Blog Archives

Harnessing the Most Appropriate Coalition Talent

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has now announced the ministry that will, hopefully, be taken to the 2016 election and beyond. That is of course unless there is more ministerial impropriety which takes place or is uncovered from the recent past. The new ministry is quite strong and relatively youthful, which suits the image, messaging and substance which PM Turnbull wants his government to portray.

A particularly brilliant choice was awarding the trade portfolio to Steve Ciobo, the MP for Moncrieff. By all reports, he has been a hard-working member of parliament and has excelled in his junior ministerial role in international development. Mr Ciobo is also a strong and confident when it comes to engaging with the media.

There were however some missed opportunities as a result of today’s reshuffle.

A few women were promoted, including new Deputy Leader of the National Party, Fiona Nash, and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. However, there could have been promotions offered to more, including Senator Joanna Lindgren, and the Member for Brisbane, Teresa Gambaro.

Today was also an opportunity to deal with the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, who is simply not across his portfolio. Mr Dutton is also trying very hard to pull the politics of immigration and citizenship even further to the right and that is not healthy.

It must be said however, that Minister Dutton was probably kept in cabinet to appease the Abbott-backers. Also, a new minister would only be able to make the language used around asylum seekers and immigration more positive, rather than any substantive policy change. But an improvement is an improvement.

Given the bipartisan push toward the recognition of indigenous people in the Constitution of Australia and the sentiments from the Prime Minister in his Closing The Gap update to parliament, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was in the indigenous affairs portfolio.

Currently that post is occupied by Senator Nigel Scullion, who is widely respected and has been quietly going about his business. However, for someone in what is a very important policy area in terms of the current political discourse, his voice has been conspicuously absent from a lot of the debate.

If you couple that with the fact that the Coalition Government now has two indigenous members of parliament within their ranks, then it is easy to see that talent and experience has not been harnessed there.

Ken Wyatt has extensive experience in the area indigenous health and welfare both prior to and during his time in the parliament and he would be the perfect candidate for Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Senator Joanna Lindgren, although she has not yet been in parliament for a year, would be an ideal candidate for the junior role in this portfolio area.

Shifting Senator Scullion from the role would have proved a bit of a complicated situation, given he has held the role since 2012 and that the process for constitutional recognition of indigenous people is well underway. But, a successful change would not have been impossible.

Today, Senator Matt Canavan was appointed Minister for Northern Australia and will assist Josh Frydenberg in this role – someone who lives just about as far south on the Australian mainland as is possible.

Senator Canavan is a satisfactory choice as assistant minister in this role, given that the north of Australia is close to his heart. However, given that the government wants development of northern Australia to remain a key focus, the ministerial experience of Nigel Scullion, who lives in the Northern Territory, should be utilised in the senior role, rather than Josh Frydenberg retaining it.

Rather than election-winning moves, the changes outlined above are simply minor improvements to better serve the people who are represented in these areas of society.

How Much Should Deputy Prime Minister Joyce Scare Us?

The answer to the aforementioned question could easily be answered using anywhere from two words to a sentence – the answers ranging from ‘not much’ to ‘the new Deputy PM should not scare us much’. However, as is standard with political analysis, a few hundred words rather than simply a handful of words is necessary.

Barnaby Joyce, after 11 years in the federal parliament, was elevated to the role of National Party leader and therefore Deputy Prime Minister after the long-awaited resignation announcement by the incumbent, Warren Truss.

Since well before Pistol and Boo were smuggled into the country, the Deputy PM elect has been a polarising figure. The mere prospect of the knockabout Australian larrikin rising to the rank of stand-in Prime Minister frightened the living daylights out of the loud and opinionated.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that Mr Joyce is a bit of a rogue, and that both his mouth and his mind get him into a little bit of strife from time to time. However, it is equally relevant to note that this will not be exacerbated by the loftier rank in government he will now occupy.

A thorough understanding of how the cabinet process and government actually works should give cause for more optimism than is currently on display. Decisions by ministers are, usually, put to cabinet for discussion at least. Other policy ideas go to the partyroom for debate. Both fora can give rise to altered, even rejected policies.

To look at the impact Deputy Prime Minister Joyce will have on the political process, we must also consider those times when he will, for a time, be Acting Prime Minister. In this area there is also little need for concern.

Barnaby Joyce will only assume this role when Prime Minister Turnbull is away on holidays or on an overseas visit. Holidays and overseas visits are usually short, and the former tends to be at times when political decision-making takes a break, along with most of our politicians.

The far greater concern is the ideological direction of the entire Coalition, which is not quite as far right as Barnaby Joyce, but still worryingly socially conservative. The Deputy PM-elect is but one cog in this driving force.

The Near Impossibility of Finding a Better Way to Help Refugees

The humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict has dominated world news for days now, as thousands of people fleeing persecution try to get to a number of European nations. Some of these nations have pledged to contribute to addressing the resettlement issue, some with more meaningful contributions than their regional neighbours. It is as if there was no preparation for, or expectation of a mass people movement brought about by the conflict.

But as with every other refugee situation, this is a global situation which needs a worldwide response. But that does not mean that individual nations cannot make their own decisions about how many refugees to aid. The point is though, that all need to help. This includes Australia.

But it seems that Tony Abbott does not want to help. His language so far this week indicates that he has decided there is effectively a ‘no vacancy’ sign shining brightly for the world’s most desperate people to see. As a result, it is now laid bare for all to see that ‘stopping the boats’ is not about cutting down the number of asylum seeker deaths which happen at sea, but a far more sinister attempt to appeal to the crowd that thinks we should not accept outsiders in almost any case. And in terms of situations where a country should help people, this current event is one of the clearest examples of when to do so.

It has been heartening to see at least a couple of members of the Coalition saying publicly that we need to help some of the Syrian asylum seekers. The most striking and also highest ranking example being minister and National Party MP, Barnaby Joyce. The Agriculture Minister is someone who is known for a bit of a dislike of foreign capital in terms of farmland. The other example being Craig Laundy, an MP from a marginal seat with ethnic diversity, whom you would expect to have a more sympathetic view.

Leaving aside abolishing offshore processing of asylum seeker claims, there are three things which could be done in terms of refugee policy in this country, with an eye to playing our part in dealing with this emergency. However, it is likely none of these policies will be enacted, at least until a change of government. The three main options are a significant increase in the yearly quota, to a number closer to 30,000 or above, a temporary spike in the number of refugees we accept, or a more flexible policy which focuses on helping people from current and emerging conflicts.

A permanent increase to Australia’s humanitarian intake would help absorb some of the strain caused by the displacement of people across the globe. The increase would have to number in the thousands to have any meaningful impact and would have to be coupled with greater regional and global cooperation on the matter. This is also the least politically palatable option, which is a real shame.

One of the easiest things the Coalition Government could have done is said to the Australian people that we need to accept a temporary spike in our refugee intake. It is a small fringe element within our community who would not accept such a reasonable policy prescription. A temporary spike could last a year, or a number of years and that increase would solely be made up of refugees who have been forced out of Syria. Again though, the problem is too big to be overlooked at a regional and international level, and that is the hardest part of the equation.

A more permanent way of contributing to the management of this and other refugee events which may emerge over time is to gear our almost our entire humanitarian intake toward managing the flow of asylum seekers from current and emerging conflicts. This is a flexible approach which can be managed as new movements of displaced people occur. It also largely removes the politics as it would be impossible to sensibly argue that those we would be helping are not the exact definition of a refugee. Yet again though, world thinking needs to be aligned.

It seems however that we are destined for regressive and repressive thinking domestically, at least for the time being. And our wilful inaction, coupled with the same dastardly inaction from other countries, will mean people who are so obviously suffering are still dying at sea.

Justice, Politics and the Royal Commission Show

Dyson Heydon’s deliberations on whether or not he should stay at the helm of the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) after claims of apprehended bias are over. The former High Court Justice has dismissed the application from union lawyers and will continue in the role the Abbott Government appointed him to.

But the story it would seem is not yet over. The unions will consider a court appeal. The ALP, who stand to lose some political skin from the TURC, though probably not enough to lose the 2016 election, have decided that asking the Governor-General to remove Heydon is the way to go. It has been foreshadowed that the Australian Labor Party will couple this with attacks on the Liberal Party for their part in this situation, when parliament resumes from September 7.

In terms of principles of natural justice it is quite clear what should have happened in this instance. It is clear to almost anyone, except for the most wilfully blind supporters of the right side of politics that former Justice Heydon should have recused himself from further hearings of this commission. This would have blunted any attacks from Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. That Commissioner Heydon cancelled his appearance at the fundraiser at a later stage is irrelevant. The decision to say yes to attending the function in the first place says more than enough.

However, there is absolutely no case to say that the Royal Commission should not go ahead altogether. This is particularly the case now that the inquiry has been running for a number of months and is doing vital work, uncovering just how murky the world of industrial relations can be. Renewed calls from Labor for a police taskforce instead of the Royal Commission are a bit rich, considering they announced a commission of inquiry the topic of which similarly could have been examined by a special police body.

Back on the justice side of the equation, the Abbott Government could have used this opportunity to widen the terms of reference to include all forms of corrupt practices across institutions in the industrial relations space. If this had been done, then any squealing from the unions or the ALP about the continuation of the royal commission could have been met with derisory laughter, from both the Coalition and the electorate.

With an election less than a year away, it is worth a brief look at what the current state of affairs means for both the Coalition and Bill Shorten’s ALP.

The Coalition may gain a small amount of much needed political traction from the findings of the Royal Commission, particularly if there are further discoveries made about union activities during Bill Shorten’s time as a union representative. But it will not prove an electoral game-changer. A shift in electoral fortunes could only come from more substantive policy and political narrative changes made by the Abbott Government. That would have had to begin well before the people stopped listening. This critical point was likely reached more than 6 months ago.

The ALP is likely to suffer mildly as a result of future TURC hearings. There will be some more unease about the leadership of Bill Shorten, but the polls and the new rules around leadership challenges will make a change on that front almost an impossibility.

The Trade Union Royal Commission will not feature high on the list of reasons the Abbott Government will probably lose power in 2016. In fact to say it will be a feature at all is nonsense. This area of politics is generally one where most have a worldview firmly locked in on one side of the debate or the other.

There will be some more noise on this issue over the coming weeks, but it will likely not last. It is hard to sustain attacks on things which do not have wide appeal.

Australian politics will meander toward the next misstep or missteps. With every day we will get closer to the 2016 election. And the show that is the Trade Union Royal Commission will continue, with Dyson Heydon likely to remain in the chair.

Moving On is the Hardest Thing

The votes are in and the Liberal leadership spill has been averted. Tony Abbott remains the Prime Minister after a party room meeting at 9am confirmed his leadership. The Liberal Party voted 61-39 against a spill of the Leader and Deputy Leader Positions. Just how far into this story are we? Is it a novella or a saga which will continue to play out before our already astonished eyes? Australian politics since 2007 has certainly been an epic tale and will likely continue to be a volatile environment for all of the players, from the voters to the politicians.

The first point to make is both an obvious and not so obvious conclusion. On the face of it the vote of the Liberal Party caucus was an emphatic one. More than half of the MP’s gathered voted at the very least to give the Prime Minister more time.

On the other hand, 39 members of his parliamentary team – over 40% of them and likely multiple ministers – delivered a vote of no confidence in his leadership. And it is a point made by many observers that this is an untenable position. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke did not save his leadership from a very similar vote to that which the Liberal Party delivered today. And Julia Gillard did not recover from a much better position than the one furnished to Tony Abbott by Liberal MP’s.

It can easily be argued that the Prime Minister would not be able to recover politically if he received as little as 25 or more votes in today’s ballot. The public have largely switched off and that is largely because of Tony Abbott, but also Joe Hockey. It is not the fault of any backroom figures and any move to shift the blame to them is just ridiculous. Politicians make the final decisions and while it is the job of staffers to persuade against particular directions, it is not their fault if good advice is not heeded.

There can be little doubt that Tony Abbott’s leadership will continue to further implode. Prime Minister Abbott has had months to stop making mistakes, without the threat of a leadership spill and has not done so. In recent times he has even appeared to be making fun of his penchant for ‘captain’s calls’. Tony Abbott should be solemnly proving by his actions, at every opportunity, that he is no longer going to make these unilateral decisions. He has not.

The PM can continue to talk about getting himself and the party out of this invidious position, but it will likely be to no avail.

If there was any small skerrick of a chance of Tony saving himself and the Coalition, then the government would have to change or dump some of the policies. The overall narrative simply has to remain, and the public will accept that. Voters accepted the debt had to go under John Howard and Peter Costello – for 12 years. At the very least, the co-payment idea and knights and dames must no longer be countenanced, even at arm’s length or in consultation with others. Recent history shows any changes will be cosmetic.

The current Treasurer’s commission has to be terminated too, regardless of whether Tony Abbott wants to stay in the job or not. Joe Hockey has gone from a pretty good Shadow Treasurer to a hopeless and abrasive embarrassment in the Treasury portfolio. Mr Hockey lacks the temperament to be able to deal with difficult negotiations. He has been far too stubborn. The trouble here is that the best candidate for the job is also the ideal replacement to Prime Minister Tony Abbott – Malcolm Turnbull.

The Treasury portfolio does deliver a difficulty in terms of the leadership equation. If there is no change of the leadership of the Coalition and at the same time, the Treasury portfolio, within a month, any new economic team after that would have less than two months to prepare the budget.

If the Liberal Party were to give Tony Abbott a further 6 months as leader and keep the Treasurer, as has been reported, then problems would arise on that front too. An incoming leadership team and their likely new bean counter would have to sell or quickly dump elements of a budget delivered by a politically compromised team.

Obviously the situation is absolutely dire. The Coalition will be in an even worse position if a likely transition to a new leader is not handled well. Another spill would not look great, even thought it would almost certainly deliver a new Liberal leader. The Liberal Party will need to be mature and know that the best way forward, whether it be almost immediately or after 6 months, is an orderly transition. Tony Abbott will have to swallow his pride and resign when it gets to that point.

This is not an easy situation to be in. But it is a situation cultivated by less than a handful of people and allowed to continue by dozens more. The actions of a few in that handful of people could determine how the next 18 months plays out.

A Royal Mess of Priorities

To say that Tuesday the 25th of March was an interesting day in Australian politics was an understatement. First up in the morning, we had the Attorney-General announce the long-awaited proposed changes to s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. And, as if that was not enough fuel for thought, in the late hours of the afternoon, on the day Governor-General Quentin Bryce completed her appointment, the Prime Minister announced the reinstatement of knights and dames in the Order of Australia.

Throw in the sentencing of Craig Thomson over the HSU scandal and the developing story involving Senator Arthur Sinodinos at ICAC and today could hardly have given political pundits and the public anymore fuel for debate.

After making an election commitment to repeal s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, the government released an exposure draft of proposed changes to the Act – changes which are remarkably similar to those I suggested last week. And of course that decision, which is to be debated before proceeding to the next stage, will be a heavily discussed and opined on topic in the Australian political discourse, particularly between now and April 30.

It was a government surprise coming in the late afternoon however, which really got social media talking. At 4pm, shortly before a farewell function for the outgoing vice-regal, the Prime Minister informed Australians that 2014 sees the return of knights and dames, albeit only four annually. Twitter erupted as those changes were announced. Jokes were rolled out thick and fast and the obligatory catchy hashtag was spawned.

This was a strange spectacle on Twitter. In the morning we had a very significant issue, in proposed changes to racial discrimination laws, given some substance by the government. Debate that, social media did – until about 4:01pm. Then it was all about Australia bringing back the Sirs and the Dames. And it continued in that fashion all night long. The s18c changes were paid scant regard, as with Craig Thomson’s sentencing and Senator Arthur Sinodinos’s ICAC hearing.

You are probably thinking, like me, that you know which issue was the most substantive, and which will have the biggest impact on Australian society and culture. Surely, for most reading this, it is not the return of an old titular honour which last ceased under Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Then again, I could be wrong. It all depends on whether the views of Twitter users as to what constitutes big news are reflective of that of broader society. If that is the case, then we are in a spot of trouble.

I am not entirely convinced that Twitter is always the best representation of society’s views. It is a mode for the loudest to express their views, however those with the loudest mouths often seem to express the most uncommon views in society. It is rarely a platform for the mainstream, more moderate of voices, though there are, as always, exceptions.

However, it does appear that the traditional media has taken notice of social media – as well they might when struggling to compete in a new media landscape. The major papers have, in varying degrees of absurdity, taken a stand on the smaller, more trivial issue of bestowing antiquated titles on people.

There was a theory being bandied about on Twitter, that the announcement on royally bestowed honours was used by the government as a distraction from the heat generated by the racial discrimination debate. If that is the case, shame on the majority of Australian’s for falling for it. We should have seen right through it as a non-issue and not been so incensed by what is a trivial matter in comparison.

The racial discrimination debate could change society. On the other hand, despite emotional protestations from republicans to the contrary, giving four people a year a title by appointment will have no impact on the Australian way of life. Making eminent people knights or dames will not create a renewed love for the monarchy. Only the sickening worship of these pseudo celebrities entrenches respect and admiration for the royal institution.

If republicans want a republic – and I consider myself one – we need to try much harder. If we think giving people titles will further entrench the monarchy, then perhaps we need to sharpen our arguments.

To be fair, our politicians need to learn how to prioritise better too. What was announced today was so inconsequential it should have been left off the government’s agenda for some time.

During the previous government, our political class spent a lot of energy on the often trivial nature of political debate. It seems there is a wish to continue down the path of being complicit in the dumbing down of debate and the avoidance of the hard issues.

The only question is whether we are being complacent, blissfully ignorant or willfully ignorant when it comes to deciding what matters most.

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.

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.

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.

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