Monday, April 21, 2014

The 44th: Where are the Real Solutions?

Tony Abbott has always been a curious character in Australian politics. He was effective as a minister in John Howard’s government, and triumphant as Opposition Leader because he has the political instincts of a cornered Rottweiler.

As Prime Minister, we are yet to see if he can deal with the actuality of governing.

Remember the ubiquitous Liberal pamphlet entitled Real Solutions for all Australians? Remember the slightly vague policies that were released as little more than handy slogans, and were rarely discussed in any detail.

The contents of the pamphlet were the Liberal Party’s election manifesto – their handbook to winning, their campaign talking points and their promise to Australian voters.

Here, in these pages, is the stronger Australia – a truly 21st Century Australia – that the next Coalition Government will build.

I didn't keep my copy of the Liberal pamphlet, but due to a catastrophic lack of trust in the Liberal Party, I kept a soft copy, complete with those juicy little talking-point-sized “policy priorities”. As we approach Treasurer Hockey’s first budget, seems as good a time as any to revisit the Liberal’s Real Solutions for all Australians, and see what progress is being made against the areas that the Coalition identified as their priorities for government.

1  1. We will build a stronger, more productive and diverse economy with lower taxes, more efficient government and more productive businesses that will deliver more jobs, higher real incomes and better services for you and your family.

The Reality

This statement is an equivocal catchall, with plenty of vague concepts that make the feel warm and fuzzy about life with a Liberal-Coalition government. Even if people were to read no further, this statement is positive and comforting. Post-election, the reality looks less certain.

  •  Taxes are unlikely to be lowered as the debt has doubled since the election.
  • Unemployment for March 2014 is at 6.0%, 0.2% higher than when the Coalition Government won office in September 2013. The unemployment rate in January was the higher than at any time during the Rudd-Gillard years, which included the GFC.
  • The average adult wage for the September 2013 quarter was $1420.90. Childcare and Aged Care workers had their pay rises revoked.
  • Better services is a subjective measure. The following changes have been made to services provided by the federal government:

o   Compensation to victims of bushfires has been reduced
o   Twelve advisory groups abolished
o   Medicare offices on are now closed on Saturdays
o   The Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia has been axed
o   The Multicultural Communities Programme has been axed
o   Funding for the Indigenous Legal Services has been reduced
o   The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has been defunded
o   The Food Grants programme for small farmers has been axed
o   The tiny welfare payment to orphans of ADF members has been discontinued

        2. We will get the budget back under control, cut waste and start reducing debt – to keep interest rates low as possible and to protect the Australian economy from future economic shocks.

The Reality

This statement is predicated on the assumption that the budget was out of control – an assumption not shared by the IMF, the three major credit ratings agencies and the rest of an envious world. The reality of a healthy economy makes this Liberal objective redundant. Despite that, the Abbott Government and Treasurer Joe Hockey have succeeded in reversing the situation, leaving room for improvement where little opportunity existed before.

  • According to the Australian Financial Review, “Australia has posted the fastest budget deterioration over the past six months of any of the world’s 29 most advanced economies tracked by the International Monetary Fund”. This would indicate that the budget is out of Joe Hockey’s  control 
  • Mr Hockey has effectively doubled the budget deficit, adding $68 billion over the forward estimates in MYEFO
  • 300 jobs from the Department of Treasury have been cut along with thousands from other departments
  • According to the Government, it’s all Labor’s fault

3. We will help families to get ahead by freeing them from the burdens of the carbon tax - to protect Australian jobs and reduce cost-of-living pressures, especially rising electricity prices and gas prices.

The Reality

The Carbon Tax has not been repealed, and will not be repealed until the new Senate is sworn in in July. Even then, it’s not a certainty, although with the Palmer United Party holding the balance of power in the Senate, it does look likely.
  • The Government has also introduced legislation to allow employers to pay junior wages – half the minimum wage, to workers under 25. This may encourage some employers to employ more people, but younger workers will find it impossible to live on half the minimum wage, so cost of living pressures will be insurmountable for those under 25.
  • The Home Energy Saver Scheme, which helped low income households to reduce their energy consumption and hence electricity bills, has been axed.
  • There doesn’t seem to be any provision for the instance where removing the Carbon Tax does not reduce electricity prices – and there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will.

    4. We will help small businesses grow and create more jobs – by reducing business costs and cutting red and green tape costs by $1 billion every year.

The Reality

The entire Australian economy is now under more pressure than it was at any time under the previous Labor government, including during the GFC. Businesses of all sizes are suffering. At this time, there have been no specific measures to support SMEs, aside from the following changes

  • Tax arrangements for small businesses were amended, effective January 1 2014. 
  • The government has introduced Repeal Days, an initiative with it’s own website dedicated to the red tape being cut.

On Wednesday 19 March, following a statement by the Prime Minister, the Government introduced legislation and tabled documents to repeal more than 10,000 pieces and more than 50,000 pages of legislation and regulations and save over $700 million of compliance costs from across the economy. 
This is a significant move, yet the bulk of deregulation initiatives are unrelated to small business.
Another move which may assist small businesses to employ more workers, but is more likely to be an ideological war waged for political gain, is the government’s relentless pursuit of unions.
  • Established a Royal Commission into Unions
  • Stated that SPC Ardmona workers were receiving favourable conditions – this was later proven to be false
  • Tried to strong-arm SPC-Ardmona into cutting the “excessive” wages and benefits of its employees
  • Blamed the unions for Toyota’s  decision to pull out of Australia, despite Toyota denying that workers’ wages were a consideration
  • Decreased the wages of Australian troops deployed overseas by almost $20 000 per solider
  • Re-established the controversial Australian Building and Construction Commission

     5. We will create stronger jobs growth by building a diverse, world-class 5-Pillar economy – by building on our strengths in Manufacturing Innovation, Advanced Services, Agriculture Exports, world-class Education and Research, as well as boosting mining exports.

The Reality

Four of the five pillars of the Liberal’s economy - Manufacturing Innovation, Advanced Services, world-class Education and Research - have been disadvantaged, with the following actions blatantly limiting the government support that these pillars would receive. The concepts of innovation, advancement and research in every area are being challenged, and the government’s approach to education is in disarray.
  • The 44th Parliament does not include a Minister for Science
  • The 44th Parliament does not include a Minister for Innovation
  • 600 jobs have been cut across Australia’s peak scientific body, the CSIRO
  • Axed 400 jobs at the Industry department
The Prime Minister’s recent Asian tour has resulted in a number of Free Trade Agreements. The National Farmers’ Federation is less than enthusiastic about these agreements, particularly on the key FTA with Japan, which is strong in the upmarket areas of beef, seafood and wine experts, but falls short in other areas. The Sydney Morning Herald reported 
"The agreement does not improve – or marginally improves – market access and terms of trade for a number of sectors such as dairy, sugar, grains, pork and rice," National Farmers Federation president Brett Finlay said.

    6. We will generate one million new jobs over the next five years and two million new jobs within a decade by growing a bigger, more productive and prosperous economy.

     The Reality

    Former American Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney might take issue with this: he believes that jobs are created by the private sector. Nevertheless, let’s assume the Liberals were thinking about generating the conditions to support creation of new jobs and assess progress towards this priority on that basis.

    Unemployment figures released in February 2014 placed Australia’s unemployment rate at its highest point in the last ten years. In fairness, the Abbott government has moved to make it easier for businesses to employ more young staff, by
  • Placed penalty rates and other Award conditions in doubt in the government’s submission to the Fair Work Commission’s review of all Awards
  • Introduced legislation to allow employers to pay juniors (under 25) as little as half the minimum wage
  • Introduced legislation to remove the responsibility of employers to protect rights of younger workers to access basic workplace health and safety provisions 
Aside from winding back workers’ wages and conditions to favour employers, it is difficult to see how the government plans to support the creation of any jobs at all, based on their actions since the election. With unemployment not falling, little effort to support small and new business, and the government's willingness to see significant Australian employers cut jobs, there is little good news.
    Terry McCrann, writing for NewsLimited, suggested this alternate reality: 

    There are two broad ways of looking at this. There’s the positive — perhaps, insanely optimistic — way. We are closing down the industries where we simply can’t compete with low-cost Asia.   They’ll be replaced by 21st century hi-tech industries more generally, with growth in areas, more specifically, like professional services, health and education services. 
But the development of those hi-tech industries is not being supported by the government, so it appears that Terry McCrann’s less optimistic future may be more likely:
    The negative way to see this, is Australia becoming China’s quarry, surrounded by very expensive real estate — much of it owned by high-achieving both non-resident Chinese and Australians of Chinese heritage — and producing very little of much else.
     7. We will build more modern infrastructure to get things moving – with an emphasis on reducing the bottlenecks in our gridlocked roads and highways.

The Reality

Were it not for last week’s announcement about Sydney’s second airport at Badgery’s Creek, it would be fair to assume that infrastructure chapter had been ripped out of the pamphlet and thrown to the four winds. Having said that, a new airport in Sydney’s west will do little to address the bottlenecks on Sydney’s roads.

In fairness, achievement in infrastructure is rarely fast. The ribbon cutting ceremonies attended by Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss have been for projects commenced under the previous Labor government. New projects which Mr Truss has announced are years from completion, and the High Speed Rail Advisory Group has been disbanded.

The key piece of infrastructure available for delivery under this government is the National Broadband Network, which has been scaled back to a B-grade facsimile of what is needed.

    8. We will deliver better services including health services – by putting local communities in charge of hospitals and improving co-operation with the States and Territories.

The Reality

Presiding over health services has become an unfathomable tug-o-war between state government, federal government, the AMA and private corporations in the health arena. Undeniably, health care in Australia is becoming more expensive for consumers. Whether restructuring the provision of services to put locals in charge of hospitals is debatable; all the Abbott Government has achieved in the health services space is a few token manoeuvres.

  • Threatens to impose a $6 Medicare Co-payment
  • Cut $150m out of the health budget
  • Cut the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council
  • Cuts the website providing information on the ingredients and nutritional content of foods
  • Announced a plan to decommission the GP Superclinics
  • Closes Medicare offices on Saturdays
  • Approves private health fund premium increases of an average 6.2% a year

     9. We will deliver better education – by putting local communities in charge of improving the performance of local schools.

    The Reality

    One of the major achievements of the Rudd-Gillard administration was the delivery of the report into the funding of education – the Gonski Report. In contrast, one of the more entertaining performances of the Abbott Government so far has been their triple somersault with full cowardly pike over the Gonski Reforms.

    Now, with Pyne’s third backflip yesterday, at the instruction of his Prime Minister, there’s no funding model of any kind. States can direct the additional funding (for four years) wherever they like — which allowed Pyne to partially restore the promise about individual schools to say they wouldn’t be worse off “as a result of Commonwealth actions”. But there’s no requirement on the states to adhere to the needs-based funding model developed by the Gonski panel — a state could direct all the additional funding to wealthy private schools if it so desired.

10.   We will take direct action to reduce carbon emissions inside   Australia, not overseas – and also establish a 15,000-strong Green Army to clean up the environment.

The Reality

Speaking of backflips, Tony has donned the sequinned lycra to reverse his crappy 2009 position on climate change. While maintaining vehement objection to the Carbon Tax – which he also used to support – the Prime Minister’s attitude to climate change and the environment suggest a quiet return to his original position, where climate change was crap and all was good in the world. 
Issues loosely described as green have attracted much government attention in the seven months since the election

  • Abolished the Ministry of Climate Change
  • Abolished the Climate Commission
  • Denied any link between bushfires and climate change
  • Approves the largest coal port in the world to be established on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
  • Dumped the Murray Darling Basin area from the list of Critically Endangered habitats
  • Axed the COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water
  • Moves to remove the Tasmanian forests’ World Heritage listing to allow logging to commence
  • Changes national environment laws to allow WA to enact their infamous Shark Cull
  • Announces a review into Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, to be headed by Dick Warburton – who admits to not believing that excess carbon dioxide is causing global warming 
  • Blamed the Carbon Tax for the closing of Alcoa smelters, despite Alcoa denying that it was a factor. 
  • Axes 480 jobs from the Environment Department
  • Moved final authority on some  environmental issues from federal to state level, downgrading their value and allowing for inconsistencies across the country
  • The Green Army will not be administered by the government, but will be sent out to tender 

    11.   We will deliver strong borders – where the boats are stopped – with tough and proven measures.

The Reality

The single most memorable quote from the last two Liberal election campaigns is the sound of Tony Abbott promising to Stop the Boats. Of course, this priority is open to interpretation. Clearly, the Liberal Party’s goal was to stop asylum seeker boats from reaching Australian waters – and that, they have done. Whether it’s permanent stop is yet to be seen.

Unfortunately, their solution has been messy, diplomatically fraught, the subject of deliberate obfuscation, and has included undermining the objectivity of our military forces and has resulted in one death, countless injuries and the abandonment of our own humanity.

The Abbott Government’s response to the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers has centred on Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), yet has spread far beyond a border protection operation. The Government has:
  • Instructed public servants and detention centre staff to call asylum seekers “illegals” despite this being legally incorrect
  • Provided free of charge, two navy patrol boats to the Sri Lankan government to stop asylum seekers fleeing the same government that now owns the boats
  • Turned boats back to Indonesia using military intimidation
  • Offloaded asylum seekers from their boats into substandard (orange) “life boats” and towed them into Indonesian waters
  •  Violated Indonesia’s sovereign waters multiple times while on Operation Sovereign Borders activities
  • Shuffled existing refugees who arrived by boat to the bottom of the priority list for family reunion status
  • Twice tried to reintroduce temporary visas for asylum seekers who have been found to be genuine refugees fleeing persecution
  • Twice tried to introduce retrospective TPVs to apply to over 20,000 refugees already in Australia
  • Sent unaccompanied minors to offshore detention centres
  • Prevented the UN from inspecting the Australian run detention centre on Nauru
  • Endangered around 10, 000 asylum seekers and their families by releasing their personal details on the Department of Immigration website
  • Failed to provide safe haven for asylum seekers on Manus Island
  • Provided incorrect information to the Australian media regarding the Manus Island riots in February, and failed to correct it for several days
  • Discontinued the tradition of free legal aid for asylum seekers

     12.   We will deliver strong and stable government that restores accountability – to deliver a better future for all Australians.

The Reality

The Abbott Government is hardly a model for strength, stability, accountability, or for that matter, transparency (which wasn’t promised, but should’ve been!)…although they have proved themselves adept at obstinacy, uncertainty, indictment, ambiguity and clarity.

Consider these events:
  • Indonesia characterised Australia as a threat after repeated diplomatic miscalculations by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison
  • Recent opinion polls have shown support for the government falling to a level where they would likely lose the next federal election
  • Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos has appeared before ICAC over his involvement with Australian Water Holdings
  • Treasurer Joe Hockey’s re-election finance group, the North Sydney Forum, has also received funds from AWH
  • Public servants have been prohibited from making comments critical of the government on social media, even anonymously, and have been instructed to dob in on colleagues who do
  • The government has established a covert political hit squad based in Parliament House and paid for by taxpayers to target political enemies.
  • The Minister responsible has repeatedly refused to answer questions at media briefings regarding OSB – and then cancelled the briefings.
  • The government is prepared to release the previous Government’s confidential cabinet papers to the Royal Commission into the Pink Batts scheme, despite the established practice of sealing cabinet papers for 30 years
  • The Prime Minister accused the ABC of bias against the government, and then announced an efficiency review into the ABC and SBS
  • Rejoiced in the blatant bias of the Liberal Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop
  • Closed down the National Steering Committee on Corporate Wrongdoing
  • Privatised the Australian Valuation Office at a cost of nearly 200 jobs
  • Denied human rights lawyers access to Manus Island detention centre
  • Has failed to report on the death of an asylum seeker, two months after the riots during which he was killed
  • Amended the Ministerial Code of Conduct to permit ministers to own shares in companies
  • Appointed several former Liberal ministers and supporters to prime positions, including Alexander Downer, Sophie Mirabella, Tim Wilson and Peter Costello
  • Required that all media requests be run via the Prime Minister's office for Chief of Staff approval 
We must not exclude from attention the numerous actions taken by the Abbott Government which were not listed as priorities in the Liberal pre-election pamphlet, yet which seem to have enjoyed a meteoric rise up the To-Do list since the election: 
  • Pokie reform legislation to help control problem gambling has been thrown out
  • The Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Council, designed to advise the federal government on firearms safety in the community, has been defunded
  • AUDAid has been abolished, and with it, hundreds more public servants’ jobs
  • ACT Marriage Equality laws have been struck down
  • The latest version of the NBN has been downgraded to something akin to a pair of soup tins and a string
  • The government failed to provide customs vessels to monitor Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, despite their promise to do so
  • Tony Abbott has re-established the awards of Knights and Dames without consulting with his cabinet
  • Headed up the search for missing airliner MH370

One infamous appearance on the ABC’s 7:30 saw Tony Abbott admit that he has a fast mouth and sometimes finds the truth hard to wrangle. As Prime Minister, he’s proved his reluctance to accept dissent from anyone. He is utterly committed to his version of the truth and will not be swayed.

At the end of Mr Abbott's introduction in the Real Solutions pamphlet, the following words appear:

This is the Australia that we believe in.
The Abbott Government is now about 20% of the way through its first - and perhaps only - term in office. Is the government committed to delivering real solutions...or have the solutions become irrelevant now that they're in government?

Is this the Government Coalition voters believed in?

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