Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: ACT Politics

The return of the rank and file

Two significant developments in Australian politics this week may point to a hopeful re-emergence of the rank and file within the ALP, and potentially the Coalition as well. Last night in the ACT, the rank and file voters (572 voted) over-ruled a deal between the factions and chose their own excellent candidates:

Economics professor Andrew Leigh and businesswoman Gai Brodtmann have taken the spoils in two hotly contested Labor preselection battles in the ACT. Labor holds the seats of Canberra and Fraser by comfortable margins, ensuring a hard fought battle for preselection on Saturday.
Canberra was the closest call, with Ms Brodtmann securing just four more primary votes than government adviser Mary Wood before the final distribution gave her a 123 to 109 advantage. In Fraser, Mr Leigh, a professor at Canberra’s Australian National University, had barely more than half the primary votes Nick Martin had accrued….But in an eight-horse race, the independents gave Mr Leigh a winning boost by sending their preferences his way, securing the 37-year-old’s win by 144 votes to 96. Mr Leigh said he felt extraordinarily lucky and humbled by the support.
He paid tribute to his fellow candidates, saying it was terrific battle, fought on “a discussion of big ideas about the future of Australia and what we want to achieve for the country”. His research lies in poverty and disadvantage.
Ms Brodtmann, who runs a communications consultancy business in Canberra with her husband, ABC political journalist Chris Uhlmann, was equally humbled by the victory

Personally I couldn’t be happier about the victory of Andrew Leigh. He is a very hard working, but original thinker and from my limited interactions with him, a great down to earth guy, but I’ll write more on that in a future post. What has national significance is that there had been a factional deal, with the left getting Canberra (and their candidate of Mary Wood) and the Right getting Fraser (Nick Martin). To add further pressure, pre-selectors were expected to vote two at a time and show their vote to the other, a rather outrageous breech of the Australian-pioneered secret ballot. While most party members will object to such factional control, it was particularly the case in the ACT which (remains!) the only area in the country where the rank and file control 100% of the selection. Hence the possibility of an upset like this. Let us hope this will encourage other rank and files around the country to also try and buck the factional heavies. Given that Rudd is not a factional man, and has decided to appoint his cabinet without reference to them, the last few years have seen a few setbacks for the factions and the slight (very slight) chance of a shift in their power.

The other significant news, and one that has significance for both parties is the successful running of the Kilsyth primary in Victoria. Encouraged by Premier John Brumby and for a seat where a 1% swing would cause it to change hands, this could represent a major shift in the way Australian politics operates. Because of the role of the Prime Minister we will never see US style primaries for the leaders of our parties, but a move to primaries to select the local candidates within seats offers both parties a way to re-energise their memberships (which have fallen from involving nearly half the population in the 40′s to just hundreds per seat today). I’ve blogged about this before, but from all accounts the primary seems to have been a success both in encouraging people to vote & energising ALP supporters. If the ALP wins the seat in November’s victorian election, then we may see both major parties starting to move to adopt such an approach. It will be resisted by many especially the factions and groupings which dominate both parties, but it, like the election of Leigh and Brodtmann in the ACT represent a good step forward in ensuring an open and competitive political system in Australia’s major parties.

Update: Some figures from Kilsyth: The branch has boomed from 50 to 300 members, and 170 voted on the day.

First, but least in the nation

Overnight, US President Obama stepped in to support the rights of citizens of Washington D.C

The White House released this statement by President Obama urging Congress to grant voting representation to residents of Washington, D.C.:

“On this occasion, we remember the day in 1862 when President Lincoln freed the enslaved people of Washington, DC – nine months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. I am proud that an original copy of that document now hangs in the Oval Office, and we remain forever grateful as a nation for the struggles and sacrifices of those Americans who made that emancipation possible.

“Americans from all walks of life are gathering in Washington today to remind members of Congress that although DC residents pay federal taxes and serve honorably in our armed services, they do not have a vote in Congress or full autonomy over local issues. And so I urge Congress to finally pass legislation that provides DC residents with voting representation and to take steps to improve the Home Rule Charter.”

Given the presidents courage, it would be nice to see a similar statement from his close friend Kevin Rudd to support the rights of Canberran citizens. Canberran residents are the least represented citizens in the country. In the House of Representatives,the Seats of Canberra and Fraser are some of the largest in the country in population size (With 122′000 and 116′000 respectively) when the AEC tries to maintain all electorates at a much lower level. (Indeed the NT with 200′000 citizens gets 2 seats, the ACT with 325′000 also gets 2 seats, and Tasmania with 480′000 gets 5 seats.
A similar pattern (though even more disadvantageous!) occurs in the Federal Senate with the ACT gaining only 2 senators for our population, with Tasmania and all other States enjoying 712 senators. Finally, when it comes to Federal Referendums, residents of the ACT are given only a half vote. A referendum needs to pass a majority of states, and a majority of australian citizens to be made law. Yet votes from the ACT are not counted as representing an area in their own right, and only contribute to the overall majority.

Not only is the principle strong, but it makes good politics as well. A further seat for Washington will surely become a safe democratic seat, as would a third one for Canberra, and fixing the gerrymandering of the states ought to be a long term ALP goal (or goal for any who care about popular representation given that the major parties split the ACT’s senate seats).

A changing of the guard in the ACT

Bob McMullan chatting to students 2006. Authors photo

Ever since I can remember, Canberra has been represented by two labor members in the House of Representatives, Annette Ellis for Canberra (south of the lake) and Bob McMullan for Fraser(City Centre & Northside). On Tuesday McMullan announced his retirement at the coming election (he was going to quit in 2013), and by the time you are reading this, Annette Ellis will have announced she too is leaving (/being pushed out).

While I’ve only once bumped into Ellis, I’ve met McMullan a number of times. He was very generous with his time as Shadow Treasurer to me for 2 different TAFE journalism assignments, and when I was running a political society at Uni he twice came and gave off the cuff speeches, glass of wine in hand. His big glasses and quiet manners make him look a shy type, but he works a room very ably. While I’d lived within Ellis’s electorate most of my life, I had been looking forward to casting a vote for McMullan in Fraser this year, but not to be.

Though one of the few members of the ALP with ministerial experience, (as former minister for Trade, Admin & Arts, and ALP National Secretary), he unfortunately was sidelined by both Latham and Rudd. Latham’s diary contains some particularly harsh claims, and Rudd, despite claiming to have picked his own cabinet, could find no room for this hard working ‘Centrist’ faction member. Not quite a faction to speak of, McMullan along with the now deceased Peter Cook and a few others somehow managed to buck the power of the unions, though neither was quite given the influence their talents deserved. Though McMullan seemed quite dissapointed not to have recieved a ministery under Rudd, he has taken to his role as Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance with aplomb and is now set to take an NGO job in the field and carry on the work. One of the rare cases where a quick cross over from Government to Industry is to be endorsed.

Unsurprisingly for two of the safest seats in the country (With a 23% buffer for Canberra and 30% for Fraser), the fight for the seats is fierce. Early names being thrown around include Nick Martin the Federal Labor assistant party secretary, Constitutional Lawyer/Public Intellectual George Williams, Peter Conway a former ALP senate Candidate, Michael Cooney (local Minister Andrew Barr’s Chief of Staff), Rudd’s wunderkid & chief of staff Alistar Jordan, and ANU’s wunderkid economics Professor Andrew Leigh. Surprisingly, local MP’s such as Jon Stanhope & Andrew Barr have not got in the running, esp as Barr seems to have a bright future ahead of him, but he seems to be may be angling for ACT Chief Minister). Martin seems to be firming, but its pretty fluid. If you’re interested, Twitter has been the best place to find out the breaking nature of the story (admittedly by local journalists on the medium).

Given I know none of the candidates closely, and all have strong backgrounds, the ALP would be best served by choosing as young and up coming a star as possible. Ellis whilst a fine enough local candidate, had little to offer the federal party, putting the seat somewhat to waste. The party needs to find someone who can make a home in the seat for two decades or more and contribute consistently both to the community and to the federal policy/media profile. While Rudd is an exception, almost every Prime Minister has spent about 20 years in parliament before ascending to the top job. The public needs time to get to know them, as do their colleagues, and as I’ve been arguing for a while, politics is a profession that takes a long time to learn, something the Malcolm Turnbull’s of the world forget to their own misfortune.

The ACT is rare in having a the cleanest Rank & File pre-selection options in the country, but with Rudd at the helm, two members going & the ACT labor party a bit of a shambles administratively, the temptation for federal intervention will be strong. Hopefully the rank and file will reject that and choose someone who they want to see around canberra for the next 20 years. The ACT offers enticingly safe seats for ALP members, but Canberran’s can be pretty parochial. We get abused by the rest of the country for “our” politicians despite being the least represented place in the country; so when we do get a choice, we demand a local background and commitment to the city. I’d really like to see Andrew Leigh get up (his blog is here), but Williams or Martin sound good choices.

Vale McMullan, & Ellis and let the games commence.

Doubting the citizens intelligence

I really like living in the ACT. It’s generally hassle free, safe, and cosmopolitan. Likewise the local government is smart, left wing and generally competent. But sometimes, (spurred on by the Greens) they pass legislation that seems to question the intelligence of local citizens, and cause hassles for retailers, for no good reason. If there’s a problem, governments all too often sees extra regulation as the solution. Two recent examples stand out.

As of January 1, free-range and cage eggs must be physically separated in stores, with clear markings, a change no supermarkets have yet to get around to making. As if like cigarettes many people were still unaware of the harm caused. Personally I always buy free range. It’s an easy moral choice, and the packs are generally easily labeled. Even if a particular brand isn’t too clear, I can easily choose another. Where free range eggs were pretty rare a decade ago, today it seems most egg brands are free range. If the government has a problem with battery hens, then it need to outlaw their sale. If not, adding burdens onto supermarkets to make the abundantly clear even more so helps no one.

[Turns out this next example is by the Federal Labor Government, my mistake] A second example (no online copy available) is the insistence that all cafes/resturant’s have a second menu for sundays/public holidays displaying the full price, rather than simply saying “10% surcharge on public holidays”.
This is part of legislation that tackles the often grossly misleading prices on cars and airline tickets, however it seems Cafes/Resturants are being caught up as well.
Again, few retailers have bothered following the legislation, with those doing so using ugly photocopies of their menus, and finding their staff are getting confused along with customers. While there’s a definite principle that everything you buy should be the labled price, a 10% charge notice for cafes at the bottom is not exactly duplicitous, or hard to figure out. Legislation of this type while honourable, also seems to be built on the presumption that consumers are unable to read the notice, calculate additional taxes or charges from the small print into their costs, or factor this in when they make purchases.

I don’t get Libertarians consuming worry about these issues. The link to ‘freedom’ is, despite their claims, so tangential as to be invisible. Most of the time this is pretty minor stuff, and if you only focus on the negatives you can lose sight of the critical importance of sensible regulations to an efficient, prosperous capital economy. But sometimes governments introduce regulations which seem to have no discernible benefit, hassle business and treat citizens like children unable to make decisions for themselves.

A victory for Liberty

Very pleasing breaking news:

Commonwealth to allow gay ceremonies: Corbell
Simon Corbell says gay couples will still be able to have legally binding ceremonies under the amendments.
ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell says the Territory has now reached a compromise with the Commonwealth.
He says gay couples will still be able to hold a legally binding ceremony in front of a civil partnership notary.
But now they will also have to notify the registrar-general of their intention to hold a ceremony
.

Assuming endorsement from the registrar-general is automatic, this is a great step for civil liberties in Australia. If we are to be a society which is designed for the promotion of general prosperity and liberty, then this is as critical an issue as any step in recent years. For much of the last 30 years the liberal/libertarian movement has focused its concern for expanding liberty purely within the economic sphere. Social liberties were seen as too hard, or many proclaimed supporters of freedom were distinctly uncomfortable with its actual expansion (such as the many conservatives who regularly invoke the cause of freedom, especially in the US, whilst having no time for any social liberalisation in areas such as Marriage, Euthanasia and Drugs). Likewise one of my greatest differences with Libertarians is their almost sole economic focus, as such I’d be surprised if this decision gets noticed on the libertarian blog Cattlaxyfiles (at least now that Jason Soon has left)

Though this is only significant for at most a thousand Australians (ie Homosexual couples in the ACT wishing to marry), it does allows the idea to become a norm. A social practice, with its effects, pro and con measured and noticed. And as with the US, when the ground doesn’t open up to destroy the modern Gomorrah of Canberra, other states may be willing to take the risk, along with the Federal Government noting the general public acceptance. It surely won’t change under Rudd, but it’s now a real possibility for a Gillard Administration.

This is also significant as a signal to those who hold liberal views on matters both economic and social that the ALP is still receptive to such ideas. Rudd disappointed a lot of liberals with his refusal to end parallel import restrictions, so this is a good change to reassure them.

Congratulations federally to Kevin Rudd, Robert McClelland and Gary Humphries (and probably Kate Lundy), and locally to Andrew Barr, Simon Corbell and Jon Stanhope. You have all done your bit for a significant expansion of civil liberty in Australia. That’s something to be proud of, whatever the critics say.

The financial benefits of a R18+ rating for games

This is our culture and our economy:

CALL of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has racked up more record sales of $US550 million ($593 million) in its first five days, but the publisher Activision Blizzard is still concerned about weak consumer spending.
The game, a first-person-shooter that lets gamers play as elite soldiers hunting down targets from South America to Afghanistan, beat the record set by last year’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV in its first week.
Last week it said it sold 4.7 million copies for a total of $US310 million ($333.3 million) on its first day in the US and UK alone.
Activision said five-day sales for Modern Warfare 2 topped the $US394 million ($423.6 million) earned at the box office by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in its first five days.
The video game bested Batman film The Dark Knight, which had held the record for the top opening weekend ever by taking in $US158.4 million ($170.3 million) in July 2008.

There is always a lag between capitalism and culture, though inevitably the dollar wins through. However it takes some time for societies to integrate in and accept certain cultural artifacts, regardless of sales. The rise of evangelical literature/music/films (such as the Left Behind series) is one example, another that suffers is video games. While you will see the occasional article in the papers about them, their coverage pales into comparison compared to films, despite computer games being a bigger industry for films, both in Australia and world wide. Indeed according to the Canberra Times (p6 Monday Nov 23 2009) this morning (no online copy) most Australian’s are gamers:

Computer games are set to be an bigger part of Christmas entertainment than ever this year, with strong growth for an industry now worth $2 billion in Australia….“The average age of the gamer in Australia is 30 and another key figure is that almost half (46%) the gamers in Australia are actually female”… Dr Jeffery Brand, the head of Bond University’s communications and media studies school, said most Australian homes had a game device.
“We have roughly seven out of 10 Australian’s playing computer games at some point in the year” he said. “Most of those, the vast majority of that 70 per cent, are playing daily or every other day”.

All this makes it even stranger then that in Australia, we do not have an R18+ rating for computer games. The Federal Classifications ACT was set in 1995, a lifetime ago in the industries view, with only limited consultation since. The biggest hold up it seems is the gentleman’s agreement that Australia has uniform laws on censorship via COAG. Despite the fact that this isn’t the case in videos (The ACT sells X rated videos, whilst other states have banned them), the convention has given South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson an effective veto power over such a large industry. In the last year some of the biggest computer games released including Fallout 3, GTA IV and Left 4 Dead 2 have all been refused classification (ie banned) or major changes forced on the overseas producers. That means lost sales, as people either dont buy, buy overseas, or simply pirate the game. When such contempt for the laws is commonplace, it is the laws that must change.

Yet these loses pale in comparison to the loss and harm the restrictions place on the development of a local Australian computer games industry, one in which Australia has some key niche advantages. The industry requires highly trained professionals which we produce in droves, it is an industry that depends on quality not quantity (meaning it can’t be outsourced to asian factory workers) and it is green and high paying business, returning nice tax benefits to the country. Yet both the Howard and now Rudd governments have ignored the industry, much as they have almost all high-tech industries. Australian governments it seems consider it a core business of theirs to spend billions of tax payer dollars to protect already dead industries (parts of our manafacturing and agricultural fields for instance) whilst not only ignoring but hampering the rise of new industries that seem well suited to our demographics and skills. The loss could already be measured in the billions (I know of 2 ACT games manufacturers that have closed and gone offshore in the last few years) and with video games set to grow, will be worth tens of billions in years to come.

From my reading of the Classification ACT’s it seems it would only require a change in the Federal law, and the compliance of one state or territory for video games to be classified at a R18+ rating by the OFLC and sold only in those states or territories that changed their law to accommodate it. (If there’s something I’m overlooking in my reading of the act, please email me or post a correction below.) For the loss of uniform laws on the issue, each state and territory could choose to encourage or restrict the industry in their territory. South Australian voters could continue to ban the sale of R18+ games, whilst those in the ACT or Victoria allow it. This would be competitive federalism at its best, something the constitution writers were very keen to encourage.

The potential sales revenue for any state which was the first to move would be immense. They would become the only port of call for the sale of these games, dramatically reducing overseas sales of games, and likely enticing video game production companies to consider moving their business to those cities in order to be able to freely develop their products. That reassurance would be a big boost for an industry that thanks to increasing photo-realistic graphics is having to continually re-account for why its material is classifiable as only MA 15+. What was assured of passing 5 years ago, might not today, without any significantly different levels of gore, just a more natural depiction of it thanks to better technology. Equally potential games producers (which need be only a professional working from a home office developing a game for phones as much as the multi-million dollar blockbusters like Bioshock 2 (produced in Australia) could be enticed to start their own businesses once the laws are expanded and clarified.

Despite massive tax payer funded handouts, Australia has lost much of its manufacturing industry and some of its agricultural as well But in high tech and value adding areas, such as the original idea’s, design and marketing, Australian workers and companies are almost impossible to beat. I don’t know who coined the phrase (I suspect Paul Keating), but the claim Australia needs to become the brain to Asia’s brawn has always struck me as very good economic sense. By not having a R18+ rating we are not only continuing with laws that do not reflect community sentiment, but are actively denying Australia billions in lost revenue in both production and sales in what is is fast becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world. We simply can’t afford not to make the necessary changes and get Australia’s computer games industry into action.

Wither States Rights?

australia_flagIn a pleasing sign, the ACT assembly, with the support of the ACT Labor Party and the Greens has passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to have a legally binding ceremony. Gay couples can already bind themselves into a legal union, a change reluctantly accepted by the federal government, but last year Rudd decided that allowing that union to be publicly celebrated would be too much like marriage. The word petty doesn’t even begin to describe such a complaint. The Labor Party chose not to to support such unions at its national conference, and it’s probable that Rudd will again veto the legislation.

This raises a challenge for progressive however. Despite spending the 20th century fighting states rights, recognising it for the conservative impediment it was, in many areas such as social or environmental law, progressive ideals are best served by giving local communities far more of a say. Hopes in the federal labor party have faltered, as it has looked to ensure nation-wide support (rather than just majority support), and shown great hesitancy to risk taking. Interestingly, this shift is also occuring at the same time as the Liberal Party has just finished fundamentally walking away from promoting a states rights agenda. So should Progressives deliver the killing blow to states rights, or are recent developments signs that this is more prosperous ground than previously thought?

For future historians, one of the most important facets of the Prime Ministership of John Howard, was the virtual death of the States Right’s viewpoint within the conservative parties. Howard invoked the idea himself comonly when in Fraser’s government and during the 1980′s wilderness in opposition; by the time he returned for a second showdown, the heat was largely gone. Against Keating Howard positioned himself as one who would govern “for all Australia” against the sectional and geographic interest groups, a stance he would keep throughout his time in government. He wouldn’t even support his home state NSW in the State of Origin games, such was his desire not to be seen as supporting one state over others (or even supporting the states at all!)

There’s ample evidence (such as from Costello’s memoirs and Howard’s own musings on the subject) that this was a practical solution, rather than a philosophical shift, and came in response to a current political threat. Namely that the people would blame the federal government regardless of who was responsible, and that the State Governments were largely hostile to going along with Howard on most issues, most of the time. That said, the shift also re-enforced Howard’s growing sense of control and dominance, as he increasingly sought to leave his mark on the country, and deliver on the public trust invested in him through 4 separate elections. Howard not only changed the country, he also changed his party. Time in government converted many to similar views, and Howard’s views became gospel as older members retired, and younger, more impressionable ones came in. Practice eventually becomes principle, and the Liberal Party today under Turnbull, Abbott & Minchin has barely touched this criticism of states rights, despite its favored son status for conservatives in opposition for the last 108 years in this country.

This change in conservative thinking should have progressives cheering. After all, states have been (and were designed in the 1890′s Constitutional Conventions to be) strong impediments to any social change that may have upset the status quo or reduced the influence of men of property (Hence the Senate starting life as a States House, to review what the mobs in the House of Representatives proposed). Equally, there is good evidence that there was a big influence from current American trends on Australia’s constitution writers (especially Griffith and Barton) which lead to pushing a very minor, restricted federal government. Most people who follow politics will have heard of section 51. of the constitution. The reason it is well known however is that it is the only section which distinctly lays out the powers of the federal government. Anything not mentioned is assumed to be entirely under State control. Our constitution is not there to guarantee the rights and liberties of the citizens, it is there almost exclusively to give chains to the States to tether down the inevitable King Kong of National Government that they were reluctantly accepting.

So, given this history, the end of conservative support for states rights ought to be a good thing. The example of the ACT however suggests that there is an alternative: that progressives should now look to focus on the states where they can pass such legislation, or better marshal power such as to stop at the source developments such as the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill or the Mary River Dam. While Federal Labor supported the former and has just rejected the later, both were pushed by their state governments, which have fallen under the sway of and indeed often become corrupted by development companies as progressives look federally. Those with talent and a desire for being in parliament on the progressive side are almost universally looking towards Federal Seats, leaving many also-rans and backroom hacks in charge of the station (See Rees Government). Likewise on issues such as drugs, euthanasia, public transport, land use, and household trends (such as towards environmental efficiency) these issues either are still state issues, or have a greater chance of change at a state level.

So progressives are in a bind. They have an unparalleled opportunity to sign the death knell to the states rights argument from preventing progressive change, perhaps even to reform/do away with the entire states system (as the decidedly non-progressive Banaby Joyce advocates). Such changes would this be good policy in removing inefficiencies, ensuring uniform standards and laws, and overcome vested interests on national issues (everything from fixing the Murray-Darling to introducing a R18+ rating for computer games).

Yet the barriers to passing progressive legislation are significantly lower at a state level these days, with a cumulative effect in practice, meaning good progressive policy in one state tends to end up in the others (eventually). Equally many potential problems (such as corrupt/badly designed development) can be addressed before they become major issues. Add in the ‘common wisdom’ that progressives are more trusted on day to day domestic issues, whilst conservatives for outward looking concerns (the so-called daddy/mommy divide), which if not quite true at least benefits progressives electorally at a local level. Then again, they must also consider the thought experiment that if the situation reversed and a Federal Government introduced same-sex marriages and a single state dissented, would they keep supporting states rights.

For ACT residents it has been rumored that the Minister for Territories Brendan O’Connor would like to see a change to let the ACT govern itself, relieving the Federal Government from having to decide on such issues, as same-sex marriage. Nothing has occurred yet, and won’t before this bill is due to be addressed, but it would be a very positive sign considering the significant discrimination faced electorally by ACT residents.

No change has been bigger in Australia’s political landscape than the isolation of state government concerns from the dialogue of federal politics. Yet whilst this has come about because Conservatives under Howard walked away from their historical position, progressives ought to take their finger off the trigger for a moment or two to consider the real benefit of such a change. We are yet to see if Rudd will go ahead with his election ‘promise’ to takeover the health system, but if so similar moves in education wouldn’t be too far behind.

Certainly something to keep an eye on, the historic forces are shifting, but it may be a while till we see where the pieces finally come to lie.

Photo by jemasmith used under a Creative Commons Licence

A disaster waiting to happen

Federalism sometimes doesn’t work:
plane_wire

THE [NSW] Minister for Planning, Kristina Keneally, has been accused of making the wrong call on a development near Canberra Airport after she made a site visit during a mid-afternoon lull in air traffic when planes were flying in from another direction.In December Ms Keneally endorsed a change to the Queanbeyan residential and economic strategy allowing a proposed development of 4800 homes at Tralee.

In a letter to the broadcaster Alan Jones obtained by the Herald, Ms Keneally apologised for not getting back to him sooner before defending the Tralee development.
She wrote: ”And when I visited Tralee a few months ago, standing on the site of the proposed school, I must say that the aircraft noise was hardly significant.”
But the managing director of the airport, Stephen Byron, said Ms Keneally did not make a proper assessment of the site because she visited it on the wrong day, at the wrong time…. ”had she visited Tralee on any of the following eight days [February 11-18 inclusive] she would have been able to experience the level of aircraft noise created by aircraft operating directly above the Tralee site.”

It has since been revealed that the Minister for Emergency Services, Steve Whan, lobbied for Village Building Company, which is involved in the project, before being elected to Parliament, and he and the NSW Labor branch have received more than $90,000 in donations from the company.

There’s no question Queanbeyan is growing and needs new space. However the proposed Tralee development, right under the flight path for the Canberra airport is an absolute joke. Canberra is the capital city of the 14th biggest economy in the world, a G-20 country, a regional leader, a major resource hub and one with a proud record of international involvement from serving in war to peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. And you still need a domestic connecting flight to get into the city. They are only finally getting around to improving some of the roadway to and from the airport (woe betide anyone foolish enough to try and get from the airport to the city quickly on a sitting week for parliament). The airport is looking to expand, but with Tralee about to be built under their major flight plans not only will that be a hazardous and difficult achievement, it spells 50+ years of heartache for the airport owners and the residents of Canberra.

If you click through to this PDF you can see the impact of Tralee. The airport is the X in the middle of the red path, with Tralee at the bottom, smack bang along the high noise flight corridor. There’s no reason Tralee has to be there, Canberra and Queanbeyan are still ringed by sheep paddocks as much as they were 100 years ago.

Right now in canberra it’s still rare to hear airport noise. But despite the forewarning, the new owners of properties in Tralee will soon (and rightly) complain about the noise and a noise sharing agreement will be reached. The airport will be able to service less traffic (perhaps shutting down from 10pm) and will be forced to equally share the punishment of aircraft noise across canberra’s leafy suburbs. No one will be happy, no one will feel any solution adequately solves the problem, but that is the inevitable future of building in Tralee. The developers will get their funds, the politicians their re-election funding and every citizen from Tralee to Canberra will be annoyed and unhappy at their environment.

Federalism was the deal that guaranteed nationhood, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. States constantly screw other states when it comes to issues that flow across the border. The giant Murry River is being strangled upstream because the effects hurt residents of other states, and so can be safely advocated and enforced by state politicians. Given the critical importance of Canberra getting an international airport, and having room for its expansion and consistent operation, Rudd needs to step in an stop the Tralee development any way possible. Not only will NSW and ACT voters love him for giving the finger to the failed Rees Government, it would be a big sign he takes fixing the problems of federalism seriously, as he promised in his 2007 election campaign.

No place like home

A welcome announcement from the Government:

The Federal Government has allocated $12 million to boost emergency financial assistance for vulnerable groups affected by the global financial crisis.
The new funding will target charities that help the homeless, single parent families and Indigenous groups.

The funding coincides with the release of research by the Federal Government showing 34 per cent of Australians believe their financial situation has deteriorated because of the economic downturn.
About 21 per cent of them said they had been unable to pay bills, while 15 per cent had been forced to ask for help from friends and family.
Ms Macklin says charities and support agencies have seen a changing demographic this year.
“This research we’ve released today shows that people in more traditionally middle income families have also been doing it hard, particularly as they’ve lost their jobs as a result of the global financial crisis,” she said.

Homelessness_fly_away

While the ‘green shoots’ of economic recovery have been much lauded (and spooked our RBA), it’s worth remembering that many people in this country are yet to see a return to fortune. Having survived the GFC, many will be looking grimly ahead at the ‘season of joy’ that threatens to leave them feeling very financially exposed. The end of the year period brings with it both reduced work, and expectations of parties, presents & dinners, all at great cost. While our liberated economy has had the flexibility to reduce hours instead of firing staff, this also means that those we consider employed today may not be earning a great deal, especially those with young kids. Most will make it through, but we can expect an increase in those who will need a little bit of help, and some for whom homelessness is a real risk. Each day in Australia about 100’000 are homeless, though only 1/10th of those are on the street, with many many more forced into temporary accommodation, such as friends couches, or motel/caravan short stays. Some of course can be given all the enticements in the world, but will still choose to sleep rough and ‘free’, but that is a very small % of the homelessness problem.

Thankfully however we seem to have a Federal Government that is taking the issue seriously (unlike its predecessor). In a move that surprised, but pleased many one of the first acts of the Rudd government in Jan 2008, was to announce a renewed effort to tackle homelessness in Australia. In December of that year, the White Paper The Road Home, was released. The government pledged itself to two highly ambitious goals. (1)Halve homelessness by 2020, and (2) Provide shelter for those rough sleepers who want it by 2020. In August 2009, the Minister for Housing Tanya Plibersek released an update offering figures, which whilst not impressive are at least encouraging. Each state has it’s own details, though the $20m for the ACT, is very welcome. Canberra’s prosperity both enhances the wealth of those in secure employment/housing, whilst making it significantly harder for those at the fringes to get by. Where the GFC saw prices drop for renters across the country, in Canberra rent prices reportedly went up.

This is a government still a little too bound up in process over progress for my liking, creating a new independent council on homelessness, and $11.4m for Homelessness Research. However, they seem to act in good faith, with the PM’s conscious Therese Rein apparently quite serious about the issue. Assuming this is a minimum three term govt, and the funding/attention continues, such structures and (initially) slow work could build into a significant apparatus for dealing with homelessness in Australia. The problem is still there and very significant, and to some extent with the likely slow recovery, and costs of the season of good tidings, it may in fact get worse. But it’s nice to see a government that is at least talking about the issue and committed to change. It’s so easy to spend all your time on a blog like this criticizing those in power, but sometimes the best way to encourage good behaviour is through praise rather than blame. So well done Rudd & Plibersek. Now get back to work :) .

That said, this is also an issue the general public not only can get behind, but must if we are to tackle it. It is Anti-Poverty week, with lots of activities being organised around the country, and there are many good charities to donate to such as Anglicare and St Vincent de Paul who both do a lot of work to help the homeless.

Image by Flicker User D.C.Atty used under a Creative Commons Licence

Its enough to make you drink…

whisky-gentry-styleWhenever the debate turns to the war on drugs, one of the most common retorts (by both sides oddly enough) is that we already allow legal consumption of Alcohol. Which is true enough, except there are a number of odd little restrictions and punishments on drinkers for reasons that generally defy explanation.

First up is the so called ‘sin’ taxes, making every drink you buy, or cigarette you smoke significantly more expensive. This is allowed and accepted in part because these drugs both cause significant social and health care costs, but there’s a larger element of simply being an easy target. Drinkers and smokers can be freely pegged by government for funds, for almost none will stand up for them as a group (not even the many politicians who enjoy a tipple) and amongst some their own abstinence flows into a desire to publicly show their dissaproval and encourage force others to also stop. How else to explain ridiculous ideas such as graphic warnings on alcohol similar to those found on cigarette packets. What are they going to show ? people having a good time? People passed out? The PM’s extensive wine cellar? Most however accept the penalty and continue their behaviour as before (anyone who thinks the cost be it for alco-pops or cigarettes is changing behaviour doesn’t under stand their species. Instead people simply substitute. Straight spirits mixed at home instead of pre-mixed ones. And for the addict smoker it is simply a minor consideration compared to the urge in their body and mind to continue their habit.)

Far less understandable however are the odd laws that pop up around the service of alcohol. The Responsible Service of Alcohol in the ACT for instance punishes drinkers of good whisky. Though I’ve been in some pubs that don’t do so, most places under the RSA will force you to put at least something in the glass along with your whisky, either a soda like coke, or at a minimum a single piece of ice. Likewise you can only buy a single shot’s worth, not a double. Why however I don’t know. That single piece of ice will not stop you getting drunk, will not keep you more upright or do anything other than to water down and dilute a nice (and expensive) drink. Some may like their whisky that way, fine, but why must I conform? The bar on double shots is intended to stop large consumption of spirits, but you can of course buy two, or go up to the bar again. Ideally the pubs will stop serving you alcohol if you are too intoxicated (say after a few trips) but the only ones ever refused are the almost paralytic, who are far more likely to be drinking whatever cheap beer they can get their hands on, not an expensive, aged single malt.

Of similar befuddlement is the recent proposal in the ACT to ban drink containers over 560ml in size. This is proposed under the ‘logic’ that “excessively large containers would promote excessive alcohol consumption”, a sure sign that the legislators have never actually been out on the town or into the RSL’s and pubs they are attempting to control. I say this if for no other reason than that a Pint glass is 568ml. So either they are attempting to ban all but 375ml schooner glasses, or more likely don’t even know what size drinks are served today. But that is a simple error likely to be fixed. Far more ridiculously is the attempt to ban stein’s, 1 liter glasses. Now these are big drinks, but as far as I know only one place in town, a gourmet beer brewer Zeirholtz’s in Fyshwick uses steins. Hardly a location of problematic alcohol consumption, or alcohol induced problems. But even when they were (for a limited time) served at the biggest pub in the city, they were hardly a menace. 1 liter is a lot of beer, but it’s also damn heavy, forcing you to sit down, and to take care for your drink. At such a price and size, no one is going to smash their glass into someones head, nor throw it, nor leave it alone. A $3.20 schooner can be easily thrown or smashed with no great cost to the purchaser (at least till the bouncers/cops come). But an $18.00 stein is a whole different matter. The proposed rule therefore is likely to only affect a single outlet with no reputation for trouble, and have zero effect on curbing violence or alcohol abuse in public.

That said, the ACT at least is better positioned than NSW & Victoria who lock patrons out of clubs at 2am. You can continue to drink if you are inside the establishment, but you can not change to a new place, or even go outside to meet a friend/partner and return. The idea is that it stops people drinking earlier, but instead people simply respond by drinking more sooner (so they get far more drunk) and getting angry/annoyed when full of grog and unable to join their friends. Despite clear anecdotal evidence that neither proposal has curbed the excesses of most young people’s friday/saturday night shuffle, we can probably expect it to be introduced here in time.

There are many serious problems with alcohol abuse in this country. Teen drinking is a real concern (stunting growing brains), and no one likes running into a near paralytic drunk who wants to yell at or pick a fight with you. We do need laws to control and regulate its service, but it is amazing how few of these laws (lock outs, watered whisky, no steins) have anything to do with the actual problem or likelyhood of stopping problem drinking. The most common drink, the schooner of cheap beer is the source of 90% of the problems. But its ubiquitousness also means it can’t be targeted, so instead gourmet beer and whisky drinkers get punished. Any time government acts to change or introduce new laws regarding social behaviour, it needs to make sure it does so with the greatest possible evidence and understanding of the practical effects of its actions. Recent legislation at both a state (well territory) and federal level however proves that requirement is not being met. And about time I must say for a post on whisky, given its role in the masthead.

Happy News

Ring
Given I gave them a whack a little while ago for the rumor of cowardice, its pleasing to note that the ACT Labor party has found its spine and endorsed a new bill supporting ceremonies for civil unions in the ACT. While same-sex civil unions are currently allowed in the ACT, the Rudd government has threatened to veto any bill which allows legally binding public ceremonies. So you can tie your life to another, but not celebrate it in front of friends or family. Petty and illogical, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from social conservatives on such issues. Anyway, good on the ACT Labor party. I’m pretty confident that within 10 years we will have homosexual marriage in this country, but it will require more boldness like this if its to be achieved.

Meanwhile Simon Berger, a pre-selection candidate for Nelsons safe Liberal seat of Bradfield has again gone public with his homosexuality. The politics of this are tough to read. Berger certainly gains name recognition and status for his boldness (joining only Penny Wong in being openly gay). However this is the same seat where a young Nelson was questioned by 5 very stern older ladies if the earring in his ear meant he was gay. Even in the ACT where homosexuality is rather boringly normal, the openly gay Andrew Barr does not run on his sexuality, so its hard to imagine that this move will gain Berger any votes to compensate for the ones inevitably lost in the closed atmosphere of a Liberal Party branch. That said, it would be foolish to imagine that the hostility of the US republicans to gay marriage is replicated here at home. My own view has been that as soon as the Liberals have a leader who publicly endorses gay marriage that the rank and file will come to shift their support to the idea. After all, the Liberals were the first to have a female candidate, a migrant candidate and an aboriginal candidate. They may be a conservative party, but stand well apart from the Hanson-esq bigotry found on the far right.

The Labor party could help speed up this process should it so wish. Now whilst this wont happen, there is an interesting thought experiment to consider. Right now the Labor party leads 55/45 in 2pp, with the Liberals slipping back to 38% primary vote, Latham territory. Given such a lead, and the sure-fire dominance at the next election of the issues of the stimulus (a moderate plus) and the ETS (a strong plus), Labor is in an impregnable position. Thus, it could adopt almost any piece of progressive legislation to propose and be guaranteed a mandate for it, following the election. Going to the election on the issue would take some of the heat out of it (as a qusi-referendum), and yet because there are more fundamental issues in play, it would only play a small role in the outcome. Though gay marriage was voted down at the Labor party conference, Rudd should recognise the rare position history now affords him. Lest he wants to be tagged another Malcolm Fraser, too weak or hesitant to maximize the use of their position, Rudd ought to consider just how he will use this golden opportunity. Its clear that wont be homosexual marriage, but many other issues are on the table such as changes in Drug policy, Federal control of Health or Education, or Tax Reform are all viable. Sure its a lot for voters to deal with, but this is a once in a generation opportunity. Time to stand strong Mr Rudd.

Photo used under a Creative Commons licence by user Hammer51012

There are other Universities Mr Rudd!

4 September 2009

Dear the Hon. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

In recent days you have proposed two very good new initiatives aimed at improving the education and skills of the federal public service. These are the National Security College and a new Policy and Public Sector Management school, with both to be placed at the Australian National University.

There is however one problem. Both of these institutions already exist, and can be found at the University of Canberra (UC). In October 2008 UC set up the National Security Institute with Professor Peter Leahy, former Chief of the Australian Army as its head. And since the early 1980′s, UC has been running the Center for Research in Public Sector Management, and the National Institute of Governance, both of which have now been amalgamated into the ANZOG Institute for Governance . Whilst ANU has its rightful world class reputation for research, the University of Canberra has been carefully carving out a niche serving the public service, providing the latest in research and training facilities.

After the many years of distrust and dismissal of the value of the Higher Education sector by your predecessors, it is fantastic to see a government committed to taking the best new research, insights and training available and applying them to support and enhance the work of the public service. However, as fond as you may be of your alma mata, and as prestigious as the ANU is (and rightly so), there are 37 other universities in this country who are very keen to get involved in this welcome re-engagement. At the University of Canberra (where I have been both an undergraduate and postgraduate student and lecturer) the University has put extensive efforts into a world class research and training body in Public Policy and Public Sector Management. The decision to house the ANZOG institute for Governance at UC in early 2009 was in part a validation of the over 20 year history of high quality work in this sector that had been carried out at the University of Canberra.

So please Mr Rudd, rather than burden ANU to find new buildings and staff, an effort that may take years just to get started, have a look just 5 km away over the hill, past Black Mountain to the University of Canberra where there are already institutions in place with long standing links to serve your vision. Whilst the ANU is rightly one of the worlds finest universities, Australia should seek to expand its research and training excellence across a range of Universities (particularly in a hub such as Canberra) to build an overall reputation for the strength and quality of our institutioins. Just as in the United States where Ivy League schools seek to differentiate their key skills and focuses, building up the University of Canberra with its pre-existing specialisation in National Security and Public Sector Management and Policy can only benefit the country, our international reputation, and the ability of the higher education sector to serve and meet the needs of the federal government and the public service.

Yours Sincerely

Andrew Carr

The slow death of ACT Labor ?

Whilst everyone’s atwitter about the sideshow named disaster that is the Rees NSW Labor government, there is another Labor Government, just across the border that is equally starting to show its age and developing a bad smell: The ACT Labor Government.

In power since November 2001, the ACT Labor government under Jon Stanhope has been a remarkably sucessfull government. Canberra has its share of problems, but it has continued to expand and most residents feel fairly happy about the city’s overall direction. But where there used to be energy and enthusiasm, the government has come to be protective, painfully slow, and precious in its reaction to criticism. Its current strength in the polls and recent re-election were largely due to the ineptness of the opposition, but that’s slowly changing and the government isn’t responding well.

* Several months ago came the news that the ACT Labor Party was going to sell its four Labor Clubs to the CFMEU netting it $20 million. Normally these clubs bring in $4m profit a year, donating hundreds of thousands to both ACT and Federal Labor. This has now been squashed by the Federal party, who suspect the deal should be worth up to $50million.

* In light of these changes the Federal Labor Party is taking over the ACT Branch calling it “Hopeless”.

* The Territories budget has sored and dipped without any sense of control. Great deficits are predicted (as in 2006-7 and again in 2009-10) only for it to be announced that the Government is suddenly back in the black with millions to spare. To its credit the Government used the former downturn to announce a controversial closure program reducing the number of schools based on clear census figures. This predictably caused a great storm of controversy, but seems to have been accepted by the community at large. Yet so much of the argument at the time was based around current costs, and many of the properties still sit idle, awaiting government action.

* On Civil Unions the Government has maintained the same policy of clear support, but it is obvious that the energy and wind has gone out of the government. Denied any scope while John Howard was Prime Minister, the election of a Federal Labor Party was seen as a golden opportunity to enact this important point of progressive legislation. While Rudd initially said he would accept the laws in 2007, and then turned around in 2008 to block them, it appears the Government isn’t even going to try again in 2009. This despite a clear minority developing within Federal Labor that is supporting not just Civil Unions but full equal marriage. Right now the Greens are about to put a bill before the Assembly allowing public ceremonies for the recognized civil partnerships, but ACT Labor is threatening to vote against it. It would almost assuredly be overturned by the federales, but right now the ACT is the only place in the country making noise in this direction, and if they go quiet then the battle will just be set back for another 5-10 years.

* Ask most Australians to describe Canberra and inevitably you hear three things ‘Politicians, Porn, Fireworks’. Well scratch that last one as the ACT government has now decided to ban fireworks. Without any community consultation or debate (despite the issue simmering up each Queens Birthday) The minister for stopping fun dragged out stories of his poor cat, to announce all fireworks would be banned with a limited (and largely ignored) amnesty period. Even the Chief Minister has announced he publicly regrets the decision. This was announced just days after essentially cancelling the much loved Fringe Festival because of a $30’000 cost, whilst splurging several times that on other sports and art.

* Which leads me to my final point: That Stanhope, despite a lot of successes is starting to feel like common furniture for the city and as such his rivals are beginning to make moves. His chief head kicker John Hargraves has said repeatedly that he gives Jon ‘as much loyalty as he gives me’. The rumors are beginning to swirl that Andrew Barr, rising young minister for Education, Planning, Tourism & Sport is planning his own assault towards the leadership. To get there however he will have to climb over the anointed one Katy Gallagher, who Costello like has done a decent job as the #2, seems sure of her deserving the leadership but has thus far done little to assure her success, or even great public support. To date these tensions have been kept from the public, but just as in NSW where bad polls saw the Party encourage the move on of Carr, the dumping of Iemma and now the (welcomed) execution of Rees, a rising challenge could see this break out very publicly.

Personally, I was proud to vote for the ACT Labor party in 2007, they have done well by the city and seem competent and progressive. But by the time of the next election, I, like many canberran’s will be seriously re-visiting that vote to wonder if there is any fuel left in this governments engine whilst it tackles the Sisyphean task of rising towards the light on the hill. Having likely gone as far as they can under current leadership, now should be the time to think of putting a new fresh tank in, or at least ensuring they know how to work the park break.

Smart Action

Very welcome local news:

Chief Minister and Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, Jon Stanhope, today announced Downer EDI Engineering Power Pty Ltd would install ACTION’s new $8 million smartcard ticketing system.
The new ticketing system, due to commence in the second half of 2010, is modelled on Perth’s successful SmartRider system, which was also implemented by Downer EDI.
“Canberrans can look forward to a new ticketing system that is fast, easy and flexible,” Mr Stanhope said. “It will offer bus users a reusable and rechargeable card for travel on all ACTION buses.
“Bus users will be able to recharge their smartcard over the internet, phone or at other card facilities across the ACT. A one-use ticket will also be available for casual users and tourists.
“Bus users will be required to tag-on and tag-off buses, which will significantly improve ACTION’s capacity to monitor passenger trends and make adjustments to meet changes in demand.

The idea of tagging off (ie swiping as you leave) could be a bit of a burden esp if there is just one on each bus, but in general this is a great idea and very welcome. I used the Oyster card’s when in London last year and found them an absolute breeze. They moved through large numbers of people quickly, and were easy to use and keep track of remaining credit. I don’t quite have that same confidence for the local system, but it’s an important step.

The ACT's ACTION Bus service

The ACT's ACTION Bus service

Despite it’s highly planned design, public transport in Canberra is still a farce. New options such as light rail appear buried for the foreseeable future, so existing Bus routes will have to do. Whilst there have been some welcome changes such as more bus lanes, and increased express routes (into and out of the city in peak times & between hubs) the service is still hardly used as you’d have hoped. Canberran’s as a whole are a very good market for public transport, being made up of significant numbers of students, a large CBD, and a general population who is well aware of the issue of climate change and generally wealthy enough to consider alternatives to driving. Yet because public transport is so bad, people often feel they have no other choice. My parents, both accutely concerned about such issues, recently faced this dilemma when their 2nd car spluttered it’s last petrol breath and had to be replaced.

Despite the fact my father no longer works full time, they felt Canberra’s public transport system was simply too much trouble to bother relying on. So a second car was bought, likely to be driven by one person alone for 90% + of it’s trips. Part of the difficulty it seemed was the concern over having the right change, knowing the fare and the general slow speed of bus trips within this laid out city. If a smart card can help encourage this city’s professionals to leave the car at home, or even re-consider a second car it will do significant benefit not just for the regular users but in helping this city do its part in addressing climate change.

A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation

I missed it over the weekend (sorry was forced offline, the joys of unpredictable internet service in the heart of the nations capital), but this opinion piece by Banaby Joyce on the role of the states is seriously good reading:

I had a naive belief when I entered the Senate that it was a house protecting states’ rights and to this cause I would fervently attend the barricade and fight on behalf of Queensland. I have come to the conclusion that this is a unique and nostalgic view in the Senate…
From my discussions the public seem to be over the states and can’t see the relevance of them any more. Their region is more relevant than their state and this is what the upper house should now represent. Six regions in what was a state, with two senators per region elected at each election, would give geographic relevance back to the Senate, its actual purpose, while maintaining a bicameral system with the current numbers in a better representative spread.

What are the states? They are lines on the map that were drawn at an arbitrary point in time when a boat turned up on the coast and its occupants created a settlement that grew to a colony that became a state. And in 2009 that is about as relevant as they are. With the borrowings of the Federal Government on a morbid journey towards $300 billion and the borrowings of the states in excess of $150 billion we have to cut recurring expenditure and three tiers of government would be a good place to start, especially when two of them do basically the same job. Given their cost of about $30 billion a year, as pointed out by Dr Mark Drummond in his thesis, Costing Constitutional Change: Estimates of the Financial Benefits of New States, Regional Governments, Unification and Related Reforms, the removal of state governments should be considered.

To see Joyce of all people advocating the end of the states, and using academic research to promote it is quite a shock. That said Joyce does have two glaring issues: First when discussing redrawing the Senate: The ACT and Northern Territory are AGAIN completely ignored. This is most noticeable in Joyce’s proposed solution which is to get rid of the states, but seemingly draws all the new regions within existing state boundaries, so as to keep overall representation levels the same. The Senate is an odd beast in it’s proportional representation method, yet enforced levels of senators regardless of population. If we are to move to a regional order, then whilst some geographic borders should be taken into account (such separating capital cities from their surrounding rural areas, or clear geographic districts), then there must also be some shift towards making the senate represent the population spread of the country. Not as divided as the HOR, but it’s unacceptable to have a house of review which gives Tasmania one senator for every 41’000 people, and the ACT one senator for every 170’000 people.

Secondly, when advocating the fiscal advantage of dismantling the states: The only way Joyce’s changes could represent a real savings was if almost all taxes and income was pushed over to the Federal Government. That way, people keep paying similar levels, but the government can use it to fund one tier of service, rather than two. This would be a difficult process, to be worked out carefully with each state government, all effectively working hard to put themselves out of a job. The resistance to this amongst the political elite and bureaucracy would be immense and require real national leadership.

Personally I’m strongly in favor of the move. As Joyce notes, the public simply don’t care about the state identities anymore, and so long as they have someone local they can complain to about roads, rates and rubbish, they seem quite content with the Federal Governments increasing centralisation. Indeed MP’s staffers seem to spend increasing amounts of their time helping directing locals to which state office is appropriate. Most of the public just figure their national MP is the one to talk to on most issues. Not only would changing to a regional system end the gerrymander of our Senate and Referendums, it would let us address a number of key constitutional issues in the open (such as debate control of Industrial Relations, rather than through a Supreme court ruling), and standardise a number of common problems across the states (such as the paperwork required to open a business or sending your child to a new school). The states simply have no relation left to either where the people live or where the national issues lie. Changing to a 12-15 regional state grouping would solve much of that. It’s a big change, but after 108 years Australia can afford to tinker with the system. Especially when for the last 40 the change has been going on privately, now it’s time to make it public and transparent. (We could even revisit the issue of New Zealand as a Australian state. They were more involved than WA was for much of the Federation process)

Still, it is interesting to see Australia’s Conservatives, having spent the entire 20th century claiming to be the party of ‘states rights’ now turn against the institutions. Whilst i’m not to sure how deep such feelings go (Joyce is of course an outsider) it is the logical extension of Howards centralizing tendencies and continued domination of the way the conservative movement thinks. It’s no surprise therefore that his greatest idoliser Tony Abbott is now preparing a book pushing a similar line to Joyce on the end of states:

The book will be conservative in its thrust and there will be policy ideas, including advocating a more aggressive approach to fix our dysfunctional system of federation than John Howard or Rudd was willing to embrace. Essentially, the Commonwealth should call the shots and individual states should no longer be able to veto policy.

Abbott pushed for similar changes whilst in government, and though he will likely just want to centralise not dismantle it is an interesting argument by one of the most conservative politicians in Australia. (Though Abbott also shifts with the wind somewhat, in the early 90′s he was aghast at the opening up of the economy under Keating, yet under Howard one of the great promoters of economic liberalisation. But more on that when his book comes out.) This willingness to push for new approaches however is one of the reasons I like Abbott. He is much more driven by ideas than most of his colleagues on both sides of the chamber. And whilst never a great touch politically, and someone I almost inevitably disagree with, I like his openness and forthright efforts towards what he sees as in the national interest.

Labor if it is wise will jump at this shift in conservative opinion whole heartedly. As a movement it has seen the states as great resistors to social and industrial change from even before Federation. If someone like Gough or Keating was leading the party, this would be all we would be hearing about for the next 2 years. Both took the long term view and understood the movements history. Rudd however is a different beast. He has neither the care for history, the temperament, or the desire to take up such a risky task. He is a manager who lives in the moment, and despite talking up the idea of a new federalism whilst in opposition quickly came to embrace the status-quo (that is of a slow, largely publicly unseen accumulation of power within the federal government (if not the PM’s office) at the expense of the states). Maybe Gillard can make this her claim to the top job : To bring Education and Health under Federal government control, and via referendums dismantle the states. It would be a tough job that an economic crisis or nearby war could easily throw off course, but it is a key development for Australia’s long term prosperity and success. It would also give us a chance to renew our contact with the Constitution. Australia today operates in a very successful way, but one that is miles away from that prescribed in the constitution. That is a perhaps unsettling, though little remarked fact, and one a wise leader would seek not only to amend, but to do so in ways that ensure their enduring values come to take a part of that document.

(* Title quote by Edmund Burke “A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation” – Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790)