Time to put the miners in charge?

Whichever way you look at it, it is difficult to avoid the fact that the Rudd Government’s botched framing of the Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) was one of the key factors behind both the Gillard “putsch” and Labor’s poor result at the polls on Saturday August 21. The Minerals Council of Australia, with the help of some of the deepest pockets in Australian business, rivalled the success of the union movement’s anti-WorkChoices advertising during the 2007 federal election campaign. In terms of opinion-making, one could even argue that the mining lobby’s campaign was more singularly effective than that run by either the ALP or the Coalition during the election campaign proper.

Immediately after dethroning Rudd, Julia Gillard was compelled to seek a temporary advertising “truce” with the mining industry, which is testament to the brutal impact the campaign was having on Labor. She then wasted little time brokering an agreement with the big miners on a watered down regime, carving up the RSPT into a 30% Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) for iron ore and coal projects, and a proposed addendum to the existing 40% Petroleum Resource Rent Tax (PRRT) for oil and gas projects. This deal “stopped the rot” politically and placated the most vocal amongst the mining lobby, but realistically, a lot of damage had already been sustained to Labor’s credibility in the minds of voters. Furthermore, vocal billionaires Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and LNP backer Clive Palmer continued to publicly attack the government, and the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, representing many smaller mining companies, quite vocally (and rightly) criticised Labor for not inviting it to the negotiating table for the revised regime.

So with the miners having pretty much dictated play on one of the most hotly contested political issues of 2010, its rather interesting that BHP Biliton CEO Marius Kloppers is evidently now seeking to do the same on climate change. Kloppers, strangely enough, is now making the case for unilateral climate action independent of other countries, and for a local carbon price to be established. It is quite a remarkable intervention, particularly when one considers that previously the mining industry had by and large toed the conservative line on climate change, at best recommending that Australia only act on climate change as part of a binding multilateral agreement.

Given the pussy-footing and focus-group gabbling generally favoured by the major parties with respect to climate change policy during the past year, it really does make you wonder whether we should just cut out the middlemen and middlewomen in parliament altogether, and let the mining industry run the country? When one considers the influential interventions made by the miners during the last six months of politricking and electioneering, once gets the sense they already do, at least in a de facto sense. Perhaps it is time to end the charade and install Mr. Kloppers, Mr. Palmer or Mr. Forrest as our “Prime Miner” in chief?

At least we know they’ll run some killer ads come 2013.

Wolf howls, beer coasters, small targets

It’s fair to say that supporters of the centre-left can not plausibly be heartened by the actions of Julia Gillard’s actions since her coup d’état. As Michelle Grattan points out in the Sydney Morning Herald today, the rumblings we are hearing from the Gillard Government on asylum seekers are much less dog whistles than wolf howls. This is naked electioneering at its most breathtaking. It is not just that the East Timor Solution is effectively a carbon copy (admittedly with a bit of spit and polish) of the Howard Government’s own maligned offshore processing regime. It’s not just a question of whether the government is leaning self-consciously to the right, it’s becoming a question of good policy-making and good governance. With an election pending, issue neutralisation in the shortest time possible has been the order of the day for the past two weeks for Julia Gillard’s team. Political fixes to get the government to what it feels to be a defendable position in the outer suburbs before the election have been the focus, at the clear expense of well-thought out, well-planned policy solutions. Suddenly, it would seem, both major federal parties have succumbed to the lure of thought bubble, “back of a beer coaster” politics.

No formal deal appears to have been brokered or serious talks undertaken with the governments of East Timor or New Zealand regarding the approach that the government wishes to take to their supposedly collaborative asylum processing solution. It has been reported that President Jose-Ramos Horta was only contacted in relation to the proposal a matter of hours before it was announced. Meanwhile, as two of Labor’s most senior and most widely respected policy champions make haste to abandon ship, I wonder just how many Labor supporters out there are wondering what on Earth is going on? And I wonder how many non-aligned voters in outer suburban swing seats are starting to think that what Julia Gillard really does stand for is even less apparent than what Kevin Rudd stood for?

If the trend of recent weeks continues, Federal Labor will have created a very stark contrast between its dissembling leadership team and Tony Abbott, whose opinions on a wide range of issues are comparatively rigid and consistent and firmly held, even if they are controversial and /or abhorrent. And Federal Labor still has a little problem called the Senate that it doesn’t seem to have been putting too much thought into. A prolonged, damaging debate on the cut-down resource tax and asylum seeker issues seems practically guaranteed for the next couple of years, with the current proposals unlikely to attract the support of either the Greens or the Coalition without significant amendment.

Troubling times.

Did the big miners topple the Prime Minister?

I haven’t heard all that much gloating in the last couple of days from the big mining companies, despite the fact that their bitter media war against the RSPT was the decisive factor encouraging Julia Gillard’s powerful co-conspirators to sink their knives into Kevin Rudd’s back. Perhaps they are now feeling just a little sheepish. Looking back over the last couple of months since the Budget, it is difficult to believe that the government’s polling would have been quite so bad or the Prime Minister’s personal political situation so dire if the government had won the media war or else managed to forge an agreement with the miners and the Minerals Council of Australia. The televised ad campaign against the RSPT was as audacious as it was relentless; never before in Australian political history has a cabal of multinational companies banded together so effectively with the aim of overturning the policy of a democratically-elected government.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that one of the most big-mouthed public opponents of the tax, mining magnate Clive Palmer, has a long political history with the Liberal and National Parties, and also happens to be Australia’s largest political donor. As Adele Ferguson and Rafael Epstein reported in a somewhat revealing profile piece for The Age on Saturday:

In the year to June 2009, Palmer and his private company, Mineralogy, gave $400,000 to the federal Liberal Party, $280,000 to the Queensland Liberal National Party, $110,000 to the West Australian National Party and $50,000 to the federal National Party.

That is why Kevin Rudd responded to the tax debate intervention with the accusation that Palmer had bought the Coalition ”lock, stock and barrel”. And Palmer’s ”communist” gibe, had Rudd turning to history. In the ’80s, Palmer was a friend of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s, was at one stage a director of the party and in 1986 Palmer was spokesman for the party during the Queensland election, helping usher in Bjelke-Petersen’s seventh consecutive term in office.

One wonders how many average folk knew, when watching Palmer’s bulbous face bleating about communism on the nightly news, that he was not only a mining magnate and therefore hardly an impartial observer, but also a conservative political stooge from way back, and therefore even less impartial. The whole episode has been a timely reminder about just where the real political power lies in today’s Australia: with those who have the most financial capacity to influence people through public relations and advertising.

The people of Australia don’t have any serious institutionalised mechanism for relegating the Clive Palmers and the Twiggy Forrests of the world to the backbenches; we’re just stuck with them. In contrast our politicians, in thrall to the almighty ubiquity of the latest polling figures, are left scurrying around like so many primitives, fighting amongst themselves and skulking around behind each others backs. After last week’s events, the trading room floor is looking just that little bit more like the centre of real power in this country, and the Federal Parliament, just that little bit less.

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.