Drought assistance – a slap in the face for other failed SMEs

A little rant from me on the inequity of the government’s drought assistance package.

If Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce wanted city folk to see the drought assistance for farm businesses announced today by his government as the same as any other disaster relief, he went about it entirely the wrong way.

Like many farm sector advocates, Joyce went straight for the violin, imploring urbanites to feel compassion for the mums and dads unable to put food on the table and the family businesses unable to meet their financial commitments because of the sustained dry conditions.

Some farmers are better at running profitable businesses than others. Knowing that the next big dry could be next month or next year they constantly plan ahead, putting in bores, stacking away hay, and growing crops that can be used for alternative feed if needed. Farm businesses that are marginally viable in the good times will not be able to afford these preparations, and should not be propped up during a difficult times just because they happen to be a family business or grow food.

Backing Joyce on the drought package, Tony Abbott claims unviable farms will not receive assistance. So it will be interesting to see what the definition of unviable is.

Growing food is not some holy calling. No other business sector is afforded protection because it involves mums, dads and family businesses. Plenty of family businesses – be they grocery stores, pharmacies, bakeries, book publishers, or restaurants – have been allowed to go to wall with nary a blink from the government. Many of those sectors are also exposed to the challenges that farmers claim make them a special case – being squeezed out by bigger entities along the supply chain, inability to achieve economies of scale, the high value of the dollar and being undercut by dumped product.

Yet when those challenges include a dry spell or drought – which let’s face it is hardly an uncommon occurrence in Australia – then apparently it’s time for disaster relief.

Joyce does no-one any favours by perpetuating the myth that running a farm business is somehow a more honourable calling than running a newsagent, veterinary surgery or bakery – yet many of these are family run small businesses too.

The farm sector and the nation would be better served by helping marginal farmers get out of the business. Safety issues bedevil the agricultural sector, and one of the contributing factors is because farmers under financial pressure won’t or can’t maintain or update their machinery. (Others are too stubborn to follow the safety instructions or wear protective gear).

For similar reasons, some farmers use cheap imported pesticides that haven’t met all the Australian regulatory requirements, or spray pesticides on crops for which they’re not registered to be used. Instead of taking their used chemical drums for recycling, too many farmers still dump or burn the drums elsewhere on their properties.

The romantic notion of all Australian farmers being noble agrarians, doing their best every day to produce cleaner and greener food than their foreign competitors just does not stack up. Sure there’s dodgy food imported from China and elsewhere but Australia has food regulations to deal with that, and if the regs aren’t up to scratch then they should be changed or better enforced.

Australia operates in a global market – for this reason we have access to cheaper clothes, furniture, electronics, whitegoods and cars from overseas. Why not cheap food too, as long as it meets safety standards? How is it in the national interest to save, say, the orange or potato growing industry, other than the jobs?  And if these jobs should be saved, how are they any different from the jobs in the dying auto manufacturing or book publishing industries?

This is a question the cattle and dairy industries need to tackle. Both sectors, like the rice and cotton growing industries, need considerable amounts of water to deliver their products. With our changing climate and movement of rainfall patterns to other parts of the nation, those sectors are going to have to either follow the rain or change the way they use water. Being propped up by the government during a dry spell is only postponing the inevitable.

Australia’s farm sector IS important. Our farmers export two thirds of what they grow and with the other third they meet nearly all of Australia’s agricultural needs (we are however a net importer of processed fruit and vegetables). Those parts of the industry that are strong and profitable will remain so during this and any other drought because they can afford to prepare for the worst.

But to single out (invariably smaller) farm businesses for special assistance because they feed us or are run by a family is essentially a slap in the face for all the other family run small and medium businesses who’ve been allowed to languish and fail because of competitive pressures, whether they be fair or unfair.

Manus Island riot: a plague on both your houses

Labor will attack Scott Morrison over the Manus Island riot, but both sides of the political divide are guilty of inhumane policies spanning more than two decades.

Voters paying attention to recent events on Manus Island are going to be disappointed by this week’s parliamentary session; particularly if they think it will go any way to lessening Australia’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

Following Scott Morrison’s dance of the euphemisms – conceding but not admitting on the weekend that he told untruths at media conferences following the fatal Manus Island riot – the Labor opposition will latch onto the Immigration Minister having misled the media and Australian people but dance around the morality of what caused the riot in the first place.

Their Question Time tactics and a likely attempt at a censure motion will focus on Morrison’s poor briefing, obfuscation and implied incompetence. But there will be little soul-searching over the wisdom of locating a processing centre in a sovereign state that still struggles to control violence and anarchy within its own populace.

Labor’s demands for Morrison to be held to account already sound tentative and hollow. That’s because they’re picking their way through a minefield. Calls for accountability and censure can be tricky manoeuvres when almost everyone shares the blame. And perhaps more than any other contemporary political issue, the events on Manus Island are the product of successive Australian governments’ mandatory detention policies, regardless of the party in office.

The Keating Labor government introduced onshore mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992, resulting in the first cases of self-harm, riots and escape attempts. The Howard Coalition government upped the ante, introducing offshore processing, establishing detention centres across a troupe of island states and surreally designating some Australian territories as no longer part of the nation for immigration purposes. A processing centre on PNG’s Manus Island was established as part of this Pacific Solution.

Labor’s Kevin Rudd vowed to dismantle the Pacific Solution, and so he did on the attainment of government in 2007, only to have this taken as a sign by people smugglers that Australia’s borders had reopened. The renewed influx of asylum seekers created all manner of difficulties for the Rudd, Gillard and re-ascendant Rudd governments, which over time reintroduced much of the worst elements of Howard’s offshore approach.

These extreme actions were taken by parties on both sides of the political divide ostensibly to protect Australia’s borders, prevent deaths at sea and destroy the people smugglers’ business model. Yet the principal purpose of “stopping the boats” is considerably less honourable: it’s to allow politicians to claim kudos for protecting Australians from a threat that doesn’t actually exist.

Both sides ruthlessly exploited nascent voter anxiety about asylum seekers into a full-blown paranoia. By framing the issue as one of border protection rather than immigration or human rights the Howard government implicitly encouraged voters to make a connection between asylum seekers, terrorists and the war on terror. It’s hard not to conclude that Howard’s ill-founded observation about “people like that” throwing their children overboard wasn’t similarly confected to demonise asylum seekers.

Then as the events of September 11, 2001 faded, at least in the minds of Australians, voter unease over asylum seekers emerged as a by-product of the industrial relations battle. Having been brought to a state of high concern by both parties claiming the other was putting their job security at risk, voters began to equate asylum seekers as yet another threat to their employment prospects. Neither side has ever attempted to dissuade this misapprehension, with prime minister Gillard even reinforcing it by capitulating to the unions and imposing a limit on the use of 457 visas for skilled foreign workers.

Voter antipathy for asylum seekers has been kept at a fairly vigorous simmer ever since – it’s just too electorally valuable to the parties to be let to go off the boil.

Perhaps most shockingly, Kevin Rudd exploited it on his re-election as Labor leader in an attempt to consolidate his Messiah 2.0 status. Erasing from that prodigious brain any memory of his denunciation of the inhumanity that was the Pacific Solution, Rudd unleashed the ultimate deterrent (and hopeful vote-winner) by vowing that no asylum seeker would ever reach Australia and instead would be settled in PNG.

After Rudd’s defeat it was no surprise Tony Abbott also embraced this extreme policy, having pinned his electoral legitimacy on “stopping the boats” (shorthand for “not letting those foreign devils steal Australian jobs, crowd our trains or marry our daughters”).

If they were so inclined, shock jocks could rightly claim both Labor and the Coalition have bloodied hands after the fatal riot on Manus Island.

Mandatory detention and offshore processing are bipartisan policies. The Manus Island facility was established by the Coalition and reopened by Labor. And it was Labor’s policy, since adopted by the Coalition, to deny any asylum seekers settlement in Australia that reportedly sparked the protest and subsequent riot.

This week’s parliament will be filled with raised voices, dramatic gestures and righteous calls for Morrison to be held to account. It’s likely former Labor immigration ministers will join the fray. Look closely for looks of chagrin or embarrassment on their faces – this may be an indication of the extent to which they also feel accountable for the policies that led to fateful events on Manus Island.

Building Australia

Commenting to the assembled media on this week’s fatal Manus Island detention centre riot, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young started to say “all Australians would be horrified by what happened”. The she corrected herself to say “most Australians”.

That’s because some Australians would not particularly care; their insecurity and xenophobia has been twisted into something so hateful and ugly by successive governments and oppositions that they now want asylum seekers to be treated more harshly.

Those who ARE horrified – at the events as well as the callousness of their fellow Australians – struggle to understand how everyday pressures brought on by strained government services and infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals can manifest as such bigotry.

Both the Government and Opposition understand – the former having mostly crafted the prejudice during the Howard government and Abbott opposition years, and the latter with Gillard and Rudd having capitulated to it in order to woo back marginal seat votes.

So while the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continues to secure votes from mainstream Australia – yes, even when riots and gunshot injuries and violent deaths are involved – it appears neither of the major parties will shift from the horror that is of their own making.

Yet a circuit-breaker is within their reach.

Continue reading “Building Australia”

Coalition eases us into tough love policies

My very first weekly column for ABC’s The Drum.

Given the option, most politicians would prefer to do what the community wants instead of what it needs. But governments that configure their policies to meet only the voter popularity test inevitably will be faced with a humongous bill and the twin terrors of debt and deficit.

The solution to this conundrum is surprisingly straightforward: Simply convince the public to support an otherwise unpopular but necessary government action. While not quite an act of sorcery, this ability to transform public opinion can help a politician or government lead a relatively charmed life. And it is often seen as the measure of a truly effective government.

Kevin Rudd once had the knack, being able to turn public opinion 180 degrees in his favour. His most audacious prestidigitation was as opposition leader in 2007 when he told Australians made comfortable by years of middle-class welfare under John Howard that “this reckless spending must stop“. Capturing the public’s imagination as well as that of the media and political commentators, Rudd made fiscal responsibility the new black and thereby relegated Howard to the Whitlam and other Profligates’ Hall of Shame.

It’s a matter of record that Rudd’s eventual successor as prime minister, Julia Gillard, did less well in convincing Australians to bear a little carbon price pain for some climate action gain. Gillard did, however, prove to be a more adept apprentice as time went on, transforming both the potentially unpopular increase to the Medicare levy for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the scrapping of the surplus into actions widely welcomed by the media, commentariat and broader community as sensible and appropriate.

And now Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are proving to be keen acolytes, converting what could have become public opprobrium into widespread support for scrapping assistance to the car manufacturing industry.

Abbott and Hockey did this by slowly but persistently chipping away at the locally-based but foreign-owned operations’ credibility, questioning their intentions, and undermining their grass-roots support by implying they were nothing more than spivs and carpet-baggers.

The Productivity Commission inquiry into the domestic car manufacturing industry, the results of which were never in doubt, was meant to be the final piece of damning evidence against car industry subsidies. But events moved more quickly than the government expected after Hockey clumsily called Holden’s bluffin December.

Despite Hockey’s over-reach, public opinion has moved from supporting the local manufacturers to the government. Back in January 2012 an Essential poll found 68 per cent of Australians supported the current levels of assistance to the car manufacturers and 58 per cent supported giving them even more. Public approval of subsidies was still high at 58 per cent in October last year, but by December only 45 per cent approved of subsidies to Holden (and even less of increased subsidies to keep Toyota in Australia). The latest poll by Essential finds support has now dropped to 36 per cent*.

This change of sentiment suggests Australians can see the broader merit of some tough decisions being made by the government, which is admittedly easy to do if it’s not your own pay cheque on the line. The next test of whether Abbott and Hockey have mastered the alchemy of public opinion transformation will come when the federal budget is handed down in May.

By all accounts, the first Abbott/Hockey budget is going to be a harsh one – for households, businesses and marginal seat holders.

Having talked tough on fiscal responsibility since being elected (although not consistently walking that talk), the government’s gestures and incantations – from MYEFO and the Commission of Audit to keynote speeches and feature articles – are all crafted to shape voter expectations into acceptance, if not support, for a budget that shares the pain around. The age of entitlement, according to Hockey, has become the age of responsibility. In short, he’s trying to recreate the Rudd magic of 2007.

Expectations management for the budget is just the beginning. The many reviews and inquiries, accompanied by thought-bubble debates in the media suggest the government is also trying to frame the debate, shape views and normalise unpopular reform plans for a range of contentious matters including welfare payments, privatisation of government assets, the unions, and the ABC.

The government may see these also as a simple matter of convincing the Australian public to want what the country needs. But the latter point – what the country needs – might well become hotly contested ground.

* The Essential poll questions on subsidies for the local car manufacturing industry vary, but nevertheless indicate a downward trend over time.

Ignore, deny, reframe – but never, ever fess up

We all know our leaders have lied to us, but we’d nevertheless be extraordinarily confronted if one of them ever actually admitted as such.

One of the challenges faced by politicians in the digital age is that it’s just not as easy to lie as it used be. Before the advent of pesky internet search engines and inconvenient fact-checking units, politicians could generally rely on minimal scrutiny from overworked or lazy journalists to get away with audacious claims or surreptitious backflips.

But not these days: now anyone with a keyboard and access to the uber-database that is the internet can pin a lie on a pollie. And it’s ghoulishly fascinating to observe the strategies our elected representatives have developed to cope when they’re caught telling porkies.

Some, like the re-ascendant Kevin Rudd during the 2013 federal election campaign, carry on regardless, blithely peddling the lie even once it’s been exposed. This was the case when the ABC’s Fact Check unit found Rudd’s claim of a $70 billion black hole in the Coalition’s costings to be ‘not credible’ and Fairfax’s FactChecker deemed it ‘false‘. Yet Rudd continued to use the $70bn figure throughout the campaign.

Other MPs, like the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Treasurer Joe Hockey in Parliament this week, appear to prefer the oral sleight-of-hand to fend off any accusations of duplicity.

Challenged by the opposition on a supposed false promise to spend his first week as PM in north-east Arnhem Land, Tony Abbott claimed he actually said the first remote community he would visit for a week would be in that region. That may well be what he meant, but rather than further embellishment, Abbott should have stuck to what he actually said to participants of the Garma Festival at the time:

That’s what I want to do … And why not, if you will permit me, why shouldn’t I, if you will permit me, spend my first week as Prime Minister, should that happen, on this, on your country?

Meantime, Joe Hockey danced around a challenge from Labor about whether he or senior Toyota executives were lying about the role of unions in the decision by the local automotive manufacturer to shut up shop in 2017. Toyota had publicly denied a media story claiming its CEO had privately told the Treasurer that unions were the reason for leaving, while Hockey claimed it was true.

Demonstrating a liberal dose of what he is fond of calling ‘chutzpah’ when he observes brazen behaviour in others, Hockey said both he and Toyota were telling the truth:

The report as it related to the content of the discussion between myself and Toyota was correct, and Toyota’s statement today is also correct … Toyota did not blame the unions because at that time Toyota wanted to stay in Australia, they wanted to stay in Australia.

If unsuccessful with this feint, Hockey may have to revert to the less common response to being pinged when lying: dropping the lie and making it verboten, never to be acknowledged again. Whether based on a lie or just shoddy research, Abbott’s claim that SPC Ardmona was hobbled by overly generous worker entitlements has quickly been relegated to this category.

And then there are the MPs who create an alternate reality to defend their honour, claiming a lie was the truth as they knew it at the time. This tactic has also been known as the ‘John Howard defence’ and the ‘Julia Gillard concession’.

Clive Palmer deployed this tactic at the National Press Club this week, defending his false claim that all officials of the Australian Electoral Commission were former military because he had no evidence to the contrary. Having discovered the AEC returning officer in his electorate was ex-military, as well as the deputy commissioner in Canberra, and some AEC staff in other states, Palmer told the assembled media at the NPC he had not lied because:

That was my understanding, because [in] 100 per cent of the divisions that I checked … that was the case…

Ignore, deny, reframe and obfuscate; the only thing our parliamentarians don’t seem to do when caught lying is to fess up. That’s because the electoral consequences would be dire. Despite many voters thinking politicians have only a passing acquaintance with the truth, they’d nevertheless be extraordinarily confronted by a politician who admitted to lying, and would see it as a breach of faith with the electorate. Admitting to a lie would be a career limiting move for any politician.

So it’s no surprise our elected representatives have developed all manner of ways to wriggle out from accusations of lying.

Perhaps the real surprise, in this world of increasing transparency and scrutiny, is that they still tell lies at all.