Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: ALP

Primaries in Australia: The ALP takes a shot

Some very encouraging news out of the Victorian ALP:

In what is believed to be a first for a major Australian political party, the Australian Labor Party will trial a new primary system to select their candidate to take on sitting Liberal MP and former Yarra Ranges mayor David Hodgett in the knife-edge seat. The candidates are ALP electorate officer Victoria Setches, Casey councillor Daniel Mulino and State Government political adviser Jamie Byron.
A primary will allow anyone who identifies as an ALP supporter in the Kilsyth electorate to register to vote for a candidate to represent the ALP at November’s state election.ALP state secretary Nick Reece, who grew up in Ringwood, said the seat of Kilsyth had been chosen for the trial because it would be “a key seat for Labor in the November State election”.
“It’s an area which is important to Labor because if it’s a good campaign that is run, Labor could win. “The ALP would need a 0.35 per cent swing to win the seat.

For those in the area, there’s a website up with details on participating, and they’ve set up a twitter account for the rest of us to follow. Not only is it great to see the ALP trying such an approach, but also doing so in a contestable seat, showing that it isn’t just a gimmick or indulgence.

It’s no surprise the ALP is the one to try this, for the membership has always had a significantly greater influence on leadership and policy than for the conservatives. Labors first government was formed by the “Federal Parliamentary Labor Party”, indicating from the get go, that they were the parliamentary arm. Real power lay not with the elected legislators, but the branches, and party itself. The ALP’s much derided caucus unity, whilst partly introduced to ensure the then minority party had influence, was also significantly due to the demand by members of the party that their representatives voted in parliament as they wished, and could not be bought off in the “upholstered gas works” of parliament (in the words of a young John Curtin)

Fast forward to 1963 and the fading Robert Menzies still scored a huge hit on Labor describing the “36 faceless men” of the National Conference who set policy, while the parliamentary leaders, Calwell and Whitlam stood outside waiting. Parliamentary members didn’t get a voice or vote, as it was up to the members to decide what the party stood for. Yes unions were significant (and still are), but the entire system was designed to have the votes of ordinary australians percolate up to and control their representatives. A very significant difference to the Leaders almost unchallenged authority within the Liberal Party (which is also why Liberal leadership spats are so much more vicious, for not just is the office on offer but total authority over the party & policy)

None of this is to claim the ALP has a perfect or even at times a good record of internal democracy. It’s branches are rife with stacks, and elected officials all too easily set themselves up as warlords, not representatives at the middle & upper levels. Likewise, the national conference whilst having some say has been relegated to be a side show, highlighting the leader rather than a true democratic forum. Change is needed to return the party to its roots.

So good on the Victorian ALP for trying out such a measure, lets hope that many Victorians do decide to get involved (signing a pledge to “vote for the party” sounds a bit onerous, surely a simple registration as a supporter would suffice), and that the ALP across the country pays attention. The ACT ALP is the last bastion of entirely branch voted nomination of representatives, something put at risk with the turmoil of the local party, why not use a primary system here federally? Surely there is time to run & it would bring thousands if not tens of thousands of ALP supporters into contact with the nominees and the party several times before the election is due.

The dismanteling of a union

When the history of the Rudd government is written, one of the most noteworthy facts will be the shift in the ALP away from the Union movement. This is perhaps the least union-friendly ALP Government in history. It’s not anthetical to the unions as say Howard was, it just doesn’t have the personal ties to it that Kim Beazley or Bob Hawke did, and when in a fight it is wiling to ditch them to win public support.

Take yesterdays news about the Teachers Union’s planned boycott over nation wide testing & potential league tables:

PUBLIC school teachers face sanctions and penalties, including docked pay, with a planned boycott of national literacy and numeracy tests likely to be deemed illegal under federal workplace laws.
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has refused to rule out supporting action against teachers if they go through with their threat to boycott the tests, saying industrial action taken outside the enterprise bargaining period is not lawful.

Teachers covered by federal laws in Victoria, the ACT and the Northern Territory could have their pay docked by a minimum of four hours if Fair Work Australia deemed the boycott unlawful. Teachers in other state jurisdictions also face penalties, although these would probably apply to the union rather than individuals.

“Action that’s taken not within the context of bargaining is unprotected and there are sanctions and penalties under the workplace relations law to deal with unprotected industrial action,” Ms Gillard, who is also Education and Workplace Relations Minister, told ABC radio.

The teachers unions have never been that significant in ALP history, (despite their members making up a higher than average % of parliamentary members), but similar examples of indifference to unions can be found in the work place relations laws that came into effect on January 1:

Fair Work retains Work Choices’ provisions for third parties to intervene to end strikes that are highly disruptive to the economy. Work Choices gave the minister for workplace relations (as opposed to the independent Industrial Relations Commission) unprecedented power to intervene in the affairs of unions and employers – so much for supposed deregulation – and this has been retained.

The Howard government’s first reshaping of industrial relations, the Workplace Relations Act of 1996, included many measures to reduce union power, some of which were strengthened in Work Choices. It outlawed compulsory unionism and the “closed shop” (workers can’t be hired unless they are members of the union) and reduced and regulated unions’ right of entry to the workplace.

Most of these provisions have been retained in Fair Work, although much publicity has been given to the decision to permit union representatives to enter work sites where they have no members but there are workers eligible to be members.

Finally, though union memberships are in steady decline (Surprisingly in 2009 they grew ), there has been no attempt by the Rudd Government to change community perceptions about unions. Around 1.75 million australians are members of a union, (with only 14% of private sector workers joining), a decline caused by both the changing nature of the australian workforce, along with the success of the ALP in legislating traditional union protections, almost doing unions out of a job. Despite the fact unions are so critical to funding the ALP, and that the ALP began life in Queensland in the 1890’s when union members decided parliamentary representation was the best way to gain workplace rights, the Rudd ALP Government almost never seeks to publicly defend the rights and role of unions.

At the 2007 election, Howard ran add’s that could have been run in the 1950’s, showing fat tough union bullies smashing up a small business who refused to pay. It wasn’t that clever an add, it was pretty unfamiliar to public experience (except to the fevered imaginations of right wing hysterics), and probably changed no more than a handful of votes in the election. If Abbott is serious about modernising the Liberal Party, it will be interesting to see if he too trots out similar advertisements, because as the public is learning, (despite media claims to the reverse) this is not a union-friendly government. That’s not in itself a bad thing, but it is a big change from the past, and perhaps signals the coming end of the ALP as a union based party.

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.

‘You cant put tears on paper’

I have to be honest: I thought this apology was a bad idea from the start. It seemed to cruely mimic the one last year to the aborigines, and I could not see what it would achieve.

I was wrong.

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an emotional apology today to half-a-million “Forgotten Australians”, including British child migrants, who faced abuse and neglect in care homes over decades.

Mr Rudd, echoing his historic 2008 statement to Australia’s Aborigines, addressed about 1000 victims of abuse in orphanages and institutions between 1930 and 1970 who packed Parliament House.

“We come together today to offer our nation’s apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent, that we are sorry,” he said.

I had the good fortune to be in the parliament gallery when Prime Minister Rudd gave his apology to Indigenous Australians. I could see some who were very moved by it, but on the whole it was a solemn, dry affair, more relief at its achievement, than anything else. Today was very different, and very moving.

The press gallery may have been wondering just who Rudd is, but his unvarnished nature was clearly on display today. Rudd clearly is very passionate about the basic issues of lodging and protection. This may spring from his own background in a family too soon without a father and with uncertain finances. He made homelessness the very first issue of his new government, and he clearly had been working on addressing this issue for some time. Rudd’s speech was low key, but finely tuned. Apparently written on the plane home, it was appropriate for the man, and the moment. As easy and tempting as grand rhetorical sweeps must have been, Rudd wisely kept his usual speaking style and allowed the crowd to deliver the emotion of the moment. When they cried, cheered, clapped or occasionally heckled, the focus was always on them, and their stories. I had at first wondered why the apology was not delivered in the parliament, but instead in the Great Hall, yet the choice to invite as many involved people as possible to participate in the event was an excellent one.

Of note were two important, yet unexpected applause lines. First was when Rudd apologised on behalf of the federal government for “denying you basic life opportunities; including so often a decent education.” This drew a spontaneous and strongly sustained line of applause from the audience. Their sentiments were not revenge or financial reparations, but this struck a core sentiment. The main desire was to move on, to say the greatest sin was simply the denial of the childhood that they deserved, needed and so desperately wanted after such a horrific start to life. For this was not just the institutionalization of abuse, it was the deliberate exploitation of that suffering in order to create a “better” generation.

One of the other most pleasing moments, was to see the recognition by both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader of former Senator Andrew Murray. Murray received generous praise, and a standing ovation. I do not know the particulars of Murray’s involvement, -beyond his membership of the forgotten Australian’s committee- but on a day when the national leaders spoke and espoused to nation, it was gratifying to see them both turn to a mere member of the legislature, and doff their hats to his moral leadership. Many members of the senate over its 100 years have worked without public praise or recognition, seeking a better country. In long and tired committee meetings they have toiled. Murray has toiled with them, and ought today to be seen as a representative of them. To see him praised in such manner, was very moving. This showed it was not just the leaders acting, but the entire elected representatives of the nation who participated in the moment.

All that said, the highlight was the speech by Malcolm Turnbull. Where Nelson was sanctimonious and missed the tone and meaning of the moment in 2008, Turnbull hit every note. He started ambitiously, going for the big rhetorical approach, and at first the audience was hesitant to travel with him. Turnbull is certainly capable of giving a great speech; where Rudd was homely, he was sweeping. The crowd was understandably not on his side as much as they were for Rudd, but he steadily won them over. His tearing up, twice, including at a moment describing a small boy, alone with his suitcase and neither mother or father around seemed utterly personal and real. His embrace of a man who was a victim of such abuse – mid-speech – was a truly moving moment. It may have been staged, and yet absolutely real. By the end many, if not most rose in standing ovation to Turnbull’s speech. If his path is as pre-destined to electoral failure as everyone else has written, then let it be said, this was his finest hour.

The apology also brings into stark light the Howard years. John Howard not only didn’t give such an apology (the Senate Report came out in 2004), he couldn’t have given it.
John Howard has many talents, but on the big cultural issues he never could find the words. Many have remarked on his focus on Gallipolli and mateship, seeing in it either good old fashioned conservatism, or a backward looking 1950’s mentality. It was more the former than the latter, but it really owed itself to Howard’s inability to move beyond what had been said and what he already knew on such issues. Howard introduced massive new immigration levels, and yet had neither the words nor sentiments to bring them into our community. As James Curran has documented in his book About Speech, every Prime Minister since Harold Holt struggled trying to give Australia a new rhetorical basis, after the old British-Australian one had slipped away. Howard however abandoned that quest, not because he thought it wrong, but because he had nothing to say.

He had no ways to include migrants, no sentiments to heal divided communities, no empathy to address societies failings, no vision or foresight to see where this country could saftly dock its identity from the storms of globalisation. Instead we were told to forget about it, put the problems aside and focus on our own stories. So we as a people did, and it has its merits. Yet for the new migrant who struggled to fit it, for the children of migrants born here and yet unsure of where home was, for the indigenous Australians, for those struggling to come to terms with their own identities, whether their sexuality, religion, or just what it means to be a man or woman in the modern world, for the young who had to move overseas to be listened to and taken seriously, and of course for those 500’000 who were left to suffer in institutions as children, they all suffered quietly in a nation unwilling to confront its past, or talk about its future. The Prime Minister is our communicator-in-chief. When their words fall silent, or worse, when they speak but can only find deaf ears, our society can not move forward, nor even get into gear.

Rudd will likely not solve that problem (perhaps it never will be solved), but he is at least trying. Instead of the neglect and awkward silence of his predecessor, he is bringing these issues out into the open. They can and must be discussed if we are to account for and understand ourselves and our history. Many cynics will say ‘But this apology saves no child’, yet the policy solutions they seek can only be found when we have as a nation discussed and accounted for this past. The Senate Committee’s did that, the many who have fought to raise public awareness have done that, and now, in two excellent speeches by our Prime Minister and the Leader of The Opposition our nation has done that.

This apology has seen our nation at some of its best. That said, I have to wonder, like Bernard Keane if Fielding’s timing on his revelation he was sexually abused is more about getting attention when our minds are on such matters, rather than empathetically reaching out to those who the apology was directed towards. At the very least he should have waited until the day after (and probably it would have gathered him more press)

For more, here are

Kevin Rudd’s Speech
Malcolm Turnbull’s Speech

Congratulations to them both.

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.


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

The Entitlement train is in

Peter Dutton is the Liberal Party federal member for Dickson, and Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing. His seat was re-jigged by the AEC recently and made nominally Labor (as it was Dutton only won it in 2007 by 217 votes). He then ran for pre-selection for the nearby seat of McPherson, and lost to a local candidate. And now he has officially spat the dummy:

LIBERAL frontbencher Peter Dutton is asking the Queensland Liberal National Party to deliver him a seat for which he doesn’t have to fight other preselection candidates.peter-dutton-200x0
This is likely to put heavy pressure on long-term sitting members, Alex Somlyay, the chief Opposition whip, and Peter Slipper, who hold Liberal seats. Both have said they want to stand again and under the Liberal-National merger arrangements, they are guaranteed the right to do so.Mr Dutton, defeated on Saturday for the safe Liberal seat of McPherson, said yesterday he had only ”one shot in the locker for a contested preselection”. His ultimatum puts the party organisation in a bind. Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has said Mr Dutton, who won’t run in his electorate of Dickson again because it is notionally Labor, must have a seat in the House of Representatives.

Mr Dutton, who had stayed silent since his loss, told reporters yesterday he had never intended to ”seek preselection elsewhere in that sort of an arrangement”. He would not run for the new seat of Wright – there already are strong candidates for preselection there. He also ruled out the Senate. Mr Dutton, who reaffirmed he would not stand again in Dickson, which he won from high-profile Labor member Cheryl Kernot in 2001, said the LNP ”has some thinking to do”. He said he would continue to work not just with Mr Turnbull but also with the executive in Queensland. ”I believe I have something to offer the Liberal Party into the future,” he said.

Dutton here is betraying his lineage as part of the Peter Costello school of entitlement politics. The Liberal Party is seen to owe him a seat. Not even a good chance at one (he has the backing of Costello and Turnbull afterall) but an entirely uncontested run in a safe seat. Forget that to be in parliament is supposed to be an honour and an opportunity to serve the Australian public, Dutton feels entitled to be there by virtue of… well something. He won’t even stay and fight in his own seat which he has held for 8 years (meaning far greater name recognition than any other possible candidate-) and which without him guarantees the loss of at least one Liberal seat next election (Fran Bailey’s retirement in McEwan means the same thing). Dutton is seen by some (such as Costello in his memoirs) as being a future leader of the party, a line many in the media have run with. Honestly however, I just don’t see it.

Sure, Dutton is one of the more capable members of the Young turks who came in under Howard, but that isn’t saying much. I got a chance to see up close most of these new Liberals during my time working at Parliament recording the chambers and committees (I’ve since left). MP’s such as Ciobo, Johnson, Laming, Markus, Mirabella, and Smith. Mostly elected in the heady atmosphere of the 2001 election, they reek of a ‘born to rule’ attitude. None appear interested in actual debate. Their speeches, even when delivered to an empty House of Reps spill over chamber (the Committee of the Whole) were simply lists of slogans to attack the Labor party, repetitive figures mirroring the leaders recent talking points, and utter arrogance about their superiority. It bores to watch, and compared to Howard, Abbott or Costello they looked adolescent at best. Howard could be devastating with a good one liner (‘5 minutes of sunshine’, ‘doesn’t have the ticker’ etc), but his speeches were always a guilty pleasure of mine because he actually believed in public debate. He would lay out his views, the reasons for them, and why the other side had the wrong take. He would reason and marshal facts to serve his cause. But far too many of our modern politicians (and I’m including Labor here) see reasoned argument as almost an admission of weakness. Better to just bluster and abuse and hope to get on TV they seem to reason.

Not all of the 2001/04 class are a loss, Greg Hunt has started to impress me, not least with his clear knowledge and interest in Foreign Affairs, but in its period of utter domination during the 2001 & 2004 elections, the Liberal Party abjectly failed to bring in the best possible new candidates (save Malcolm Turnbull who had to fight a unholy branch stacking war in 2004 to get in). Turnbull, now leader, is having to deal with their lack of overall talent, inability to seriously contribute to new policy or political strategies, and now the stink they are beginning to kick up as it dawns that many will not make it through the next election. Expect more stories like Dutton’s in coming months, as many Liberal MP’s begin to decide their best chance of holding on is to publicly abandon their party, whilst still taking its advertising dollars and volunteers. It is not a strategy that usually works (unless you go all the way to become independent), but the media will lap it up. Labor meanwhile should take heed. Given the greater control head office has in the parties’ less-than-democratic selection process, Rudd needs to be ruthless to bring in the very best people, not just ones who are loyal and willing to kick the tories. As JFK said, the time to fix the roof is when it is sunny, not when the rain is already poring in.

Update As if to prove my point that some in the Liberal Party have an entitlement mentality, Costello is going to cost tax payers $500’000 so he can skip out early on his electorate. After having claimed he honours serving in parliament, he has clearly decided that even the 5-12 months till the next election is simply too much. Once more Costello shows his greatest gift is getting media attention, without doing anything worthwhile with it. Though interestingly enough, his former boss John Howard is much more gracious this time around. Incidentally Howard’s also in the news as a rumored NRL chief (could work, though remember the boos he got at the 2007 Grand Final) and as a target of Bob Brown’s (disorientated?) media team on more troops for Afghanistan – It’s 2009 guys, Howard’s no longer in power….) No wonder Labor has gone to ground recently, the rest of parliament is in full circus mode.

Bringing down the Big (un)Friendly Giant

Breaking News:
Telstra to be split up

Senator Conroy told the media in Canberra this morning that he did not believe Telstra or its shareholders would need to be compensated under the plan. In early trade, Telstra shares were down seven cents at $3.17.

Under the legislation to be introduced to Parliament today, Telstra will be able to voluntarily submit to an “enforceable undertaking” with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to structurally separate.

If it chooses not to separate, the legislation allows the government to impose functional separation requiring Telstra to:

– conduct its network operations and wholesale functions at arm’s length from the rest of the company;
– provide the same price for its retail business and it does for other carriers in accessing its wholesale network;
– implement governance structures to make the separation transparent.

About time, though expect a clear backlash from Shareholders for the changes. But the Government should prevail. Howard ought to have made this change almost a decade ago, but squibbed in order to get a higher price in the sale. Money that was used largely for political purposes, buying out groups (such as environmentalists) to help justify the privatisation agenda. Privatisation has been an immensely profitable and sensible step, but allowing private monopoly control of core infrastructure cripples any resulting benefit. By returning this to public control it will enable significantly greater retail competition and lower prices and more data quotas for ISP consumers. Many of us believed the chance was lost when the final parts of Telstra were sold, but if the Rudd Government holds its nerve on this, it will be an important and useful step, enabling significantly greater competition in the telecommunication and ISP market. While the Liberals love deregulation, they have never supported competition policy (Paul Kelly’s book quotes Howard’s Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodinos saying Howard ‘hates the word’ competition.) Labor however since Keating has been able to claim this as a economic principle both in line with modern economics and long held party principles of social justice.

Good move Conroy.

Update: At the end of the trading day it was announced Telstra shares are down 14 cents to $3.11 a 4% drop (though the rest of the market dropped slightly too). Given the scope of this decision, isn’t the big news how little the market seems to mind? Its pretty good evidence Howard was wrong to baulk at splitting the company before selling.

The Liberal Party’s Economic Confusion

In my last post I remarked on the Oppositions claim to support big budget cuts, but unwillingness to back a relatively easy example of it. It goes to a much larger problem for the Liberal Party: They don’t know where to stand on economics nor how to describe their position.

The essentials arn’t in doubt, they are for the free market, with a reasonable support for government welfare services chucked in to moderate the harsher aspects of capitalism. But over the last 3 years they have seen massive shifts within this range, and varying and contradictory explanations for these positions.

When the Howard Government left office in 2007, it was championed as a great Pro-Free Market government. It had restored economic liberalism after the savage blow of losing the 1993 Fightback election, and implemented a GST, deregulated many industries, privatised and outsourced significant elements (the famous yellow pages test), and spent 11 years advocating strongly and consistently for free markets. This was seen as one of the great strengths and records of the government. Where articulate critics pointed out they had substituted a lot of populism into this mix (such as Andrew Norton’s essay The Rise of Big Government Conservatism) it was generally ignored. If they hadn’t gone as far down the path as they had liked, this weakness was only a minor issue, one that had helped keep them in power and probably Labors fault in blocking reform in the senate or scaring the people. This wasn’t an extreme or libertarian government in any sense. But it was rhetorically and philosophically clear about the direction it wanted to go, and every step further down that path was seen as a good thing.

Then in the Spring of 2008 the Financial Crisis hit and suddenly economic liberalism was seen to take a body blow. This wasn’t entirely fair, as a particular form of US capitalism, bad oversight and regulations and some distorted government policy caused the crisis which then hit around the world. Now, the former members and defenders of the Howard Government couldn’t get away from the term Neo-Liberalism fast enough. Where they had mocked Rudds 2007 accusations of their free marketer ideals, wondering if he proposed poverty and socialism instead, they now sought to claim he was completely over-exaggerating their support for the ideals. They hadn’t been a free market government, just a pragmatic, cautious one that had only been continuing what Labor had started. What was a small weakness in the Governments economic policy in 2007 was now being held up as its greatest strength in 2009. But loyalty to the old ideas isn’t going away (which is a good thing), but it does mean some serious re-writing of history and rhetorical confusion is going on right now as they attempt to find a new place from which to detail their economic position.

I wrote a while back that the big flaw of Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines (which seems to have sunk without trace) was that this confusion was visible on every page and yet never directly addressed. But theres just as clear an example in Paul Kelly’s new book ‘The March of Patriots’ (2009). Kelly is a conservative if sympathetic writer for both sides, but also one clearly in support of economic liberalisation (As I am too). But this leaves his narrative into contrary directions because of the Liberals recent re-writing (which began to occur whilst interviewing for the book)

‘The 1993 election extinguished more than John Hewson’s dreams – it terminated the neo-liberal political experiment…Hewson’s Fightback! program was the only package resembling neo-liberalism ever presented to the Australian people. Its defeat was a turning point. No Future leader – not Keating, not Howard, not Treasurer Costello – would contemplate the model or its specifics as a package. This was the conclusions from the 1993 election despite occasional polemical claims that Howard as a Prime Minister was actually a neo-liberal – Page 75

Yet just 11 pages later as he details the fall of Hewson he recognises that whilst the man was gone, very little had changed in the party:

It was a view shared across much of the coalition frontbench and it took more shape as the 1993-1996 term evolved. It was the position of Howard, Costello and Dower. Their sentiment was to avoid any over reaction filled with recrimination, to recognise the policy integrity and energy within Fightback, to review policies applying a sharper test of what the people would accept, to return to the political centre but stand by the pro-market economic reform agenda and to avoid any early detailed policy release’ – Page 86-87

Where the Coalition seethed during office that they couldn’t implement all their reforms, out of office they have come to claim this was a deliberate design. Apparently they wanted some of their bills to fail, wanted to lose on workchoices, wanted to be rebuffed by the public on selling Aus Post and others, wanted to have the democrats force them to take food out of a GST, etc etc. In office they would nod and acknowledge yes it was bad economic policy to hand tens of billions over to families on comfortable wages, but that was the price to keep Labor out of office. Now they seem willing to make welfare for the wealthy a core principle of the party.

Labor has responded to the Economic crisis by indulging their desires for government spending. In many ways it seems this has worked very well (we have stayed out of recession, unemployments stayed in reasonable shape), but a reckoning will come and only some seem (Lindsay Tanner) seem interested in talking about it, and then more as an electoral weapon than a shift in policy.

The Liberals on the other hand have got themselves completely tied up in knots. Their baser instinct and education is to return to the proud support for free markets that they enjoyed under the Howard years. To promise to cut spending and demagogue debt. But like a dog beaten too often, when anyone gets close they flinch. When media questions get too hot they jump back. No specifics, no details, and NO NO NO to means tests for government handouts. The only time the Liberal Party has looked at all comfortable in opposition was a few weeks in July 2009 when they had the issue of debt to rally them, and remind them of the good old days. (In fact it reminded them too much of them, repeating old ideas such as a debt truck) , but soon Godwin Grench reared up, Rudd & Swan managed to hold us up out of recession and the Liberals lost their nerve again.

As for Kelly, his book is thus far enjoyable (I’ll do a review when finished early next week) but it feels rather over-written, and with a deliberate eye for the future. He’s trying to make this the essential history of the period (as his End of Certainty became for Hawkies govt). But if he’s willing to uncritically accept this clear re-writing of Liberal views, then it is unlikely to gain as much traction. Nor does it have a cleaver summing up in the way the previous book had with its formulation of an ‘Australian Settlement’

Update: Michelle Grattan is clearly a reader of this blog :p


Like most who encounter these things regularly, I tend to skim over and discount media releases by politicians. But this one by Senator Gary Humphries gave me pause for thought:

“It is quite apparent to me that the Federal Government has an agenda to hit young people with all the might of the Government,” Liberal Senator Gary Humphries said today.

“Over the last few months, we have seen the Government introduce legislation, including:

* Compulsory student taxes without students having a say on how it will be spent;
* A 70% increase in the tax on Alcopops;
* Changes to Youth Allowance which hit students working to get to university hard; and
* The cutting of funding to assist students get housing on and near campus.
“Not to mention that it is the youth of today that tomorrow will have to pay back the enormous debt left by this government.

“It is abundantly clear that the Government is taking a multitude of decisions, all of which will disadvantage the young in our society.

I wish it were not so, but on the facts it is hard to argue with the conclusion. Whilst young voters were chased by the Labor party in 2007 and in return strongly endorsed them, this is not a government that has made their concerns a primary focus. Few governments do. Young Australians are assessed as either unable to vote, unable to escape parental allegiance or willing patsys for the left, and therefore able to be lied to and manipulated without cost.

This is indeed a government which has created a Minister of Youth, in the form of Kate Ellis, but for its symbolic roles, it has yet to deliver its pre-election promises. This is not surprising, but still disheartening. Humphries in his press release is at best opportunistic, given the actions of the Howard Government, and yet his claims can not be denied. On issues which are important to the youth of Australia such as republicanism, gay marriage and budget surpluses, the Rudd government has either ignored, scorned or deliberately rejected. This is not a criticism of its handling of current circumstances, but rather its inability to utilize the current positive political circumstances to enhance the benefit of the long term, and not just the immediate parliamentary and partisan calculations.

Rudd of course will go to the next election fully confident of once again capturing the youth vote, and rightly so. The opposition has barely even worked out their position on the great issues of the day, tax, federation and climate change. But still as a member of this generation, and witness to its support and claims of endearment towards the elderly, and those of family raising age, the governments ignorance if not hostility towards is stark. The education revolution is yet to occur, Australia’s international position much the same, and social and educational issues still retarded. And yet the youth will keep on voting for the ALP, supporting their campaigns and door knocking to support their advocacy. But let it be clear, this bond can only stretch so far, and whilst assured this time, if Rudd and Labor want the youth vote again beyond the current electoral circumstances then the pattern of neglect highlighted in the oppositions opportunitist press release has to change.

The Politics of Climate Change #2

At the start of the week I talked a little about the Greens political strategy over the Emissions Trading Scheme, so with the Senate having this afternoon voted down the Government’s scheme, it serves to look at how this may all play out. (I also offer this because I don’t have the scientific knowledge to contribute anything beyond what has already proliferated online and in report after report, and because my own preference is for a Carbon Tax, so all the groups plans seem off kilter for my liking).

First, I think contra-common wisdom that this vote should be regarded as a defeat for the government. All governments like to see their legislation passed, and whilst this one faces a hostile senate it didn’t manage to convince any of the non-Labor senators to support the bill. Most of the public havn’t been watching the horsetrading, but they know Labor is absolutely dominating the opposition, is highly popular and yet must now square that up with an inability of the Government to get through what it promised. It also suggests the Governments legislative efforts such as combining the Renewable Energy Target Legislation with the CPRS hasn’t helped, nor their many many concessions to polluting industries such as coal and agriculture. Whilst these groups and the business lobby have accepted the need for such legislation and therefore been reasonably quiet in their complaints, expect some to demand a much better deal second time around.

For that reason, I think the Greens have probably helped their own cause at the expense of the environment, although that all depends on if they are able to fully capture the balance of power at the next election (DD or otherwise). They seem to have made the best the enemy of the good, and likely this vote will keep Australia at least a year if not 2 from getting through its legislation. Sure thats not a lot of carbon, but I’d wager even with the balance of power in the Senate the Greens could achieve more pushing through small (quiet) changes that steadily removed concessions and increased targets (and therefore carbon prices) would be an easier and more successful way to get the balance they desire than trying to get Labor to agree to it all at once. Already a number of environmental groups have voiced their dismay at the failure of the bill, and in part blamed the greens. It shouldn’t hurt the party, but it does show how varied the entire movement is and the difficult politics of leading it. Brown has gambled, first on the adds, now on the No vote, it may work but it depends on their success at the next election and if Labor feels a) more urgency b) more concilliatory towards Brown’s Greens.

For the Liberal Party this is also a bad result. Had the vote passed with independent and Greens support, most of the heat taken out and let them spend the next few years blaming the Government for rising prices and hurt industries. For now however as the old saying goes, sometimes the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it. The Government will do all it can to pin the blame of this squarely on the Opposition, and if its dominance inside parliament this week is anything to go by, it will absolutely savage the Coalition come election time. Until the Liberals get a policy they haven’t a hope. Their release of Frontier Economics Research was like a Ventriliquist rudely insulting passers by and saying the Doll said it. Either way it deserved and got a solid punch in the jaw from Labor this week and likely from the public come election. Turnbull especially for the image he brings to the role, and his former history as Environment Minister is well aware of this and yet clearly incapable of pulling his troops into line, only exacerbating the visible tensions in the party. If the Coalition passes something by the end of the year they may be OK come election, but the longer this goes on, and the closer it gets to an election (which must be next year) the fresher it will be in the public mind. The only alternative would be a radical new approach (such as a Carbon Tax) that could be simply understood by the public and supported by business and industry. Doubtful, but when your that far down a hail mary might just save a few people’s seats.

For the independents it’s a difficult business to work out. Fielding has proven himself way out of his depth here, and whilst never having a chance of retaining his seat anyway, has further cemented his loss. Who takes the Victorian senate place is tough, probably Labor in the climate (they should have had it by all merits in 2004) but it’s not certain.
Nick Xenophon wont be up for election (unless there is a DD) but I think the public (and indeed the press) are yet to make up their mind about what he’s up to. He’s beginning to be tarred with the Coalition, but can easily cut himself free as they sink. Maybe he is just playing hard to get and will place heavy demands before the government, but if fielding and the coalition remain opposed come December, he may not actually have much bargaining power.

So long story short: Everybody is going to look bad from this. Internationally it makes us look regressive, domestically Labor looks weak, the Opposition disunited, Fielding incompetent, Xenophon cagy and the Greens utopian. Not a good day for anyone (well except those few who think it’s all a big hoax, I guess they are celebrating.)

The Free Trade Left

I’ve already raised the issue of ending the ban on parallel imports of books. The Productivity Commission has now released it’s final report and its findings are clear:

the Commission has
• concluded that the PIRs place upward pressure on book prices and that, at times,
the price effect is likely to be substantial. The magnitude of the effect will vary over
time and across book genres.
• Most of the benefits of PIR protection accrue to publishers and authors, with demand
for local printing also increased.
• Most of the costs are met by consumers, who fund these benefits in a nontransparent
manner through higher book prices.
• PIRs are a poor means of promoting culturally significant Australian works.
– They do not differentiate between books of high and low cultural value.
– The bulk of the assistance leaks offshore, and some flows to the printing industry.

Alan Fells, former head of ACCC and now at the Australian New Zealand School of Government has suggested that means a cost of up to $200m for consumers.

But what is most interesting (though if you know your history not surprising) is that most of the push for this end to protectionism has come from the left. It was Chris Bowen, in the Rudd government who initiated the Productivity Commission’s survey. It has been most publicly championed by Bob Carr, former ALP premier of NSW. And has received support from a variety of quite left wing types such as the ACT’s own rising star Andrew Barr (as I noticed this morning via his facebook – who says blogs don’t break news:P). Whilst the libertarians at Catallaxy have of course been forthright in wanting a change, I could only find this lukewarm press release from the Liberals Competition policy shadow minister Luke Hartsuyker, with not a single mention by Malcolm Turnbull.

This may seem counter-intuitive if you think the right is pro-free trade and the left against it. Yet whilst the two party structure of Labor and anti-labor sometimes creates that mould, the history is quite different. The single largest reduction in tariff’s in this country occurred in 1973 under the Whitlam Government. After some drift under the conservative Fraser, Hawke and Keating picked up the mantle and effectively ended the way Australians had run their economy by reducing almost all tariff’s. This was encouraged by Howard (having supped from the classical liberal economics of Reagan and Thatcher), but his own government whilst rhetorically adamant, ended up doing very little on the free trade front. It liberalised small areas such as CD’s (in the way now proposed for books) and seeing the flaws of multilateral deals pushed into bilateral deals with mild success. The two big areas still under the umbrella in agriculture and cars remained protected, or got effective protection through constant handouts. In fact if you examine Australian political history, it has been the moderates and liberals within both the ALP and Liberal Party who have lead the move towards free trade in this country (Howard being the obvious exception). The more conservative forces, much like the union-left have largely been against such moves. Take for instance this piece by Tony Abbott writing in 1995:

‘His [Keating’s] Asian crusade is simply the second phase of a long battle – hitherto fought around Australia’s economic structures – to extripate the legacy of Menzies. The first phase meant changing Australia’s economic structures and breaking down the old business establishment. The second centres on smashing the Crown which he thinks is the ultimate icon of conservative Australia. Asia played little part in his drive to ‘reform’ economic institutions – after all, most Asian governments pursue pragmatic interventionist economic policies similar to those of pre-Keating Australia’ (p220)
Abbott, Tony in Sheridan, Greg (1995) Living with Dragons: Australia confronts its Asian destiny Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Abbott went along with, even championed Howard’s economic ideals, but never was at the forefront of the debate, and with his mentor out of the game, it will be interesting to see which way he turns in his forthcoming book. Whilst the forces of free trade have largely won out (both due to argument and circumstance), don’t be surprised if there is a slight shifting back amongst the right should the conservative forces lead by Abbott take charge. As i’ve predicted many times before, I see the two party system shifting to a more liberals vs conservative basis instead of the weird cross-overs we saw under the Reagan/Howard coalitions, but either party could take either role, depending on their internal struggles. Long story short the “common sense” idea in the media and the general public that the right is pro-free trade and the left against it is not sustainable in current policy nor historically accurate. As the new left begins to develop it’s form, I have little doubt that a strong stand for free trade will be at the heart and soul of its economic system. Only such a system can encourage universal rather than national sentiments, international organisation, healthy free competition and the free flow of ideas and people.

This is not your fathers ALP

Things really have changed when you can read a report like this in the morning papers:

THE Government has gone on the offensive against rising protectionist sentiment by releasing new research showing that the dismantling of Australian trade barriers over the past 20 years has boosted family incomes by up to $3900 a year.The study by the Centre for International Economics also predicts that if governments around the world succumb to protectionist pressures and increase tariffs on imports to preserve local jobs they will only make the global recession worse.

The centre’s modelling finds that even a small increase in import tariffs globally would cut world economic output by $110 billion a year and would crimp Australia’s economy by nearly $1.5 billion.The Minister for Trade, Simon Crean, released the study yesterday, before this week’s ACTU congress where union leaders will push for the Government to halt negotiations for new bilateral free trade deals and to adopt “Buy Australian” government procurement policies.

A former Union boss, as Trade minister for the Australian Labor Party, pre-releasing research to justify free trade positions. The ALP has come a long, long way since it’s foundation. But in this case I would argue for the better.

4 months on and no change

malcolmturnbull_30_1_09As Norman Abjorensen writes in Inside Story

A century after Deakin’s social liberals meekly succumbed to Reid’s conservatives to combat a rising Labor Party, the social liberal dream continues to flicker sporadically among modern day Liberal supporters. The conventional wisdom is that John Howard purged the party of social liberals (which he did) and that Malcolm Turnbull represents some kind of social liberal resurgence (which is doubtful). Turnbull might well try to soften the party’s more hardline policies (in the face of staunch opposition from staunch conservatives such as Abbott and Minchin), but any hopes that this heralds the start of a Deakinite revival are entirely misplaced

I’ve been advancing the theory for a couple of years that we are seeing the broad re-alignment of our political parties to Conservative/Liberal lines. The Reagan Coalition (of which Howard made much profit) of Social Conservatives and Economic Liberals has effectively broken down. A lot of the accommodations made by the conservatives arn’t sustainable (witness the populism of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, or the economic incoherence of the current Republicans). Likewise, with growing levels of education, prosperity and legislative protection of workers are sapping the unions of their strength (the 2007 effort against WorkChoices will come to be seen as a high water mark), and fundamentally changing the membership of the ALP. Kevin Rudd was never a member of a Union, and whilst most ALP types will still claim some union heritage, they no longer will drive the leaders world view. And despite the current economic struggles, the debate over capitalism and its benefits as the primary system of economic organization is done.

In light of this, Abjorensen’s point is well made. Turnbull has led his part for 4 months, including a quiet few months over Christmas mid-way through a term, the crucial time if you were to try and achieve real political and philosophical change within the party. Turnbull either hasn’t the numbers to even raise the question (unlikely if he was actually committed) or he simply doesn’t see a point in trying to move the party in a new direction.

As such, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that The Liberal Party is going to hold onto its Conservative turn, and solidify. Whilst the Labor Party will shift from its labor movement origins to one of both increasing Economic and Social Liberalism. It will never acknowledge this shift, but considering the great pressure coming from the Greens, it will have to make the move on issues like Gay Marriage, whilst redressing its economic commitment to the welfare state & social services in terms of a larger open competitive economy (as Rudd has been doing effectively for Education). What union/working class elements that are disgruntled by the change (such as those supporting protectionist or more exclusive nationalistic policies), will quite easily slide over to the Right as they did under Howard, though with less capable manipulation by the Liberal Party once the divisions become starker.

In some ways this is a change a long time in the making, the left has long been more compatible with a liberal approach to the world, seeking liberty and opportunity for the individual, freed from the bounds of tradition, culture and inheritance.

Sadly, the party of Turnbull and co would have to face electoral annihilation, and someone with an ego the size of Menzies before it relinquishes its ‘Liberal’ title, so confusion will remain for those of us Liberal in politics but not party. But at least the lines should be come clearer.

Update: Turns out Chris Bowen the Labor Assistant Treasurer penned similar thoughts 6 months ago, advertising the ALP as the natural home of Liberalism.