Monthly Archives: October 2011

‘Cut and Run’? No We Should Not

Overnight the Australian Defence Force (ADF) suffered three deaths and 7 wounded soldiers in an attack by a soldier in the Afghan National Army (ANA) uniform. The incident has inevitably revived the question: Should we ‘cut and run’ from our commitments in Afghanistan, or is there something else that we can do?There have now been 32 Australian soldiers killed in combat and training operations since our commitment began. We grieve them all for the loss to their families and friends and to the nation.

Should we pull all our troops out of combat, training and reconstruction roles in Afghanistan in the wake of an incident like this? I tend to agree with the position of the Gillard Government, the ADF and the Tony Abbott led Coalition when they say, no we should not contemplate a precipitate withdrawal from our responsibilities to train, reconstruct and make the war-torn nation safer.

An immediate withdrawal of all troops in an instantaneous and collective manner would result in Afghanistan becoming far more de-stabilised and result in a likely mass return of the Taliban to areas of the nation where they have largely been eradicated from.

Indeed, there is a valid argument that a longer combat, training and reconstruction role is essential for the long-term, at leas relative stability of Afghanistan. This ongoing role is essential for the future stability of Afghanistan politically and economically.

If there is one major thing that this incident tells us, it is that Afghanistan is not necessarily more or less dangerous than it has been previously. What this dreadful event, the second similar incident involving Australian forces, may tell us is that better vetting of ANA and other security force’s candidates is required.

This approach calls for more intelligence resources and time to conduct background checks, not less time with talk of deadlines of a specific withdrawal timetable. Furthermore it calls for more time and effort put into the training, combat and reconstruction roles.

The Government and other governments contemplating such circumstances will find it incredibly difficult to justify in a political environment where there have been casualties and voters are becoming war weary. The current global economic doldrums will also put immense pressure on political will. However, the point remains, that what is required is not necessarily an escalation in troop numbers or operations, but chiefly, in relation to this attack, a simple revision of vetting processes for Afghan security forces which can be worked on, in unison with the Afghan Government.

The Left and Banning Live Exports

For much of the last few months, since that awful footage featured on Four Corners, there has been a growing movement to ban all live animal exports from Australia to nations around the world. Calls from the left to altogether ban live exports are predicated on a hypocrisy when it comes to cultural and religious rights which those of the left are usually the first to support.As a result of the Four Corners program, there was a temporary ban on live exports to Indonesia, where the footage was taken from. The temporary ban was imposed by the Gillard Labor Government, without thinking of the monetary consequences for our struggling farmers, in response to some truly horrific scenes which were documented in Indonesia.

After some time, the Government rightly bowed to pressure and re-instated live exports and promised to look into strengthening oversight and management from the Australian cattle industry, beginning from the moment cattle leave the feedlots and continuing right through until the animals are slaughtered in overseas abattoirs.

The one thing which the Government were widely asked to do was to mandate the stunning of animals before slaughter. This would have been ideal given that the animals would die in a more comfortable way and therefore give comfort to some of those interested in animal welfare. However, politically, across nations to mandate the practice would clearly have been difficult.

However, this wide array of change in the live cattle export industry has not been enough for what seems a growing chorus of people.

A growing percentage of the population seem to advocate that Australia completely ban all live exports to anywhere in the world, disregarding the fact that the right to slaughter animals in a particular way is a cultural and religious freedom.

Now, the last time I checked, cultural rights were affirmed by the United Nations and 99.9% of the time, supported by those of the left, except in such circumstances as this where people like me step up to the plate to point out this fact.

Have the left forgotten what I learnt in my undergraduate human rights major: that human rights are indivisible and inalienable?

Effectively, if we as Australians were to say, yes, lets ban all live exports, we as a nation would be saying that we do not believe people from other cultures have the right to enjoy their own freedoms, because we saw some awful footage which could be remedied in any case.

What is the problem with, at the very least doing all we can to ensure that animals are slaughtered humanely? Was it not enough that exports were suspended immediately, causing harm to farmers and possibly our trade potential in the area?

Animals have been slaughtered for food for a very long time and indeed Muslim culture has done so for a long period of time too and we are only just finding fault with some poor methods in recent years. There is nothing wrong with working with other cultures, teaching them how to slaughter animals more humanely and providing them with the tools to do so. What is not right is left hypocrisy on the issue, denying what is usually held to be a fundamental cultural right. Nobody denies animals should be treated with respect before, leading up to and during slaughter, but to deny a culture the right to exercise their beliefs when the process can and has been made better makes no sense.

The Not So Independent Ombudsman and the Hypocritical Greens

Today the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allan Asher resigned his post over events in which Mr Asher provided Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young with a series of questions in relation to immigration, specifically asylum seekers. The news of the affair surfaced last week and has until today cast a could over the  independence  of Mr Asher and confidence in his future performance.

In an ideal world, with ideal adherence to governance and independence standards, Allan Asher should have resigned from his role immediately. The Ombudsman, at the moment the situation came to light, to save face for the Office of the Ombudsman in the eyes of the wider Australian community, should have resigned last week, before appearing at committees and making other statements of apology as has happened since.

Furthermore, as the Ombudsman is independent, the argument that the Government were shirking accountability on the issue of asylum seekers, while a grave allegation, could have been circumvented in part by a press release or series thereof, being put to the media.

However, the Ombudsman was not the only party involved, nor the only party or individual to take blame for the situation. The Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the Senator who met with and accepted and then used the list of questions provided must also share blame for her part in the situation.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young should not have accepted, in any case, the list of questions provided by the Ombudsman. This whole event smacks of Australian Greens hypocrisy given their stance over the Godwin Grech affair, which resulted in the Greens putting up a list of standards to meet and which have been flouted in this case.

Ideally, an MP or Senator involved in such a situation under Westminster accountability standards should at least stand aside from their portfolios responsibilities, shadow or not and at best, resign from parliament. However, with precedents set against such an occasion, in this day and age that level of accountability is unlikely to be reached and at times could be unworkable.

The Australian Greens, in the wake of this imbroglio, will put forward an idea of an oversight function for the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. In any case, coming from a party not involved in the recent events, this would be a welcome development. However, in this case it smacks of a diversion from the involvement of  Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in what has led to this quite sensible announcement.

In the end today, we have reached basically the right outcome, with the Ombudsman eventually, under considerable pressure, being somewhat nudged into resignation from his post. Furthermore, we have learnt that as far as accountability goes, no party is fully immune from errors of judgement and when confronted by the facts, will attempt to put forward a solution to distract from their original involvement in not so smart encounters.

A Republic: To Be Or Not To Be? The Right Question Is When…

There is no doubt that the impending visit of Queen Elizabeth II will on some level stir up debate on whether or not Australia should, in the near future, sever her ties with the Commonwealth and the monarchy. The republic vs  monarchy debate has faded into the background of the Australian political discourse since the 1999 referendum on Australia becoming a republic. Now, with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next week and the visit of Her Majesty the Queen, who may be coming toward the end of her reign, the debate has reared its head again.Since the republican referendum of 1999 under John Howard, there has been little or not forthright expression of the need to break away from the ties of monarchy. Indeed, at best in the last 4 to 5 years it has gained minor attention through the statements of our politicians, mostly paying lip service to the idea of Australia becoming a republic in the near or foreseeable future.

It is almost inevitable, that in the life-time of my generation, we will see Australia become a republic. This will not happen under the current Government and would likely not even figure in the agenda of a future Abbott Government, being the staunch monarchist that he is.

A reason for the status quo staying the way that it is at present, with a constitutional monarchy and a part in the Commonwealth, is that the situation at present is not altogether different from that of the situation Australia would find itself in as a republic. We are no longer a colony or colonies striving for at least partial independence from the United Kingdom, we have our own set of laws which we as a nation have made and a Governor-General representing the Queen. We also no longer have a final right of appeal to the Privy Council in the UK.

Furthermore, we do not just trade with Commonwealth countries. As a nation we have a wide array of trading arrangements with a variety of nations across the globe. So independence would not have any foreseeable fiscal benefits as such.

On the other hand, a republic could be the time and opportunity to bring in something that we do not have as yet, a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights would guarantee citizens have all the basic human rights enshrined in law, rather than for them to be implied in the Constitution or in our laws.

Further, becoming a republic would also be a good time to recognise our indigenous Australians, the first people of our nation Australia. Whilst symbolic, coupled with real policy work and assistance, this could help lift some indigenous people out of poverty.

It is probably the right thing to wait until the end of the reign of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, to really discuss whether or not it is an urgent priority to become a republic. Limited differences between the status quo and Australia becoming a republic are what is holding the republican movement back. The republican movement need to begin to mobilise louder and stronger in selling the differences between monarchy and a republic.

It looks likely that a vote on a republic could be as long as 10 to 15 years away at the present rate of movement and taking into account the political realities at present in Australia. The reign of Queen Elizabeth also seems a major factor in the timing of a future referendum, with both sides seemingly shy now to debate the issue with vigour while the Queen remains in power. Having a republic over the status quo does have some major benefits for all Australians and specifically also for the forgotten minorities. It will not impact on the overall wealth of the nation or our trading relationships in a positive or negative way. The question remains, would you want to wait up to 10-15 years for a republic? Some time around then, it is bound to happen.

Minor Political Players in Australia

AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRATS
You can find the policies of the Australian Democrats here:
http://www.democrats.org.au/policies/

AUSTRALIAN REFORM PARTY
You can find their Policy Platform here:
http://www.reform.org.au/about.html

CHRISTIAN DEMOCRATIC PARTY (FRED NILE)
You can find the policies of the CDP here:
http://www.cdp.org.au/federal-policies.html

COMMUNIST PARTY OF AUSTRALIA
You can find information on their ideas here:
http://www.cpa.org.au/about-us/index.html

DEMOCRATIC LABOR PARTY
You can find information from their Senator, John Madigan here:
http://www.johnmadigan.com.au/media

DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST PERSPECTIVE
You can find information about the DSP here:
http://www.dsp.org.au/node/4

FAMILY FIRST PARTY
You can find policy information on the Family First Party here:
http://www.familyfirst.org.au/

LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY
You can find policy of the Liberal Democratic Party here:
http://www.ldp.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=101&Itemid=290

NET EFFECT PARTY
You can find their policy platform here:
http://www.neteffect.org.au/policy.html

PROGRESSIVE LABOUR PARTY
You can find policy information here:
http://www.progressivelabour.org/plp_policies_feb2010.pdf

SOCIALIST ALLIANCE
You can find their policy information here:
http://www.socialist-alliance.org/page.php?page=190

 

The Major Players and Their Policy Platforms

This post is simply to give you links to the policy platforms of the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party of Australia and the Australian Greens. It serves as a tool to better inform readers of the pros and cons of the three players in Australian politics.

THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
The current ALP Policy Platform is available here:
http://alp.org.au/australian-labor/our-platform/

THE LIBERAL PARTY OF AUSTRALIA/NATIONAL PARTY
The current Liberal Party of Australia Policy Platform and Coalition partner the National Party can be downloaded here:
http://liberal.org.au/The-Party/Our-Beliefs.aspx
http://nationals.org.au/Policy.aspx

THE AUSTRALIAN GREENS
The current Australian Greens Policy Platform can be viewed here:
http://greens.org.au/policies

The Disconnect Between Talk and Action in Australian Politics

The tax forum being held in Canberra which ends today raises the important question: When does talk need to stop and action commence? Now, there are various possible answers to that, with varying merits of their own. There is clearly too often in politics, in recent years especially, an emphasis on holding a review or multiple reviews in a particular policy area before taking action. The question we must ask then is: Is this the way?

First, to be absolutely clear this is not about whether or not there is a mandate, these arguments apply for when in government and assume a mandate exists.

The shortest and most idealistic answer to the question of when is enough talk undertaken? is that politicians, in a perfect world should hold ideological convictions. Those convictions, in turn should be called upon in relation to a policy issue, ideally predicted prior to it occurring, or at the least in the early stages of the situation. Politics is after all a contest of ideas and all parties represent an ideology or set of ideologies they hold to be superior, so then they should trust action in line with those applicable ideologies to result in the best outcome.

Perhaps an equally idealistic and altogether very important way of dealing with politics and the political/public policy process is that of ‘professionally seasoned’ politicians or ‘real-world reviewers’. By this I mean there existing politicians in Ministerial and Parliamentary Secretary roles, who possess some form of wide experience in their particular role in the broader workforce prior to entering politics. I call this approach idealistic, yet important because it would be very hard to bring about getting experts in every field to want to enter into politics, yet to do so would quite likely mean better and faster responses to policy challenges.

The next best outcome is that talk leading to action is as the result of a single report, review, summit, forum, talk-fest, inquiry which has brought together experts or the expert opinion of one. This is a somewhat frequent occurrence in the political process at the local, state and federal level. It bypasses the need for a parliament full of experts, however this option ban be expensive as the cost of a review is likely in the multi-millions. Furthermore, time lost discussing the issue can add an uncertain financial cost to eventual action. Often too reports on an emerging problem may come into the political sphere and either be not acted on or not acted on in full.

The final and most unhelpful, stifling and expensive option is to conduct multiple examinations of an issue before acting on it. This is what we are seeing at the moment from Canberra with the Tax Forum that ends today. We have already had the Henry Review at a cost to taxpayers, just like we had countless reviews before action was taken into indigenous disadvantage. The result will be and is being found to be higher than it otherwise could have been. Not only that, multiple reviews show lack of ideological conviction, that you do not know how to act or react to a problem and most importantly, implies you do not trust expert opinion.

So the time for talk is ideally over almost before it began. It is ideal to have ‘expert politicians’ in a broad range of policy areas, including in specific niches. It must also be learnt from now on, that whilst one review or whatever you would like to call it may be a political necessity, they must be used and acted upon fully. Ideology, if it is to still be seen to be different between the parties must prevail upon politicians to act immediately according to party beliefs. Anything else other than immediate or almost immediate activity should be held up as being more costly and thoughtfully derided as such.

A ‘New Paradigm’, But a Better Question Time?

It is over a year since the so-called ‘new paradigm’ came into force in Australian political life. It promised more open parliamentary debate, with less rhetoric, a better deal for the Opposition and cross-bencher’s and more. The question that is now asked and which I have asked recently is: Has the level of parliamentary debate and discussion and accountability been heightened or remained much the same?

To begin we must go back to the reason why we were endowed with this ‘new paradigm’. As a part of the 17 day negotiations, a list of essential parliamentary reforms was put together for all both major parties to agree to, they largely did, though some reforms were more welcome than others but it would have been nigh on impossible to gain support of the Independents without agreeance.

First we start with the ‘moderator’ of parliamentary proceedings, the Speaker. The proposal called for an independent Speaker, but not necessarily an Independent as Speaker although Rob Oakeshott put himself up for a time for the role. If the Speaker were to come from a major party, traditionally the Government, and they did, then they would excuse themselves from all parliamentary meetings and caucus. The Labor Government put forward Mr Harry Jenkins, Speaker of the previous parliament and it was agreed to by a majority.

The question then is: Has the independent Speaker in this case, as a member of the ALP, been the most beneficial outcome? The answer is yes, it has worked quite well under the conditions set out in the agreement. The Speaker has been fair-minded, a point reiterated at times by Coalition members who do not appear to be simply paying lip service to him under the unusual circumstances of this parliament.

A further question could be asked and that is: Would a truly independent Speaker be a worthwhile journey in the future? The answer to that is yes, it would be beneficial to trial that idea in a future parliament. Everyone does have an underlying political bias, that is granted, but somebody away from the political process and not a member of any political party, if vetted well, may prove to be a good addition to the Speaker’s chair.

Another beneficial change has been the fairer allocation of questions to all members during Question Time, including the ability in the House of Representatives to ask a supplementary question. This has allowed for cross-bencher’s to get a better share of the questions.

Furthermore, in addition to the better allocation of questions, the limiting of questions to forty-five seconds and their answers to 4 minutes is a welcome change from previous parliaments where, particularly the ‘Dorothy Dix’ would lead to long-winded and self-serving answers which did nothing to further democracy.

There is scope to call for questions and answers to be made even shorter, perhaps say 30 seconds for a question and no more than 2 minutes to questions from the Opposition. Personally, I do not like the Dorothy Dix and think it should be banned as it does nothing to expand democracy and is simply a short campaign speech on a particular issue where the Opposition, whatever hue gets bashed. In any case, the Dixer should at least be given a much shorter response time, say perhaps a minute and a half maximum. Further to that, any reference to alternative policies should be ruled out of order.

The next port of call on our journey through the ‘new paradigm’ is the ‘direct relevance’ part of the Standing Orders. This calls for Ministers to be directly relevant in the answering of the question. However, the ‘direct relevance’ clause does not truly compel a Minister to be directly relevant, sure relevance has been policed somewhat better but it does not herald enough power to the Speaker or Opposition who often perceive and see Ministers going off on tangents.

The ‘direct relevance’ rules being further strengthened may be one area in which the reform could lead to more people becoming interested in or at least paying attention to politics, because being economic with the truth is probably the principal reason why so many feel disenfranchised from politics.

Finally onto the big show itself, Question Time and has it really changed much since the last election? It has changed in structural areas such as question times and answer lengths yes as well as a few other procedural ways. However, it has not become quieter, bearing in mind Newtons law, “every action leads to an equal and opposite reaction”. Opposition MPs and the occasional offending Government member are still being thrown out for unruly beaviour, a lot of which, though silly, perhaps can be traced back to the way a Minister answers the question.

The reforms we have had as a result of the hung parliament have been a welcome addition to the parliamentary process. They are broadly positive changes, with nothing in parliamentary process going backwards. However, there is scope for and a need for further change, focused on Question Time which may result in some of those who feel disaffected from the political process actually being able to comfortably begin to show an interest again, if at least a cautious one, because lets face it, other areas of politics are sick too.

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