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.

Trolling coal: jobs, climate and the Iron Lady

The pre-recorded televised tributes have ended. The street parties are over. In Britain, the outrage that swelled in some quarters over the Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s faux state funeral has died away, leaving in its wake the dull, tedious thrumming of politics as usual. Still, the polarisation of the British people remains, festering beneath the surface. Thatcher’s staunchest defenders remember her as her country’s most important and impactful post-war Prime Minister; her staunchest detractors, as some kind of demonic caricature: a milk thief, an unemployment generator, a life destroyer. Everyone else – particularly those who tend to tack left – has been cast intellectually adrift in their attempts to fairly place in history a woman who shattered the glass ceiling, but in the process laid the popular foundations of the modern economic orthodoxy that so many of us today reject. Like it or lump it: you can’t deny that it’s a Thatcherite world out there today.

One of the often glossed over sticky points for the left on Thatcher’s legacy is of course coal. The Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan makes the point for the Telegraph:

What I find bewildering is why the mine closures are cited now as evidence of Tory wickedness. No one, with the exceptions of the SWP and the BNP, wants to recreate a state-owned coal industry today. Indeed, the people who complain most bitterly about the pit closures are generally those who are most against burning coal.

It is on this issue that the Greens and indeed a decent swathe of the Labor Party find themselves in rather closer political proximity to the Iron Lady than they might like: in recent years, the Greens have been vociferous opponents of both coal-fired power and investing in clean coal technology at the expense of cleaner and more renewable energy sources. The Greens would in an ideal world like to see all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations closed down, something that the Baroness indirectly took a step or two towards in the United Kingdom in the early 1980’s through her program of mine closures. Admittedly, climate change was not in the forefront of anyone’s mind in those days, but the fact remains that if Thatcher was alive and in power today in Australia, closing coal mines across the country, it could, in a strange twist of fate, be perceived as something like a progressive policy. Imagine that: Christine Milne and Margaret Thatcher, arm-in-arm.

In truth, Thatcher’s closure of the pit mines and the reaction of both the blinkered right and the blinkered left to them shines a light on the violence that the oversimplification of issues can bring to bear on ordinary working people. Daniel Hannan is apparently “bewildered” by the outrage still felt by people, decades after the Conservative Party’s role in shutting down unprofitable mining operations across the country. I find his bewilderment bewildering – but then I am sure that Hannan and many others like him will never know what it is like for whole families and whole communities to lose their livelihoods in one swift stroke. He is, at heart, a Eurosceptic who is nevertheless more at home in Brussels than Sheffield; make of that what you will.

Similarly, when the Greens talk about the “transition” to a low carbon economy, it seems to me that there is potentially a great deal of trauma concealed within that rather unfairly peaceful word. If Australia were to scale back its export of coal to China and India on principle, for example, and to commence the shutdown of its existing coal-driven energy industry, how many thousands of jobs would be lost? How many communities near coal mines and coal-fired power stations would be rent asunder? Are the people who are dependent on coal industry for their livelihoods just to be collateral damage in the nation’s drive towards a low carbon economy, much in the same way that mining communities reaped the whirlwinds of Margaret Thatcher’s war on unions and unprofitability in the 1980’s?

I appreciate that tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs stand to be created in the green energy industry in the coming decades – but clearly, it is not simply going to be a case of governments picking up people working in coal mining and energy jobs and dropping them neatly into green energy jobs, as if they were so many Lego figurines. Communities and brown energy workers will need support from government and industry, including compensation and retraining to help them adapt to the “new energy world” that is to be shaped by the increasingly interventionist role that the Federal Government may play in the energy market in the future. It is this sort of detail that gets lost in the sorts of black and white “coal is evil” or “coal is Australia’s economic future” messages that have tended to emanate from all of Australia’s political parties in recent times.

Can Australia reduce its emissions effectively without unleashing the unsympathetic economic trauma of the like perpetrated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government on mining communities across Britain? Only time will tell, but the signs are not that promising, and the playing field in any case looks set to be flipped end over end all over again come September, creating even more uncertainty.

“Reassurance Labour” and post-Blair social democracy

Globally, the centre-left is enduring a period of public weariness and dissatisfaction. In Australia, a relatively unpopular government battles on against a red-blooded Opposition Leader, with the spectre of a leadership context lingering unerringly in the background. Between Kevin and Tony, there’s not much free air for Julia to articulate what she is about and why she deserves more time. In the United States, the ramshackle cavalcade of the Republican presidential primaries rolls on. As we collectively chortle at the successive victories of the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, dividing the centre-right, we also quietly question whether Barack Obama will be able to ride home this November on the same wave of good will and anti-Bush sentiment that served to swell his support in 2008. Across Europe, the political cartography doesn’t lie: in 23 of the 27 EU nations (24 if you include the six party (!) coalition in Belgium), the centre-left does not control the government.

A couple of weeks ago, David Miliband, former foreign minister and the exiled elder brother of Labour Opposition Leader Ed, contributed a rambling “vision” piece on social democracy to the New Statesman. It’s the kind of piece that was self-evidently designed to be high-minded without being too controversial, to try and add something to the debate without undermining his brother, or being so practical as to indulge in any policy specifics. It would have floated by altogether, unremarked and soap bubble-like, if Miliband had not taken the opportunity to take a heavily padded pot-shot at former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley and his recent piece [PDF] with Kevin Hickson for The Political Quarterly:

He is convinced that there exists an obvious instrument for putting social democracy into practice – the central national state, whose strength has been underestimated, he argues, in a rush of market fundamentalism on both left and right. His fundamental point is this: that Labour in the past 20 years has been scared off the most potent vehicle for the expression of its values, and in the process has come to be seen as ineffective as well as unprincipled.

For some, this will be seductive. It is what I shall call Reassurance Labour. Reassurance about our purpose, our relevance, our position, even our morals. Reassurance Labour feels good. But feeling good is not the same as doing good – and it gets in the way when it stops us rethinking our ideas to meet the challenges of the time. And now is a time for restless rethinking, not reassurance.

“Reassurance Labour”, in short, is just the latest rhetorical salvo in the ongoing war between the hardminded, working-class socialists of the 1970’s and early 1980’s and the so-called “Third Way” Blairism of more recent years. Historically, the centre-left has sought to make its values manifest through the wilful manipulation of the gears and levers of the state, with the national government perceived as being the preeminent mechanism through which this can be achieved. Since then, the world has changed, but how much has it really changed? Miliband clearly feels that any renewed embrace of this top-down approach would be misguided, despite the strong emotional connection that most people on the left have with the proactive welfare states of yesteryear.

The Australian political scene seems to be operating in a slightly different world to the one where this debate is blundering on, in part perhaps because Labor is currently focused less on any grand thematic vision for the future than keeping its head above water in the run up to the next election. Government – particularly when you’re struggling in the polls – will do that to you. Looking back over the last few years, however, one gets the sense that the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have dipped quite a bit into “Reassurance Labour” economics, pursuing interventionist tax policies on climate change and mining, and betting the farm on the success of the National Broadband Network project. In the current climate of fiscal uncertainty, after all, nothing says political conviction quite like pumping tens of billions of dollars of public money into a nationwide infrastructure project. It’s a bold policy, and it is quite difficult to imagine a UK government of either political stripe dancing down a similar path in the current climate.

I am unsure about whether this implies the Australian bodypolitik is somewhere ahead or somewhere behind the debate going on in the UK, but one thing is certain: nobody can in practical terms define themselves as being simply “pro-state” or “pro-market” anymore. Governments are increasingly being pushed towards the middle ground by market entities and forces with more unhinged pulling power than themselves, and indeed by pockets of the impotent shouty filling the space vacated by mass political parties and organised participatory democracy.

Despite his departure from the scene, we are all still living in what we might one day call the Blair era – named not for any whizz-bang political dynamic dreamt up by Tony Blair and crew, mind, but the prickly, atomised, tabloid-oriented political environment that created and crowned him.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

NSW election: New beginnings at Sussex Street?

At long last, after all the slightly nutsy talk in the media about “recall elections” and what seems now like an endless litany of scandals, the people of New South Wales have spoken. Save for at the margins, what they had to say wasn’t surprising, but that’s because the performance of the government induced them to scribble down their rightful invective on speech cards several years ago. It is difficult to recall an election campaign in recent Australian political history that has been quite so one-sided, quite so predictable. The obvious conclusion to the election hung heavily in the air during the campaign, with the major players saying their pieces to camera knowingly, like trainers before a horse race agreeably fixed in advance.

Following on from Kim’s initial round-up then, what next, for NSW Labor? Rank and file supporters of the party in New South Wales have been repeatedly slapped around the head by the state parliamentary party during the course of the last few years. We’ve been left on a hiding to nothing, often vainly defending the practically indefensible. Despite the fact that a number of good, hard-working MPs have been unfairly swept away in the carnage, it’s hard not to feel a sense of closure and relief in the election aftermath, as if the gloriously democratic detox that has long been needed has finally arrived. The people’s doctor has arrived in Sussex Street clutching a kit bag full of tennis ball-sized suppositories, and although what has ensued hurts, bloody hell, they sure are needed.

Let’s first consider the state of play. Yes, Labor has been routed in the Legislative Assembly, and stands to hold just 21 of the chamber’s 93 seats at best – around 22% of the house. The good news is that some very talented people have been retained: Linda Burney is safe, and at this stage it seems relatively likely that both Carmel Tebbutt and Verity Firth will keep their seats for the party. John Robertson is a somewhat polarising figure, but there is little doubt that he the kind of person capable of cutting through in his attacks on the O’Farrell Government. Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally, despite their strong association with the problems of the last four years, are clearly capable political operators and the electorate holds no great personal disdain for either of them.

The question of who will lead the party will no doubt dominate the media shortly (it is likely to be Robbo), but strangely enough I don’t think who leads is particularly important. What is important is that the party makes an honest and open effort to reflect on the mistakes that it has made during the last eight years, perhaps through a public consultation process, involving both rank and file members and indeed the general public. The image that many people have of Sussex Street at the moment is a kind of malignant kleptocracy; this image needs to be smashed and remade through a transparent program of reform. If not now, with plenty of time to play with and nothing to lose by embarking on a period of controversial change, then when?

Former Assistant General Secretary Luke Foley MLC and Bob Hawke have already indicated a worthwhile starting point for consideration: the 2010 ALP National Review Report delivered by Bob Carr, Steve Bracks, and John Faulkner. The NSW branch’s very young, worryingly malleable General Secretary, Sam Dastyari, has already hinted that the reform of the party structure in New South Wales is needed, including the factions. All three are on the money, but need to go in quick and hard on internal reform: building a united policy front can wait. Contrary to what Tony Burke has suggested, policy doesn’t matter a fig right now. It is irrelevant. If NSW Labor wants to have any hope at all at even being competitive in 2015, it needs to first make a fist of the hard internal reforms that are long overdue, while the wounds inflicted by the electorate are still fresh and the polls don’t matter.

More broadly, what I would like to see is the party actively asking for the public’s involvement in setting in train its internal reform program. This physician is clearly incapable of healing itself alone. Whoever is eventually anointed as Opposition Leader should extend a hand to the people who have just rejected them, and humbly ask for their help in reforming the party, in rehabilitating a party organisation that is spluttering and wheezing under the myriad pressures being brought to bear on mass political parties in the 21st Century. The membership “amnesty” suggested by Dastyari is hardly going to bring anybody back: the party clearly needs to reach out to new people. It sounds incongruous and unlikely, but as part of a program of “new beginnings”, I think the time could well be ripe for a party membership drive, perhaps with reduced-price memberships and more of an emphasis on having the sorts of candid “by-the-barbie” interactions that this party desperately needs to start having more of with ordinary folks.

In short, there has never been a better time for reform and renewal within the NSW branch of the Labor Party. A rebranding of Sussex Street is only going to work if the product being sold to the people over the next four years is fundamentally different; more of the same “faceless men”, big party miasma just won’t cut it with people anymore.

ELSEWHERE: Shaun Carney rather optimistically heralds the end of “Richo-style” politics and Eddie Obeid has a retrograde crack at defending the indefensible.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Class-war and the Rudd Labor Government

It’s been quite a while since we last heard the term “class-war” bandied about by political commentators in relation to Australian Federal politics. It’s a lazy, archaic term; a term probably last reasonably applied amongst the Left in relation to the unabashedly pro-business policy-making of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and amongst the Right around the same period, when centre-left parties around the world were still a pragmatic streak or two short of the “Third Way”. In cases where “class-war” is dragged like the decaying corpse of a phrase it is into mainstream political debate today, it is most often done by folks who are prone to slander and not particularly interested in balanced analysis. It’s a term that means next to nothing to most ordinary Australians, and only really serves as a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” to fellow one-eyed travellers and an admission of ideological conceit.

Interestingly, just in the last few months (and particularly amongst the News Limited stables), the term has started popping up around the traps in commentary on the Rudd Government. Andrew Bolt picked up the cudgel a couple of months ago in relation to the government’s comments on executive pay, and David Penberthy from The Punch described the government’s budget just last week as a “class-war budget” – whatever that means. I suspect David Penberthy wouldn’t know what a “class-war budget” looked like even if the Russians managed to reanimate Lenin and parachute him into the next preselection contest in Wayne Swan’s electorate. A number of commentators including Paul Williams from the Courier Mail and Peter van Onselen from The Australian have another angle – denouncing the government’s proposed Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) as an act of “class-war” in their recent contributions.

But what is a “class-war” policy? A “class-war” policy, I think, can be reasonably defined as a policy that has been construed to explicitly favour the poor at the unjust expense of the rich, or to explicitly favour the rich at the unjust expense of the poor. Now frankly, I don’t think there would be many people out there who really believe that the Rudd Government has tended to explicitly favour the poor at the unjust expense of the rich during its last two and a half years in office. Comparing Rudd Labor’s record with that of the previous Howard Government, for example, it would be a rather difficult task to successfully argue that the Prime Minister has been more of a socialist than economic conservative – unless you happen to believe that John Howard was a socialist too.

Take the example of the RSPT, which Wayne Swan does a splendid job of justifying here (hat tip: Peter Martin). This is a measure that seeks to obtain for the people of Australia (both rich and poor) an increased, “fairer” proportion of the profit share from the fabulously successful mining sector. Given that we are talking about companies that earn their stratospheric profits by digging resources up out of territory that is owned by all Australians, and the nation itself is in the process of digging its finances out of a hole bored by the GFC, I really don’t see how this policy can be reasonably construed as a “class-war” policy. This is a specialised measure targeting a specialised industry announced in trying times, not a measure targeting a certain “class” of people or organisations or that benefits the poor at the expense of the rich.

In any case, if the RSPT really is a brutal act of “class-war”, it is surely the first such act where one of the most prominent victims has seen fit to declare both his support for (2 months ago) and his opposition to (today) his attackers.

The Clive Palmer vs. Clive Palmer “class-war”. Now that is a John Woo film begging to be made.

ELSEWHERE: Mark from Larvatus Prodeo is equally bemused by all this “class-war” claptrap.

Julia Gillard for full-forward?

With the Prime Minister taking a little bit of heat in recent polling, there has been a lot of fluffy speculation around the traps in the media that the Deputy Prime Minister might soon be looking to secure a promotion for herself. The media loves giving the old “leadership speculation” angle a run, particularly when the protagonists are a little novel. In recent years, its all been about the Liberal Party – Nelson, Turnbull, Hockey, Abbott. Now that there’s a whiff of tension between hitherto golden boy Rudd and his fiery deputy, the media is cock-a-hoop.

Julia Gillard, however, is having none of it:

Ms Gillard said she was more interested in making Australia a better place than becoming prime minister.

“What gets me up every morning to do my job is my passion and enthusiasm for making this a strong and fair country,” she told reporters in Brisbane.

“There’s more chance of me becoming the full-forward for the Dogs (Western Bulldogs AFL team) than there is any chance of a change in the Labor party.”

In essence, I agree with Julia – the suggestion is ridiculous. I don’t think it remotely likely that there will be a Federal Labor leadership challenge before the next election. In fact, I’m willing to put money on the fact that there will be a change in the leadership of the Federal Liberal Party before there is a change in the leadership of Federal Labor. Any takers?

The media needs to get back onto the main game, and off the leadership rubbish. I think its fairly certain now that we are going to see a Rudd vs. Abbott showdown at the next poll.

Peanut farmers, rocks, and hard places

It’s becoming clear that the Rudd Government never expected the strong level of opposition to its health funding reforms that John Brumby and the Victorian Government have served up over the course of the last couple of weeks. As Michelle Grattan and David Rood reported in yesterday’s Age, the relationship is quickly becoming toxic. Premier Brumby stepped up and addressed the National Press Club on the topic yesterday, and on Tuesday, even drew parallels with the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the behaviour of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970’s. This was an extraordinary contribution to the debate, considering that Brumby and Rudd are supposedly from the same political party and that Brumby could hardly have cast a greater slur on his northern colleague. The germination of the Prime Minister’s political career in Queensland was arguably in no small part driven by the vulgar excess of the Bjelke-Petersen years.

The Prime Minister seems determined to win the day on health reform, and is prepared to continue upping the ante with more funding and incentives until he gets it, whilst refusing to fundamentally alter the underlying structure of the deal. Whether the Federal Government’s approach in a policy sense is correct seems, sadly, to have degenerated into a second order issue, at least when compared to the political shit fight for ownership over health reform.

This puts Premier Brumby in an invidious position, given the staunchness and nature of his opposition thus far. Brumby has already proposed an alternative plan (e.g. a 50/50 funding split without the 30% loss of GST implied by the Rudd/Roxon plan) that he holds to be a considerably better agreement for all parties. But as the offer on the table from Canberra gets bigger and more attractive, the pressure on the Victorian Premier to bite the bullet increases. The overwhelming majority of the shot in this war is in the Federal Government’s locker. The fraternal politics of the situation for the Labor Party are diabolical. No Labor Premier would want to be remembered as the person responsible for critically undermining a Federal Labor Government about to wage its first election campaign after over a decade of conservative hegemony. Sooner or later, the Victorian Premier will be coerced into caving in by the sheer force of the taxpayer dime on offer, and the broader ramifications of not signing up.

In the next couple of weeks, Brumby is going to have to find a way to be a good little Labor Premier and acquiesce, whilst at least appearing to have won some concessions from those bovver boys and bovver girls from the nation’s capital.

Tanner on the Greens

Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner authored quite an interesting column in The Age yesterday, dredging up one of the most excruciating and ultimately inconclusive debates in Australian leftist politics. What does a vote for the Greens actually achieve? If the Australian Labor Party fails to deliver on the progressive policies hoped for by the broader left, is a vote for the Greens the most sensible option for the modern progressive voter?

Arguably, Tanner’s contribution to the debate is prejudiced; he obviously has some concerns about what an upsurge in support for the Greens would mean for his own federal electorate of Melbourne. If the recent state election results in Tasmania are anything to go by, traditionally Labor-held seats in the inner-city like Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler may be under increased threat at the next federal election due to the increasing support that the Greens stand to attract, particularly in affluent, inner-city areas. He nevertheless raises some fair points. Would it have been better for the environment, overall, if the Greens provided the support necessary to pass the government’s ETS? Even if it is true that the Rudd Government’s scheme as it currently stands is inadequate for reducing emissions to the extent necessary, surely it would have been better to get some well-meaning scheme over the line and then lobby to improve it, than to have no scheme at all?

While I think that Tanner over-eggs his point of view in his article, I think my own point of view, exemplified by membership of the Labor Party, speaks for itself. As Gough Whitlam once intoned, only the impotent are pure. It will be interesting to observe what happens in Tasmania over the coming weeks, but I can only hope for the sake of the environment that the Greens come to their senses and actively seek an alliance with one of the major parties. It is well past time that the Greens started engaging more with its opponents with the aim of producing the best possible compromise result for its supporters, rather than holding out for some impossible, uber-green solution that will never, ever, ever come about.

Paul Sheehan and his lazy alphabet soup

When I was in school, the laziest, dumbest sort of poem we were ever asked to write was an acrostic poem – a poem in which each line starts with a new letter. Paul Sheehan must not have felt like writing about anything in any detail for his SMH column today, because he decided to unearth the trusty acrostic and scribble an errant line or two about the Rudd Government’s performance for each letter of the alphabet. There are no pretensions of balance or fairness detectable in the piece – it is , to be clear, nothing but a one-eyed hatchet job, and an amateurish one at that.

As such, I think it only fair to offer a point or two in reply to Sheehan’s 26 extremely brief points:

Asylum Seekers
According to Sheehan:

Unless the government can show otherwise, it appears that about 98 per cent of asylum-seekers are getting Australian residency.

There’s nothing like a bit of “innocent until proven guilty” to get the ball rolling. No attempt is being made to provide an accurate figure or to describe how the author has arrived at the 98% figure. Sheehan also neglects to mention the significant push factors at play for the asylum seeker issue during the last couple of years – in particular – the Sri Lankan civil war, and an increase in Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Beijing

Does anybody seriously believe that Australia’s relationship with China has “deteriorated badly”? Rudd has been one of the few foreign leaders to have the fortitude to express some home truths to China – for this he should be given kudos, not brickbats. Strong relationships call for straight talking – not the acquiescent hand-wringing of the Downer years.

Computers in schools

290,000 computers funded, 180,000 computers delivered, in an ongoing program. Yes, there have been logistical problems, but in a program of this magnitude, logistical problems happen.

Debt and deficit

Sheehan:

It took the previous government 10 years to dismantle the $96 billion debt mountain that it inherited. It took Rudd one year to build it back up again.

Rudd… and a global financial crisis.

The Rudd Government would have been heading into deficit courtesy of the GFC regardless of whether or not it embarked on its economic stimulus program, which saved thousands of jobs, put money in the pockets of millions of people across the country when they most needed it, and kept the budget in surplus. It is undeniable that the measures undertaken by the government played a central role in ensuring that Australia is amongst the best performing economies in the world and technically stayed out of recession.

ETS

56% of people still support the Rudd Government’s ETS – and I sincerely doubt that any polls conducted have concluded that 80% of people both don’t understand and don’t trust the scheme. A slogan on the t-shirt of someone with an obvious vested interest in not reducing carbon emissions does not a coherent argument make.

Fuelwatch

Was blocked by the Senate – and hardly a “big” promise in any case.

Grocerywatcb

Not all of the major retailers came to the party for the government in committing to provide accurate and timely information of grocery prices, and the scheme was dumped in June 2009. This was an unfortunate result, but the public outlay was relatively small.

Hospitals

Ongoing – negotiations with Australia’s state and territory governments and the possible reform of the Constitution is hardly something that can be done overnight. I think we’ll see the Rudd Government put health at the forefront of its re-election campaign, with pressure now mounting for some action.

India Disaster

Sheehan does not bother to explain what he is talking about here. Perhaps he is suggesting that Kevin Rudd was somehow responsible for the Mumbai bombings?

Juvenile justice

It is a nonsense to argue that the plight of young Aborigines is worse than ever – this is hyperbole on a grand scale. The Rudd Government has, thus far, maintained the “intervention” policies of the previous government to a significant extent. The current situation is not a good situation by any means, but it is in no way, shape or form, as catastrophic as Sheehan implies. Here’s hoping that the Rudd Government lifts their game in this very sensitive and challenging portfolio.

Kaiser

In defence of the appointment; the Rudd Government is actually trying to move things along with the broadband network (rather than wait several months while the job is formally advertised, candidates interviewed, and so on) and Mike Kaiser certainly has the pedigree for the job. It was, however, a somewhat sloppy and silly piece of work, and NBN Co executive Mike Quigley should probably have known better.

This was Quigley’s mistake – not Conroy’s or Rudd’s.

League tables

The publication of comparative school information was arguably one of the bravest steps undertaken by a Labor Minister for Education in decades. The indicators are not bulletproof, but the publication was still a step in the right direction, and one that has been broadly welcomed by parents across the country. Parents deserve the facts. The world has not ended for principals, school teachers or anybody else.

Sheehan’s labelling of the scheme as “centralised” is a clear misrepresentation.

Migration

Sheehan takes the novel approach of attacking Australia’s permanent migration figures in recent years by arguing that this is increasing Australia’s carbon footprint. It’s interesting – because he doesn’t seem to give a flip for Australia’s carbon footprint when it comes to, say, environment policy. A strange dog whistle if ever I heard one.

National broadband network

$17 million, when all is said and done in the world of government policy, is not a lot of money. The tender process fell down and that is unfortunate, but the rollout of the network is now underway in both Tasmania and mainland Australia.

Opposition theft

He must have really struggled with “O”. I don’t think that anybody really believes that the Rudd Government’s stimulus package is the sole reason why Australia pulled through the financial crisis so well. Incidentally – it’s not as if the Howard Government didn’t claim all the credit it possibly could for the state of the economy during its decade in power – despite engaging in a negligible amount of investment or meaningful reform.

Power (and Roof insulation)

There have been some unfortunate consequences of the Rudd Government’s solar power and home insulation schemes, but to a large extent, these problems stem from inadequacies within the existing legislation regulating the relevant industries, and questionable or immoral behavior by opportunistic business operators. Its simply disingenuous to imply that these problems can all be laid at the feet of the government. Should Peter Garrett go? From where I am sitting, its 50-50.

Question time

Question Time has been abused by both sides of parliament for as long as anyone can remember. The Rudd Government’s performance in this area is disappointing, particularly given its rhetoric around cleaning up behaviour in parliament prior to the 2007 election, but it is not demonstratively worse than recent previous governments.

School spending

The Building the Education Revolution scheme is improving the amenities of schools across the country, keeping thousands of people in work. There are probably a few good arguments one could raise regarding just how this money could be better spent in the education sector. Sheehan doesn’t volunteer any.

Tax increases

From my recollection, the Rudd Government is committed to not increasing the level of taxation as a proportion of GDP – which means that any new spending measures will need to be funded by associated budget cuts in other areas. Until the government actually breaks that promise – its nothing but hearsay and slander to suggest that the forthcoming Budget is going to be chockers with new taxes.

Union Power

Nonsense. As many union members will tell you, the Rudd Government has been a bit on the conservative side in their destruction of WorkChoices. A substantive proportion of the provisions of the Howard Government’s industrial relations scheme remain, with some softening around the edges. Many concessions have been made to business and industry by the government. The unions do not pull the strings in Labor Governments anymore.

Vanity

Lazy. Must have had too many words eh? Maybe you should have done a column per letter Sheehan – your arguments might then have been just a little more coherent and less simplistic to boot.

X Y Z

Cute. But lazy. It is probably worth remembering that these are of course the same said generations who benefitted from the government’s stimulus payments.