with school funding in Australia when we should have an obsession with standards. The issue in education is not a lack of money, the issue in education is a lack of a fighting spirit about a rigorous curriculum, engaging parents in their children’s education. The argument around teaching shouldn’t be about industrial relations, it should be around, ‘Are our teachers as high a standard as they possibly could be, and if they aren’t, how do we get them to that point?’”
So how the implementation of the partial Gonski scheme will work out over this term of an Abbott government is not entirely clear, while what would happen if that government had a six or nine year period of office is absolutely a question mark.
Whatever one thinks should be done on schools, clearly Australia has some serious problems at this fundamental foundational level of the education system.
We are not doing as well as we should in the basics. There was a report the other day that 50 per cent of Tasmanians were functionally illiterate. And we are not performing as strongly as we should on some international benchmarks.
On the other hand, getting the basics right is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a first rate schools system.
Incidentally, I think you can have a very good system and still not be number one, or even in the top five (as was Labor’s aim by 2025) in world terms in PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) results. At present the top five in reading are Shanghai, South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. Three of those five are cities, which are not comparable to our diverse country. Australia comes ninth in reading, tenth in science and fifteenth in maths (based on 2009 PISA).
We certainly need to be in the leading cohort, however you want to define that, but this doesn’t necessarily have to mean right at the top.
There is one school of thought that claims that too much emphasis on crude measurement brings the danger of squeezing creativity out of the system, a risk that goes right up to the higher education level.
British educationalist Sir Ken Robinson argues that the current education approach stifles rather than develops natural talent through a combination of factors which he says include “an obsessive culture of standardised testing and tight financial pressure to teach to the tests”.
At university level, delivering the fundamentals involves basic questions of standards of entry, affordability, quality, and the priority given to teaching vis-a-vis research. These have been and are contested areas, especially with a change of government.
Politicians often view education as a cultural instrument. It is at the centre of the “culture wars”. The school curriculum becomes a matter of political dispute, frequently centred on what is taught in history. In the Howard period this was greatly debated with Howard critical of too much emphasis on the “black armband” aspect of history.
The Liberals are once again not happy with the present curriculum. Tony Abbott said during the election campaign there was a “lack of references to our heritage, other than an indigenous heritage, too great a focus on issues which are the predominant concern of one side of politics. I think the unions are mentioned far more than business. I think there are a couple of Labor prime ministers who get a mention, from memory, not a single Coalition prime minister.” He added that he would leave it to the educational experts but the message was clear.
On the Labor side, education is an obvious instrument for pursuing social goals such as promoting equity. This was the aim of the Labor government, behind changes such as demand driven university places system and the targets I mentioned.
Now we are seeing a debate about whether the deregulated system is compromising quality. This is not just being raised by the new government. Labor’s last higher education minister Kim Carr also warned about the risk.
The concerns are that some universities have lowered their entrance levels, and that the rate of drop out is too high. The overall undergraduate dropout rate hovers at around 20 per cent, but this is significantly higher for school-leavers with ATARs under 60, who have a 30 per cent rate. Clearly if these students are to get through, they need greater support during their courses.
The counter argument is that universities don’t have to compromise their entry standards. The choice lies with them on whether to meet the demand. But anyway, the argument goes, the issue is not about those taken in but those produced as graduates, and some of the low entry students do as well as people with higher entry scores.
Maybe some might believe that a modest compromise of quality is worth it if it promotes equity. But that clashes with the needs of the other faces of education.
One of these is education as a driver of productivity. The clever country is the successful country; but also, in this globalised world, a country like Australia has to be clever just to keep up, and that will become harder as regional neighbours improve their performances.
As the old industries wither, we have to hitch our fortunes to the new innovative ones, which has particular relevance for the research side of education. We require not just the basic research breakthroughs – and we have punched well above our weight in this regard – but also the skills to commercialise that research.
Increasingly, as we put various commercial dimensions on education, it is turned into a commodity, which has a range of consequences.
One can be that politicians and as a result the educational institutions come to give priority on the sort of education and research that has a utilitarian value.
It must be linked to what employers want and need, the argument goes. This can work against the humanities, it can mean that the value of a liberal education is overlooked, and it can produce a backlash against research projects that are not seen as “useful”.
In the election campaign the opposition spokesman on government waste Jamie Briggs said a Coalition government would look to retargeting elsewhere “ridiculous” research grants.
“Taxpayer dollars have been wasted on projects that do little, if anything, to advance Australians' research needs,” he said. He pointed to four projects, including one titled “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian idealism”.
The approach is concerning for a couple of reasons. One is the idea of politicians trying to directly meddle in these decisions, which properly should belong to the Australian Research Council.
The second concern is that some projects in the humanities are written off as “ridiculous” in a pretty arbitrary manner.
While I must admit the $443,000 for the Hegel project did sound a lot, the idea that that sort of research is ridiculous shows an unfortunately narrow view of scholarship.
Education taking on the aspect of commodity means students at universities have become “customers”; the teachers and the institutions are the “providers”.
If the customers are not always right in this environment, they will often insist that that they are. They are paying fees, wracking up debt. They want value for money. Not necessarily to sit in lecture theatres. Education provision becomes more of an off-the-shelf environment. Just put the lecture notes on the internet please. On if they have to listen to lectures, the lecturer must be a good performer. A lecturer I once had on Soviet politics, a dour communist who nevertheless tried to be scrupulously objective, with his expositions full of the most tedious detail, wouldn’t cut the mustard.
And when it comes to quality, many of these students will be the guardians. They want their pieces of paper to have a recognisable value with potential employers, and other institutions.
Sometimes maintaining the standards can clash with education as an industry. As an Australian export, education comes fourth behind iron ore, coal and gold and ahead of tourism. The wool industry is modest by comparison.
More than 500,000 foreign student enrolments last year earned $15 billion.
Universities are businesses in a way they never were before. Their vice chancellors are out and about in Asia, selling their wares. The full fee paying students from abroad cross subsidise the domestic students.
In this context also, the issue of standards can become vexed. There is no doubt that there have been and will be pressures to make sure that not too many of the foreign students fail. On the other hand, in a globalised market it is essential that the students from Australian institutions have qualifications that can be relied upon.
A few years ago what was dubbed “Brand Australia” suffered when fly by night colleges teaching vocational skills were discredited and in some cases collapsed. A major reason had been that these courses had simply become a route to settlement in Australia. After a couple of inquiries the integrity of both the educational export sector and the migration system was restored but in the meantime the industry had taken a dent.
As in any other market, you can’t risk the good name of your product or your brand being compromised.
Education is one of the core features of the modern globalised world. With the ability now for it to be spread cheaply, we will see its impact being greater than ever before.
Looking to the future political landscape, what are key factors of changes that will affect Australia’s education policy? They include:
FIRST and most dramatically: unpredictable, innovative and disruptive developments in information technology. These have already had enormous consequences. Most recently we have seen the phenomenon of MOOCs. These Massive Open Online Courses, available from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, have the potential to transform the learning experience for individuals, but also, on the most extreme view, to make and break universities.
The second factor is Australia’s involvement in the Asian century. As Australia further integrates itself in the Asian regional economy it will want to build on the markets it has developed there for selling educational services. But as other countries in the region lift their performances, Australia will face more competition. It is not just a matter of what we do, but what others do.
New trade minister Andrew Robb has said that there is no reason why Australian educators could not be teaching 10 million international students within a decade.
This market however, is likely to become tougher for Australia. We have some first mover advantages. But consider the trends that Melbourne University’s Simon Marginson pointed to in a paper ‘'Globalisation and the challenge for higher education leaders’‘ delivered earlier this year. These are: global rankings of universities, dating from 2003, MOOCs, which started in 2011, and “the rise of higher education and science in East Asia and Singapore changing the global balance of power”.
One would think that none of these would be competitively advantageous to Australia. Yes we have some well ranked universities, yes we can do MOOCs. But we are going to be outranked and out-MOOCed. And where students from the region have looked to Australia, they will in some cases be able to get the same education at home, and in others, to go to competing education providers, which are geographically closer.
Of course there is one competitive advantage that Australia has. That is the possibility of study followed by permanent residency. Many people come in the hope of transforming from student to migrant.
The third factor shaping the future is Australia’s economic and budgetary situation, which has already led to cuts and may lead to more. Nothing is sacred. Under Labor Peter (in the form of the university sector) was robbed to pay Paul (the school sector). Our research is talked about as up with the world’s best but has been raided. New minister Pyne has warned: “We don’t want the universities to be mendicant on the federal government and if we can find any ways for them to raise revenue that are sensible and appropriate – and international education is clearly one of those – that is something we will pursue.”
It may be that in an increasingly market dominated environment the ability of government to influence the university system becomes relatively less. Contrast the various historical changes I outlined earlier. Governments were operating in conditions where the market had not become so central in the world of education.
Stephen Parker, vice chancellor of the University of Canberra, predicts that the multiple changes we are seeing could transform Australian universities in a sweeping fashion.
Here is his glimpse of the future for universities.
… Delivery of basic content would be mainly online, developed in house or bought in and “curated”, with face to face content being through tutorials.
… Assessment of student learning would be externally moderated.
… The education provided would be post secondary but only a few institutions would survive by offering purely ‘'higher education’‘. There would be a new curriculum mix, drawing on vocational and higher education.
… Campuses would be like shop fronts with much of the institution’s business done elsewhere or in the cloud.
… Research and research training would no longer be an essential property of a university.
… There would be an exit from disciplines in which universities cannot be excellent- which they cannot persuade the market to buy,
… Universities would have to run true operating surpluses. Credit ratings would be needed because government capital grants would have dried up, “and the discipline of the financial markets will be brought to bear”.
This picture may excite you or appall you.
Meanwhile, let me finish where I began, with the new prime minister’s thoughts on education.
In one of his signature policies Abbott is trying to marry something of the old and the new faces of education. His idea of a new Colombo plan would send best and brightest young Australians for short stints to Asia.
He said in a speech during his visit to Indonesia, “Operating at different levels and for different periods of time, and often with a business internship component, this new Colombo Plan could provide us with a new and more contemporary version of Rhodes scholars and Fulbright fellow, this time with a strong Asia-Pacific orientation”.
Abbott is of course a former Rhodes Scholar. And Oxford made a big impression on him. Maybe his future grandchildren could get Oxford degrees via MOOCs.
This was an address to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference, October 3.
Thanks to Pera Wells for assistance in preparing this speech.
First it was his political colleagues, to whom he once apologised with the observation that “sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission”. Now the Malaysians are getting a dose of Tony Abbott’s habit, after the event, of seeking political absolution.
Abbott said today he’d “offered an act of contrition” to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak - whom he met during his bilateral discussions at APEC – for the way that Malaysia had been caught up in the rancorous Australian debate over the “Malaysia solution”.
“I made it very clear to the Prime Minister that our opposition was never to Malaysia. It was to the former government. Our criticism was never of Malaysia, it was of the former government.
“I guess you might say that, in my own way, I offered an apology because I appreciate this was a difficult situation for Malaysia and it was only in that difficult situation that because, in its own way, it had tried to help out a friend. … I raised that with him,” he said.
“He knows we play our politics pretty hard in our country and I think he understood.”
Well, that’s good then. Because in opposition the Coalition said some tough things (whether justified or not) that Malaysia would have taken as aspersions.
For instance in July 2012 Abbott said: “Imagine taking boat people from Australia to Malaysia where they will be exposed almost certainly to the prospect of caning …. They will be detained, they will be tagged, they will be let out into the community and in the Malaysian community, people of uncertain immigration status are treated very, very harshly indeed. And what is supposed to protect people in Malaysia from caning and other very harsh treatment is this tag. Well, I mean, the [Australian] government has a lot more faith in tags than I think most people would have.”
All of which, on an ordinary reading, sounds like robust criticism of what happens in Malaysia and how asylum seekers are treated there. And that, of course, was one of the points the Coalition was using at the time – it was saying that Malaysia didn’t satisfy the necessary human rights criteria.
But that was then, and this is another example of Abbott putting the harsher aspects of pre-election rhetoric behind him and seeking to wipe the slate clean, just as he did when making his bilateral visit to Jakarta (there he also sought absolution for what the previous government did).
While it will take a while for informed judgments to be made about Abbott’s foreign policy approach, these early days are pointing to his pragmatism.
Take his approach to Australian-Canadian differences over this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka. He met Canadian PM Stephen Harper who is boycotting the November meeting because of Sir Lanka’s human rights record and was asked about their talks later.
“I explained to him that I think the Commonwealth is important and that’s why I’ll be there. Obviously Australia has some significant bilateral dealings with Sri Lanka over people smuggling as well. I’d be there anyway. … For his own reasons, he thinks that it is important that he make a stand and that’s why he is not going to be there. But I accept that different countries have different national priorities and in accordance with their national priorities, they may or may not attend certain international conferences.”
On another and very important front, Abbott’s pragmatism is evident in his ambitions for the free trade agreement with China. In general, he doesn’t intend the perfect to be the enemy of the good – he wants the negotiations, which started in John Howard’s day, to be concluded ASAP even if this means the deal has to be less than ideal.
He said on Monday that he wanted the agreement to be as comprehensive as possible. “But I’ve always taken the view that you should take what you can get today and pitch for the rest tomorrow when you’ve got a strong foundation to build upon … So we will get the best deal we can. I can’t at this stage say it is going to include everything.
“If it doesn’t include everything, that will be a disappointment but, still, whatever we can get, which is a substantial advance on where we are, is worth having.”
Abbott said it would be “wonderful” if the agreement was in time for his proposed visit to China in the first half of next year, though he conceded that might be too optimistic. But “I would be disappointed if we can’t conclude a significant free trade agreement with China within 12 months”.
Abbott early on has laid down an early marker for this FTA. The questions will be: first, how much will be scope of the agreement have to be limited to get it done in time, and second, will the Chinese extract any concessions on foreign investment guidelines, which (in respect of land) the Coalition has committed to tightening?
It was a freezing winter day in Wangaratta. Some guests stayed in their overcoats throughout the church service. Sophie Panopoulos, who was becoming Mrs Mirabella, was resplendent in gold satin. Greg Mirabella, who served in the army reserve, had obtained whatever special permission one needs to wear military dress for the occasion.
After the ceremony, the bride went back to her electorate office to have a drink with the Canberra-based journalists she’d invited (as guests) from the Melbourne papers. Slightly unorthodox but then Soph is not your usual kind of girl. We reporters filed items for our Sunday papers and then went on to the reception, where a good time was had by all.
Tony Abbott was one of several MPs at the Mirabellas' nuptials in 2006. He claimed more than $1000 of public money for travel expenses which, as controversy swirls about Coalition politicians billing the taxpayers for attending weddings, he has just paid back.
There is no reasonable case a politician could make that the Mirabella wedding was some sort of official work. The only guests who had (light) duties were the journalists (and no, I didn’t claim any expenses from my company). The fact that it was simply a social occasion was implicitly recognised by those politicians who didn’t make claims. George Brandis, also on the guestlist, who has been caught up in another wedding controversy, travelled with fellow senator Brett Mason and neither claimed.
Abbott, questioned in Bali today, said he was Leader of the House at the time and the “Leader of the House of Representatives has certain representational roles”. He ended his media conference while journalists were still trying to quiz him.
He has also paid back money (about $600) for expenses occurred in attending Peter Slipper’s 2006 wedding. Oops, that’s a really bad look. Former speaker Slipper is before a court for allegedly rorting entitlements.
Quite a few Coalition faces are reddening – or should be – as disclosures come out about their old claims. Weddings have been a honey pot.
Brandis and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce have reluctantly coughed up money to repay claims for going to the 2011 marriage of shock jock Michael Smith. Brandis explained after the revelation that it was about fostering “collaboration”. Smith was working on Labor scandals. So this was “primarily a professional rather than a social engagement”. (From all reports, he turned work into play.)
Joyce, Teresa Gambaro and Julie Bishop were given a freebie trip by Gina Rinehart to attend a 2011 wedding in India (the purists might raise eyebrows about that) and then claimed collectively more than $12,000 of taxpayers' money to get home again, saying that various meetings and other activities they added on made study tours (to which they were entitled). (Malcolm Turnbull, questioned at the weekend, strongly defended Bishop’s round of engagements.)
Of course dubious claims are not just on one side. Julia Gillard paid back money when she was deputy opposition leader for partner Tim’s use of her car for a purpose which fell outside the guidelines. When Gillard (as PM) used a VIP plane to attend the Byron Bay wedding of one of her press secretaries, the media raised a question about entitlement – her office said she had other engagements in the area.
Abbott said the Finance department, which administers these things, had said it was not clear whether the wedding claims he made were proper under the rules.
Former Liberal minister Peter Reith made a big stretch when he told the ABC: “you are 24/7 as ministers. This is all part of being a politician. If you get an invitation to go to a private occasion, then the judgment you make as a minister is, is this worth it from a political point of view? And that’s why it is political, getting to know someone on a personal, intimate basis can be a very important part of what you do as a politician.”
Did Abbott, health minister at the time, judge it worth going to Soph’s wedding “from a political point of view”? Didn’t he have plenty of other opportunities to get to know her on a personal basis?
Reith is out of parliament but Coalition politicians who try to defend the wedding claims undermine their own criticisms of misuse and waste of public money.
Even more serious, they reinforce the deep public cynicism over how politicians behave and the gap between their words and actions.
There are calls (from the Greens, independent Nick Xenophon) for tightening the rules about claims. One suspects that actually the problem is not so much with the rules as with the people who are supposed to live within them. Despite the odd legitimate definitional issue (and that’s why MPs can pay back money when mistakes are made) they should be clear enough to anyone who takes a proper and commonsense view of what’s work-related and what’s “personal”. People in other jobs make that distinction all the time. But if it’s beyond the MPs to know the difference, let’s have the tightening so the public can feel some confidence that their politicians are doing the right thing with taxpayers' money.
As Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese had their final face off in the battle to lead Labor out of the Rudd-Gillard era, the former PM received a rapturous response tonight from a 2600-strong audience at Sydney’s Opera House.
For her first public appearance since being overthrown by Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard chose a quickly sold out question and answer session with feminist writer Anne Summers; another will follow in Melbourne tomorrow.
Gillard, just back from the United States, who walked on stage to the song “Respect” used the occasion to announce that she will be a senior fellow at Washington’s prestigious Brookings Institution think tank, working on global education. This is in addition to her honorary visiting professorship at Adelaide University.
Asked to answer those who said Rudd had just done to her what she earlier did to him, she said: “To ask your leader to have a leadership ballot – that’s legitimate. To do things continuously that undermine the Labor party and the Labor government, then of course that shouldn’t be done by anyone… The key difference is every day I was deputy PM I spent all of my time doing everything I could to have the Labor government prosper.”
She said that her arrival as the first female PM “let out this well spring of enthusiasm from women and from many men”.
“But there was also this underside of sexism, really violent, ugly sexism that came forward… I had thought we were beyond that and it’s kind of depressing that we’re not… I think for whoever the next women is, there will be a bit of a pause, breathe, whatever else this female PM does, we don’t want it to be like that for her again.”
Condemning the “infantile conversation about gender wars”, she said:
“You just feel like saying, ‘well if it was your daughter and she was putting up with sexist abuse at work, what would you advise her to do?’ Because apparently if she complains, she is playing the victim, and playing gender wars, and if she doesn’t complain, then she really is a victim. … We’ve got to be able to say… strongly to women and girls, ‘You’ve got a right to an environment that treats you with respect, treats you as an equal and raising your voice about that isn’t starting a war, it isn’t playing the victim, it’s just asking for what simply is right.”
Asked about her communications problems, she said that leaders across democracies were trying to work out “what is the rhythm with which you govern, given this media age where things are instantaneous” which meant the truth could get out instantaneously but lies and half truths could also get automatic and widespread currency.
In a lighter touch, she recounted how the first time she met President Barack Obama at an international conference, he had said he really envied Question Time, to which she shot back, “Are you mad”, then immediately thought “that was a kind of really dumb thing to say to the leader of the free world on first meeting”.
The Q&A Shorten-Albanese debate in Perth, another encounter of mostly mutual agreement, saw them asked whether they would guarantee Rudd would not have a position in the shadow cabinet. Both said that he was not seeking to be on the frontbench. Shorten said he would not be in the business of ruling out a position but pointed out that the frontbench would be elected by caucus, not chosen by the leader.
Shorten said he believed that immigration levels could be raised. Albanese was more cautious, saying he did not have a fixed view – at times immigration should go up, while at times it should go down.
Both agreed Labor should stick with the mining tax. Shorten said Labor had a mandate to stand true on the issue of climate change; Albanese said the then government had not had the numbers to legislate Rudd’s promise to bring forward the change from a carbon tax to an emissions trading scheme. Both supported getting discussion going on moving to a republic but stressed that it was important to take time to ensure that sufficient community consensus was built.
In her appearance, Gillard declined to state a preference between Albanese and Shorten, both of whom voted for Rudd in the ballot that ended her leadership. But she strongly praised Tanya Plibersek (a supporter and in the audience) who has been endorsed by Shorten as his preferred deputy.
After Tony Abbott declaring on election night Australia is again “open for business”, it’s unfortunate that first up Treasurer Joe Hockey has soon to adjudicate on just how “open” the door is.
The decision by Hockey – in formal terms, his alone – on whether to approve the takeover bid by the US-based food company Archer Daniels Midland for Australia’s largest listed agribusiness GrainCorp will send out a major signal about Australia’s attitude to foreign investment.
It is one thing to make welcoming statements but international opinion is moved by what is done.
The man responsible for drumming up more foreign investment, Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb told The Conversation: “It will be watched, mark my words, it is being watched by the international investment agencies and companies”.
Equally it is being watched by many – both critics and supporters - who want to judge how much influence the Nationals will have in this government. Senior Nationals have gone out on such a long limb over this, from leader Warren Truss down, that if the bid is approved they will be faced with explaining their impotence. They have already had their noses rubbed in their perceived protectionism by the trade job being awarded to a “dry” Liberal.
In June Truss warned “This bid would mean that every grain export facility in Queensland, NSW, SA and all but half of one in Victoria, would be foreign owned.” The takeover would hand ADM 280 storage sites in the eastern states, 19 grain trains, three container loading facilities and vital stocks information,” he said. The owners of these vital assets have the ability to decide whether eastern Australia has a grain industry or not.
“ADM is not offering new investment or any new commitments to Australia – just new owners at above market value. What is in this deal for Australia?” Grain storage and handling charges would rise for farmers to pay for the purchase and the profits would be transferred to the new American owners, Truss said.
Truss is being careful in his public comment now, but new minister Fiona Nash, who is the Nationals' deputy leader in the Senate, felt no such restraint this week. She could hardly have been stronger in her comments.
“[The bid] is absolutely without doubt contrary to the national interest,” and Hockey should reject it, she told Fairfax Media, noting that she was a grain grower herself, living amongst those communities. “This is going to have a huge impact on grain growers.” It wasn’t actually a question of foreign “investment”, because the level of extra investment would be minimal – it was just a takeover, she said.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief economist Saul Eslake sees the decision as a “key test of whether the template for this government is that of the Howard government or the Fraser government.
‘'In the Fraser government the Country Party combined with the PM to thwart the aspirations of authentic economic reformers. In the Howard government National Party leaders Fischer, Anderson and Vaile by and large supported market forces, and saw it as part of their role to sell market-friendly policies to otherwise sceptical constituents.
“I suspect that with the exception of Warren Truss, whose instincts are good the Nationals have reverted to their old McEwenite roots, and for them GrainCorp is what Tony Abbott would call a ‘signature’ issue.”
Eslake says the outcome will be seen widely “as a litmus test for the extent of the Nationals' influence, and for where Abbott stands when it comes to a contest between the Nationals and genuine economic liberals”.
Robb says it’s a difficult issue. “I’ve looked at both sides of it, and I’ll give my ultimate advice to Joe Hockey after I talk to more people. You can see that people on both sides of the argument have a legitimate basis.”
He says a lot depends on trust, and judgements about how things would play out in the future – “if they do take over, that the price of things across the wharf are not increasing unduly and that we get much better market access, or if they don’t take over that GrainCorp does in fact provide the continuing access to farmers across the country and that they can perform on world markets as we would expect”.
“My starting point is more disposed to encouraging foreign investment in most cases. But I do accept the argument that there are times when it may not be in our national interest for all sorts of different reasons. But my starting point always is to prove that it is against our national interest if you’re opposed, and those who have got those arguments will be listened to.”
“Whatever decision we take, it needs to be supported with sound arguments … then I think you move on, no matter the decision.”
Asked whether it could be a matter of requiring conditions Robb says he doesn’t want to prejudge it but notes that there are many investments that occur without such a glare of publicity where investors have agreed to conditions “because it would be more acceptable to the market. So they may get a 90% result rather than a 100% result. It’s not unusual to have conditions applied.”
Tony Hinton, who was the Treasury representative on the Foreign Investment Review Board for six years, and a strong supporter of foreign investment, sees the imposition of conditions as a possible way through. “There is a clear capacity of the Treasurer, under advice from FIRB and Treasury, to design conditions that would address any valid concerns of those in the agricultural sector and other interested parties,” he told The Conversation.
Conditions may address valid concerns (including about the company’s past behaviour, which involved price fixing by several executives in the 1990s). But conditions that manage to send the right international message while providing some political cover for the Nationals – they might take some authoring.
Tony Abbott says his foreign policy emphasis is “Jakarta not Geneva” and indeed he will be in Jakarta next week, which will be the first test of his diplomatic skills as he seeks to smooth the asylum seeker issue and emphasise the importance and depth of the bilateral relationship.
But Abbott can’t in fact avoid “Geneva”, if one defines that as including multilateral activities that go well beyond Australia’s backyard. A major reason for that is that he has been left big foreign policy legacy posts from Labor’s time.
The first is Australia’s temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. The second is hosting the G20 in Brisbane in November next year.
Abbott has sent Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to the UN, where among other activities she will address the General Assembly. But the PM is being told he personally needs to get his running shoes on in preparation for the G20. A year might sound a long time but Abbott, being new to the job, is starting from behind for an exercise in which who you know well and how you handle them can be crucial to what you can get out of the occasion.
At the officials level Abbott probably hasn’t helped himself. Only weeks before Australia takes over the G20 presidency, in reshuffling the public service he made Gordon de Brouwer, who has been heading the G20 taskforce, secretary of the Environment department.
Former senior Treasury official Mike Callaghan, now director of the Lowy Institute G20 Studies Centre, set out the stakes for next year’s meeting and what needs to be done in a paper this month.
Callaghan is a former chief of staff to then treasurer Peter Costello; his name has been mentioned in the list of possible candidates to succeed Martin Parkinson as Treasury secretary next year.
Noting that this will be “the most important economic gathering ever held in Australia”, Callaghan warns that if the G20 is not re-energised, its role could be usurped by another forum that doesn’t include Australia.
(In a touch of irony, incidentally, it was Kevin Rudd who, during the global financial crisis, talked up the role of the G20 but Australia has been almost alone in having a leader miss a summit, of which there have been eight. Indeed there have been two occasions, in 2010 and 2013. when Australia was not represented at leader level – one immediately after Rudd’s overthrow, and the other because Rudd was campaigning for the election.)
Callaghan says Australia needs to achieve three objective in relation to next year’s G20: have all the key leaders (who include the presidents of the US and China) come to Brisbane; set a new high benchmark in organising and chairing; and, most importantly, host a summit that achieves some tangible outcomes to strengthen the global economy.
“As early as possible the Prime Minister should make personal contact with G20 leaders and outline Australia’s approach to the G20. Good personal relations with leaders will be vital to achieving progress on difficult subjects,” he wrote. This diplomacy should begin when Abbott goes to APEC in Indonesia early next month and then to the East Asia summit in Brunei, he added.
Abbott would need to quickly identify the meeting’s priorities. “In selecting the priorities for the summit, it is important they are ‘owned’ by the Prime Minister. They must be his priorities and not those of officials,” Callaghan emphasised.
He suggested these should include seeking to resurrect multilateral trade negotiations and advancing progress on climate change, especially arrangements for helping developing countries finance adaptation and mitigation.
These are good priorities – except that the new government is concentrating on bilateral trade deals (it is anxious to finalise a free trade agreement with China even if it is less than first class) and has had little interest in Australia taking a forward role internationally on climate.
He mightn’t like Callaghan’s priorities but Abbott would be wise to heed his advice to put the G20 at the centre, not the periphery, of his foreign policy thinking as soon as possible.
The government sounds as though it’s going to war rather than fighting the people smugglers. A lieutenant general in charge, talking about a campaign plan; as much secrecy as possible; asylum seekers dispatched immediately to a very unhealthy place without the procedures previously thought necessary.
If the boats slow dramatically, and nothing goes wrong, the government will get away with it and be able to claim victory.
But if anything bad happened – such as someone getting really ill when that could have been prevented – it would be another story.
Probably the former Labor government has done the heavy lifting in this exercise, with its drastic PNG solution. The new government is just taking it further. We’ll never quite know, because the Rudd solution, now being built on, ran only for a short time, before the election. Abbott will get the credit if the boats stop in a game of winner takes all.
If the Coalition had still been in opposition, and Labor had said it would announce arrivals weekly rather than boat-by-boat, Scott Morrison would be screaming blue murder. Now he boasts he’s stopping the “shipping news”. He didn’t say previously that the old system should cease because it was helping the people smugglers. There is no good case for the new arrangement; the government is just doing it because it can.
As for the apparently total secrecy when a boat is turned around – “we are not getting into the tactical discussion of things that happen at sea,” Morrison said -how will that work, minister? If you don’t say a boat has been turned back, will the people smugglers do so? Hardly. Maybe word will get around the potential customers but don’t you need maximum publicity as a deterrent?
On the other hand, there’s method here: if the operation is shrouded in secrecy this considerably reduces the pressure on Indonesia, which is not happy about the turn-round policy. And indeed maybe you can avoid actually implementing this difficult measure at all (which would make the Navy happy).
Most serious, however, is the possible danger to people because of inadequate attention to health needs, given that asylum seekers are to be sent off within 48 hours. Morrison says these can be handled at Manus Island and Nauru.“If people are fit to get on a boat, they’ll be quickly deemed fit to fly,” he said. “Issues relating to health and other matters will be progressed increasingly at the other end.” One would worry about whether, in particular, things will be properly dealt with on Manus. There is concern with a communicable disease such TB, where time is required for testing.
The government has legal and moral responsibilities for people’s welfare – unlike an opposition which can just mouth off.
The unfortunate military finds itself being used as the political shield in this operation. There is nothing like standing with a man in uniform when you want to add gravitas and get some protection against charges of excessive secrecy and the like. We know the navy never liked having to turn around boats; the military is presumably even less keen on finding itself at the frontline of the political action.
Tony Abbott faces a major test of his border protection policy when he visits Jakarta next week. The Indonesian government is unhappy about aspects (offering to buy boats as well as turnbacks). A huge amount of behind-the-scenes work will be underway to try to make sure the Indonesian are on board and maybe there will be some trade offs in other areas (the cattle business?). Abbott stresses his visit is about a lot more than boat arrivals but that will be taken as a vital marker of the success of his first overseas trip as PM. He is getting some positive signs: according to sources, the word coming to him from the Indonesians is that they are willing to put aside the public huffing and puffing and give Australia the benefit of the doubt. This doesn’t mean they have changed their position, but they want to get the relationship with the new government started on the right footing.
Listen to the Politics with Michelle Grattan Podcast below, subscribe on iTunes or via RSS. This episode Michelle speaks to Greens leader Christine Milne.
The rather extraordinary exercise in internal party democracy – at least for a major Australian party – that we’re seeing in the ALP is just leading to an appetite for more.
As Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten travel the country, holding rallies of members and using the media to appeal for votes, a grassroots group called Local Labor is seeking detailed commitments from each candidate that, if elected, he would push for a much wider reform of the party.
Their answers will be distributed to the rank and file party members who will start voting this week. Up to 40,000 people are eligible to vote.
One of the ALP figures behind the questionnaire knows a thing or two about promoting the cause of party democracy. Race Mathews, a former federal and Victorian MP (and former state minister), who was founder of Local Labor and is one of its national patrons, worked with Gough Whitlam on party reform in the years before the election of Labor in 1972. That reform process was vital in making the ALP credible for office.
Other national patrons are Carmen Lawrence, Peter Beattie and John Faulkner.
Faulkner, together with former premiers Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, proposed wide ranging changes to make the ALP more democratic in a report done on the 2010 election. But only very limited progress was made at the 2011 ALP national conference, because the proposals threatened the vested interests of party power groups.
Local Labor, which has more than 700 members, was set up to promote the report’s reforms.
In a statement tonight Mathews said this leadership election was “an historic opportunity” to get discussion of further changes, beyond the one now being implemented of allowing the membership a 50% say in choosing the leader.
Among the most important commitments being sought from the candidates are giving priority to locals in preselection and pushing for greater diversity of candidates, agreeing to direct election for all national and state ALP conference delegates, and making it easier for people to join the party, as well as creating a new category of “Labor supporters”.
The questionnaire asks their views on “trialling community based pre-selection primaries open to Labor members and registered Labor supporters and union members in all states and territories.”
The questionnaire also asks the candidates whether they would agree to:
establishing a reform implementation committee to audit and oversee progress on national, state and territory commitments to reform;
introducing annual state-of-the-party reports to measure the ALP’s health and effectiveness;
an education program for party members including ALP history, principles and policies and
increasing online consultation with members to ensure an input to policy formulation.
Mathews said reform was an inevitable process in any organisation wanting to grow and improve its effectiveness.
The involvement of grassroots community organisers in limiting losses in western Sydney was an indication of what could be achieved, he said. Such action would be particularly important in the next federal election where the Abbott government would have many seats on small margins.
Shorten and Albanese are to have at least three debates – in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
Both candidates today indicated the Labor government should not have hit single mothers in a controversial decision in the search for savings.
Alexander Downer, a federal vice-president of the Liberal party, is quite happy to quit that post in compliance with Tony Abbott edict that people who hold party positions can’t be registered lobbyists. Downer, from Bespoke Approach said, “The federal executive of the Liberal party has no power at all. Whether I’m on it or not is immaterial to me. I just do it as a favour”.
The state executive is more important, Downer says, because of its role in preselections. The new rules will stymie a plan for Downer to become South Australian president.
The other Liberal federal vice-president affected is former federal minister Santo Santoro, who said he was waiting to find out more detail. (One of those details is that there will be a period of grace to get one’s affairs in order.)
Anyone who wants to lobby the government commercially must be on the federal register, and meet certain conditions. This week’s planned new requirement relates to office holders across the political spectrum, not just in the Coalition parties.
It has been driven in part by the increasing convergence of political actors and lobbyists. There used to be more separation between the players, campaigners and staffers on the one hand, and lobbyists on the other. Now there is a morphing of the two worlds, and much interchange. Lobbyists move in to help with elections; political staffers move out and use their contacts to earn a living. Downer and Santoro both raise funds for the Liberals.
While the convergence is obvious on the Labor side, ALP-oriented lobbyists are less likely to be found on party administrative bodies. The Abbott decision will have greater consequences on the Coalition side - anyway, it will be Liberal-aligned lobbyists mostly knocking on the ministers' doors. Even before the ban comes into effect two lobbyists, Michael Photios and Joe Tannous have resigned from the NSW executive.
There is a touch of irony in Abbott taking this decision because last year, in a heated session with Clive Palmer (then still in the Liberal National Party fold), he rejected the mining magnate noisy advocacy of such a ban. Palmer was particularly agitated about the influence of Queenslander Santoro; at least some of his concern related to his own business affairs.
When the Queensland LNP later moved a motion for a ban at the Liberal federal council its delegates found themselves isolated, with Abbott among the overwhelming majority against.
Abbott sources are adamant the new PM has thought for some time that such a prohibition is desirable in government. Quite why he was so against it when Palmer put it up is unclear – except that Palmer was seen generally as trouble.
(Since then, Palmer has turned into trouble with a capital T. His party will have a Queensland senator from July 1; it has a good chance of a Senate place in Tasmania and some chance in Western Australia. His own prospect of winning Fairfax remains on a knife edge.)
Also this week NSW premier Barry O'Farrell has announced a similar ban to the federal one. The roles of Photios and Tannous in relation to the NSW government have been very controversial. West Australian premier Colin Barnett says he will bring back a bill that has been stalled: it would ban “success” payments.
Abbott said on Thursday: “I know that all Coalition Governments right around Australia are determined to try to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest, real or apparent.
“I’m determined to ensure that as far as the new Coalition Government in Canberra is concerned, not only is it clean and fair but it’s seen to be clean and fair, and that’s why I’m determined to ensure that you can either be a power broker or a lobbyist but you can’t be both.”
Lobbying has become big business in Canberra. As the political cycle shifts, so does the business cycle for some firms. The industry rearranged itself in the run up to a Coalition government: Liberal-oriented firms preparing for an upturn; some businesses protecting themselves with strategic partnerships or more Coalition-oriented staff.
The Abbott move is a sound addition to the existing rules. People holding party offices do often have a special access to ministers and can be privy to information not generally available; there can be the reality or appearance of a conflict of interest.
Downer told the ABC he had not ever seen such a conflict. “But as they like to say in the media these days, perception is everything and so new and more stringent rules are introduced every time the government of Australia changes. And then there are always debates about whether those rules have been adhered to or whether they haven’t.”
Tony Abbott had hoped he wouldn’t be confronted with the gay marriage issue for quite a while. Now, just a day after the new government’s swearing in, it’s potentially posing a major challenge for him.
The ACT government introduced legislation today to legalise same sex marriage there. It will be passed next month.
Does the Coalition government let it be, or try to overrule it?
Abbott declared today: “Obviously the ACT is entitled to do what it wants within the law …. the Attorney [George Brandis] will be seeking legal advice on precisely how far the ACT can go on this”; he added that “under the constitution the Commonwealth has responsibility for marriage.”
If the government wants to go down the override path it could be fraught for both sides of politics.
Once it was just a stroke of a ministerial pen. But a Greens bill, eventually backed by Labor, went through the last parliament which means that an override would require legislation.
Liberal senator Cory Bernardi (who lost his shadow parliamentary secretaryship because of comments he made in a parliamentary debate on gay marriage) says the government should bring in legislation. “The marriage act is a responsibility of the federal parliament. It’s wrong for states and territories to allow something that is inconsistent with Commonwealth legislation. It’s incumbent on any federal government to protect the responsibilities of the Commonwealth.”
The Australian Christian Lobby said the same sex marriage lobby was using the ACT to pursue an issue which affected the nation and was a matter for the federal parliament. It also urged action to override.
But such legislation would cause some unhappiness in Liberal ranks where is division on the same sex marriage issue.
With Labor and the Greens controlling the Senate until the end of June, such a bill would seem doomed for the time being - if the ALP had a bound vote.
But would Labor MPs be bound? Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus says it would “depend on the terms of the bill – literally. If it squarely raised the same sex marriage issue we would have a conscience vote. If it was somehow more technical, we could have a party vote”.
Greens Sarah Hanson-Young is worried about the possibility of a Labor conscience vote. She called on both contenders for the ALP leadership, Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten, to guarantee Labor would vote as a block against any attempt to override the ACT.
ACT deputy chief minister Andrew Barr, one of those in the forefront of the successful effort to have the 2011 ALP national conference change Labor’s platform to support gay marriage, told The Conversation there definitely should not be a conscience vote if there were such legislation, because the issue was the territory’s right to make its own decisions.
The other route for trying to knock out the ACT law would be a High Court challenge.
The bill applies only to people not covered by the federal marriage act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The ACT some years ago had advice from Stephen Gageler, now on the High Court, that such an approach could stay within the constitution. But ultimately, no one can be sure how the court would rule.
Meanwhile Canberra is looking forward to a marriage-led boost to its pre-Christmas economy. There are no residency requirements under its proposed law. “There are a number of places around Canberra that would provide a beautiful venue for a wedding,” says Barr, who has tourism among his ministerial responsibilities.
Postscript: Gay marriage has intruded into a Labor battle over who succeeds Bob Carr when he quits the Senate. (Carr has just been re-elected for six years but is expected to leave soon – they are already dealing with the succession even before any Carr announcement. That’s Labor’s NSW right for you.)
The Australian Workers' Union’s Paul Howes had been touted for the spot. But Howes today pulled out. Joe de Bruyn’s Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association is backing SDA-aligned Deb O'Neill, recently defeated in the seat of Robertson.
The pro-O'Neill forces are promoting her on gender grounds but Howes clearly believes his pro-gay marriage views are a factor in the opposition to him within the right. “Maybe it would have been a different kettle of fish if I had a different view,” Howes told his news conference.
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In its shake up of the public service heads, the Abbott government has not repeated John Howard’s day of the long knives. Rather it’s taken a short scalpel in a surgical operation.
Three secretaries have been flicked and the Treasury head, Martin Parkinson will be moved off mid next year. All these decisions are political.
Parkinson’s future under a Coalition government has been a matter of endless speculation, running into years.
The Coalition thought Treasury had been politicised by Labor. Parkinson got some marks for distancing himself from the ALP’s attempt in the campaign to use Treasury costings in trying to discredit the opposition’s savings numbers. But not enough.
Parkinson is well known for being assertive in his dealings, but Hockey did seem willing to have a trial marriage.
One of the strikes against Parkinson was that he headed the then Climate Change department and was at the centre of Labor’s work on a carbon price. This was particularly in the mind of some in the Abbott office.
The new government couldn’t conveniently turf Parkinson out immediately. It’s a difficult time economically; there is a budget to put together.
In his statement Tony Abbott said that the government would be discussing a “further appointment” with Parkinson next year, which is presumably an overseas post.
It is not surprising that Don Russell, who has headed the industry department, is gone. Russell was Paul Keating’s right hand man, and returned from his position as ambassador to the United States to help Keating before the 1996 election.
The story of Andrew Metcalfe, who is out of Agriculture, goes back quite a way. Metcalfe formerly headed Immigration. In 2011 he gave a background briefing to journalists (later attributed to him) in which he suggested that Abbott’s policy of turning back boats, while effective under Howard, would not work now, because the asylum seekers would scuttle the boats and Indonesia would not agree to the policy.
The two cardinal sins in Coalition eyes are believing in a carbon price and not believing in turning around boats.
Blair Comley, who went to Resources after Labor scrapped the Climate Change department, had a major hand in Labor’s carbon policy and was a stronger defender of it. Enough said.
For the rest, the switches are unexceptional, and the new heads are from within the bureaucracy.
Lisa Paul had been secretary of a department embracing education and workplace relations – these have been split and she will head Education.
Paul Grimes moves from Environment to Agriculture; Glenys Beauchamp from Regional Australia (which disappears) to Industry.
There are two new heads. Gordon de Brouwer becomes secretary of the Environment department and Renee Leon will head the Employment department. Both have been senior in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (de Brouwer an associate secretary); sources say de Brouwer has a strong advocate in business leader Maurice Newman.
Newman chairs Abbott’s Business Advisory Group and this week wrote in the Financial Review of climate change “myths”.
“The new Coalition government is faced with enormous structural issues that have been camouflaged by effective propaganda and supported by well-organised elements in the public service, the media, the universities, trade unions and the climate establishment,” Newman wrote.
“With a huge vested interest in the status quo, they will be vocal opponents of change. The CSIRO, for example, has 27 scientists dedicated to climate change. It and the Weather Bureau have become global warming advocates. They continue to propagate the myth of anthropological climate change and are likely to be background critics of the Coalition’s Direct Action policies.”
The CSIRO comes under the Industry department. The scientists working in the climate area might be getting a little nervous.
Is there such a thing as campaign addiction? Or is it just the smell of the prize? Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten have segued from the general election trail to the Labor leadership one without missing a beat.
Albanese had the “launch” of his campaign in Sydney tonight, with former minister Greg Combet there to spruik the credentials of the man who is formally deputy prime minister until the new government is sworn in tomorrow.
Albanese will stay on the road, taking his campaign to Brisbane tomorrow, then to Melbourne on Thursday.
Both contenders have websites promoting their cases. Shorten’s “Bill for Labor” site has his slogan “Party, Policy, People” and a picture of him with former prime minister Paul Keating.
There is a call to “Volunteer for Bill” saying: “During any campaign, there is much work to be done. Whether you can give one hour or more, it will all help to elect Bill Labor Leader.”
People are asked to tick boxes: “I’ll contact Labor members; I’ll organise or help organise an event; I’ll share the reasons I’m voting for Bill.”
He is also seeking pledges of support, with 30 signed up as of tonight.
The “Albo for Leader” site, with a big picture of Albanese introducing Kevin Rudd at that other Labor launch, calls for endorsements, specifying a target of 100. There were already more than 425 tonight.
Albanese’s campaign slogan is “Vision, Unity, Strength”.
He told an enthusiatic ALP crowd at the Sydney Trades Hall tonight: “If we win the same seats as in 2007 or Kim Beazley won in 1998, we will be back in government next term”.
In line with their mutual pledges to avoid attacks on each other, both Albanese and Combet stressed what a good candidate Shorten was. Albanese said Shorten would make “a very good leader”.
Albanese said that in opposition “we have the opportunity to come up with the next big idea”.
In arguing why he should be elected, Albanese said he had the capacity to work with people in an open way. “What you see is what you get.” He stressed he would be the best to lead in present circumstances.
Combet said Albanese was “unquestionably Labor’s best parliamentary performer”. “We’ve got to hit the ground running and take the ball up to Tony Abbott,” Combet said. “When the going is tough you’ve got to have the toughest fighters you’ve got.”
Earlier in a Sky interview Combet, who served as Climate Change minister, said he was sure Albanese would be very strong in fighting for Labor’s position of carbon, a major issue that will confront the opposition in the next few months as Abbott tries to get the carbon tax repealed.
While supporting the rank and file being given a 50% say in choosing the leader Combet, who is now out of parliament, took issue with part of the new rules introduced by former PM Kevin Rudd – that a spill against a prime minister would require 75% support (60% for one against an opposition leader). He said he did not see the 75% rule surviving. If a leader did not have support of a simple majority of caucus they were in trouble.
Tonight’s meeting was attended by leading members of Albanese’s left faction, including Tanya Plibersek, named by Shorten as his preferred deputy.
Albanese today received public support from left winger Penny Wong, leader of Labor in the Senate.
“Both of them would make outstanding Labor leaders,” she said but “I have decided to support Anthony. I think he has the experience; the runs on the board. He’s had some tough portfolios which he’s handled really well, and he’s also our best parliamentary performer.
“One of the primary reasons I’m also supporting Anthony is, really, there’s been no stronger, more passionate supporter of equality, particularly for women,” Wong said.
“He’s an incredibly strong supporter of women getting into Parliament and progressing their careers in Parliament, and I think he really lives his Labor values.”
Shorten, who is outgoing education minister, was at a school today - just as he was often in the election campaign - talking about children with disabilities and condemning Abbott’s frontbench gender imbalance.
Asked when he was going to officially launch his campaign, he said: “I’ve got a majority of caucus members to sign the nomination.”
Shorten is being tipped to win the caucus ballot while Albanese is favourite for the rank and file one.
Pressed on whether he would agree to a national televised debate, Shorten said that “in the first instance we want to talk to our party members”.
But, rest assured, “there will be lots of debates and discussion”. Labor’s new leader will be announced on October 13.
As his colleagues campaign, Chris Bowen is making the most of his time as interim leader. Today he put out two joint statements with Labor spokespeople, did a news conference and was on radio.
Listen to the Politics with Michelle Grattan Podcast below, or subscribe on iTunes. This episode Michelle speaks to Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb.
The hapless Sophie Mirabella has brought double trouble for her friend Tony Abbott. Not only is she likely to lose her previously safe seat when the Liberals generally had a big win, but her exit from the frontbench has left him under a barrage of criticism for having just one woman in his cabinet.
Abbott would have been female-lite even with Mirabella. But the presence of only Julie Bishop – senior as she is – in a 19-member cabinet does put a neon sign over the woman problem. “I am disappointed that there are not at least two women in the cabinet,” Abbott said.
He could have elevated to cabinet one of the women who had served as junior shadow ministers. His cabinet is one member smaller than the shadow cabinet, so there was room. Bronwyn Bishop was next in ranking and would have been delighted, but Abbott didn’t want that and persuaded her to be Speaker. There were others. But there was no “couldn’t-be-passed over” name.
Abbott has ended up with five women in his ministry of 30, plus one female parliamentary secretary out of 12, fewer in total than in a slightly larger opposition team. He says there are “strong and capable women knocking on the door of the ministry,” but if so they will have to have very long arms. The only woman among the parliamentary secretaries is one who was escalated downwards.
Abbott was admittedly operating under constraints including having to squeeze the frontbench’s size and his promise that most who’d served there in opposition would keep their shadow jobs.
Senator Sue Boyce, a Liberal moderate who leaves parliament in June, views the problem in more fundamental terms. “I was shocked and embarrassed to see that there is only one woman in cabinet,” Boyce declared, saying it was embarrassing internationally as well as nationally. “It’s a permanent tarnish on what was a wonderful victory for us.
“But I don’t see that as a fault of Tony Abbott. If you look at the shadow ministry and parliamentary secretaries, we had nine women out of 46. That was the sort of proportion that reflected the number among Coalition MPs,” she said. “Abbott had to work with what he was given.”
Boyce says there is a systemic problem in getting women candidates, one the Coalition parties have to address; she argues that targets – but not quotas – are needed to lift the number of women preselected, and that in coming years Abbott should play a role in making sure there are more women Coalition MPs.
Philip Ruddock, father of the House, Abbott’s guru during the campaign and incoming chief government whip, said tonight: “Women shouldn’t be preferred because they are women.” But “it is important to get competent women through the preselection process. I think a change is happening and a larger pool of competent women will come through this process.”
The lack of women will be the talking point of the ministry. More broadly, there were few surprises – apart from one unexpected twist. The highly-regarded Arthur Sinodinos did not get finance, which went to Mathias Cormann who, as campaign spokesman, did much of the heavy lifting in the pre-election weeks.
Sinodinos, who becomes assistant treasurer in the outer ministry, had expected (on earlier indications) the finance post and to be in cabinet. It was only on Sunday that he was disabused, via a call from a journalist. He is believed to be unhappy at how things worked out. Abbott today praised Sinodinos but indicated that the 56-year-old former chief of staff to John Howard had to do his apprenticeship.
Abbott said: “One of the things you have come to expect of me, I hope, is a stable, measured, calm approach to doing things and part of a measured and calm approach is orderly promotion.”
(Those with long memories will recall that Abbott was rather impatient, with regard to himself, with John Howard’s “calm approach to orderly promotion”. But things look different depending where you are sitting.)
Apart from Sinodinos, promotions into the outer ministry include Nationals deputy Senate leader Fiona Nash, former Howard staffer Jamie Briggs and Michaelia Cash. Some fresh talent has been brought from the backbench into the ranks of parliamentary sectretaries (Josh Frydenberg, Alan Tudge, Paul Fletcher, Michael McCormack) while some has not made it (Kelly O'Dwyer, Jane Prentice).
Abbott, highlighting a back-to-basics approach, seems particularly proud of simplifying ministerial titles. In this process, the word “climate” has disappeared. Greg Hunt was shadow minister for climate action, environment and heritage; he becomes minister for environment.
We don’t have the administrative arrangements yet, which will reveal more about the new structure; at the same time, the fate of departmental heads will be known. Abbott indicated there will be changes; sources said some would be moving on.
In a good decision, indigenous affairs will have a minister (Nigel Scullion) devoted solely to it, and will come under the ambit of the Prime Minister’s department. One test of Abbott’s prime ministership will be what tangible progress his government makes in this difficult area, one to which he is personally committed.
There will be interesting questions over coming months in relation to individual performers. For example, will David Johnston be tough enough to deal with the defence chiefs? And will the communications portfolio test Malcolm Turnbull’s boredom threshold?
Overall, and leaving aside the women issue, Abbott has been workmanlike and cautious in putting together his team for government.
Julia Gillard’s hard hitting critique of Labor’s past problems and future challenges, posted on Guardian Australia at the weekend, has, among many messages, one central point.
Labor, she argues, should be a party of purpose, rather than being driven by the polls.
Gillard is sending much advice to Labor. It should defend its legacy, and remind the public, and the new government, how much of Labor’s policy the conservatives have taken over.
It ought to promote a new internal culture, that eschews leaking and destabilisation.
It needs to change Kevin Rudd’s recent party rules because they could entrench a bad leader.
It should stand by its carbon pricing scheme even though “it will be uncomfortable in the short term to be seen to be denying the mandate of the people”.
Gillard provides a harsh critique of Rudd and seeks to justify much of her own past, neither of which is surprising.
She is right in some, but not all of what she argues.
As she says, “Kevin clearly felt constrained in running on those policies where Labor had won the national conversation, because those policies were associated with me”.
It is true that Rudd could have made more of the disability scheme and even the Gonski school funding (although he and Bill Shorten worked hard to bed down that as much as they could).
She is also correct to condemn “the bizarre flirtation in the campaign with ‘economic nationalism’ and the cheap populism of appearing anti-foreign investment” as well as the “different corporate tax rate for the Northern Territory and the hugely expensive move of naval assets from Garden Island”.
But on the subject of bad policy, Gillard’s own assault on the 457 visa scheme smacked of xenophobia and populism. Fair enough to crack down on rorts, but it was not right to try to drum up feelings of them and us between “Aussie” workers and those brought in to supplement the labour force.
In lines that cut to the core of Gillard’s case, she writes: “Labor comes to opposition having sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about its sense of purpose.
“The decision by Labor caucus to change leaders in June this year was not done on the basis of embracing a new policy agenda; it was not done because caucus now believed Kevin Rudd had the greater talent for governing. Caucus’s verdict of 2010 on that was not being revoked.
“It was only done – indeed expressly done – on the basis that Labor might do better at the election”.
Well yes. And most Labor people and observers believe that Rudd did contain the size of the loss.
No one can or should deny that Rudd’s destabilising behaviour over the previous three years was reprehensible. Or, even worse, that his or his supporters' leaking in the 2010 campaign probably prevented Labor winning majority government. Or the irony of bringing him back to limit electoral damage he had been a big part of causing.
But in the end, his return has left Labor in a better position to rebuild than if he had not led the campaign. (One can say this while simultaneously arguing that Labor would be better off now if Rudd found himself a good job abroad. His parliamentary presence is always – at the very least – going to be a distraction for Labor.)
Gillard could argue she has a record of greater loyalty than Rudd has. But hardly a pure one. She accepted the invitation to overthrow Rudd in 2010. And long before, she joined forces with Rudd to oust Kim Beazley from the opposition leadership in 2006.
And why was that? Beazley arguably would have won the 2007 election. But Labor, encouraged by Rudd and Gillard, decided it wanted more certainty about a Labor victory.
This is where Gillard’s argument about the polls is flawed.
She writes, in relation to the current leadership ballot, “Caucus and party members should use this contest to show that Labor has moved on from its leadership being determined on the basis of opinion polls, or the number of positive media profiles, or the amount of time spent schmoozing media owners and editors, or the frippery of selfies and content-less social media. Rather, choosing a leader will now be done on the basis of the clearly articulated manifestos of the candidates, the quality of their engagement with caucus and party processes and their contributions to the collective efforts of the parliamentary party”.
But the point remains, as Gillard knows, that one criterion for choosing a leader will and should usually be how he or she is likely to go down with the public. (Otherwise why ditch Beazley for the electorally more attractive Rudd?) That is just political life in a system where the people get the ultimate say. It certainly should not be the only criterion but it can’t be ignored.
Not that parties are always swayed by the polls. The Liberals, having had a leadership rotisserie, were willing to stick with Tony Abbott for a long time rather than consider returning to Malcolm Turnbull, who out-rated Abbott in the polls. They believed Abbott would deliver; they had other concerns about Turnbull.
Gillard calls for a cultural change in Labor away from leaking and destabilisation. But, with 2010 in mind, she also thinks that a bad leader should on occasion be put to the sword, condemning the new Rudd rule that gives high protection to an incumbent.
“These rules literally mean that a person could hang on as Labor leader and as prime minister even if every member of cabinet… has decided that person was no longer capable of functioning as prime minister. A person could hang on even if well over half of their parliamentary colleagues thought the same,” she writes.
“Indeed, the new rules represent exactly the wrong approach to address the so-called ‘revolving door’ of the Labor leadership. These rules protect an unsupported, poorly performing, incumbent rather than ensuring that the best person gets chosen and supported for the best reasons: specifically the attachment of the Labor party to the leader’s defined sense of purpose and vice versa”.
Once you accept that on occasion a badly-performing leader should be removed, the issue of destabilisation becomes more complicated. Bad leaders don’t usually volunteer to jump overboard; indeed often there is not agreement on whether a leader is bad enough to be tossed overboard. Internal consideration will be destabilising; critics will use destabilisation to shake the tree. Should this never be done? One might say the coup against Rudd came out of the blue with little time for overt destabilisation – but that brought its own problems, in terms of a confused public.
A party always has a choice: to stick with a leader through bad patches or to seek someone else. A mature party is one that makes sound decisions about when to take which course – one that doesn’t panic in adversity but can also be hard headed. However, as we have seen in 2010 and 2013, there usually will be argument about the best way to go.
Politics is seldom about absolutes and the people who populate it are capable of hopping between principle and pragmatism when it suits, and dressing the latter in the clothes of the former.
Labor has set out on its great experiment in party democracy. Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese swear to run a civilised contest for the party’s leadership. Maybe. It will certainly be an interesting one, with likely debates before party audiences.
The ALP rank and file will love it. The party has been talking about the need for more internal democracy since the 1960s, with occasional progress but more often successful resistance by factional chiefs. Now, out of Kevin Rudd’s second coming, suddenly members have got a foot in the front door.
If Rudd hadn’t been deposed in 2010 and restored in 2013 this wouldn’t be happening. Rudd had self-interest in mind. When he brought forward the party reforms he thought he could win the election, and was determined he’d never be ambushed again. Selling his idea he focused on voters getting the prime minister they elected; at the heart of his proposal was setting a bar so high that no PM could be deposed in a coup. Along with that came giving the party grass roots a 50% say (caucus having the other 50%) in choosing the leader.
Critics make various points against this system. Firstly, that it takes a long time – a month. That seems a minor matter. It’s the start of the term. The ALP has an interim leader, Chris Bowen, and the former ministers will continue in their jobs as “shadows” until there is a new frontbench.
Secondly, critics say a leader who wins by securing the rank and file but not the caucus could be in an awkward position, having to deal with a caucus while having only minority support there. How this worked out in practice would depend on the winning and losing margins in the two votes, and, most important, how successfully the leader performed and stamped authority on the job and party.
The most concerning aspect of the new system is the risk it mightn’t produce the best person for the job. Of course “best” is a subjective concept. What we are talking about here is the person with most chance of taking Labor to victory.
The ALP membership, particularly since it is so small, is likely to be less attuned to the general public’s thinking than the caucus will be.
And if a bad choice is made, the chance of change before the next election is slim - under the new rules it takes a 60% vote in caucus to spill an opposition leader’s position.
Obviously Labor’s revolving door of leaders has been bad, and appalling when prime ministers are being flicked. But making an opposition leader too secure could lock in failure.
Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese are both quality candidates. Shorten is doing what everyone has expected him one day to do. But Albanese? He’s been senior and well known throughout Labor’s years in office. So how come he slipped up that greasy poll with people hardly noticing, to be deputy PM by the time the government fell? How was it, when talk was hot of getting anybody but Rudd as a possible alternative to Gillard, Albanese was not mentioned?
Being from the left, Albanese would never have had much chance in the old caucus-only ballot system. (Greg Combet, now out of parliament, admittedly used to be in the lists, but he would have been disadvantaged too.)
Opening the vote to the rank and file has made Albanese suddenly extremely competitive; he’s been further helped by emerging from government with a good reputation.
Shorten could do nothing else but run. On Sunday he indicated he didn’t want to face a contest but when it became clear he probably couldn’t avoid one if he wanted the job, he announced he was a candidate. Squibbing would have been a black mark against his political character and, after his part in two leadership coups, he carries enough of those.
Albanese genuinely agonised. A bit like Tony Abbott in earlier years, he hadn’t thought the leadership was attainable (the difference is that Abbott dreamed of it, while it appears to have been off Albanese’s mental radar). So he had to get into the right mindset. Once he was there, the possibility of a glittering prize would be hard to resist – even though he is exhausted after a hellish few years and opposition leader is often said to be the hardest job of all.
Anyway, knowing he has a lot of rank and file support would have made it hard for him to turn away. To have done so would have seemed like betraying those in the loyal base, something he wouldn’t do – which is why they love him.
Bill Shorten has cast himself as a strong retail politician but distanced himself from a presidential style, in at last formally announcing his bid to lead Labor in opposition.
Shorten, from the right, told a news conference today that he had the passion, commitment and ideas to lead “both inside the parliament, but even more importantly, outside the parliament, to campaign for Labor and our positive vision for the future.”
The former union heavyweight who has been touted as a likely ALP leader since entering parliament in 2007, said Labor’s vision for the future “should be as important to us as holding the Coalition to account for their actions.”
In his pitch he drew implicit, but not explicit, contrasts with Anthony Albanese, who has not yet declared, but is likely to run. One of the arguments for installing Albanese has been that he would, as a very effective parliamentary performer, take the fight strongly up to the new government in the House.
“Our challenge in opposition will not just to be negative and hold the government to account - it will be to be positive and optimistic about our future.”
Shorten also referred to his energy, when it is known that one of the questions in Albanese’s mind has been whether, after a very difficult six years, he has sufficient energy to gear up for what is often said to be the most difficult job in federal politics.
“I believe I bring energy, I bring optimism, I’m hungry for victory and these are qualities which are important to make Labor competitive to win the next election,” Shorten said.
He named NSW left winger Tanya Plibersek, the outgoing health minister, as his preferred deputy. Plibersek is regarded as a good public performer. With Shorten from Victoria, having her as deputy would also ensure continued representation of NSW in the leadership duo. Albanese, currently deputy, is from NSW and that is the mainland state where Labor will have most rebuilding to do during this term.
Shorten at the weekend was reluctant to enter a contested ballot, which would be decided on a 50-50 basis by the caucus and the ALP membership at large. But as Albanese continued to weigh his options, Shorten let it be known that he would run for leadership regardless of what Albanese decided. Albanese, from the left, would be favourite to win the vote among the rank-and-file of the party.
The new involvement of the rank and file, by introduced by former PM Kevin Rudd, is controversial within the party. Former Senate leader Stephen Conroy this week has condemned the new rules as “a farce” that would make the party “an absolute laughing stock”.
Shorten said Labor could win the next election; it should not assume it had to be in opposition for too long. The party had to reach out beyond its traditional constituencies.
“Labor will need to reignite the passion of our base,” he said. But it also must “reach out to new constituencies - farmers, small business, professional women, pensioners. We need to reach out and engage with all sorts of groups to form the broadest possible movement so that the Labor Party can truly be the party of all Australians.”
Labor had not just lost because of disunity, “although I think that perception certainly stopped people from listening to us on other matters.” Some policies would have to be revisited.
He strongly supported Labor’s carbon price policy, while not making an absolutely firm commitment to vote against the Abbott government’s repeal of it. What Labor’s tactics should be has become a matter of debate within the party this week.
Labor had a mandate for its views about carbon pricing, Shorten said. When asked about the Coalition’s mandate to repeal it he said, “This may be the case of duelling mandates. But just because the Coalition obtained more votes than the Labor Party doesn’t mean that the Labor Party ceases being the Labor Party… Labor shouldn’t stop pursuing its issues merely because someone else has a different idea.”
He named the Labor policies he thought were good ideas: the NBN; carbon pricing; fair go workplace policies; better schools; and a national disability insurance scheme.
After Labor has just come out of an election campaign which was deliberately pitched as presidential, Shorten stressed the need for a team effort. “It won’t fall to one person to win the next election. It will be a team effort and so I believe that one of my jobs, if chosen to be leader, will be to energise and organise the Labor team, because many hands make light work.”
Addressing the issue of his role in bringing down Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard, he said he had always acted with the best interests of the Labor Party at heart. “The Labor Party must always do its upmost to be competitive, that is what has driven my actions.”
A line needed to be drawn under past divisions.
Against the background of many calls for Rudd to leave parliament, Shorten said this was entirely up to him. “I’m grateful for Kevin Rudd’s efforts to make sure Labor is a fighting force,” he said.
Tony Abbott has a woman problem, again. As he puts together his ministry, female representation is proving a difficulty.
The prospect of senior frontbencher Sophie Mirabella holding her seat of Indi is now extremely slim, after the discovery today of a thousand votes for independent Cathy McGowan. They were “lost” due to a clerical error.
Mirabella, industry spokeswoman, was one of only two women in the shadow cabinet (the other was deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop). This compares with six in the outgoing cabinet (and 11 in the total Labor ministry).
If Abbott wanted to promote another woman to his new cabinet he has four in his old outer shadow ministry – Bronwyn Bishop, Sussan Ley, Marise Payne, and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. There are also three at the parliamentary secretary level - Fiona Nash (deputy leader of the Nationals in the Senate), Teresa Gambaro and Michaelia Cash.
But Abbott is likely to put Arthur Sinodinos (who has been a shadow parliamentary secretary) into cabinet as finance minister thus filling the vacancy expected to be created by Mirabella.
On talent, none of the women deserves a place ahead of Sinodinos, so if he wanted to maintain the gender representation he has had, Abbott would have to expand the cabinet by one.
Another complication is that he needs to cut two from what has been a 32-member shadow ministry because he can only have a maximum of 30 ministers (and he has to drop a couple of parliamentary secretaries).
He is expected to push Bronwyn Bishop to be Speaker. The post is in the gift of the Liberal party room but obviously the party will follow his wish.
Bishop has desperately wanted to remain on the frontbench (and indeed be in cabinet), rather than take the Speakership. She is still distressed by John Howard’s sacking her from the ministry.
(One would think her abrasive style would be unsuited to trying to promote, as far as possible, a calm parliament and that someone like Philip Ruddock, who has been secretary to the shadow cabinet and guru to Abbott during the campaign, would surely be a more suitable choice. )
Abbott has said that he will keep his frontbench roughly as it has been, which seems to leave him minimum flexibility to promote backbench talent, including female talent (such as Victorian Kelly O'Dwyer).
There has been some media speculation that he could demote Fierravanti-Wells, who is from the right, but it is not clear whether this is well based. There is a lot of bitterness within the NSW Liberal party between left and right over the election performance, especially the failure to win Greenway where the dud Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz had the right’s support.
While Abbott (in consultation with Nationals leader Warren Truss) works on the frontbench, the Nationals are engaged in an internal contests for key positions.
The most important is the deputy leadership, which Barnaby Joyce, newly arrived in the House of Representatives, is seeking. It is also being contested by frontbencher John Cobb.
The stakes are high for Joyce. As Nationals leader in the Senate, he has been in the leadership group. If he did not win the deputyship he would be out of that select band, which will be at the heart of the new government, however much Abbott professes himself a cabinet man.
There could also be a cabinet spot involved. The Nationals have had four in shadow cabinet, one in the outer shadow ministry and two parliamentary secretaries. Their total will remain the same in government (it’s determined by an arithmetic formula based on the seats the two parties win) but the distribution will be three in cabinet and two in the outer ministry. So without a leadership position Joyce could find himself in the outer ministry.
Joyce has also made no secret of his desire eventually to succeed Truss, and the deputyship is the best place from which to groom himself for the future.
The Nationals' deputy leader at present is senator Nigel Scullion. He and Nash are shaping up for a face off for Nationals Senate leader. (The Nationals' senators choose their own leadership unless there is a tie, when it goes to the party room).
On the other side, Labor is still to hear from “Albo”, deputy leader Anthony Albanese, on whether he will stand for the leadership. Bill Shorten is a candidate but his expected news conference did not materialise today. Albanese is torn: there is a great deal of party support for him but whether he feels he has the energy for the job is another matter. Shorten and Albanese spoke by phone today.
As the ALP holds its breath on the leadership, the debate is beginning about whether the new opposition should go to the barricades to stop the repeal of the carbon tax, with MP Nick Champion arguing Labor should allow the repeal to go through.
This is a matter which should involve careful thought by the party before it locks itself in.
It’s an odd atmosphere in Canberra this week. There is a new government but it not yet formally “the government”. The Coalition is waiting on the appointment of the frontbench. The ALP is waiting to know whether there will be a battle for the leadership or Shorten will be anointed without a fight.
It is a week of both transition and hiatus, symbolised by the boxes and rubbish bins in the corridors and offices around Parliament House.
The shadow of Kevin Rudd hangs over the ALP as it starts to grapple with opposition, complicating its choice of a new leader, and prompting dire warnings that the former PM will be a disruptive force if he doesn’t quit parliament.
Bill Shorten, after initially indicating he would only seek the Labor leadership if he had a clear run, is now actively pursuing the post even if that requires entering a contest with current deputy Anthony Albanese.
Such a ballot would not be just within the caucus but involve the rank and file, under the new rules Rudd initiated. The membership vote would be worth 50% of the result and favour Albanese, who is from the left.
The ALP’s right is mobilising behind Shorten, while the party waits on whether Albanese chooses to make it a fight or stays out.
An “Anthony Albanese for Labor Leader” campaign has been launched by some NSW rank and file members. The group’s Facebook page had 600 “likes” late today.
Co-convenor Luke Whitington said if reports were correct of the right faction holding a phone hook up to stitch up a deal “it is yet more evidence of why we need a principled leader like Albo. The anger among party members would be palpable if Bill Shorten were installed without a ballot.”
Albanese is said not to be afraid of a contest but is considering whether he is willing to commit himself to such a demanding position after the recent exhausting years.
Unlike Shorten, who entered parliament determined to lead the party, Albanese has not been considered, or considered himself, as a potential leader until now.
Even some on the right say Albanese would be hard to beat if he stood. He is very popular among branch members and has met a lot of them going around the country as infrastructure and transport minister.
Under the new rules – assuming they are not modified by the next ALP national conference – the leader chosen now is relatively safe to see out the whole term because it would require 60% of the caucus to bring on a spill.
If there were a contest, nominations would be opened when caucus meets on Friday. A candidate requires 20% caucus support to stand.
A ballot of the party membership would be held, which would take at least two weeks. Caucus would then reconvene and hold a vote, not knowing the results of the rank and file ballot.
Party opinion is divided about whether a contest would be desirable or divisive. Some MPs believe the party needs to finalise the leadership as soon as possible. The alternative view is that a Shorten-Albanese ballot, if conducted in a civilised manner with a discussion of ideas, could be a circuit breaker to put behind the party the old Rudd-Gillard division.
One MP said Shorten and Albanese would represent very different brands of leadership. Shorten would be in the Hawke tradition of charismatic leadership and pragmatic decision making, managed by a right majority with the left bought off with seats at the table. An Albanese leadership would be centre left within the party, with more socially liberal views, which would be more representative of the rank and file. This would “not necessarily be a good thing, but it would be a new thing,” the MP said.
As they wait for the leadership to unfold, senior Labor figures continue to call for Rudd to quit his seat, with outgoing minister Brendan O'Connor (who was a strong Gillard supporter) saying: “If you have a former prime minister sitting in your party room, on the backbench, that spectre looms large.
“It’s in the best interests of whoever is the leader for him to contemplate leaving.”
On election night Stephen Smith and Greg Combet (who both retired at the election) urged Rudd to leave Parliament. On Monday Craig Emerson, also now out of parliament, in a ferocious attack, said Rudd’s presence in the parliamentary Labor party “will see him do what he has always done, and that is willingly, wilfully, recklessly, destabilise Labor leaders”.
Rudd, who will be in Canberra late this week or early next to hand over The Lodge to the Abbotts, is not commenting on the calls to quit.
But a source in the Rudd camp said these were a bit rich after he had “saved the furniture”, and also warned that Labor would be likely to lose the seat of Griffith if Rudd left soon. Liberal candidate Bill Glasson, who substantially cut back Rudd’s margin in Griffith, said he would keep his options open about standing, if a byelection came up.
In the campaign Rudd did not give a firm commitment to stay a full term although he said he planned to continue to serve the people of Griffith.
Julia Gillard, who has kept silent, will make public appearances in Sydney and Melbourne on September 30 and October 1 with feminist writer Anne Summers (author of the recent book The Misogyny Factor). The sessions will take the form of an hour’s interview by Summers and 30 minutes of questions from the audience.
Meanwhile, the first public act of the Abbott government has been the very political decision to quash Labor’s appointment of former Victorian premier Steve Bracks as consul-general in New York.
Although not sworn in to the foreign affairs portfolio, Julie Bishop moved when it became clear that Bracks was about to depart for the post. The Coalition said at the time that it should have been consulted, although the announcement was in May, months before the caretaker period.
Labor reacted with outrage. Outgoing Special Minister of State Mark Dreyfus described the Coalition action as “vindictive and petty”. But Coalition sources said the whole point of political appointments was that the person was seen by the host country to have the ear of the government.
The day before Saturday’s election Tony Abbott distinguished between an opposition leader being head of a tribe and a prime minister governing for all Australians. The decision about Bracks seems distinctly tribal.
This Senate election has been very good for the tiddlers, more professionally know as “micro parties”, so much so that there is already an emerging debate about whether the big fish should do something about an uncomfortable trend.
The “micros” see their success as a triumph of democracy, and of canny “preference harvesting”. For the Abbott government, it will pose a headache, because it will have to deal with a very odd Senate crossbench after July.
But messy as the new Senate may be, potentially it will give the Coalition more flexibility than if the Greens, with hard lines on issues such as the carbon tax, had retained their pivotal position in the upper house.
As the count presently stands, leaving aside the Greens, the other eight crossbenchers from July will be existing senators Nick Xenophon (independent) and John Madigan (DLP), and new arrivals from the Palmer United Party (two of them), the Liberal Democratic party, the Australian Sports Party, Family First, and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast party. The government would need six of the eight to pass legislation.
The Coalition had always hoped that, if it could not win control of the Senate (always an impossible ask) the balance of power would be held by perhaps three right-leaning senators. The new comers are basically right-leaning. The trouble is, there are so many of them, and they include representatives of the eccentric part of the political spectrum.
They may be easier for the Coalition than Greens but their behaviour and demands will be unpredictable. Trying to win them will be a bill-by-bill proposition, and time-consuming for ministers.
On the carbon tax repeal – key because Tony Abbott has pledged a double dissolution if he doesn’t get his way – a number of their votes would logically be with Tony Abbott.
The Liberal Democrats' David Leyonhjelm, set for a NSW seat, told The Conversation “Our party doesn’t like taxes or excessive government spending. Our hand will be the first to go up to abolish the carbon and mining taxes”. But the party would be opposed to the Coalition’s “Direct Action” climate plan (to replace the carbon tax) because it would be “spending money on things that make no difference”.
As for Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme: “Taking money from people who don’t have children to give to those who do is not good policy”. The party doesn’t agree with the Labor PPL scheme already in place either.
Family First’s Bob Day, from South Australia, is a yes for getting rid of the carbon tax and the mining tax. “We started the campaign against the carbon tax,” Day told The Conversation. “We were the first party to challenge and question the notion of action on climate change”.
It’s a different story with Abbott’s PPL, which he sees as having “serious flaws”. Day questions why mothers who are doing the same job – looking after a baby – should be treated differently. “What happened to equal pay for equal work?” And “what right does government have to introduce selective workplace entitlements which are not available to all employees?”
Clive Palmer, who is a strong prospect to win the seat of Fairfax, has said repeal of the carbon tax should be accompanied by refunding money to companies and consumers. But he said tonight he would be willing to discuss some modification of that, with consumers who’d been fully compensated not eligible for further payments. He’s against the current form of the Abbott PPL scheme.
The Sports party’s Wayne Dropulich (who’s polling 0.2% of the WA Senate vote) told the ABC tonight that if his win is confirmed the party would then come out with its policies. Madigan, also on the ABC, said the DLP supported the repeal of the carbon tax.
The ascendancy of the “micros” has raised the question of whether the electoral system should be reformed to prevent or make it harder for parties with under one or two per cent of the vote to be elected (when a Senate quota is 14.3%).
(Madigan was elected on 2.3% of the Victorian vote, and former Victorian Family First senator Steve Fielding on 2%, so this is not a new issue.)
Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne said today: “There seems to be an industry growing of how to elect micro parties to the upper houses which I don’t think is necessarily healthy”.
It’s notable that the Greens (a minor rather than a micro party) are in favour of some reform. The Greens would benefit from a squeeze on the micros, which would reduce competition among the smaller players.
Possible reforms fall into two categories. The first would prevent voters being misled by name confusion, or the formation of token parties. Going a step beyond that would be changes that in effect actively discriminated against micro parties.
Electoral expert Malcolm Mackerras says it would be sensible to do the former but not the latter. The Liberal Democrats picked up votes because some people confused them with the Liberal party. (Tony Abbott today noted this and suggested the issue needed to be addressed – after the parliamentary committee on electoral matters had done its review of the election.) The present requirement of 500 members for registration is a very low threshold.
Other changes that have been suggested include knocking out from the count parties that fail to reach a certain proportion of votes (4% is mentioned), and altering the system, as has happened for the NSW upper house, in a way that greatly diminishes the power of preferences (in effect, making it optional preferential voting).
Mackerras believes these measures would go too far. He points out that 21 members are elected in a NSW half council election, but only six in each state at a half Senate election. “It’s okay in NSW but it would not be in the Senate because it would shut out all but a large minor party like the Greens”.
Political consultant Glenn Druery advised some 30-32 micro parties about harvesting preferences in this election. These included the Motorists, Family First and the Sports Party, although he says that each then did its own deals. He didn’t advise the Liberal Democrats or PUP.
The micro parties play within the rules that have been set by the majors, he says, and describes the major parties' complaints as the “political equivalent of Coles and Woolworths complaining about a small business starting up in a country town”.
Madigan says none of the small parties made the rules and “they haven’t broken the rules”.
The issue has become whether the rules should be changed because too many of these parties have used them too skilfully.
History will treat the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government harshly, not for what it did or didn’t do, but for how it conducted itself. It came in with a convincing mandate in 2007 and, through bad leadership and appalling infighting, it squandered its opportunities.
Credit is due – but part of it must go to China and the mining boom - for managing to keep the country out of recession during the GFC. And there are legacy policies including the disability insurance scheme and the schools funding reforms.
Carbon pricing was a good thing too - but now, one way or another, that is set to be dismantled.
How much more could Labor have done (and entrenched) if Kevin Rudd had been a disciplined leader initially? If his cabinet colleagues had pulled him into line when he was not? If the party power brokers had stayed their hand in June 2010 – or Julia Gillard had declined their offer of the leadership?
If Rudd had not been disloyal in the 2010 campaign and regularly through the following three years? If Gillard had been tougher with the Greens, and with Craig Thomson, so Labor was less compromised? If the party had decided to return to Rudd earlier?
Admittedly, the last point is problematic. There is no doubt that Rudd contained the swing against Labor. But, given his personal popularity declined during the campaign, if voters had seen him for longer they might have gone off him to a greater extent.
The story of Kevin Rudd is one of the strangest of modern politics. He’s the classic “street angel, house devil”. The smiling vote winner of 2007 who by 2010 had so alienated colleagues that they were willing to go to the extreme of ambushing him and tossing him out. A man never willing to give up, whatever damage he caused the party, who then persuaded his colleagues to re-embrace him to protect them in a dire situation for which he had to bear a good deal of the blame.
Now all the public talk on rebuilding Labor is about the need for unity and discipline. As if this is a new thought.
Labor has to get a leader able to command authority within the party as well as having appeal to the public. Not necessarily easy.
There are at the moment two options: Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese. Late today, it was coming down to Albanese’s call.
Shorten has indicated he will seek the leadership if he doesn’t face a contest. In a head to head, which would decided on a 50-50 basis by caucus and the ALP rank and file under the new rules Rudd introduced, Shorten probably would not have the numbers against Albanese, especially in the party at large.
A few months ago Shorten, from the right, was the default choice for opposition leader. But his last minute switch to support Rudd (after being one of those behind the Gillard coup) has cost him dearly. Senator Stephen Conroy, also from the Victorian right, ran a jihad against Shorten in the last-minute Victorian preselections. Shorten and Paul Howes, the boss of his former union, the Australian Workers' Union, fell out.
Shorten has the advantage, in terms of the community albeit not the party, of being a consensus figure. He has contacts in business and is a skilled negotiator – for example, as education minister he managed to get the Victorian government, and the Catholic and independent sectors across the line on the Gonski reforms. He also has a good policy head. He was the one who, from a very junior position, got rolling the first moves for the disability insurance scheme.
Albanese, from the left, has been one of the political performers in the Labor government. He’s carried a hefty work load as Leader of the House, as well as big ministerial responsibilities and, in the last days, the deputy prime ministership. Behind the scenes he managed the remarkable feat of walking both sides of the leadership street, a Gillard lieutenant while backing and organising for Rudd.
Albanese is at his best as an attacker. One Labor source says his image would not appeal sufficiently to the “aspirational” voters Labor needs to recapture. Those who favour him believe, as one put it, “that he would do to Abbott what Abbott did to us”.
Outgoing treasurer Chris Bowen is not likely to put his hand up. He’s been through a near death experience, surviving in his western Sydney seat after not one of three ALP polls showed him winning.
The ALP rank and file might see some irony if the leadership is sorted in a consensus fix – after all the “Rudd” rules were supposed to give them a say. But it would enable the new opposition to get its act together sooner than having a protracted contest within the party.
Some argue that this is not a good time to take the ALP leadership because that person is unlikely to be the next Labor prime minister. But from an aspirant’s point of view, it is always better to seize the opportunity when it comes. To stand back and let someone else wear the early pain could be too clever by half. Also, you never know what turns up.
Anyway, trying to grab the job during a term could be difficult. The party would be intolerant of destabilisation. And the new rules provide another complication – basically, an opposition leader can only be removed during the term if there is 60% support for a spill. (Whether these rules for choosing a leader end up modified by the next ALP national conference is another question.)
Being opposition leader is in some ways the hardest job in politics, especially in the early days of a new government. But the period ahead will present all sorts of opportunities, not least in the Senate. Labor and the Greens might have lost their balance of power, but a plethora of micro parties and independents will have sway.
Age electoral expert Tim Colebatch writes that from July “As the numbers stand, eight minor party senators from separate groups, some of them virtually unknown entities with no track record and no known policies, will be given the power to decide whether or not each government bill should be passed.”
The red chamber will be well and truly “hung”, in a manner that will be a challenge to the government and an opening for the opposition.
Tony Abbott has had his much anticipated election victory and Australia once again, to the great relief of most, has a majority federal government.
The Abbott win is solid and comfortable, but by no means as large as many had anticipated.
Labor has lost several seats in western Sydney, but it has not suffered the massive rout there the party had feared. Treasurer Chris Bowen has survived - a relief for the ALP, which in opposition will need his economic expertise. Bowen is also a possible future leader.
In Queensland it appeared last night that Labor would hold all its seats but two. Tasmania has seen heavy losses and several seats have gone in Victoria, where the ALP had particular difficulties because of its high vote in 2010.
In assessing Kevin Rudd’s performance, it depends where you’re coming from. Rudd’s destabilisation over the last three years has contributed mightily to the perception of a fractured and disunited government. But his return to the leadership has significantly contained the swing against Labor - which under Julia Gillard was likely to be huge - to a relatively modest level.
This is particularly the case in Queensland, where without Rudd Labor would have been much worse off.
One wonders how much closer Rudd could have come if he had run a better campaign. In contrast to Tony Abbott’s discipline, Rudd strayed off message at times, did not appear at his best (certainly compared with 2007) and brought forward some policies which had minimal credibility.
Admittedly, it was always going to be hard going. But his “new way” was a gift to Tony Abbott, who quickly said the only new way was a change of government, and he wasn’t able to maintain the positive message on which he’d promised to campaign. Labor quickly had to resort to negativity and fear mongering, which did not cut the mustard.
As one after another Labor figure appeared last night, there was a common call for putting aside the divisions that had been so costly in the last three years, and for achieving a spirit of unity as the party pulls itself together into an effective opposition.
In his concession speech, Rudd dwelt on his achievement in holding up the vote. “I’m proud that despite all the prophets of doom that we have preserved our federal parliamentary Labor Party as a viable fighting force for the future,” he said, pointing (wrongly, as it turned out) to holding the line in Queensland and to the fact that every cabinet minister had been returned.
Rudd announced that he would not be recontesting the leadership, declaring that the “Australian people deserve a fresh start”.
But senior Labor figures, including Greg Combet (now out of parliament), believe Rudd should quit the parliament to draw a line under the Rudd-Gillard era. While Rudd is in parliament, there will always be a Rudd factor.
It’s not yet clear who will emerge as the ALP’s new leader - possibilities are Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen or Anthony Albanese. What is clear is that he will have a big job.
But now Labor becomes the second storyline.
The focus will be on how Tony Abbott shapes his government and the nation. He has been an extraordinarily effective opposition leader, but the challenges of power are very different. Abbott has given some hostages to the future. In particular, his insistence that he would have a double dissolution if the Senate will not allow him to repeal the carbon tax is potentially a risky undertaking.
Labor has come close enough to open the possibility of trying to force Abbott’s hand into a premature election.
How all this works out, however, will depend on the composition of the new Senate, which comes in mid-next year, and tonight we do not know precisely how the Senate numbers will play out.
The challenges for Abbott most immediately will be to manage the economy in an uncertain world, and convincing the electorate that he can run a government effectively.
His emphasis during the campaign has been on reassurance and on pledging that he will not break promises.
He will have to be careful that his actions are in line with his words because he inherits an electorate which has become infused with disillusionment and cynicism - an electorate that is hard for any government to soothe and keep on side.
Abbott’s victory speech last night sounded much of a repeat of his campaigning lines, with his promises of a government of “no surprises and no excuses”; within three years, he repromised, the carbon tax would be gone, the boats would be stopped and the budget would be on track for a reasonable surplus.
He said the people had elected a government that “understands the limits of power as well as its potential.”
“Australia is under new management and Australia is once more open for business”.
So much for the battle. Now for the night in front of the TV. Once you take in the headline result, which mightn’t be all that long in coming, here are eight things to keep an eye on.
ONE. The fight for the Victorian seat of Indi. Well-respected independent candidate Cathy McGowan, locally born and bred, has run a formidable campaign and is a real threat to feisty Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella, who has lost popularity in her seat. Mirabella is an Abbott favourite; it would be an irony if he had a thumping win and she lost the chance to share it. Well informed local sources say Indi is too close to call.
TWO. What happens to treasurer Chris Bowen. He helped restore Kevin Rudd as leader, but has been struggling in his western Sydney seat of McMahon (7.8%). Labor MPs are sounding desperate out there: Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare (Blaxland 12.2%) in an eleventh hour appeal said: “Whatever happens tomorrow, you’re going to need people like me, people like Chris Bowen that will hold Tony Abbott to account if he becomes prime minister.” Both Bowen and Clare are possible future leadership material.
THREE. First indications of who will win the sixth Queensland Senate seat. It’s a contest that could see a victory for Clive Palmer’s PUP (his candidate is ex-rugby league player Glenn Lazarus) or Bob Katter’s KAP (he’s running singer James Blundell). Or it could end up with someone else emerging out of the byzantine preference flows.
If the Greens lose their sole balance of power in the Senate an Abbott government would be negotiating with assorted minnows. Hence the interest in the Queensland seat, though it could be quite a while before the result is finalised.
FOUR. Will Eden-Monaro retain its status (since 1972) as a “bellwether” seat, always held by the government? Local member Mike Kelly, Minister for Defence Materiel has been “pretend” defence minister since Rudd promised him that post if Labor was re-elected. (The actual Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, is not recontesting his seat of Perth. He finds himself in a rather odd position: he’s no longer an MP but continues as a minister until a new government is formed.)
Kelly knows he won’t now be getting the defence ministry; tomorrow will determine whether he holds his seat against the challenge from Peter Hendy, former Liberal staffer and one-time chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
FIVE. Whether Greens Adam Bandt (Melbourne) and independent Andrew Wilkie (Denison) can hold on. Unlike 2010, Bandt doesn’t have Liberal preferences, but has dug in; the anti-gambling Wilkie is favourite to hold his seat on current betting odds. He is being preferenced by the Liberals although a risk for him is that the Liberals poll better than Labor and sneak across the line on ALP preferences.
SIX. How high can he fly? South Australian senator Nick Xenophon is expected to get well over a quota (14.3%) in his own right, a remarkable achievement. Xenophon was elected in 2007 on a no pokies platform – but neither he nor Wilkie were able to secure reform on that front. (Scrapping the proposed ACT pre-commitment trial is one of Tony Abbott’s savings – Xenophon says he will fight it.) One of the best retail politicians around, Xenophon shared the balance of power in 2008-11 with Family First. Depending on the wider Senate result, he could be in a balance of power position again from June.
SEVEN. How Rudd fares in Griffith. The PM hasn’t been able to spend much time on his home turf where eye surgeon and former Australian Medical Association president Bill Glasson has mounted a formidable assault on his 8.5% margin.
(The Liberals have blitzed voters with last minute reading matter; the Glasson Gladiators have posted an entertaining “One Day More” video on YouTube.)
Labor says it’s confident of holding Griffith but what will Rudd do after the election? Surely he wouldn’t serve another three years in Parliament. Doesn’t some international job beckon? If not, it should – Labor needs to put the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era behind it. If Rudd did quit his seat, prompting a byelection, Glasson could have a good chance of winning it.
EIGHT. Dummy spits. A highlight of election nights, because you never know where they might come from. Cheryl Kernot did a great one in 1998, when she lashed out at the Labor party for not giving her a better seat. The special interest in this election is how the old Gillard forces, people like former deputy prime minister, Wayne Swan, who have been quiet as mice during the campaign, will react when it’s all over.
Kevin Rudd has put the spectre of an Abbott government’s swingeing cuts at the centre of his campaign. But at every turn, he has found himself tactically out manoeuvred by the Coalition.
Despite intense pressure on him to release his costings earlier, Tony Abbott held them back to today.
This put them at the very end of the campaign, so there is minimum time for scrutiny and argument, and conveniently after the TV advertising black out. But the opposition was not satisfied with that. Its final taunt at Rudd was to schedule its news conference for 2:30pm - exactly an hour after Rudd finished his appearance at the National Press Club.
That meant the PM could only attack the costings in general terms. Anything too specific risked getting the wrong grab onto the TV nightly news bulletins. Notably, for once he did not repeat his claim about Abbott having a $70 billion funding hole.
The opposition has been canny in its savings targets. It proposes to take $4.5 billion out of the foreign aid budget over four years, which offsets its nearly $5 billion infrastructure program. Abbott wants to be the ‘'infrastructure prime minister’‘, not the leader with an international heart.
On moral grounds, this cut is reprehensible. As Tim Costello points out, Australia is one of the few countries with a growing economy. We should be able to afford a greater level of foreign aid, and we were already committed to it. When their backs are up against the fiscal wall, neither side has any compunction with hoeing into this area. The government has previously done so.
But politically it is a soft target - which is no doubt one reason why it is a target. There is a vocal constituency committed to foreign aid, but it is small. The issue is not a mass vote changer. Most people just don’t care enough. The Opposition is running the line to voters that we can’t afford to send so much aid overseas aid when we have economic challenges at home. Most voters won’t be too fussed by international need.
We should’ve seen this coming. In 2011 there was a stoush in the Coalition over foreign aid. Abbott wanted to cut assistance to Africa; the plan was resisted by foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop. She had a victory in the compromise that was worked out. This time Bishop is just sucking it up.
Raiding foreign aid has made it easier to avoid cuts in areas such as health and education, which can be vote changers.
The opposition appears to have taken maximum care in the preparation of its costings. It knew it could not afford a repeat of its 2010 experience, for which it paid a political price. For that election it used private accountants, who were later found to have acted unprofessionally; after the election, when Treasury costed the opposition policies during Abbott’s negotiations with crossbenchers, a large hole emerged.
This time, the Coalition has been able, and chosen, to use the new Parliamentary Budget Office. (Pity the poor officials in that office in the run up to the election - there must be grease spots by now after the amount of work they’ve had to do). The PBO is both qualified and credible and part of the Charter of Budget Honesty process. Under the charter, the opposition has the choice of going to the Treasury or the PBO, and chose the latter, which is at more of an arms length away from the government.
Just to put an extra layer of credibility onto the numbers the opposition appointed an eminent person’s group to sign off on them, comprising Peter Shergold, a former head of the Prime Minister’s department, Len Scanlan, former Queensland auditor general and Geoff Carmody, a respected private sector economic consultant.
The numbers have the budget bottom line more than $6 billion better off than under the government over the forward estimates. This small amount means that the overall fiscal picture is little different from Labor’s. The opposition is not going for an austerity policy, as the government claims.
Despite having its numbers out, the opposition is not willing to pledge to a timetable for return to surplus. Having seen the traumas of the Gillard government, which had to jettison what had been a firm promise, the Coalition has no intention of making such a rod for itself.
For all the reassurance from the Coalition, there remains an air of unreality about these numbers, or any other numbers that could be produced.
Given how the budget has deteriorated dramatically over recent years, no one can be sure of what lies ahead on the revenue front. The economic outlook is uncertain. The numbers for later years in the forward estimates could be changed dramatically by events beyond the policy makers' control.
Within a Coalition government’s control would be its proposed commission of audit, charged with combing through government programs.
Inevitably this would produce many proposals for savings in programs and even for scrapping some.
Abbott was asked today whether some areas would be quarantined from the audit’s examination.
“I’m very happy to have the commission of audit go through the whole of the administration, to tell us whether, in their opinion, they think things can be done better, and where things can be done better, more frugally, more prudently, with more benefit for taxpayers. Surely it would be a foolish government that would ignore that,” Abbott said.
Rudd, correctly, jumped on this statement. The Coalition has a get-out-of-jail card. It could of course reject some recommendations from the commission. Equally, it could decide that the commission had made an overwhelming case on many fronts.
The commission of audit is a sensible idea. Programs should be reviewed periodically. But let’s be clear. It would be an agent of change.
For almost two million Australian voters, this election is over. They’ve marked their ballots. As of yesterday, 1.2 million of the 14.7 million on the roll had put in pre-poll votes and 750,000 postal votes had been received by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Then there are another 1.2 million people who have not bothered to enrol. One third of them (400,000) are aged 18-24.
As Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott try to make the most of these dying campaign days, there are a lot of people they can’t reach, including those yet to vote but with minds firmly made up.
Their target audience was quantified in this week’s Essential poll. Of those who indicated their voting intention, 15% said it was “quite possible” they would change their mind. This figure has narrowed significantly during the campaign and more recently: it was 21% on August 5, 17% on August 19 and 18% on August 26.
Only 9% of Coalition voters said it was quite possible they would change compared with 14% of ALP supporters, 17% of Green voters and 39% of people presently parked in the “other” category.
As the Labor camp increasingly accepts the apparent inevitability of defeat, its pessimism is reflected in the fact that Rudd’s travel is skewed to ALP seats rather than seeking out Coalition ones. But the face must be kept brave. “We’re going to secure the come-from-behind win,” Rudd told enthusiastic young fans.
But already there is some “what if” talk. Asked by the ABC’s Jon Faine whether he should have gone to the polls faster Rudd said: “I think there’s no point in having retrospectives about any of that, Jon. We had some things we had to attend to as a government.”
Rudd has honed down his messages for these last days. Labor will protect jobs, Abbott will cut. If you have doubts about Abbott, don’t vote for him. These are the lines strategists believe can maximise the ALP vote.
Labor today was still beating the drum about costings. Abbott again repeated his (untenable) claim that he couldn’t release all the numbers until the last policy had been announced. (He could have put out the figures ages ago with an amount for unannounced policy, as was done in the recent economic statement.) He produced the last policy today but the costings will come tomorrow, after tonight’s advertising blackout. Labor knows it has been outplayed in the costings cat-and-mouse game but intends to make the most of social media. A letter from “Kevin” emailed to supporters today, asking for donations, said: “We’re taking our message to millions of people online… During this blackout period, we can let millions of people know about Mr Abbott’s brutal cuts to the bone”. On the Liberal side an appeal for donations went out today under John Howard’s name.
All through this campaign Rudd has seethed about the role of Rupert Murdoch. Now, as it draws to an end, Labor is furious at the behaviour of Roger Corbett, the chairman of Fairfax, and a member of the Reserve Bank Board. In an extraordinarily strong attack, the more potent because of its timing, Corbett told yesterday’s ABC Lateline that “Kevin Rudd is a leader that has been really discredited by his own conduct. His colleagues sacked him because they judged him to be incapable as PM. He, it’s alleged, was active against the government during the  elections - maybe true, may not be.
“The perception was that had a terrible effect upon Labor and probably put them into a position where they needed to enter into coalition with the Greens, which was a very limiting factor in their last three years and they were destabilised in that last three years.
“So here’s a man that really has done the Labor party enormous damage, destabilised it and is now wishing to present himself to the Australian people as a PM and as the incoming PM. I don’t think the Australian people will cop that, to be quite honest, and I think that’s very sad for the Labor party.”
One reason for the intensity of Labor’s anger is that neither the program nor Corbett said he was a member of the Liberal party. The program didn’t know.
Questioned about Corbett, Rudd got in a couple of barbs but was restrained. Parliamentary secretary Doug Cameron, however, let loose, saying it was “outrageous” that Corbett had not disclosed his party membership and should resign from the bank board.
The Corbett appearance was awkward, to say the least, for Fairfax, which has recently sought to take advantage of the furore surrounding the political antics of the Murdoch media by launching a campaign with the slogan “Independent. Always”. Corbett stressed he was at arms length from Fairfax’s editorial content, but to have its chairman suddenly in the middle of the political fray was not a good look.
There will be many narratives to look back on after this campaign. One of them will be all about the media.
In election campaigns it’s always best to avoid the sticky paper, especially in the final days. But that’s where Labor found itself today, cornered into talking about what its stance might be in opposition on the carbon tax.
Tony Abbott this week has made a point of his argument that if he’s elected he’ll have a mandate for the tax’s repeal – and he’s committed to a double dissolution if he’s frustrated. This immediately had Labor being questioned on how it would react.
When Climate Change Minister Mark Butler went on the ABC this morning one would presume his main aim was to attack Abbott’s flagging that if it came to a choice between ditching the 5% emissions reduction target or increasing the funding needed to meet it, the target would go. But instead, Butler was relentlessly pursued about Labor’s likely response when presented with repeal legislation. This exchange occurred.
Host: “Labor would be prepared to, if it came to it, stick to its guns and send the electorate to a double dissolution?”
Butler: “Labor has a very clear position on this and it wouldn’t be of any surprise to the Australian people, I’m sure, that we would be voting on the position that we took to the election and not the position that Tony Abbott takes.”
Victorian MP Kelvin Thomson was blunt: “If I get elected to the parliament I’ve got a mandate to support the policies on which I was elected.”
Kevin Rudd tried to dodge when he came under a barrage of questioning, but did say: “Our policy is to support carbon pricing through an emissions trading scheme into the future. You know why? When the judgement is made from the vantage point of history in 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ time when all your kids and grandkids are walking around the place asking what is happening to the planet, we want to be on the right side of history as having stood up for the right policies.”
There is no upside for Labor in this mandate debate. It is assuming a Coalition win and taking attention off the messages Rudd needs to get through in these last days.
It was very different in the run up to the 1993 election when PM Paul Keating said that if Labor was in opposition it would wave through the Coalition’s proposed Fightback GST. In that case, he was warning the ALP would not try to stand in the way of a Coalition government imposing an unpopular tax. In this instance, the debate is about the Coalition wanting to take off an unpopular tax.
What position Labor in opposition actually took would depend on who was leader, what condition Labor was in and how an Abbott government was travelling.
There are conflicting precedents. After the 1998 election, Labor voted against John Howard’s GST, which forced him into negotiating with the Democrats. Its opposition did not do the ALP any discernible good.
In contrast, after its 2007 loss, the Coalition did not resist Labor’s repeal of WorkChoices. Even though it still found itself later subject to a scare campaign, that enabled it to move on from what had been a politically disastrous policy.
In all Abbott’s talk about the mandate he will have, it is worth noting his own view in other circumstances. He wrote after the Howard government’s 2007 defeat: “[Opposition leader Brendan] Nelson is right to resist the intellectual bullying inherent in talk of ‘mandates’. What exactly is Rudd’s mandate anyway: to be an economic conservative or an old-fashioned Christian socialist? The elected opposition is no less entitled than the elected government to exercise judgement and to try to keep its election commitments.”
The Greens are unequivocal about their position on the mandate issue. They would use their Senate numbers to try to block the repeal.
At her news conference today, Milne cast the Greens not just as a restraint on Abbott but a spine stiffener for Labor. “The Greens will work with whoever we can in the Parliament for stronger action on global warming and I think we will be needed there to keep the Labor party on track,” she said.
The mandate argument is particularly tricky when it comes to the Senate. With the lower House, a mandate surely exists when a party has won a clear majority and an issue (such as carbon pricing) has been at the centre of the campaign.
But the campaign of the Greens, who currently have sole balance of power in the Senate, is all about being an upper house check on whoever is in government.
People voting Green in the Senate would range from those thinking that everything an Abbott government did should be blocked where possible to those who want the upper house to be just a light restraining hand.
The Greens have a mandate to be a Senate watchdog, but how hard that dog should bite is another matter. The issue becomes the precise nature of their mandate, and how it relates to the mandate of the government.
It’s possible that several minor players could share the Senate balance of power after June. One of these, independent Nick Xenophon seems certain to be re-elected with a quota of his own. Another, John Madigan, from the DLP, who is not up this time, won on a tiny vote. Any micro party (or parties) that gets up a Senate candidate at the election would not have achieved anything like a quota in its own right.
The notion of Senate odds and sods individually or collectively having a national “mandate” to do anything is a nonsense. Yet it is possibly they who might be the ultimate deciders on crucial pieces of legislation including, if Labor hung tough, the Abbott carbon tax repeal.
In his last set piece occasion of the campaign, at Canberra’s National Press Club, Tony Abbott returned to the issue that, more than any other, started him on the road to the victory the Coalition expects to clinch on Saturday.
It was the carbon tax that landed Abbott, to the surprise of colleagues and even himself, in the leadership, after Joe Hockey, a supporter of Malcolm Turnbull’s emissions trading scheme, would not do the U-turn his party wanted.
Then Abbott seized the carbon issue to get traction against Kevin Rudd and later Julia Gillard. He was helped by circumstances: the Copenhagen conference’s failure; Rudd’s backtracking from what he had promoted as a great moral challenge; most notably, Gillard’s breach of her “no carbon tax” promise.
Despite criticism of his own “Direct Action”, including at times the little disguised scepticism of Turnbull, the carbon issue has been costly for Labor and politically good to Abbott, especially because he could marry it to “trust”.
“The carbon tax is where Labor’s economic deficit and Labor’s trust deficit coincide,” he said in today’s speech.
“More than anything, this election is a referendum on the carbon tax. A Coalition victory, should it happen, will be a warning from alienated Labor voters to their leaders: never again sell Labor’s soul to another party.”
He added, in what is a throw-forward to an Abbott government, “that’s why it’s unimaginable that a defeated Labor party would persist with a carbon tax. It would just confirm that Labor is incapable of learning from its mistakes.”
If Abbott becomes prime minister, this needs to be true or the early period of his government would become very messy.
The Greens may well lose their sole balance of power in the Senate at the election but the new Senate does not come into until mid-next year.
But Abbott declares scrapping the carbon tax a central and instant priority. “Building a strong economy will start from day one of a Coalition government’s first term as soon as the instructions are issued to start preparing the carbon tax repeal legislation. Elect the Coalition and, within a year, the carbon tax will be gone so power prices will be down in the order of 10% and gas prices will be down in the order of 9%.”
If Abbott in government could not obtain his repeal legislation, it would not just be a political blow. He has promised - and reaffirmed this today in interview with The Conversation – that he would go to a double dissolution on the issue. An early election is the last thing that a Coalition government, or the public, would want.
A defeated ALP might not want it either, so his calculation could well be correct. Or, if the election produces a Senate with right-leaning crossbenchers having the balance of power after June, a Coalition government could eventually negotiate the repeal through, even if Labor held firm against it.
That’s all for the future. Right now Abbott hammers the cost of the carbon price (“the cumulative loss in GDP between now and 2050 is $1 trillion”), and the claimed benefits of being without it. “An economy that’s 3% bigger or $40 billion a year wealthier could much more readily afford the Gonski school changes and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.”
As for Direct Action, he professes confidence a Coalition government could achieve its commitment to a 5% reduction in emissions target by 2020 with the about $3 billion over four years that it is allocating. But if it can’t, it appears it will be the target, not the money, that will have to give.
“We are very confident that we can achieve the domestic emissions reductions within the funding envelope that we’ve provided,” he said, arguing it was in the economic interests of business to try to reduce costly inputs “and often its most costly inputs, apart from labour, are fuel and power.
“So please, never underestimate the ordinary economic imperative to emit less … I also think it’s easy to underestimate the emissions reduction potential in the agricultural sector.
“But the bottom line is that we will spend as much as we have budgeted, no more and no less. We will get as much environmental improvement, as much emissions reduction as we can for the spending that we’ve budgeted. We are very confident that we will achieve the 5% target that we’ve set ourselves. We’re very confident that we can achieve that, but in the end we’ve told you the money we’ll spend and we won’t spend any more.”
So there you have it. Fighting the carbon price has so far been mostly upside for Abbott but if he becomes PM things get more complicated because the onus is on him.
First, he would have to get rid of the carbon tax, without losing too much political skin.
Second, its abolition would have to produce the benefits he has claimed or he would be held to account for creating false expectations.
And third, his direct action plan would need to deliver what he asserts it can – which may involve some heroic assumptions – or he’d be seen as letting Australia down at home and abroad.
At one level today’s National Press Club speech was all about a cautious candidate with an election lead determined to avoid final week mistakes. Viewed from a longer term perspective, Abbott has set himself some tough hurdles for the future.
Kevin Rudd’s launch was all about political hope against the odds, but Treasurer Chris Bowen’s absence was the measure of electoral reality.
Bowen missed this campaign landmark - with Rudd’s permission - to attend back-to-back church functions in his western Sydney electorate of McMahon.
McMahon’s margin is 7.8%, normally solid, but Bowen is in terrible danger. A JWS Research poll in Saturday’s Financial Review had Bowen on 46.9% to the 53.1% of the Liberal candidate, the controversial former policeman Ray King.
Bowen, one of Labor’s young high-fliers and a possible future leader, did not need to hear Rudd say that “we are now engaged in the fight of our lives.” He is one of those in the trenches with bullets raining down.
The launch relived earlier Labor glories. Bob Hawke received the great reception to which he has become accustomed. Paul Keating’s ego was boosted when a woman in the crowd called out that he was “easy on the eye”.
Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revved up the audience with a mixture of easy informality and political punch. “If you want a bloke who can jump through tyres, vote Tony Abbott, if you want a bloke who can guide you through the next financial crisis, vote Kevin Rudd.”
Rudd in his speech lasered in on the voters that Bowen was out trying to court.
His cheap ($268.5 million) packet of promises was all about jobs and small business. He was after the “battlers” who, according to the polls, have hitched their fortunes to Abbott.
Rudd talked not just about jobs as such, but job security, proposing a new network that would better match those who lost jobs to new opportunities or training.
It’s probably a worthy initiative, and perhaps a necessary one, but it did sound elaborately bureaucratic.
More provocatively, Rudd appeared to be shaping up for a fight on a new front with the states.
Labor says the states must not cut TAFE further and must agree to maintain real growth in it. If they refuse to at least maintain funding in real terms, a Labor government would quarantine part of the money it provides to the states and earmark it specifically for TAFEs.
If the states continued to refuse to guarantee funding, the federal government would fund TAFEs directly.
Eventually, if states sought to frustrate such new arrangements, the federal government would direct its TAFE funding into a new TAFE Australia Network. In other words, it would effectively seek to take over the system.
This seemed very Kevin 07, when he said the states must shape up over their hospitals or the Commonwealth would try to take over. That ended in argument and a good many tears before compromise was reached.
The TAFE system is critically important, but it’s questionable whether Rudd is wise to risk stirring up the premiers, who are mostly Liberal, into a fight during the last week of the campaign.
Rudd’s pledge to make business projects worth $300 million or more (down from the present $500 million) adopt Australian Industry Participation Plans is another example of his “economic nationalism” on the march. It follows his concern last week about foreign investment in Australian land and his announcement to bring forward naval ship building projects to maintain work.
If Rudd’s speech was taken in isolation it could be seen as a strong and spirited effort.
But Labor’s problem is one of context - context of the government’s difficulties and blunders over the last six years, and the context of Rudd’s own history. It is simply not possible for Labor to adequately deal with that past. The slogan of “a new way” (behind Rudd on the stage) has, all through this campaign, simply brought to mind questions about the “old way”.
Rudd acknowledged that Labor didn’t always get things right. But his folksy excuse is unlikely to wash with many voters: “as a highly successful migrant who came here after the war told me the other day in Adelaide, ‘Kevin, the only blokes who don’t make mistakes are the blokes who don’t do anything.’”
The PM sought to link Labor’s current story, through its values, with those of past governments, speaking of “values that built a university system accessible for all under Gough Whitlam; values that built Medicare for all under Bob Hawke; values that built DisabilityCare for all under Julia Gillard; values that built superannuation for all under Paul Keating.”
The acknowledgement of Gillard was tactful and appropriate. But the absence of Gillard, who had said in a statement last week that she would not attend the launch because her presence would just “distract” from Rudd’s message, was more telling than the PM’s reference.
Rudd told the faithful they should “never, ever, ever, underestimate my fighting spirit… I have been in tougher spots than this before and come back from behind.”
The most notable tough spot from which he has escaped is the backbench. His return just in time to fight this campaign was extraordinary. But to become (as a young kid he quoted today hopes) the “comeback kid” in this election would be beyond extraordinary.
Bill Glasson is already a Liberal National Party hero. The 60-year-old eye surgeon and prime ministerial challenger received special mention and a rousing response at Tony Abbott’s Liberal launch in Brisbane last Sunday.
Glasson and his “gladiators” have been giving Kevin Rudd a run for his money in the normally safe Labor seat of Griffith. A couple of polls have actually had Glasson ahead, although today’s JWS Research poll, published in the Australian Financial Review, has Rudd leading by a strong 57% to 43%.
Glasson himself says Rudd is in front, although he believes by much less than the latest poll.
The ophthalmologist is a rather out of the ordinary sort of candidate. He wasn’t even a party member when he decided to put his hand up to run for office.
His father, William, was a state MP from 1974 to 1989 and a minister in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government. Son Bill was briefly in the party’s youth section. But later his main “political” involvement was in the Australian Medical Association, of which he was president from 2003 to 2005.
It was in this role that he first had dealings with Abbott. As new health minister, Abbott inherited a crisis over medical indemnity insurance.
Glasson went to see him, with a slate of five demands from the AMA. In their talks, Abbott said the government could meet three of them at once; more work would have to be done on the other two.
Glasson looked the minister in the eye and said: “I reckon I can trust you. Don’t let me down.” Abbott didn’t.
He describes the opposition leader - whose “pollie pedal” he regularly joins - as “a great bloke to work with” and insists he has a “very soft core”.
Glasson comes originally from Winton in central western Queensland, where his family had five properties and ran 40,000 merinos. He was sent to boarding school - “Churchie”, a well-known Anglican boys' school - in the Griffith electorate and has pretty much lived there ever since, apart from studying overseas.
He says he decided to run for the seat partly because he was “disgusted” about the “last six years with a bad government”. While the government had some good ideas, its implementation had been poor and there had been “loss of trust”. “Trust”, “values” and “loyalty” are words that sprinkle through his conversation.
He has about him a touch of the man from the bush, and goes out several times a year to treat patients in remote Queensland. (Queensland is a small world - Glasson fixed up former Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan’s eyes a few years ago).
Since being endorsed as the local LNP candidate exactly a year ago, Glasson has mobilised an impressive on the ground operation. There are 600-650 “gladiators”, including party members and others who have just volunteered to help.
One of the more colourful is 85-year-old American “Bud”, who stands on the side of the road morning and night, gesticulating wildly at passing motorists.
For months, Glasson worked Monday, Tuesday and part of Wednesday at his practice and devoted the rest of the time to campaigning. Recently it has become a full-time job. He door-knocks relentlessly. Tomorrow he and wife, Claire Jackson, Professor of Primary Care at University of Queensland, will lead 100 “gladiators” in the 10km Bridge to Brisbane race.
Griffith takes in inner suburbs of Brisbane, south of the river. Rudd failed in his first tilt to win it in 1996, a loss that he took hard. He won it in the 1998 election and is now on an 8.5% margin, making it the safest Labor seat in Queensland.
According to the ABC’s Vote Compass - where people can check their place on the political spectrum - Griffith is one of the more socially progressive electorates in the mostly conservative Queensland landscape. (Glasson, incidentally, supports gay marriage.)
Rudd has always been a very active local member, popping up at community festivals, holding stalls at school fetes, giving away 900 “Rudd bikes” for fundraisers, and even happy to join in the odd “Chicken Dance” with primary school kids.
As restored leader, however, he hasn’t been able to spend a lot of time in the electorate. But the family has been mobilised. He said recently: “My wife, Therese, and my daughter, Jess, and others have been out attending to a whole range of things in my local community. But I’m ultimately pretty relaxed about the judgement of the Australian people. Whether it’s in Brisbane or around the country - it’s a democracy, and they make the choice.”
Residents of Griffith this week received in their letterbox a giant fold-out Rudd Report leaflet with 15 pictures of their local member out and about everywhere, and a big map full of symbols of achievement for the community.
From a drive through Griffith today, it looked as though the Gladiators well outnumbered the Ruddites. Glasson had 50 street corners covered. The political battle in this electorate is very visible, with many signs up.
On one street corner, campaigners in “It’s Our Ruddy Future” t-shirts were handing out Kevin Rudd bags (with the “dd” turned into glasses - presumably to fit the nerdy image).
One of the workers said the PM was expected to be campaigning in the electorate early in the week.
Rudd today flew back to Brisbane from Darwin to prepare for tomorrow’s launch in the city’s convention centre.
Rudd is expected to unveil new promises, as he tries to get momentum after a difficult few days, in which the strain began to show at yesterday’s fractious news conference in Perth.
Rudd went into the campaign very optimistic that he could pick up a significant number of Queensland seats. The latest polling indicates that, unless something extraordinary happens in the final frantic days, this hope won’t be realised. But Labor does expect it can hold off the Glasson gladiators.
Glasson repeatedly challenges Rudd to say whether he plans to serve a full term if re-elected and Labor is in opposition. Asked if he’d be up for another run if there were a by-election, Glasson says, “I’d have to ask my wife”.
Days after Kevin Rudd questioned whether Tony Abbott was too “impulsive” to handle international crises such as Syria, the opposition leader was sounding a good deal more measured than the Prime Minister on that issue.
It’s true we don’t have much guide to how, as PM, Abbott would conduct international relations, beyond the obvious (his strong commitment to the US, his references to the anglosphere).
But leaders learn quickly to be comfortable on the world stage, as Julia Gillard showed, and today’s crowded round of international conferences gives them an early education. If Abbott’s elected, he’ll have to be off travelling soon (and that’s apart from his promised immediate visit to Indonesia to discuss the boats).
Syria is providing both an early glimpse in (almost) real time of Abbott’s approach, and throwing up an unexpected contrast with Rudd.
The PM this week has taken a very robust stance on the crisis. For days, and before the weapons inspectors have finished their work, he has been satisfied about the evidence of chemical weapons, the regime’s guilt, and the need for action.
After speaking with President Barack Obama, British PM David Cameron and others, Rudd clearly felt things were moving towards quick intervention. With Australia about to take over the UN Security Council presidency and his own penchant for activist diplomacy, Rudd placed himself in the rhetorical vanguard.
Then came a serious complication: the British House of Commons voted against becoming involved, and Cameron ruled out being part of any strike. Now, with the United States in a more exposed position without Britain, it is less clear how the situation will unfold.
Today Abbott gave a comprehensive run down of his position, and he had a strong message. Be cautious.
The first thing to do was to wait for the weapons inspectors' report and any Security Council resolutions.
Beyond that: “It is the general disposition of the Australian government, regardless of whether it’s a Labor government or a Coalition government, to support our friends and allies wherever we can,” he told a news conference.
But “we should be very reluctant to get too involved in very difficult conflicts which we may not be readily able to influence for good. We should be very careful about getting involved in a civil war between two deeply unsavoury sides.”
He said he had strongly supported Australian involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq “but we have to digest the lessons of both of those interventions.”
Any action would be taken by countries with the capability to do so and Australia was not one of those. He played down any suggestion that Australia was a key player.
Abbott chose his words carefully. In questioning Abbott’s “temperament”, Rudd had said that in such situations “you have to sit back, think, calmly reflect and then work through what the best decision is.” Abbott was directly responding to Rudd when he said: “This is a time for cool heads. It’s not a time for intemperate action and it’s not a time for Australia to exaggerate its own role in what is a very difficult international situation.”
Rudd today reiterated that the Australia government had a high level of confidence that the Syrian regime had been responsible for the use of chemical weapons. He said the weapons inspectors' observations were “one part of the overall proof test as to what has occurred.” He did however emphasise that there had been no request from the US or elsewhere for any direct or indirect Australian military participation in any possible action.
Rudd also fired back at Abbott. If he became PM he would inherit the UN Security Council presidency. “You can’t wish it away because it’s not Tony Abbott’s preferred field of operations. I don’t believe Mr Abbott is comfortable or experienced in handling these questions."
It’s very possible Abbott’s caution would resonate more with the public than Rudd’s wish for international action.
The Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, headed by former defence department chief Paul Barratt, warned this week that “talk of brief limited military interventions should be treated with the greatest scepticism in the light of other recent wars in which Western countries have become bogged down since 2001.”
If the Americans do take action outside the United Nations – where the Russian veto would prevent the passage of a resolution to back a strike – this would be a test of Abbott’s cautionary policy.
He would be caught between what he has said already and his loyalty to the US, which would be anxious to have the diplomatic support of as many allies as possible. You would bet loyalty would win.
Abbott’s Syrian comments also reflect a more limited enthusiasm for Australia’s role on the Security Council. Rudd would want to use that two year spot to the hilt for his middle power diplomacy. Abbott seems to have little interest in doing so. The Liberals are less into multilateralism than Labor. Then there is the tribal element. Going after the seat was a Rudd initiative.
If the Liberals win, the Ambassador to the United Nations they will inherit is Gary Quinlan – a former Rudd adviser.
Amid an election row about numbers that has become both feral and arcane the heads of Treasury, Finance and the Parliamentary Budget Office have called out Kevin Rudd’s attempt to use their authority to discredit the opposition’s savings figures.
It was a bureaucratic king hit the like of which we don’t often see, and certainly not in election campaigns.
Treasury and Finance issued a joint statement which undercut the government’s basing its claim that there was a $10 billion hole in the $31.6 billion Coalition savings on official authority. Soon after the PBO did the same.
The public servants' intervention, though in strict terms only clarifying their roles, made it look like Labor was being tricky. And indeed it had attempted to be too clever by half.
The departments and PBO heads are not trying to be political. Their intention is the opposite – they want to show they’re apolitical.
But their intervention inevitably deals them into the middle of a ferocious political fight and has serious implications, especially when costings are so much at the centre of this election.
Treasury and Finance felt themselves caught in a very bad position, after Rudd, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong put out Treasury, Finance and PBO documents to back up their $10 billion hole claim.
Bowen told their joint news conference that the assertion “is based on advice from the departments of Treasury and Finance and the Parliamentary Budget Office which we are releasing today.”
The government had the costings of known or anticipated Coalition initiatives done before the caretaker period, when it would not be able to get the bureaucrats to undertake them.
The material was there for use during the campaign.
When it was produced the senior public servants were alarmed. At the news conference the costings were portrayed as accurate representations of the Coalition’s savings; it was acknowledged the work had been done earlier but inevitably the reporting blurred the timing.
The department heads, Martin Parkinson in Treasury and Finance’s David Tune knew that if they came out, it would be a strike against the government. If they did nothing, they would be compromised, and the Coalition – likely to be the government in a little over a week - would not forget it.
The pair then issued a joint statement clarifying their departments' roles.
They said they had been asked to prepare costings on policy options which the government gave them. The costings were completed and sent back to the government before the election was called. “This is consistent with long-standing practice,” the statement said.
These costings were not prepared under the Charter of Budget Honesty process. This provides for the public servants to cost election policies if the parties choose to submit them. In this election the opposition has chosen to have its costings done by the new Parliamentary Budget Office, because it is more arms length from the government.
Treasury and Finance said pointedly that “at no stage prior to the caretaker period has either department costed opposition policies.”
They also noted that “different costing assumptions, such as the start date of a policy, take up assumptions, indexation and the coverage that applies, will inevitably generate different financial outcomes.
“The financial implications of a policy may also differ depending on whether the costing is presented on an underlying cash balance or fiscal balance basis. The Treasury and Finance costings presented in the advice to government reported today were presented on an underlying cash balance basis.”
The opposition savings were prepared by the PBO on an accrual accounting basis.
The PBO said in its statement that all costings it does are “prepared on the basis of the policy specifications provided by the parliamentary party or individual parliamentarian requesting the policy costing.”
The PBO “will not prepare costings of policies attributed to an individual parliamentarian or political party without the knowledge and active participation of that parliamentarian or political party in the costing process”, PBO head Phil Bowen said.
“When the PBO undertakes a confidential policy costing for an individual parliamentarian or political party, it relies solely on the policy details specified by that parliamentarian or political party.
“When an individual parliamentarian or a political party chooses to publicly release a PBO costing that has been prepared on a confidential basis for them, it is inappropriate to claim that the PBO has costed the policy of any other parliamentarian or political party.
“Unless all of the policy specifications were identical, the financial implications of the policy could vary markedly,” Mr Bowen stressed.
The public servants have behaved as they should, although Rudd won’t be thanking them for it. The government ought not have put them in the position it did. It has previously tried to use Treasury for political purposes, and rows have erupted.
The Treasurer described the decision to release the costings advice to the government as a “serious step”. It turned out to be one of the many bad steps Labor has taken in this campaign. Bowen as treasurer should have anticipated that it was dangerous to take liberties with Treasury, already under pressure over its history of failed forecasts and periodically accused by the opposition of having been politicised.
Parkinson’s future is not certain under a Coalition government, Apart from the matter of his own high integrity, he would have been a fool to have let himself be used by the government.
He’s not a fool. He and his public servant colleagues understand how the system should work – they have stood up for the own reputations and those of the organisations for which they work.
Kevin Rudd is living two lives. He’s fighting, and on all the evidence losing, an election campaign. Between times, he’s also keeping himself very busy on the international stage.
What an irony. Thanks primarily to Rudd’s efforts, Australia currently has a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. And just when the Syrian issue is reaching boiling point, Australia on Sunday takes over the council presidency.
Yet it is more than likely that by the week after next, it will be Tony Abbott who will be calling the shots on Australia’s foreign policy.
Rudd would have loved nothing more than to be sitting in that Security Council chair next week or soon after. And it was extremely hard for him to decide to miss the G20 in St Petersburg next week.
When he was first musing on election dates, he mentioned the G20 as a consideration. But his advisers won the day and the G20 had to be sacrificed. Foreign Minister Bob Carr will represent Australia. (Why doesn’t Rudd address the meeting via telephone?)
Meanwhile Rudd is trying to play middle power diplomacy to the hilt.
Among those with whom he’s discussed Syria are US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, French President Francois Hollande, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, and Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Obama rang Rudd. Australia initiated the discussions with Cameron, Ban, Hollande and Yudhoyono.
“We are working with our friends and allies across the world at this time of growing crisis in the Middle East and in Syria in particular”, the PM said today.
Rudd is all for robust action. “What we have witnessed is tantamount to a crime against humanity when you see the use of chemical weapons against civilians.
“The Australian government, after conversations with our allies has formed a view that there is overwhelming evidence that chemical weapons have been used [and] we have high confidence that the regime in Syria is responsible for these attacks”.
Attention therefore turned to the next step, he said. Rudd has made it clear he thinks the international community can’t just stand aside and “wave through” such behaviour.
Russia and China stand in the way of Security Council backing for military intervention. Asked about action without UN backing, Carr said the US, UK and possibly France had indicated “that in the extremity of this circumstance they’re prepared to consider a response independent of the UN, which at a Security Council level remains divided”.
It was “yet to be seen” whether Australia would endorse that, Carr said.
It’s hard to see how Rudd wouldn’t do so, given all he has said. It’s equally difficult to believe Tony Abbott would not give a tick to whatever the US did.
If such action came in the caretaker period, which appears likely, there are different opinions on whether the government should consult the opposition on an Australian response. Australia would not be asked to provide any ass