Monthly Archives: November 2011

In a Year of Decision and Delivery is it the Number of Bills or the Reform Nature of the Bills That Matters Most?

Much has been made of the frankly dreadful year that the Gillard led ALP Government have endured in 2011 against the Abbott led Coalition. The Government has claimed that Tony Abbott is a “wrecker”, but the evidence just does not stack up on that, in fact it points to him having not succeeded in that at all. The only bill shelved so far has been the so called ‘Malaysia Deal’ and that would have been an absolute shame to have seen it go through the parliament.So what matters most when deciding whether the “year of decision and delivery” has been a successful one for the Government? Is it the quantity of bills passed by the parliament (apparently 250 when parliament adjourned for 2011) or is it the quality? In other words depth and reformatory nature of the bills passed.

As just mentioned, no less than 250 bills have been passed by this Labor Government in this sitting year of parliament. A pretty impressive number one would have to admit on the face of it, meaning that a lot of work was certainly done by the Government in the relatively few sitting weeks of parliament.

What the 250 bills passed does not tell is the nature of the bills or the complexity of the legislation that was put before the house. Indeed, the sheer number of bills passed indicates to me that the absolute vast majority were not of a major policy shift or innovation. It indicates that the vast majority were indeed lacking in controversy and by nature, mostly amendments and additions to existing legislation.

So then we must look at the amount of bills of a major nature that made it through both houses of  parliament or those that have gone through the Lower House and are likely to pass the Senate early in 2012.

This year saw the passage of the National Broadband Network (NBN) related bills, the Carbon Tax legislation (all 18 related bills) and the bills for plain packaging of cigarettes through both houses. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax went through the Lower House just last week and will be off to the Senate early next year.

The sheer number and complexity and indeed controversial nature of the major bills passed means some credit should be given for getting them through the parliament at least.

The carbon tax however, is still at this stage a major political problem for the Gillard Government with the public not at all expecting a carbon tax from our current Prime Minister and getting one after a blunt promise was made that Australia would not have one. So effectively, you could cross that off the list.

The NBN is an extremely expensive proposition that will continue to cause some problems but is more popular than the carbon tax and therefore unlikely to see votes seep from the ALP. However, if cost predictions blow out or there are roll-out problems this could cause major headaches the the Labor Government.

The Minerals Resource Rent Tax looks fairly certain to pass parliament, perhaps with further amendments from the Greens in the Senate and is a popular policy with the wider electorate. The Government though will have to watch that the revenue predictions are correct and that a hole doesn’t open up when the Government begins to fund some of the tied in schemes.

The plain-packaging laws are an entirely new proposition globally with the Australian Government being the first to embark upon them. On the face of it, the idea seems to be a very sound one given the immense costs to the health budget from the deadly product. There will be a worry though about trademark infringement which may end up costing the ALP Government significant money.

So the Government you can safely say has completed a fair volume of work in 2011, which if you are of the same ideological bent as me, is not always a good thing, in other words, likely created even more regulation. There are also cautious congratulations due for plain packaging of cigarettes for fear of court challenges and a ‘watch this space’ for the cost and revenue impacts of the NBN. The Carbon Tax and mining tax, well you have heard enough anger about those already.

So clearly it is more about the depth and complexity of bills  far over and above the sheer weight of numbers which are often just a ‘quick fix’ amendment or addition. By any estimation though, the Gillard Government has had a truly awful year, a large blame for that the carbon tax broken promise, but that was not the only thing.

Farewell Speaker Harry Jenkins, Even the Ideologically Opposed Will Miss You

This morning as I was out and about I learnt over Twitter that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Jenkins had resigned his post. His reason, to sit as an ordinary Labor MP and again be involved in partisan politics with the ALP.In my relatively short time observing politics, Harry Jenkins the Member for Scullin as I have observed, has been the fairest Speaker of them all.

Compared to the noise of the MP’s he was tasked to keep in order, Harry Jenkins is and was as Speaker a relatively softly spoken umpire who had the ability to bite and bite back and be assertive as his tough role required.

His, at least in his second term as Speaker, was a job made even more difficult by natural party allegiances which in this ‘new paradigm’ had to be cast aside swiftly to fit into the new role and definition of an independent Speaker of the House.

As much as some of those on the right will hate to admit, ‘our Harry’ was one of the best of them all, giving a ‘long leash’ when required and ‘cracking the whip’ when the situation dictated it a necessity. I cannot speak for all of us unfortunately, but I wish you luck in your renewed career as an MP. I look forward to the possibility of the new Speaker calling you to order for interjections across the chamber and hope you are not the victim of too many 94a’s.

Great Steps Forward with the US, But Where Were the Substantive Bilateral Business Improvements?

The US President or ‘POTUS’ as he is also known is finally on Australian soil meeting with our political leaders after previously having to cancel other planned visits to our fine land. The two day, visit has been dominated by prior speculation on the touted and now confirmed increased US military presence, particularly in the north of Australia commencing from 2012.The question is: What about an increased bilateral business and economic relationship that you would hope for with a state visit like this?

The best case scenario is that talk of an increased Australia-US bilateral relationship was merely disguised by the announcement and subsequent media focus almost purely on the military build-up and the ceremonial proceedings since yesterday evening.

Yes, the recently accelerated talks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which occurred at APEC are indeed a positive move for both Australia and the United States of America, but they do not provide an immediate or  even semi-immediate and bilateral boost to the business relationship our nations share.

Indeed, the only concrete talk I have heard of an increased business relationship on a bilateral level during the trip so far has been in the prism of the TPP and in the business of military. There has been little talk, except in relation to the TPP of the US and Australia respectively opening up our markets to each other, particularly how, when and in what specific areas. Don’t get me wrong, multilateral relationships are good in economic and foreign policy, but immediate bilateral focus could be more mutually beneficial in the short to medium term.

For example, there is a great deal of scope to look at the opening up of the US market further, in part for our quality cattle and just as importantly, some of our most significant crops. Some of these have been either effectively or completely shut out of  the American market, even under the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. These are however areas which appear likely to benefit in the future if the TPP does effectively what is being promised by the powerful leaders of APEC.

Mark my words, this visit has so far been a successful and very productive one as far as our personal and military co-operation . What I am saying is that we should have been hearing more specifics about a deepening Australia-US economic relationship to be coupled with our military and diplomatic friendship which has continuously been built upon since the ANZUS agreement was signed 60 years ago. The Free Trade Agreement we have with the US is a good start and needs to be built upon and our two nations need to look at opening up new and emerging markets as well as those well established and of immense importance to our respective nations.

Uranium to India? Let’s Wait For Them to Sign the Treaty or Send it Elsewhere

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard announced yesterday that she would seek from her party at the ALP National Conference a reversal of their parties ban on uranium sales to nations that have not signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). The Prime Minister sought this shift in policy to allow uranium sales to India.Since this decision was made there has been widespread debate and opinion as to whether or not this change in policy was a good idea, what the motives may be behind the move and what possible outcomes this could herald for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or otherwise.

The Gillard Government in announcing the policy has indicated that it will be asking India to comply with what they say are strict safeguards of similar nature to those required by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Labor leader has also said there will be strict bilateral transparency arrangements relating to the trade and subsequent usage of Australian uranium.

This begs the question: If there is only a slight difference between the oversight provided for under the proposal and that which the Indian Government would be subject to under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, then why should India not just sign up first?

The answer that both the cynic in me and the realist comes up with, is that then, it would be a lot harder for India to pursue nuclear weapons and related defence materiel if subject to the full auspices of the IAEA.

At the same time that raises concerns that the oversight allowed under the agreement that is sought might be limited in its width and depth. In other words, does not take into account, that with the extra uranium from Australia, it is possible for India to undertake a wider weapons program with uranium sourced elsewhere.

Sadly, with or without the nuclear weapons treaty, the Indian Government experiences high levels of corruption so the prospect also of some form of clandestine weapons buildup is an easily fostered proposition in such an environment. Consequently, it is possible then that less sophisticated nuclear weaponry could be constructed in or brought to India.

Therefore, it is probably best we increased uranium exports to nations that have signed the NNPT, that still may have existing nuclear weapons or in the very best scenario export more uranium to nations with nuclear power needs and no known or documented warheads.

Those are not the only issues out there, there is also the issue of another back-flip from Labor on their traditional ideals, this coming from the party which doesn’t agree with having nuclear power domestically, but is now happy to provide for an acceleration of it elsewhere.

In any case, while we may be able to at least reasonably guarantee that our uranium will not go toward weapon development, we cannot say absolutely that the extra uranium from Australia would not give India the means and capacity to pursue weapons development. It is this uncertainty that should create enough doubt on the propriety and sense of pursuing such an agreement.

Bill of Rights, Yes We Can and Must, But Likely When We Become a Republic

In the Australian political discourse there are calls, from time to time, about whether or not Australia is in need of a Bill of Rights, whether it be enshrined in the Constitution of Australia or its own legislative instrument. We need a Bill of Rights, but it is likely that any move for such a protection of rights will not come on its own, but in conjunction with a future Australian republic and that is most certainly a great deal of time away from materialising.

Australia is in urgent need of a Bill of Rights, constitutional or otherwise to defend all the basic rights and freedoms which must be afforded to all human beings. Not only that, Australia needs such legal provisions to clearly express those rights which at the moment are implied or form part of the common law of the Commonwealth of Australia. Too often, because the rights we are supposed to enjoy are either implied or in common law, there is not a clear understanding of the extent to which they apply.
As I have already expressed, there are two forms that a rights bill may take, that is constitutional and legislative.
A constitutional Bill of Rights entails those basic rights and freedoms we should all experience in a liberal democracy being enshrined in the Australian Constitution. This would require a constitutional referendum where a majority of people in a majority of the states and territories vote in favour of putting rights and freedoms into our constitution.
A legislative Bill of Rights is exactly as it sounds, a piece of legislation that is passed by the parliament of the day, requiring a simple majority of parliamentarians to vote in favour of it becoming law.
The question then becomes: what form should a future Bill of Rights take? My answer, is that any future rights bill must be enshrined in our Constitution. Why is this the case? Because, like any form of law made by parliament, a legislative rights bill could indeed be rescinded for any reason, of which none are valid and therefore parliament could erode our collective rights at their whim if they chose to do so.
Now, a constitutional version of a rights bill is not without its downside either, though the downside is indeed both a positive and a negative. Because a constitutional referendum requires a majority of people in a majority of states to pass, it would be incredibly difficult to have a successful referendum (8/44 referenda have passed). However, as I said, that is also the positive, our politicians could not vote a constitutional Bill of Rights down and the people are unlikely to vote out something which they helped institute in the first place.
Now this is where it becomes tricky for the idea of a Bill of Rights to be enshrined in our Constitution any time soon. Because a constitutional rights bill is much more robust, the best chance of it passing at a referendum, would not be under its own steam as a stand-alone move. A human rights bill, forming part of our Constitution, would best be linked to a future Australian republican referendum where it would be almost certain that we would adopt an entirely new Australian Constitution.
Consequently, a new Australian Constitution, complete with human rights protections will most likely be some time away. With an ALP Government, usually strongly committed to a republic, no longer publicly talking about the idea and still two years from election and the would be next Liberal Party Prime Minister a monarchist, by my calculation, a republic and therefore Bill of Rights is inevitable but at least 10 years away.
I don’t think we can or should wait that long. The question is: can you wait? If not, get loud and get talking about it…

If We Get a US Military Base Our Trade Partner China Will Not Dislike Or Attack Us

Over the last few days there has been growing speculation that there will be an announcement of a US military base in Darwin. This prediction/speculation/possible truth comes ahead of the visit of US President Barack Obama this Wednesday and Thursday to Australia, which includes a stop in the Northern Territory.

This increasingly likely announcement has attracted largely positive talk and the usual criticism from the Australian Greens, along with calls for parliament to debate the issue. Further, there have also been claims that US military presence in Australia would annoy our trading partner, China.

So is a US military base a good thing for Australia? Should we let forces from other nation’s base themselves on our shores? Do we really need to debate it in parliament? Will it really annoy China?
First things first, the Greens under leader Bob Brown are calling for parliament to debate the issue if it is indeed formally announced by the US President and the Gillard Government this week. This is not an altogether bad idea to debate the issue and get on record in Hansard the opinion’s of parliamentarians. However, it must be acknowledged that this may largely be a waste of time as it is likely the Greens would be the only party against the move.
Picture this: If, heaven forbid,  Australia comes under attack in the future from a rogue state (we likely won’t) and we had to invoke ANZUS, wouldn’t it be easier if at least one of our partners had a permanent presence here, from facilities as strongly equipped as a base?
Would our relationship with China really suffer as a result of a US military presence on Australian shores in the future?
Firstly, the level of anxiety between the USA and China to me seems well and truly overstated in terms of the militarisation of China. It seems much more reasonable to me to say that most of the anxiety from the United States toward China has more to do with the rapidly gathering economic strength of China, which holds a large amount of debt bonds for nations around the world, than with the concurrent military build-up in China.
It is not likely, in my view that having a US base on Australian shores will hurt the trade or diplomatic relationship that our two nations are growing to mutually enjoy. After all, it is just a base and last time I checked, a simple military base was not necessarily an outward act of aggression. If it was, with the sheer number of US bases around the world, we would have seen more major conflicts well and truly before now. Just think of the places around the world where the United States of America stayed behind post World War II.
So really, what is all the fuss about? Is it perhaps about the uneasy feelings which the Greens seem to have toward the US in all matters of defence? Is it a fear of the tiniest of possibilities which creep into the minds of conspiracy theorists? It could be. The base can happen, and should happen if announced. It won’t hurt our trade our diplomatic relations with China, especially not in a lasting way and it will provide for bolstered defense of our nation in the unlikely event of an attack on our country. So let’s do it and do it right. We can be friends and trading partners with China as well as military allies with the United States of America, we were a long time before we traded with China on such a large scale and the Chinese never seemed to mind…

Why Oh Why a Media Inquiry?

As you may well be aware, the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation chaired by Ray Finkelstein QC and supported by Doctor Matthew Ricketson begins hearings tomorrow in Melbourne. The inquiry will chiefly look into the issue of ownership and privacy, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom. However, there is also the scope for the inquiry to look into the issue of content, particularly as it applies in relation to the regulations of the Australian Press Council. The question becomes: Is all this inquiry necessary in Australia?Approximately 70% of the Australian print media is said to be controlled by one media outlet, News Limited, owned by Rupert Murdoch, for some raising the question: Should there be more balanced ownership of the media in Australia?

The answer to this question is quite simple and lies embedded in the ideology of choice. In other words, any company, large or small are welcome to seek capital and enter the newspaper market. There are no stumbling blocks to entry in the market for print media, nor should there be. Any individual or company should and must have the opportunity and choice in a free society to print a newspaper.

In response to this fact about ownership percentage, a quota must not and should never be the answer. Freedom of speech and opinion and free market ideology should prevail when it comes to the ‘Fourth Estate’. A quota would mean an artificial cut-back in already existing business for existing outlets. The market should have the ability to decide what share any individual outlet has. A quota would in some way stifle the individual’s right to what he or she produces and/or reads.

There is also in Australia a contest between what should be labelled ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ from all media outlets, print and otherwise. It would be ideal if ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ were made more distinct in any individual newspaper. This is perhaps the only area of media in which stronger regulation is required, as long as it does not put the media on the ‘slippery slope’ where newspapers do not feel able have an opinion of their own. Surely there is nothing wrong with different op-ed’s in a free press stating a clearly distinguished from fact and opinion?

The next thing to say is that newspapers follow public opinion in regards to the opinions they express in their writing. Media outlets like all businesses are appealing to a specific market which has been pre-identified. It really is that simple, if there was not a market for a certain angle in opinion pieces then respective leadership levels would not exist.

The media inquiry will begin in earnest tomorrow with public hearings commencing in Melbourne and it will be interesting to see as the inquiry begins to progress and then goes beyond recommendations, just how much the media landscape will evolve. At the moment it looks as if we may be headed towards broader and greater regulation of our reporting institutions. The answer to my initial question is self-evident, much of what I argue can be achieved without the need for a media inquiry as it requires little or no government action, but the blinkers are on.

Coalition Gambling Intervention Proposals Go Two Ways

Today the Coalition announced proposals in a discussion paper for how they would deal with the major issue of problem gambling. The discussion paper proposes voluntary pre-commitment as opposed to the mandatory pre-commitment scheme put forward by the Government. Furthermore, the Coalition scheme proposes better targeted and increased counselling. The discussion paper further proposes the possibility of a ban on the broadcast of live-betting odds during sporting events on television.

It is my argument that these major proposals from the Abbott-led Coalition go two ways, one consistent with Liberal Party ideology and one not so much.

First, we start with the proposal of a voluntary pre-commitment scheme. This is a scheme where the gambler will volunteer freely as to whether or not they sign up to putting a limit to their gambling on poker machines.

The idea of voluntary pre-commitment technology is based on giving the consumer a choice in their activities, to decide for themselves whether or not they are causing themselves harm. This is arguably very consistent with the ideology of the Coalition which believes in a free market and choice.

The proposal of a voluntary pre-commitment scheme also comes with an increased level of targetted psychological support and better education about the issue of gambling.

Then we have the proposal to ban live-odds being broadcast on the television during sporting events. This is where odds for sporting matches are displayed on the television in graphic or oral form throughout the match, where the odds fluctuate according to the score and status of the game.

This proposal, unlike voluntary pre-commitment is not based on the ideology of choice, but may be able to be argued as preventing harm to others. In any case it advocates a ban of a market created mechanism and therefore is not entirely consistent with the ideology.

However, the idea does seem like a very smart and perceptive proposal in the gambling debate occurring in Australia at present. I cannot remember the last person I encountered not to visibly or indeed verbally cringe at the incessant broadcast of live odds, particularly during recent football matches.

This indicates to me, along with the fact that the Coalition have put it up for discussion, that it would be a very popular idea to put forward with likely widespread community support throughout Australia.

The Coalition proposals for gambling are an interesting mix, some of which will come under consistent fire from opponents and potentially there own side of politics and some which will be welcomed by fellow politicians and the broader Australian community. It is worth reminding ourselves that these are just proposals, but in any case they are positive policy responses being put into the political sphere for debate.

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