Monthly Archives: April 2013

But One Story of Sacrifice

The month is April and the year 1945. The war with Germany is fast coming to an end. For now, the bombing continues but a victorious end is in sight for the Allied powers. There is just one month of armed conflict still to play out between the Germans and Allied forces. Towns and cities across Europe have already been liberated and some of history’s most shocking atrocities uncovered across the continent. At the end of the month Adolf Hitler will commit suicide after the Battle of Berlin, his reign of terror at an end, but his crimes left behind, leaving an indelible mark on that period of history.

Now imagine this: You are twenty years old, having just waved your teenage years goodbye the month prior. You are an Australian stationed with No. 462 squadron in Norfolk, England having previously been based in Yorkshire. You have been a long way away from home for a couple of years and overseas for almost one. You have been flying in a combat situation for a very short period of time.

Imagine your parents, at home, across the other side of the world, in relative peace and safety, though not completely at ease as we know. Imagine the ever-present worry they are experiencing, contemplating what every knock at the door might mean for your family. Imagine how difficult it would be for them to focus their family at home, the four other boys now growing into fine young men and looking forward to long and fulfilling careers.

John_M_Tait_-_ready_to_fly_web

Now back to Britain…

The date is the 10th of April. One day ago you returned from a very brief period of leave. You are back into the regimented lifestyle of the air force and likely to have to return to the skies at any time. You are a Mid Upper Gunner and late in the previous year you were promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant. You have experienced flight in Tiger Moths, Ansons and Wellingtons, but now you are a part of a crew which man a Halifax bomber.

The 10th of April will be the day you find yourself back flying over enemy territory in Germany. You and your Halifax crew have been tasked with flying in a special duties operation over Leipzig. You partake in all the usual pre-flight rituals, tasks and briefings and then you take to the skies from your staging base.

From the beginning of the mission everything is as usual. You make the journey over the seas in the big, menacing flying fortress that is the Halifax, a big gun of the fleet. Your patrol has commenced over enemy territory and then something happens. Your plane is brought down in the dark of the night.

Back in Australia, on the 13th of April, your parents get a knock on the door. They have received a telegram to inform them that you are missing after your mission over Germany. One can only imagine the emotion they are going through. Should they think the worst and presume you were killed in action? Or do they hold out hope that you may have made it out alive?

After a month, your parents receive news: One of the crewmen has survived but he has no news about your whereabouts. This is where the tragedy, the hopelessness of the situation must surely start to sink in for your family, or does it? For months you are still considered missing, along with the rest of the crew of the aircraft.

Your parents finally receive official notification in November of 1945 that your death was presumed to have occurred on the night of the 10th of April. Your parents have been through the horrors of war first-hand, something that so many parents across the globe had to contend with over the period of World War Two. Your mother has not taken it well and has found your passing hard to believe.

This is the true story of my great uncle John Mickle Tait. His is but one tragic story in a war that saw over 39,000 Australians lose their lives. Let us hope that we and those who follow us never again have to experience the tragedy, death, division, conflict and horror that our forebears did.

Lest We Forget.

The Folly Revealed

Policies and promises, who would make them sometimes with all the intense pressure from different parties, interest groups and the broader society. And when would they, when should they make them? We seem to go through that debate every single electoral cycle. The discussion around policies and promises only accelerates as an election nears. This year is no exception. The Coalition has long held a surplus pledge and that is slowly disappearing as, it appears, is the pledge of a company tax cut of 1.5%. Reality is setting in for the Liberal and National Party coalition. But are they the only ones to blame?

It would appear that we are in some parallel universe. Many in the media, along with the Labor Government and their coalition partners, the Greens were happy to call on the Opposition to start releasing policy months, even more than a year ago. And now they react with surprise that the Coalition now appear to be looking at tweaking their long announced company tax cut and walking away from the pledge of a surplus in the first year of a Coalition Government, which is a likely proposition come September 15.

Okay, so these policies are not ones which anti-Coalition forces called on the Abbott-led Opposition to make. Both pronouncements have been long-held planks of Liberal Party policy, with the company tax cut an idea around since early 2010 and the surplus, well, that is just what the Coalition do when it comes to economic management.

But can you say the Coalition brought it on themselves, making these statements so early and holding onto them with such vigour. The answer yes and no. The budget is is a pretty ordinary state, partly due to global factors, but also due to the continued excess spending of the Gillard Government. Perhaps though, the Opposition should have realised that the budget would be in the position it is now, but you cannot really blame them for that.

The apparent need to crab-walk away from these two policies does however prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, the folly of adopting policy decisions so early on. Oppositions are too often pulled toward making early predictions of what they may and may not be able to achieve were they to find themselves in government.

The pressure put on oppositions is however an ongoing thing. It is an inevitability in politics that governments will do all they can to put pressure on and try to wrong-foot their political foes. The media will often be complicit in this ruse too.

This by no means excuses the all too often last-minute policy releases and costings submissions  made by oppositions. These circumstances have no place in a transparent electoral democracy, yet they will unfortunately continue to happen in politics. They are an unfortunate inevitability that you wish we could get away from.

A seemingly acceptable benchmark for the release of the majority of policies and costings would seem to be not too long after the budget which is in May each year,

For now, we wait to see just how different these policies may now look as September 14 nears.

Putting the Politics Into Public Appointments

The 2013 election result is almost set in stone. In that case, the Liberal and National Party coalition will form government after the September 14 poll, leaving the Australian Labor Party to do some soul-searching on the opposition benches. That means that from late this year, the incoming government would have the ability to make appointments to the various offices and positions across government and the public service. Almost on cue, debate has occurred over these potential appointments.

It has emerged that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sent a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard urging that she not announce a successor to Governor-General Quentin Bryce whose term concludes next March, about 6 months after the election. The letter also chastises the PM for the recent reappointment of the Australian Electoral Commissioner and other public service appointments made recently.

In the letter, the alternative Prime Minister writes: ”The decision to announce these appointments subverts the established convention that no government should make decisions that are legitimately the province of a potential successor”. Yes, that old nugget again about the caretaker conventions which we have already debated during this, the 43rd parliament. You would have thought that little debate was well and truly settled. It is quite surprising it is being raised again, albeit in relation to a different topic.

Under the caretaker conventions, appointments should not be made by a government during the caretaker period of government. Further, if it is necessary for there to be an appointment made once parliament is dissolved, then it should be deemed a temporary role where the person nominated is acting in the role for a short period of time, If it is deemed necessary for the government to make a permanent appointment then, under the conventions, it is agreed that the Opposition be consulted with on that position.

As there was with the earlier protestations about the government following caretaker conventions, there is a slight problem – they do not apply to the present political situation. The Prime Minister has still not visited the Governor-General to ask that parliament be dissolved and that writs be issued for a general election. We are however in the unusual position where we have an election date. But for all intents and purposes, it means nothing in this scenario.

Where there is scope for some debate, at first glance anyway, is around the rumour of a government intending to make an appointment at a point in time so far from the present date and one which would take effect after an election they are likely to lose. And that is what has apparently prompted the letter from Tony Abbott to Julia Gillard. There is also a rumour going around the political world that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to make former Prime Minister John Howard Australia’s next Governor-General.

Quentin Bryce was announced as Australia’s Governor-General approximately five months before replacing outgoing vice-regal representative Major Michael Jeffery in 2008. A rather lengthy transition period seems to be the norm and that is not particularly problematic, given that it often involves relocation, though people often move at shorter notice for employment.

It is strange, if true, that the government would seek to make an appointment to the office of Governor-General some time before the election in September. There is absolutely no reason for any government to need to contemplate making an offer of employment for a position which is not vacant until March 2014.

The potential future appointment and the response to the whispers about it point to a disturbing part of our political culture – the need to make senior public service appointments political. Who lands senior public service roles should never be the plaything of political parties striving to make a point and stamp their authority, but it is. The so-called ‘jobs for the boys (and gals)’ culture is an unfortunate blight which rankles with voters in the early months after each election, to the point where many of us now accept it as the norm. Unfortunately, it colours our altogether negative view of politics and politicians.

Who lands what role should be less, though preferably devoid of politics and more about merit. We are a meritocratic society elsewhere, and when it comes to the public service, even largely ceremonial roles should be filled by the best, most accomplished fit.

When will politicians learn that their search for power shapes the way we view them?

Giving a Gonski Proving a Political Challenge

The Gillard Government has announced its plan to stump up funding for the Gonski Review reforms it has been contemplating since David Gonski presented his plan for school education reform to the government. The Prime Minister’s pitch to the states will be the commonwealth and the states will fund Gonski with a 2:1 ratio. But it is the Labor Government’s planned cuts to fund the education reform which have garnered the most attention and indeed significant criticism since the weekend announcement. And that criticism is warranted.

To help pay for the commonwealth’s share of the changes to school education, the government has decided, in their infinite wisdom, to cut $2.3 billion of funding from the university sector. This will include taking a knife to university grants, putting a cap on self-education tax deductions, compelling students to pay back scholarships and getting rid of the 10% discount for those who are able to pay their HECS debt up-front.

Then of course you have an efficiency dividend of 2% from January next year, reducing to 1.25% the following year. This is a technical way of saying universities must do better with less. In and of itself this is not necessarily a bad thing, though if it results in front-line jobs being trimmed it should rightly be slammed. It is hard to see this not leading to cuts at the coal-face.

There is at least one measure announced at the weekend which is sensible and more sustainable for the budget and one that has the potential to be either good or bad for the fiscal bottom-line.

The decision to scrap the 10% discount for paying HECS up-front is a good move, providing it does not lead to more people moving overseas and taking their university debts with them. At present there is approximately $26 billion in unpaid HECS debts and that has the potential to balloon even further, perhaps aided by this budget measure.

One move that can be praised is the decision to put a cap on self-education tax deductions. This will prove a sustainable budgetary measure which is not likely to act as a disincentive in any way, either over the short or long-term.

Craig Emerson was at pains on the weekend to make the point that education funding will still increase over time. The Tertiary Education Minister made the point that the spending increase was simply delayed by two years. A delay however is still a cut, especially when it involves money promised to a particular sector. There will be real people who miss out on real assistance and real tough decisions made by real universities which will hit people involved in that level of education.

One must not forget that the ALP Government decided in the first place that there was a need to continue to increase the funding to the university education sector. There was obviously a reason for that, a real and tangible need for extra funds to flow to our universities to help more people get a better education.

Why the government thought it was a smart strategic move to take such a swing at universities is alone, beyond comprehension. Why the ALP decided they needed to cut education funding to fund education is quite intriguing. There are a number of other areas of public policy which could, at the very least, do with a bit of a trim.

The Gonski reforms absolutely have to happen. The loading for dealing with different types of disadvantage is essential in going towards ensuring there is equality of opportunity at the heart of our education system.

But tinkering with one level of education to help deal with another is just utter stupidity.

When the Debate is About Borders

Many of you will be aware of my relative social liberalism from some of my past work on this blog. I support social liberalism in a range of areas of public policy. I like to think of myself as very liberal – not to be confused with Liberal, when considering the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. Again, I have written strongly in favour of recognising and embracing these very vulnerable people in our society and in countries across the globe. To that end, it might surprise you to know that I am somewhat in agreement with the Liberal Party this week.

On Tuesday, an asylum seeker vessel carrying 66 passengers, reportedly bound for New Zealand reached the mainland of Australia at Geraldton in Western Australia. The ship, coming directly from Sri Lanka made it much further than a boat has for some time. And it immediately sparked heated debate, as the issue does at the best of times, as well as a review of our surveillance measures. Again, talk turned to the question of our “borders” and “border security”.

The arrival of asylum seekers in our waters is often considered a breach of our borders by the Liberal Party. We are consistently reminded that Labor has “lost control of our borders”. That happens even when Customs and Border Protection patrols intercept boats carrying asylum seekers well away from our shores and often, it seems, in the vicinity of Christmas Island.

It is not true to say in those instances that such a circumstance means we have a problem maintaining our borders. In fact it is wildly over the top and completely irresponsible to suggest as much. When our authorities are successful at intercepting boats, any boats which are foreign, they are in fact maintaining our borders in a successful manner. Any attempt to persuade us otherwise should be viewed with disdain.

On the other hand, if you have a vessel reaching the Australian mainland without being detected, then this is potentially an issue of border security. This somewhat unusual event is a potential issue of border security, not because asylum seekers are evil and must be stopped – they are most certainly not and should be received with care and compassion.

The reason why there should be concern is not necessarily about asylum seekers arriving on the mainland undetected. Some arrivals are inevitably deemed a security risk by the security agency ASIO, though unfortunately at this stage those assessments cannot be appealed. Rather, asylum seekers arriving on the mainland, as has been argued, shows a lapse in surveillance endeavours which could be exploited by people who wish to perpetrate real and actual harm.

It is important that we take that risk seriously. A review into our border security activities has already been ordered by Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare in the wake of the events in Geraldton, and that is the right thing to do. What must not be pursued are severe policy overreactions and dangerous displays of rhetoric which seek to blur the actual issue and incite unnecessary fear in the community.

There should be some limited concern about border security issues when there is actually a breach of our borders. Boats of any kind which are actually intercepted in the ocean are not and should never be considered a breach of our borders by any political party seeking to gain political capital.

Sadly, that will continue to be the case, as the race to the bottom will continue apace.

Here We Go Again

Julia Gillard has been Australia’s Prime Minister for nigh on 3 years. In that time, the Australian Labor Party’s poll numbers have been disastrous, to the point where a first-term government was reduced to a minority in its second term. Debate has raged about why the poll numbers for the ALP and the Prime Minister have been so poor since that swift leadership coup in 2010. The discussion has only become more frenzied and ridiculous since the 2010 election result.

Of course, many will have you believe that the poor numbers are down to sexism and misogyny, either in combination or separately manifesting themselves.

Speaking last week, the Prime Minister said that it has “not been ever the norm in our nation before for people to wake up in the morning and look at the news and see a female leader doing this job (being Prime Minister)”.

The Prime Minister went on to say  ”I am not a man in a suit and I think that has taken the nation some time to get used to – I think it is probably still taking the nation a bit of time to get used to”.

All things considered, three years is a pretty long time to get used to someone they see on their television screens almost every day. And it’s not like the Prime Minister was a stranger to TV and radio audiences while Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. Julia Gillard did have a significant portfolio of ministerial responsibilities, including education, workplace relations. Julia Gillard was also Deputy Prime Minister, which made her Acting Prime Minister when Kevin Rudd was overseas.

So if it has nothing to do with lack of exposure, or with the unique situation of having a female in the most senior of public roles for the first time, then what might be a problem for the PM?

Well, first, as a direct result of the poor polling, it is the mostly male backbench, or part thereof which has seen fit to leak and background against the Prime Minister and her allies. Are they guilty of misogyny or sexism? No, they are just guilty of trying to do all they can to keep themselves in a powerful position when they are in threat of losing their electorates at the September 14 poll. The backbench MP’s, in doing so, have managed to continue the poor form of the government.

Believe it or not, the continuing poll woes are still, in part, disdain toward the Prime Minister for the way that Kevin Rudd was knocked off. The fact that Kevin Rudd still proves so popular with the public is as irrefutable evidence as the collapse of the vote for the ALP over the same time period.

Funnily enough, the poor showing of the Labor Party is also about policy. It is about both rushed policy and policy that is actually bad, or at least perceived to be substandard by the general public. The public have been lied to a number of times now and they are simply growing tired of it and the vote has collapsed as a result, just like it would take a hit if the Coalition failed to deliver on its promises.

In case the PM was not aware, both her ratings and those of Tony Abbott are not the best in terms of approval. With the personal approval ratings for both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott comparable, maybe Tony Abbott can claim misandry? Ahh, no. They are both unpopular for a mix of historical and policy-related reasons.

Very few people would doubt that misogyny does exist in the community. But there is enough evidence to point to it not playing a significant role in the political situation facing the Prime Minister and the Australian Labor Party and certainly not a vote-changing one. That does not mean we do not need to address it, but implying or flat-out stating that it is a significant stumbling block for the Prime Minister in terms of the vote is to be disingenuous.

It seems a pretty weird thing to tell the public that they are not used to you. But then, this 43rd parliament has been quite strange.

Five Things to Consider Before You Vote

In under six months Australians will head to their local school, council building or community hall to vote in the 2013 federal election. Even at this early stage, the Australian Labor Party have been written off – their primary vote has been far too low for far too long. One poll has even suggested that about 80% of voters have already made up their minds about which political party they intend to vote for on September 14. The situation does not leave much hope for the ALP.

It is however very important to think about the impact of your vote and what it would likely mean for both yourself and for the country going forward. There are some absolutely crucial questions which you need to consider before casting your ballot in September and it pays to start contemplating them early.

Chances are that most of the politically engaged have considered at least one or two of these questions. Some have perhaps considered all of these important factors. But there will be some who have put little thought into their choice and why they have chosen to support that party and others who are among the undecided voters who have not yet committed to a decision to vote for a particular party at the election.

Perhaps the first thing to think about, the one question which encompasses all factors in the vote choice process, is which political party is the best fit for you?

That question involves thinking about how you respond to the different policy ideas and themes put forward by the political parties. It is entirely subjective and centred around your own needs and wants, but that is okay. You want to give your preference to a political party you feel comfortable with. You will almost certainly not feel entirely comfortable with all the decisions that political party makes, rather you will feel most comfortable with putting them first on your ballot paper.

Another necessary element to consider is similar in nature to the first and it is to think about which political party is the best fit in terms of the present political situation.

Basically, this asks us to look at the present time and ponder which political party is best equipped to deal, not just with the pressing concerns of Australians, but also which political party is best able to respond to external factors. Again this requires an examination of present policy, but a basic understanding of the way each political party has responded to certain situations is also beneficial.

You will also need to decide which political party offers sustainability.

Some people have probably ceased reading at this point at the mere mention of the ‘s’ word. But sustainability in this sense refers to two different things, depending on what you value the most. If you consider environmental sustainability the most important thing when you think of sustainability then your answer to who to support in terms of this question is pretty obvious. But then there is also budget sustainability. This refers to which political party you think is best equipped to maintain a sustainable budget position. Your answers here will be divergent. 

When we think of whom to vote for at the election, stable government should be something in our minds.

First and foremost, after the last three years, we should consider a stable government to be one where there is not minority government. Thankfully that is an impossible event this time around. Minority government gives oxygen to a scramble for power and that in turn promotes a greater likelihood of less than optimal outcomes from government decisions. A stable government is also one which is not spending its time fighting within itself and therefore provoking uncertainty.

Last and certainly not least is to contemplate which political party will do the most for our freedom.

When we think of freedom it is natural to think of our own freedom. However, we must also think about which party does the most to promote and allow freedom and freedoms for all members’ of society. For some this will mean ‘freedom to’ and others ‘freedom from’ and for some it will mean considering both concepts of freedom.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions, but it should give you an idea of at least some of the essential questions which should shape your thinking at election time.

For many, September 14 will be an easy choice – we see that from week-to-week, with the poll results indicating a landslide election victory is well and truly on the cards. For others there will need to be some thinking done.

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