March 10, 2008

SPIN CITY: June 05, AU Edition

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ALAN ANDERSON
The Liberals’ states (and territories) of confusion

Swept up in the excitement of federal issues, one can be forgiven for stifling a yawn at the mention of state politics. Liberals, in particular, might prefer not to reflect on this unprecedented spell of Labor domination. Yet just as the long federal drought is undermining the political viability of Labor, the Liberals face a bleak future if they do not soon regain the initiative at a state level.

The status quo puts the Liberals one defeat away from electoral oblivion. If it suffers a federal defeat in 2007 without first making gains at state level, the party will lose almost all the resources, influence and staffers that are critical to maintaining political and intellectual capital.

While the federal government is important to business generically, as it has prime influence over the nation’s economic climate, state governments are in a better position to assist particular businesses, especially property developers. This makes control of state governments a lucrative proposition for political parties, one which Labor has not been shy to exploit. It is an under-appreciated fact that the Liberals, not Labor, are the party that is playing catch-up in political funding.

What are the prospects of a Liberal resurgence? In New South Wales, Bob Carr’s tough-on-crime rhetoric has been exposed as just that by the repeated humiliations of his police force at the hands of riotous thugs. Sydney’s transport system is reminiscent of pre-Mussolini Italy. Yet for all that, the Brogden Opposition has failed to achieve the sort of ascendancy in the polls that might presage a change of government.

In Victoria, the shine has worn off Steve ‘Good Bloke’ Bracks. His constant refrain of ‘we’ll look into it’ has become a standing joke, while his unscrupulous revenue grabs have alienated many Victorians. But while there have been some promising polls for the Liberals, the sentiment in the party – and on the street – is more consistent with a respectable recovery next election from the total rout of 2002, not a miracle turn-around.

I tried to elicit comment from the party’s Queensland division, but they were both out. Nor are Liberals knocking on the doors of power in South Australia, Tasmania or the Territories.

In Western Australia, Colin Barnett went to the people with the most exciting election promise since Russian fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky pledged to build giant fans to blow radioactive waste across the Baltic states. I preferred Zhirinovsky’s plan; at least it might have worked. Voters consigned the mighty Barnett canal to the ash heap of history, to the relief of all thinking people.

To lose one state may be regarded as misfortune; to lose six plus two Territories looks like carelessness. A trend this strong must have an explanation.

The most thoughtful one was proffered by Laurie Oakes. He suggested that Australians look to Canberra for policies to sustain economic prosperity and defend national security. The states, by contrast, are seen as service providers, responsible for schools and hospitals. Thus the hard-edged issues which favour conservatives are concentrated at a federal level, while the touch-feely issues at the state level are Labor’s strong suit.

Centralism, which has seen Canberra steadily strip the states of responsibility since Federation, is partly to blame. State governments today are little more than service administrators and contract managers. It was not always so. This trend has also exacerbated the problem of finding decent candidates to run at state level.

The GST has also propped up incumbent state governments. Peter Costello is right to be frustrated by the ease with which the states have squandered their GST windfall, despite increasing their dependency on gambling revenue, outrageous traffic fines and obscene levels of property tax.

But politics is about results, not excuses, and the state Liberals produce far too many of the latter and not enough of the former. Why, in an age of growing hospital waiting lists, functionally illiterate school-leavers and widespread dissatisfaction with transport infrastructure in our major cities, have the Liberals failed so conspicuously to capture the public imagination in these areas?

A quick look at the average state campaign yields the answer: the Liberals aren’t trying. While the rampant vote-buying of federal campaigns is tempered with some issues of principle – asylum seekers, war, mutual obligation – state campaigns are wholly non-ideological.

In an age of few fiscal constraints, all that leaves is bribes to the electorate. State campaigns consist of a bidding war between politicians using taxpayer money. Even at its most feckless and patronising, the Liberal Party is never going to win that fight.
If spending like a drunken sailor isn’t the answer, what is?

Continuing the alcoholic analogy, the first step to solving your problem is realising that you have one. The logical corollary is that Liberals need to convince the voters that taxpayer money is being wasted, and that Liberals could do more with less.

I’m not talking about attacking the Premier’s twenty-grand ‘fact-finding’ mission to Hawaii, or the ministerial office furniture bill. The Liberals have already mastered those stunts. In a time of plenty, most voters ignore the politicians’ snouts in the trough, so long as they themselves are kept in gravy.

Liberals must undertake a more fundamental reappraisal of the big ticket items of state spending. They must convince voters that the problems with our health and education systems do not flow from absolute funding levels, but from structural failures.

Education is the most fertile ground for this argument. It is received wisdom in most “Howard battler” households that schools are failing to teach ‘the three R’s’. Educationalists and their unions have provided a treasure trove of quotes and documents displaying an obsession with politicising our children and a contempt for the importance of basic literacy and numeracy.

Attacks on curriculum would be political dynamite. Increasing access to private schools with a voucher system would empower parents and provide a tangible benefit. Similarly, Liberals should explore avenues to introduce greater consumer-focus into the health system.

Right-wing think-tanks, here and abroad, have produced a library of ideas on how to decentralise service provision and increase stakeholder control. While federal Liberals borrow heavily from the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs, their non-ideological state cousins have demonstrated little interest in radical reform.

After years in the wilderness, it is shameful that state Liberal oppositions have done so little to build the intellectual capital needed not just to return them to power, but to make their future governments a success. The Liberal Party cannot afford more insipid, pork-barrelling campaigns, nor a repeat of Barnett’s giant boondoggle in the West. To those cynical state Liberals who claim that a reform agenda cannot win elections, I say simply: GST.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

SPIN CITY: May 05, AU Edition

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ALAN ANDERSON
Time for a re-think on Labor’s foreign policy

Since Kim Beazley’s resurrection, Labor’s focus has been largely reactionary and confined to the domestic sphere. It complains about the marginal fluctuation of interest rates and criticises the government for not spending more (God forbid!) on infrastructure and training. The party’s one major foray abroad, an attack on a troop deployment to Iraq, was a flop.

The reluctance to discuss foreign policy is understandable in an era of unprecedented Australian prestige and influence abroad. Yet Beazley’s domestic focus is driven equally by a desire to conceal the yawning gulf between himself and his party.

Beazley has been here before. In the wake of September 11, he successfully muffled the anti-American sentiment in Labor’s ranks for the duration of an election campaign.

But that discipline was never going to hold. Over the past few years, Labor has fashioned an internal foreign policy consensus based on two tenets: regionalism and mulitlateralism. The failing credibility of both concepts threatens to expose the sham of that consensus.

First, some history. The debate over Iraq exacerbated Labor’s anti-American sentiment, while elevating the importance of national security in the public mind. After Mark Latham’s ‘troops home by Christmas’ debacle, Bomber Beazley was summoned to restore Labor’s national security credentials. In the lead-up to last year’s election, while its lightweight leader read to children, policed junk food advertising, and reminisced about Green Valley, Labor left defence and foreign affairs to the grown-ups.

Awed by the magnitude of Latham’s defeat, most commentators failed to appreciate the effectiveness of Kevin Rudd and, in the final months, Kim Beazley. Realising that Labor’s increasingly shrill anti-American ranks would not let them side-step national security, but wishing to conceal the takeover by Labor’s lunatic fringe, they employed a brilliant tactical ruse.

With Howard strategically ascendant in foreign affairs, Rudd and Beazley fought a diversionary battle using the tenets of regionalism and multilateralism. Focusing on procedural criticisms (e.g., the way Iraq was liberated), they papered over Labor’s internal gulf by shifting debate away from the US alliance and onto peripheral issues.
Now the two tenets are reaching their use-by date, and Beazley faces an unravelling of Labor’s sham consensus. Here’s why.

The first tenet is regionalism, and Labor uses it to claim that Howard’s fixation on US operations causes him to neglect regional anti-terrorist efforts and hence Australian security.

This line is completely disingenuous. There is no reason why Australia cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, and it is unclear what our troops could do to enhance regional security if they were withdrawn from Iraq. (Invade Indonesia, perhaps?) Nonetheless, this argument largely neutralised the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in the last election campaign.

The other element of the regionalism argument is a clone of Keating’s failed bid for cultural assimilation into Asia, dressed up in anti-terrorist clothes. Keating claimed that Asia would not trade with us if we did not abandon our Anglo-Saxon heritage. The new argument is that Asian nations would not work with us on security if we were too close to the US.

Most Asian nations run pragmatic foreign policies. Paul Keating’s post-colonial guilt and incessant cultural cringing before Asia aroused puzzlement amongst some, as well as undisguised contempt from Malaysia’s outspoken Dr Mahathir. By contrast, Howard’s embracing of Australia’s Anglo-Celtic cultural background put our neighbours at ease: they no longer had to humour the crazy white man trying to go native. Asian nations never wanted us to forswear our origins; they merely wanted to trade with us. They are.

Similarly, unashamed promotion of our relationship with the United States has not led to friction with Asia. Asian pragmatists have been happy to take security relationships to unprecedented levels in the War on Terror precisely because of our clout with the US, still the principal guarantor of stability in the region. This has discredited claims that Australia is neglecting the region.

In any case, the argument that support for the US in Iraq undermined us in the region always rang hollow, with regional powers like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea taking Bush’s side. In reality, opposing Bush would have devalued our greatest strategic asset, the US alliance, and left us marginalised regionally, apart from the poorer Muslim powers of Indonesia and Malaysia. With last month’s historic visits by the Indonesian President and Malaysian Prime Minister, the final vestiges of credibility were stripped from the regionalist argument.

The second tenet of Labor’s foreign policy approach is an appeal to the traditional Labor preference for multilateralism. It gave the anti-Americans carte blanche to rail against the dangerous cowboy Bush and his Australian poodle. Yet it left foreign policy ‘realists’ like Rudd and Beazley with a clear conscience, as there was no question that the war on Iraq was ripping up the established order in the United Nations as well as the Middle East.

With a compliant Australian media ever eager to portray the UN as a global ‘parliament of man’, not a corrupt club of autocrats trading in grubby commercial interests, the argument was sure to play well.

Today, the media is finding it difficult to ignore the UN Oil-for-Food scandal. An interim report stated that Kofi Annan’s chief-of-staff ordered the shredding of three years’ of documents the day after the investigation was announced. The final report will be far broader, addressing the largest program of embezzlement in history.

Even with biased reporting, the stench of corruption, not to mention sexual abuse and paedophilia, hangs thick over the UN. The Australian public already knew the UN was ineffectual; its claim to moral legitimacy was its only redeeming feature. Soon that claim will be tarnished beyond repair.

Meanwhile, that grand project of multilateralism, the European Union, is unravelling. With polls now foreshadowing a defeat for the proposed European constitution in the upcoming French referendum, and with the debate over Turkish membership starting to expose the lie of a united ‘multicultural’ Europe, the greatest exponent of multilateral consensus politics is in retreat.

The two tenets of Labor’s foreign policy approach, regionalism and multilateralism, are thus increasingly discredited. Without these distractions, the foreign policy debate will return to substantive
issues. The shaky détente between Labor’s leader and his anti-American party on these issues will fracture under pressure.

Beazley hopes that a more stable international environment will allow him to keep the focus domestic and avoid that pressure. One look at George W Bush’s recent appointments should dispel that hope. History is still on the march, and Labor cannot indefinitely avoid the great question of our age: Do we believe Western Civilisation is worth fighting for; or, like post-modern Europe and Australia’s artistic and academic classes, have we ceased to believe in the idea of the West? Labor’s leader, so enamoured of dissembling and equivocation, will have to decide – and convince his party to follow.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 09:37 AM | Comments (0)

SPIN CITY: May 05, AU Edition

may05spincityart.jpg

ALAN ANDERSON
Time for a re-think on Labor’s foreign policy

Since Kim Beazley’s resurrection, Labor’s focus has been largely reactionary and confined to the domestic sphere. It complains about the marginal fluctuation of interest rates and criticises the government for not spending more (God forbid!) on infrastructure and training. The party’s one major foray abroad, an attack on a troop deployment to Iraq, was a flop.

The reluctance to discuss foreign policy is understandable in an era of unprecedented Australian prestige and influence abroad. Yet Beazley’s domestic focus is driven equally by a desire to conceal the yawning gulf between himself and his party.

Beazley has been here before. In the wake of September 11, he successfully muffled the anti-American sentiment in Labor’s ranks for the duration of an election campaign.

But that discipline was never going to hold. Over the past few years, Labor has fashioned an internal foreign policy consensus based on two tenets: regionalism and mulitlateralism. The failing credibility of both concepts threatens to expose the sham of that consensus.

First, some history. The debate over Iraq exacerbated Labor’s anti-American sentiment, while elevating the importance of national security in the public mind. After Mark Latham’s ‘troops home by Christmas’ debacle, Bomber Beazley was summoned to restore Labor’s national security credentials. In the lead-up to last year’s election, while its lightweight leader read to children, policed junk food advertising, and reminisced about Green Valley, Labor left defence and foreign affairs to the grown-ups.

Awed by the magnitude of Latham’s defeat, most commentators failed to appreciate the effectiveness of Kevin Rudd and, in the final months, Kim Beazley. Realising that Labor’s increasingly shrill anti-American ranks would not let them side-step national security, but wishing to conceal the takeover by Labor’s lunatic fringe, they employed a brilliant tactical ruse.

With Howard strategically ascendant in foreign affairs, Rudd and Beazley fought a diversionary battle using the tenets of regionalism and multilateralism. Focusing on procedural criticisms (e.g., the way Iraq was liberated), they papered over Labor’s internal gulf by shifting debate away from the US alliance and onto peripheral issues.
Now the two tenets are reaching their use-by date, and Beazley faces an unravelling of Labor’s sham consensus. Here’s why.

The first tenet is regionalism, and Labor uses it to claim that Howard’s fixation on US operations causes him to neglect regional anti-terrorist efforts and hence Australian security.

This line is completely disingenuous. There is no reason why Australia cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, and it is unclear what our troops could do to enhance regional security if they were withdrawn from Iraq. (Invade Indonesia, perhaps?) Nonetheless, this argument largely neutralised the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in the last election campaign.

The other element of the regionalism argument is a clone of Keating’s failed bid for cultural assimilation into Asia, dressed up in anti-terrorist clothes. Keating claimed that Asia would not trade with us if we did not abandon our Anglo-Saxon heritage. The new argument is that Asian nations would not work with us on security if we were too close to the US.

Most Asian nations run pragmatic foreign policies. Paul Keating’s post-colonial guilt and incessant cultural cringing before Asia aroused puzzlement amongst some, as well as undisguised contempt from Malaysia’s outspoken Dr Mahathir. By contrast, Howard’s embracing of Australia’s Anglo-Celtic cultural background put our neighbours at ease: they no longer had to humour the crazy white man trying to go native. Asian nations never wanted us to forswear our origins; they merely wanted to trade with us. They are.

Similarly, unashamed promotion of our relationship with the United States has not led to friction with Asia. Asian pragmatists have been happy to take security relationships to unprecedented levels in the War on Terror precisely because of our clout with the US, still the principal guarantor of stability in the region. This has discredited claims that Australia is neglecting the region.

In any case, the argument that support for the US in Iraq undermined us in the region always rang hollow, with regional powers like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea taking Bush’s side. In reality, opposing Bush would have devalued our greatest strategic asset, the US alliance, and left us marginalised regionally, apart from the poorer Muslim powers of Indonesia and Malaysia. With last month’s historic visits by the Indonesian President and Malaysian Prime Minister, the final vestiges of credibility were stripped from the regionalist argument.

The second tenet of Labor’s foreign policy approach is an appeal to the traditional Labor preference for multilateralism. It gave the anti-Americans carte blanche to rail against the dangerous cowboy Bush and his Australian poodle. Yet it left foreign policy ‘realists’ like Rudd and Beazley with a clear conscience, as there was no question that the war on Iraq was ripping up the established order in the United Nations as well as the Middle East.

With a compliant Australian media ever eager to portray the UN as a global ‘parliament of man’, not a corrupt club of autocrats trading in grubby commercial interests, the argument was sure to play well.

Today, the media is finding it difficult to ignore the UN Oil-for-Food scandal. An interim report stated that Kofi Annan’s chief-of-staff ordered the shredding of three years’ of documents the day after the investigation was announced. The final report will be far broader, addressing the largest program of embezzlement in history.

Even with biased reporting, the stench of corruption, not to mention sexual abuse and paedophilia, hangs thick over the UN. The Australian public already knew the UN was ineffectual; its claim to moral legitimacy was its only redeeming feature. Soon that claim will be tarnished beyond repair.

Meanwhile, that grand project of multilateralism, the European Union, is unravelling. With polls now foreshadowing a defeat for the proposed European constitution in the upcoming French referendum, and with the debate over Turkish membership starting to expose the lie of a united ‘multicultural’ Europe, the greatest exponent of multilateral consensus politics is in retreat.

The two tenets of Labor’s foreign policy approach, regionalism and multilateralism, are thus increasingly discredited. Without these distractions, the foreign policy debate will return to substantive
issues. The shaky détente between Labor’s leader and his anti-American party on these issues will fracture under pressure.

Beazley hopes that a more stable international environment will allow him to keep the focus domestic and avoid that pressure. One look at George W Bush’s recent appointments should dispel that hope. History is still on the march, and Labor cannot indefinitely avoid the great question of our age: Do we believe Western Civilisation is worth fighting for; or, like post-modern Europe and Australia’s artistic and academic classes, have we ceased to believe in the idea of the West? Labor’s leader, so enamoured of dissembling and equivocation, will have to decide – and convince his party to follow.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 09:37 AM | Comments (0)

SPIN CITY: Nov 05, AU Edition

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ALAN ANDERSON
The last thing we need is a politicized judiciary

For politicians and rock stars, publicity is like oxygen. For members of some other professions – central bankers and public servants, for instance – publicity is generally thought of as undesirable. Happily, most Australian judges would place themselves in the latter category. Unhappily, the federal Labor Party has revealed that it would like to alter the method of judicial appointment, with the covert intent of creating a more politicised and activist judiciary.

Most Australians are unaware of how unique our apolitical judiciary is. In the United States for example, the probing public confirmation hearings of new Chief Justice John Roberts before the Senate Judiciary Committee, set to be repeated even more harshly with President Bush’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court, are indicative of the politicised process of judicial appointment to which Americans are accustomed.

The US judicial confirmation process comes complete with intervention from lobby groups and even television advertisements attacking nominees. In some states, judges are directly elected by the voters! Unsurprisingly, the judiciary is a polarised and polarising element of US society.

Australia’s model of judicial appointment is rather different. Cabinet appoints judges to the High Court, usually on the recommendation of the Attorney-General. In practice, the Attorney-General consults members of the profession, but he does so in private and has no legal obligation to do so. This mirrors the traditional British approach, where the Lord Chancellor determines judicial appointments.

While there have been a few appalling appointments, such as former Labor Attorney General Lionel Murphy, governments of both persuasions have generally shown restraint and wisdom in their judicial selections. As a result, polls show that Australian judges enjoy a relatively high level of public respect.

The United Kingdom recently created an unelected judicial appointments commission to determine the criteria for appointment, supplanting much of the role of the Lord Chancellor. This model arose out of the politically correct desire to ensure that the judiciary becomes more ‘representative’, meaning that appropriate proportions of female, gay, black and disabled judges sit on the Bench (judicial conservatives need not apply). Accordingly, it is populated by appropriately bien pensant New Labour types.

In the context of the United Kingdom’s adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights into its domestic law, through the Human Rights Act 1998, judges are being called upon to make an increasing number of politicised decisions. Through the judicial appointments commission, the British Left are successfully entrenching a judicial culture which will ensure that the cases fall their way.

Now Nicola Roxon, federal Labor’s Shadow Attorney-General, has suggested in an opinion piece in the Age that Australia should reform its own judicial appointment processes. Unsurprisingly, Roxon is not impressed with the democracy and transparency of the American system, which has seen Republicans win public support for their promises to appoint judicial conservatives. Rather, she prefers the unaccountable British approach – a commission which will no doubt be stacked with members drawn from left-leaning legal professional bodies and academia, and which will be sure to deliver the sort of activist jurists Roxon would like to see.

Roxon portrays this proposal as a half-way house on the spectrum of transparency, somewhere between the executive secrecy of the Australian model and the robust and often unfair scrutiny of the politicised US model. In truth, a judicial appointment commission is not a compromise position, but an extreme one.

Both the US and Australian models retain a measure of democratic accountability: the people may not elect the judges (though they do in some US states), but they do at least elect those who select the judges. Roxon’s system is designed to add an extra layer between the voters and the judges: voters elect the government which
appoints the commission which selects the judges.

The benefit of this system to the Left is obvious. Where a Labor government would be pilloried for selecting activist judges to overrule the popular will on political issues like aboriginal land rights and asylum seekers, a judicial appointments commission would give it political cover to argue that it had merely implemented the recommendations of its expert commissioners.

Roxon’s article attracted little attention, perhaps because of its absurd context. It commenced with congratulation of Attorney General Phillip Ruddock for his appointment of Justice Susan Crennan, partly on the grounds that she is a good jurist, but principally because she has no penis. Then, having stated what an excellent appointment the current system has yielded, Roxon claimed that it is clearly broken and needs radical reform.

Yet rather than dismissing Roxon’s foray as absurd, conservatives should be grateful for this window into her thinking, and frightened by the implications for Australia’s apolitical judiciary should Labor be elected. Accordingly, conservatives must consider pre-empting Roxon’s proposals with changes of their own.

While the current model of executive appointment has served us reasonably well, it is politically difficult to defend due to its lack of transparency. Instead of allowing advocates of judicial activism the luxury of attacking it on this ground, conservatives should consider a move to defuse the issue by including the legislature in the process of deliberating over judicial appointments, while broadly maintaining the principles of the Westminster system.

Such a model might take the form of insisting upon judicial confirmation hearings in front of a joint parliamentary committee, with the Attorney General retaining a discretion to override the committee. Alternatively, or additionally, parliamentarians might be afforded the opportunity to veto objectionable nominations, although one might make this more difficult by requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses.

There are any number of alternative proposals which might be devised to insert a measure of transparency to the judicial appointment process. By adopting such a proposal now, conservatives would deprive a future Labor government of an excuse to introduce an undemocratic model of judicial appointment which would ultimately entrench the political prejudices of a left-leaning profession in the composition of the High Court Bench.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 03:00 AM | Comments (0)

SPIN CITY: Apr 05, AU Edition

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ALAN ANDERSON
Where is John Howard’s opposition? These days, not in the ALP

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of policy ideas – good, bad and stupid – floated by Coalition parliamentarians. Good: the so-called Ginger Group has championed tax reform. Bad: Tony Abbott and others have ignited a debate over abortion. Stupid: Petro Georgiou declared that Australia’s border protection policies have worked so well that they should be abolished.

Various commentators have discussed the threat posed to John Howard by these rumblings from the party room. On another front, the perennial leadership question has returned to the fore. And speaking of the Treasurer, he has drawn fire from state governments over his outrageous proposition that they should use their GST windfalls to eliminate inefficient state taxes, rather than directing it towards crucial projects like the taxpayer-funded refurbishment of Victorian Trades Hall.

In all this excitement, it’s easy to forget the only people we’re not hearing from – the Opposition. Fresh from a fourth successive defeat, federal Labor has settled on a simple strategy: more of the same.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their choice of leader. The Labor caucus swallowed hook, line and sinker the conventional media wisdom about the reason for Mark Latham’s defeat: he was too “risky”.
It seems not to have occurred to Labor that the real problem with Latham was that, once elevated to the leadership, his much-vaunted courage descended into sheer opportunism as he danced from one populist position to the next. No, Labor thinks that its problem was a leader with new ideas. Their solution?
Appoint a leader with none.

Who could forget cringing before Kim Beazley’s self-debasing advertising campaign to tell the electorate where he stood? The answer, as best we could discern from the ads, was “next to a desk”.
Now we have returned to the purely reactionary and opportunistic style of opposition in which Labor has been mired through most of the Howard era, eschewing alternative policy detail in favour of a shopping list of complaints. At a time in the political cycle when opposition MPs should be flying a thousand policy kites to see which remain aloft, Labor’s benches appear bereft of ideas. As a result, the nation’s only alternative policy agenda is coming from the Government backbench.
This is not just a problem of political cowardice. The Labor malaise runs far deeper.

Here’s an easily-repeatable experiment I recently tried: ask a few grassroots Liberals what policies the Government should introduce. Tax cuts, welfare reforms; you’ll get your answer. For a laugh, try the same with a Green: “Ban cars, free marijuana for all” (I quote from memory).

Now ask a few Labor branch members of the more cosmopolitan variety.
The results are not just reactionary, they are laced with cynicism about both the electorate and the party: Howard’s border protection policy is evil – but we must tread softly or the racist Australian electorate will reject us. We must stop Howard’s IR reforms, welfare reforms, and so on – but we can’t wind back what’s already done. Union power in the ALP is undemocratic – but without it, the lunatics would take charge of the asylum.

It is common to both parties that most parliamentarians are less comfortable with policy and ideology than with political tactics. But when the grassroots membership, after nine years of opposition, cannot identify any unifying cause beyond opposition to the government of the day, it is no surprise that their representatives can’t either.
Unfortunately for Labor, Beazley’s ungainly verbiage does not conceal, but accentuates, his lack of substance, as displayed in a Lateline interview with Tony Jones on 22 February. Having criticised the deployment of additional forces to Iraq, Beazley was pressed for his own prescription:

BEAZLEY: …you will never be able to train sufficient Iraqi security forces to do that job…

JONES: But are you saying we should not be training Iraqi security forces; that shouldn’t be part of the mission of Australian troops?

BEAZLEY: I think we need a different engagement with Iraq. I’ve made that clear before. I think the time has come to say to the Iraqis: well, there is a certain military involvement that we will have - and I don’t want to go through all the issues there; you understand what our position is in that regard - but as far as...
[Here Jones wisely interrupts to change the topic before his remaining listeners nod off].

While it is fun to torment the congenitally-verbose, consider whether Beazley’s style is more a symptom than a cause of his party’s problems. At a fundamental level, federal Labor simply has nothing to say. Beazley merely personifies his party’s irrelevance.

It need not be this way. The Howard Government has overseen a transfer in economic power from those who earn to those who own. Younger generations have every right to feel angered by the baby boomers, who have maintained exorbitant income tax rates to fund unsustainable benefits for their retirement while forcing the rest of us to pay our own way through life. A bold ALP would start by establishing its credentials as the party of inter-generational justice. For instance, Labor could advocate abolishing negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount to fund substantial cuts in income tax. It could push for a rise in the retirement age. And it could devise other policies to address the looming imbalance between workers and welfare recipients.
But while opportunities abound for Labor to demonstrate a fresh commitment to good governance, it remains paralysed by fear. Labor’s renewal will require a positive reappraisal of the electorate Labor has learnt to despise.

Australians no longer believe in a free lunch. That is why too-good-to-be-true policies like Medicare Gold have failed. This is an era of conviction politics.

If Labor is prepared to build on the theme of inter-generational justice and securing the interests of future generations, it will win converts even amongst those adversely affected. Contrary to the bleating of demoralised left-wing columnists, Australians do not decide their votes on self-interest alone, or even principally.

The GST election demonstrated that it is possible to win with policies that people believe will affect them adversely, so long as they feel there is a greater national good at stake. A courageous Labor leader could restore Labor’s sense of moral purpose without venturing onto the Greens’ wilder shores. Nothing lasts forever, and sooner or later Labor will find itself in government, however lacklustre that government may be. It is therefore in the interests of all Australians that Labor find a new and worthy vision to advance.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 01:40 AM | Comments (0)

Spin City: Mar 05, AU Edition

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SPIN CITY

ALAN ANDERSON
John Howard has a long way to go to truly remake Australian society

Fresh from his fourth successive elec-tion victory, John Howard is politically ascendant. Learned commentators who only months ago were waxing lyri-cal about the visionary qualities of Mark Latham are now consigning Labor to the dustbin of history. The Coalition eagerly awaits its Senate majority in July. And Howard’s mate George W. Bush has handily won another four years in the White House.
Australian conservatives might be forgiven a little triumphalism as they reflect on the past year.

Yet there is still plenty to give the Right pause. For while Howard has won many battles, it is far from certain that he is winning the war to really transform Australian culture – or even that he will fight it.

Howard has been a champion of two great political causes: a broad-based consumption tax and industrial relations reform. The former is a battle won. The latter has been partially implemented and will advance significantly once the Coalition’s Senate majority takes effect. What next?

The answer is obvious to some. Led by Senator Mitch Fifield and Sophie Panopoulos MP, a vocal group of Liberal parliamentarians is challenging Howard to implement desperately needed reforms to the nation’s confiscatory income tax regime and its counterproductive welfare system.

But Howard’s response has been to hose down expectations of change, cautioning that it’s “a question of striking the right balance”. Unless the PM’s idea of balance is that we go halfsies with government, it is difficult to defend the status quo. After profligate campaign spending, it is frightening to imagine that projected surpluses of $24 billion over the next four years might fund further expansion of Australia’s bloated public sector.

Of course, it’s possible that Howard’s moderate rhetoric conceals radical intentions. After all, Peter Costello’s last budget included a politically risky change to tax thresholds at the top end of the spectrum. But it is not just in economic policy that reform is in jeopardy.

Australian conservatives have been beguiled by vast tracts of left-wing commentary bemoaning the Right’s victory in the “Culture Wars”. In the memorable words of the PM, “Hello? Hello?”

But let’s check the other side of the ledger.

Taxpayers continue to fund the arts and film industries which churn out politicised material like the disingenuous Rabbit Proof Fence and display a tedious conformity of views. The need for subsidy springs from the fact that only a handful of insiders want to view the art or watch the films. And surely the very idea of a panel of government-appointed commissars doling out cash to whomever satisfies their definition of “art” is anathema to alleged Liberal values. So what have nine years of conservative govern-ment achieved?

Barring a handful of outcasts, dissent amongst the so-called intellectuals in our universities is akin to a power struggle between the Maoists and the Marxist-Leninists, with a few post-modern onanists thrown in for good measure. Vindictive personal attacks on the likes of Keith Windschuttle are matched by the less-publicised persecution of students who dare to challenge the established orthodoxy, making a mockery of the Enlightenment values of free inquiry that universities are meant to celebrate.

Judging by voting patterns, the socialist dinosaurs of academia are well to the left of the students they teach. A full-blown voucher system would introduce market forces to the sector and end their oligopoly. Yet the Government merely tinkers at the edges of the HECS system. So what have nine years of conservative government achieved?

Our public broadcasters rival Cuba’s Granma in their anti-Americanism, while proudly declaring their domestic impartiality because they attack both major parties equally – from the left. John Howard’s appointments to the ABC include the entire current board, save for the staff rep.

With the exception of former member Michael Kroger, every one of his appointees were captured by the institution, leading to the coup d’état against reformist managing director Jonathan Shier and his replacement with a lacklustre insider. So what have nine years of conservative government achieved?

The half-hearted debate about values in schools has merely emphasised the continued domination of the teaching profession and education bureaucracy by moral and cultural relativists who see their job as indoctrinating the young with fashionable multi-culti pietie, from which quaint pursuits such as grammar and arithmetic are an unwelcome distraction. Here the government has made a tiny step in the right direction, with the introduction of an experimental voucher system to enable failing students to seek help from the private sector.

But it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. The Government is introducing a national curriculum which will doubtless be corrupted by the education bureaucrats. Even if, by some miracle, it is not, the centralised system will eliminate competition between states and pave the way for the next Labor government to implement Carmen Lawrence’s dream of an education system that indoctrinates children into communism – sorry, social justice. Again, what have nine years of conservative government achieved?

Conservative electoral success masks an underlying failure to win key battles over the size of government and the politicised nature of key public institutions. If he is to reverse this failure in his fourth term, John Howard will need to embrace measures more radical than he has shown the stomach for thus far. If he does not, his much-vaunted reshaping of Australian society will prove as ephemeral as a sand

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SPIN CITY: Sep 05, AU Edition

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ALAN ANDERSON
Blackmail is an ugly word for the Nats’ current strategy. But it fits

One of the hallmarks of the Howard Government has been its willingness to buy off sectional interests in order to make its reform agenda more palatable.

From dairy farmers to ‘grandfathered’ disability pension recipients, a host of minority groups have seen the costs of reform lifted from their shoulders and foisted onto taxpayers and consumers.

This is not necessarily bad policy. The whole argument for reform is that the pain of the few is outweighed by the gain of the many; hence some transitionl contribution from the many makes sense. But when the sectional interest being bought off sits on the Government benches, the spectre of Malcolm Fraser haunts the corridors of power – or impotence.

Barnaby Joyce makes no pretence of being concerned with the broader national interest. ‘I think the job in politics is to acknowledge sectional interests and to try to accommodate them as much as you possibly can’, he stated in defence of his shameless pork-barrelling. The Prime Minister’s model for addressing the problem – appeasement – accepts Joyce’s cynical world view. This strategy is a viable if spineless one in a single-front war.

But if disgruntled Liberals open a second front on Howard, deciding that they also constitute the ‘balance of power’, appeasement will cease to be viable. Howard’s continued indulgence of the Nationals, as the agenda moves onto totemic Liberal issues, can only encourage that to happen.

‘The key is that the PM has an irrationally paranoid fear of people crossing the floor, even in the lower house’, lamented one Howard supporter and long-serving Liberal MP. ‘He has been scarred by his past experience, in the Fraser years. So he wants to seem in total control.

‘The emerging pattern is that perfectly good legislation and policy, with strong support in the party room, or even after having gone through the party room, gets compromised and wrecked. It’s not just the Nationals; that’s what happened to our border protection legislation too.’

The result, according to this MP, is a growing disenchantment amongst the most valuable members of the Government. ‘Those who do the process properly – talking to colleagues, lobbying for support in the party room, arguing the case and, if they fail, giving up quietly and moving onto another issue; people making a positive contribution to the Government – those people are ignored. People are starting to get pissed off; they’re starting to joke that the only way to get things done is to blackmail the PM’.

The irony, in other words, is that Howard’s relentless quest for the appearance of control is giving him less real control than ever, with angry colleagues wondering what principles will next be sacrificed for the sake of a quiet life.

Now the anger has a focus. By capitulating to Barnaby Joyce’s antics, Howard has brought hostile anti-National sentiment close to boiling point at all levels of the Liberal Party.

‘The problem with the Nationals is that we keep building them up’, one Minister told me. ‘We should point out the truth. They are a party with no future. They stand for nothing but self-interest. That is not an attractive proposition in 2005. Their only agenda is to prop up uneconomic industries. We shouldn’t be afraid of them; they should be afraid of us.’

This cynical analysis of the Nationals is, sadly, the only one that fits the facts. It is understandable that the Nationals would go into bat for rural telecommunications. But why on earth do they play games on voluntary student unionism or industrial relations, issues on which all thinking conservatives and liberals should be able to agree? The only possible answer is that they want to secure media attention and bribes; extorting further taxpayer money for doing the job they are already paid to do: to cast their votes in good faith.

Critics of the Nationals are not limited to metropolitan MPs. Rural and regional Liberals are equally angered by them, and by Howard’s tolerance ( even encouragement) of their grand-standing.

One rural Liberal MP expressed it thus: ‘Liberals have more than double the rural seats that the Nationals have. We work hard behind the scenes to resolve policy issues in the interests of rural and regional Australians, as opposed to just looking for giant hand-outs. We’re involved in actually solving problems. But we’re not allowed to take credit. The PM gives the Nationals leave to rebel, so they can look like they are David taking on Goliath, because he’d rather have them as a rump than as another party’.

The Prime Minister would doubtless argue that his hands are tied, as the Nats’ support is needed in the Senate. But is he right?
As a Liberal Senator put it to me, ‘we’ve got a lot of wood on the Nats’. One anecdote illustrates the point.

The Nationals hold twelve lower house seats. Yet when one metropolitan MP visited the then-Minister for Family and Community Services, she showed him two piles of documents on her desk, one several times larger than the other. ‘Those are the community grants to Liberal seats’, she told him, gesturing to the smaller pile, ‘and those are the community grants to National seats’, gesturing at the larger.
Pulling out a single page from the smaller pile, she said, ‘here are the grants for your seat’.

Suppose that the question that confronted the Nationals was not whether they would secure further bribes for their votes, but whether they would keep the existing ones. It seems unlikely that a group which has so successfully blackmailed massive hand-outs from the taxpayer would surrender them simply because they are denied more. After all, as Joyce admitted, their game is simply to squeeze the taxpayer for all they can. It’s as if they are standing on principle.
All that is required to restore genuine, as opposed to apparent, control of the parliament, is for the Prime Minister to have the courage to call the Nationals’ bluff. Instead of greasing the noisiest wheel, Howard should stand firm behind the collective will of the party room, daring renegade National Senators to jump ship, and threatening them with termination of the pork-barrelling that is their party’s only remaining raison d’être.

Of course, there is a risk that a more aggressive stance will see an occasional floor-crossing incident. But the alternative policy of endless concessions makes it inevitable Howard should consider whom he wants sitting on his side.

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SPIN CITY: Dec 05, AU Edition

ALAN ANDERSON
State Libs need to look for trouble – not avoid it

Liberal Party faithful attending a recent function in the “dead red” North-western suburbs of Melbourne got more than they bargained for when Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Kroger opened fire on the ineffectiveness of members of the party’s state parliamentary wing. He went on to outline his own view of the source of Labor’s state successes across Australia, and the problem with the Liberal response.
The impotence of state Liberal opposition is so permanent a feature of the political landscape that the concern of federal colleagues has given way to a sort of benign neglect. Ultimately, this means the party is only an election away from political oblivion.

Kroger holds out little immediate hope for state Liberals, stating that they will not win back government unless they are able to break the new Labor paradigm of state government. This Labor paradigm involves turning the states into a “new local government” which the voters are simply too apathetic about to motivate them to change parties.

“Think about local government”, says Kroger. “As long as the rubbish is collected and the streets are clean, no one really cares who is running it. How many of your local councillors can you name?”
Kroger argues that Labor has managed to manufacture a similar community attitude towards state government. “There are two rules they follow”, Kroger explains. “First, run a budget surplus”.

The availability of an ever-expanding revenue stream from the GST has made this possible for even the most profligate and irresponsible Labor governments.

“The second rule”, Kroger explains, “is not to ofend anyone”. Kroger offers the example of Morris Iemma in New South Wales, a politician whom no one had ever heard of before he ascended to the Premiership. There Labor sought the most bland and unexciting leader possible, a leader who would not attract the public’s attention to state politics.

So how does the Liberal Party, currently stripped of its traditional mantra of Labor’s fiscal incompetence, go about winning government from these cardboard Premiers? Many state parliamentarians seem to have privately concluded that there is little choice but to wait for Labor’s profligacy to outstrip even the growth of the GST – not an unrealistic hope in the medium term. Yet such defeatism will lead to still more demoralising defeats in the near future, threatening the viability of the Liberals’ state divisions.

Kroger is no such defeatist. “The answer is to fight Labor on values. They want to make state politics so boring that no one listens to the news about it. We have to counter that by making it interesting”.
The “culture wars” over the values that should underpin Australian institutions are an integral part of the Howard Government’s strategy at a federal level, but this is turf state Liberals have been reluctant to fight over.

Yet the great strength of John Howard lies in his ability to pick the right fights on values. On aboriginal land rights, immigration and anti-terrorism laws, Howard has mastered the art of provoking the most hysterical extremes of the Left.

Further, Howard’s willingness to stand firm in the face of impassioned opposition generates an image of toughness and consistency that has proven resistant even to the reality of craven political compromises. This is attractive even to those who disagree with Howard on specific policy issues.

The message from both Kroger’s analysis and Howard’s success is that state oppositions should stop dodging a fight and start looking for one.


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