Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Rudd

Battlelines: Where the election will be fought

boxing_largeWhile Tony Abbott began his first press conference saying he wasn’t afraid to fight an election on Climate change, it seems likely from early indicates he won’t have to. It will lurk in the background but, cold war style, it’s going to be fought through proxy wars in Economics and Foreign Policy.

Economics: As is obvious from Abbott’s early media appearences, he’s not running to deny climate change, rather the economic costs of acting:


7:30 Report Transcript

TONY ABBOTT: Kerry, I was doing my best to support the then leader. And that’s what frontbenchers have to do. But the Liberal Party is liberated as of today to follow our natural instinct, which is to oppose the Government. Now, this isn’t about climate change, it’s about the mechanism for dealing with it. This isn’t about climate change denial, it’s about stopping a great, big new tax.
….
TONY ABBOTT: Well I’m not sure that anyone is that happy about being out of pocket. But let’s look at the Rudd Government’s ETS. It looks, at this point in time, to be a great big tax to provide a great big slush fund to produce great big handouts administered by an enormous bureaucracy. It looks like a mechanism for a political slush fund more than it does as a mechanism to help the environment.

This kind of rhetoric didn’t take on when Barnaby Joyce was sprouting it, but Abbott is a far more effective comunicator, and the press is already starting to question labor using some of his language. But the more important reason why the politicians will shift from talking climate change to economics is that it is unfertile ground for winning votes. For both groups. As Possum Pollytics helpfully notes views on climate change are effectively locked in. The deniers are stuck fast, and whilst the pro-efforts could ebb some support, those who see the environment as a primary issue already voted Labor in 2007 (or Greens though after their no vote on the CPRS I don’t know why). Instead the fulcrum of the argument is two issues: Timing and Cost. The timing issue is labors to own next year.

Most voters support an ETS despite recognising there will be an economic cost. Abbott can’t shift those voters into denying the environmental need for an ets, but he can make them think the cost imposed by Rudd is too high. Rudd likewise will whack Abbott occasionally on the issue, but he probably can’t shift too many votes on it from 2007. It’s easy to vote for someone pledging action, its much harder to vote for someone who is making your bills higher. If he doesn’t have some big policy on Climate, or looks like he is slipping into denialism he could still (unintentionally) make it the issue again, but I think the moderates will prevail in getting some kind of a policy there.

The other reason I think economics will be the major issue of the election is because 2010 offers Labor a historical chance to fundamentally re-shift voters allegiances. John Howard, just like Reagan governed a coalition of economic liberals and social conservatives. But that has broken asunder. Facing a proudly self-identifying conservative candidate, Labor has the chance to peel those economic liberal voters to it long term. It would become the socially and economically liberal party, though keep control of the mainstream & its working class base thanks to its historical support for ensuring fair working conditions. This is what Keating envisioned, what Beazley abandoned, and what Rudd has the chance to complete.

Rudd came to government pledging to be an economic conservative, a term that was widely ridiculed when he launched his stimulus package. This spending allowed Turnbull perhaps his only effective attacks on debt, a theme Abbott will be sure to run on. But Rudd can claim those were extraordinary circumstances, and with a good faith effort on debt, some wise reform in the area of tax, and a couple of symbolic acts (revisiting parallel imports would be an example) he could convince the economic liberals that he shares their values. (His articles here on neo-liberalism havn’t helped, but can be ignored)

Along with the campaign to entice them, Labor is going to try and put the fear in those who have liberal views on both economic and social fronts. Socially Labor will argue that Abbott unlike Howard is not just conservative, but regressive. They’ll raise the concern he may restrict access to abortions, re-introduce no-fault divorce, punish the gays etc. It’s going to be ugly, but could be effective. Economically, note that while Abbott is going to run on tax, debt and ‘freedom’, he isn’t an economic liberal like Costello or Howard. It’s a late adopted faith for him, and his books and speeches are full of reticence about such reforms. Abbott is very much in the mould of a big-government conservative as more perceptive economic liberals like Andrew Norton have noticed. Carefully appealed to we could see those who consider themselves liberals seeing Labor as the only viable party.

Foreign Policy: No PM has come to the job as aware of foreign policy issues as Rudd since Whitlam, but Rudd hasn’t yet had a chance to use that strength to his electoral advantage. It’s like the six shooter strapped to his ankle as backup. But with Abbott having thwarted Rudd’s chance to go to Copenhagen with a deal, it may be pulled out early. Rudd will charge that Abbott wont be in line with international governments, and won’t be able to do advantageous deals with international governments across the ideological spectrum because of his position on climate change. Along a similar line over at The Interpreter there is the intriguing suggestion that the deniers problem with the CPRS is less about the environment than multilateral institutions, hence their revulsion to needing passage by the time of Copenhagen. Rudd can’t gain too much mileage from his multilateral credentials, but it can all fit a narrative of an Abbott government being uncomfortable with issues beyond the shores.
This will be even more potent attack in the context of SE-Asia given Rudd’s steady development of links and influence. Thanks to his strong popularity, and activism on the Asia-Pacific Community (which is starting to get support), Rudd will be able to argue that Abbott will be a foreign policy disaster in the region. He won’t exactly repeat Keating’s line on keating that Asian governments wont work with him, but he could come close.

Rudd also has the natural advantage of incumbency. When Labor won the election in 2007, the liberals were seen as the better party on national security by a 49-26 margin. By Feb 2009, that had essentially levelled. I havn’t seen a more recent poll, but expect the government to now be well ahead. There was always the faint air under Turnbull that the Liberals weren’t comfortable on foreign policy, from his slip of the tounge labeling of China as a friend, to Julie Bishop’s suggestion we should bow to china’s demand and not let in Rebiya Kadeer. Indeed staying just on China, there are also some odd claims in Abbott’s book Battlelines. In his very short section on foreign policy, he claims that in the case of conflict between China and Taiwan, Australia ought to side with Taiwan, “In Australia’s case this would not be choosing America over China, but democracy over dictatorship” (p 160). It may sound good to supporters to base your foreign policy on such ideological choices, but it would raise up the worst of the Bush/Neo-Con incompetent idealism. Remember Latham was very very careful to avoid talking about national security, but still lost badly on this score. Abbott’s lack of desire to talk about this issue is going to be noticed by the public who will interpret it as a sign of lacking competence. If Rudd is able to set the agenda, expect a lot of discussion about foreign policy come election time.

Things could easily change, but while Labor’s new adds are already reticent of 2007, i think the campaign this will mirror more will be 1996. Rudd will present an image of Labor as a party bold and open and willing to engage the world. An Australia on the make regionally and internationally, in a pair of hands whose already passed their first big test (gfc). Abbott may gain some early traction on taxes and welfare, but could easily scare voters with too much policy purity and it’s not likely to swing too many given slowly improving conditions (Rudd will be praying that was the last interest rate rise before the election). Instead he will be seen more to represent a cultural howl against Labor that, inverse to 1996 can only work to Labors advantage, entrenching them as the mainstream party against a rump conservative party. Abbott could be a very attractive leader, but it’s hard to see how he gets that 35% core support to go much higher.

Respect goes both ways: Rudd’s error on White Ribbon

The other day whilst responding to a Dorothy Dixer on White Ribbon Day, the Anti-domestic violence iniative, the Prime Minister began to get rather worked up: (Hansard in PDF. Page 53)
whiteribbonday

The survey reveals that the two strongest predictors for holding violence-supportive attitudes are being male and having low levels of support for gender equity and equality. This demonstrates very abundantly the significance of White Ribbon Day and the role of White Ribbon Day ambassadors. It is our gender, the Australian male gender, that is responsible; no-one else. It is men who are responsible and we must show leadership in stamping this out in the future.

Any man who hits a woman is scum in my opinion, I’ve never hit a woman, and I hope my girlfriend would dump my sorry ass in a second if I did such a thing. Equally I don’t think anyone could disagree with the intention of the PM’s statement.

But not all domestic violence is just male on female, it also goes the other way

New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics figures show that over the past eight years, the number of women charged with domestic abuse has rocketed by 159 per cent.
In 2007, 2,336 women fronted court on domestic violence charges, compared to around 800 in 1999.
Preconceived ideas of gender roles have led a lot of people to believe it would be virtually impossible for a women to physically abuse a man.
But co-director of Men’s Rights Agency Sue Price says it is exactly this stereotype that leads to battered men hiding in shame, fearful of being ridiculed, or even prosecuted.Despite the many domestic violence support services available to women victims, Ms Price says there is almost no practical and legal outreach for men.

(I can’t find nation wide figures as most states havn’t released detailed breakdowns)

Equally, while 3/4 of domestic violence and especially disgusting sexual violence is against women, men are actually far more likely to experience physical violence than women in our society at all ages. According to the ABS’s 2005 Personal Survey Saftey:

Since the age of 15, there were an estimated 3,065,800 (39.9%) women who experienced
violence compared with 3,744,900 (50.1%) men.

In the 12 months prior to the survey, younger women and men experienced violence at
higher rates than older women and men.
! 12% (117,000) of women aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 6.5% (97,900) of women aged 35–44 years and 1.7% (42,100)
of women aged 55 years and over
! 31% (304,300) of men aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 9.4% (138,700) of men aged 35–44 years and 2.8% (62,500) of
men aged 55 years and over

Obviously this trends as well into straight crime (ie aggravated robbery), but it also includes significant cases of physical assault in bullying and social troubles (from cases where people are well known to each other, to violence against random strangers). A related issue is that of suicides where of the 1800 people who took their own life in Australia in 2006, 1400 were male. This number has also dropped over the last decade (however over 20 times that number tried to).

This is not an argument about equivalence, obviously there is none. Rather the problem I have is that the way in which we are dealing with the problem isn’t effective and ignores if not exacerbates other social problems.

In overall statistics violence as a social problem is dropping. We are getting better at dealing with these issues, more people are reporting them to the police. But these social changes come about in response to how each gender is viewed and respected within society. Those who lack any social status, or find it difficult to establish a basis for their own self-respect are going to lash out. Against others, random and well known. Many may present a false display of confidence, or seek to bully and harm those weaker than themselves (such as their partners) as a way of regaining that status. Equally, some also turn inwards and harm themselves.

I shouldn’t even need to say it, but none of this is to excuse or justify those who harm others around them because of insecurities or weaknesses inside themselves. But as a society if we are going to deal with the issue of domestic violence along with other forms of violence, then we also need to recognize that simply insisting on better behavior isn’t going to fix it. Worse, the demand “All Aussie Men Must Swear” seems more akin to having men swear their innocence lest they be judged guilty, with all the likelyhood of binding of an abstinence ring. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the White Ribbon campaign, and yet I find myself personally insulted by the PM’s tone (which the Hansard doesn’t quite reproduce) and the quest to have all men swear:

“never to commit violence against women,
never to excuse violence against women, and
never to remain silent about violence against women.
This is my oath.”

I’m all for symbolic actions, but this isn’t like having someone finally take responsibility for past wrongs as Rudd has done. Instead it blames all equally, ignores the causes or reasons, and will be only enacted by those who already reject the problem outright. Equal and tolerant treatment begins and ends with respect. If we want to end violence by men on women, and by women on men, then we need to build up the respect we have for all. Both for women, and for men. The White Ribbon campaign, however well intention seems to betray that.

Unhelpful cynicism

Over at The Stump Bernard Keane notes Turnbull is again accusing the PM of misleading parliament, this time over whether the 78 on the Oceanic Viking recieved preferential treatment. He then goes on to say what is probably common sense in the press and public:

Who cares anymore about misleading Parliament? Do voters care? Does anyone outside Parliament and the Press Gallery? Given the way in which Question Time has devolved into a cross between a particularly dire amateur theatre performance and your most boring Economics 1 lecturer’s greatest hits, does the whole supposed sanctity of telling the truth in Parliament mean anything any more?John Howard didn’t resign after being forced to admit he misled Parliament about his meetings with Dick Honan in 2002. That was an open-and-shut case of misleading Parliament, but hardly the grounds on which any Prime Minister should have had to end their career.

On the other hand, remove Parliamentary accountability and one of the critical bulwarks of accountable government is ostensibly lost. The right of Parliamentary privilege also surely is accompanied by the responsibility of truth-telling. And yet those notions look curiously old-fashioned in an era when the truth is only one available narrative, and not necessarily to be regarded as any more useful than others that may be available.

The point is, it should matter. Everyone recognises that the public are the true barometer of the PM holding their job, and it would probably do more harm than good for the PM to be forced out over such matters, whether Howard with Refugees and Businessmen or Rudd in 09 over well Businessmen and refugees. (Just what is it about those two topics?) But it should be a matter that draws parliamentary rebuke and it should be a matter of embarassment to the PM and all members of parliament to be caught out. Yet when Australia’s most scathing mainstream outlet Crikey, and indeed perhaps their most Alan-Ramsey-throwback journo Bernard Keane is willing to let the government off the hook, then how are we going to hold politicians to standard. Indeed its misplaced to ask ‘why arn’t the public outraged’ and see that as a sign, when in all likelyhood they don’t even know because the press largely hasn’t covered it.

The days are long gone from the Whitlam era, where even accidental misleading of parliament caused ministers to resign, taking the blame for mistakes of their department. During the Howard years it became a veritable competition for Ministers to see how many times they could mislead or shirk responsibility for their own departments and keep their seats, a history that hasn’t yet been fully accounted (Kelly for instance ignores it). Rudd is somewhat better, but if the press keep giving him a free pass then he’s only going to get worse.

Someone needs to switch Keane’s chai latte for some bitter black coffee and start poking him with a stick untill he gets back into form. He’s one of the nations best political writers when having a go at our politicians, but this is the sort of issue that shouldn’t just be given a free pass.

‘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 SMH.com.au

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to SMH.com.au

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
and
Malcolm Turnbull’s Speech

Congratulations to them both.

Watch out Mr Rudd

rudd_bbqWhile the polls show that the public still strongly supports Rudd & Labor, it’s worth noting that a number of political journalists have begun to write very critical pieces of Rudd recently.

The past week brings hard hitting pieces by Paul Kelly Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oaks, Glen Milne (admittedly not a big surprise), Annabel Crabb, and Michael Sutchbury. I’ve left off the usual critics, but it seems pretty fair to say Rudd is fairly on the nose with the media as a class. Decisions like parallel imports on books are watched closely and personally (this is a class that reads a lot -ie likes cheap books- and has no time for protectionism), and I’ve heard a number of journalists say they just don’t like Kevin Rudd as a person. While most people don’t vote based on how Kelly & Grattan et all see things, editors and other journalists do take their cues from them. The press, especially up in the gallary at parliament house is a veritable pack, with no one keen to find themselves at odds with their colleagues on what the story of the day is, or who to focus on.

It might be a good idea for Rudd’s advisors to book a big Christmas function for the journo’s at Kirribilli, ply them with plenty of good grog, and try and get personally back on side with them. Most of our journalistic class will probably (in line with the public) vote for Rudd’s re-election next year, but he’s going to have a much harder and more stressful year if he loses a grasp on this group. It won’t be like the scorned lover treatment Keating got when he fell out with the press from 1994 onwards, but it could cost a seat or two, and damage his overall standing (which he needs to appear strong in the region when pushing his APc and the like). Time to fire up the barbie Kev.

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 Government of One

Always a man apart

Always a man apart

I always enjoy those insider looks at how governments operate. Horse races and polls are one thing, but what truly matters is the individual personalities at play and systems of decision making. This however was not a good way for Lenore Taylor to begins her piece:

THE Prime Minister and his three most senior ministers form a kitchen cabinet that takes the key decisions.

During the Howard years, Australia was run by the 17 or so men and women in the cabinet. Under the Rudd government, it is effectively run by four.

Oh dear. Everyone can understand that a good way to make your point more significant is to make a comparison to show it’s uniqueness. Only in this case Taylor (or a sub-editor looking for a punchy start) is completely and utterly wrong. Weirdly the rest of the article seems to make the exact same point, but in these days where Howard is being exhumed by conservatives everywhere it’s worth re-iterating how wrong it is. Howard’s government, was literally Howard’s Government.

No one who lived & followed politics during the era would record the Howard era as a period of cabinet governance, indeed most people most of the time didn’t even know any ministers names beyond the PM & Treasurer, such was his dominance of the party (a problem they are still grappling with). This was a government that almost never leaked, such was the fear of the PM, and the lack of information flow even at the highest levels. Howard clearly accepted a role for ministerial discussion, but it was to aid his decision making, rather than as the source of decisions.

Howard bypassed the cabinet consistently with senior ministers meetings on key issues, such as the Expenditure Review Committee which set the budget and the new National Security Committee which bypassed cabinet entirely on all foreign policy and security issues. Howard also created the Cabinet Policy Unit (CPU) which ran from inside his office to ensure a lot of matters were left outside cabinet, or pre-organised to ensure speedy passage by cabinet. This is all documented in great detail in the 2006 book on Cabinet Governance “Cabinet government in Australia” by Patrick Weller, which should be in the bookshelves of all political reporters. (You can even get it on Google books. Taylor quotes Weller, but no one whose read the book could write such a sentance.

There is ample documentary evidence to show that though there may have been 17 men and women in the room, but only one vote actually counted. First of course is Costello, who’s memoirs are one unabated howl at being consistently and regularly overruled by the PM on economic and some social issues. Even with issues as big as the GST Costello records that Howard would get cabinet approval and then go make the changes he wanted later in his office. Indeed Costello happily said as much publicly whilst in office

“I can tell you as a Treasurer, there are many occasions when my policy views are not accepted but I always accept a Cabinet decision. There might even be occasions when a Prime Minister’s view is not accepted although it is very rare, if it ever happens

Some of the biggest decisions such as assisting the War on Terror and the Iraq war were made by the PM with cabinet approval a later formality. Indeed in his later years Howard thought nothing of spending $10b on the Murry-Darling without even mentioning it to cabinet.

Likewise there are numerous books out on how Howard governed, including ‘Power without responsibility’ by Anne Tiernan on the unprecedented use of ministerial advisors to short-sheet ministers and center power in the Prime Ministers Office, and ‘No, Prime Minister’ by James Walter and Paul Strangio, on the rise of presidential style leadership, culminating under Howard (though Rudd fits very well too). All are sober academic texts without any agenda but clearly document the centralisation of power within the hands of the Prime Minister. Equally Taylor could have (and should have) read her colleague Paul Kelly’s book March of Patriots which documents Howard’s many presidential style decisions.

Indeed, read on in Taylors article and you see her essential point is that Rudd runs his government much like Howard did. Only slightly more centralised, and with informal groupings made formal. As a nation we are surly the poorer for this, and I suspect given recent events, people insider government are recognizing that too. But this is not Rudd’s creation, and the full scope of changes under Howard will be felt for many years to come. So why start the article with such an utterly false opening that is effectively contradicted throughout the rest of the article? The only people who will read such an article are going to be political followers who would laugh at the absurdity of the line, and probably turn the page. Anyway, the whole thing is worth reading, just ignore the first two lines.

How we can buy ourselves a better democracy

As I noted a few months ago, the sudden but praiseworthy switch of John Faulkner to the Defence Ministry has come at the cost of having his experienced hand overseeing changes to the way parliament and MP’s operate. It’s already proving to the detriment of the institution:
H/T Andrew Norton on the new regulations on use of parliamentary expenses by MP’s

As the Senate estimates hearing revealed, these rules have the following implications:
* MPs cannot send out Hansard extracts as Hansard is likely to contain ‘electioneering’ material
* bureaucrats are vetting MPs’ communications prior to sending, and so at least in theory the minister could receive reports frrom the Department on what non-government MPs are saying to their constituents
* ministers are free to keep using their departmental resources for what would be ‘electioneering’ under the parliamentary entitlements rules, further skewing the resource imbalance between government and opposition

The public concern’s are usually in good faith, but this is another instance where the financial crimps we try and apply to our politicians end up actually damaging the democracy we enjoy. The effective freeze on MP’s salaries (save CPI style increases) rob’s us of the best possible parliamentarians. The desire to not be seen as wasting money means the PM’s rightful home, The Lodge in Canberra, remains a cramped, small house, robbing the PM of a good entertaining/power play opportunity in Canberra (just think of the intimidation power of the White House) and meaning our PM’s will increasingly live in Sydney’s Kirribilli instead. And in this highlighted case, proposed changes to satisfy public concern about wasted money (following major rorts in the UK) will deny the opposition and minor parties a significant opportunity to present an alternative message to the Government. All for a pittance compared to the amount we are spending on welfare, defense, and on the economic stimulus. By spending more for better oversight on the government, we will save on wasteful government spending.

It is not celebrated as widely as we do changes like female suffrage, but the decision to pay MP’s is one of the most democratic and important decisions in Australia’s political history. For a tiny cost, we were able to ensure that our MP’s would be drawn from all sections, segments, classes and regions of the country. This fixed structural faults in our democracy of MP’s being limited to those living in the city (for it was too costly to leave the farm regularly), or to those with enough to live without doing paid work (ie the aristocratic or capital owners). The second change not only allowed the poor & middle classes to participate, but in removing the need of MP’s to do paid work whilst also trying to serve the public, significantly reduced a major cause of conflicts of interest.

You get the democracy you are willing to pay for. That’s true of the education we pay to educate our citizens, the amount you put into having elections freely and fairly run, the opportunities you provide to enable all candidates for election to put their message to the public (such as public funding), and in the amount you pay MP’s and the resources you give them to do their job. Ludwig’s proposed changes are sure to be monstered by the Opposition, independents and minor parties (cases like this are exactly why governments shouldn’t have senate control), but inevitably something will go through. Let’s hope the government keep in mind the miserable experience they had in opposition and remember they could be quickly returned there too, when drafting fair laws for conducting parliamentary business.

What’s the pay off?

Rudd is a very clever man. Sometimes however he seems to outsmart himself. Take this latest machiavellian ploy to put Costello on the board of the Future Fund:

Govt defends Costello appointment
The Australian government is not about playing politics when it comes to the appointment of former politicians to senior positions, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson says.

Former treasurer Peter Costello is the latest Howard government minister to have been appointed to a senior position by the Rudd government.

The government announced on Sunday that Mr Costello will head the board of the Future Fund from December 18.

But his appointment by the Labor government has sparked criticism from former prime minister Paul Keating, who labelled Mr Costello as “a policy bum of the first order who squandered 11 years of economic opportunity”.

“The prime minister’s goodie two-shoes approach of appointing former opponents of the Labor Party to important public jobs is no substitute for thoughtful and mature reflection as to the public requirement of those positions,” the former prime minister told AAP on Sunday.

The Howard government was rightly criticized for its arrogant politicization of many key postings. Many good institutions were damaged because of the quality and contempt in choice for office holders. To that extent, Rudd’s choice of people such as Robert Hill and Tim Fisher is a welcome return to sense, and decent political advantage. Nelson’s gig in the EU is just a pay off, but there’s enough of those in politics to not make much of a fuss over. But what is Rudd thinking appointing Peter Costello to the Future Fund board ? It’s a bad idea for three reasons:

1. Rudd & Co opposed the FF when it began and still see it as a mistake (or a “solution in search of a problem” as it was infamously dubbed). Given the fleeing of cash from the Govt’s reserves and their desire for big infrastructure developments, they want a FF with as small a media presence as possible. Appointing Costello to the board just gives it a much bigger presence for the media. It becomes a veritable institution, a junior cousin to the Reserve Bank when it comes to financial policy, and all headed by one of their chief economic opponents of the past 15 years. And he’s going to be on it’s board powerfully arguing for an economic vision that not only disagrees with the Govt, but will take pleasure in spiting it.

2. Costello may have signed all sorts of non-disclosure statements, but an ego his size will never prevent him from participating in the debate. As readers of his memoirs will know intimately, politics is personal for Costello. His smirk was never about getting policy up, but putting people down. He may won’t be the chief voice for the FF, but everything he says on economics (such as in his now regular SMH column) will be parsed for commentary on how the FF views Rudd’s government. One word about Telstra shares going down (which hurts the FF slightly) and the story will be ‘Costello slams Rudd for imperiling superannuation/debt/nations future/sunshine and rainbows/’ etc etc. Far from censoring him, it gives Costello a bigger microphone than if he was just another private merchant banker (witness how Bob Carr was regularly and unfairly slammed for his Macquarie Bank links whilst advocating removing tariffs on books)

3. The public isn’t impressed, or even paying attention. It may please the hearts of a few media folk who once had crushes on Costello, but it won’t shift a single vote in the seats Rudd needs to win, and want’s to steal from Turnbull’s enfeebled grasp. Worse, it is just going to put off a lot of labor supporting types, both in the party and out who keep wondering why their side is so weak all the time. There’s nothing wrong with putting your people in key positions. They are your people because they agree with you on the big issues and so can act as substitutes for you. Unless Rudd has figured out a way to clone himself to run every position in Govt, he needs supporters in the key positions to help push his agenda forward. Putting in people like Costello just means you face far far more roadblocks than you should have. And for no political pay off, today’s story isn’t worth anything (esp given the good economic news of this morning).

So its not good politics or economics. Why on earth bother then? I sure hope this wasn’t dangled in front of him to encourage a by-election that the Libs are sure to win in Higgins, which will help Turnbull innumerably. Likewise thank goodness Costello said yes. If he had been offered and said no (and leaked) it would look like the Govt was desperate for his help and had to go begging. Sometimes just playing a straight bat is the most sensible of all politics. Even on those times you pull off the big tricks, the pay off isn’t always worth it.

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.

Kevin Rudd the Legislator

Peter Hartcher made an interesting observation in the weekend papers:

Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids. He is uncomfortable advocating an opinion that might be electorally risky. He would prefer to shut down an Opposition attack with narrow political tactics than to overwhelm the Opposition by mobilising broad public opinion.
Rudd is an immensely well regarded leader. The emerging evidence is that he will hoard every decimal point of his popularity by avoiding an argument, rather than deploy it to ask the country to follow.

When it comes to making a forceful case for his plan, he has, in effect, vacated the field. The question is – why? It is not an oversight. Labor strategists readily concede that Rudd has deliberately created a vacuum. Because if he is silent on the issue, the TV cameras will automatically swing around and zoom in on the way the other half of the political system, the Opposition, is dealing with the issue. In effect, Rudd has handed a megaphone to the case against action on climate change. This, in turn, has gradually whittled away public support for action on global warming.

Leaders in democracies have two sources of power. One is legislative, the other populist. Over the last 60 years, the populist side has been increasingly winning out. Politicians have concluded that massive popular agreement with their policies (whether authentic or focus group created) is the secret to controlling the legislature and hence entrenching their changes via legislation. George Bush and Tony Blair went on significant stumping tours of their country to try and persuade audiences, convinced that the legislators would tune in as well and decide to run ahead of the ground swell, rather than try and stop it. Their reasoning was clear, if polls showed 80% want policy X, no legislator in their right mind would do otherwise than vote for it. Howard as Hartcher points out, also seemed to believe in his powers of persuasiveness:

John Howard was a prime minister who defined himself by the fights he picked. He would often champion an unpopular policy, then go into a mighty campaign of public advocacy. He usually managed to turn opinion and win the day, or at least get away with it. This was true of the GST, waterfront reform, the Iraq war.
Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids.

This however is an unfair claim by Hartcher, because it is not a fair comparison (2 years vs 11) and second because Rudd realises something more relevant: Public support for an issue is largely irrelevant if they support the Government. Rudd’s reckoning is that rather than having his fellow legislators (worries on his side, or the opposition writ large) take comfort that popular support for a CPRS has dropped, he is betting that his supreme domination in the approval polls will carry the day regardless. He doesn’t need to convince the public or even the opposing party members to support climate change legislation, he has only to make them scared of the consequences of opposing him.

And it’s working.

Just look at Malcolm Turnbull, and the smarter Liberals who are quietly asking if their skeptical colleagues are mad and trying to lose their seats. They may believe in doing something to fix climate change, they may not hugely like Rudd’s policy, but they are also absolutely petrified of him going before the public and holding them up as the men who stood there and yelled ‘Stop’ before the onslaught of histories judgement.

Who's your daddy?

Guess who is in charge here...

Strangely for a man who has only spent 11 years in parliament, and tends to disrespect the institution, he seems to be much more canny in using it. He knows the CPRS will most likely pass because the opposition don’t want it to give him any more arguments against them at the election. In that, it doesn’t actually matter if 40% or 90% support the legislation or even more than 20% understand what it actually does. That’s not important. Rudd is marshaling his public popularity overall to give him power within the legislature on not just specific but all issues. What’s to stop him hitting up Turnbull over workplace relations or the NBN come the election should a climate change bill pass. Instead of seeking public support for each specific issue, Rudd wants public support for him as a leader. With that, he can jump between issues as suits, retain policy flexibility as suits, and intimidate the hell out of the opposition.

Rudd’s strategy is a risky one, a drop in overall popularity would leave him without a saftey net. And it’s not one history may look on too kindly. PM’s are remembered for what the left behind in popular views as much as individual legislative bills. But it is also a much smarter approach given Rudd’s only marginal persuasive powers of rhetoric. Whilst Howard had a lawyers eye for reasoned arguments, and Keating could make you look towards the stars as he gave the opposition a blow to the stomach, Rudd knows his rhetorical command is limited. Better then to not even pretend to be a great orator, and simply to market himself as he is. A very smart, hard working, pragmatic leader, who has the best interest of the country at heart. And woe begot anyone foolish enough to think they can prevent him doing his job. Turnbull is facing a raging inferno of popularity that makes individual spot fires (wasted stimulus, asylum seekers, CPRS compensation) all utterly meaningless in the overall scheme of things.

Rudd in this sense, is actually acting as a true legislator. He will be measuring his success of his first term in the seats won off the opposition (right now looking at 5-11), and potential control of the senate (or an easing of the challenge). The discipline of his government members is his barometer of day to day success. Oddly enough in this hyper televised world, Rudd seems to count his real power entirely within the legislature. No wonder he seems to be enjoying Question Time these days.

To thine own self be true

Our PM really is in a bind over asylum seekers isn’t he:

TIM Costello has challenged Kevin Rudd over calling the influx of asylum seekers ”illegal” immigration and reminded him that some people smugglers in the past have been viewed as heroes.

As debate flared over the Prime Minister’s language, Mr Costello, chief executive of World Vision, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian Mr Rudd much admires, spoke up for Jewish refugees and helped smuggle some of them out of Nazi Germany into Switzerland. ”This is why he was charged and sent to prison”

Rudd is being praised and blamed simultaneously, a function of his efforts to be all things to all people on this difficult issue. But whilst the ghost of 2001 still haunts labor, Rudd needs to remember the biggest problem with Labors then approach was not it’s perceived weakness, but its recognized fakeness. Though the media’s common wisdom is that asylum seekers are bad news for Labor, it is clear that the public are generally unmoved by the issue. Instead the real risk is to Rudd’s place in this history books should he say something really over the top and backwards in an effort to appear tough.

Times have changed from the panic of late 2001 which saw the tale end of Hansonism, globalisation frets and reconciliation flare ups, all dramatically compounded by 9/11. But while public knew that Beazley was a former Defence Minister(and one who commanded great respect in such matters, with even Howard saying he would serve under him in a war cabinet), Beazley’s mixed response to boat people was seen as fake and unreal. Labor had brought in mandatory detention, but in its confusion and moral outrage at Howard tried to both disown its history, whilst also appearing just as tough as Howard. A stance that ended up losing it many left wing voters who couldn’t respect the party anymore. There’s a big difference between downplaying troublesome issues (ie taking a small target strategy as Howard in 96 and Rudd in 07 did), and in appearing to be unsure, or fake in your endorsement of a policy you obviously don’t believe in.

Rudd is far less exposed than Beazley was. He just has to muddle through this and he will be ok politically. But he runs the risk of saying some really dumb things in coming weeks as he seeks out a solution/waits for the tide to slow. Already he has described asylum seekers as ‘illegal immigrants’ which is not true (at least until their cases determined).
Howard is remembered (and demonised) for his election speech claim “We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come”. It was a resounding line at the time, (and expresses a fair enough sentiment) but you have to suspect Howard probably regrets that history will always leave that quote on his record. Rudd needs to be careful not to try and bluster his way through this with strong language to hide his weak policy. (Weak in the sense of lacking form and direction, I don’t think there’s anything weak about the way we are arresting innocent people and denying our responsibilities). When Rudd got in trouble during the election campaign (such as over the Scores Strip Club visit) he took almost a full day off to work out a response and then stuck to it with absolute stubbornness. Just because he is PM, doesn’t mean he should abandon that formula. His media team need to find a good set of responses to the basic questions and have the man stick to them. Time to bring the Ruddbot back out of his packaging.

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

A Time For Leadership

Both of the major party leaders are facing a challenge of leadership this week, that will in some ways define the rest of their careers.

More directly Malcolm Turnbull has appeared to stake his leadership on having the Liberal Party back him on a Carbon Trading Scheme. Turnbull was dying the deaths of a thousand cuts as outliers such as Tuckey, McGauren and the Nationals Joyce, Boswell et have been attacking the idea of such a scheme and making public the very clear divide within the Coalition. The temporary break for Andrew Robb seems to have actually served the party well with Ian McFarlane stepping into the breech, reading the party the riot act, and even emailing backbenchers with the Coalitions 2007 election promise to introduce a cap & trade system. (A fair sign of the way politics works, that fidelity to the leader is always greater than to actual individual belief)

Less pressingly, though of importance is how Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is seen to respond to the Tsunami and Earthquakes to our north. John Howard was at his best as Prime Minister when he was responding to a tragedy. A man normally bereft of any real ability to talk to Australians on social or cultural issues, he could be the father figure in times of grief (Port Arthur massacre,9/11,Bali etc). Rudd did a decent job during the Victorian Bush Fires, but unable to visit and console, he will have to use his language and authority to help guide the nation if there are indeed many Australian lives at risk. Rudd is riding high in the polls for how he has managed the economics, and he is starting to deliver (after much talk) on foreign policy. But in social or cultural issues he is largely untested and untried. This won’t change how he rates in the next election, but could in the long term be an issue of comparison between him and Julia Gillard who seems to have a greater common touch.

Finally, if you have a spare hour, go watch the latest episode (Season 2, Ep 27) of Q&A on http://www.abc.net.au/iview/. It’s an absolute ripper on the role of Religion in a modern society, featuring the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens. It’s rather timely (and deals with this question) that as potentially thousands lie dead to our north, of no fault or wrong of their own, religion still asks us to believe we are in the hands of a moral creator. I lost my own faith a long time ago(though I remain agnostic for reasons I explain here), but the 2004 tsunami where 230’000 died to me is the ultimate evidence that we live in an amoral universe. The world around us simply does not care about our welfare. Humans have always had to endure great struggle to survive. This is not evidence for or against a god, but rather the truth that in this life we are entirely on our own, we must make our own value judgments, based on the here and now and results as they affect other human beings.

Double-D Madness

At quieter times in the parliamentary cycle, we often see our political correspondents leading out a few rumors and stories as a way of generating some attention, controversy and generally getting something to fill the page for their bosses. This spring, its the idea of a Double Dissolution election over the Carbon Trading Scheme. While Rudd has already put up a bill that was voted down, he is already destroying the narrative by pledging “good faith” negotiations with the Coalition. If the resulting bill and amendments are substantially different to the first rejected one, and the Coalition does indeed again reject the bill (likely over the cries of Turnbull), then Rudd couldn’t use it as a trigger.

But even say he did go ahead, would the political strategists be supportive? Hell no, as Possum helpfully demonstrates:
cprs-DD election

There is strong support for an ETS, but it’s not strong enough to make people want an early poll. It may be accounting for some of the difference between the parties, but people clearly want to vote on other issues like the economy as well, and don’t in general like going to the polls early. After all for ALP voters an election would just be a lot of hassle to see their party remain in essentially the same place, perhaps slightly stronger in the senate. For Liberal voters, they know they wont be getting back into government so why bother with fiddling around in a few marginal seats. Win some, lose some, the only real difference would be the demise of Turnbull. Rudd might even look weaker or more intrusive by being seen to ‘rush’ to a DD election, despite the fact it would be held only be 6-10 months before he is likely to call one on the normal schedule. And having already raised the issue, have no doubt the media would make its narrative one of ‘racing to the polls early’. Never a good look for a PM.

Perhaps even more importantly however than all the optics is the straight maths, as Anthony Green notes:

Simply put, the mathematics of double dissolutions mean that Labor would be less well placed in the Senate after a double dissolution than it would be if it waited to have a normal House and half-Senate election at the end of 2010.
The reason for this is the complex proportional reprepresentation system used in the Senate and how this interacts with the lower quota for election that would apply at a double dissolution election.

(Full reasoning for the political junkies at his site)

Still all of that is slightly more sensible than the suggestion that Rudd would hold a DD election over a desire to means test private health insurance. If the PM is looking unlikely to use or even benefit from such an election on a issue of fundamental long term importance like Climate Change, there is no way, -unless he is literally out of his mind- that he would do so over making many Australians pay more for their health care. It’s beyond a joke, its simply misleading to the public to even speculate.

And finally, when even Australia’s weakest political mind Peter Costello can figure out that a DD election is neither a good idea, nor going to be adopted by Rudd, it is time for our political journalists and editors to take a deep breath and drop the whole story once and for all.

Headline writers everywhere will surely be disappointed at the loss of so many potential DD puns (Rudd exposes his DD’s, Turnbull crushed under DD’s, the public grapples with DD’s etc etc) its a small loss to ensure a basic commitment to honestly informing the public. Its fine to speculate and see how politicians respond, but given all the evidence to continue treating the idea of a Double Dissolution as a serious story is simply to mislead the public.