Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Friday, March 31, 2006

Breaking News: GST Talks `Productive'

Well, I take it back. ABC News is reporting that the Treasurers Meeting about GST revenue has just broken up and, to my astonishment, there has apparently been a breakthrough in the disagreement between the Commonwealth and NSW. NSW Treasurer Michael Costa, sounding cautiously optimistic, confirmed that discussions were `productive', but did not wish to expand, as a deal has not yet conclusively been reached. This is far more than I expected, obviously. As much as I hate those leering, line-up-and-kiss-Howard-rear COAG meetings, it's good to see a modicum of co-operation between the two levels of government. More on this development as soon as it zooms through the airwaves.

UPDATE: Smiling Peter Costello must be a genuinely scary person. The little birds who hover around Governor Macquarie Tower say that Michael Costa isn't exactly the most un-daunting gentleman in the world, and yet today's Sydney Morning Herald is reporting the deal as a `backdown' on NSW's part. It's difficult to say, given the scant details available so far, whether this is the case. Significantly, it still appears that the Commonwealth Grants Scheme has not been adjusted.

Dictatorship by Stealth

Today, the government announced that Nicholas Wilson will be the new head of the Office of Workplace Services, a previously underfunded office which will now be elevated to a `one stop shop' for the investigation of possible breaches of the Workplace Relations Act. It will receive $100m in funding over four years, and has received an extra 200 inspectors to ensure compliance with the new laws. In other words - if your boss is being a bastard, don't call your union, call the Office of Workplace Services - a non-independent government body.

This follows a troubling pattern on the part of the government, and one identified by Dr Judith Brett in her recent Fabian Society lecture - the granting of ultimate oversight to government bodies rather an independent arbiters, in the mistaken perception that this is somehow more `democratic'.

Compare this to the recent abolition of the staff-elected board member of the ABC. Communications Minister Helen Coonan justified the move on the basis of `accountability', suggesting that an ABC staffmember would hold the best interests of the organisation second to the interests of other staffmembers. The current staff-elected board member, Ramona Koval, comprehensively rebuts this position in an article in The Age, also pointing out that the abolition of her position means that there are now no positions on the ABC board that are completely independent of the government:

The election of a staff director means that at least one member of the board brings expertise in journalism, broadcasting and a working knowledge of the role and functions of the public broadcaster and its importance in the cultural life of the country.

Since the creation of the corporation in 1984, the staff-elected director has provided balance to party-political stacking of the board. Previous incumbents have also been publicly engaged in defending the role and independence of the ABC and making sure that its obligations under the charter were upheld. The position has evolved as a vital structural element in the protection of the ABC's strategic and editorial independence. The staff-elected director raised concerns in the early 1990s about the ABC's proposed commercial partnership with Fairfax and Cox (US) in pay TV in Australia.

Stateline host Quentin Dempster - who had also previously held the role - was widely tipped to take the position once Ms Koval's term had expired. It is important to note that the process of elections is already underway, meaning the government has had to intervene in official AEC processes to push through its legislation. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance are lobbying for the retention of the position, and their petition on preserving independence on the ABC has already gained a massive 42,000.

Blind Freddy (but not Blind Johnny) can tell that this is not increasing democracy or independent oversight in either case. Those who argue that democracy works because those who don't like what they see can register the fact with their vote forget that an awful lot can occur in the three years between elections, and that people have awfully short memories.

The Battle of GST Spin

You may already have seen one or other of the two competing advertisements currently doing battle on our airwaves (excerpts available here), one funded by the NSW Government and the other by the Federal Government; both putting forward the position of the various parties on the issue of GST revenue.

The division of GST was a favourite topic of former Premier Bob Carr, who tirelessly reiterated the figure that NSW produces 34% of GST revenue but only gets 28% back, and the fact that the NSW Government went quiet on it for some time after Morris Iemma took the reins was fairly surprising. Since Michael Costa has become Treasurer, however, the fight has been resumed in earnest, which is not surprising given the rumoured parlous state of the NSW budget, especially given the expensive but politically expedient concessions on a number of unpopular taxes since Iemma became Premier - most recently, a compromise on the poker machine tax.

There is no doubt that the Commonwealth Grants Scheme formula is out of date. It was formed at a time when Queensland and WA were rural outposts rather than the financial powerhouses of a nation in the grip of a resources boom, and this should be reflected in the division of revenue. This is not to say that needier states should not be subsidised, simply that exactly who the needier states are should be redefined as situations change.

There's also no doubt that, as far as political problems go, this one is almost insolvable. No state is going to agree to a smaller proportion of GST revenue. No Federal Government - even a Labor government - is likely to adjust the formula.

The most amusing aspect of all of this is that the GST is consistently held up by the Federal Government as an unpopular policy that was eventually embraced by the electorate, who have never complained about it since. A similar argument is also been made about the Constitution itself by monarchists - `if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Such an argument is destroyed every time yet another of these state versus Federal stoushes emerges, and a state is forced to start a petition to beg for legislative change. It's time for an independent body such as the Productivity Commission to step in and end this stoush for once and for all.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Welcome to the Brave New WorkChoices World

Well, here it is folks - the day we've all been dreading. The Federal Government's WorkChoices laws come into force today, though not without the threat of a High Court challenge from all Labor-held states presenting a genuine threat to the long term life of the laws, as Finance Minister Nick Minchin himself has admitted. Thus ends a system of industrial relations that held good for a century - for which people rallied, fought and died. Apparently, it was all in vain.

Reports suggesting that the ACTU's Greg Combet has complained about Federal Labor's concentration on the AWB at the expense of industrial relations are, frankly, wrong, as his Insiders interview from yesterday shows. It's quite obvious that when Parliament resumes, Labor will begin asking questions on IR, but also important to keep up the heat on AWB.

Meanwhile, ABC's Inside Business has also picked up on the shared disdain between unions and the right-wing union busting HR Nicholls Society on the new laws.

Today's AM also reports that an ACTU poll of 24 marginal seats showed some interesting results. 2/3rds of people opposed the laws, meaning there must be potential for real electoral impact down the line.

The government is heavily pushing the line that `the sky will not fall today' as a result of WorkChoices, but for some, the impact will be immediate. I know of some workplaces where employers have been holding off negotiating new EBAs until the new laws come into force, a position Australian Business Ltd-backed advocacy group Employers First (aka Workers Last) has been openly endorsing. There is no doubt that many small businessmen - even the most honourable - will be tempted to dip into the nasty bag of tricks the government has now presented them. As Greg Combet put it on the weekend, these eggs will be hard to unscramble.

More coverage, including opinion pieces by both Kim Beazley and John Howard, as well as Greg Combet and Peter Hendy, at the Sydney Morning Herald.

Looking Towards the 2007 State Election

The Sydney Morning Herald had an interesting series of articles this weekend looking towards the next NSW State election. Yes, it's a year away, but that's a blink of an eye in political years. These very much reflected what I'd suspected about perceptions of the Iemma Government - that the public is generally more positive than the media, which has been pretty harsh, and that recognition of Peter Debnam is nearly nil amongst the wider public.

Election analyst Antony Green's article explaining the nature of the government's 12% buffer in detail is well worth a read. I've heard many people mutter darkly that the current government is `obviously going to lose' the next election - and I've tried in vain to explain that the large buffer, and the seats it is spread across, would make losing an almost impossible task. As always, Green does a sterling job of such an explanation.

This is not to say that the always-worthwhile Ross Gittins' column on the NSW Government is not also equally important reading - but, as Gittins himself quotes, in politics, perception is reality, and in the rarefied atmosphere of the commentariat, the perceptions of the only people who matter in the end - the voters - can be surprisingly difficult to uncover.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Australian Fabians: John Howard, 10 Years On

In my flu-addled state, the good folks at, wsacaucus, the Purple Blog and, yes, even the Sydney Morning Herald (who didn't appear to notice that either Judith Brett or Gerard Henderson were present - a bit of a blow for Hendo, given that he regularly writes columns for them) got the jump on me as far as the above event goes.

The topic of discussion, and the range of guests, typified the Fabian ethos of mulling over every side of the story (the now-legendary Brian Huston vs David Marr session is another such meeting that springs to mind), with Henderson - the night's first speaker - at times nearly unable to disguise his contempt for the archetypal latte lefties before whom he sat (suffice to say, when Hendo leapt to his feet to explain exactly how wonderful WorkChoices would be for all of us, and to dismiss concepts such as chronic under-employment, the feeling was mutual). Yet the point of inviting the Hendersons - and Houstons - of the world to such events can be encapsulated by a sound point that Henderson made several times. He expressed his disdain for people who told him - perhaps rather proudly - that they `don't know a single person who votes for John Howard'. How on earth are these people supposed to defeat him if they don't even know who votes for him or why? It is all too easy for the Left to pretend that the more-than-50% of Australians who keep Howard in power do not exist; for them, they basically don't. They live separate and unrelated lives, they don't care that Howard lied about children overboard, AWB, or has let ministerial responsibility dwindle to an all-time low. Most people on the Left don't know how Alan Jones and Ray Hadley instruct such people to think on a daily basis, and don't care. There is a vague feeling that at some point, these people will discover that Howard is the lying rodent all the rest of us has known he is all along, and will vote accordingly. After ten years, this is simply an unproductive position to hold. The nasty fact of the matter is - there are people out there who not only put up with John Howard, but genuinely like the little man. Why?

This is really the core question of the past ten years, and one the Opposition - the Left in particular - has found it particularly difficult to engage with, and last night's event ultimately provided only discussion points rather than answers.

In her speech, Judith Brett suggested that the Liberal Party had in fact prospered by co-opting many Labor values and styles of governance. I wasn't entirely convinced by all of her arguments, and found some of her analyses slightly facile or over-intellectual, but on the idea that Howard had made the notion of being `relaxed and comfortable' his own, she was on very sound ground. Intriguing also was her suggestion that one of the key strategies of the Howard Government has been to attack the credibility of all independent bodies such as the judiciary, non-government organisations and unions, arguing that the only legitimate voice of the people comes from elected representatives. There is certainly validity to this argument, but it is one that can only be carried so far. It depends on the body and whether it agrees with the government. For example, churches were certainly told in no uncertain terms to keep their traps shut when they spoke up on industrial relations reforms, but they have been invited to speak up much more loudly on other issues with which it previously steered clear - the RU486 debate being a good example.

Then on to Julia Gillard, who as always was ... well, rather relaxed and comfortable, come to think of it, joking that herself and Fabian Society chairman John Faulkner had recently been named Australia's sexiest politicians (an honour Faulkner likened to being named `the tallest pygmy'). Contrary to what the Sydney Morning Herald might have you believe, her speech was not about Kim Beazley (I barely recall her mentioning him), but focused mainly on the idea that the Howard Government has built its success on saying one thing and doing the other - for example, `saving' Medicare by building a `safety net', while in fact dismantling universal healthcare by stealth, and building a `more flexible' industrial relations system which is actually less flexible and less fair. This, I think, is a very good point, especially given Howard's rhetoric about mateship, fair gos, battlers, and so forth, when it's the people at the bottom of society - ironically, the people now more likely to vote for the Coalition, while the more educated are more likely to vote Labor - who are most likely to be kicked in the teeth by his government's policies.

I came away with a head full of questions, and thoughts ... but not many answers. The fact that we have realised the old techniques are not working is a valuable step forward - the fact that the phrase `There are many people in the electorate who will never like John Howard' appeared on the official Liberal soundbite cheat sheet during the 2004 election (it came out of the mouth of Alexander Downer and Howard himself - shows that the government recognises that convincing people who already don't vote Liberal not to vote Liberal is a losing game.

But how else?

Monday, March 20, 2006

NSW To Consider Charter of Human Rights

Hot on the heels of last week's successful public meeting on human rights comes the welcome news, from NSW Attorney General Bob Debus, that a plan will be put to the NSW Cabinet suggesting the introduction of a Charter of Human Rights, similar to that introduced in Victoria.

This is a fantastic development, especially after the many pieces of oppressive legislation that have been handed down by governments recently. As Debus points out, human rights are the province not just of activists, but of everyone, and everyone stands to benefit when they are protected. I've already posted some links on this topic, but the Public Interest Advocacy Centre also has a good selection of fact sheets on protecting human rights in Australia.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Landslides for Labor in Tasmania and South Australia

Mike Rann's Labor government has been returned to power in South Australia with a formidable ten percent swing, after a lacklustre campaign by the SA Liberals which, notoriously, featured a television advertisement in which `Labor Party' was misspelt. SA Liberal leader Rob Kerin plans to step down after the defeat, which sees Labor holding 30 of SA's 47 seats.

Meanwhile in Tasmania, early suggestions that Labor would be pushed into a minority government, giving the Greens a share of power, have failed to materialise, with Labor maintaining majority government and the Greens in fact likely to lose one seat, which would also cost official party status. Yet again, the ability of the Greens to become a serious third force in Australian politics has been overstated; instead, perhaps, the real story is the ability of independents to take this role.

Both the Prime Minister and the Federal ALP are scrambling to take credit for the victories. I don't think either claim is credible, really. The fact that people appear to be pretty good at separating State and Federal issues when they go to the polling booth must surely be proven by the fact that many of the people who have returned Rann and Lennon must, on odds, be exactly the same ones who have kept John Howard where he is for the past 10 years.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Mal Brough: Cabinet's Latest Mistake

I expressed reservations when I heard of Mal Brough's elevation to Kay Patterson's old job in the recent reshuffle. The Community Services portfolio has been expanded to take in Aboriginal Affairs (in which Brough has done absolutely nothing to distinguish himself so far - he has been entirely silent, for example, on the recent discussion surrounding the expansion of distribution of unsniffable Opal petrol throughout isolated Indigenous communities, while Tony Abbott blunders along suggesting that parents solve the problem by `taking the petrol away' from their petrol sniffing children. Good solution, Tone).

But the idea that Brough could really be so out of touch with his new portfolio as to suggest, in response to Labor's childcare policy - released yesterday - that freeing up new childcare places could lead to `a glut of places' is, quite literally, roll around on the floor, tears in your eyes laughable. It truly is.

Here in the inner city, many young mothers will tell you of having to put their child's name down on waiting lists for childcare either at birth, or even as soon as they become pregnant. The shortage of places is something even Brough's predecessor, Kay Patterson acknowledged in a bizarre plan to use unused commercial and industrial buildings in outerlying areas for childcare centres. The protests of Jackie Kelly and more recently, the pleas of a committee of backbenchers to scrap or rejig the 30% childcare rebate show that firstly, that childcare is one of the real sleeping giants in the electorate; and secondly, that if Brough wants to be taken seriously, he's really going to have to get his act together - especially on plan as commonsense as the one presented by Labor on an issue with such potential impact on Howard's Battlers.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Redistribution Latest

The latest rumour doing the rounds in regards the Federal redistribution is that the Liberal Party will seek to have the Western Sydney seat of Reid, currently held by Laurie Ferguson on a relatively safe 12%, abolished. It's redundant to say that Ferguson is an often controversial figure within the ALP (as the boys from The Chaser once said, there's actually three factions within the ALP - the Left, the Right, and the Fergusons). His stint as Shadow Immigration Minister was a rocky one, which is particularly ironic, given that his electorate takes in the largest proportion of Muslims of any in NSW. While I could say that Ferguson would not go quietly, it's intriguing to observe a process which, ultimately, will oblige someone to do so.

Should Reid be abolished, it would be a shame for the Labor Party, as it's a seat with a rich history. For many years, it was held by Labor stalwart Tom Uren, and has been a Labor seat since its creation in 1922, except for the period when one Jack Lang - the notorious former NSW Premier - was the local member, for Lang Labor. It is tempting to see a plan to abolish Reid, if it is genuine, as an attempt by the Liberal Party to continue its encroachment into Labor's traditional territory of the Western suburbs. Yet how genuine is this encroachment? There are six seats bordering Reid. To the north is Parramatta, where Labor's Julie Owens won back some of this territory from Liberal Ross Cameron and is, by all accounts, doing very well. To the west is Prospect, safely held by Labor's Chris Bowen, though there was a swing to Liberal in the 2004 election. South is Fowler (one of the safest Labor seats in NSW, held by Julia Irwin on 21%) and Paul Keating's former seat of Blaxland (safe Labor, held by Michael Hatton), while to the east is Lowe (marginal Labor, held by John Murphy).

In fact, only one electorate neighbouring Reid (to the northeast) is held by a Liberal. It's a marginal - and it's a little place called Bennelong.

Submissions for the Queensland side of the redistribution have now closed and are publically available on the AEC website here. Comments and suggestions on these submissions are about to close, and are likely to be available soon. Meanwhile, submissions on the NSW redistribution close next Friday, on March 24 (information here).

Nationals Cautious on Cross Media Ownership

While the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that the Nationals are non-committal over proposed cross-media ownership reforms, Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce has gone much further in an interview with 2SM's Leon Delaney this morning (shortly before embarking on his trip to Antarctica - a trip that was arranged by outgoing Nats rat Julian McGuaran, reputedly to keep the Maverick Senator (tm) out of the party's hair for a bit). True, 2SM's at a distant end of the dial (1269, that is), it gets its fair share of ratbag callers, but its interviews tend to be long and quite searching, so it can be worth a listen.

Far from heming and hawing over the proposed reforms, Joyce openly invited listeners to write to himself and other Nationals MPs and senators expressing their concerns, and to generate as much public interest as possible to keep the issue on the agenda. He expressed his own belief that media moguls such as Packer and Murdoch had actively participated in the election of past Australian governments, as well as less controversial concepts, such as that regional news would be less likely to be well served under the new arrangements. Joyce's point on new media - that the internet has certainly had an impact, but that the readership of even the most influential website, such as, reaches fewer people and a less diverse demographic than any newspaper or radio station - is reasonable, as is his point that a fair, unbiased and diverse media has a crucial part to pay in a high quality democracy, not only because it effects how the public sees decision makers and their decisions, but the decision makers themselves, and the way they make those decisions. As such, the media has a large responsibility, and handing too much of that responsibility to any one entity is genuinely dangerous. As Delaney pointed out, the first thing highly dictatorial countries such as China do is control the media.

Let's hope the Nationals stand firm on this one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Cross Media Ownership And `Your' ABC

At the end of last year, when the Howard Government has completed its earthshattering blitzkrieg of reforms, courtesy of its Senate majority, one long-cherished aim remained unachieved: changes to cross-media ownership laws. Well, get ready, kids ... - at last, you can be prince of the pint and queen of the screen, as Paul Keating put it when he enshrined the laws which have stood for the past twenty years, famously putting him in Kerry Packer's bad books for the rest of his life.

I will leave a more comprehensive post on this very big and complex issue for another time, but suffice to say, the place that will cop the biggest pounding will be Your ABC. Amongst the initial announcements:
  • Commercial advertisements for the ABC are under consideration

  • Current ABC Chairman Donald McDonald is likely to be ousted after two terms at the helm of the broadcaster after losing support of Federal Cabinet for `defending the culture of the ABC', with recently dumped Channel 9 CEO Sam Chisholm tipped to be his successor

Communications Minister Helen Coonan discussed the changes with, appropriately enough, the ABC's Kerry O'Brien on tonight's 7:30 Report. Which, no doubt will soon be cut to a fifteen minute humorous skit show in which celebrities from the ABC's other shows act out the big current affairs stories of the day.

Sigh ....

Life Without Tinkerbell

NSW Shadow Attorney General Andrew Tink's decision to quit politics has come as a surprise - and perhaps an unpleasant shock to some of his Oppositon colleagues. It comes a matter of weeks after the Sydney Morning Herald's Jonathon Pearlman's panegyric on the big man's parliamentary skills. Pearlman suggested that Tink - nicknamed `the chainsaw' for his style of delivery - was a much needed attack dog for an Opposition bereft of effective performers, and that`the party relies on Tink as a rallying point.'. I think there's a lot of truth to this. Don't forget, also, that Tink was the man John Howard nominated as his preferred choice to lead the NSW Liberal Party. To have gone from this to retirement in a matter of months is quite astonishing.

But now, the NSW Liberals have lost another undoubtedly effective frontbencher - and what's left? A lot of naysayers mumble darkly about the current government and what they are and are not doing, but frankly - to cast an eye over the Opposition benches is not a promising prospect. Peter Debnam - installed by the right wing factions that have over-run the NSW Liberal Party - is about as exciting a parliamentary performer as a cold trout. Barry O'Farrell seems barely allowed to speak anymore, silenced as he is by these same factional warlords (yes, the Liberal Party has them too). Tink has attributed his exit from politics to stress and a recent bout of illness, but it would be an awful outcome, not only for his own party but for Australian democracy in general, if he too has become fed up by the factional brawling that dare not speak its name within the NSW Liberal Party.

If you should think I'm being too soft on the Liberals, I'll let the man generally agreed to be Parliament's current best performer, Labor frontbencher Carl Scully, have the last say:
Even Scully has acknowledged Tink's flair for theatrical debate, in a tribute to his opponent at the closing of Parliament in December. "Andrew, I know I have often said that you are one of the best actors in the House," Scully said. "Your feigning of indignation is just terrific. The raised chin, the props, the puffed-out chest, the thumping fist - it is a performance to behold.

"I do not know whether anyone sees too much of it on the video, but you ought to make sure that one day, when you are an old coot getting around with a walking stick, you say to your grandchildren, 'There I was."'

Seriously - it's a shame whenever anyone retires in sad circumstances, so I wish Tink all the best.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Report - Human Rights Forum

It was great to see a full house at yesterday's Human Rights Forum at Leichhardt Town Hall, and one which included some distinguished guests, including Whitlam Government Attorney General Kep Enderby. Given the recent passage of so-called Anti-Terrorism legislation, sedition laws, and the short and long term oppression of Muslims, Aboriginals and asylum seekers, perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised.

The justly well-regarded human rights activist and QC Julian Burnside detailed the reasons Australia needs a bill or charter of Human Rights by discussing the issue on a human rather than rhetorical level - exactly the opposite approach of the Howard Government, which deliberately kept journalists away from the Tampa to prevent them from snapping `humanising images' of the asylum seekers on board. He mentioned three incidents which persuaded him of the need to delineate the issues on which governments should and should not be able to legislate:

1) The Tampa incident itself, in which the government circumvented its own Migration Act and invoked its sovereign powers to get around fulfilling its elected duties (which is - under both its own and international laws - to provide asylum to anyone who seeks it)
2) A letter he received from an asylum seeker who was detained in Port Hedland which concluded `Please don't forget us. We're human.' It struck him that, again, something needed to be done to prevent a Western democratic government lawfully incarcerating the innocent.
3) And perhaps most scandalously, the case of Al-Kateb, a stateless Palestinian who sought asylum in Australia but, having been refused and finding detention so horrific, sought the only other option - repatriation in Palestine. Because he was stateless, Palestine refused to accept him, and there was nothing in Australian legislation to deal with someone in this situation (the Serbian born Australian resident, Robert Jovovic, currently finds himself in the same situation). However, instead of amending this loophole, the Australian government took the case to the High Court, argued that he should instead be kept in detention, FOR LIFE - and won, 4 to 3. Burnside argued that, again, a benchmark that prevents governments - any government, not just the present one - from legislation that allows it to jail innocent people for life seems essential, based on the above evidence.

Importantly, Burnside reminded us that no rights are absolute - he used the handy metaphor that `my right to swing my arms extends only as far as your nose' - which is to say that rights exist only as long as they do not infringe upon other rights. This is a crucial point, given that many who are wary of a Bill of Rights are concerned that it would open the floodgates, and allow anyone to do anything; protect Hansonites as well as asylum seekers.

I was very impressed by Rob Hulls, Victoria's Attorney General, a convincing speaker with a talent for putting things across in simple, forceful terms. Like Julian Burnside, he acknowledged the difficulty in shifting a concept such as Human Rights from the abstract to the concrete in the average suburban mind. Emphasising that Human Rights is an extension of the typically Australian concept of the `fair go' has been integral in this process.

The results in Victoria are extremely encouraging. Victoria is the first state (along with the ACT, the first territory) to introduce a Charter of Human Rights, which was arrived at after extensive community consultation. A consultation committee travelled throughout urban and regional Victoria, gaining the opinions of a diverse range of Victorians, from street kids to legal centres. A record 2,524 submissions were received, from groups from the Country Womens Association to Victims of Crime. In total, 84% supported the formation of a Charter of Rights.

The Charter 's model is similar to that used in New Zealand, in which cultural and civil rights are enshrined. Respondents voted not to enshrine economic, social and cultural rights, but Hulls pointed out that an amendment process has been built in to the formation of the charter, and it is better to move in small increments rather than big leaps. All Victorian legislation will now be made in accordance with the Human Rights Charter.

While Victorian bureaucrats were initially wary, they have now embraced the charter wholeheartedly, and agree with the view of their counterparts in New Zealand and England (which adopted a similar charter in 1998) that such a bill actually makes the drafting of legislation easier.

The meeting passed motions to both the NSW and Federal governments urging them to consider the idea of adopting a similar charter or bill. While the latter is a long shot, it is worth writing to the NSW Attorney General, Bob Debus, to suggest that the idea be reconsidered in line with the Victorian model if you're interested in this issue. Given the example Julian Burnside gave of the `terrorist' the US Government locked in Guantanamo Bay for two years who later proved to be a blind, 99 year old Afghani shepherd, who spent the majority of his time in custody shackled to his walking frame, we all should be.

Farewell to the Good Doctor

It was with sadness that I read that Dr Meredith Burgmann MLC plans to retire after the 2007 election. Dr Burgmann has been a tireless campaigner for so many issues for nearly her whole adult life - gay rights, the preservation of historic buildings, women's issues, and opposition to both the Vietnam and Iraq wars to name a few. The Left needs all the power it can get in the NSW Government, and regardless of whether her retirement is part of the rumoured `one-for-one' factional deal being worked out between Mark Arbib and Left leader Luke Foley, she will hopefully be replaced by someone of her leftish persuasion. After all, if factionalism is to work, it should ensure a good balance of opinions across the parliamentary party rather than provide rewards for the scratching of the correct backs.

While it has long been rumoured that Burgmann would take on Clover Moore in the seat of Bligh and move to the Legislative Assembly, there is now a suggestion that she may instead take on La Moore at her other job - Mistress of Town Hall. As Duty Senator for Bligh, she has been working hard to call attention to the fact that several of the road closures in East Sydney that are associated in the public's mind with the Cross City Tunnel were actually ordered by Moore herself, who has refused to reverse the closures when asked to by other members of City of Sydney Council. It's possible that Sydneysiders will see a rare conjunction - three elections in the one year, at all levels of government - in 2007. Granted, the general public probably couldn't think of anything worse, but to us pollie watchers, it could be quite fascinating.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Rank and File vs the Machine

Labor frontbenchers Gavan O'Connor and Ann Corcoran have lost their pre-selection battles as part of the ongoing Victorian bloodbath. O'Connor had some harsh words for Kim Beazley on this morning's AM - which isn't surprising, given the circumstances - yet one of his comments bears repeating:

GAVAN O'CONNOR: But the simple fact of the matter is that they [factional leaders] have wiped out federal independent [non-factionally aligned] members in Victoria, and that has sent a terrible message to the rank and file, who by and large are of independent thought.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: What message is that?

GAVAN O'CONNOR: Well, there is no room for them in the party. Most people in the party are not factionally aligned. They are horrified with these machinations that have done enormous damage to the Victorian party federally. And of course that will be reflected, in my judgement, at the next election.

The issue of whether Labor's factional disagreements will have an electoral impact is debatable - most people are, by and large, uninformed about the particulars, but may be turned off by the overall impression of inner turmoil (by contrast, the discipline of the Howard Government - regardless of whether it reflected the actual state of mind of its members - is one thing that has counted in its favour, especially after the disastrous times the Coalition experienced during the mid 1990s). However, the other point O'Connor makes - that most rank and file members don't give a tinker's toot about factions - is a pretty sound one. Ultimately, factionalism - or the wheeling and dealing of factional chieftans - obfuscates the true will of the rank and file.

So too does the suggestion, made by several dissidents such as Simon Crean and Julia Gillard, that all leaders and their deputies - both of the party and the houses - abandon their factional allegiances as a matter of necessity. This is pure common sense. Of all party reforms, this is the only one Kim Beazley has shown any signs of taking on board.

However, he has given another of Gillard's major suggestions - to adopt the Liberal habit of giving the leader rather than the caucus the job of choosing ministers or shadow ministers - has been given short shrift. This is a suggestion that has been made many times before, and always generates controversy when it comes up. On one hand, the current system is designed to ensure the leader does not have excess power and to promote wider participation in the selection of the leadership team. However, if we accept Gillard's assertion that the faction system has descended to a mere game of `I scratch your back, you scratch mine', we must accept that this system will, at worst, simply reward the ambitious rather than elevate the best people for the job. Surely - now more than ever - Labor needs the best people for the job? And more scope for the leader to demonstrate leadership?

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Everyone knew that the Victorian pre-selection would lead to some major bloodletting within the Labor Party, but what a week it has been. Who would have thought, even a fortnight ago, that we would have been hearing the words `Simon Crean' and `leader' in the same sentence. Speculation about Crean making a leadership tilt are, I think, extremely unwise. As Andrew West aptly put it in his Herald blog, Crean never really had `the leadership gene', which is certainly not to say he hasn't got a valuable contribution to make, but the best contribution need not necessarily be made from the top - someone like Lindsay Tanner certainly proves that.

The extent to which Julia Gillard has also re-emerged as a genuine leadership contender is also debatable. There has been a lot of discussion about the extent to which she has `positioned' herself during the pre-selection, and taken strategic moves towards a leadership challenge, but it should be remembered that the moves she has taken are actually quite risky ones, and ones that are more likely to put her at odds with the only ones who really matter in a leadership challenge: her colleagues. People like Stephen Conroy become powerful because they give favours; people owe them a great deal. This is why factionalism works. Someone who seeks to overturn factionalism seeks to overturn a very effective machine that has put a large quantity of their colleagues where they are today - in some cases, colleagues who would not have obtained their positions on merit alone. Gillard would be a formidable and threatening figure to many in the Labor Party.

That is not to say that Gillard is not a future leader. I'd like very much to see her there, and though there is no rank and file vote for leadership, public opinion does hold some sway. A series of coincidences have gone her way this week - it was reported today that the producers of Australian Story, not Gillard herself, decided to move forward this week's episode (which has been in planning since October last year) - the Sydney Institute speech also perhaps not a coincidence but a lucky juxtaposition. It remains to be seen whether she will continue to capitalise on these opportunities, and whether the events of this week represent a lucky conjunction of the stars, or the start of a genuine new leadership challenge.

Nick Minchin and the HR Nicholls Society

Nick Minchin's little pep talk to the H. R. Nicholls Society prompts a number of things any politician should consider:

1) Whenever you open your mouth, assume that a microphone is on and somebody's recording you (Morris Iemma, Peter Beattie and now, Steve Bracks, take note - or is this becoming the pollie's version of whisper marketing?)

2) Whenever you express an opinion, remember that while you are in government, it will be difficult to argue that the opinion you are expressing about a major government policy is your own, not your government's.

3) With point 1 in mind, remember that playing to the audience before you is one thing; the audience that hears the recording afterwards might not be quite so sympathetic.

Who exactly are the HR Nicholls Society? I had the misfortune of encountering this nasty little mob of economic rationalists while researching a paper on corporate social responsibility last year. After downloading some of their dogma, I not only wanted to delete it from my computer, but thoroughly scrub clean the computer. Or preferably, throw the whole lot away:

From their website:
When, on the 28th August 1986, the Prime Minister, Mr. R.J.L. Hawke, accused the Society of being a group of "political troglodytes and economic lunatics", the Society shot to national prominence and its success was assured!

I'm quite sure they lapped up Nick Minchin's spiel. Though the fact that even Minchin, king of the hard-right rationalists, admitted the fact that WorkChoices has been as popular as a burp in church is intriguing, it remains that even the ultra conservative Nichollsians are dissatisfied with the WorkChoices legislation - and not always because it doesn't go as far as they would like, as Minchin claims. See for example this paper. While it contains all the usual appalling arguments about Australia's minimum wage being so embarrassingly high that rich people occasionally have to be seen on the same streets as the poor, who should be shoved away in their hovels away from decent folk, it also contains passages such as:
The economic justification is limited to generalised assertions that the changes will improve productivity and living standards, with the only support coming from a highly dubious graph that purports to show that those industries with least reliance on awards achieved higher rates of growth in productivity between June 1990 and June 2004. Coincidence is the more likely conclusion.

... which could almost come out of the ACTU songbook. John Howard has this morning denied plans for further changes to IR - but, as Barrie Cassidy pointed out during his daily chat to Virginia Trioli on ABC 702 - this is also the man who denied that the changes already made are radical. On the other hand, Howard would surely be too politically canny to use IR as a platform for his next election, and would realise it would be all too easy for the other side to point out that another win for the Liberal Party would provide a mandate for further reforms.

Given that WorkChoices still hasn't officially been rolled out, though the first widespread job losses at a major Australian employer has taken place, the real battle may have only just begun.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Crean Endorsed by Hotham Rank and File

Lateline's Jim Middleton, live on the scene, has just reported that Hotham's rank and file members have overwhelmingly endorsed the sitting member, Simon Crean, as their preferred candidate for the seat, over challenger Martin Pakula. The final vote, reported by Lateline as 190 to Crean and 88 to Pakula, is a result that Victoria's Central Committee should ignore at their peril. And, as Middleton pointed out, the result may have repercussions, given Kim Beazley's lack of support for the former leader during the preselection battle. Crean has also vowed to lift the lid on the deals behind the battle. As it so often does, Stephen Conroy's name has already been mentioned.

Lateline's report makes for an interesting juxtaposition to tonight's Australian Story, featuring Julia Gillard. Gillard's comments on the pre-selection were, as her comments frequently are, honest, forthright, and courageous, given her own position within the party. To paraphrase Crean himself (the transcript's not yet on the website, otherwise I would have taken the direct quote) - it's this sort of fearlessness that makes a leader.

As The Victorian Wait ...

Well, the local vote has been held, and as Labor MPs Gavan O'Connor, Maria Vamvakinou, Ann Corcoran, and especially Simon Crean wait for the result, everyone who is interested in this whole shermozzle should, if they did not see it yesterday morning, read the transcript of Bill Shorten's interview with ABC's Insiders, his first major interview since frontbencher Bob Sercombe dropped out of the race for pre-selection for Maribyrnong, allowing Sercombe a free run. Shorten's clearly as self-confident as a sparkling young Peter Beattie, has about as many new ideas as a sparkling young thing with not particularly many new ideas (and certainly not enough to sustain his `next Labor leader' tag), but the section that troubled me most about this interview was the following passage:
BARRIE CASSIDY: Do you want to see Simon Crean re-endorsed?

BILL SHORTEN: I think that Simon Crean and Martin Pakula are going through the same process that Kim Beazley went through, that I went through, that Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello went through.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Put it this way, though, if he wins the local ballot today and tomorrow, should he then be re-endorsed?

BILL SHORTEN: I think the local ballot is very important and I've been on record saying that. I don't want to pre-empt any outcomes, but I do think that's an important component as is the central component.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So you think the central committee should be persuaded by the local ballot or influenced by it?

BILL SHORTEN: I have no doubt the central committee will take into account all of the outcomes of all the local ballots.

BARRIE CASSIDY: You have a vote on the central committee. In fact, you probably control quite a few votes?

BILL SHORTEN: Not as many as perhaps people would claim. I think what is important is we'll see what happens today and tomorrow.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But you might be influenced by a strong local vote for Simon Crean?

BILL SHORTEN: There is no question. Strong local votes for Martin or Simon will be influential.

To suggest that the votes of the Labor rank and file should merely be a vague indicator of how the committee should vote is really a sad indictment of internal democracy within the party - internal democracy that one MP has fought harder, at more risk to himself, and for less credit, than most people realise. That MP? One Simon Crean. And a lot of good it appears to have done him. I'll say this, though - I'd rather have ten Simon Creans in the ALP than one Bill Shorten. Constitutionally, the local vote must count for 50% of the final vote (which will be held this Thursday). Should Crean - or any of the sitting MPs - receive a strong local vote and the Victorian central committee then turn around and smack them down anyway, it will only be proof of what this process is really about. Crean himself had more to say on the matter in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

The bumbling way in which the whole situation has been handled has not done Kim Beazley any favours, and it is notable that while the Victorian pre-selection has gained so much media attention - though the media does love a good old Labor bloodbath - the fact that much the same thing is occuring in the NSW Liberal Party attracted almost none. The NSW Opposition are currently a hopeless, incompetent rabble, and the worst thing they could possibly do this close to an election (yes, it's a year away, but in political years that's about a fortnight) is keep fighting amongst themselves. Today's Daily Telegraph reports that the Prime Minister's head henchman, Big Bill Heff, has been sent down to straighten them all out. A number of Liberal frontbenchers are reportedly on the chopping block, including Michael Richardson and Andrew Humpherson, as well as long serving backbenchers Wayne Merton and Malcolm Kerr. This is all couched in the rather bizarre story that John Brogden is planning to return to politics - triumphantly winning back his old seat of Pittwater in the process - and, it is implied, ousting Peter Debnam from the leadership! Not with the Right controlling the state executive he won't ...

Meanwhile, Hef's bound to be cracking his knuckles in anticipation of the renewed battle for Petro Georgious's seat. The persistent rumours that an impatient Alexander Downer will attempt to vault a sluggish - and uncomfortably leftish - Peter Costello for second place on the leaderhship ladder - also appear to be growing. All I can say is: folks, remember 1987 ...

Event - Human Rights – Negotiable? What Would an Australian Bill of Rights Do For You?

There's been a lot of discussion recently about the idea of an Australian Bill of Rights, especially with the passage of the so-called Anti-Terrorism laws. As you may recall, the main argument in favour of these laws was that they duplicated similar laws being passed in Britain. However, introducing such laws without the basis of a set of fundamental and basic rights that cannot be violated leaves us open to serious abuses.

Speakers: The Hon. Rob Hulls MP, Victorian Attorney-General
Julian Burnside QC, Refugee Rights Advocate, Author
Tim Palmer, Walkley Award Winning Journalist, ABC Jakarta
The Hon. Susan Ryan, Chair of New Matilda Human Rights Campaign

Date: Saturday 11 March
Time: 2-4.30pm
Venue: Leichhardt Town Hall – Corner Norton & Marion Streets, Leichhardt

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Setting the Records Straight on John Howard's Westin Hotel Shindig

The heavens opened at exactly 6pm on the dot this evening (I know, as I was listening to the 6 o'clock ABC news on the radio at the time), dumping on an estimated 300 faithful union members and other assorted anti-Howardists assembled at Martin Place. But remain they did, despite the rain, the indecently large number of assembled police (some of whom were positioned inside the second floor windows of the Westin Hotel - what did they think we were going to do, fly up, smash the windows, and climb inside?). We had a good old chant and a yell, and waved our placards. The Your Rights At Work did a couple of laps of Castlereagh St, and we cheered our guts out at it. Then, at 8:30pm, Unions NSW asked us to pack up and vacate the area. This, we did very peacefully, and the whole thing proceeded as cheerfully as a protest against a nasty little man running country for ten years could do. All in all, it was a jolly old way to spend the tenth anniversary of Lord Voldeshort's ascent to power.

I describe what went on in reasonable detail in order to refute the first TV media report of the protest, which came via Channel 10 (I can't, at the moment, remember whether 2GB's Jason Morrison is still their news director, but the fact that one of their other top stories was `Meg Ryan Speaks to Oprah Winfrey About Her Relationship With Russel Crowe' is a good indicator of the quality of their, ahem, `news'). According to Channel 10, protesters, `ran out of puff' and `packed up and went home' shortly before the `wily' PM turned up and fooled the lot of us.

This is simply incorrect. The protest was disbanded at a pre-determined time. The crowd was asked to disperse at 8:30 by Unions NSW officials, and therefore, we did so. Whether a coincidence or a sensible decision to disband before a merry rant turned ugly, I can assure you of one thing - I did not see a single person turn away and go home when it began to rain. We did not `give up'. We certainly did not `run out of puff'.

As for the shindig itself, the 1,000 guests who attended are rumoured to have paid up to $2,000 each for tonight's dinner, which follows one in Canberra last night and precedes another in Melbourne tomorrow, meaning the whole 10th anniversary hullabaloo (being played up to a ridiculous extent by The Oz in particular - who, after all, have their new book, `The Howard Factor', to hawk) represents a tidy little earner for the Liberal Party.

What little I've seen of the event is too nauseating for words, though I'd love to get my hands on some of the posters that were used to decorate the Westin's ballroom. `STRONG DIRECTION, MAINSTREAM VALUES'. I think Howard might have a copy of this on his bedroom ceiling.