Category Archives: Federal Politics

A Way to Look at Racial Discrimination

In political circles, s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act is one of the hottest topics. Out in the broader community, it is not exactly high on the agenda. But the government is seemingly moving towards repealing that section of the Act. Indeed, it was one of the commitments made by the government when in opposition.

If the government were to break their promise, and not repeal s18c, they would lose no political skin. The government is still talking about a repeal of s18c of the Act however, though the final outcome may not end up being the removal of this part of the Act. There does appear to be mixed messages from the government.

Both sides of the debate have been passionately advocating their respective positions since the policy was announced. Sometimes that passion has been overly emotional. Nuanced and dispassionate consideration of the issue at hand has often been lacking, with the full repeal advocates and those in favour of the status quo being the loudest participants.

As you would imagine, the issue has been hotly debated on the various political panel shows for some time. And that debate has continued to accelerate in recent weeks, including on The Drum and Q&A last week.

There was a mostly mature discussion of the subject on both programs. The political class, the politicians in this case on Q&A, did get a little more emotional than those closer to the periphery of political debate, the guests on The Drum. 

And then there was the social media commentary from the politically engaged. Twitter, as it often does, played host to a whole new level of angry and emotional consideration of the topic.

From the Twitter discussion last week, I learned that privileged, white, middle-aged males in particular have no right to take offense at any kind of jibes directed towards them. However everyone else is, in the eyes of a number of people on Twitter, allowed to seek comfort from the law. White privilege apparently means that no laws are required.

This is a problem. It is a problem because we live in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy. Granted we do not always get the application of liberal democratic values right in our society, but we are, for all intents and purposes, at the very least in name, a liberal democracy. That means that everyone is supposed to be equal before the law. Everyone is to be treated the same by and under the law.

When it comes to the section of the Racial Discrimination Act in question, I have been on quite a journey. I have held a few positions since the court case involving Andrew Bolt, which started us on the journey to the debate we are having at the present time.

At first my largely libertarian and liberal politics came to the fore. I thought that section of the Act just had to go because, well, free speech. It was a very absolute position. How could anything else possibly amount to free speech I thought.

Then I thought about it some more when I heard David Marr speaking on one of the panel shows on television. His position was that the part of the Act being debated should be altered.

At present, someone is in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act if they engage in behaviour which ‘offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates’.

David Marr has argued that the first two words: ‘offends’ and ‘insults’ are too subjective. The threshold there is indeed too low. A higher test should apply to the Act, and at the time I thought that Mr Marr’s thinking struck the right balance.

But again in recent days I have reconsidered my position. I have begun to think that the word ‘humiliates’ should be removed from the Act. The word seems to me to be so similar to the first two that it is an unnecessary part of the legal test for discrimination.

I do however think that the word ‘intimidates’ needs to be retained in the legislation. Essentially, racial discrimination and vilification in its purest sense is behaviour which intimidates the victim. It is the very foundation of true hate speech and has no part in a civilised society.

In short, we should have laws against hate speech. However, neither the status qu0 nor the proposed alternative position are adequate ways of dealing with what is a very complex issue.

It is worthy to note too that no single characterisation of the Act, either considered here or elsewhere, will eradicate discrimination. However, a legal remedy must remain available for when discrimination and vilification has been found to have occurred.

Australia Has Voted

Australia has now been to the polls. And as predicted we have elected a Coalition Government, ending 6 years of ALP rule starting and ending with Kevin Rudd, albeit with a stint from Julia Gillard for 3 years.

Kevin Rudd has decided, not so gracefully, to exit stage left in terms of the Labor leadership and Tony Abbott is now PM-elect.

Whether Kevin Rudd decides to stick around for another 3 years on the backbench is another story. Going on history you would expect him to quit the parliament at some stage during this term – likely early on. A number of his current and former colleagues have less than subtly suggested he quit the parliament for the good of the party.

WHAT WAS NOT A SURPRISE

It was not a surprise that Labor lost and that the Coalition victory was significant. For most of the last three years the Liberal and National Party opposition have been ahead in the polls – at times way ahead. An Abbott-led opposition victory, apart from at the very start of Rudd redux and the very early stages of the election campaign, was a fait accompli.

It was not a surprise that the Coalition would pick up seats and that these would be mostly in the eastern states, Liberal and National Party seats were gained in all four eastern states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

With the retirement of the two Independent MP’s who delivered Julia Gillard minority government, the Opposition started the campaign assured of picking up two electorates.

It was also probably not so much a surprise that a poor campaign performance from Greenway candidate Jaymes Diaz saw the Liberal Party fail to gain the seat of Greenway. At the same time, it was probably somewhat significant that Michelle Rowland actually had a pretty significant swing in her favour which should help out somewhat in future elections.

WHAT WAS A SURPRISE

First of all, a significant feature of the results was that western Sydney did not bring anywhere near as much pain for the ALP as many of the polls had predicted. Western Sydney was largely expected to turn blue, well before the campaign even commenced. As noted though, it was not a surprise that Jaymes Diaz lost in Greenway.

It was a pretty significant surprise that Tasmania saw the biggest swing against the Australian Labor Party. It was also significant that other southern states saw a bigger swing to the Coalition than the more northern states of New South Wales and Queensland, where both the Liberal and National Party were expected to enjoy significant swings.

In Queensland, the LNP would have hoped, even expected to gain the seat of Lilley from former Treasurer Wayne Swan, but this did not eventuate. For much of the night it looked as if the LNP would not take any Labor seats in Queensland, but now it would appear they have picked up two. It would appear they have not gone too well in Fairfax, with Clive Palmer seemingly headed for a surprise victory.

WHAT CONTRIBUTED TO THE RESULT

It must be said that the result was probably closer than it would have been had Julia Gillard still been Prime Minister, The election results are still a disaster for Labor. But even party faithful would be pretty happy with the fact that they did not lose a number of seats which would have largely been written off by party tacticians.

So the Rudd return to the leadership was probably responsible for a minor improvement in the electoral standing of the ALP. However it was far from the political masterstroke that polls claimed it would be.

At various times throughout the night it was mooted by commentators, Labor, Liberal and those non-aligned, that a significant factor in the result was the instability within the ALP over the last three years. They would not be wrong on that assumption. Disunity is political suicide.

But those commenting, particularly from the Labor side, gave far too much attention to that one single factor. Few were able to acknowledge that the Opposition were a united force and sufficiently strong force. In doing so, the ALP implied that the collective electorate had made a choice to vote for an Abbott Government based on one factor alone.

There were not just chaotic relationships within the ALP. there was also chaotic administration. Too much was rushed and there was not enough caution in the way the ALP governed. Australians appear to love big government in some ways and not others and Australians also love a pretty conservative style of governance. Labor did not deliver on the latter. And unless they realise that they have to be more cautious and circumspect in the future, they will continue to lose public support pretty swiftly.

WHAT LIES AHEAD

The Coalition now has another three years to govern the country. And this new opportunity probably comes a term sooner than expected. The challenge will be to carefully set out and plan the agenda for the next three years and not repeat the same governance mistakes that Labor have. What will likely be the most conservative administration in our history, is unlikely to make the same mistake.

Sorting out the budget as soon as possible is also likely to be a major challenge. The Coalition has come to recognise this in recent weeks, changing its’ stance on the surplus pledge.

There are an interesting three years ahead indeed.

Applying a Key Policy Rule to Kevin’s Bid to Change Labor

The last three years in particular have been a time of much discussion and soul-searching within the Australian Labor Party. A little over three years ago a first-term PM was deposed with the aid of powerful factional forces and replaced with his deputy. The party vote plummeted not long after the 2010 election and after three years of internal chaos and division the vanquished Kevin Rudd was returned as Labor leader and Prime Minister by more than half the ALP caucus.

Upon his return – and leading up to it actually – the revived Prime Minister promised change. Kevin Rudd promised us that he had changed. He was no longer a micro-managing, frantic and overbearing leader of the Labor Party. Rudd also promised a slight policy shift in certain areas.

By far the biggest, most publicised element of Rudd’s change agenda is the internal reform proposals he has put forward since he was returned as Australia’s Prime Minister. These matters’ of Labor housekeeping include proposed changes to how the party selects and disposes of a leader and how a future Labor ministry will be picked.

There are of course changes which have been proposed as a result of the events in New South Wales, but this piece is not concerned with those proposed changes.

People in policy know of one basically universal rule which applies to policy decisions, and that is that there are almost always unintended consequences – pros and cons of almost every choice made. There are possible unintended consequences and negative outcomes from the ALP renewal proposals which Prime Minister Rudd will put to the party on July 22.

On the potential plus side, a PM free from the knife-wielding wrath of backbenchers with intense factional loyalties would ensure leadership stability and promote a feeling of certainty across the electorate at large – most importantly with the swinging voter who might have backed the party in at the ballot box.

On the face of it, it may not appear that there are downsides to Kevin Rudd’s announcement that a Labor Prime Minister elected by the people will not face the knife of backbenchers, except under extraordinary circumstances.

But there is a downside. A leader who becomes toxic to the party in an electoral sense would be next to impossible to remove as the criteria for removal is set pretty high. A leader would only face removal after having brought the party into disrepute according to 75% of the caucus.

It is also rather difficult to argue against the idea that the rank-and-file members of the Australian Labor Party have a fifty percent say in the election of a leader for the parliamentary arm of the party. The move is quite democratic and fair and rather unique in the Australian political environment, though whether or not it will result in more people rushing to join the ALP is less than clear.

On the downside, the process will be potentially expensive and would leave the party effectively leaderless for 30 days after a wrenching defeat.

With regard to the ideas put forward by Rudd on the leadership side of the equation, there have also been fears that branches will be stacked by unions trying to gain more influence under a slightly less union-friendly environment within the party organisation if these changes are successfully passed.

In terms of parliamentary reform, the other thing Rudd has proposed, which has been flagged for some time, is a restoration of the ability of the ALP caucus to decide who wins coveted ministerial positions.

With caucus able to determine the frontbench, there is the potential for less division within the caucus. Only those with majority support would be successful, leading to a stable team. At least that’s the theory.

With caucus again able to elect ministers, the factions are as important as ever. The powerful factions will dominate the ministry. Those with little factional loyalty, and even those more suitably qualified, may miss out on roles altogether, though the latter will happen regardless of the model for choosing the frontbench.

Kevin Rudd has probably moved as much as he could. What caucus decides will be keenly watched by political observers, though the whispers appear to indicate that the changes will be agreed to by the party room when it meets in a couple of weeks’ time. What the broader union movement feels and how they react will also be a point of interest.

Whatever the outcome, there are potential consequences, good and bad.

Sorry Mr Husic

Yesterday the Rudd ministry was sworn in by the Governor-General Quentin Bryce. It contained a number of familiar faces, and some new ones who made their way to the frontbench to serve under the returned Prime Minister. But yesterday was also notable for the presence of Ed Husic, a young man rewarded for his loyalty to Kevin Rudd. It was his faith (he’s a Muslim), that propelled him into the headlines as a positive display of Australia’s multiculturalism.

Today however, Mr Husic’s appointment was in the headlines because of the way some sub-optimal Australians responded to the way he chose to swear the oath of office. Some Australian bogans, no rednecks, chose to show their disrespect and toward the new Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister on his Facebook page.

You see, Ed Husic decided that he would swear the oath of office, not on the bible, but on the Muslim holy book, the Quran. And what a crime that turned out to be according to these small-minded pinheads who arced up on social media with all manner of hysterical, stupid and downright wrong and baseless claims.

Oh my gosh, someone of a faith other than Christianity decided that swearing on another religion’s book would be wrong and therefore decided that he would be true to his belief system. How awful that is? Not. Seriously. What a pathetic response from some people who would think pre-1960’s Australia would be a glorious era to relieve in the 21st century.

One of the most absurd claims from these douchebags is that the choice the Parliamentary Secretary to the PM made was “un-Australian”. Um, hello, multiculturalism has been an explicit government policy, largely supported by both major political parties, albeit in varying degrees and sometimes only if political expediency permits.

Okay, so some of you dimwits might not have been alive all that long, but hey now you know of this policy you can attempt to get your small heads around it. For the others, you’ve had decades to vote in people amenable to your beliefs but have not really managed to do so. I guess that’s just bad luck for you then.

Guess what – we decided very early on here in Australia to celebrate religious diversity too. Our founding fathers thought it so important, that religious freedom is one of the few express rights in the Constitution of Australia. That means that Ed Husic, that Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and everyone else can place their palm on whichever religious tract they choose.

You might want to check out s116, then again, perhaps you will want to wilfully ignore it because it does not suit your narrow-minded, isolationist political beliefs.

Australians who reach high office can and should be able to take the oath of office holding any book they like. You could even extend it to include such examples of modern-day religion like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter. And you can choose no book whatsoever and deliver the affirmation.

I want to say sorry to Ed Husic. Sorry that some noisy ratbags have put a bit of a dampener on your day. They do not represent me and I hope they do not represent the vast majority of us. I am pretty sure they do not, but sometimes I worry. Yesterday was your day Mr Husic and comments of the kind you were exposed to were completely unwarranted.

The way in which you responded to the comments on your Facebook page when you spoke to the media was full of class. They were indeed “extreme” comments. And the way you chose to refer to them as “democratic” is a measure of your maturity, though I would imagine they were deeply troubling to you. They were also dumbocratic, propagated by the dumbocracy which gets a little bit of oxygen here and there from some willing pollies.

Some of us need to grow up and get out more. A little bit of reading might help too.

You may not like other people for one reason or another, but you must respect them and their legal and constitutional choices.

DisabilityCare, Geelong and the Decentralisation of Public Services

Planning for the NDIS, now DisabilityCare is coming along quite well. The only state yet to sign up to the full roll-out of the Gillard Government’s new plan for disability services is Western Australia. And just a few short weeks ago, the legislation for the funding of the disability scheme was introduced into the parliament and swiftly passed through both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

And on Monday this week the government announced that the headquarters for the government program will be in the Victorian city of Geelong. The move to base the head office of the scheme in Geelong came less than two weeks after the city took a big hit with Ford announcing it plans to cease production of automobiles in the country, a decision which will cost over 1000 jobs.

As a result of the government’s announcement, three hundred jobs will be on offer in Geelong, in what is being pushed as assistance to a town which will be beginning the transition away from large-scale manufacturing, at least as far as cars go, over the next three years.

But here we reach the first question. Is it really of great assistance to Geelong, and in particular, workers who will be leaving Ford Australia? Potentially. Some may be picked up over time by the DisabilityCare agency as they try to seek work locally. Some will inevitably retrain in another area, perhaps in public administration or disability services. But others will need to look elsewhere in Geelong, or perhaps much further afield.

What the announcement really is, in the way it was framed, is a symbolic gesture by the Labor Government, meant to appeal to the heartstrings.

Another claim put forth by the government is that it is an example of a commitment to the decentralisation of the public service. And it is decentralisation, in the sense that  the top brass in the DisabilityCare bureaucracy will not be based in the traditional heartland of the commonwealth public service in Canberra. Having a number of staff in the states and territories is also an example of decentralisation.

What this policy needs however, is a more deeply decentralised structure. Rather than simply saying that the top end of the bureaucracy should be based in one city or town or another, we should be spreading it around Australia more, on the basis of the population of each state and territory respectively. We ought to have decision-makers much closer to “the action”.

This reform is about delivering the best we can to the most vulnerable in our community. This means throwing as much as possible into a number of local areas, including major players.

Of course the CEO and some staff are going to have to be placed in one location. That is not a problem, but more senior staff should be spread around.

There are still other issues to be teased out in terms of making sure that the funding commitments aside from the levy are maintained, regardless of who is in government. And we must make sure that Western Australia joins in with the disability insurance scheme, or worst case scenario, offers a policy almost identical to the national one, save for possible improvements on how to administer it.

There is a lot still to be discussed, but the die has been cast and Geelong has secured some employment opportunities. But all care needs to be taken and in particular, lessons need to be learned, during and after the trial phase which commences in just a number of weeks.

Hopefully there will be no hard lessons in the coming years.

We Must Remain Vigilant

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, now renamed DisabilityCare is a step closer to becoming reality after the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman signed an agreement with Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Brisbane. The agreement confirms the funding commitment of both levels of government to the disability scheme.

The deal will see Queensland contribute $1.9 billion dollars over the next decade and see the disability reform starting to emerge in 2016, before it is fully operational in 2019-20. In signing up, Queensland now joins New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory as signatories to the funding arrangements. That leaves Western Australia and the Northern Territory as the only governments still to put ink on the page.

Understandably, excitement is growing about the future of disability care in Australia and that has accelerated with each individual agreement reached between the state and territory governments and the commonwealth. People with a disability around Australia, their carers and families, are slowly rediscovering a long lost hope, that their needs might be sufficiently met by government. Of course there is going to be palpable excitement. Of course there will be some celebration.

But we need to be very careful about how we view recent events. As advocates and supporters of this much-needed reform we must not allow ourselves to get too swept up in the emotion of important days like yesterday. There is no doubt that commitments like that agreed to by Julia Gillard and Campbell Newman are a big step forward, but a lot can still go wrong between now and 2018-19. In fact, there is a need to continue to be cautious until well after the scheme is fully operational across the country. Things can still go a bit pear-shaped.

The first, but most surmountable roadblock is getting the recalcitrant state of Western Australia and the Northern Territory to agree to a funding commitment for the rollout with the commonwealth.

Western Australia wants to sign up but wants more decentralised control of the scheme in the state and that is fair enough, because service delivery should be based on a largely decentralised bureaucracy. Negotiations between WA and the federal government will continue and a resolution of some sort appears inevitable. But caution is still the order of the day here and both the state and the commonwealth must continue negotiations with an open mind and a desire for compromise on the specific issues WA has with the policy.

The Northern Territory will also need to get the pen out and sign a deal with Canberra for the full rollout of DisabilityCare. The NT Government just recently penned a deal to have their own launch site in the Barkly Region. In light of this, realisation of the funding for the full commitment surely cannot be too far away. But again, all possible eventualities must be taken into account, including the negative ones. even though 6 of the 8 states and territories have agreed to terms with the Gillard Government.

Bilateral agreements aside, there is still the issue of where the commonwealth, even the states, will get the rest of the money for the disability insurance scheme, despite the commitments to fund the scheme. At present the agreements are simply words between two parties and in the interest of making sure DisabilityCare happens, the positive developments must be viewed with the utmost wariness until the full policy has actually commenced.

The Opposition too, who will almost certainly be in government come September, will need to be pursued just as relentlessly over its commitment to the NDIS. There is bipartisan support but it means nothing until we actually see the policy up and running.

Finally, we must continue to run a critical eye over the policy even when it is operational. There may be shortfalls in standards of delivery and even funding and we should not be particularly surprised if either of these possibilities arises. In fact, it is completely within reason to expect that both problems may exist, though hopefully the  launch sites will allow enough time to remedy most, if not all potential issues.

With the agreements signed to date between commonwealth and state and territory governments, about 90% of Australians with severe and permanent disability and those that look after them can now have a little more hope.

We need to make sure over the coming years that the agreements are transformed from words on a page to deeds.

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.

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