Monday, April 28, 2014

A Chat with Bill Shorten

G’Day Mr Shorten,

I want to have a little chat with you about your campaign to rebuild the ALP. I can’t be at the meeting at Coorparoo tonight, but if I was there, and if I was given a few minutes, here’s what I’d say.

There is, to quote your speech of April 22, a “widespread, genuine passion for rebuilding the Labor Party,” and you’re right. The Labor Party needs to change…but, to what? 

It’s not enough to be not the Liberal Party and it’s not enough for you to be not Tony Abbott. You said in your speech that “we need to change our party.” Those of us on the left cheered.

But now what?

 You spoke of your mandate as the first member-elected Leader of the Labor Party. It’s not true, and we all know it. The rank-and-file elected Anthony Albanese to lead the party, and that vote was over-ruled in the Party Room. I’m not sure how you view that, but out here in the suburbs, the members who voted for a Leader are left with the impression that their vote was a cynical, feel-good attempt to make us feel included, while not actually including us.

Your commitment to rebuild the Labor Party is something the left desperately wants to believe in, but last year’s vote for leader has left members sceptical – and that’s not a personal swipe at you, Bill. It’s just the way it is.

Four million people voted Labor in last year’s election, eh? How many of them voted Labor because they didn’t trust Tony Abbott? How many of them voted Labor because the Greens are seem as too extreme? Do we know what motivated those voters? (It’d be a top idea to find out!)

How many 2013 Labor voters actually understood Labor’s policies and supported them?

Cutting the ties?
You spoke passionately about redefining Labor’s relationship with the unions, about ridding the Party of corruption, about a greater say in candidate preselection and about making it easier for people to become members of the Australian Labor Party. These are all positive moves, yet even taken together, I doubt that they’re enough to attract many new members, or even to attract lapsed members like me back to the party.

Internal party machinations and affiliations and processes are endlessly fascinating to the wonks – what about those blokes you spoke to on the tarmac when the Royals were leaving on Saturday? Do they care? What about the staff at Coorparoo Bowls Club who’ll bring you a glass of water tonight? Are these the things they care about?

Joining a political party is not like buying a T-shirt or a cup of coffee, or even a car. It’s a profound and individual commitment to a philosophy, a set a beliefs and values that are more enduring that many marriages.

People join a political party because they share the ideological fundamentals of the party. They join a political party because they support the policies of that party. They join a political party to help effect change and have their say.

Most people don’t join political parties because it’s easy to do, or because it’s corruption-free, or because it’s not the political arm of the union movement.

You said “We need a new Chapter One, a democratically-drafted statement that captures what modern Labor stands for” and you talked about the need for unity and focus.

There it is: the question on every left-leaning Australian’s lips: what does Labor stand for? How does those ideological foundations translate into practical policies? How is Labor different to Liberal? How is the Labor Party of 2014 different to the Labor Party pf 2013?

Bill, how do you expect to attract new members without an answer to those questions?

Perhaps I’ve misread the meaning of your speech. Perhaps your purpose is to attract new members and then involve them in drafting the new direction of the party. This concerns me, as I know a bit about getting people engaged with a cause. A potential opportunity not enough. It’d be like getting married to someone that you don’t know much about, because you hope that you might be able to change that person into someone you like.

What’s next? How are you going to convince people to engage with the Labor Party?

There’s a meeting tonight in Coorparoo for locals to meeting with you to talk about reforming Labor. Tell us more about that – and don’t tell us to come along and find out! The Labor Party is still a long, long way from that.

The ALP - at the beginning of the road back to government

There’s a basic process that the party needs to go through. Consultation is a starting point, and a behaviour that needs to be enshrined within whatever the evolved Labor Party becomes. But for now, you and your team and your entire membership needs to make some decisions about what you want to be. It’s not enough to be de-factionalised (although you must do that immediately and completely); the new party must stand as one FOR something.

I hear that mission statements and elevator pitches are out of favour these days, but it’s what you need as a starting point. One short paragraph that explains who the Labor Party is and what you believe: not a slogan, not a talking point, not a tagline.

You said that you want a membership-based party with one hundred thousand members. The only way to do that is to create something we all believe in.

What do you believe, Mr Shorten?

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?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Newmania: the Six Million Dollar Choice

Just hours into the campaign, the Queensland Government’s Strong Choices is being revealed as the shallow PR stunt it is. Public Relations lecturers across the country must be rubbing their hands together with glee; errors like this are such rich learning opportunities.

Strong Choices is a six million dollar campaign intended to fool Queensland voters into believing that they are being consulted about the next Queensland Budget. Underpinning that cynical, warm-and-fuzzy intent, the government hopes that voters will understand the tough choices involved in governing and view the LNP government more sympathetically in the lead up to next year’s state election. The inclusion of Asset Sales, while a valid solution, is also a deliberate attempt to soften voters’ attitudes to the same issue which brought down the Bligh government two years ago.

Strong Choices consists of an online survey, with feedback stations in two major Brisbane shopping centres, and a tour through Queensland to “listen to” locals. The premise is that voters will complete the survey or visit the feedback stations, and build their ideal budget, complete with tax increases, savings, and asset sales. The whole thing is backed up with an advertising campaign and social media presence, at a cost of about $6 million dollars. 

Having said that, the website itself denies that it is a survey of any kind:

The People’s Budget is not a survey or a poll. Your responses here will be a fundamental part of an unprecedented consultation process that is already going on across Queensland. It will also include roundtable meetings with community leaders, open community forums and virtual town hall gatherings open to the public, hosted by the Treasurer, Tim Nicholls.
Make of that what you will.

Under the guise of ‘promoting economic literacy’ the online survey asks respondents to select from lists of tax increases, service cutbacks and asset sales to reach a level of debt reduction which has been predetermined by the government. Then, if you reach the approved level where you start to save on interest payments, you can select which areas you want to spend the savings on.

Side by side with the non-survey is a section called “Online Written Submission”, where respondents can write a few sentences about various potential tax increases, programme cuts and asset sales, rather than selecting a yes/no response. There is also a downloadable submission form with the same format as the online survey. All response methods are aligned with the same sub-headings and choices.

It sounds impressive, and as a piece of website design, it is. As a campaign, it’s Swiss Cheese.

Here’s where it fails.

Firstly, the name is a problem. Anything that ends with the word Choices just reminds people of WorkChoices, and that concept is still on the nose. Whoever would’ve thought that a government – any government in Australia – would have been stupid enough to mount a political campaign with a name that includes the word “choices”? It's code for "we don't care about you". With that stench of the Howard Government’s WorkChoices in 2007 still fresh, it was a courageous choice.

Then there’s the online survey itself - and I will call it a survey because that's what it is. The website worked for me, which is about all it has to recommend it. Survey respondents are encouraged to believe that the options listed within the survey are not necessarily under consideration by the government, but that's a tough sell in a hostile political environment. When commentators are talking daily about the federal Budget, it's unlikely that people will assume that the People's Budget - part of Strong Choices - is not even on the maybe pile until 2015.

Speaking of budgets, the Queensland Budget for 2014-2015 is due to be brought down on June 3. That’s less than two months from now. Major decisions about the Budget will be well and truly made by now. It’s unlikely that major changes will be made less than two months out, and virtually impossible to make changes between the end of the campaign on May 19, and the date on which the budget is due, just a couple of weeks later.

I challenged Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls about the timing issue via Twitter. He responded

“Choices will form part of a draft plan to be released with the Budget. They are not intended to feed into 2014-15 Budget.”

Okay, so Strong Choices is not about the 2014-15 Budget. All we'll get this year is a draft plan. I’ll accept that on face value, although I imagine a lot of people looking at the survey will assume that it is far more important than it really is. It also raises questions about the wording of a Facebook post to launch the campaign:

“Today, we are announcing the Strong Choices Campaign, an Australian first encouraging Queenslanders to participate in a People’s Budget. Between now and May 19th we will be travelling around our great State and talking about the debt issues we are facing, listening to your thoughts and opinions on the #StrongChoices we need to make to get our $80 billion dollar debt under control.”

The post doesn’t state that the results of the campaign will feed into this year’s budget, but the suggestion is there…and if it doesn’t feed into this year’s budget it must be for the next major event on the Queensland political calendar, and that’s the 2015 election. Is Strong Choices is poorly disguised research effort from the LNP?

We’re not supposed to notice that the list of preferences for taxes to increase, services to cut and assets to be sold is a list predetermined by the government, either. Other than a small comment box at the end of the online survey, there is no opportunity to make your own suggestions. That's true of all three formats. Facebook comments already indicate that many respondents are writing in their own budget cut: axe politicians’ pay rises.

And if you happen to be a number cruncher who disagrees with the government's calculation of how far to cut, Strong Choices doesn't give you any option at all.

There are reports on Facebook that there are some technical issues: some people have been unable to submit their surveys while others have been able to submit their responses more than once, skewing the results in the process. In the lexicon of campaign sins, releasing a 'buggy' campaign website is pretty close to the top.

Also from Facebook, there are reports that comments critical of the government which were posted on the Strong Choices Facebook page have been deleted. That should not be surprising when the same occurs on King Campbell’s official Facebook Page.

The absolute clanger of Strong Choices is the fact that in order to enact any of the recommendations which could’ve come out of this campaign, Campbell Newman and his band of merry LNP MPs will need to win the next state election…and it appears that Strong Choices is one of the tools they’re using to do that. Isn’t that what Excel would call a Circular Reference?

Congratulations to the LNP Spin Team for such a valiant effort. Few organisations manage to include quite so many misleading cues as this single mis-named effort. It’s just a damned shame that Queensland taxpayers are parting with six million dollars for a campaign that should be funded by the LNP, and which will produce results that are unreliable at best.

Next time I decide to do the Strong Choices survey, I must remember to include the Strong Choices Campaign as a way to cut costs.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Whose ABC?

It’s their ABC according to conservative punters, politicians and commentators. The suggestion is that the ABC is become just another Australian media outlet that’s sympathetic to the progressive cause, promoting ALP politicians and policies over those of the Coalition Government, that it's not supportive of the Government or the 'home team'.

It's a matter of perspective. Any consumer of Murdoch’s News Corporation and the majority of Sky News Australia’s offerings would have to turn their heads to the left to see the ABC, yet that doesn’t mean that the ABC is a lefty-socialist mouthpiece, as conservatives would have us believe. According to the Political Compass, both the ALP and Liberal well to the right of the centre line, and I'd suggest that they've both edged ever further to the horizon in the seven months since then.

An analysis of guests on the ABC’s two flagship panel shows, Q&A and Insiders shows where those two shows line up on the issue of bias. The result is that each show is fairly well balanced, with Insiders slightly favouring the right, and Q&A slightly favouring the left.

Insiders has slid a little to the left, though. In earlier years, regular Insiders guests included Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman, both hard-line conservative climate-change-denying commentators who write their opinion pieces for News Corporation. Mr Bolt has his own show on Network Ten, and Mr Akerman has simply disappeared from television. For the sake of simplicity, anyone who regularly writes for the Murdoch papers has been placed in the conservative column.

With Q&A in particular, it can be difficult to categorise the political leanings of every guest, as they aren’t all known as politicians or political commentators: guests include comedians and musicians, business leaders and theologians. Those guests have not been categorised, except in blatant cases like Billy Bragg. Palmer United Party representatives have been tagged as conservative, despite being further left than the ALP. 

It’s also unfair to criticise Q&A for being slightly more progressive; Prime Minister Tony Abbott has an open invitation to appear on Q&A, but has refused to appear on the show for several years. 

To give any perceived bias inherent within these ABC programmes some context, the most direct comparison is with another current affairs chat show: Sky News Australia’s evening chat show, PM Live. The show’s regular guests are predominantly conservative commentators and former Liberal politicians. The single former-ALP politician who was a regular panellist was Mark Latham, and he has not appeared on the programme since his on-air shout-athon with Chris Kenny.

So in comparison to PM Live, the ABC panel shows have a higher proportion of left-leaning guests. That's only part of the story, though. The ABC shows are far more balanced and closer to the centre, as required by its charter. It is, in fact, Our ABC.

Post Script: No analysis of Andrew Bolt's guests was possible, as the Network Ten website now automatically redirects to, which is great for watching past programmes, but useless for readers like me. More dumbing down, courtesy of Ten?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Newmania: Show Them the Money

Nobody outside the world of politics has ever been told that they have to accept a colossal pay rise. It doesn’t happen. There are always too many competing priorities and too little cash. People tend to land at the end of the queue, regardless of the employee friendly “value statements” that adorn corporate office walls.

I know a bit about substantial pay rises. Last year, I received one, but let me explain what happened before the pay rise was awarded.

  • ·         Over a period of years I took on more and more responsibility.
  • ·         I moved well outside my comfort zone.
  • ·         I volunteered to take on more challenging projects.
  • ·         I taught myself to use three new software programmes and coached others.
  • ·         Every year for three years, I requested a formal salary review.
  • ·         Every year for three years I provided updated information on average salaries for people doing similar jobs to mine.
  • ·         I requested the opportunity to study for a diploma in my chosen field.
  • ·         I undertook that study and gained significant expertise, new tools and professional confidence.
  • ·         Finally, I withdrew my labour for a few days.

When my managers were able to convince their managers (oh, the madness of a vertical organisational structure!) that my salary might not be in line with the work I was undertaking, things moved surprisingly fast.
The HR Department had to review and regrade my job, using a tool called the Hay Grade, a methodology used to evaluate job roles. As methodologies go, it’s not perfect, but it’s the one that was used. It turns out that I was right. I was awarded a whopping pay rise, backdated nine months. 

Now my pay rise was not of the same magnitude as those awarded to Queensland state politicians last week. King Campbell will enjoy a 21.8% increase to his annual salary, taking it to $379,562, and it will be backdated to July 2013. His back pay alone will amount to almost $50,000 (before tax).

In fairness, King Campbell did not award this to himself. The Queensland Independent Remuneration Tribunal reached this number, deciding that his salary should be within range of Chief Executive Officers of other NGOs. The Tribunal was formed when Acting Premier Jeff Seeney unblinkingly accepted a 41% increase, which would have taken the Premier’s salary to within shouting distance of President Obama’s salary – and far beyond that in any other Australian state Premier.  That 41% was subsequently howled down by Queenslanders, still reeling from a year of brutal Public Service job cuts. 

After the furore last year over the initial pay rise, care has been taken circulate the talking points to all and sundry, with government ministers all banging on about the “independence” of the independent tribunal, as if “independent” is synonymous with “fair”, “justified” or “deserved”. I don't think the LNP MPs will be willing to negotiate over this one.

I can’t help thinking back to my own experience, and the parameters on which I was assessed. While my role had developed significantly over the years, Campbell Newman’s role as premier has not changed. Therefore the only basis for increasing his salary is to bring it into line with other Australian states.

Having said that, surely every salary adjustment must take job performance into account. This week’s ReachTel Poll saw only 34.8% of respondents rating Mr Newman’s performance as Very Good or Good. His plan to allow Queensland doctors to resign and be replaced if they don’t sign new contracts has just 14.9% support. It looks as though his job performance rating doesn't support a pay rise.

The most telling question of all, the one that deals with the public’s perception of Mr Newman’s performance, was this: 

If an election were held today, regardless of who you would vote for, do you believe the Newman government has demonstrated that it would deserve to be re-elected on the basis of its actions over the last 2 years?

57.3% of respondents said no.

Just a year out from the next state election, the LNP should enjoy their oversize pay rises, as it appears that many of them might be looking for new jobs from about this time next year.

PostScript: Queensland’s tiny contingent of Labor MPs are against the pay rise, even though Labor Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk would have received an even larger salary increase than the Premier received.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The 44th: Back to the Future

History books will exalt Tony Abbott as Australia’s greatest ever devotee of history, a man so obsessed with recreating the past that he is transforming Australia into a living history museum. Regrettably, the budding history-themed continent-wide fun park is being created from the remnants of a progressive nation. The result is a haphazard collection of concepts dating back through the decades to World War II, overlaid across a nation ramping up for the 21st century.

Scarcely a single new idea has emerged from the government. The first six months of the 44th Parliament has been dominated by recycling old ideas and dismantling existing laws. On March 3, the Guardian reported that the House of Representatives had literally run out of legislationto discuss. This wasn’t reported anywhere else, although was discussed on social media. For a government which is so feisty, there seems to be surprisingly little governing actually taking place. 

The lack of an original legislative agenda should be no obstacle when there is so much history to mine, and when all else fails, there are throwaway media conferences and ceremonial distractions to perform. 

“Stop the Boats” is a perfect example of such meaningless activity. Last week there was a press conference to announce that no boats had arrived in Australia for one hundred days. This was a jarring change from the shy and silent traditions that surround Operation Sovereign Borders, yet was every bit as empty as the briefings provided during World War 2, under the glare of wartime censorship.

Tony and Grace Sullivan
Dare I say that for anyone who cares to dig, the OSB media policy is more instructive about World War Two than the iconic Australian drama series, The Sullivans? Perhaps that’s where Prime Minister Abbott stole the idea…which makes sense, as he believes we are at war with people smugglers, and we treat asylum seekers worse than prisoners of war.

The long-long-long Menzies era, is another pocket of history within Mr Abbott’s Australian History Theme Park. He’s always been socially conservative, following the dogged traditionalism of his Liberal predecessor John Winston Howard. Our little piece of the 1950s and 1960s arrived last week with the reintroduction of knights and dames. How Menzies would have approved!

But the 50s and 60s was also a period where Australian identity and culture slid across the Atlantic and we started identifying more with America than with Great Britain. Fortunately for Mr Abbott, America provided Australia with a wholesome, values-driven example to follow, even though the TV shows – Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days and The Waltons - weren’t made until the 70s. It was during those years that we learned that the only acceptable family structure is illustrated by the Ingalls, the Cunninghams and the Waltons.*

Howard and Marion Cunningham and their long-lost son, Tony.
Alongside the best of 50s family values, last week our strong, forward-looking country glanced over it’s shoulder, and turned to embrace former Governor General Quentin Bryce as she accepted her Dameness. Damehood. Dameship. No-one denies that she’s a real Dame, but why not refuse the honour, the republicans ask, bewildered. Dame Quentin Bryce has just served as Her Majesty’s representative in Australia. Would it not be hypocritical to refuse an honour bestowed by the very same Queen of Australia? In any case, our Dame has too much class, as befitting a titled woman of the Menzies era.

The iconic image of Australian politics of the 1970s is Gough Whitlam on the steps of Old Parliament House. Prior to being sacked, the Whitlam Government introduced free healthcare in the form of Medibank, later Medicare. When Mr Abbott is in a 70s mood, he takes us back to a time before socialised medicine, a time when conservatives had governed for over two decades. A six dollar fee for “free” GP consultations is not the same as free medical care for all.

Malcolm Fraser was a Liberal Prime Minister who has since resigned from the Liberal Party. The government led by Tony Abbott is far more conservative than the Fraser Government ever thought to be: the Racial Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Commission Act and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park became certainties during the Fraser years. The Abbott Government is undermining each of them, dragging us back to a time where bigotry was acceptable, where people could be imprisoned without trial and corporations could pollute without penalty. 

The Qantas Sale Act, another Abbott target, came during the Hawke-Keating years. It’s on the hitlist too, courtesy of Qantas boss Alan Joyce, but not in a back-to-the-future way. The proposed changes to the Qantas Sale Act could leave Australia without an Australian-owned national carrier.

Doc Brown with Tony McFly summon the DeLorean
Predictably, little from the glorious Howard years will change during Tony Abbott’s step back in time. His trademark Stop The Boats policy referenced the Howard years as the very model of success, and his IR policies echo that Howard hit, “Workchoices”. Perhaps the name has been changed to protect the guilty, but back to 2007 we go.

The last chapter of our history to undergo the Extreme Makeover – Abbott Edition is the Rudd-Gillard Years. In this episode, Mr Abbott is attempting to show us what would’ve happened had the Coalition won the 2007 Federal election, and every one since. Every major initiative of the Rudd-Gillard Government is going…going…Gonski, the NDIS, Carbon Tax, Mining Tax, our relationship with our Asian neighbours: Gonski, or at  least, changed beyond recognition.

Subversive television featuring supernatural beings & unnatural families
Tony Abbott’s relentless charge to recreate the past is a singular achievement in the history of this country. Never has a multi-themed fun park been created so quickly. Experts anticipate that at this rate, all progress in Australia since the 1940s will have been obliterated by the end of Abbott’s second year in power. At that point, the Government will need to find some new ideas to enact.

The only thing that springs to mind is Paid Parental Leave.

*Whatever you do, don’t mention those subversive 60s shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, & The Brady Bunch.