Palmer United against the nation – Redux

Lost among the bustle of yesterday’s continuing Palmer sideshow, otherwise known as federal parliament, was proof that the miner’s alternative emissions trading scheme is a sham.

The ETS was brandished by Palmer last month as proof of his Damascene conversion to the need for climate action and the merits of carbon pricing.

In reality its purpose was little more than to greenwash Palmer’s coal-blackened hands and mitigate observers’ queasiness that Al Gore had been compromised into apparently sanctioning the miner’s vow to scrap the existing carbon-pricing scheme.

At the time Palmer placed caveats on what has been described as his “dormant” ETS to ensure it did not activate before Australia’s key trading partners had their own schemes in place. This was ostensibly to protect our exports from being disadvantaged by having to incorporate a carbon price when our competitors’ products did not carry a similar impost.

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Palmer – united against the nation?

Clive Palmer and his eponymous united party will be pivotal figures in Canberra over the next 3 years. Despite his claim that he is only interested in the good of the nation, how well equipped (and well intentioned) is Palmer for the role he will play in national affairs?

Later today, Clive Palmer will unveil how his Palmer United Party will vote on key elements of the budget, ahead of a meeting tomorrow with Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ‘discuss’ the budget’s passage through the Senate.

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right

Aside from its alarming treatment of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, one of the other disconcerting things about the first Abbott Government Budget is the counterintuitive behaviour it’s provoked from the major players.

Not only the Coalition government itself, but the Labor opposition and the Greens are behaving in ways that are counter to what voters would normally expect of them.

This is making it more difficult to work out who exactly is on the side of the angels, and could further entrench the unease that voters are currently feeling about the Budget and politics more broadly.

These behavioural contradictions are disturbingly numerous, and seemingly without logic.

For example, anyone with a half a brain would have thought the Government would avoid any perceived or real broken promises after Tony Abbott brutally reframed oath-breaking as a sign of political incompetence during his time as opposition leader.

And yet we find Abbott in recent weeks audaciously denying that clearly breached promises have been flouted; claiming that a previously unknown hierarchy of commitments somehow forgives lesser oaths being sacrificed for major ones; and insisting that Budget decisions that are “consistent with our promises” will suffice.

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Tale of 3 Treasury heads

It’s not a fun time to be a public servant in Canberra. Mounting pressures from an ill-considered hiring freeze paired with squabbles over the merging of different departmental workplace agreements and office space are making it difficult for bureaucrats to keep a clear head, let alone give frank and fearless advice.

Yet three former (or soon to be former) heads of the federal Treasury have reminded us in the past week what a valuable public service bureaucrats can make when they dare to be forthright and bold.

Wombat fancier and tax reform aficionado Ken Henry attracted most of the media spotlight, speaking nearly a fortnight ago to a low-key gathering on competition policy reform at the ANU and then leveraging that engagement into broadsheet column inches and an appearance on the ABC’s flagship current affairs program 730.

Henry’s intervention was considered to be a big deal. Aside from being the Treasury secretary that helped PM Rudd and Treasurer Swann guide Australia through the global financial crisis, Henry worked in different capacities for PMs Keating and Howard with an eye constantly fixed on the changes needed to repair and modernise Australia’s dilapidated taxation system.

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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.

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2014 with a bang!

My first post of the year for The King’s Tribune, which previews the first six months in federal politics.

That almost imperceptible whirring sound is not your imagination. It’s the wheels of politics grinding back into motion. Before we know it, they’ll be spinning at breakneck speed and the summer break will be no more than a fast-fading memory.

There’ll be no comfortable transition to political discourse in 2014, no gradual incline from February sittings to May budget and the still-as-yet-undetermined new Senate in July. Politics in 2014 is going to be like waking up on a rollercoaster: one day we’ll be taking our usual summer afternoon siesta and the next we’ll be hurtling full speed towards political turns and descents so unpredictable that even the strongest of constitutions will be unsettled.

We’ll probably still be packing away our Australia Day paraphernalia when the by-election for Kevin Rudd’s old seat Griffith gets underway – it’s expected in late January or early February. The Liberal candidate, former AMA President Dr Keith Glasson, looks like a shoo-in: after all, he rated more primary votes than Rudd and clipped the ALP’s margin by 5.4% to a much more achievable 3% in the 2013 election. Yet only one federal government has ever taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and that was Kalgoorlie in 1920. So Glasson’s path to victory may be more turbulent than first thought – particularly if dissatisfied Queensland voters use the by-election as an opportunity to whack the Federal Coalition over the knuckles.

Around the same time we’ll be thrown headlong into the continuing saga of the lost WA Senate votes. The High Court’s Justice Kenneth Hayne flagged in December that challenges to the result (one from the Australian Electoral Commission, and one each from the Palmer United Party and Labor) would not be heard until late January. The AEC wants a new WA Senate election and has asked the court to rule by 18 March so the poll can be held in April. Conversely, PUP and Labor want the court to revert to the first count of the vote, which allocated the 5th and 6th WA Senate positions to them. This would give Clive Palmer’s party the balance of power in the new Senate.

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MYEFO looms

Sometime between now and the end of the year, the Abbott Government is expected to release the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, also fondly referred to as MYEFO. December might seem rather late for a ‘mid year’ report, but it in fact refers to the midpoint of the Australian financial year and is an update on the Budget delivered in the previous May.

MYEFO provides an update on the state of the government’s books – whether enough money is being collected through taxation and whether expenditure is under control. It provides governments with the flexibility to respond to a revenue problem by raising taxes or cutting expenditure without having to wait for the next Budget.

It’s all eminently sensible and should be straightforward. But then, nothing in politics is ever straightforward. Then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made a fuss over the 2011 MYEFO, calling it a ‘crisis mini-budget’ and pushing for parliament to sit an extra week in December to consider it. In 2012 the Gillard Government brought the report forward to October to avoid including data that showed the huge reduction in tax collected from the mining industry. The MYEFO also has the power to affect financial markets and consumer confidence by virtue of it being an official Budget statement.

A recent media report floated the idea of delaying this year’s MYEFO (and the expected bad news contained therein) until January to avoid spooking Christmas shoppers. This was howled down by Labor with reminders of Abbott’s election launch commitment to reveal “the true state of Labor’s books” within 100 days of being elected (by 16 December) and warnings that the delay was hiding huge cuts planned for next year’s budget.

The unfortunate truth is that the best time to release this year’s MYEFO is a nuanced political choice that may be beyond the currently observed limitations of the Abbott Government. Decisions and counter-decisions on matters ranging from Indonesia and Gonski, to the debt ceiling and asylum seekers, suggest a serious shortfall in its political smarts department.

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Actually, we’re not over politics

Latest post for The King’s Tribune.

Everyone is over politics. They’re enjoying the break

This may well be one of the most manipulative and selective comments on Australian politics I’ve heard in a long time. Yet it’s being repeated uncritically around the country, including by those who should know better. Voters’ supposed delight in the absence of politics has become the multi-purpose excuse for hiding any and all manner of political activities that might otherwise be troubling our pretty little heads.

The tactic has been deployed since the very beginning of the Abbott Government. As Laurie Oakes recounts in his book on the ‘rise’ of Tony Abbott, there was a lot going on behind the scenes during the 11 days between Abbott winning the election and being sworn in by the Governor General:

… But as far as the public and the media were concerned, it was 11 days of unaccustomed quiet after the Labor years of crisis, chaos and constant politicking. No-one complained. The nation was over politics and welcomed a respite.

Now it’s been 60 days since Abbott was elected and the extension of Operation Mushroom to the government’s day-to-day operations has been a resounding success. Tony Abbott’s promised ‘no surprises’ government has become one of ‘no information’. With a justification similar to “we’ll keep telling you nothing because you’re enjoying the break”, more and more information is being kept from public scrutiny. And many of us are nodding compliantly, seemingly accepting the explanation with little or no questioning.

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Can Labor afford another leadership stoush?

Like so many of Kevin Rudd’s other hare-brained initiatives, this one must have been a good idea at the time.

Like so many of Kevin Rudd’s other hare-brained initiatives, this one must have been a good idea at the time.

The thinking may well have been that by changing the rules for electing the parliamentary leader to incorporate the popular vote from party members, Rudd could capitalise on his broader public support in the face of any future caucus antipathy.

The move was audacious at the time of announcement: in a single move the re-invented Prime Minister bolstered Fortress Rudd while giving disaffected Labor Party members and wavering supporters a reason to stay.

Much was made of Rudd’s democratisation of the party but – in perhaps the strongest sign that Kevin truly believed he would win the election and a leadership vote would be redundant – it seems little thought was given to how it would work in practice. The warm inner glow generated by the reform has dissipated in the dark days since the poll.

Now the party’s National Executive appears to be making up the rules as it goes along.

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Rudd the Contender

Here’s my latest piece for The King’s Tribune…

It started as a tiny whisper, keening like a solitary mosquito as I listened to Kevin’s I’m a contender speech before the leadership vote.

“People want a real choice at this election,” said Kevin. “People are genuinely fearful of what Mr Abbott could do to them,” he said.

And the whispery voice inside my head said, “Choice, yes; fearful of Abbott, yes.

“Maybe Kevin can actually pull this off.”

Then Kevin declared war on property developers and Sussex Street spivs, making flamboyant hacking-off gestures in the general direction of the offending limb as he tried to head off ICAC’s inevitable amputation verdict.

As tabloids in print, radio and television heralded this first Rudd review in the inevitable second wave of such considered examinations (but not very much action), the whisper was replaced with a murmur: “That’s clever,” it said. “Possibly smoke and mirrors. But it could save a few Labor seats in NSW.

“Can Kevin actually make Labor competitive again?”

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