Royals, semantics and republican Labor pains

We did but see them passing by; regrettably for some, they took around ten days to pass completely.

Yes, of course, it was nice for the country to host the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their son. Yes, the royal convoy delighted well-wishers and monarchists at heart across the nation, sprinkling stardust on the everyday lives of those they met. But what of the rest of us? Having yawned and gagged our way through an extended royal edition of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!”, we need no longer imagine a dystopia where news and current affairs are abolished and reality television shows are the only entertainment put to air. There is something whimsical about watching the future foreign kings and queen of your country, decades removed, being awkwardly compelled to meet and greet sporadic mobs of awe-struck locals. The results appeared – at least to me – like an outbreak of religious fervor writ small, with subjects reaching excitedly over barricades and worming their way through crowds seeking to speak to or even touch the sacred flesh of the blessed ones. What small talk did they make with well-wishers, journalists pondered live on air, as much to themselves as anybody watching? What is the Duchess wearing today? Let us speculate in the public domain at great length on these critical matters!

In the aftermath of this curious episode, what we are all left with is a Coalition Government apparently striving to outrage every conceivable demographic in society with its impending Budget, and an Opposition Leader publicly musing that his party needs new policies. Yes Bill, yes. Bill Shorten does have a tricky game to play over the next year or so, needing on the one hand to outline enough plans for the future to keep the public interested, whilst not allowing himself to be gazumped by the Coalition in the run-in to the next federal election. That does not mean he can not present any concrete plans now. Moreover – joining some fairly obvious dots – reviving the campaign for an Australian republic in conjunction with the Australian Republican Movement seems like a pretty sturdy mast to nail Labor’s colours to.

Tactically, this is not an issue which a government lead by Tony Abbott can outflank Labor on. Any push towards re-opening the republic debate is guaranteed to be opposed by the Prime Minister, and equally guaranteed to divide support amongst some of his most senior Ministers (for starters: Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Chris Pyne – all republicans). The Prime Minister would undoubtedly argue that talk of a republic is a flippant move in the shadows of Australia’s Phantasmal Sovereign Debt Crisis (TM), but assuming that Labor also provides a robust riposte to the Federal Budget, the republic debate offers both the possibility of answering a question the majority of Australians want dealt with and providing yet another rich contrast between Labor’s vision and the backwards-looking myopia of the current Prime Minister.

Recent polling on support for a republic is admittedly quite negative – but the veracity of any polling conducted in conjunction with a royal visit is highly questionable. In the current context I find it difficult to believe that the average disconnected Australian would leap to mouth off about dear old Wills and Kate and Georgey or their mob generally when phoned up by a pollster. Weasel words are also muddying the waters. A majority of Australians understand that retaining the British Queen as our titular Head of State instead of an Australian chosen by Australians is illogical and simply not right for a country purporting to stand on its two feet: there is no question of this. It is, however, perfectly understandable for someone to hold this view, but still profess support for the monarchy (or the “royals” personally), and a dislike for the idea of becoming “a republic”. The cult of celebrity, as ARM member Raff Piccolo has observed, deeply intertwines with these conflicting beliefs. There is a semantic morass here that needs to be waded through, but it is a morass that we must wade through as a country, sooner or later. They are lovely people, the monarchy is a historically delicious British institution, but they are not Australians and the “Queen of Australia” is an anachronistic concept that fails to pass the laugh test. And yet, we are stuck with it.

Nevertheless, there is the very real prospect that the 2016 election could coincide with a cosmic political alignment in support of the republican cause. At the current rate of knots, only a brave or foolhardy pundit would tip a comfortable victory for a government led by Tony Abbott at the next election. The Prime Minister’s recent twists and turns have boosted support for Labor federally and even revived the fortunes of the Australian Republican Movement, which saw its membership base skyrocket after Abbott’s unilateral decision to restore the British honours system here. If Labor wins the next election, it is highly likely that both the Prime Minister and the newly anointed Opposition Leader (whomever they are) will support the republican cause. The continuing reign of Queen Elizabeth II should not and would not prove an obstacle; privately Her Majesty must surely be baffled by our prolonged bout of constitutional laziness. Presiding over the final gentle release of Australia from its colonial bonds would be a fitting and worthy act for a legendary monarch whose reign may be approaching its twilight years.

There is a wave coming, and it is Bill Shorten’s to ride if he is bold enough.

Some home truths for Labor in WA

Clearly one should ask not the Australian Labor Party how the West was won; following Saturday’s half-Senate election, it is far more appropriate to ask WA Labor and Bill Shorten just how the West was lost so decisively and so humiliatingly. At the time of writing, Labor has managed to attract just 22% of the first preference vote in the Senate, suffering a swing against it of close to 5%, collapsing to its worst Senate election result since 1903. The Greens and Labor together look set to attract less than 38% of the combined first preference vote. On Tuesday, outgoing WA Labor Senator Mark Bishop described the result as disastrous, and it is difficult to disagree. Coming as it does in a period when Tony Abbott’s government is stuck on the back foot, behind in the polls nationally and under considerable political pressure on multiple fronts, Labor members and the general public have a right to wonder just what went wrong on Saturday and what is going wrong with the party more broadly in Australia’s largest and proportionately least populous state.

One thing is clear: this isn’t just about Joe Bullock: Labor has failed in recent years to grasp the nettle on some of the big policy issues impacting the lives of people living in Western Australia. There is a clear sense that both the Rudd and Gillard Governments tended to look first and foremost to suburban Sydney and Melbourne for approval when spruiking their policies, with people in regional Australia, the Queensland and the West left feeling like they are a few faceless men short of having meaningful representation in Labor’s party-room and Cabinet. There is a reason Clive Palmer strikes a nerve when he talks about the eastern states stripping the West of its rightful GST takings: it is yet another reminder of the palpable “us and them” sense that Labor has played a part in inculculating.

The Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) is arguably the most important policy pain area introduced by Labor that impacts Western Australian voters, whether in practical terms or philosophically. The ABS estimates that in 2010-11, the mining industry accounted for 29% of economic production in WA and by 2012, over 8% of jobs. Despite the fact that the MRRT has in any case failed dismally to generate the annual revenue estimated by former Treasurer Wayne Swan, Bill Shorten has been unwilling so far to permit the Abbott Government to repeal the legislation. Nor has Shorten deigned to offer any alternative policy or even a thought bubble that conceptually tackles the issue of rebalancing Australia’s lopsided economy: Labor (and to some extent, the Greens) currently remain chained mindlessly to an idea that – whilst intellectually well-intentioned – simply has not worked for the country either politically or in practice.

Indonesia is closer to home for most Western Australians than Sydney, and even as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison continues to try his darnedest to “stay mum” on boat matters, Labor has yet to outline a convincing rebuttal to the Abbott Government’s hardline approach to asylum seekers. Polls continue to indicate that the average Australian – and particularly the average Western Australian – is not as far away from the talkback radio consensus as Labor and the Greens would like, and happy to even canvass increasing the “severity” of the treatment of asylum seekers. The Greens have a clear, principled, but unpopular position on the matter: Labor’s position by comparison is just confused. The party that implemented the flawed, draconian and failing PNG solution is also the same party that oversaw the highest numbers of asylum seeker boat arrivals in Australian territory in recent recorded history. There must be a workable middle path that discourages dangerous travel by boat, satisfies the requirements of international refugee laws, encourages regional co-operation rather than conflict and restores Australia’s international reputation as a moral society. If Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles are even looking for let alone have found this middle path, they are keeping a very good lid on it indeed, to Australia’s detriment.

Finally, there is the “carbon tax”. Labor’s WA Opposition Leader Mark McGowan is on record as opposing the fixed carbon pricing regime currently in force but supporting the introduction of an emissions trading scheme (ETS). This is a position that Bill Shorten has also adopted at a federal level, offering to support the repeal of the current carbon pricing regime on the condition that the Abbott Government introduces an ETS. This is of course a nonsense offer that the government has the moral authority to reject, an offer that makes a mockery of the mandate won by the Coalition parties at the September 2013 election. In a policy sense, Shorten’s position does not advance the debate. In a political sense, it leaves the Coalition with a cricket bat in its hand to thump the Opposition with, as it continues to rail about Labor’s unwillingness to yield to the judgement of voters in last year’s poll. The commentariat might well sniff and scoff, but for the average punter, the current fixed-price carbon regime is as much of a “carbon tax” as the ETS is. If Labor is to continue to support the introduction of an ETS, it needs to work harder at making the case for the complex system to voters, perhaps in combination with a red-blooded industry policy focused on exploding the size and scale of green energy industries across Australia, as our manufacturing sector flounders.

Yes, things may be grim now, but the national political scenario is about to shift for Labor: the sitting of the new Senate in July will break the current legislative deadlock and force Bill Shorten and his team to reconsider their policy positions – even if they do not want to. We can only hope that this change of the composition in the Senate ushers in a new mindset in Federal Labor that considers a bit more carefully what voters in Western Australia and parts of Queensland are telling them. Winning government in 2016 will be hard; winning government without anything more than desultory support in two big states will be bloody hard indeed.

Ideology is such a lonely word

Kevin Rudd’s 7700 word essay on the global financial crisis, published in this month’s edition of The Monthly, was a remarkable contribution to serious political debate by a sitting Prime Minister. What isn’t remarkable given its length and lack of humor is that it appears to have gone down like a lead balloon. Mentions of the essay in the media seem generally restricted to pointed criticisms of it from members of the Opposition or their sympathisers. A few journalists (such as The Australian‘s Matthew Franklin) have even had a go at “Julie Bishoping” the Prime Minister, on the somewhat flimsy pretense that 26 words of the essay’s 7700 words were almost identical to a passage that appeared in an recent Foreign Affairs article. Err… ouch [wet noodle limply falls to ground].

For the benefit of those who haven’t splashed out on the magazine, I am going to try and offer a hopefully more level-headed summary over the fold.

Continue reading

Senator Penny Wong – unfashionable but right?

Senator Penny Wong has an exceptionally erudite column in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that – I think – does a remarkable job of cutting through the crap on both sides of the climate change issue. With all the hubbub in recent weeks about a mooted further government review of the proposed emissions trading scheme, and the Coalition amusingly promising a stronger scheme but declining to outline what that scheme might amount to, one could be forgiven for being confused about what the hell is happening on climate change.

Wong’s column goes some way towards dispelling this. On one front, she mounts a defense of the government’s scheme and the much-publicised low targets:

By starting to reduce our emissions from next year, Australia will be putting a cost on carbon pollution before some competitor economies. We are doing this because we know it is in our interest to take action now and encourage the rest of the world to do the same. But there is no point in putting a cost on carbon pollution in Australia if it simply results in jobs and emissions being exported to countries that do not yet face a carbon price.

And whatever people think about these so-called “big polluters”, the fact remains that many Australians are employed in these industries.

We are embarking on an economic transformation to create the low pollution jobs of the future, but it is a transformation that will take time.

Wong then goes on to reiterate the case for action:

We can do nothing – and lock in more emissions growth. Current projections show emissions would be 20 per cent higher by 2020 than they were in 2000 if we choose not to act.

Alternatively, we can initiate the scheme to ensure we are 5-15 per cent below where we were in 2000 by 2020. The scheme will result in emissions being up to 30 per cent lower in 2020 than if the scheme is rejected. The scale of this transformation cannot be brushed aside.

Make no mistake – Senator Wong has to sail the government’s emissions trading boat on a profoundly tempestuous sea. She and the Rudd Government are facing formidable attacks from the left; the government’s targets certainly seem on first consideration to be pathetically low. The government is also under considerable pressure from conservatives and indeed polluting industries to water down the plan, or to scupper it altogether given the economic crisis that the world still finds itself in. If the nation emerges from all of this political and economic turmoil with a functioning apparatus to reduce emissions – even if it is a little weak to start with – Wong will have done an amazing job.

The first cut is be the deepest. Yeah sure, there was Rod Stewart, but before him, just remember it was Cat Stevens.

ELSEWHERE: Harry Clarke also thinks Penny Wong is on the right track.

Federal Labor, meet rock and hard place

Recent developments in Victoria and the ongoing economic turmoil being experienced worldwide have placed Labor in a difficult position with respect to its pre-election policy program. On the one hand, the Prime Minister, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner have felt compelled to act and act in a significant way by pushing Australia into public debt for the first time in some years with their $42 billion stimulus package. On the other hand, the Rudd Government was swept to office in November 2007 with one of the more ambitious (and expensive) programs of policy reform pushed out into the electorate in recent elections. Whether we are talking about Federal Labor’s so-called “education revolution”, the proposed national broadband network, or the government’s mooted overhaul of federal-state relations in health policy, we are talking about reforms that if correctly implemented, should result in a noticeable improvement in the affairs of the nation.

Considering the profound impact of recent developments, we might well ask whether the Rudd Government, its budget outlook now bleak, is seriously still in a position to deliver on all (or… any?) of its really big promises? The government’s emissions trading plan has, of last week, been sent off to another review by the government’s Economics Committee. The national broadband network, dogged by delays and controversies over wrangling with Telstra, could perhaps best be described as resident in limbo. Today the interim report of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission threw up a rather radical proposal for a new public dental scheme, funded by a substantive increase to the Medicare levy. Proposals like this might have got a guernsey by a bold government in a period of strong economic growth, but realistically what chance do they have of getting up when the government’s budget is so under the pump and the future uncertain?

It would seem almost certain that the Rudd Government is going to be heading into the 2010 election with a handful of its most visible 2007 election policies in rather troubled train or else abandoned altogether. While Federal Labor can hardly be blamed for the financial crisis furrowing the brows of leaders all over the planet, if they do not deliver on their promises in the lead-up to the next poll (or else have a bloody cogent explanation!), one could hardly blame some voters for calling them out and giving the Coalition their vote.

Beazley would have been an excellent and yet hopeless choice

For many folk, I suspect, Kim Beazley was the erudite, often eloquent Prime Minister we for some strange reason never had. Despite his faults and his occasionally eccentric verbosity, one always got the sense through his speeches and the way that he communicated that he cared about the nation and firmly wanted Australia to be a fairer place for the less fortunate. His record speaks for itself in electoral terms, but in a slightly different time, perhaps, Kim Beazley would have been the sort of Prime Minister who brought conservative Australia and progressive Australia together under the one umbrella. He was often criticised by the left for being on the wrong side of certain emotive issues (e.g. asylum seekers in particular), but all the same, he was rarely accused of having his heart in the wrong place.

I certainly did not agree with Kim Beazley on every issue, but my first instinct upon reading stories suggesting that he could be our next (and last?) Governor-General was that it would be a great choice, and wonderfully apt given his years of often thankless public service. That thought was immediately followed by a pretty obvious political realisation: the Rudd Government would be committing political suicide by making such an overtly party-political appointment. One of the strongest and most convincing arguments against the government that the Rudd Opposition took to the polls in November last year was that federal politics was mired in cynical sludge. The Howard Government’s WorkChoices policy package was rammed through without a specific mandate from the voters, and backed by millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded propaganda. The AWB scandal reeked of incompetence, for which nobody from the government was willing to take responsibility. Rudd had effectively promised to restore an air of decency to public life in Canberra not observed for some time. The appointment of someone like Beazley – until recently one of the most visibly partisan political figures in the country – to any position of repute would have completely and utterly undermined this approach.

I am therefore not surprised at Rudd’s fairly brusque dismissal of the whole idea reported in today’s press, and am pleased that the Prime Minister has not been inspired to indulge in some forbidden fruit on this occasion. The government is currently is carrying with it a considerable amount of good will, owing of course from its election victory and the lack of any seriously embarrassing or controversial decisions made so far. This sort of political capital is not easily replenished, and the government would be loathe at this stage to squander its good position on such a triviality. On related news, it was good to hear Foreign Minister Stephen Smith appoint two career diplomats to represent Australia in France and Ghana a couple of weeks back. Long may this professional and diligent approach to public appointments continue.