I know there’s already been a lot written about Barnaby Joyce from many perspectives. But I still think it’s worth distilling the whole affair into a sort of Maslow-esque taxonomy – Kay’s hierarchy of deeds. I’ll start with what is actually the least important and work up to the main game.
7. The Affair. In itself this is not really important, though it’s the only aspect of the whole saga that has attracted LNP – or was it Lucy Turnbull’s – attention with the bonk ban. Sex between senior and more junior staff in an office often creates tensions in the workplace, as it did in Joyce’s office, but sex is not the real issue here. Conflict of interest is. You can’t stop consenting adults having sex; outlawing it only makes it more fun. But you can at least try to eliminate the potential for conflict of interest by requiring staff to declare their involvement with each other, and prohibit a senior staff member from advantaging a junior partner in terms of work allocation, promotion or whatever. If you are ashamed of the liaison and don’t want it made public – like you already have a partner and kids – that’s tough, and maybe you should re-think the whole situation. But you only have to tell one person in confidence – in this case the Prime Minister, and refrain from advantaging your partner.
6. Hypocrisy. If you campaign on traditional ‘family values’ and oppose the equal rights of others in the community to marry, while all the time you are two-timing your family, then you deserve to be called out on it. Joyce’s comment that introducing the Gardasil vaccine might result in ‘an overwhelming backlash from people saying, “Don’t you dare put something out there that gives my 12-year-old daughter a licence to be promiscuous”’ didn’t help either.
5. Perks. Conflict of interest. See above. I won’t go into all the job moves, the non-jobs and the paid stress leave of Joyce’s partner. But people are entitled to know what was done for her. That Turnbull’s office didn’t know about it is beyond belief – why else were there crisis meetings about it before the New England by-election, as revealed by Sharri Markson. Turnbull’s assertion that they weren’t in a relationship so that the Ministerial Code wasn’t breached doesn’t pass either the Centrelink or the pub test. And his decision to kill the investigation into Joyce’s perks once he had resigned sounds pretty much like a deal: you go and I’ll stop the investigation. Though it may have been a National Party ultimatum after the new(ish) formal complaint of sexual harassment. Who knows? What a train wreck.
4. More conflicts of interest. The undeclared free apartment has raised questions about Joyce’s relationship with rich mates, and focussed attention on other potential conflicts of interest. These include moving the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority into his electorate at a cost to taxpayers of $25.6 million (meaning they would stay in his mate’s hotel) and the purchase of land adjacent to the inland railway route, Joyce’s pet project, which may or may not have raised the value of that land. Joyce denies any conflict of interest, but then he would, wouldn’t he. (Never mind that the railway won’t generate a commercial return.) When the conservative premier Tommy Bent did something similar in the early twentieth century, they called him for what it was: Bent by name and bent by nature. And who could forget Gina Rinehart’s $40,000 ‘award’ that Joyce had to give back?
3. The press cover-up. This comes higher in the hierarchy because a properly functioning press is a prerequisite for a properly functioning democracy, and we don’t have one. Since news of the affair was published in the Daily Telegraph, journalists from all sections of the mainstream media have fallen over themselves trying to justify why the story – which was clearly well known in Canberra – wasn’t reported before the New England by-election. The argument that it was a private matter simply doesn’t bear scrutiny; the hypocrisy and conflict of interest issues were there clear to see, and were matters of legitimate public interest. Accusing the public of being prurient for wanting to know such information is a pathetic reaction from people who couldn’t – or chose not to – do their jobs. Sharri Markson’s admission that the story wasn’t revealed as part of a vendetta against Joyce and was expected only to run for a couple of days is peculiar but revealing; did the Daily Telegraph really think people wouldn’t care about anything but the affair, news of which, if that was all there was to it, might indeed have quickly vanished without trace?
But it’s so much more than just an affair; it has legs and was off running as soon as it was revealed. People don’t care about the sex but do care about the rorts. Maybe the full story might have damaged Joyce’s chances at the by-election, or maybe it wouldn’t. But given that the LNP’s majority was at stake, it looks awfully like a cover-up, just in case. Politically motivated or just protecting other insiders? Bit of both maybe, but political coverup seems more likely. And the Murdoch press has form – lots of it.
2. The secret coalition agreement. This looks like a bit of a jump from the Barnaby Joyce affair. But there are significant connections. Turnbull had to sign it to get the Nationals to support him as Prime Minister. It apparently prevented him from sacking Joyce; only the Nationals could do that. It also apparently covers the allocation of portfolios, giving Joyce responsibility for water resources, then resources and Northern Australia (his friend Gina Rhinehart’s pet project), then infrastructure and transport. And it presumably has policy implications about what issues the government can or cannot tackle, and how they should do it. Turnbull’s weakness allowed Barnaby to do as he wanted – in matters large and small.
1. Bad policy. Allowing – and maybe even actively supporting – water theft in the Murray Darling Basin. Positive support for coal, opposition to renewables and inaction – or waste of money on Direct Action – on climate change. Pork barrelling in rural electorates. These policy disasters stem from the same sense of entitlement that Joyce showed in the conduct of his affair, but have much more significant results. They are the real legacy of Barnaby Joyce.
I’ll leave you with a comment from a local in Joyce’s electorate quoted by The Monthly:
“He’s a climate change denier, Barnaby Joyce, and I just find such people disturbing, and we lost him because he had sex with someone, I just find that also disturbing, we should be losing him because he doesn’t think properly.”
By Kay Rollison
As this is my first ever post, I’ll briefly introduce myself.
My name is Cat Williams, but on twitter I am known as Catherine Rollison which is my maiden name.
I am 31 years old and I live in Adelaide with my husband Dave and our beloved dog Tully. I am a project manager in construction (currently working for Syntheo, who is building the National Broadband Network).
My main interests outside of the long and tireless hours I work, and aside from the obvious, being my family and friends, are AFL and politics.
Some of you may follow my sister, Victoria, and/or my mother, Kay, both of whom are prolific bloggers.
Victoria is my twin sister so apart from the same DNA, we share very similar opinions on many things: socialism, progressive politics, the environment, although mine are not as well vocalised as Vic, nor our mother, both of whom have an excellent way with words and a far greater urge to read and write than I do. Unsurprising that Victoria’s education led her towards humanities, like both our parents, but mine ended up in the relatively dry surroundings of the Adelaide University Civil & Structural engineering department.
I sometimes think of Vic’s passion for writing, whether it be the two novels she has penned, or her regular blog, as the outcome of someone who’s thoughts and opinions fill her like a cup of water which regularly overflows onto the keyboard. In that respect, it sometimes seems like no matter how many other things she crams into her life, she can’t NOT write. The words would have nowhere else to go.
I have been known to accuse Vic and our mum of being stuck in an echo chamber, only willing to write for, watch, read and converse on twitter with the other rusted-on left winger tweeps or commentators, many of whom they would now call friends.
When something controversial happens in politics I will show up unannounced at my parents’ house and request that we watch 7:30 together, no matter who is appearing, and no matter what they have to say (my parents infuriate me by putting the television on mute when they don’t like what someone is saying – they do this too with football commentators). I know if I didn’t force them, they would walk around the house in enraged silence, TV and radio OFF, and they would throw the Sydney Morning Herald out, unwrapped. Yes, they subscribe to the SMH, a day late, as the Advertiser is simply not an option. As much as it pains us all, I often DEMAND that my family members watch and listen to what is happening in forums and on mediums other than those they allow themselves to watch. I call it our reconnaissance mission.
As painful as it is to listen to people we disagree with, I think it is important to do so, for two reasons. First of all, if we don’t know what our opponents are saying, then how can we understand what attitudes our side of politics needs to counter? Sure, none of my family is actually IN politics, but we should never underestimate the impact and reach a simple conversation with a friend could have, or the questions we answer when we volunteer to hand out ‘how to vote’ cards at elections, let alone Vic’s blogs which some weeks reaches 10,000 Australian voters.
Second of all, I am fascinated by the swing voter, often reminding my family that, particularly in an election year, the ALP will do many things that make no sense to their most loyal supporters. In fact, a lot of things they say and do will elicit more criticism from the Rollisons than they do from the swing voters or the LNP’s rusted on voters.
But this is the point. WE, whether it be the rusted on ALP / Greens voters, OR the rusted on LNP / National voters, aren’t going to change our vote this year. It wouldn’t matter whether the ALP changed leaders in farcical circumstances three times between now and September, or whether Tony Abbott had a sudden change of heart and decided he supported meaningful action against climate change and is keeping the carbon price / ETS unchanged, there would hardly be an election in Australia’s history whereby the supporters of each party were LESS likely to change their votes between now and September.
So in the lead up to the big day in September, I’ve been willing to advance my reconnaissance missions, whether it be to seek conversations with an LNP voter or to look for the ‘uninformed or not decided’ members of the electorate , whether at work, socially or on Twitter or Facebook. Heck, I even read comments on news.com.au sites very occasionally, when I’m feeling bold. I think it’s important to try to understand what sort of issues, or the reporting of perceived issues, influence people’s votes. Or what has driven them already, to choose and actively support one candidate over the other.
This leads me to a conversation I had on Twitter recently, which, unexpectedly, went from being a conversation with (what I thought was) a Rudd supporting ALP voter, to a conversation with a rusted on LNP voter (reconnaissance)! But degenerated quickly into, what I am now led to believe, is a conversation that is very typical on Twitter for those of us who identify ourselves as left leaning Australians of the female variety.
It was two days after the embarrassing Rudd ‘no spill’ fiasco and a tweet appeared on my newsfeed from a ‘Greg Jessop’ (kudos to anyone on twitter who doesn’t hide behind a fake name – less likely to be a troll). His avatar was a photo of Kevin Rudd with the words ‘Its On’. Note this avatar has since changed to stick figures having intercourse. Charming stuff.
I tweeted him with a leading:
At this point I realised he wasn’t a Rudd supporter at all, but an LNP voter disguised as a Rudd supporter in order to, as he put it, destabilise the ALP from within. A double agent one might say.
Now I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with having an avatar, or even a name, that suggests you’re supporting something you’re not. I mean, sure, the actually satirical fake politician, or fake Andrew Bolt twitter accounts are much more entertaining than someone who uses their real name and poses as a fake Kevin Rudd Supporter, but again, as long as you’re not a pesky troll, I figure, I don’t mind talking to you.
I might even poke fun at you with a:
Now this comment was designed to hurt the guy’s ego. Sure it’s not ‘nice’, so to speak, but I figure, it’s a harmless way to tease someone on twitter who has dedicated over 5,000 tweets yet amassed less than 200 followers (I personally pride myself on my tweet to follower ratio being currently a fairly steady 1:1, but then I don’t tweet very often so I can’t really gloat).
He responded, unabashed, with a friendly-enough ‘stay mad, stay insignificant’, but then rapidly changed the topic drastically with the taunt ‘I do hope you’re looking forward to a decade of in Opposition and the return of WorkChoices’.
Part of me was surprised to see it was the first time I had been taunted on twitter by someone who could actually spell ‘you’re’.
The other part of me was a bit surprised that an LNP voter was taunting me with a jibe about WorkChoices.
I would have thought that most LNP supporters considered that a ‘no go zone’ after it had, in part, delivered Howard not only a heavy loss of an election, but also the loss of his own seat, being only the second ever Australian Prime Minister in history to achieve that feat.
I mean, sure, many LNP voters are very attracted to the WorkChoices policy and would support its return under the guise of a different name, but even Abbott is well advised enough not to CALL it Workchoices, as I pointed out to Greg Jessop:
Greg argued his wish for the return of a form of Industrial Relations Reform:
My retort, like the ‘tweet to follower’ ratio was on the slightly personal side having discovered from Greg’s bio that he was a Geotechnical Engineer, I used the normal ‘in’ engineering term:
Greg stayed in the LNP ‘groove’ with a dig at the unions:
This is where my reconnaissance missions, I feel, start to pay off when I can actually counter LNP ‘lines’ with a little thing I like to call ‘facts’:
I might add, at this point, that I’m actually enjoying this conversation now, more than I was at the beginning, when I thought Greg was a Rudd supporter. All pretty harmless fun.
Greg, in further LNP-voter predictable fashion used a ‘me’ example to refute a national statistic.
By this stage, I’m wondering how much further this guy could follow the ‘I’m an LNP voter on twitter’ playbook. I goaded him with a double edged attack both on his ‘me’ mentality and an open ended query on his stance on climate change:
His retort was probably equally as predictable:
And that’s where the ‘pleasant’ retorts spectacularly ended.
Greg Jessop, clearly ENGRAGED by conversing with someone who not only supported unions, but agreed with 98% of qualified scientists that AGW exists, exploded with a:
Wow. That one, I didn’t see coming.
But was I that surprised?
Well. A bit. Greg didn’t originally present himself as the kind of person to resort to misogyny at sign of losing an argument, or at least, not as rapidly as he did.
And as I said to Greg:
I don’t think we as a society will ever understand why so many men, particularly belonging to the right side of politics, hate women so much. The Workchoices, the unions, the false economy statistics, the Climate Change denial, these are all standard LNP lines. But in chicken and egg, I don’t think the hatred of women is something these men have developed purely because Tony Abbott does. I think they always have and it’s not a problem we will solve in a hurry.
I would like to be able to converse with these people I disagree with, without being called a whore. But in my experience, there are very few right wingers, even amongst those using their real name and profession in their twitter profile, who are willing to engage about political policy, the state of the economy or anything they disagree with me about, without quickly going to the gutter with nasty personal, unwarranted attacks. It’s a real shame.
My mum, Kay Rollison, is now blogging under her own name on the Australian Independent Media Network and is also guest blogging on this blog. Here is her latest:
In a recent post, I noted that the final report of the Queensland Audit Commission, chaired by Peter Costello, had recommended a ‘sell everything’ approach to Queensland government assets, in particular electricity assets and some elements of the health care system.
This hardly comes as a surprise; if you really want an independent assessment of the state’s economic prospects, you don’t ask a Liberal ex-Treasurer and member of the HR Nichols society to do it for you. Privatisation is a tenet of neoliberal ideology; just have a look at the website of the Institute of Public Affairs. I use the word ‘ideology’ advisedly, as it seems to be blind faith in the free market that drives the thinking behind the report rather than a reasoned assessment of the true economic consequences of such a move. The report hasn’t been released in full yet, but I don’t expect, for example, to find a detailed argument in it about the pros and cons of carrying debt that is more than covered by returns. It’s also worth remarking that free market objections to government monopolies don’t seem to apply to private ones.
But what if there is more to it than ideology? What if privatisation is also about return on investment for party donors and supporters? If so, shock horror, wouldn’t there be questions about conflict of interest?
Fascinating as the story of Queensland’s Audit Commission is, it ought, on the scandal scale applied by the media to the Labor Party, to be totally eclipsed by a different story –yes, one about conflict of interest. Of course it isn’t, at least as far as the Murdoch press is concerned. Journalists writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, however, have revealed that Peter Costello is being accused of having a major conflict of interest in what he has recommended for Queensland. An unnamed former liberal party donor has lodged a complaint with Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission to the effect that Costello’s lobbying business, ECG Advisory Solutions, has a number of clients in areas such as the management of electricity assets, who would directly benefit from the privatisation he has recommended. These include our old friend Serco (Serco Asia Pacific this time). A post on MacroBusiness says ‘Expect the friends of the government to make a mint during the privatisation process.’ Who would have thought?
Quite by chance, conflict of interest issues are being raised in another LNP state government. Ted Baillieu has suddenly decided to spend more time with his family. Has his attempt to impose greater transparency on political donations irked his Liberal colleagues both inside and out of the parliamentary party? In 2011 Baillieu introduced a fund-raising code of conduct for MPs which prohibits Ministers meeting one-on-one with party donors. Never mind that it’s nudge nudge wink wink; any astute politician or lobbyist can easily subvert the rules. Even so, it interrupts business as usual, which can’t be allowed to happen, so maybe Baillieu gets the tap on the shoulder? It was stated on the ABC’s Thursday evening 7.30 Report that Upper House Planning Minister Matthew Guy’s supporters were gathering numbers for a challenge to Baillieu, so maybe he jumped before he was pushed. You can read about some of the conflict of interest antics of Matthew Guy in The Age – secret fund-raising events with developers whose projects may require Ministerial approval, and zoning irregularities.
Nasty as all this is, these local examples of benefitting mates are completely eclipsed by the scale of it in the UK. As I wrote in a previous post, now that most of the UK government assets have been flogged off, the Conservatives have turned their attention to selling services, such as the National Health Service. Watch this video, which uses publicly available information to document just how much companies that have benefited from the sale of services have contributed to the Conservative Party. Ramsay Health Care’s $100,000 to the Liberals in 2010/11 looks puny in comparison. (And thank you to the reader of my previous post who pointed out that Paul Ramsay Holdings gave $505,000 to them. Now that’s more like it).
Reading about all this recalled the words of the late and great historian Tony Judt, who coined the phrase ‘privatisation as kleptocracy’ to describe the obscene profits made from the sale of former Soviet Union state owned assets to various mates. The scale was greater there, but the principle is the same. Of course Labor privatised assets, though selling them for too little to multinationals, rather than cronyism, is often the complaint about their processes (in addition to oppositions to selling them at all). And I can’t deny that state Labor government decisions have benefited mates – though it should be noted that the contract to run Sydney Water that so enriched the Obeid family was given to them without tender by a Liberal state government. Benefiting mates is an age-old political practice. But only the Liberals and their free market apologists dress it up and sell it as being for the public good – whatever other motives they may have.
It’s all too easy to say that politics is a dirty business and leave it at that. My point is that when selling off assets and services is a party’s main policy, it institutionalises conflicts of interest that might otherwise be sporadic and controllable. We know that Tony Abbott is promising his own Audit Commission, details to be announced after the election should he win it, and it’s not rocket science to figure out that it will about as independent as the Queensland one. His mates must be rubbing their hands.
PS. Here is a good article about why privatisation of electricity assets by either Labor or the LNP is a crock.
By Kay Rollison
Usually it’s nice to be proved right – but not when you’re proved right about something as bad as this. I’ve been saying for some time that an Abbott government would have a much more right wing, neoliberal, or just plain nasty agenda than some people seem to think. And here we are, seeing an example of a right-wing privatisation agenda played out in Queensland for our edification. There is no doubt that this is the same path Abbott would love to take this country down.
One of the reasons sometimes given for the premise that an Abbott government would be essentially inactive is that the right wing agenda of small government has run its course – there’s hardly anything left in government hands to privatise. But anyone who thought that is mistaken. Not only is there Medibank Private and Australia Post, there’s all those services left to outsource, like education, health, and disability.
Abbott and Newman probably didn’t figure out for themselves how to push the boundaries of outsourcing further than asset sales. They didn’t need to – their Conservative mate David Cameron in Britain has been showing them the way. This article in The Guardian describes what is happening there as the creation of a ‘shadow state’; all the real state’s substance is being eaten away by outsourcing of what should be its core functions, in favour of an unaccountable, corporate, copy of a state. ‘The winners are private equity and shareholders. The losers are the low-paid and the vulnerable. And in the end we all pay,’ writes Zoe Williams. Here are some of the issues she raises; I’ve expanded on them a bit.
- Outsourcing is based on the principle that private provision is always more efficient than public provision. This is an article of neoliberal faith, not an evidence-based assessment. It is rarely true, unless you put the bar of what constitutes ‘efficient’ very low, and forget about ‘effective’ altogether.
- Efficiency is always defined as doing more with less. Services deal with people, and the only way of doing more with less is to process more of them in less time, or get rid of them altogether off the books. There’s often an incentive system, based on how much you’ve reduced your case load by. In non-efficiency speak, that means dealing less effectively with people’s needs by shorter consultations, being more impersonal, and making the service more regimented and rule bound. And it’s not like there’s competition within a service – the consumer can’t shop around. They’re stuck with the company that’s won the contract.
- Services must now make a profit – why else would they be attractive to private enterprise? Other than greater ‘efficiency’, the main way to make profit is to cut costs – which in this case means wages. Government employees (in Britain, often local government employees) lose their jobs, and a lucky few of them get re-employed at lower wages with worse working conditions, probably as casuals with no job security.
- Competition is supposed to push down costs. But Williams explains that contracts are written so that only the largest firms, like Serco, Liberata (love the name) and Capita are able to tender – we’re talking billions here. ‘And when they say competition,’ she writes, ‘what you’re actually left with is four or five – sometimes only three – companies, who barely compete with one another at all but instead operate as an unelected oligarchy.’
- There’s no accountability. The government is no longer responsible for providing an effective service. The company won’t disclose any information; everything is ‘commercial in confidence’. If things go badly enough wrong, the government may have to break the contract – and pay for the privilege of doing so. So it’s lose/lose for the taxpayer as well as the ‘consumer’ of the service. The failed privatisation of Modbury hospital in SA is an instructive local example.
What Williams describes is an excellent example of the operation of a market society as opposed merely to the market economy we already live in. In a market society, the only human role is as an individual consumer. Getting the services you need becomes your particular responsibility, rather than the responsibility of the state. In Britain they talk about the ‘welfare market’. Says it all, really.
Privatisation is, of course, already quite advanced in Australia. However most of what has been outsourced so far has actually involved something physical, like buses (Serco here in Adelaide), or water supply. Not much by way of human services has been privatised. Prisons are arguably a human service, and there are already some private ones –Serco again, and GEO Group (a subsidiary of an American company.) The old Commonwealth Employment Service, which was definitely a human service, was privatised by the Howard government. But outsourcing human services is not a road we have generally taken – until now.
The Queensland Commission of Audit, chaired by none other than Peter Costello, has now delivered its final report on ‘ensuring value for money in the delivery of front line services’, which is not very good code for ‘what other government services can we outsource’. Unsurprisingly, it recommends a massive sale of assets including electricity providers Energex and Ergon, and seven government-owned corporations, including the Queensland Investment Corporation, and SunWater. Queensland obviously has some catching up to do; most other states have already sold off such assets. But LNP thinking on privatisation in Queensland goes further – just like the British Conservatives. Over the last few days, we’ve seen press releases announcing that private companies will build and maintain 10 Queensland state schools, that all prisons will likely be privatized (with fewer staff per prisoner) and that the delivery of a range of health services will be through private and not-for-profit health providers and partnerships. (I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Ramsay Health Care donated $100,000 to the Liberal Party last year.) So you cut the public service, as Premier Newman has done, then say that services can be better delivered by the private sector. This complements the ideological agenda of asset sales, and has the added advantage of undermining the power of the public sector unions and thus the Labor Party. A win all around for the LNP. And all announced after the election.
Abbott shares Newman’s love for privatisation. He’s even copying Queensland’s post-election audit commission. Not much left to privatize? Don’t be deceived. They’ll be eying off all those (by definition) inefficient government services. And it’s hard to unscramble an outsourced omelette. By the time we get another Labor government, the damage to the state and its citizens will have been done.
By Kay Rollison
As Labor does poorly in recent polls, we’ve started to hear a new line that is a version of an old one – it doesn’t matter if Tony Abbott wins, because he won’t do anything different. This comes from the cynics – the ‘we’ve seen it all before’ brigade – and some Greens, who are trying hastily to find an electoral space that is different from Labor’s.
The line we’ve heard before, usually pushed by ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ journalists from the non-Murdoch mainstream media, is that each of the major parties is as bad as the other, and that they are therefore both the same. This argument is about political tactics. For example, if you promote Slipper to Speaker, you deserve Ashby. This new variant is about policy, and it is appearing in both the mainstream and the social media.
This new argument comes in two main forms. First, that while Abbott is good at opposing, he won’t follow through in office. This is the Malcolm Fraser effect; he threatened much in the ‘70s, but didn’t repeal Medicare. How seriously you take this depends to some extent on how well the LNP does in the Senate. If they win an outright majority, then they can do as they like. If they are dependent on Green support, you’d think they’d find doing things like repealing the Carbon price difficult – though apparently you never can tell with the Greens. There’s also an implied question about Abbott’s character; how far you can trust him to do what he says he will do? Maybe a blood oath fades in the wash? I agree that he’s likely to say one thing and do another, but this is hardly an argument for his ineffectiveness or even inaction; he may do far worse things than he says he will. Industrial relations springs to mind.
But putting aside these caveats, we need to consider the things he says he’ll do. It’s true that a lot of it is negative, but that hardly means there will be no change. The ‘no difference’ argument of some commentators is that Abbott won’t be able to do things like repeal the carbon price or stop the NBN. For the carbon price, there are, they say, contractual obligations in place which will be too costly to overcome, so that even if Abbott can pass the necessary legislation, he still won’t be able to unpick the knitting. And the story is similar on the NBN, which in addition, is increasingly popular with voters –see, for example, Peter Dutton’s petition to speed up delivery of it to his electorate. So anyway, it won’t matter who you vote for.
This sort of ‘what if’ and ‘maybe’ is all very well. But at very best, it slows down two processes that are crucial for the Australian economy, to say nothing in the case of the carbon price of our responsibility to do something about climate change. Abbott’s direct action plan is a sick joke which doesn’t stand up to questioning – not that the mainstream media ever bothers – and there is no way that it will enable Australia to achieve its emissions reduction target. So a bit of difference there …
What about same/different economic visions? There’s a limit to what governments can do to control employment, interest rates and inflation, and governments of any political persuasion will inevitably do a lot of the same things. What’s been said by Abbott about how the LNP would manage the economy is nevertheless confused and confusing. They’ll tax less and have smaller government, but still make major new spending commitments – magic pudding stuff. In terms of whether it would be different from Labor, I found Bernard Keane and Glen Dyer’s ‘no difference’ article interesting. They want it both ways. They argue that at least in a first term, the economy under an Abbott government wouldn’t look very different from how it does under Labor. But in conclusion, they say that this may change substantially ‘once we start seeing some real detail about what Joe Hockey would do as Treasurer’. Really? They correctly note that for all the rhetoric, Liberal governments in the past haven’t managed to reduce the size of government, suggesting that Abbott won’t either. But they then go on to list a whole lot of ways in which Abbott’s changes would result in some people being worse off – sacking public servants, some government functions downsized and services cut; making it easier to sack private sector workers; and more worker deaths through diminished occupational health and safety in the construction industry to name just some. They don’t mention Hockey’s interest in reducing the ‘sense of entitlement’ for welfare, and pass over the huge costs of Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme. (They characterise it as ‘more generous’, which to the already well off, it is.) They don’t look at the implications of handing responsibility for health back to the states. But even given the ambivalence of their argument, I think they’ve said enough already to show that we will be back on the private affluence public squalor track so effectively followed by Howard. And this is something Labor has been trying – however slowly – to reverse. Peter Martin’s article on Abbott’s budget position is also interesting in this context.
The Green argument, as summed up by one blogger, is that though an Abbott government is likely to be ‘nasty’, it will be ‘at least as weak and incoherent as Gillard’s’. Weakness and incoherence will probably be of little consolation to those for whom it is ‘nasty’, if it is even so – and see my caveats above. And is the Gillard government really ‘weak and incoherent’? I’d have thought it had rather impressive legislative achievements, particularly for a minority government. The carbon price, the mining tax, the NBN, disability funding, education funding, a rise in the minimum wage, equal pay for workers in the community sector, increases in childcare funding, lower taxes for the worst paid and a start to reducing middle class welfare – doesn’t sound weak and incoherent to me. Of course it could and should be better – thanks First Dog for your really constructive listing of what’s wrong. (Treatment of Assange? Compulsory data retention? Peter Slipper kerfuffle? Can’t you do better than that?) By all means dissociate yourselves from Labor achievements, Greens, and pursue a purer agenda. Just don’t hope to see it realized. And don’t pretend that Labor and Liberal are the same. It looks more like dodgy political tactics than the commitment you’re supposed to have to fact checking, truth in politics and a progressive agenda. After all, if the Greens play political games, under your reasoning, how are they different from anyone else?
There is no way that Tony Abbott is a risk worth taking. I’m not willing to hope that his promises disappear like stains in the wash. I couldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a bar of soap.
By Kay Rollison
I’m following up on Victoria’s recent post on what Gillard is up against. Two pieces on the Drum on Thursday 21 February nicely illustrate a couple more of the sorts of attack that Gillard faces. Both articles, though they appear to be something else, are actually attacks on the Prime Minister.
The first is Jonathan Green’s An imminent assassin or Gillard’s final shield, which almost caused me to choke on my muesli. It purports to be an analysis of ALP leadership tensions, and is arguing that Kevin Rudd will not be able to mount a successful challenge to Julia Gillard for the same reason that he lost the prime ministership in the first place. That is, because he has no factional backing in the Labor caucus. But Green goes beyond this to suggest that Gillard is a captive of right wing unions, who would rather see the government defeated than allow someone outside of their power, such as Rudd, to be Prime Minister.
The article begins reasonably enough with a question for the journalists who are spruiking a challenge by Rudd. How would it happen?
If, as almost to a woman they insist, a Rudd challenge to the Gillard prime ministership is all but inevitable, how precisely is this transition supposed to take place?
(Note ‘to a woman’. Green’s little joke.)
He’s right to ask this. A journalistic consensus doesn’t add up to a leadership challenge. There may be many reasons why journalists might like Rudd to offer a contest, such as it would make good political drama, it would be something they’d been right about this time or it would excuse them from having to find something else to write about. But this doesn’t mean Rudd will challenge.
So why does Green think the press is wrong about a challenge?
He doesn’t think it’s anything to do with whether or not Rudd could do a better job. He dismisses the argument that Rudd was removed because he was incompetent. No, he was removed because his ‘presence in positions of power threatens the “faceless” control of traditional party mechanisms’. Is putting ‘faceless’ in inverted commas supposed to be another little in-group joke? And Gillard and Swan, appearing at the AWU National Conference, ‘know precisely who’s buttering their bread’. The AWU in turn support the ‘profoundly unpopular’ Gillard because worse than ‘the hiding that this leadership will bring to the parliamentary party come September 14 … would be the elevation of a leader in the party hostile to various internal interests; a man, like Kevin Rudd, who would work actively to undermine and subvert traditional avenues to power and influence.’ Wow. The Evil Empire at work.
By this reasoning, Gillard and Swan should have nothing to do with the AWU. Green even suggests that there is a ‘sense of taint that might stem from close association to the union seen as being both her faceless coup backers of 2010 and more remotely to the vague but still festering allegations of imprudence from the 1980s (sic)’. Really? What is Green doing here, apart from trying to resurrect the stupid allegations from the 1990s? Suggesting that there is something wrong with a situation where unions like the AWU financially support the Labor Party, which was born out of the union movement? Certainly the relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement has changed beyond recognition since it first arose. But that there is a relationship is as fundamental to the political scene as the relationship between big business and Tony Abbott. I’m sure that the union movement is just as concerned about the prospects of an Abbott government as I am, and will do everything in their power to avert the threat.
I can’t, however, refute Green’s argument. It’s of the kind that says that there are no flying pink elephants at the airport because the flying pink elephant catchers are working well. If there is no challenge, it must be because Gillard is a creature of the right wing unions. Thanks Jonathan.
The second is Tad Tietze’s article ‘Greens in 2013: between a rock and a hard place’. This one purports to be about the difficulties facing the Greens in coming to terms with being part of the parliamentary game, as opposed to being a protest movement.
‘The Greens’ “outsider” status was always destined to clash with their desire to be successful political “insiders”,’ Tietze says. Fair enough. He looks at Christine Milne’s Press Club speech, and her argument that Labor had broken three of the four heads of the agreement Julia Gillard signed with Bob Brown. He asks how it is that the Greens supported so many of the things they are now objecting to – such as the Mineral Rent Resource Tax. He, in my view correctly, identifies the problem at the heart of the Greens political stance – how can they become a major political force, capable of appealing to the middle ground, and at the same time, preserve their distinctive role as a party whose policies are decided by its members, not its politicians, and are true to what he calls the party’s ‘left wing’ orientation. He also points out that their support for Labor comes at a time when Labor is doing badly, but because of the threat of an Abbott government, left of centre voters are as likely to stick with or move back to Labor as to support the Greens. The irony is, he says, ‘that their adaptation to the official political game has not delivered electorally’.
So what’s my problem? First, it’s that the Greens cannot be what he obviously thinks they should be: ‘a clear progressive alternative to Labor’. If you can’t win enough seats in the lower house to form a government, you can’t be a clear progressive alternative to anything. Furthermore, I’ve never seen any real evidence of how the Greens plan to deliver their policy ‘wish list’ while juggling the demands of government. Running a government isn’t as easy as telling people about your ideal world. A lot of the Greens policies are what is called ‘aspirational’; nice ideas, many of which I applaud, but are also entirely impractical. True, some of them are better than the compromises Labor has had to make – but for better or worse, compromise is what politics is about, particularly when you are in a minority government.
Second, it turns out that Tietze is one of those people who think that living under Abbott won’t be all that bad. He says that the Greens’ ‘partisan connection has led them to join Labor in overplaying the horror that will occur if Abbott becomes PM (when in fact his administration is likely to be nasty, but at least as weak and incoherent as Gillard’s). Love that ‘when in fact’. Perhaps it won’t be bad for Mr Tietze. Presumably he isn’t sick or poor, unemployed or likely to be made so. Maybe the NBN doesn’t matter to him, but surely the carbon price does? ‘Weak and incoherent’? It would take another post to list the achievements of this government. I’m happy to acknowledge the contribution made by the Greens, but I think it’s Labor we can thank for our relative prosperity in the face of international economic weakness.
On one hand, this article is just another form of Labor bashing. On the other, is suggests that lots of Greens would probably be happy with an Abbott government; they could revert to their uncompromising agenda, and be damned to the rest of us.
PS. I noted with interest some Greens are into realpolitik; in the WA Legislative Council Agricultural Region, the Greens are preferencing the Shooters and Fishers Party ahead of both Labor and Liberal. Well done Greens. Hunting in national parks forever!
By Kay Rollison
Now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of the party.
Is this anything more than a typing exercise? Yes, it has to be. Men and women of Australia, we can and must unite to Keep Abbott Out.
Before the election was called yesterday, I read another of those annoying articles, this time by Jack Waterford in the Canberra Times, along ‘the parties are both the same’ line. No, Jack, they are not.
You might think that anyone who says, as Waterford does, that Abbott’s parental leave policy is to the left of the Labor Party’s doesn’t deserve further consideration. But his argument is unfortunately quite common – and very dangerous – so it needs to be addressed.
Even if on every other policy Labor and the LNP were the same, which or course they’re not, they would still be different on climate change – which, incidentally, Waterford doesn’t mention. Kevin Rudd was right when he said this is the great moral challenge of our age – even if he subsequently wimped out on doing anything about it. It is also the great economic challenge of our age; how are we going to ensure some sort of social equity in the face of it?
It’s easy to argue that Labor’s carbon pricing hasn’t gone far enough. But what is the alternative? The party of ‘climate change is crap’. The party of paying polluters from public funds to stop polluting. The party who will force the unemployed to join a green army – where else will it come from? This is rubbish policy. It cannot be allowed to happen. We aren’t going forward fast enough, but we can’t afford to go backwards.
I read a tweet the other day pointing out that the only time the Greens get any publicity is when they attack Labor. Anyone who attacks Labor gets publicity from the mainstream media. This isn’t the Greens’ fault; it is their misfortune. They presumably say lots more – but just don’t get reported. Their proposal for a permanent disaster fund, for example, seems to have sunk without trace. I’ve argued elsewhere – and been attacked for it – that of course the Greens oppose Labor. They want to replace them, not work with them. But for the foreseeable future, this isn’t going to happen. And if Greens supporters care about that future – which I’m sure they do – cooperation is what is needed now to keep Abbott out. Do they really want to play into the hands of the LNP and their cheerleaders in the press? The chances are that the Greens will retain the balance of power in the Senate; they can use that to push a Labor government forward on environmental issues. But good luck trying to do the same if there’s an Abbott majority in the lower house.
And of course this isn’t the only difference. ‘Less tax and less regulation’ was the Liberal promise in response to the Prime Minister’s speech to the Press Club on Wednesday. Less tax, at a time when Federal revenues are falling, is either Magic Pudding economics, or a cynical failure to acknowledge that with less tax goes smaller government. Cuts to the public service are only the beginning. Was Isobel Redmond’s decision to ‘step down’ as Opposition leader in SA forced on her because she told the truth (twice) about Liberal plans to slash public service jobs and, inevitably, public services? Then if Campbell Newman’s slash and burn isn’t evidence enough, we’ve only got to look at the outsourcing movement that is disembowelling welfare provision in the UK to see what is the likely program for the Liberals. Let’s not kid ourselves that Joe Hockey’s ‘end of entitlement’ is about ending middle class welfare. By all means protest the move of some single parents onto Newstart when their youngest child turns 8. And yes, this extended the existing Liberal policy. But Tony Abbott suggesting that the unemployed should have to move to Western Australia and work in the mines isn’t a brain snap; it’s a mindset. If you don’t understand this mindset and the consequences of such a mindset running the country – it’s time you educated yourself. The clock is ticking.
And what are the regulations the LNP want to remove? I’m sure you can guess which ones they call ‘green tape’ – environmental impact statements, for example. A government prepared to regulate the market is essential for any sort of equitable social policy and sustainable environment. Which party do you think offers this?
I could go on about the differences – and probably will over the next months. And I’m not suggesting that Labor deserves carte blanche on its actions. Asylum seeker policy in particular is one area which deserves scrutiny – though again it’s a no win situation for Labor as far as the mainstream media goes. There’s bad publicity for boat arrivals, bad publicity for conditions of detention, bad publicity when asylum seekers drown on their way to Australia and bad publicity for asylum seekers returning home. Whatever Labor does, or does not do, in this area earns them bad publicity. Who wants to be part of that? And which would you prefer? Labor which, however unsuccessfully, is trying for a regional solution, or a party that calls asylum seekers ‘illegals’ and wants to turn back the boats? These are not trivial differences.
Everyone is entitled to have policy areas they are passionate about, but a Federal election is not about one or two policies. It’s about who will be in charge of making the decisions across all policy areas, how they see this role, who will benefit from what they do, and who will lose out.
I’m calling on people who vote Green to make sure they know who their enemy really is, and at least make sure they give their second preference to Labor. I’m calling on undecided voters to think about what vision they have for the future, and whether this vision is for themselves alone, or for their whole society. Even if all you worry about is yourself and your family, think very carefully about who best manages the economy. Read what the IMF has got to say about that. And I’m calling on the cynics – the ‘they are just the same’ brigade, to really look hard at what the Opposition is offering – presuming they give you the chance. And if they don’t, you might wonder what they are not telling us.
Every election someone will say that this is the most important election in a generation. Abbott’s already said it, and just this once, I agree with him. A LNP government will not be business as usual. Not only will it seek to destroy any gains that Labor has made towards equity and sustainability, it will also do its best to allow the market freedom to ‘develop’ as it chooses, and to further entrench existing inequalities. We can only stop this if everyone who cares – and there are masses of us – unite. We are concerned individuals, members of unions, members of environmental groups, people who assist refugees, people in disability groups, farmers, small business people, tweeters, bloggers, workers in the renewable energy industry, IT experts, retirees, education providers, scientists, any workers of any kind in fact – we are found everywhere – and we must unite to KEEP ABBOTT OUT.
By Kay Rollison
Here is the latest guest post by my mum, @KayRollison. This is partly in response to my post from yesterday and the responses to it, and partly just because mum is really good at explaining politics based on her wealth of knowledge about what has happened in history.
Why is it that we still hear intelligent and otherwise well informed people lamenting the dominance of the two major political parties in Australia? If only there were more Independents, they cry. Or more minor parties. If only MPs could vote as they like – or as their constituents direct them – instead of being bound to vote as their party decrees. Then we’d have much better government. I’m not making this up; I heard it again just the other night.
As Winston Churchill said in 1947:
‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’
Similarly no one pretends that the two party system is perfect or all-wise either. But having two major parties, each potentially capable of forming a government is also better than the other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Back to Politics 101. In the Westminster system, you need a majority to form a government. So in a parliament full of independents, how do you form a government? Do you go round asking each of the 150 members whether they will support you? Since there are no parties, who gets to do the asking? Is it like in N.F. Simpson’s Resounding Tinkle, where someone knocks on your door and asks you to form a government – ‘he’s working through the street directory’? And do we just hope that the 76 Independents who will support you (after the knock on the door) on introducing a carbon price are the same 76 who will support you on raising the Newstart allowance? Maybe, but then maybe not. It’s called political instability. Or maybe chaos. Ever heard of the phrase ‘herding cats’? It certainly isn’t coherent and long term political action.
OK, so this is the reductio ad absurdum of the position, and maybe that’s not fair. So what about several small parties, and some Independents? You’re the leader of the largest party, so you get to try and form a government. This is roughly how it worked before there were two major parties. And how did this work? Well I’m pretty familiar with how it worked under one Thomas Bent, Premier of Victoria 1904-9. He was terrific at it. It’s called support in return for concessions. Pork barrelling, in other words. You vote for my government, and I’ll give your electorate a bridge. And if you can bring a few friends with you, I’ll make it a railway. I promised at the last election to regulate the sale of alcohol. Don’t like that idea? Well we can easily change it. You made a promise to your electorate? That’s tough. Maybe we could do something about freight rates. Where are you from again? Didn’t work so well in bad years when there wasn’t a surplus to play round with. And government was maybe a bit less complicated than now, but you get the picture.
It’s true some parliamentary democracies operate on a multi-party system. And all of them have to negotiate coalitions to form a majority government. So after electors have voted for the party that represents what they want, that party has to compromise with another party that wants something different. We can see how well that is working out in Britain at the moment. The Lib Dems sold out to the Conservatives, who, being the larger party, are calling the shots. I feel for (sort of) all those Lib Dem voters who thought they were getting something quite different. And did Liberal voters in NSW really expect an alliance with a party that promotes hunting in national parks?
Sometimes a single party may not have a majority in its own right, but can attract enough Independents to form a government. Sound familiar? Labor doesn’t have a majority, but it’s not a minority government; you have to have a majority to govern. And how well is this received or understood? Shock horror seems to be the usual response. But such arrangements in a multi-party system are routine. Is that what we want here?
I should say that I have nothing against the Independents currently in the Federal Parliament. If their electorates choose to elect someone without a party affiliation, that‘s their business. But it’s only the unusual circumstance of a hung parliament that makes them so important. Unless someone needs their support, their chance of concessions is pretty slight, whether it is on the roads and bridges front, pokie reform or any other issues.
So if you want a government that can get done what it has been elected to do, then it’s a good idea to have only two major parties to choose between. You know what you’re voting for and your party is either elected, or it isn’t. It either does what it says it will, or has to produce a very good reason for doing something different. Of course you won’t ever find a party who does everything you want exactly how you want it. So you make a choice. Which party offers the policies that best align with your values most of the time?
We normally have a variant on this system in Australia. The conservative side is a coalition between the Liberals and the Nationals and each needs the other’s preferences to get a majority of seats (except in Queensland, where it’s one party. And isn’t that working well). On the progressive side the ALP either gets or falls short of a majority of seats with Green preferences. You may or may not like the outcome, but what better system can you suggest?
Of course the Greens are unhappy with this arrangement, because they would like to replace the ALP as the major party of the left. None of this ‘keeping the bastards honest’ rubbish. But with one seat in the House of Representatives, and a handful of lower house seats across the states, this is looking a very big ask. So if Greens want progressive policies now, then they have to compromise with the ALP, however much it hurts. After all, they aren’t going to get anything from the LNP. Criticise all you like, but keep that basic fact firmly in view.
Of course parties require their MPs to vote as the party decides on legislation. How else can a government put its program into effect? Yes, this can make it difficult for individuals who may feel their party is wrong on an issue, and in most cases parties could afford to be a bit more flexible than they usually are. But in general, the principle of party discipline is essential for the system to work. Can you suggest a better way?
Given that our two party system requires two parties, why is it that being a member of one is so frequently seen as such a bad thing? Membership makes a statement about what you believe. It gives you a way of influencing party policy. It doesn’t mean you are uncritical – it just means you are committed to the general stance of the party. Of course there are party members who are tools. You find them everywhere. There are party members that are just in it for what they can get out of it – like pre-selection, having powerful friends, or making business contacts – but there are lots of members who just want to make a difference. Of course political parties are influenced by special interest groups as much as by members; surely you don’t need me to tell you about the role of pressure groups? And yes, there are other ways of making a difference, as Get Up, for example, is showing. But in a society where apathy generally rules, the effort it takes to be a party member should be admired, not denigrated. Decisions are made by those that show up, as President Bartlett says in The West Wing.
It doesn’t take a lot of votes to change a government. By all means change your vote – for sound reasons based on an analysis of both parties’ policies. After all, it’s intelligent and well informed people I’m talking about here. But before you bag the two party system, be very careful what you wish for.
By Kay Rollison
Just as well I didn’t put any money on it. I could have sworn that the Liberal industrial relations buzz words for the 2013 election campaign would be labour productivity. But I was wrong. The buzz words turn out to be union power.
I must say I’m surprised at this. It’s not that I didn’t expect the Liberals to have an aggressive industrial relations policy. After all, deregulating the labour market and destroying the union movement are their main reasons d‘etre. And sure enough, Josh Frydenberg has come out on cue with some proposals for ‘workplace reform’ that promote individual contracts, openly attacking the award system and the unions’ central place in it. It sounds a lot like Workchoices. Frydenberg hasn’t commented further, but Alexander Downer has. And he says the reason we need this policy is ‘union power’.
So why am I surprised? Because it sounds a lot like Workchoices. And we know Workchoices is ‘dead, buried, cremated’, because Abbott told us so.
And I believed him? No, of course I didn’t. I just thought the Liberals would come up with something a bit more subtle. Something that didn’t automatically evoke ‘your rights at work’: the image of a women playing happily with her kids until she gets a phone call from her boss saying come in to work now or I’ll sack you. Remember that one? I thought they’d go for something that didn’t look like Workchoices so that it would be easier for Abbott to look less like he was lying. Silly me.
It is ludicrous to suggest that the country is groaning under the burden of union militancy. As these posts on Grog’s Gamut show, not only hasn’t there been a wages breakout, there hasn’t even been a massive increase in days lost in industrial disputes. Downer is worried about militancy in the construction industry. And yes, there was a strike by construction workers recently – the Grocon strike by the CFMEU. One whole strike! The sky is falling.
So is there really traction in an anti-union campaign? Maybe. After all, the sort of information that Grog provides isn’t very well known; when did you last see something like that in the mainstream media? Most people find it easy to dislike unions, even when they are getting the benefit of improved pay and conditions which unions have won. We regularly seem to hear of unions these days when they’re fighting to save the entitlements of union members whose companies have gone broke. And the union movement will fight an individual contract policy whatever the slogan, so the Liberals lose nothing there by calling a spade a spade. And then there’s all the bad publicity for unions, as in the HSU (real, if you mean Kathy Jackson) and AWU (made up) scandals. But even so, most voters don’t have a memory of real union militancy, which much weakens the scare tactic value. It’s so eighties.
I thought labour productivity had a much better ring to it. You can pretend that you care about the economy and the national interest. It doesn’t sound like union bashing. After all, better productivity must be in everyone’s interest. In fact, labour productivity is a complicated matter, as this further post by Grog shows. In Liberal hands, of course, it just means doing more for less – ie, fewer workers with less bargaining power, leading to poorer pay and conditions all round. It isn’t really any different to ‘union power’ and the dreaded militancy – it just sounds better.
So why go with union power? It’s partly that they can’t help themselves. Say the word ‘union’ and they see red; subtlety flies out the window. And unions do stand in the way of their cherished policy objectives. Moving even more of the share of national income from wages to profits is, as I said above, a central plank of Liberal policy – what they believe in and what their corporate supporters expect from them. And there is also a strong political motive. If you destroy the union movement, you weaken the Labor Party, perhaps fatally. (I noticed that along with the proposal for voluntary voting, the Queensland LNP wants to stop unions contributing to political parties. They say they don’t want corporations contributing either, but there’s nothing about rich individuals – go figure.) And who cares if Abbott has to back down on all that dead and buried stuff? Lying hasn’t been a problem for him so far.
But labour productivity might still get a run. It’s too much to hope that the Liberals have looked at the most recent productivity figures (see Grog’s Drum article) and concluded that they really can’t mount a decent argument on them. Or that they’ve read the Productivity Commission’s opinion that the mining boom has depressed productivity. When did mere facts get in the way of union bashing? It couldn’t be that they understand that labour productivity depends on management capability. Or that they have come to the realistic conclusion that labour productivity is a very partial economic indicator, and that multi factor productivity is actually a much more useful measure. Definitely too much to hope for. Labour productivity will pop up. You wait.
With all this talk about Jenny Macklin and her comments about living on Newstart, it is time that we talked about what might be in store for our country should Abbott become Prime Minister. Here is the latest guest post from my mum, Kay Rollison.
The mainstream media, almost without exception, accept that Tony Abbott will win the election due this year. But they are not telling us what we might expect from an Abbott government, and nor is Abbott. So we can only speculate. What we come up with might not be what Abbott and his media friends will tell us when the opposition get round to making election promises, but it’s what will likely drive a LNP government – because it always does.
First some caveats. What an Abbott government can get will depend partly on the politics of the Senate, unless they have a majority there, which seems unlikely. The Howard government was a big spender and Abbott’s view of the economy – in so far as he has one – seems to owe more to Howard practices than to the economic rationalism favoured by his party. Maybe his mentor B.A. Santamaria also influenced his thinking. Or maybe he just has no idea. Don’t expect economic consistency.
The LNP, at least in theory, supports small government, with low taxation and balanced budgets. Not only are they happy to cut government spending, they will have no choice but to cut government spending if they aren’t going to increase taxation. One area they are likely to target is welfare. They have a track record on this – see the 2006 Welfare to Work changes. It is also what other conservative governments such as David Cameron’s British Tories are doing. When they have no new ideas of their own, they copy their mates. What do you think Abbott was doing in London in December –aside from hiding out from the Ashby judgement? And we have some comments from the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey which show support for welfare ‘reform’: his ‘end of the age of entitlement’ speech in London in April 2012, and this tweet in support of Cameron’s proposed changes.
Before we get on to what those changes entail, it’s important to remember that the deregulation of the Australian economy, which is supported by both sides of politics, involves a hands-off approach by government, which is left with only crude tools like unemployment to keep down inflation. Both sides also accept that deregulation means there would be losers and that there must be a ‘safety net’ to support them.
So what’s the difference on welfare between Labor and the LNP? Well at the moment, not very much. But there will be large differences if we go down the British Conservative path – as I have no doubt Abbott will do. We already have his statement from the 2010 election campaign that he would like to see dole payments stopped to able bodied people under 30.
The British Conservatives are singing from the same songbook as Hockey did in his ‘end of the age of entitlement’ speech. At the time, we sneered at what Hockey said, because just then, the LNP were busy opposing the Labor government’s attempt to strip back an outrageous piece of Howard era middle class welfare – subsidies for private health cover for the rich. And then there is Abbott’s ridiculous paid parental leave scheme which would pay the wages of well off women taking maternity leave. It seems the Liberals think the middle class are entitled to government support.
But this isn’t about middle class welfare. What David Cameron has in the gun is what he calls the culture of welfare dependency. Cameron is back on the old furphy we have seen so much of in years past – the unemployed are dole bludgers, who need to be forced to find a job. It’s the ‘strivers versus the skivers’. The Conservatives are offering voters a choice between spending public money on ‘hardworking families’ or ‘people who won’t work’. Sound familiar? The main proposal is to cap the amount of welfare a family can receive to ensure that it is less than the average earnings of working households. They also intend to institute tougher tests for disability support. You can read more about it here. The Conservative government expects to save billions of pounds by this – and you can’t do that without hurting the most vulnerable members of society – the very ones the safety net is supposed to support. The sad part is that Britain has an average unemployment rate of 7.9%, and the rate is much higher in some regions. Where are the unemployed supposed to find a job –given that the Thatcher government destroyed the British manufacturing industry and no one since has found a source of jobs to replace it?
The Howard ‘reforms’ assumed that the unemployed, some people on disability pensions and single parents with children over the age of eight could find part time work if their benefits were cut. Abbott will follow Cameron further down the ‘work not welfare’ road. There’s his ‘green army’ for a start. But we know that much part-time employment is casual, poorly paid and has poor working conditions. Tough luck, as far as the Liberals are concerned. And there is no guarantee that even part-time work will be available. So it will mean more futile job applications, more breaching, more misery.
So, under the Liberals, we would have an even more draconian approach to welfare than the one we have now. Everything about the British approach fits with what we know of the Liberals. Remember the Paxtons? I can just see what the LNP election spiel will be like. And will they ensure that government stimulus increases the number of jobs? I don’t think so.
Labor has a real chance to differentiate itself on welfare. It is true that they accept the safety net argument, and treat a level of 5% unemployment as normal, and even desirable to curb inflation. It’s true that they are starting to bring out ‘dignity of labour’ card, as if being in work was a virtue, and being unemployed a moral failure. On the other hand, it is reasonable to be concerned about welfare dependency, and children growing up in jobless households. If you want to generate and sustain a permanent under-class, that is the way to do it.
Merely abstaining from bashing the unemployed would differentiate Labor from the LNP. Labor is looking to increase the Newstart allowance, acknowledging unemployed people need proper support. But they could go further, with a whole of government approach to poverty. This would include better health and education for poor people, better access to vocational training, and perhaps most importantly, better pay and conditions for part-time work and a decent minimum wage. People should not be condemned to stay in the welfare system because they have no other alternative. Let’s cut back on some of that middle class welfare to fund a fairer society.
Labor needs all the support and encouragement we can give it to take the road that is socially responsible, and ultimately better economics. After all, look where austerity is getting the UK.