Alcoholics australis and twinkle-toes Barry O’Farrell

Aided and abetted by the media, a maelstrom of public discontent has emerged in the last fortnight in response to the tragic Kings Cross killing of Daniel Christie. The furor has been so potent that even New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell has been forced to do something, this week announcing a “tough and comprehensive” package [PDF] of reforms targeting alcohol-fueled violence in the Sydney CBD. Parliament is to be recalled early next week to pass the package, and with Opposition Leader John Robertson offering broad (if qualified) support for the measures, it seems that inertia-stricken New South Wales is about to experience an extremely rare legislative phenomenon: reforms demanded by the public being magicked up by a government one week and becoming law the next. Evidence-based policy-making at its finest, of course.

The package of reforms already has some high profile critics who have exulted in sticking their heads above the politically correct parapet. The Australian Hotels Association has challenged the logistical sense in effectively locking up drinkers in pubs and clubs from 1:30AM and then throwing them all out together in a flood onto the streets at 3:00AM. There’s some vested interests there, yes, but also a pretty damn sensible point. Contrastingly, Labor’s John Robertson has decided to take Laura Norder out for a few drinks in arguing that the package is not tough enough and not comprehensive enough:

The Government’s announcement is one that I welcome and one that it’s pleasing that finally we’ve seen them act. But it is an announcement with loopholes. We have lockouts with loopholes, where small bars will be exempt from lockouts, backpacker bars will be exempt from lockouts, and hotels with bars will also be exempt from lockouts.

In other words, if you want to be drunk and anti-social and violent until all hours after the O’Farrell Government proposals have been passed, all you need to do is pick the right venue in the right inner Sydney precinct. Sure, you can agree or disagree with Robertson’s overall stance on the issue, but you can’t deny that he too has a point there.

News Limited’s David Penberthy has offered his usual “boofhead libertarianism” schtick in response. The shorter Penbo: don’t blame alcohol, blame the idiots who get violent after a few drinks: you and me are entitled to get pissed as much as we want so long as we don’t “coward punch” anyone. This is the kind of mentality I would ordinarily expect to find at the bar of an RSL after (yep) a few drinks, not splashed all over the HTML and news print produced by Australia’s largest media company. But then I remember that this is News Limited we are talking about, and that by definition, even companies touting cow manure have a target market.

There are some other problems with the package of reforms worth rattling through (have a look at Kimberley Ramplin’s no holds barred skewering here). As several high profile lawyers have argued, mandatory sentence regimes tie the hands of judges, increase the risk of unfair judgments being made, and have been shown not to significantly deter would-be perpetrators. Closing bottleshops at 10PM is hardly going to stop people who want alcohol from obtaining alcohol or stop people from “king hitting”, “coward punching” or otherwise attacking other people. The introduction of free buses running from Kings Cross to the CBD arguably risks drawing disparate groups of drunken punters together in a confined area, increasing the likelihood of conflict. The freeze on new liquor licenses for pubs and clubs simply blindly favours existing establishments over those that new entrepreneurs seek to start – and for what end, exactly?

Daniel Christie’s death was tragic and sadly, Barry O’Farrell’s response so far has been as well. This package is a knee-jerk “tough on crime” grab bag of nonsense measures designed to appease the media whilst completely avoiding the underlying problem. Let’s cut to the chase: Australia has some serious issues with alcohol. Alcohol consumption nationally might well have trended down in recent years, but this is not a short-term problem: we have had some serious issues with alcohol as a nation for decades. Australia is far from alone in having these issues, of course, but arguably we do stand alone in our stridency: drinking beer has been craftily transformed by local liquor marketeers into a bonafide patriotic act, to the extent that we even commemorate great feats of beer drinking (take a bow, David Boon and Bob Hawke). Not getting pissed? Unaustralian. Not impairing your decision-making on a night out? Unaustralian.

The World Health Organisation asserts that alcohol is directly responsible for 2.5 million deaths per year and is the world’s third largest risk factor for premature mortality, disability and loss of health. The cumulative effects associated with prolonged alcohol use according to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) include cardiovascular disease, cancer (particularly oral but also liver, colon and breast cancer), diabetes, obesity, and cirrhosis of the liver. The NHMRC also suggests alcohol is second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of drug-related death and hospitalisation in Australia. In truth, it is impossible to quantify the true impact of alcohol abuse but if you factor in its involvement in car accidents, domestic violence, broken families, stunted development, marriage breakdowns, gambling losses, the development of psychological disorders, and yes, the occasional “king hit” outside pubs, it starts to become pretty significant. In the last two decades, Australian governments have successfully made tobacco the bete noire vice of Australian society, to the point where smoking is on the brink of eradication. The near eradication of alcohol abuse if not use is surely a desirable goal from a society POV: do we have the foresight to legislate to make alcohol Australia’s bete noire vice for the next two decades?

Alcohol, to pickpocket Karl Marx, is modern Australia’s opiate of the masses. It is an opiate that the red-blooded Australian man, in particular, will be loathe to ever let governments attack, despite the widespread trauma its abuse can cause. Liberal Australians as one have marveled at the stupidity of Charlton Heston’s infamous stubbornness on gun laws, but that tenth schooner of beer? It will quite literally only be taken from our cold dead hands.

UPDATE: Michael Pascoe adds his own brutally scathing comments on O’Farrell’s reform package in the SMH.

A month is a long time in politics for TurnbullMalcolm

TurnbullMalcolm, 5:07PM, April 5th 2010:

I have announced I will not recontest Wentworth at the election this year

TurnbullMalcolm, 7:41PM, April 30th 2010:

Have announced today I will run again in Wentworth.

Turnbull is framing his backflip as a response to the Prime Minister’s backflip on the ETS:

Over the last two terms of Parliament, whether as a backbencher, a Minister or as Leader of the Opposition, I have always stood up for my political convictions.

With the exception, it would seem, for April 2010, during which he was determined to give the game away.

The very name of Malcolm Turnbull’s albatross

Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir of his participation in the Australian Republican Movement’s campaign for a republic, Fighting for the Republic, was published in 1999. I wonder, when he was writing the words below, whether he had even the slightest inkling of what the coming years would bring (p.4):

When we launched the ARM, the monarchists quickly retaliated by forming a group called Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM). Its chairman was Lloyd Waddy, a Sydney barrister, and a number of well-known conservatives were among its founders, including Dame Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of Sydney University, and, more improbably, Michael Kirby, very much a small-‘l’ liberal and President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

The ACM was pretty ineffective until it hired Tony Abbott as its executive director in 1993. Abbott had been a speechwriter for Liberal leader John Hewson and was an energetic, if somewhat erratic, advocate of the status quo.

And there is this (p.26):

The monarchist campaign was largely directed by Tony Abbott, who had now left his job with the ACM to take up a seat in Parliament. One of the strategy documents prepared by Abbott encouraged the monarchists to attack me personally. ‘As their public face Turnbull is arrogant, rude and obnoxious – a filthy rich merchant banker, out of touch with real Australians. He is the Gordon Gekko of Australian politics.’

Strong words. I wonder how both parties view their interactions during the late 1990’s now? Certainly Abbott would likely view them with a healthy dose of triumphalism. It seems that the life and times of Malcolm Turnbull for the past fifteen years or so have been bookended by two quite separate and quite personal defeats by the Federal Member for Warringah.

The Member for Wentworth’s last huzzah

Let’s try and be fair and reasonable for just a moment. The Member for Wentworth is a pretty damned talented individual. Despite his predilection for despotism and bloody-mindedness, and his tendency to carp in Opposition, I think that most people would agree that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull had the capacity to make a significant and lasting contribution to public life in this country. With the announcement of his resignation today, however, all that seems to lie purely in the realm of small-l liberal fantasy about “what might have been”.

When the unifying influence of John Howard disappeared from public life in November 2007, the division inherent within the Liberal/National Coalition was laid bare for all to see. The demands of government are quite different to the demands of Opposition. Without the binding force of an electorally successful leader, the underlying rabble re-emerged. Turnbull’s own aborted stint as Opposition Leader was troubled, but hardly without merit. He was crushed between the popularity of a competent political operator in Kevin Rudd, freshly ensconced in government, and a party riven brutally along ideological lines. He needed an issue that he could run with; to nail his colours to the mast. Perhaps unwisely – he decided that issue was the government’s ETS. This invited those demanding action on climate change to view the Opposition Leader as something of a flawed hero. Those favouring inaction viewed this only as the final straw.

The closeness of the ensuing leadership ballot that deposed Turnbull and elevated Abbott indicates the extent of the Coalition’s political disintegration. If Turnbull had not nominated for the leadership, it seems almost certain that Joe Hockey, his small-l liberal compadre, would have won the ballot. As it happens, he nominated, splitting the small-l liberal vote and defeating his popular colleague. Turnbull then lost the run-off ballot to Abbott by a single vote.

With his opponent still clinging doggedly to his position on the ETS months after the fact, Abbott evidently felt that he could not allow his adversary to return to the front bench, even when a plum opportunity emerged for a reshuffle last week.

It seems that things could so easily have been different for Malcolm. The times, as it happens, did not suit him.

Barnaby Joyce, policy whacko esquire

Despite the resumption of parliament, political debate has been muted this week; with the news dominated by a few unfortunate seconds of video footage of a Macquarie Bank worker and a legal case featuring one (or is that two?) of Australia’s favourite national songs. Such is the flippant, transitory and ultimately tabloid nature of modern news.

One intervention into the headlines worthy of debate was made by Shadow Finance Minister Barnaby Joyce. Appearing at the National Press Club for the first time as a seriously senior member of the Opposition, Joyce delivered a performance that undoubtedly left Liberal Party members across the country scratching their heads and squirming in their seats. Michelle Grattan reports on Joyce’s most questionable comments in The Age:

”We are giving $150 million to the World Bank. Fair enough. $50 million of that is to deal with the food inflationary aspects in the Third World. Well, why doesn’t Kevin Rudd deal with the food inflationary aspects in this world, you know? That would be handy,” he said.

Senator Joyce said: ”We’ve got to be cautious when we’re borrowing money from overseas to send back to overseas … because we’ve got to pay the money back.”

Putting our Macquarie Bank staffer to shame, in a matter of seconds, Tony Abbott’s right-hand man dropped a whole swag full of clunkers right there. For starters – Joyce’s rant rode roughshod over official Coalition policy on foreign aid, forcing the Opposition Leader and his Deputy to issue terse “corrections” on his behalf. It also raised serious questions about his ability to be the senior spokesperson for such a broad, sensitive policy portfolio. To compare the problems that Australia has with access to food to the problems that countries in the Third World have with access to food is quite simply, outrageous. That Joyce saw fit to raise the prospect of abandoning or reducing Australia’s small obligations to the international needy smacks of narrow, parochial self-interest, reflecting quite poorly indeed upon his character.

The Shadow Finance Minister’s financial credentials also warrant some serious questioning. Particularly in the wake of the financial crisis experienced over the last couple of years, national governments across the world have surged into debt. Some national governments are worse off than others, but what is readily apparent is that Australia’s net financial position, considering our projected ability to repay outstanding debt, is superior to just about any other nation out there. It is not strange, wrong or inadvisable for Australia to be in debt; certainly not any more the case than it is for Harvey Norman or Woolworths to borrow money, or for you or I to take out a mortgage to purchase property, at home or abroad.

Joyce seems to be suggesting that it may be inadvisable to borrow money “overseas” if the money is to be spent “overseas”, ostensibly on people who are not Australians. What sort of short-sighted, hermit kingdom mentality does that betray? What miniscule price does Joyce put on the lives of people that Australia’s aid assists, let alone Australia’s international reputation and renown as the land of the “fair go”?

Frankly, it was a Sarah Palin-esque moment, with a dash of Pauline on the side. As this year’s federal election looms large, Tony Abbott is likely going to come to rue the day that he decided that he wanted Barnaby Joyce to serve as one of his right-hand men. If, as Palin famously suggested, she can see Russia from Alaska, then this week’s events have proven (for any still in doubt) that Barnaby Joyce can really, truly, indubitably see the Third World from rural Queensland.

Evidently, if Australia is in debt, it can all rot.

ELSEWHERE: It’s hard to go past Damien Kingsbury’s surgical dissection of Joyce’s folly folly, also in The Age. To summarise:

Without any prompting, Joyce appears to have wandered off into policy whacko-land.

So who’s sick of hearing about Malcolm Turnbull?

Well, I certainly am. Bear in mind that this is not an expression of the usual, boring party-political animus, but a growing frustration with the media’s fascination with Turnbull’s leadership difficulties and the Opposition’s inability to present itself as anything remotely like a cohesive unit. Every new opinion poll re-iterating what we all already know about the Opposition Leader’s popularity is splashed daily across the headlines and consumes valuable broadcast time during the nightly news. Every gormless quip from Wilson Tuckey or one of his muddle-headed mates is bandied about in the media as if it represented a personal challenge to Malcolm Turnbull cut from the very cloth of Mario Puzo’s Italian suit. Yes, Turnbull’s numbers are bad but have been for some time. Yes, Turnbull does not command the complete and unequivocal support of the conservative party-room, but then nobody has since the former member for Bennelong was ridden into the ground by his supporters in 2007.

The absence of a strong, unifying presence within the Federal Coalition party-room has proven decisive since the conservatives left government. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that John Howard’s electoral success evidently provided the glue that bound the conservative and “small-l” liberal branches of the Coalition together tightly over the course of the last decade, through hell and high water. Despite the numerous individual qualities that Malcolm Turnbull brings to the role of Opposition Leader, he does not have the ability to provide that glue; especially not in the current state of the election cycle. He is strong-willed, not particularly consultative, and is pulling the Liberal and National parties in directions that a good proportion of them just don’t want to go.

In any case, while I don’t doubt there is a story to the ongoing speculation about the security of Turnbull’s position, surely it does not need to dominate the headlines in the way that it has. It seems to me that some conservatives in the Coalition party-room must be over-feeding trash talk to their mates in the media, effectively pushing their own agendas ahead of the agenda of their parties. How the Coalition believes it can operate as an Opposition with any effectiveness while all this is going on in the public eye is beyond me. Either Malcolm Turnbull should be granted a robust level of support, or a leadership vote should be held to validate the strength of his position within the party-room and either silence any dissenters, or produce a more agreeable leader.

Enough is enough. If even I as a Labor voter am dissatisfied with the capacity of the Opposition to provide a meaningful foil to the government, I shudder to think what non-partisan voters think. Democracy in Australia is being further tarnished every day that this distracting hullabaloo is allowed to continue.

Finally, finally, finally, he calls it a day

So it’s done then. After nineteen months of near incessant speculation, Peter Costello has finally announced his intention to step down as the member for Higgins and resume his life as a private citizen. Personally, I am deeply relieved. No, not deeply relieved that a resurgent Coalition would surge to government some day in the future with the former Treasurer at its helm. Deeply relieved that the media can perhaps at this juncture resume talking about issues that really matter, and that this once important man can be allowed to move on with the rest of his life as an ordinary joe. For the good of all of us.

I am typically not the sort of person who gets all partisan when it comes time to eulogise a former politician. There is little doubting that Peter Costello will be remembered as one of our most historically significant Federal Treasurers. He was a great wit, and probably the best parliamentary performer of his generation. His achievements in relation to debt retirement during the first half of his reign are significant and should be remembered as such. His role in selling the GST to a notoriously sceptical Australian public was frankly worldbeating – when I think for a quiet moment about democracy in Australia and the nation’s attitude towards politicians, I can hardly believe that Howard and Costello pulled that election victory off. This sort of reform really does make one believe that people can accept difficult and distasteful reform if you do a good enough job of explaining the reasons why.

And now for the failures. As Treasurer, Costello and his brethren scattered hay all over the place instead of making it while the sun shone brightly during the course of the last five years. All across the country, people are literally screaming for better infrastructure and public services, and have been for some time. It has now reached the point where people are losing faith in the power of government to provide or even facilitate. The Howard Government’s performance on infrastructure and public services was inexplicably poor when one considers the good revenue times that it enjoyed for so many years. There was not nearly enough investment for the future while Peter Costello ruled the roost in Treasury. There were far too many handouts and politicised spending measures.

Peter Costello sadly also proved himself to be a failure as a leader. Under Howard, for the most part at least, he was a willing, loyal and able follower. Circumstances proved that he did not have what it takes to lead. He failed to force Howard’s hand in relation to the leadership during the last decade. He failed to scent the winds of change as Kevin Rudd emerged as Opposition Leader, even as his government was being strangled by its own foolish industrial relations crusade. And when it came to the crunch, and his party was finally willing to embrace him in a time of desperation, he turned them away. Kim Beazley was always unfairly lampooned as not having the ticker for the job, but in reality, he was infinitely more up for it than Howard’s golden boy.

As a politician, Peter Costello was always in John Howard’s sidecar, always looking on as the real hero of the conservatives lead the charge against Labor. Despite his numerous successes and indeed laudable achievements in public life, this is probably what he will always be remembered for.

Throwing in the towel weakly when the crown was his for the taking, just an enfeebled Robin for his crusading, calculating master.

A wafer-thin Coalition?

Purportedly, one of the positive traits of the Liberal Party as an ideological entity is that it stands up staunchly for the individual. While the Labor Party enforces a very strict brand of collective party room discipline when it comes to parliamentary voting, the Liberal Party has traditionally been viewed as being a bit more tolerant of members who express dissenting views, either publicly or in parliament. This approach takes on an additional level of complexity when one also considers the Liberal Party’s coalition with the National Party federally, and the practically mandatory requirement within modern Australian parliamentary politics for leaders to maintain ironclad control over their own parties (or at least appear to).

Obviously, the rough ideology of the National Party overlaps to a certain extent with that of the Liberal Party, particularly on social or “moral” issues, where both parties tend strongly towards the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, it would clearly be a mistake to assume that the unity that the Coalition exhibited during the lifetime of the Howard Government was the natural state of the relationship. It now seems that the glow of power provided ostensibly by the popularity of John Howard in the role of Prime Minister was the glue that held these uncomfortable allies together. Howard also had the added benefit of being a Liberal whose views were generally conservative, and flexibly pragmatic enough to command the support of the National Party. He was not averse to engaging in acts of rank populism from time to time in order to keep his rural mates on board, even if they did not always sit comfortably with his own ideological views.

By comparison, it is also becoming ever clearer that if John Howard was a ready-made uniter as a leader of the Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull is a ready-made divider. Turnbull is a polarising figure within his own party, and he is even moreso in the context of the broader Coalition. Socially, he is to the left of the majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party, and of course the parliamentary National Party. In terms of economic views, he is to the liberal right of the entire parliamentary National Party, his views etched indelibly by his experiences in the business world and a life of urban affluence.

In trying to compete with the Rudd Government, whose party room discipline thus far has been comparable to that of the Howard Government in terms of ruthlessness, Turnbull has been trying to enforce a similar level of discipline. He is also trying hard to have things his way, as any leader would do, but problematically, his views do not align very well with those of his party or indeed his party’s coalition partner. Clearly, he can not have it both ways; something has to give, either the primacy of Turnbull’s personal ideology as leader or the party-room discipline he is trying to enforce.

Malcolm Turnbull is going to have to defuse this situation, and quickly, or else either his leadership or the federal coalition agreement with the National Party are going to be irrevocably damaged. He can not have his cake and eat it too, as he did in the private sector. He needs to compromise on his own views, or give the reins to somebody who can.

ELSEWHERE: More from Mark over at Larvatus Prodeo.

The Howard Years, Part One

The first installment of the ABC’s much awaited series The Howard Years screened this evening, and needless to say, I tuned in. The fairly relentless promotional material for the program promised that it would shed some light on the Howard Government years and offer up some real insights into the different personalities whose involvement shaped its progress. This first program focused squarely on the Coalition’s first term in office from 1996 to 1998, covering in particular the Port Arthur massacre and the government’s response to it, the government’s response to Wik, the emergence of Pauline Hanson, the Corrigans/MUA waterfront confrontation, and the introduction of the GST.

The show opened with a number of key political figures from the Howard era describing (or attempting to describe!) John Howard in a single word. “Tenacious” and “determined” seemed to pop up more than once, as did “conviction”. Bruce Baird got a bit excited and used three words, “a consummate politician”. Tony Abbott offered up “magnificent”, in an amazingly snivelling fashion. Peter Costello settled for “relentless”, albeit with some difficulty and obviously a lot of forethought. Indeed, the careful and methodical way in which he framed his contributions does make one think that he is trying to preserve his legacy for possible future use in the political sphere.

Setting aside Christopher Pearson’s noxiously pessimistic (and as it turns out, way off the mark) preview of the show in The Australian for a moment, I think the program did serve as a potent reminder of a few things. First off, the Prime Minister probably did not receive the credit he was due for acting on a tightening of gun laws following the Port Arthur massacre. As John Anderson pointedly mentioned on the program, even he at the time, owned what John Howard would consider an arsenal of weapons. There must have been a lot of pressure on Howard from the National Party not to act, and turning on his own constituencies in the way that he did took a certain degree of righteous political courage.

Secondly, it is increasingly looking as though Peter Costello is going to come out of the The Howard Years smelling of roses and with a golden halo hovering above his head. He has already, probably rightly to be fair, been credited with kickstarting the decision for the Liberal Party to preference One Nation last, behind Labor. John Howard neglected to offer his perspective on the exact circumstances regarding the decision to preference One Nation last, so I think we have to assume that had not yet decided to do so when Costello pre-empted him by announcing he would put One Nation last in his own seat of Higgins. Costello also took the opportunity to take a swing at Howard for failing to tackle the Pauline Hanson issue until seven months after her maiden speech, and for hijacking his launch of the GST.

Thirdly, the Howard Government’s treatment of the Corrigans/MUA waterfront affair does not appear any less ruthless or ideologically motivated a decade on. Peter Reith, whose contributions were featured quite liberally in the program, made light of the dispute and his role in it, and frankly came off looking flippant and more out of touch than he has ever appeared. I am not sure if the fact that he has been away from the Howard Government and his old mates for a while now has tempered his recollection of events, but he seemed to be quite pleased and amused with himself when recalling the dispute.

Finally, its remains quite stupefying that the Howard Government’s GST crusade was kicked off by the Prime Minister without explicit sanction from his Treasurer and Finance Minister. Presumably the policy process became a bit tighter as the years went on, but when a major initiative with far-reaching political implications is announced by a leader without endorsement by or extensive discussion with the senior members of their team, the government is sick. Perhaps to a greater extent than anybody really appreciated at the time, the Howard Government ran into the 1998 election campaign on pure political adrenalin: battered, bruised and off the rails. One wonders how history would have been different if the Coalition’s lack of control of its own trajectory was more evident to the public then.

ELSEWHERE:More over at Larvatus Prodeo and Public Opinion.

When in doubt, attack the ABC

I note with interest that Senator Eric Abetz has apparently attacked the ABC’s Q & A program in a Senate estimate committee hearing today. The full Hansard transcript will probably be worth a review before we pass total judgement, although the following report from AAP raises a couple of interesting opening questions:

Figures show that over the course of the program’s 2008 season, 32 per cent of the audience was made up of Labor supporters, while just 24 per cent supported the coalition.

In other words, the representation of Coalition supporters in the audience for this show in 2008 was on average 75% of that of the number of Labor supporters present. But is this really a big deal?

It might be worth reminding Senator Abetz that the Coalition only has 78% of the number of seats in the House of Representatives that Labor has in the current federal parliament. I wonder if he is also concerned about this imbalance.

The Coalition quite frankly should not be expected to be entitled to equal representation to Labor in the audience of this program. It is only entitled to receive representation proportional to the amount of support it enjoys in the nation at large. Senator Abetz might like to believe that this is 50/50; but this is nothing but a petty distortion. The senator should get on with the job with helping his party become an effective opposition, and cease bashing the national broadcaster when it is not particularly warranted.