Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Nationals in Crisis

Well, it looks like things are more serious in the National Party than anyone suspected (or did the media simply distort matters by keeping their eye off the ball, too busy leaping every time someone coughs in the Labor Party? One wonders when they will finally cotton on to the rift in the Greens, but that's another story ... )

Further than a mere Coalition, the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland are proposing a full merger - essentially the formation of a new party, to be called the (gulp) New Liberals. It must say something about how the Nats themselves see the future of their party when it was their own state leader, Lawrence Springborg who proposed the merger in the first place, and Lib leader Bob Quinn who apparently had to be dragged kicking and screaming. It shouldn't be forgotten that the Nats are still the dominant Conservative force in Queensland politics. So basically, this is a party (or a state branch thereof) which so little believes in itself (or perhaps, is so willing to get rid of the incumbent government) that it's willing to annhilate itself.

Ironically, ask anyone on the street to name a Nationals MP, and the man they would probably name is a Queensland National, Barnaby Joyce - undoubtedly the National who has done most since his election to distinguish himself from his party's Coalition partner, in defiance of the suggestion of his former workmate Julian McGauran who, in his decision to jump ship to the Libs, cited an increasing and inevitable convergence between the two parties that is always to the Nationals' disadvantage. However, Joyce - as some of his colleagues on both sides of the Coalition made clear - seems very much in the minority, and though Federal National leader Mark Vaile has vocally opposed the Queensland merger, his own lacklustre performance can hardly lend fuel to the case against. Joyce is, not surprisingly, also against, but perhaps more bizarrely, so too is Bob Katter, who wasn't quite so misty eyed that he could resist leaving the Nationals some years ago to become an Independent (though his suggestion that the merger is putting political gain ahead of policy is spot on).

Whether other states are likely to follow Queensland's suit remains to be seen (but then, Queensland does always tend to be a special case, and given the Joh years, thank goodness for that), but a similar move for the Federal party seems very unlikely. I can certainly see a major split looming should this ever become a serious possibility. Perhaps this would ultimately be a productive thing, with the more proactive Nats such as Joyce and Fiona Nash forming a more effective party. But one thing it would do would be to endanger the government's control of the Senate. And Johnny wouldn't like that at all.

Peter Beattie has already begun to capitalise on the notion that the dissolution of the Nationals would leave rural Australia with no authentic voice, and is playing up the idea of a revitalised Country Labor to fill the `void' left by the Nationals. However, after toothlessly rolling over to allow such things as the full sale of Telstra, WorkChoices, and the signing of the US-Australia FTA, I imagine it's some time since many country folk have seen the Nationals as truly representing anything more than a diminished force that the Liberal Party tolerate only to hold power.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Qld Nats and Libs in Shock Coalition Talks

It's a mark of how desperate things are in the Smart State (or Wayne's World, as it was called when I was a girl) when stories such as today's shocker come out. The Queensland Liberals and Nationals have apparently decided to put aside their many differences (despite speaking at length over the past few years about exactly why they shouldn't) and go into a Coalition.

The fact that even in Coalition, the Libs and Nats will have to work harder than a one legged man at a tap dancing contest to make a dent in the electoral fortunes of the Beattie Government is largely testament to the quirky nature of Queensland's parliament, the only state with only one house. And a very full house it is, even despite the electoral battering of a handful of by-elections - Labor still holds around two thirds of the 89 seats. It's also the only state in which the Nationals could plausibly form a coalition where the Nationals leader (in this case, Lawrence Springborg would take the leadership and the Liberal leader, Bob Quinn, act as his deputy.

Will the Coalition be a success? Well, put it this way. The history of Liberal-National coalitions in Queensland is a long and glorious one, and boy, John Howard looked like he couldn't wait to get out of Washington last week, eh?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The `Aboriginal Problem'

There can be no doubt that Mal Brough has now taken his new portfolio of Indigenous Affairs in hand since it was handed over by the accident prone Amanda Vanstone. You can barely turn on the TV without seeing the gruff Mr Brough talking about yet another grim incident witnessed in an isolated Aboriginal community.

A few observations. Firstly - and this is in no way to trivialise the very real problems that Brough is calling attention to - it should also be remembered that Brough is also the Minister in charge of childcare, a notable thorn in the government's side at the moment, thanks to increasingly dissident Liberal backbencher Jackie Kelly, who has gone from implicitly to explicitly endorsing Labor's childcare policy over the Government's. Childcare's often viewed as a soft issue, but I still believe - and it seems, the political establishment, are starting to realise - that it is emerging as one of the great sleeper issues, touching not only on the social but the economic. There's a grave disconnect in the rhetoric of `one for the country', forcing parents into work once their children reach a certain age, and not providing adequate childcare.

Putting one Minister in charge of both of these issues was justified as part of the Howard Government's attempt to mainstream Aboriginal welfare rather than designate it a special case. Surely all of the discussions that have taken place this week demonstrates exactly why Aboriginal welfare is always a special case. Even I am not so cynical - and, I hope, nor is the government - to suggest Aboriginal welfare has suddenly been rushed to the top of the agenda to take the internal stoush over childcare out of the headlines - but I wonder at the wisdom of having one Minister in charge of both these important issues.

As I noted in an earlier post, the blame for much of the trouble in isolated Aboriginal communities is being placed on what are seen as (here comes my favourite phrase), a `bleeding heart' attitude to Aboriginal welfare. I think it's important to remember that the `bleeding hearts' were in fact the ones that gave them their first official voice, in the form of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), formed by the Whitlam Government in 1973. Unlike the current government's hand-picked consultation committee (formed since the dissolution of ATSIC), NACC was elected by Indigenous Australians, 28,000 of whom voted in the first NACC elections. There was a genuine process of consulation rather than top-down paternalism. I am yet to hear much from the Prime Minister's current consultative committee on anything, much less the situation in the Northern Territory.

This does not change the fact that the situation in the Northern Territory is grave - but this is not something that has happened overnight, and nor will it be changed by government strongarming. Only by genuine empowerment - by quite literally, being given a reason to live, being taken seriously, and being genuinely consulted rather than being debated over - will problems in Aboriginal Australia even start to be addressed. If there are problems with a disjunction between customary and Western law, they should be discussed and resolved, not papered over. The reconciliation process that has taken place between the colonial and indigenous people of New Zealand and Canada make it all the more embarrassing that our Prime Minister still can't say sorry.

An Energy Debate - Not A Nuclear Debate

So much going on - so little time to blog. I apologise, but my uni report on the ALBA Latin American trade bloc and the nationalisation of Bolivia's energy industry had to come first.

I was pleased to see Labor's Peter Garrett finally injecting some sense into the rapidly escalating debate over nuclear power. Given that Garrett's previous tilt at politics was as a Senate representative of the Nuclear Disarmament Party, there has been much anticipation as to his stated opinion on the nuclear issue, and his response, made to ABC's AM, is the first sensible salvo to be aimed. Garrett described the debate as a `farce', but it's much more than that. On one hand, it is a typical Howardian obfuscation - Private Kovco? Costello for PM? Anyone remember any of those issues? Nope - yet again, the focus is on internal dissent over a contentious policy in the ALP, exactly where Howard likes it. It's entirely possible - even probable - that this issue will have largely evaporated by the time Howard has usurped a glum Peter Costello in Question Time today. Notwithstanding the few localities that have expressed interest in a nuclear power plant, actually building one would become the biggest NIMBY issue the Howard Government has ever faced (believe me - as someone who grew up under the shadow of Lucas Heights, I know). Now that Kim Beazley has taken a definitive stance, it may also have lost its value as a ALP grenade, too. Howard also faces a good deal of internal dissent, with Nick Minchin one prominent frontbencher to express doubts that nuclear power is the saviour it is painted to be by some.

On the other hand, as Garrett pointed out, Howard has deliberately misframed a very important debate, and those who come out with guns a-blazing against nuclear power are nevertheless buying in to Howard's framing and continuing the debate as he wants it to be continued. Instead, Labor has an extremely valuable chance to seize the debate and turn it on its head, putting global warming exactly where it should be - at the top of the agenda. I've long identified the Howard Government's record on the environment as its greatest failing (a recent ABS report makes much the same conclusions). Howard's phoney nuclear debate can - and should - be turned around and put to the service of re-opening a genuine debate on improving Australia's record on sustainable energy. When even Arnold Schwarzenegger is making the argumentthat emissions must urgently be reduced (he plans to reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels), you gotta listen.

Friday, May 19, 2006

An Act of Pure Bastardry

Today, it was confirmed that the legendary `Tree of Knowledge' in Barcaldine, Queensland has been deliberately poisoned. The heritage listed tree, beneath which the Australian Labor Party is said to have been formed, is thought to be over 200 years old, and though seedlings taken from it have been planted at the nearby Australian Heritage Workers Centre, which was built to commemorate the centenary of the Shearers Strike of 1891 from which the Australian Workers Union, Pastoralist Union (later AgForce) and Australian Labor Party all sprung, to lose the original tree would be an absolute tragedy to all involved with the Labor Party and union movement, as well as to all Barcaldine locals, no matter their political affilitation.

Vandalism of trees is something I find pretty despicable, but there can be little doubt that in this case, the vandalism was politically motivated. To stoop to this sort of petty and ideological stunt strikes me as the lowest of the low.

It is also notable that a similar attack on the Labor Party's part would be impossible, for the Liberal Party has no symbols, no rallying points, no real talismans or locations steeped in party history that they hold so dear, and this is something which, deny it though they might, they envy the Labor Party deeply (as evidenced by Alexander Downer's neverending efforts at character assassination upon John Curtin). I can imagine that whoever did this to the Tree of Knowledge is snickering about the ALP getting so upset about some old tree, in the same way that opponents of the ALP often criticise ithe party for its enormous respect for its elder statesmen and rich history, as demonstrated only last week at the launch of `The Wran Era'.

The ALP should never make the mistake of living in the past. But nor should it ever be ashamed of wearing its love for its achievements, characters and history on its sleeve. This is what the Tree of Knowledge represents, and this is what whoever has attacked it has attempted to annhilate. Such purely mean-spirited acts seldom win kudos for the perpetrators - sadly, it's unlikely they'll ever be caught - but instead, have the opposite effect (I'm thinking, for example, of the so-called `vandalism' of Ross Cameron's electorate office on the eve of the 2004 election, in which he lost his seat). However, I'll stop short of thanking the lads (or indeed, ladies) responsible for furthering the rich and varied history of the Labor Party, and reminding us that it is one which, as always, is marked by struggles, frustrations, and occasionally, the odd act of pure bastardry.

Territories and Statehood

Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Mal Brough's allegations of systemic abuse amongst Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory has brought a number of factors into play. Firstly, as is becoming the common tactic on the Right, the blame is being slung squarely on the shoulders of the Left, in this case for reputedly covering up the problem of child sexual assault for fear of starting a second Stolen Generation.

Well, excuse me. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher (and believe me, I don't do that often) - can you name any? What person, of any political stripe, would willingly cover up or condone the sexual abuse of children?

But setting aside this specific, and very important issue, it has been intriguing to observe the Commonwealth exercising its increasingly Federalist zeal over both of Australia's territories since attaining power of the Senate. This has attracted little media attention, though it bears scrutiny.

First, there was the Federal Government's attempt to scuttle the ACT's Civil Unions Bill, a breakthrough for gay and lesbian rights in Australia, on the basis of the notion that civil unions can be `equated' with marriage, in contravention of the Marriage Act, amended in 2005 to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Secondly, there is Mal Brough's current threat to take responsibility for Aboriginal affairs away from the Northern Territory government, and this is where the real question about the validity of Australian territories in this day and age needs to be asked. Because, constitutionally, the Federal Government could take away whatever responsibility it has delegated to the NT or ACT government

In constitutional terms, a Territory is to the Federal Government what a local council is to the State Government. Thus, even though the Chief Minister has much the same powers as a State Premier, and his or her government is elected in much the same way to carry out much the same powers as a State Government, a Federal Government could not only overturn laws made by a Territorial government but, technically, dismiss that government altogether.

Quite troubling, really.

Though a referendum for statehood was held in the Northern Territory was held in 1998, it was narrowly overturned, which came as a surprise given most polls indicates support for the notion. The result may have come because the NT was offered comparatively fewer senators in the Federal Senate than other states. A steering committee for Northern Territory statehood still exists and is, by the looks of things, making progress. It seems unfortunate that even today, the NT is being treated like the little brother of the Federation. The increasingly paternalistic attitude of the Federal Government towards its territories hardly helps.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Grabbing the Leadership By The Shorten Curlies

It had to happen: yesterday's headline in the Daily Telegraph - BILL FOR PM - that is, Bill Shorten, the will-be Member for Maribyrnong, (indeed, even despite the well-publicised battle for said seat, several commentators and politicos who should have known better were heard to comment that Shorten `should be a shoo-in for ALP pre-selection'). All very well for a sensational Tele headline, but by the evening, even the ABC TV news was leading with the dubious story.

What makes it so extraordinary - and dodgy - is the notion that, according to the usual Anonymous Powerbrokers in the NSW Right, the time has come for Shorten to bypass all ordinary avenues and head straight to the leadership.

Well, saaay - what's wrong with that?

Erm ....

The quite astounding thing is that Julia Gillard's suggestion that the party leader select his own cabinet rather than leave it to the whims of the factions can be rejected as outrageously anti-democratic when such an outrageously anti-democratic method of selecting the leader him or (ha! her) self is suggested with barely a blush.

Certainly, it wouldn't be breaking any rules to hold a pre-selection to rush Shorten into parliament. But nor would it serve any practical purpose other than the ambitions of Shorten and those that would like to see him rocket to the top. By-elections are expensive, annoying to the public, and best avoided. Bob Sercombe has both a right and a moral obligation to serve the people who elected him unless he no longer believes he can do so to the best of his ability. And that is something best decided by Bob Sercombe, not factional bully-boys.

There can be no doubt that Beaconsfield has turned Shorten into a household name and done a great amount to demonstrate the concrete impact of the Federal Government's WorkChoices legislation - two things the Opposition would like to do more of. However, associating himself too closely with Beaconsfield could also prove an albatross around Shorten's neck should public sentiment towards the miners change following the rather unseemly grab for cash for their story (which comes, let's not forget, as their fellow miners face a likely loss of livelihood due to the closure of the mine, and following the death of another miner). Public adulation and concern can turn to repulsion or - almost worse - pure indifference, in an alarmingly short period of time. The kidnap of Douglas Wood is a case in point. It was less than two years ago that many Australians were threatening to wipe Indonesia off the map in retalliation for the jailing of Schapelle Corby. Yes, that's right - Schapelle who?

In some ways, Shorten's rise, particularly as it has been portrayed in the media, is not unlike the ALP's previous golden boy, Mark Latham. For example, it seems unfair, setting aside the undoubted fact that Shorten worked long, hard, and passionately on the issue of Beaconsfield, that Kim Beazley received nothing but criticism for allegedly politicising the incident, but that it is Bill Shorten who will reap the real political rewards. As with Latham, the media's ears will always prick up at the notion of someone new, young, and potentially incendiary. No one who was involved at the time, no matter what they think of Latham in retrospect, will forget the excitement that accompanied Latham's ascendancy. Yet we must also be wary of Labor's obsession with unearthing undiscovered messiahs. There is no Gough waiting in the wings, and Labor needs to get over it rather than treating politics like a neverending game of Australian Idol.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Leadership: The Speculation Begins In Earnest (or in Piers)

Piers Akerman's column this weekend suggesting that John Howard has set a plan into action whereby he will hand over the leadership of the Liberal Party to Peter Costello by December, retire to the back bench before quietly donning his green and gold tracky dacks and power-walking into the sunset has set off the biggest round of leadership speculation since ... well, how long is it since Costello was first promised the big seat in Parliament? A long time, anyway.

Tony Blair now knows how dangerous to give any sort of concrete timetable for departure, and you can bet that Howard will never, ever do the same (no, not like the GST - really never). But how genuine is the speculation? We all know Akerman is a cherished mouthpiece of Howard's, meaning he will say whatever Howard likes, regardless of whether it's true or not. The difference here is that it's difficult to see what tactical advantage Howard could gain from muddying the leadership waters on purpose, straight after the Budget, and at a time when the government are still asking questions about the Opposition leadership.

Howard's current overseas trip is therefore being interpreted as a `lap of honour', especially as it features both visits to old favourites (the US and UK) and places to which he has rarely or never made an official visit (Ireland and Canada), and will be scoured for symbolic or concrete demonstrations that he's making his last dance. Today, for example, Howard and George W. Bush have planted a tree in Washington in celebration of Australia's close involvement in the US's (ahem) `Liberty Agenda' Dubya's words, not mine.

(Might I add that while Kim Beazley's criticism of Howard's trip in the Budget Reply was poorly received, it does, after all, feature a stay in a UK hotel which costs $31,000 per night. Yes, that's $31,000 per night.)

So will Howard be out by December? Well, I've always said they'll take the bugger out in a box, and I still think that. Would he give up missing the APEC Summit? I just can't see it. But then again, the pressure has been mounting on Howard to detail an exit strategy, as it were, and the Treasurer has been exuding what journo Matt Price described as a `zen-like calm' in recent weeks. The idea of having Howard sticking around as a back seat PM can't be particularly attractive to Costello - it certainly doesn't say much for his faith in his ability to run the country - but it would be more so than sitting around waiting for him to bugger off for another ten years. On the other hand - doesn't Howard have a certain obligation to stick around and defend the sweeping changes that came in under his leadership just since the last election, and the Senate win? If I (or any other voter) wants to register their disgust about WorkChoices, or Welfare to Work, or any of the legislation rushed through Parliament in an indecent haste at the end of last year, I want my vote to be against Little Johnny, not his deputy. Isn't this what some in the business call `cutting and running'?

As to the second part of the story, that an early election (around April, which would place it within weeks of the NSW election) would be held to bed-in Prime Minister Costello - I'm not so sure of that, either. I just can't see any benefit flowing from having two elections so close together, regardless of the result in NSW.

Meanwhile, there's also speculation of an imminent reshuffle somewhat down the ladder, following the announcement of Minister for Sports and Arts Rod Kemp's retirement (don't you love a country that chucks sport and art into the same basket?). Kemp is expected to be moved (or move) to the back bench, while Amanda Vanstone is also rumoured to be demoted, following reports that Gary Hardgrave has held meetings, organised by the Office of Prime Minister in Cabinet, with senior bureaucrats from DFAT. Mysterious stories circulated not long after the last reshuffle suggesting that both Kemp and Vanstone were on the chopping block, but they disappeared just as mysteriously.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Beazley's Budget Reply

It's clear to whom Kim Beazley was aiming his rather elegaic and evocative Budget Reply speech - the group whom he had mentioned twice within the first minute (and countless times later on): Middle Australia. Beazley's correct in identifying this group - the ones receiving the smallest tax cut in the multi billion dollar budget - are also the ones who both slogged their guts out to bring this prosperity into being, and will be the ones charged with the task of continuing it.

I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by this speech. It was clever, muscular, and direct, with a simple message: work hard, and you will be rewarded with economic prosperity, fair working conditions, and support for your children. At the outset, Beazley said his speech was for the public rather than the politicians or media, and the galleries (yes, admittedly a rent-a-crowd, no doubt) were clearly appreciative, with several announcements drawing applause.

As has been widely rumoured, commitments centred heavily on family and education. They included:

- $200m for the 260 childcare centres at schools, $200m and the foreshadowing of more childcare announcements as the elections approach;

- The abolition of TAFE fees for traditional trades, an estimated 60,000 places;

- The establishment of `skills accounts' with a starting balance of $800 to help families save for skills-based education courses

- $1200 towards the education of childcare workers for TAFE or equivalent courses

- More school-based apprenticeships.

- Not surprisingly - a commitment to roll back the WorkChoices legislation.

- A national broadband computer network twenty five times faster than the current network, delivered in partnership with the private sector. (This is one area that really slipped under the radar: where was IT in the Budget?)

- The formation of an independent body, Infrastructure Australia, to de-politicise the construction of infrastructure.

Beazley's suggestions that Australia could be leading the world in innovation, skills and technology had it not been the only Western country not to cut investment in these crucial areas were well taken, as were his comments on what I consider one of the great bugbears of the Howard era, its appalling backpedalling on the environment. `Nation-building' is an over-used and over-abused term, yet it's something our current government is not doing, whether in an economic or cultural sense.

Peter Costello's disgraceful behaviour during the speech should not go without mention. At not one point but several, he was seen apparently ostentatiously feigning sleep. If Beazley had done that on Tuesday, it would have been on every front page and Piers Akerman would have been braying for his blood. Will the same result from Costello's behaviour? It certainly should, but probably won't.

There's been a lot of talk about the Budget Reply being Beazley's litmus test given his recent poor showing in polls, an idea I thought unfair, and doubly so given there's only so much that can be expected in a reply to a Budget which throws money at the public left, right and centre. There was no way the Opposition could - or indeed, should - have matched the extravagant pledges of the Government. However, if it was a test, I have to say Beazley passed very well. In warning us that the Howard Government is not building a nation hardy enough to weather the future, Beazley was essentially asking the public the same question John Howard asked at the commencement of the 2004 election: who do you trust? In laying out what he described as his `pact with Middle Australia', Beazley looked the best bet in ages. I'll be eager to see how the Reply is received, because it deserves to be received well.

Australia to break Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Well, I don't always like confirming my own predictions, but today, The Australian is reporting that Australia has sent a top-level delegation to Delhi to clear the way to sell uranium to India, a country that is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and has stated that it has no intention of becoming one. If such a deal goes ahead, it will fly in the face of earlier statements from Alexander Downer that to sell to one non-signatory is to invite overtures from the other two major non-signatories, Israel and Pakistan.

The argument that Australia would demand safeguards as strong as those it demanded in the recent uranium deal with China is beside the point - like arguing that it's OK to permit certain people to drive a without a licence as long as you yell `Now, drive safely, y'hear!' as they head off. The NPT is based on three principles: disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. We should not deal with countries who decide they would like to pick and choose which of these principles will apply to them.

Critics of the NPT argue that some signatories of the treaty - Iran is a good example - clearly don't have a lot of respect for those three principles. But, to use the analogy of a drivers' licence once more, this is the point of having such a nation working within rather than outside a framework. When one party steps out of line, it is much easier to subject them to oversight. If you're driving badly, a policeman pulls you over, checks your licence, docks you a few demerit points.

As I predicted, the mooted Australia-India uranium deal has reportedly used a similar India-US nuclear technology sharing deal being negotiated in the US as its jumping off point. It's expected the deal will remain stalled in US Congress until after the mid-term Congressional elections, at which the Democrats are expected to be in a better position to negotiate changes or even scuttle it - which, given the concerns expressed by anti-proliferation experts, is not out of the question. Thus, it's possible that Australia could be out on its own as a sole breaker of the NPT. It wouldn't be easy, but it would be possible. It would also, in my opinion, be an international embarrassment.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Big Night: Budget 2006

Yes, kiddies - it's the big night (or rather, the morning after - was crashed all night, apparently by bloggers eager to discuss the spoils. Or the results of the Dancing With The Stars Finale, one or the other) - the 2006 Budget. So what was in the kitty, and who's it going to?

Peter Costello played up the phenomenal performance of the Australian economy - a performance that even the likes of Gerard Henderson are now admitting is largely due to the risky, unpopular, but ultimately necessary reforms of Paul Keating as both Treasurer and Prime Minister - but also leaned heavily on the Howard Government's retiring of government debt. Curiously, he neglected the massively ballooning current account deficit.

Without further ado, some of the particulars:

- Investment in infrastructure was a major feature, including $15bn for the Auslink Programme for rail and national roads, including $800m for the Hume Highway. $307.5m for local councils to repair local roads under the Roads to Recovery Programme, and over $200m to improve interstate rail links between Melbourne and Brisbane.

- $500m for the regeneration of the Murray River System
- Umm ... didn't hear about anything else for the environment. Renewable energy initiatives? Nope. Nada. Zilch.

- $235m for new medical infrastructure including the Garvan, Victor Chang and Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

- A `new, comprehensive tax reform plan' !!! (listen up, kids - especially you, Mr Turnbull!) From 1 July, high marginal tax rates will be reduced from 47 and 42 to 45 and 40 respectively. The threshhold will be increased, so that the 15c rate kicks in at $25,000, 30c at $75,000, and the 40c at $100,000. According to Cossie, 80% of taxpayers will pay 30c in the dollar or less. A low income earner will not pay tax until their annual income exceeds $10,000. How very pleasant.
- Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts! The change in marginal rates represent a cut of anything from $120 to those earning over $150,000 to $10 for those earning $40,000. Which, where I live, is just about right for a sandwich and a milkshake ... more analysis on the specifics of the tax cuts from the Herald's Ross Gittins.

- Small business taxation will be reformed. Business tax will be cut by $3.7bn, which will keep them `ultra competitive', and changes will be made to make tax concessions for small businesses simpler.

- `More audits on high wealth individuals', eh? I'll believe that when I see it ...

- `The most important reforms in decades', apparently. Well, here they are: a proposal to exempt Australians aged 60 or over from end taxation on benefits from superannuation benefits, whether they are taken in a lump sum or as a pension. This is expected to cost the government $6bn in the first three years. Cossie was nearly wetting himself in the press conference when he announced this, so apparently, it's good ...

- Family Tax Benefit Part A will be `enhanced' (my favourite word) to a maximum $40,000.
- The Large Family Supplement will be extended to take in families with three children.
- Limits on subsidised family day care and child care places have been entirely removed. (While this is much needed, watch for ABC Learning's shares to go through the roof on this news)
- A paltry $10m for after school care. So much for the `budget for families'. Perhaps this is why it was talked up so much in the lead up - because, in the end, it delivered so little.

The Elderly
- An additional $1000 tax free to those being paid the Carer's Allowance
- Exemption of property values from income assessment for rural pensioners

- A 3% increase ($10.7bn) in defence funding, including $2.2bn for C17 Airlift aircraft, $1.5bn over ten years for `army survivability' (not sending them to pointless wars would help)
- $250m for recruitment to the ADF.
- 400 extra staff for ASIO, and $125m for ASIS

National Security
- $1.5bn over five years for national security, including $389m over four years for the intercepting of foreign illegal fishing vessels, five new `dedicated boat destruction vessels' to `protect Australia's sovereign interests'. Which I'm sure will only be used on fishing vessels.

The Arts
- $5bn to establish a new 24 hour All-Arts channel to be overseen by a dedicated Minister for the Arts ... ah, had you going for a minute there didn't I? Nope, not a whole lot mentioned by Cossie about The Yarts. Not a bean. Not a dime. And given that a billion dollars is a one with nine zeroes behind it, you'd think they could have found a few bucks under the carpet somewhere .... but I'm being naive, aren't I. Education was also decidedly under-mentioned.

And One Outside The Box ...
- $420,000 to encourage persons of multicultural backgrounds to `join surf clubs'. No word on funding to provide `Free Beer' signs for outside mosques to encourage similar reciprocal arrangements.

Well, that about wraps it up.

Now, I could be wrong, but a lot of these things appear to impinge on what are traditionally regarded as state responsibilities. I don't have a problem with funding worthy cauces, of course, but is it right to with-hold the funding at the business end (i.e. the much-maligned Commonwealth Grants Commission) and claim the plaudits for doing such things as fixing major highways? Suddenly all those grins at COAG may have been a little sheepish.

Given that we're not in an election year, there is a ton of expensive commitments here. Will the good times keep rolling? Chris Richardson of Access Economics has described the phenomena which has allowed the government to bestow such largesse as a `once in a century' windfall, which has come courtesy mostly of China, thanks to the resources boom. This being the case, is setting in stone expensive commitments like the superannuation changes rather than reforming superannuation taxes really prudent? And what does this spendfest say to the Reserve Bank's recent increase in interest rates? Keep spending, Aussies - it's the Australian way!

Comprehensive coverage at The 7:30 Report, Lateline, and PM. All coverage, you will note, comes from the truly indefatigueable ABC, an organisation that received $88.2m in tonight's Budget, an amount the ABC's chairman praised as the best result in 20 years. I hope he's right - it still falls short of the $125m recommended in the still-unreleased KPMG report on the public broadcaster. I for one am willing to double my 8c a day.

Labor's Budget Reply follows on Thursday, and while some are saying that the party has a big task on its hands, it's correct to identify the neglect of productivity as a big failing in respect to this Budget, as well as the possible inflationary impact of letting so much extra money into the economy just after the Reserve's anti-inflationary move. The Budget does little for families, and for single parents (women in particular). Rest assured the ALP will have plenty to talk about in two days' time.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Book Launch: The Wran Era

Several generations of Labor legends from several levels of government gathered today for the official launch of `The Wran Era', celebrating the 30th anniversary of the election of the Labor government which remains the most successful in NSW's history.

Apart from being an extraordinarily popular leader - his approval rating hit over 70% at the height of his popularity, a figure John Howard has never approached, and he saw five Liberal leaders come and go (two of whom, Bruce Macdonald and Peter Coleman, lost their seats in the famous `Wransides' in which Wran built a massive majority from the slim lead on which he won the 1976 election) - Neville Wran and his government introduced bodies and reforms which make Sydney what it is today. These include the establishment of the Sydney Theatre Company and Wharf Theatre, the Land and Environment Court and Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, the Historic Houses Trust, the Powerhouse Museum, and of course, allowing pubs to open on Sundays, to name a few.

The book was launched by its editor, Troy Bramston, former NSW Labor President and Prime Minister Paul Keating - as always, worth the price of admission alone, and in fine Liberal-bashing fettle. Wran himself also said a few very humble words about the book, admitting that it opened his eyes to his government's achievements, which he himself had never realised had amounted to so much.

In his speech, Keating attributed to Wran the two qualities he identified as the sole requirements of any good leader: imagination and courage. Sadly, to survey the political scene today is to find very few leaders with either quality in large amounts.

Peter Breen Joins The Team

Peter Breen, one of NSW Parliament's eight independents, has announced his decision to join the Australian Labor Party. Given the momentous nature of this news, delivering as it does another seat to the government and extending their margin even further without them having to lift a finger, it's getting almost no coverage (though it is jostling with an extraordinary number of big, network-friendly stories at the moment. Yes, we all know what those are). Breen, a former Young Liberal, originally entered parliament as a representative of the Reform the Legal System Party, and has named the Charter of Human Rights recently foreshadowed by Attorney General Bob Debus as a major catalyst behind his decision. However, he has also pledged to vote for amendments to the Majority Verdicts bill to seek exemptions for murder trials.

Are any of the remaining seven likely to follow suit? I'd judge it as pretty unlikely. But what would happen in the case of a hung parliament? There's been a lot of talk recently about this possibility following the next election - as this week's Stateline observed, the NSW Opposition are also taking the idea seriously enough for Peter Debnam to renege on an earlier pledge by deputy leader Andrew Stoner not to work with the State's independents in forming a government should the possibility arise. Frankly, should the possibility arise - and I'm still sceptical about it (though apparently the Head Office bean counters think otherwise) - I don't think the NSW Opposition would have that option. To look at the State's independents, the majority could be said to be more closely aligned to Labor than to Liberal. Richard Torbay, Peter Draper, Robert Oakeshott and Dawn Fardell would fall into this category. David Barr and Alex McTaggart I'm not so sure about - McTaggart, after all, was nearly wooed to join the Liberal Party during his now-notorious successful campaign for the blue ribbon Liberal seat of Pittwater; while Clover Moore's recent tussles with fellow councillors at the City of Sydney Council, which have seen her blame any allegations of her own mishandling of affairs on party political pettiness, mean that she's most unlikely to join or explicitly align herself with a party herself anytime soon.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Jeff Says No

Jeff Kennett has decided against a return to State politics in order to pave the way for Ted Baillieu, who has announced his intention to run for the Victorian Liberal leadership. Baillieu, heir to the Baillieu-Myer fortune (as in Coles Myer), is said to be Victoria's richest politician. Fellow MLA Terry Mulder is also expected to announce a leadership tilt, but with the support of Jeff, Baillieu is likely to be the one to make it across the line.

Well, that was a funny old 24 hours, wasn't it?

Kim Beazley's Think Tanks

As Barrie Cassidy observed this morning on ABC 702, if Kim Beazley read The Australian over breakfast this morning, he would have found a heck of a lot of people trying to give him advice.

The first piece of advice came from ALP President Warren Mundine and frankly, it's a stinker, and follows on from the dumping of the so-called `Private Schools Hit List'. Now, I've always maintained that this was a decent policy that was poorly sold. Yes, a number of extremely rich private schools stood to lose money out of the deal, and so they should have done. But a number - as large or larger - of needy schools stood to benefit enormously. The party's mistake was in emphasising the schools that would miss out rather than those that would benefit. It's difficult to say just yet, but it sounds like the policy may not have changed so much - just the way it is being sold. This is a good thing.

Mundine's advice? Don't only throw out the hit list - but pay parents to send their children to private schools. This is utter madness. The obfuscatory mantra of `choice at all costs' (for which read `we'll fund our preferred option to the eye teeth and let all the options we don't like go to the dogs ... to give the public choice') has leached into so many areas of public policy, from education to industrial relations, and Labor should not buy into it. Celebrating the idea that parents `sacrifice their lifestyles' to send their children to private schools inherently implies that public schools are the lousy option that nobody really wants to take, and that public schools, their staff, and the quality of education they provide are necessarily inferior. If the ALP genuinely wants to give people choice, undermining a public education system that does not need this sort of kick in the nuts is not the way to do it. Bravo to Beazley for giving this idea a short, sharp knock on the head.

The second piece of advice comes from Unions NSW chief John Robertson, and several other union leaders, who cast doubts on the performance of Stephen Smith as Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations. This is, I suppose, a reasonable point, and Robertson is not the first to make it. Beazley has repeatedly emphasised his belief that industrial relations will be the issue that makes or breaks the Labor Party in the next election. However, to compare Kevin Rudd's performance in relentlessly pursuing the party's other major pending issue, AWB, Smith inevitably comes up short. I doubt that average Joe - even average Joe who has been following the industrial relations issue with some level of interest - could name him in a line-up. And though Smith has been articulate and convincing when he has spoken out, this lack of profile can't help but be a problem.

Many remain disgruntled with the decision not to designate Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations as a sole position to allow the holder (Smith or otherwise) to concentrate on it. This would also alleviate the impression that the position is a `part time job', and elevate the importance of industrial relations as a portfolio - not to mention the equally important issues of industry and infrastructure, which Smith also holds, and which will be crucial in prosecuting other issues such as the skills shortage. Though Beazley has ruled out moving Smith, at least dividing his portfolio would seem a smart and logical move.

All in all, I imagine this constitutes Kim Beazley's third piece of advice for the morning :)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Lazarus to Emerge From Triple Bypass?

Rumours are rife that former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett may be set for a shock return to politics following today's resignation of Victorian Opposition Leader Robert Doyle, who is also quitting as the Member for Malvern. The Victorian Liberals have fallen deeper and deeper into disarray since Kennett's sensational 1999 defeat by the then-underdog Steve Bracks, and it looks like the state branch universally regarded as the national embarrasment may finally have smashed the glass on the `In Case Of Emergency Box'. Given that rumours have been circulating for several weeks that Kennett was considering a move to Federal politics, I wonder if the prodding had not already begun some time before Doyle's announcement, which seems to have come as a genuine surprise.

Will he do it? And if so, what chance would it have of pulling the Victorian Libs out of their quagmire?

Kennett famously used his resignation speech to admit that he realised many of his constitiuents thought he `didn't have any heart at all', but his years as chairman of the depression advocacy group Beyond Blue have contributed to both a softening of his image and a raising of his post-politics profile. However, Kennett would have to pick up an almighty swing if he's to win the next election - due in only six months - or even the one after that, as Bracks has consolidated a virtually insurmountable lead since 1999, and is widely regarded to be doing pretty well.

One former Kennett adversary, a certain John Howard, is now vocally backing a return by Kennett - but this is hardly surprising. For one, Howard would back anyone that gave the Victorian Liberals a snowball's chance in Hades of getting their act together. Secondly, a return by Kennett would be the surest way to annoy Peter Costello, who, as the biggest fish in the Victorian Lib pond, has been notably tight lipped on the idea of being re-Jeffed.

Kennett is expected to confer with family and colleagues and announce his decision within 48 hours.

Crikey, eh?

The High Court Battle Begins

The High Court battle over the constituional legality of the Federal Government's WorkChoices legislation has finally begun. The results of the case could have broader implications on other issues than just IR, as constitutional expert Greg Craven argues. A record 39 barristers are fighting the case, which will be heard by the full bench of the High Court for six days, making it the longest constitutional case in 20 years. Qld Premier Peter Beattie has gone so far as to predict that a Constitutional Convention will be required to sort out the State/Federal relationship should the case be unsuccessful. It is predicted that given the complexity of the case, it could take as long as a year to resolve, and even if it should not be wholly successful, it could result in some changes to what everyone, no matter whether they strongly agree or strongly disagree with the need for workplace reforms, believes are complex, unwieldy, and un-necessarily interventionist laws.

There are varying views as to how successful the case will be. The Sydney Morning Herald, in this round up (I love the picture), doesn't sound too optimistic, and, as it states, the tendency of the High Court is to defer to Parliament rather than challenge it, based on the principle that the Parliament is elected while the judiciary is appointed. Nevertheless, even if small concessions or breakthroughs were to result from the case, the whole exercise would be worthwhile.

And, above all, the fact remains. Australia's constitution (I won't link it; it's an abysmally dull document ... I think OzPolitics has a copy) has a clause on industrial relations and a clause on corporations. The clause on industrial relations specifically mentions that each state should have its own industrial relations system. The corporations clause mentions nothing whatsoever about IR, and has no reason to. It's a fundamental twisting of the Constitution, no matter how you look at it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Leadership Furphies

Today's headline story in The Australian suggesting that the ALP machine have put Kim Beazley's leadership on notice is, once the story itself is read, somewhat misleading, and makes an interesting juxtaposition with last night's episode of SBS's Insight (check the menu on the left for a transcript). Though there is certainly some appetite for leadership change amongst the Labor rank and file, as well as amongst some in the union movement who feel a golden opportunity to push the impact of industrial relations changes is slipping away; it seems there is no such appetite within the party room itself, at least before the next election. This balance is much the same as what was reflected on `Insight'. Does this represent some disconnect between the party room and the rank and file? Arguably, yes (yesterday's poll putting both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd ahead of Beazley would certainly suggest it). It would also form a good argument for Gillard's suggestion that factional alliances prevent rather than foster internal party democracy, when a candidate that has the clearest public support can never get chosen because of whatever faction he or she is in. However, it also reflects a good deal of pragmatism on the part of the party room. The closer the next election comes, the greater the risk of a leadership change becomes, disproportionate with the possible advantages.

Meanwhile on the other side of the political fence, there's suggestions that a poll taken in the marginal Sydney seat of Banks is the Liberal Party's way of testing the waters for a possible leadership change. Do they really think so? I'm not so sure. Given it's a marginal seat, surely there's at least as much chance that this was Labor Party polling. To my mind, if this was Liberal polling, it's the other questions that constituents were asked that prove more interesting than the ones on leadership, because a number are on issues usually considered Labor territory, including industrial relations, healthcare and education. But again, I'm certainly not as convinced as the Herald that it was Liberal rather than Labor that the questions were being asked for.

Interest Rates Up

The Reserve Bank have just announced that official interest rates have increased by one quarter of a percent. As I've often said, if such a tiny increase is enough to put you in hot water, you're in over your head anyway, and other inflationary measures - particularly the increasing oil price - already represent the equivalent of a rates rise. Experts - many of whom opposed a rise in the first place - predict this will cause a slowdown in consumer spending and spending on housing. However, Ross Gittins argues in favour of higher petrol prices in an interesting piece in the SMH today, and makes some good points. After all, we talk about $1.40 being scandalously high for a finite resource, when we pay over $3.00 for something that comes out of a cow, and will always come out of a cow, and cows are rather likely to last longer than our oil reserves.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Labor's Nuclear Showdown

What goes around certainly comes around. We sometimes forget that nuclear power is, as Paul Gunter of the Reactor Watchdog Project at the US Nuclear Information and Resource Service recently put it, `a failed energy project of the 1950s', yet given some of the enthusiastic rhetoric we've heard lately, you'd think that nuclear power was developed last year as a universal panacea to our energy woes. I can't help but be suspicious of an energy source espoused as `clean' by George W. Bush, the man recently reported by The New Yorker to have scoffed at Al Gore's enthusiasm over environmental issues, but to have invited author Michael Crichton of `Jurrasic Park' fame to the White House after reading his - fictional - book about a group of hardline environmentalists who were proven to have fabricated global warming as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Last month, Australia signed a historic agreement to sell uranium to China, which elevated it to the world's largest supplier of uranium. Given that Australia contains 40% of the world's uranium, this is unlikely to be the last deal to be signed, though with estimates that uranium will run out at the NT's Ranger Mine by 2014, the Commonwealth will rely on Labor to change its Three Mines policy to expand uranium exports. Peter Costello has threatened to use the big stick of External Affairs powers to bludgeon the states into submission, but surely this must be a furphy. Can External Affairs policies be used to change an Opposition Party's policies? According to Constitutional Law expert Greg Craven: yes, so long as the Federal Government establishes a precedent by winning its case in the Supreme Court over WorkChoices:
If it runs the way the Commonwealth wants it really will be that the Corporations power will be able to be used to let the Commonwealth do pretty well what it likes and from now on the powers of the states will be pretty much the powers that the Commonwealth wants them to have.

Scary stuff. However, it appears that the Government may not have to go that far, with Kim Beazley today taking a more decisive position on the Three Mines issue - and one which tends toward the opinion of his Shadow Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson - who has been outspoken in his desire for a change to the policy - rather than his Shadow Environment Minister, Anthony Albanese, who has been equally passionate in his defence of the current policy.

To be brutally realistic, a change in the Three Mines policy seems inevitable, given the current nuclear zeitgeist. It's a change that will not occur without a lot of bloodletting. There are people who will never agree with nuclear power. There are those, like myself, who are deeply concerned that nuclear power is being used as a wedge issue by the Right, at the expense of researching other forms of energy (or, God help us, using less energy). But given the time and circumstances, I just can't see Three Mines lasting.

If this is the case, Labor must now concentrate on establishing firm, absolutely watertight safeguarding principles surrounding the mining and trade of nuclear materials. This was not provided for in the Australia-China deal, which allows China to, for example, pass on Australian nuclear materials to third parties at their own discretion. Safeguards are also something the US appear willing to put aside should it sign off on the proposed nuclear co-operation deal with India currently being considered by US Congress. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has lobbied hard for the acceptance of the deal, even despite the fact that India is not - and, has made clear, never will be - a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Rice has argued that India have a good enough record of non-proliferation not to bother with dull administrative issues like signing the NPT. Well, I don't know that Pakistan would argue that India's been the ideal nuclear neighbour, but there you go - the US is willing to ignore that for the value of having India as a strategic ally against China. Treating one non-signatory as a special case weakens the entire NPT, and could even inspire other member nations to leave the treaty and demand similar preferential treatment.

Oh, and if US Congress does sign off on this deal - watch for the Australian Government to beat a path to India to sell truckloads of Australian uranium there, using the US deal as a precedent. And for gossake Just don't send Barnaby Joyce ... there'll be nothing left ...

I grew up not far from Lucas Heights Nuclear Reactor, and unlike many residents, this never troubled me much, because most of the componentry is underground, I believe the facility to be well run, the risk of an accident is pretty minimal, and the services the facility provides - mainly medical - are often life saving. On the other hand, on September 11th, I lived only a few suburbs away from Indian Point, a nuclear reactor dubbed Homer on the Hudson because of its not-so-funny similarities to Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Following September 11th, the evacuation procedures in the event of a catastrophic incident at Indian Point were found to be woefully inadequate. Should an incident have occurred on that day, the roads would have been clogged, an estimated twenty million people exposed to a radioactive plume, with 50,000 casualties and 100,000 cases of radiation illness. On September 11th, one of the planes flew directly over Indian Point. I need not add that downwind of Indian Point was not a pleasant place to be that day.

This is no time to be lax on nukes. Safeguards and restraint are far more important than diplomacy and economic benefit, and I certainly hope it won't take a disaster to push that point home.

Private Kovco: A Tragedy of Errors

I've tried to refrain from commenting on this fiasco. A young man has died, leaving behind two small children. This, leaving aside any issues regarding the circumstances (and I certainly don't want to add to the speculation over this), is a tragedy that belongs to his family, and his family alone. However, the death of Private Jake Kovco's is a tragedy which has become a political issue of some deep import. It shows the way the personal becomes political, and why certain issues touch the public while others just don't seem to engage. The Howard Government has expended a great deal of energy building up the fanfare of the ANZAC myth and glorifying the idea of serving your country. All this has come back to bite them, and it is not just the usual commentators crying foul, but some of the Government's greatest apologists and supporters, such as Alan Jones and John Laws.

The series of monumental blunders and yes, possible cover ups, demonstrate all the worst aspects of the Howard Government that critics have attempted to highlight over the past few years: incompetence, untrustworthiness; even the folly of privatisation, in that the trend towards selling public assets and using the excuse that they will be governed through regulation makes it easy for the Government to distance itself from service providers that are inefficient, ineffective, or corrupt - for example, AWB - but not to assume responsibility for essential services that fulfil the responsibilities every one of us should expect of governments. Such as repatriating the bodies of their dead servicemen.

No doubt there will be no sackings over this disaster, but only because there never is. For Brendan Nelson, the newly enstated Defence Minister, to speculate on the nature of Private Kovco's death before any details were confirmed, was gravely remiss, but to use the phrase `cleaning his gun' was sheer, face-slapping dreadfulness, for anyone who knows what can be read into such a phrase. But this was only topped by the jaw-dropping step of superceding this version of events by a second, different story, sparking off the myriad speculative stories that are now circulating. Nothing could be more hurtful for Kovco's family and colleagues.

It's difficult to say, as some are implying, that the fact that the Government colluded with military media spokespeople over the Children Overboard affair led the public to instantly mistrust initial reports over Private Kovco's death, but I would suggest is overstating the matter. However, it cannot be doubted that the seeds of mistrust are there, if they can spring into life so easily, and Children Overboard is just one of the incidents during which they were planted. AWB is another. We often say that people have resigned themselves to being lied to by the Howard Government, but do the passionate outcry against the events surrounding the death of Private Kovco represent a bridge too far?

It will be some time before we know the truth - perhaps never. But again, a man is dead, and two children have been left fatherless. The least he and his family are owed is the truth.