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.

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.

On the Liberal Party, schisms, and curious steampunk machines

In considering how events have played out with respect to the leadership of the Liberal Party, a certain image springs to mind for me. For just a moment, picture the federal party-room of the Liberal Party in your mind’s eye as an elaborate, archaic, steampunk-ish contraption giving off heat and billowing steam, emitting all manner of clanking and wheezing sounds. There’s brass, there’s rust, there’s lint, there’s probably even some asbestos in there somewhere. It is an engine that has survived beyond its time and in some dubious way evolved, with strange, artificial improvements bolted higgledy-piggledy around the exterior. If you squint you might just make out what appears suspiciously to be microchips “growing” under a moist alcove, or what could well be a miniature LED screen replaying the tumultuous events of the last week or so over and over again, on silent repeat. Needless to say, despite the odd snatch of modern bling, this is a machine that doesn’t hum like your new home computer; it sounds kinda like a Datsun that hasn’t been serviced since 1982.

This curious machine has taken all the ingredients generated by the ructions of the last week and spat out a response to the leadership question, but it is the wrong response. A 42-41 decision is hardly a decision, particularly given that three likely Hockey/Turnbull supporters could not vote (Kelly O’Dwyer, Paul Fletcher, Fran Bailey). It doesn’t seem to be the response a majority of the party-room actually wanted. It doesn’t seem to be the response the eventual victor expected. It is, practically speaking, an non-sensical result. I am not sure that it really matters if the Liberal Party primarily blames Turnbull’s virtuoso but unconsultative approach to the CPRS for what they have now, or Hockey’s bizarrely principled vacillation on the precipice of his triumph. Oddly enough, both men proved their mettle and that they were worthy leaders since late last week, but still failed. What matters in the wash-up is that the moderate, liberal arm of the Liberal Party was holding all the cards over the conservatives and indeed had done so for most of the period since November 2007, but in a collective brainfart of truly epic proportions, they’ve managed to trade in all their aces for zippo, in one fell swoop.

The climate change issue has proven to be the most sublime wedge issue imaginable for the Rudd Government. Numbers-wise, the Coalition has been riven effectively right down the centre by the government’s CPRS, with the liberals and conservatives who played so nicely together during the Howard years now at each other’s throats. The marriage of convenience that holds the Coalition together has been ruthlessly exposed by the government as the shemozzle it really is. There is no effective consensus position for the Liberal Party on climate change, and no successful leader to call the shots first and sticky-tape the party together later, like there was during the Howard Government years. Dennis Glover does a fine job in today’s The Australian of spelling out why this issue so lethal for the Coalition, and why the Abbott Opposition needs to work out a credible position on climate change, and fast:

The evening news reports of the retreat of Greenland’s ice caps and the advance of solar power projects across the deserts of California will have far greater electoral effect than any theories Nick Minchin or Andrew Bolt try to sell on Lateline or Insiders.

Even cautious politicians such as Kevin Rudd are helping voters join the dots when the temperature gets above 40C.

For the coming months, a few predictions. I am extremely doubtful that we will see a double dissolution election. The Prime Minister, already sensing he has been gifted the upper hand by the Coalition’s bungling and the public’s goodwill, will not risk the ire of the electorate by pushing for an early climate change election. The Nationals and the Minchinites, having surprisingly emerged victorious with their candidate, are now perhaps just a little unsettled. Their “Anybody But Turnbull” approach has yielded the cut-through candidate that most gels with their own political philosophy, but has arguably as much capacity to polarise the electorate as anyone in the party. I sincerely doubt the Liberal Party pollsters are thrilled by the collected wisdom of the party-room. The first “post-spill” polls that emerge will be very interesting.

The moderates within the Liberal Party, having fielded two not unpopular candidates in the spill but still managed to lose, are now too enfeebled to challenge the leadership result or pursue the matter further. They will not speak up in support of the government’s CPRS. They will have to grit their teeth and mumble the Howard-era lines that they don’t actually believe in until the leadership changes again. Some may even decide to walk away from the party at the 2011 election. The rest of them will be hoping, of course, that their junk-tech party-room machine can, with a hiss and a puff of brackish smoke, spit out the right candidate for a modern Liberal Party the next time that the opportunity presents.

Which, in all likelihood, will be after Tony Abbott loses the next election.

Is the emissions trading scheme doomed?

After months of earnest assertions to the contrary, the Rudd Government has finally caved in to the pressure and postponed its emissions trading scheme. Although the nation’s worsening economic situation no doubt accounted for a substantial component of that pressure, its certainly fair to say that the government’s backdown represents a political victory for the Opposition. For some time now Malcolm Turnbull has been promoting the postponement cause, and despite the fact that his party has engineered yet another schizophrenic change of mind on the issue, refusing to back the government’s revised approach to emissions-trading even though it owes much to its own, it would appear that he has won this little stoush with the Prime Minister.

Personally, I think there are credible cases that can be made for either side of the debate. It goes without saying that while the economy was getting a pummeling, introducing a new, somewhat risky mechanism that threatened to impact profitability and therefore jobs for thousands of Australians was a politically dubious step to take. While I accept the fact that the climate change science demands swift and effective action, most people (myself included) instinctively feel that a delay of a year or two is probably not going to end life on Earth as we know it. In ideal conditions I would love to see action now, but we are living in far from ideal conditions. The government has already spent billions of dollars during the past nine months, stimulating the economy and sending the country into a significant amount of debt in the process. It must have a serious concern that it commands neither the requisite economic or political capital to launch the emissions-trading scheme during this time of crisis.

On the flip side of the coin, one really does have to question the Rudd Government’s commitment to climate change. The science calls for bold steps, not delays or a pragmatic watering down. I frankly don’t understand why the government has only now decided to cave in to the Opposition on this issue. If it really is the case that the economic situation is so dire that implementing the ETS would be unsustainable, the government should have known this six months ago. When economists the world over were saying six months ago that it is likely going to take over a year to get out of this slump, the government should have been paying attention and started sounding the alarm bells then. Instead, it continued to glibly peddle the line that the ETS would be implemented as scheduled, despite the fact that the global financial system was crumbling all around it. Putting the science aside completely for just a second, we would have to conclude that this exemplifies poor judgement.

While we have an Opposition full of climate change sceptics and opportunists and a government with such a wavering commitment to the issue, it’s hard to be very confident that we are eventually going to get an outcome. At this rate, I would certainly not be putting money on a functioning emissions-trading scheme being implemented in Australia any time soon – whether 2010, 2011 or 2012.

Senator Penny Wong – unfashionable but right?

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

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

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

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

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

Wong then goes on to reiterate the case for action:

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

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

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

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

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

Federal Labor, meet rock and hard place

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

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

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