The assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Without doubt, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was acting in Australia’s national interest when he decided to expel an Israeli representative from the Mossad from Australia. He was, of course, acting on the outcomes of Australian intelligence service investigations into the use of Australian passports in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The expulsion is hardly, in itself, an earth-shattering action. Australia can not be seen to simply allow foreign administrations to openly corrupt the integrity of the Australian passport as an internationally reliable identity document. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has already played down the action, which can only reasonably be regarded as level-headed and just.

Whilst Israel itself is playing down the action, of course, local representatives from the Israel lobby are mercilessly playing it up. It is as if Stephen Smith announced he was putting a price on the head of Benjamin Netanyahu. Federal Labor’s member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, announced today that he personally condemned his government’s action. Greg Sheridan pronounced the action “very poor” and “very feeble”, labelling it a “bad mistake” and “an overreaction”. John-Michael Howson, a Melbourne entertainment identity who extreme and unbalanced attitude towards Islam has already been highlighted by Media Watch, was quick to announce his disgust with the action. Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop put her foot in it this afternoon by employing the diplomatically ingenious argument that everyone forges passports anyway, including the Australian Government. Bishop was forced to embarrassedly walk away from her comments this evening.

Fundamentally, this is really very, very simple. What is at stake is the integrity of the document that is used to represent Australian citizens to the world. Australia can not be seen to tolerate the manipulation of the document and its use for dubious ends.

If the folks mentioned above checked their biases at the door when considering this issue, I am certain they would reach the same conclusion. How would Danby, Howson, Sheridan and Bishop react if, say, it was reasonably believed by ASIO that the Iranian Government had used and manipulated Australian passports in a hit on a Zionist leader? Would they have a different opinion?

Or do they not care about what foreign governments do with our passports?

867,034 more reasons why the season is overdue

The latest scandal to emerge featuring Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York is shocking in its very predictability. Isn’t Britain just a wee bit embarrassed about the blundering extensions of its monarchy? It would be worth a right good chuckle from an antipodean standpoint if it weren’t for the fact that our ties to the monarchy remain all too real. Our supplication to the tedious nonsense of the British royal family remains.

The Prime Minister has promised the nation that a referendum will be held “in due season”. Will he promise to hold a plebiscite on the issue prior to or simultaneously with the 2013 election if re-elected? If he will not, I don’t really feel that Federal Labor can any longer credibly claim to support an Australian republic.

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.

The Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT)

The Rudd Government has been somewhat guilty of dithering, back-pedalling, and policy cowardice in the last couple of weeks, particular on climate change. Various commentators have honed in on the government’s immediate response to the Henry Tax Review as another policy cop-out, adopting as it does just 4 (2.9%) of the review’s 138 recommendations.

While I am somewhat disappointed in how the government has rushed out its response and the recommendations it has chosen to dodge, there is no denying that the Resource Super Profits Tax [PDF] is a rather politically bold step for a Federal Labor government to be taking. The introduction of a 40% uniform tax on the profits garnered from resources extracted is guaranteed to enrage the Barnett Government in Western Australia, not to mention mining tycoons and lobby groups [PDF] such as the Minerals Council of Australia. The Opposition has not wasted any time in labeling the RSPT the government’s “second great big new tax”, but the key difference with this measure is that it is a tax that most Australians won’t be paying for.

In any case, if like me you’ve been sitting around wondering whether or not this tax is really the right thing for the country, this graph probably tells you just about all you need to know (p.47) [PDF]:

Graph

Surely it is only fair that the Australian people fare better out of all this plundering.

The great moral challenge of our generation – junked

The behaviour of the Rudd Government during the last couple of weeks has been, simply put, erratic. There’s been a whole lotta junking going on. The election promise to build 260 new childcare centres in schools has been junked. The Prime Minister’s commitment to hold three, independently regulated debates during the election campaign has been junked. Any further talk from the government regarding a possible federal bill of rights has been – that’s right – junked. And to cap it all off, the policy that Federal Labor framed as its response to the “great moral challenge of our generation”, its carbon pollution reduction scheme or ETS, has been rather ingraciously junked, until 2013 at least.

There are a number of plausible political reasons as to why we are seeing this pattern of behaviour. The first is the fact that this is all happening relatively early in the election year. There is undoubtedly a push from strategists close to the Federal Cabinet to get any bad news the government has out the door now, presumably a good six months from any federal election. Secondly – we are very much in pre-budget territory. It is highly likely that pressure from Treasury and Lindsay Tanner’s Department of Finance and Deregulation has driven the government’s decisions in relation to childcare centres and emissions trading. For various reasons, neither proposal appeared to be going anywhere fast in terms of implementation. This being the case, it obviously didn’t make a great deal of sense for the funding for these proposals to be incorporated into this year’s Budget, which is already comfortably in the red due to the government’s stimulus measures. Thirdly, these announcements have been made during a period when the Rudd Government was finalising the central plank of its re-election strategy for later this year: health reform. Despite the intrastringence of Western Australia’s Barnett Government, Federal Labor came out of the negotiations with the states looking like it has achieved something quite worthwhile. One would imagine that some advisors would be of the view that the good news on health had the capacity to “absorb” a bit of bad news from other quarters, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned.

The government’s decision to delay its emissions trading scheme further may prove to have been a scuttle too far. It looks set to alienate some of its base. I don’t always agree with Paul Kelly, often finding him too dogmatic once he has made up his mind, but I find myself agreeing with a lot of his combative column in today’s Australian:

In truth, Rudd has lost his nerve. This is a political and policy retreat. He says the ETS remains “the most effective and least expensive” means of combating greenhouse gas emissions. His tacticians will call this smart and they may be right. But it betrays a government weak to its core. Understand what this is about: it is giving Rudd a political strategy to maximise his re-election by removing the only mechanism he had to deliver his ETS policy. He has chosen safe politics over policy delivery. Any voter who believed Rudd was genuine about climate change needs to reassess.

The rhetoric from the government – in particular the Prime Minister – has been just too big on this issue for it to be credibly delayed for three years. A good government does not delay its response to the “great moral challenge of our generation” merely because it can not get its legislation through parliament. A good government fights for such a cause using all the legitimate tools of persuasion and negotiation at its disposal, including mechanisms like double dissolution triggers should they prove necessary.

Truthfully, I can abide the other disappointing announcements mentioned above, but on climate change, the Prime Minister has effectively asked its supporters to defend the indefensible. This transcends the question of whether the government has the courage of its convictions – does the Rudd Government really even have the conviction to decisively act on climate change?

Is climate change a burning issue and a call to action, or is it merely a launchpad for rhetorical flourishes?

ELSEWHERE: Even Dennis Shanahan is making sense.

A somewhat belated caveat emptor to you too

Dr Allan Hawke completed his Review of the Administration of the Home Insulation Program on 6th April 2010, and his final report [PDF] was just released to the public, coinciding with the Rudd Government’s decision to terminate its insulation rebate scheme. What is clear from Dr Hawke’s report is that the overriding imperative for a speedy implementation of the program undermined its integrity.

From page 28:

The Early Installation Guidelines required that homeowners arrange a minimum of two quotes and pay their installer upfront. These requirements were intended to generate householder ownership over installer selection and potentially to drive competitive pricing. However, they were dispensed with at the full program launch in July 2009 as they were thought to slow the program and were inconsistent with the stimulus imperative.

And on the following page:

… the lack of an upfront payment and no requirement for quotes (between June and November 2009) meant there was little incentive for householders to take the normal level of responsibility for the quality and performance of the installers.

It certainly sounds as though the Rudd Government’s drive to stimulate the economy actively encouraged the suspension of common sense by homeowners. “Buyer beware”, indeed.

ELSEWHERE: Robert Merkel laments a decent idea gone awry at Larvatus Prodeo.

Putting the country to rights

Today the Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland released the government’s response to the National Human Rights Consultation, a process which was originally launched in December 2008 and delivered its final report [PDF] to the government on 30th September 2009. It is doubtful that too many people within the human rights lobby are going to be pleased. Recommendation 18 of the report, the adoption of a federal Human Rights Act, has been point blank rejected by the Rudd Government.

The Attorney-General summarises the government’s position on this matter in his Foreword to the government’s response – a so-called National Human Rights Framework:

The Framework does not include a Human Rights Act or Charter. While there is overwhelming support for human rights in our community, many Australians remain concerned about the possible consequences of such an Act. The Government believes that the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that as far as possible unites, rather than divides, our community. The Government is committed to positive and practical change to promote and protect human rights. Advancing the cause of human rights in Australia would not be served by an approach that is divisive or creates an atmosphere of uncertainty or suspicion in the community.

Personally I am not entirely sold on the idea of a federal Human Rights Act. However, I am somewhat confused by the assertion that the introduction of a national act would be somehow “divisive” or would create an atmosphere of “uncertainty or suspicion”. Surely one could argue quite effectively that the absence of any legal bedrock on human rights in Australia is a fairly considerable source of division and uncertainty? A federal Human Rights Act would lay Australia’s human rights cards on the table for all to see. Presently, is it not the case that Australia’s human rights cards are scattered across the states and territories, indistinct and not clearly defined in any national sense? We seem to be dwelling in an “she’ll be right” environment of implied rights, which works quite well for the white bread majority of us who are in practice unlikely to have their rights impinged, but probably doesn’t hold up so well for those on the fringes. Considering recent developments in indigenous affairs policy, the plight of Aboriginal Australians is a case in point.

The framework document does follow through on some worthwhile measures suggested by the consultation, including the application of a new “human rights test” to new bills passing through parliament. The government has opted for a cop-out as far as the ongoing human debate is concerned however, pledging to review the operation of the framework only in 2014 – a date that seems rather cleverly calculated to fall after not only the forthcoming election but the one after that as well. I guess that’s political code for “we didn’t really want to talk about human rights in this election campaign, and we’re definitely not going to talk about it in the next one”.

All things considered, it’s hard not to view the government’s performance on this issue as rather weak, and the outcome here as an indictment of the Rudd Government’s use of the public consultation as a mechanism for guiding policy. If you’re going to make public consultations part of your modus operandi as a government, you better well make sure that you provide a robust explanation for why you have flatly rejected the recommendations of the people you are consulting.

ELSEWHERE: Kim at Larvatus Prodeo, Andrew Norton, Woolly Days.

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.

LOSTNEARFOSSILCREEK

It seems as though the entire Opposition has managed to get itself lost near Fossil Creek. At the end of last week, they were riding high on the home insulation scandal, delighting in the prospect of blaming the Environment Minister and the Prime Minister for deaths caused by dodgy insulation start-ups. The “oppose everything” routine was going great guns. The poll numbers for Tony Abbott were looking bad for Labor, and the Prime Minister felt the need to indulge in some extraordinary self-flagellation on Insiders last Sunday.

What a difference a week makes. This week, the Rudd Government has come out playing ball in election mode, announcing major initiatives in education and health. It is looking like Labor’s health reform plan will form the cornerstone of its re-election campaign. Despite some general public reservations about whether this plan was a process that should have already been well underway, people know that big changes need to be made to the way in which health services are provided in this country. When push comes to shove, health as an issue trumps most other issues out there, and the government’s plan is going to prove difficult to counter; unless, of course, the states and territories don’t play nice.

The timing of Tony Abbott’s barmy disappearance into Central Australia could not really have been worse. I’m not sure if his trip was planned significantly in advance or not, but it should have been gently postponed given the political developments of last week. In his absence, the government has had a free-hit, launching policies and looking positive, while Abbott scratches about in the outback, looking unkempt and managing to make an arse of himself by getting lost. His “oppose everything” schtick is starting to wear a bit thin, especially when it is phoned in from no-man’s land and he is offering no serious policy alternative.

I don’t doubt that the Opposition Leader could learn a lot from engaging more closely with Aboriginal communities, but it was very, very questionable politics to do so while he had the government looking like it might collapse on the canvas after a tough week. Federal Labor has now regained control of the news cycle, and I would not be surprised if the polls in the next couple of weeks reflect that.

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.