Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Monday, July 31, 2006

Leading the Banana Republic

Reports are coming in that John Howard has confirmed to party colleagues that he will stay on to fight the next election. The reports widely suggest that this isn't the answer Peter Costello would have wanted. But is that really so?

For one, it's quite possible that Howard might have stitched up a deal to win the next election and hand over to Costello soon afterwards. Such a deal would keep the Costello forces quiet until the next election, and would give Costello time to build up his credibility.

However, as we look forward to a week in which interest rates will almost certainly be lncreassed, and back on a week when the government has been forced to make the absurd claim that much of the current inflation is due to the high price of bananas, the real question is - would Howard be handing Costello a country he really wants to lead?

I wish I could remember the name of the economist who suggested the 2004 election was `a good one to lose', given the blips looming on the economic horizon (it may well have been John Edwards, but don't quote me). Given the nature of its policies, Labor has a habit of coming to power in lean times often engendered by their predecessors, only to founder as they attempt to unpick it all. The Scullin government of the late 1920s is a good example. Elected on the basis of a strong `it's time' feeling, they were out of government only two years later, after failing to deal with the effects of the Depression.

Today, it is easy to see parallels. Growth accompanies lax financial behaviour by people who figure the good times will never end. I'm certainly not suggesting a Depression is just around the corner, but the growth of the past 14 years is not something that will last forever. Given information released over the past two weeks, the end could be a lot closer than many think.

I'm a strong believer in the idea that governments stay in power by creating a society that wants to vote for them. The public has been educated for years that the economy is the only thing that really matters. You are prosperous. We are wholly responsible for this. If you want this to continue, you can't afford to vote for anyone else. This was of course the crux of the 2004 `Who Do You Trust' election. I have said many times before that I lost count of how many people actually said `I'd like to vote for Labor, but I just can't afford it because interest rates will go up to 16%'. It was a patently false message, but it cut through.

By claiming responsiblity for Australia's prosperity for so long the government paints itself into a corner. We will now hear claims that interest rates would still be higher under Labor, and treatise on the independence of the Reserve Bank. But, in the end, the government still asked `Who do you trust?' in the last election. For some voters, the answer may be `You. And you failed us'.

Technical Difficulties

As you can see, I haven't been posting much recently, and the posts I have put up are without links. I apologise for this - after telling one of my fellow bloggers exactly how wonderful the Apple iBook G4 is, mine has never stopped breaking down since (it's not a great sign when, after you take your computer to the shop to be fixed, the technicians look at each other and say `Whoa. Gee. I've never heard of a computer doing that. Ever.')

Things should be back to normal by the end of the week, or whenever I throw the damn thing out the window and buy another. Whichever comes first.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Year of the Iemma Era

Has it really been only a year since Bob Carr resigned as NSW Premier? In some ways, it feels like yesterday, but in many more, it's like another age - especially as John Brogden followed him so soon afterwards.

It's not surprising that nobody has a very clear sense of Carr's legacy yet. After all, it's only this year that the first thorough appraisal of the Wran government was published. Unlike Wran, it cannot be said that Carr necessarily left on a high note. One of the things that currently makes looking back on his time in government so difficult is that we tend to forget that, prior to the previous election, Carr was bulletproof. He was talked of as Prime Ministerial material; one of those golden politicians who can do no wrong. The Opposition just weren't in the game. In his final term, problems started to creep in as imperceptibly as Carr eventually crept out. Whether these problems were postponed during the earlier time or were inevitable at some point will be the things historians in ten or twenty years will get to pick over.

The current government have worked hard to attempt to differentiate themselves from the Carr era, and attempts by the Opposition to describe them as the `Carr-Iemma Government' have been largely unsuccessful. Naturally, it's just as hard to objectively assess Morris Iemma's first year in the job. It certainly hasn't been an easy one, but many of the policy focuses he announced at State Conference were surprisingly progressive - domestic violence, mental health, caring for the disabled. Time will, of course, tell how successfully these policies will be implemented - as will the public at the ballot box, though given the rabble that currently occupies the Opposition benches, I honestly can't see too many people - even politically sympathetic people - trusting them to take over control of Australia's most powerful state.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Question of Consultation

Today's Law Reform Commission report floating the notion of allowing juries to participate in sentencing opens an interesting issue, and there's many ways to look at it.

The idea has, of course, gone over very well with the soft justice lobby - those who monopolise talkback airwaves following major crimes and sentences, mouthing the axiom that judges are `out of touch', and the sentences they deliver `not in keeping with community expectations'. However, as the Daily Telegraph (of all places) notes, the idea would also deprive these same callers of their ability of blaming politicians and judges for sentences they judge too lenient.

My immediate response to this comes from the mouth of Toby Ziegler of `The West Wing' : `Aw, c'mon! It's not meant to be a show of hands!'. The legacy of classical Greek democracy has left us with the romantic notion that decisions made by the public are inherently correct (though the public of Ancient Greece didn't include women or slaves). The theory of the democratic deficit suggests that this legacy is partially responsible for the mistrust of modern governments.

Perhaps to address this problem, public consultation is increasingly seen as an essential part of policymaking. No decision on where to put a highway, build a piece of infrastructure, or even introduce a new sort of chocolate bar has been done after extensive consultation. Currently, the town of Toowoomba is holding a referendum on whether it will allow recycled sewage to be fed into the water supply. Meanwhile, the NSW Government is offering a system of online (though fairly limited) consultation on its State Plan. Meanwhile, in some Scandanavian countries, citizens are summoned to participate in government policymaking as Australians are summoned to serve on juries.

Does consultation actually result in better policies? Optimistic consultation theorists suggest that the more someone knows about a topic, the more likely they are to be able to make the best decision. Pessimistic ones argue that consulation is a clever way that unsympathetic organisations can make people feel as if they are involved in decision making without having any requirement to follow their recommendations on one hand and, on the other, absolve themselves if the wrong decision is made, or gently prod proceedings in a certain direction and claim a ringing endorsement of the `right' decision by the wider public (the Republic referendum springs to mind here).

I think I'm somewhere in between these two views. I hate nothing more than someone who holds a passionate, and passionately misinformed, view. Consultation processes can engage and educate people who usually rely on others to make the hard decisions for them. Ideally, this would be what occurs on a jury. However, this is also what already happens on a jury. Giving total sway on sentencing to a body of people without the experience of countless similar, dissimilar, better and worse cases that a judge has, sounds pretty undesirable to me - and, I would imagine, the government if they think hard about it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Yo, Bush!

It's been a pretty grim week all round, as the Middle East slides further towards the all-out chaos we always said it would. I don't know about you, but every time George W. Bush says that Syria and Iran should not get involved in the Lebanon-Israel conflict, it sounds to me more like he's daring them to bring it on. Not a good thing.

What a week it's been for Bush - first the open mic jive talking with Tony Blair, then the whole getting to second base with Angela Merkel thing. I'm starting to wonder - is his regular puppetmaster simply on holidays? Is it Cheyney? Is it Karl Rove? It all reminds me of the story I once heard that towards the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan's minders would delicately steer him towards a helicopter whenever his comments started to get a little weird so that his voice would be drowned out by the sound of the blades.

Such people leading the free world? Sometimes, ya just gotta have a sardonic, subversive laugh.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Miranda Devine Turns Comical Ali

I've tried to avoid giving Miranda Devine's article on the factional turmoil within the NSW Liberals any more space than it deserves - mainly for the reason that, despite my firm belief that to ignore the opinions and methods of the enemy is to surrender the ability to defeat that enemy, I honestly don't believe her constituency or influence are particularly large. When it comes down to it, just as few people are authentically far-Right wing as are authentically far-Left. Instead, the Devines of the world function in much the same way as do horror movies - to provoke a momentary thrill, to get the heart pumping and the anger raging, but to do very little beyond that.

To spare you the pain of reading the article, Devine's essential thesis is this: the right wing junta currently consuming the NSW Liberals is nothing more than a perfectly reasonable reaction to the phenomenon of political correctness inflicted on the world by the Left. Thus, it's only right to allow the poor petals who have had to hide away their homophobia and racism for all these years to let it rip now.

Defending the indefensible only makes the defender look sillier and out of touch, something reflected in the reaction to this article. Moreover, the fact that it is not only from the usual opponents but members of the Liberal Party's own constituency joining the outcry demonstrates the real electoral danger in such a combative attitude.

No, Miranda - and for that matter, no, Christian Kerr of Crikey. The current goings on of the Clarke faction are not merely `activists who want to play hardball '. They're a very real threat to genuine democracy (you know, that thing we're always trying to franchise to the Middle East and Asia), that exists across the Australian political spectrum. And that's bad new for everyone, not just the Liberal Party.

Now that the rat is out of the bag, the focus should now turn to defeating the problem. To this end, September's Fabian Society meeting - themed `Are Factions Destroying the Labor Party' - will be a significant one.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Peter Breen's Cranial Trouser Cough

There's a phrase - possibly coined by Britney Spears, as she's the first person I ever heard use it - which instantly sprang to mind when considering the misadventures of Peter Breen MLC today. However, this blog is far too sophisticated and highbrow to use the phrase `brain fart'. It's a rather less delicate way of expressing the notion of the `thought bubble', which is rapidly gaining favor in the political vocabulary, to define a controversial or just plain silly opinion expressed without warning by a politician who really should have known better and will now feel the wrath of his or her embarrassed party.

In retrospect, Breen should never have been a member of any mainstream party. He's exactly the sort of strongly opinionated, loose cannon, champion-of-the-underdog sort of politician that appeals to supporters of independents. Apply that formula to the political discipline required by a mainstream party - let alone the ruling party - and you've got disaster. As an independent, part of your mandate is to come out with left-of-field comments and opinions. You are only ever representing yourself; not a government and not a party, and any influence you will have will be to nibble at the edges of mainstream policy. Being a member of a party, and representative not only of your constituents but the principles held by that party, is a whole new ball game. This is something that Breen clearly didn't understand.

Of course, Breen is entirely free to hold the views he does, and therefore I think Police Minister Carl Scully was unwise to say Breen's book `belonged in the bin'. Nevertheless, his apparent surprise at the outcry - which would have occurred regardless of what party he was or wasn't in - was in itself quite astounding. He must have been naive indeed to assume that his opinions and the way he expressed them would not eventually end up as a tailormade Outrage of the Day for the likes of the Daily Telegraph and Ray Hadley. At his later press conference, he initially appeared to misconstrue the furore as being that his comments may have been perceived as homoerotic, and then complained that attention was only being paid to the case because Janine Balding's mother had `gone troppo'.

If that's not forehead smacking, fist chomping, eye clenching brain flatulence, I don't know what is.

Morris Iemma has received widespread praise for expelling Breen from the party, but - to use another hated political cliche - the takeaway from this is that the idea of wooing independents to help shore up numbers may have been a bit of a brain fart in itself.

Monday, July 17, 2006

`Unworthy and Unfit to Continue'

This post is worthwhile simply to ensure that the following hilarious picture receives the wide exposure it so richly deserves. Yes, the Costello smirk has been part of our political landscape for longer than we might have thought.

However, given the shenanigans of the past week, it's interesting to look a little further in to the, erm, `illustrious' career of Patrick Costello, the great-great grandfather of Peter Costello, who, in 1861, achieved the dubious distinction of being the first politician ever to be thrown out of an Australian parliament, only three months after his election.

Costello, an Irish Catholic immigrant, was the owner of two pubs before beginning his political career at Melbourne City Council in 1855 and later becoming a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Here is where it gets interesting. During the election for the seat of Mornington, Costello secretly organised for a number of foreigners to be brought in via steamship to take on the identities of deceased voters in the electorate. He was jailed for approximately four months.

To quote a 2003 NSW Government report on the history of the expulsion of members:
[The grounds were] electoral fraud (specifically the misdemeanour of ‘ personation’). Although a jury had found Costello guilty, technically his expulsion occurred before the Supreme Court had delivered its final decision. That was a matter of some concern to several Members who spoke to the resolution. After a lengthy debate, however, the resolution to expel Costello, as ‘unworthy and unfit to continue as a member of this House’, was carried without a division.

If only it were so easy, thinks Howard ...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sandra Nori Quits - What Now?

Following months of heated speculation, as they say in the classics, Sandra Nori, the Member for Port Jackson (now known as Balmain), has announced she will retire from NSW Parliament after a 19 year political career. It had been rumoured for some time that Nori, the Minister for Tourism and Sport and Recreation, Minister for Women, and Minister Assisting the Minister for State Development, would outline her departure before the next election, possibly to avoid a challenge under new rules which oblige all sitting Members, including Ministers, to undergo formal preselection. Now that this scenario has been avoided, attention will now turn to the issue of choosing a successor.

Two names have consistently come up in relation to the seat - Leichhardt councillor and former Mayor Alice Murphy, and City of Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor Verity Firth. Both are talented, both are hard working, both have strong grassroots support and, coincidentally, both are new mothers. Of the two, Firth has the higher profile, though Murphy is well liked in the Leichhardt Council area for campaigning on a number of local issues. Nori's pre-selection will come up in September (if memory serves me correctly). In the politically rarefied atmosphere of the inner city, it's likely to be an exciting race.

Goward's Uphill Battle

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward has finally made her run for the seat of Epping official and, as of right now, is officially the only contestant. In reality, we all know that right-wing candidate Greg Smith is very much in the race. Peter Debnam is keeping to his tired official line about a `Melbourne Cup field', but unless Goward is the only contender - which is still possible, but very unlikely - it's going to be an ugly fight that shows the hard right factions that have overtaken the State party in all its glory.

Speaking of which, Goward could have not hoped for better timing for the ABC to air their upcoming Four Corners episode on (to quote) `allegations of vote rigging, intimidation, and branch stacking' within the NSW Liberal Party. Though John Hewson and a former staffer of disendorsed Wentworth candidate Peter King will be featured, no sitting Liberals have agreed to speak on-air to the programme. This is hardly surprising, given that the last MP who did, Patricia Forsythe, promptly lost her preselection. However, it could also be argued that their enforced silence speaks even more eloquently about the seriousness of the situation than any interview could. Just as rumours that either Goward or Smith would be sped into the NSW Cabinet upon election speak about the confidence Peter Debnam must have in his sitting Shadow Ministers ...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Today We Are One!

I'm very happy to say that Modia Minotaur has reached its first birthday today.

When I began this blog, I certainly didn't expect it to amount to much, other than a way to amuse myself at work, and a way to provide a perspective on politics as it is refracted through the always-imperfect lense of the mainstream media. I certainly didn't anticipate my blog being featured in Crikey's Blogwatch section, and even the Weekend Australian.

When you look at it, it wasn't a bad year to start blogging - we saw the resignations of Bob Carr, John Brogden and Geoff Gallup; the Federal Government assume control of the Senate, the adventures of Barnaby Joyce, the march of WorkChoices, the disintegration of the Bush Administration, and now, turmoil in the Federal Liberal Party. Not to mention the sad end of many great blogs like Redrag and Margo Kingston's Webdiary, and the transformation of others, such as Wsacaucus and Cut Price Commentariat.

Nevertheless, it doesn't seem too long ago that I was telling a fellow blogger `Well, I just don't see the point of blogs. All that banging on about nothing in particular ...'

Clearly, I've since learned the point. It's a point that becomes especially important as we face a government increasingly eager to close off other avenues for the sort of alternate opinions that are seen in the blogosphere. Recently, Guy at Polemica said that a vocal minority - even if it is a minority - carries more weight than a silent majority, by virtue of their desire and effort to speak out. It's an idea I tend to agree with. Though I have no time for people who do nothing, I have even less time for people who complain endlessly about what's wrong in the world but go to no effort to fix it. Blogging may not change the world, but at least it gets us discussing about ways to go about it.

This week, my readership is at an all-time high - I'd like to say it's because of my scintillating writing; in fact, it could have something to do with my posts on Alan Jones - and I'd really like to thank everyone who has visited the site over the past year, linked to it, mentioned it and or just plain gave it the time of day. It means a lot to think my opinion is worth something. And thank you, as always, for your opinions too. I hope to see as many of you as possible at's upcoming get-together.


George Williams for Parliament

Constitutional law expert Professor George Williams has today announced his desire to enter politics as a candidate for the ALP. He has already been involved in a number of government processes at both State and Federal level, most famously as part of the Constitutional Convention on the Australian republic. More recently, he co-ordinated the public consultation process for Victoria's Charter of Rights, and participated highly in the process that recently saw the NSW ALP commit to a similar process.

Though I'm uncomfortable with the notion of parachute candidates - we can talk all we like about what a great choice Peter Garrett was (and there is absolutely no doubt that he was), but I also lived in the seat that former ABC director David Hill was dropped into. Danna Vale's held it ever since. The notion that Williams is allegedly being courted for a NSW cabinet position is even more discomfiting. Profile or no profile, I'm a strong believer in the idea of paying your dues. Nevertheless, Williams' expertise and experience would make for a fine policy mind and a great addition to the state or, more ideally, the Federal caucus.

My bold suggestion? The recent redistribution has left one Sydney MP in a more precarious position than he would have hoped, having lost many silvertails and picked up an uncomfortably large proportion of latte lefties. Wouldn't it be interesting to see Williams challenge fellow republican Malcolm Turnbull and become the first ALP candidate since the legendary Jessie Street to have a genuine chance of winning the prized seat of Wentworth?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

And Many Happy Returns ...

... for one E. Gough Whitlam, who turned ninety today. He could hardly have hoped for a better birthday present than the current events in Federal politics - events which prompted fellow former PM Bob Hawke to break into an impromptu rendition of `Oh What A Beautiful Morning'.

And so he should. Any day where Gough Whitlam is in the house and Liberals are at one anothers' throats is a pretty good day to me. Live long and strong, comrade!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


I attempted to start this post a dozen times but I couldn't quite work out what to say. Now, I realise why. Essentially, the story hasn't moved. After a day filled with such anticipation and excitement, the whole thing's ground to a halt.

For now.

Howard's press conference today on The Leadership Issue was a classic Teflon John performance - a clear attempt to steer the agenda back on course without answering any questions whatsoever. When it comes down to it, Howard is essentially asking both the public and his party exactly the same question he asked at the last election: who do you trust? It's the question he's been asking since becoming Prime Minister. The implied answer is what has kept him there: There's nobody you can trust but me.

Currently, the general consensus is that the turmoil has damaged Peter Costello's ambitions far more than it has helped them - perhaps even dealt them a fatal blow. The real worry for Costello is backbenchers like Peter Lindsay, who has gone on record as a strong supporter of Costello, who saw him as a worthy heir apparent - until the events of the past 48 hours. Costello's backers have always used the argument of a `seamless departure' to push their case, and this is now impossible. Worse for Costello, as ANOP pollster Rod Cameron put it, Costello's conduct makes him look like a `weak and vacillating man with no leadership credentials' (thanks again to PM).

The great irony in this is the fact that it was Howard, not Costello, who was duplicitous - Howard who implied or told Costello he would bow out after two terms to win his support but then reneged on his deal. As always, he dives into the dungheap and succeeds in coming out smelling like roses.

However, the ticking time bomb in his cabinet room has still not been defused. The longer Howard holds out, the larger that elephant in the room is going to become. As we've long known, John Howard is a Prime Minister who has always been very unwilling to detail an exit strategy. Or say sorry. Pretty soon, he's going to have to do both.

US Farmers Sue AWB

Here's a story that will slip under the radar. American and Canadian wheat exporters plan to sue AWB over the Oil for Food scandal, to the tune of $1bn. It was these same farmers who were amongst the first to note the anomalies in AWB's transactions with Iraq, and to garner the support of the same members of Congress who later helped launched an enquiry into the Oil for Food programme.

Though arguments were made at the time that these powerful markets were simply attempting to carve out a larger slice of the world wheat market - and it can't be denied that there was a certain commercial impetus to their push - but it's still interesting to note that much of the allegations and evidence they provided was already in the public domain before the Australian government figured out there was a problem.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Costello vs Howard: The Gloves REALLY Come Off

Another Emperor has shed his clothes, and all of a sudden, everything has changed. Peter Costello has angrily dismissed John Howard's claim that no leadership deal was made in 1994. Though refusing to directly label Howard a liar, as the rest of us have for so many years, he has essentially described him as one by implication. Costello's implication that Howard used such an informal deal as leverage for an unchallenged party vote for the leadership - an element not mentioned by Ian McLachlan - is even more damaging.

It's odd, this Emperor's New Clothes phenomena. We've all known that Costello has been mad as a cut snake for so long, yet in coming out and actually admitting it, the stakes change entirely.

Howard's statement earlier this morning was poorly judged - as events have proven, he would have been far better served by being totally open, enunciating very clearly that an informal deal was discussed, but that Costello either misinterpreted it or should have considered the deal null and void by later circumstances. It's also impossible to think that the issue was never raised again since the 1994 discussion, and Howard must now survive the damage that each revelation will exact. After ten years of hard-fought stability, there is open warfare between the two most powerful politicians in Australia. The Howard Government may have finally reached its Waterloo.

On ABC Radio this afternoon, Costello's Shadow Minister, Wayne Swan proclaimed that Costello must resign if he cannot resolve the issue immediately. Swan's position is hardly surprising, but a number of commentators are now joining the call. Gerard Henderson for one has said that Costello's proclamation will now force Howard to make a decision one way or the other, something he has been demonstrably unwilling to do thus far. It's really a Catch-22, because Tony Blair's current calamities (well, some of them) can be attributed to his decision to, unlike Howard, admit to a succession deal.

Not that it's clean sailing for Costello, either. Coming out and publicly slanging Howard can be seen as a desperate measure made by a man who knows he doesn't have the numbers. Being petulant about it is hardly a good way to increase them. As I said earlier, there's not a lot of sympathy in the Australian public for people being elevated without public endorsement. As much as it pains me to say it, Howard is popular and, as I said earlier, there seems no great public mood for a change of leadership. If Costello does become PM, will his method of getting there cruel the pitch? Or will he be shoved aside for a Howard favourite such as Tony Abbott? Reader talkback on both and the SMH provide an interesting perspective of the possible electoral impact of these scenarios.

What happens next? Will Costello, like Andrew Peacock and Paul Keating before him, move to the back bench as a sign that his push is real? As Swan suggested, will their enmity prove so large that their working relationship completely deteriorates, effecting such things as COAG? Though the latter's unlikely, we could soon see the former. It's going to be interesting. It's the title bout we've all been waiting for.

I have to admit it - there's a real excitement in the air. Something's finally happening, and it's happening now.

A full transcript of Costello's statement is available here. Unfortunately, I do not have a transcript of Howard's extremely strange doorstop reply to Costello's statement as yet, which went something like `Hooray, it's a beautiful, lovely day and let's all be friends with one another and live in peace' (I'm not kidding). It will be on the ABC PM website forthwith.

Costello vs Howard: The Gloves Come Off

I didn't mean to add to it in my previous post, but it looks like Peter Costello's backers have begun a well co-ordinated plan to hoist him into the top job, with former Liberal MP Ian McLachlan revealing that Howard and Costello had worked out a leadership handover deal in 1994 - claims that have subsequently been denied outright by Howard. His usual media pals, such as Glenn Milne have come out in force to suggest that Howard's time is over. I never thought I'd see the Daily Telegraph using the famous `Mean, Tricky and Dishonest' quote as their banner headline.

Costello's supporters must know that Costello does not have the numbers, either within the party or the public, to oust Howard. Obviously, the intent of planting such stories is to gradually change the opinions of both - to paint Howard as sneaky for going back on his promise to the public, and to suggest to the party room that Costello's ascendancy is not only long overdue but was endorsed by Howard. However, as Peter Hartcher suggests, such a technique could backfire in both instances. The result of the Pittwater by-election shows us how little regard people have for back-room dealing and the manoevering of politicians into places to which the public has not voted them. The ALP has attempted to demonstrate how mean, tricky and dishonest Howard is for ten years, and it hasn't stuck. More crucially, I just can't see that the story is enough for many backbenchers to switch their allegiances.

No doubt the story will continue, but as Cut Price Commentariat opines - what good will it do? The media influences public opinion, but generally, they build mountains on grains of truth, suspicion or prejudice, whereas the recent reports don't appear to be a reflection of any real political or public will to get rid of Howard.

A shame, of course ...

Peter Costello's New Federalism

Peter Costello has proclaimed that, if it ever comes (and the Prime Minister stops going back on his word), he will make Federalism an election issue, including the complete takeover of such things as health, education and infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the states ain't happy.

Costello's push continues a trend under the current government, and one that's not popular with everyone. Coalition MP Bronwyn Bishop even argued that such a move would be tantamount to `socialism'. And if it's one thing we can't have, it's socialism, it's bloody unAustralian. But seriously, it's often forgotten - especially recently - that equal power between State and Federal governments was enshrined in the Constitution at Federation. Today, an increasing level of power is being apportioned to the Federal Government, and some elements would prefer even more.

What allowed the shift to occur? Primarily, Australia's system of government, which, given that it combines elements of the UK and US's parliamentary structures, is sometimes called the `Washminster system'. The hybrid of a system which enshrines strong executive powers with state-based Federalism has always contained tensions, and it was almost inevitable that the Federal government would - as it is in the US - become the dominant force, even despite such measures as the establishment of the Senate as (ostensibly) the State's house. We have now moved so far from this concept that the Labor-controlled States are technically represented by a Coallition-controlled Senate.

States themselves have also handed over a fair amount of power - industrial relations in Victoria, income tax collection in all states during WWII. Partially as a result of the latter, states now face a rapidly shrinking taxation base. People continually demand better services, more reliable public transport, well-staffed hospitals and safe roads. However, taxes are unpopular, and people don't want to pay them, so they are cut or reduced in reaction to the pressure of the public and lobby groups. Poker machine tax and housing stamp duties are two examples. And, as the NSW Government in particular argues, the Commonwealth Grants Scheme was established before Queensland and WA began hitting above their weight economically.

Nevertheless, Australians appear nervous about centralisation. The fact that state Labor governments are just as entrenched as the Federal Coalition is a demonstration of this. The demands of say, the Northern Territory could not be met by a one-size-fits-all approach. It could even be argued that the States, to a certain extent, have been pushed into the role of houses of review. In some cases, State-based laws have been passed to mitigate the impact of Federal laws - WorkChoices is a good example. At the very least, they provide a counterbalance to centralised and overweening power.

Nobody would argue that elements of the relationship need to be adjusted and standardisation would help in some areas given the changes that have occurred since Federation. But if Costello is serious about changing the Constitution that monarchists endlessly tell us `ain't broke', it is more likely that he will face well-founded concerns about the Coalition government's increasing desire for power, not support. The fact that the system is not working is not an argument to dismantle it, but augment it.

The Brogden Dirt File

Pittwater MP Alex McTaggart's decision to reveal his claims that Howard hard man Bill Heffernan offered him a dirt file on former Pittwater MP John Brogden is very interesting.

If the story is true, what was Heffernan's purpose? It may as easily have been to sour McTaggart's chances as to boost them. It's difficult to find a tactical reason for the Liberals - Brogden was already gone. On the other hand, McTaggart eventually won by running a pretty clean campaign, throwing into relief the internal party chaos that accompanied Brogden's deposal and the parachuting in of a machine candidate for the seat. The suggestion that he, too, was indulging in dirty tactics and reading dirt files would have counted significantly against McTaggart.

However, if it isn't true, McTaggart's motives are equally intriguing. Firstly, the notion of Heffernan stomping in and announcing himself as `the man who does John Howard's dirty work' seems pretty implausible, even though we all know he is - it's like a movie villain announcing `Yes, I'm the baddie'. Secondly, McTaggart won the election based on the same appeal that all independents offer their constituents: a spirit of `us vs them' and an ethos of `you can't trust the parties, you can only trust me'.

As the 2007 election approaches,and given the tendency of seats lost by major parties in by-elections being returned to them in subsequent elections (Cunningham is one such example), keeping alive the feeling that the party that will be McTaggart's main challenger is underhanded and run by machine men would be a good way of shoring up the support of the 20-odd percent of his constituents who swung towards him in the by-election.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Alan Jones Syndrome

The Emperor's new clothes are off, and the things people have only whispered about previously are out in the open. It's a good demonstration of exactly how indivisible the media has become from politics.

Michael Costa, in a very silly move, has resurrected an issue that everyone had already forgotten about and sued Nova 96.9 for defamation after a prostitute claimed on air that he was a client of hers. The irony of this is, of course, that very few people knew it was Costa that the woman had mentioned, while now everybody does.

Meanwhile, following revelations on this week's Media Watch that ABC Board made the decision to axe `Jonestown', 2UE's Mike Carlton has enunciated what anyone who has ever listened to his `Friday News Review' knows he believes: that Alan Jones is homosexual, or at very least, has had homosexual relationships. 2GB's response to this was puerile - focusing mainly on the fact that Carlton's show gets lower ratings than Jones' does.

An interesting article in today's Sydney Morning Herald which looks at the increase in regulation since the Howard Government has brought in since its election, despite paying lip service to the notion of `small government', suggests an increasing number of regulations are prompted by media outcry. Ironically, this phenomena is described as `the Alan Jones syndrome'. The current Big Brother furore is a good example, with Communications Minister Helen Coonan now discussing government regulation of streaming video as a direct result. At best, such behaviour takes advantage of the public mood to push through valuable changes. At worst - and this is the way it tends to lean - governments make kneejerk legislative reactions to stories that everyone - Alan Jones and the Daily Telegraph - would have forgotten about in a week. The raft of new law-and-order legislation that came in after the Cronulla riots is one example of legislation catering to public opinion rather than doing much to solve the problem that caused the fracas in the first place.

To quote the article:
Effective leadership entails risk-taking and cannot be regulated away, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in a speech last year calling for a reduction in over-government and regulation. Calling for "a sensible debate about risk in public policy making", he said governments had become risk-averse due to pressure from the media and the combative political system.

In the face of rapid technological change, people wanted more certainty and they turned to governments to provide it, Blair said. "A natural but wrong response is to retreat in the face of this change, to regulate to eliminate risk, to restrict rather than enable."

His solution is a different response to public pressure: "Instead of the 'something must be done' cry that goes up every time there is a problem or a 'scandal', we make make it clear we will reflect first and regulate only after reflection."

The pressure on governments, and more recently, the board of the ABC (not to mention the management of Channel 9), to stamp out short term spot fires rather than making courageous, gutsy decisions that will have a greater long term benefit is stronger than ever. The real shame is that in many cases, the agenda is determined by figures such as John Laws and Alan Jones. Perhaps Jones now realises the uncomfortable feeling of having the agenda pulled from under him. More likely - unlike Michael Costa - he will push on as if nothing has happened, to ensure the agenda ends up back in his hands.

Former Media Watch producer David Salter continues on the theme of the ABC Board's cowardice at The Australian.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Redistribution: Gwydir Lost But Andren Loses Out

The results of the Federal distribution are in. The rural seat of Gwydir, currently held by former Nationals leader John Anderson, who has already announced his decision not to contest the next election, is to be abolished; thus - technically - no sitting member will be disadvantaged.

Tell that to Peter Andren, the Member for Calare, whose support base of Bathurst has been sliced off his seat in the carve-up. Andren, formerly a high-profile local journalist, represents everything the Nationals fear most - a popular Independent holding a comfortable majority in an area which should, as far as they are concerned, be the Nationals heartland (though its most famous former local member is of course the Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley). Now, the seat is notionally National, and there is speculation that in order to retain this support base, Andren may be forced to shift seats. Given that the redistribution necessarily leaves the Nationals with one less seat, they'll be fighting tooth and nail to oust Andren.

No party is particularly pleased with the changes (which, given that the Australian Electoral Commission is supposed to be imparital, is how it should be) - however, despite rumours to the contrary, the changes to Bennelong mean local member, John Howard is not only sitting in a marginal seat, but an even more marginal one. However, I doubt the speculation that this may encourage Howard to bow out gracefully (nevertheless, the prospect of the Ratty One being voted out of his own seat is delectable ...) One seat that looks a good prospect for Labor is the outer Sydney seat of LIndsay - held by the increasingly flaky Jackie Kelly - a seat which the ACTU reports has been particularly responsive to its campaign on WorkChoices.

More info at the AEC website, as well as excellent commentary by the indefatiguable Poll Bludger and the more fatiguable Oz.

It Begins

Today marks the first anniversary of the Coalition's control over the Senate, and what a year it's been. It's also the starting day for many of the controversial pieces of legislation rammed through during that extraordinary year. Yes, there's increases in the Baby Bonus and, unless you're very rich, minor tax cuts. But for disadvantaged people - the disabled, low income earners, migrants, single parents, and the unemployed - the outlook is bleak, given the so-called Welfare to Work reforms that come into force today.

As I've said before, the impact of these changes was largely lost under the weight of outrage over WorkChoices, but they merit equal condemnation. Amongst the changes are a new `three strikes' welfare policy, in which single mothers and the disabled who are not deemed to be looking for a job with sufficient vigor are taken off welfare payments for two months. Yes, that's two months. As a workplace union delegate, I once presided over a case in which workers were protesting the company's attempt to stop pay for one week. One employee estimated that, after such things as child support and mortgage payments, he would end up with $5 per day to eat. But two months?

Sure, when a conservative government's looking for a free kick, single mothers are always available to take the blame for society's ills. But the disabled? That's clever.

There is barely an expert or industry body that doesn't believe that the real barrier to increased workplace participation is not the idea of a mother of three or wheelchair bound man being too lazy to look for a job - it's addressing the skills shortage via education and training, the two issues that were most woefully overlooked in this year's Budget. Unlike WorkChoices, whose full impact is a slow burning one, those deprived as a result of Welfare to Work will feel the sting immediately, and it's not likely to be pretty. Nor should it be.

More analysis of the impacts of the legislation at Australian Policy Online.