Blog Archives

Hawke-Like in Appearance But Not in Reality

Last week the Business Council of Australia called for it and today Prime Minister Julia Gillard reached out and offered it. Today the Gillard Government wrote to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions offering what at first glance has the appearance of an olive branch to the business community from the Labor Government. The Prime Minister has now sought to give business, the unions and community groups the chance to participate in a national forum, to be named the National Economic Reform Panel.

The proposal from the Prime Minister is an attempt to get business onside, or at least to get them in closer proximity to the unions on a more regular basis than is currently the case. At present, aside from issue-specific working groups and committees, the relationship is limited to largely informal communications between the two interest groups.

The idea of the National Economic Reform Panel is said to be in the spirit of the Hawke Government Accords which saw unions make concessions in order to benefit from other policy changes.

The reality is more than likely going to be quite different. The only likely similarity is the make-up of the panel. They may agree from time-to-time in certain areas but overall, little compromise, except perhaps on taxation, is likely to be achieved.

The idea that the Gillard Government, through this panel, can achieve trade-offs similar to the ones that characterised the agreements which Bob Hawke’s government reached is just fanciful. Prime Minister Hawke’s agreements between business and the union movement were much deeper and broader than any Julia Gillard and her government may achieve, both in theory and practice.

An important part of negotiating is that nothing, within reason, be left off the table from the outset. However, it appears that changes in certain areas of law, specifically industrial relations, will not be on the table from the outset. That’s all fixed according to the government.

Of course, the unions are unlikely to budge on industrial relations in any case, unless it results in significant new power for their side of the bargaining table. But law changes that do not impact negatively on wages and conditions for employees must have a place at the meetings of this tripartite group.

It would appear likely that most of the changes that the panel would find itself agreeing to would just tinker around the edges of existing policy. Some existing rules and regulations and government policy would undoubtedly remain untouched as a result of negotiations between the three parties. So then unilateral government action would be required from time-to-time, defeating the purpose of such a panel.

Instead of being more like the accords under Hawke’s Labor Party, it appears, according to the letter that talks between business, the unions and community groups will have a central focus around how to implement the key recommendations of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. To this end, the idea of the panel is, in a way, more issue-specific again than about the broader economic challenges in the future which involves much more than just looking to Asia and thinking about how it is we can best compete in our region, the Asia-Pacific.

While the Asian Century White Paper does allude to domestic decisions that need to be made and implemented to compete with Asia in the Asian region, some of these are quite Asia-specific and we cannot spend too much time as a nation focusing on one geographical area. Other areas of the world that we engage with have a diverse range of needs quite independent to that of the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.

The timing of the announcement and what that implies suggests that the broader intent of the negotiating platform flagged by the Prime Minister has come too late, despite the fact that the BCA boss called for the panel as recently as last week.

The announcement of the reform group comes over two years into the second term of the Rudd-Gillard Government. Many of the key reform decisions have already left the parliament having been made into law. Some of these economic changes have had more business input than others, some with quite limited formal and direct negotiation with peak business bodies and company representatives.

Another certainty is that just about any agreed action in the near future faces the likely prospect of not being implemented. The budget is in a poor position and appears as though it will get worse before it gets better. So, in effect, business, the unions and community groups would be working towards having the government acknowledge aspirations in the near future at least, rather than implementing dramatic actions.

A nice symbol that gives the false impression of cooperation and a willingness to negotiate, but the reality underlying today’s decision is something almost completely different.

Perhaps it would have been better if the call to formal and ongoing discussions from the government had not come after five years of aggression towards certain areas of the business community from the same administration.

The likely outcome of discussions however, would probably be much the same.

Thinking and Educating Like Asia to Compete With Asia

Education was seen as a very important element of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper launched on Sunday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Lowy Institute. Education standards are set to be pegged to a very challenging and likely impossible goal. This target, already outlined prior to the release of the discussion paper aims to have Australia’s education system in the world’s top five by 2025. This aspiration forms the underlying basis for tackling the “Asian Century” with the most intelligence and vigour Australia can possibly muster.

It is the specifics that matter in this, the Asian Century. A goal to improve our education outcomes dramatically, though near impossible to achieve in under 15 years is a worthy goal to strive for over the mid to long-term.

In a time when Asia already is beginning to dominate the world economically, it is important that the curriculum which guides and drives our places of education adequately responds to the realities of our place in the world. Language is an integral part of competing in an Asian dominated world as is a cultural and educational immersion in different countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

A somewhat dramatic rethink of how we “do” education and mould our young people is a necessary ingredient. This rethink must include early childhood education as well as what are recognised as the more traditional levels of education, primary, secondary and tertiary schooling.

First and foremost we must, if we want to compete in Asia, think like many Asian countries do. We must “Asianise” our education system. Young minds are incredibly malleable and our education system must make early progress in shaping the lives of Australian children.

Even in the early years, when children are traditionally learning things such as sharing, they also need to be learning in a more extensive way how to read and write and begin to perform tasks usually part of the early  primary school years. The shift in how we educate the very young should even extend to teaching languages.

When children reach primary school age they should be well and truly prepared for a complete and focused formal education in the traditional subjects to begin.  The ALP Government have announced that the states will be required to implement a policy where at least one Asian language is taught in every school. This is an eminently reasonable request but only if the commonwealth provide substantial support to implement this.

When it comes to secondary school, the language question is more complex. It would beneficial if Asian language lessons were a compulsory part of all schools throughout the whole senior school experience. Failing that, language should be compulsory in the early years of high school, but a readily available option in senior years.

Tertiary education provides a further opportunity to get Australia’s students “Asia ready”. But tertiary education again presents a complex equation. It is more difficult to begin learning a language later in life than it is to take it up at early age. Policy-makers also need to be wary of impacting too much on the personal choices of our young adults and a one-size fits all approach is far from ideal.

Hopefully, over time, with students beginning to learn second languages at an earlier age there will be an increase among those undertaking tertiary studies who continue with language lessons as a matter of course. If people wish to take up a language at this later stage that should also be supported as not everyone knows exactly what trajectory they want their career to be guided along before they hit universities and colleges.

Particularly for courses like international business and international relations, basic introductory or business-related language lessons must form a part of the university and college experience. Ideally, these should be uniform prerequisites but should not automatically be limited to Asian languages. We still need to continue to pursue expertise in European languages regardless of whether our focus is in Asia or not.

Ideally, courses like education should have a similar focus toward Asian language training as degrees with an international focus. All universities should at least offer as part of their education courses, some of the key Asian languages including Mandarin, Indonesian, Japanese, Hindi and Korean. Again, this must not be to the detriment of important and widely used European languages.

Temporarily, because of the shortfall in Asian literacy, there will have to be some assistance for business but this should not be applied carte blanche.

That’s the language factor, but what of the educational and cultural exchange involving our university students?

The government has announced an intention to adopt, or more accurately steal the Coalition’s idea for a “Reverse Colombo Plan”. The new iteration of the Colombo Plan and more recently, Kevin Rudd’s Australia Awards will not just see Asian students coming to Australia for a period of study, but also lead to Australian students being able to travel to Asian institutions to further their opportunities.

This idea has the potential not just to enhance the language skills of budding young professionals, but also to imbibe greater cr0ss-cultural understanding in the young people of our region.

A big challenge we will face in at least attempting to shift towards a wider interest in Asian languages is attracting enough teachers. This model makes the task incredibly difficult not just because of the funds required to finance it, but because of the scale of the recruitment task needed to make Asian language training pervasive.  Importing teachers with language knowledge is an important short to medium-term goal.

We are already lagging behind in our Asian capabilities and readiness. We must at least try to catch up with the realities of our position. We almost certainly will not achieve all of our objectives.

This way of changing education is replete with grand aims that are unlikely to ever be realised fully. The logistical task and financial requirements are immense. However, even if we fell short, which is certain, we would still be better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities and deal with the challenges of living in a booming region of the world.

Crowing About Making Life Harder

It feels like a while since any substantial discussion has occurred involving policy and the business of government more broadly. Lately we’ve been stuck on constructing and deconstructing personalities and political parties. We’ve also been debating what should or should not be said as part of the usually robust, but recently vitriolic public discourse. Today is the day we must again begin focusing on policy and the business of government, looking above and beyond the easy analysis of people and personalities.

During all the hubbub a milestone went by almost undetected, with only a brief passing mention in the political media as the sexism and misogyny debate accelerated.

The Gillard Government, often wrongly accused of not getting on with the business of government, announced to the media that they had managed to have passed through the parliament over 400 bills. That much legislation passed over 2 years is certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, not getting on with the business of government.

There was probably much back-slapping and the brief mention smacked of pride. Why wouldn’t the government be proud of that achievement? That much work making it through the parliament, a minority government occupying the benches, would not have been an easy task, made both easier and harder at different junctures since the August 2010 federal election.

But is all this work necessarily a good thing? Will all this work lead to less government and bureaucratic interference in the lives of individuals and businesses? Will it make life in Australia a smoother process? Finally, what is better, new rules and regulations and processes to follow or new or beefed up penalties for existing or newer forms of wrongdoing ?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic ‘no’. Having passed 400 bills is not something to crow about. Yes, there will be legislation now in force among the new laws which will be beneficial. But that does not mean the overall number of bills passed is a good thing, it is not. But of course, for a government struggling to be able to take credit for work they have actually done, well, you cannot really blame them.

The problem with passing over 400 bills through the parliament is that it inevitably means there will be more government, not less and that the level of bureaucratic interference in the lives of individuals and businesses will of course be higher. There will be more rules to follow, more forms to fill out in your personal life and in the life of businesses and that is never a good thing for time or money.

So life in Australia as a matter of course, with over 400 new bills passed will not be smoother in a broad sense. Again, there will be, in that immense stack of paper, some legislation that might serve to make life easier in some narrow sense. However, with the sheer amount of bills that have been made into law being so high, those act’s of parliament making life easier, will be drowned out but extra rules and regulations in other areas of life.

What should governments focus on when engaging in the business of lawmaking? Should they have a predisposition toward business and people going through more regulatory approval, having more forms to fill out? Should the focus instead be on increasing penalties for wrongdoing rather than more oversight aiming to stem bad behaviour? Or is it the case that administrations need to focus on repealing laws?

The answer is a combination of the above. What should be first and foremost when thinking of amending or even introducing legislation is a focus on the penalty side of the good and wrongdoing equation. This means that those behaving appropriately are rewarded with less time needed for bureaucratic nonsense and more to do the business, personal or otherwise that they need to do. At the same time it punishes those few that do the wrong thing.

There should be little or no focus at all on increasing rules and regulations. Extra rules, read for breaches of law, should only be introduced to deal with wrongdoing that evolves or emerges, whether that’s for new technology or new practices which develop.

More red-tape is, in just about every case, an absolute no-no. Bureaucracy must be avoided at just about any cost. Businesses and people, both time-poor, just do not need extra time and pressure to apply for or get approval for aspects of their businesses and lives. There will of course be times where it is necessary.

Ideally, there should be a predilection toward actually cutting approval processes, forms and other time-consuming activities where practical and that means actually repealing some legislation or parts thereof. Stupid offences too, and there are certainly plenty of those, should also be on the legislative chopping block.

So really, the ALP might be happy with their work and so too the cross-benchers closely linked with the government, but the question is, should we the people and should the businesses of this country be jumping for joy too?

Question Time Ahead of Time

Parliament and Question Time are back after just a weekend break. It has been a rather eventful weekend, with tensions exploding from within elements of the Islamic community of Australia in response to a lame video by an American individual. The government here and most across the Western world, including the United States of America, were quick to condemn the video when it became known. These events seem likely to change the complexion of Questions Without Notice early in the week at least as the government seeks to explain their position and possibly answer questions on the matter from the Opposition.

Last week, like the previous sitting week, was all about the Opposition asking questions about the spending priorities of the Gillard Government, especially in relation to the budget, which the government is trying to say, will return to surplus.

The carbon price was next in line on the list of priorities of the Coalition, with a number of questions on the issue throughout the week. But unlike many previous weeks in this, the 43rd parliament, it actually took a backseat to something else on the political agenda of the Liberal and National Party Coalition.

Of course too, it would not have been a parliamentary week, or even a week in politics in general, without the Tony Abbott led Opposition asking the government some questions on asylum seekers and refugees.

The government again continued to have their backbencher’s ask questions on a number of issues including the economy, health, education, infrastructure, the environment and workplace relations as well as immigration.

In the week ahead, not much is likely to change as far as the overall make-up of Questions Without Notice goes. Early on in the week, probably limited to Monday, there is likely to be a question or questions from both sides of the political fence as Australia seeks to make sense of the angry protests which took place at the weekend.

After that, it is likely that the Coalition and the government will return to other issues. But the policy areas considered will likely remain the same.  Only the number of questions on each regular issue will change.

Asylum seekers might well dominate the week, at least early on, as the Opposition seeks to goad the ALP into allowing the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas and the turning back of asylum seeker vessels. This comes after the first asylum seekers have begun to head to Nauru

If asylum seekers isn’t the main political game this week, it will again be government spending priorities, taxation and the budget that make up the majority of questions that come from the Liberal and National Party’s.

That small matter of the carbon price will also make an appearance, but it may not be as prominent again as it has been in previous weeks of parliament.

The Labor Government for their part will also aim to respond to the events of the weekend during Question Time, with Government MP’s likely to ask a question or questions on the matter, but probably limited to Monday.

After that, attention will again to return to the spending priorities of the government, those announced and half-announced, including health, education and infrastructure in particular. There will however, also be questions on the environment, the economy in general and workplace relations.

The only unknown factors in Question Time are the exact make-up of questions on each issue, whether any other topical issue arise during the week and just how bad the behaviour is and how hammy the theatre.

A New Kind of Question Time for Australia, We’ve Earned It

Question Time, that hour and a bit of politics most sitting days, that Australians despise even more than the broader political discourse itself. Questions Without Notice frustrates everyone, from those who accidentally stumble across it on television or the radio and feel like they’ve had acid poured on them to the rusted on supporters that subject themselves to it freely on a regular basis.

Question Time in particular needs new rules to make it work better.

Some of the following are serious rule changes, the others, clearly not. The point is, that Question Time is still a joke despite changes to the Standing Orders- the rules that govern parliament and Question Time, when Australia discovered they’d voted for a minority government.

The Speaker of the Lower House is a very important position in the scheme of things. There should be a change which sees an independent Speaker, not necessarily an Independent MP, ideally a suitably qualified member of the public, elected to take the chair. This Speaker would ideally be elected by a popular vote of the people, but if an Independent MP or other suitable person were to be elected by the parliament, with at least 2/3 of the parliament in agreement, this would suffice.

Next cab off the rank- questions. Debate is not allowed in questions and questions asked in the House of Representatives are now limited to 45 seconds and to 1 minute in the Senate. This is simply too long.

Questions in the lower house of parliament should be limited to no more than 30 seconds- 15 to 2o seconds would be brilliant. It would be preferable, indeed beneficial, if questions asked in the Senate were limited to the same amount of time. Y0u could call it ‘The Katter Clause’.

The so-called ‘Dorothy Dixer’ should be completely removed as a feature of the parliament. If the government of the day wants to talk about their policies, have a press conference. Question Time should be all about holding those on the government benches to account, not allowing them a public relations exercise.

In addition, as far as questions go, there should be a new rule that business, education and health must be the focus of a certain number of questions every week. In an ideal world, that would mean one question in each area every day that parliament is in session.

Answers to questions asked during Question Time, in fact at any time, by anyone, politician, journalist or citizen during any political discussion involving our parliamentarians invoke very strong feelings. Even with a new ‘direct relevance’ clause our politicians waffle, blissfully aware that they are nowhere near answering a question.

Politicians should, as a matter of course, be ordered to be directly relevant to every single question asked of them from the moment they open up their traps. Any minister not immediately relevant is sat down by the independent Speaker. This will be hard for, well all of them, but if they want our respect they have to be weaned off the bullshit.

Not only that, but the time limit for answers to initial questions should be at least halved- from 3 minutes to at least as little as 1 minute and 30 seconds, but it would be glorious if answers could be limited to just 1 minute.

Ideally too, a device to measure decibels should be installed and if any one politician records more than a reasonable amount of loudness, they are sat down for their screeching. Call it a screechometer if you like.

The number of point’s of order that can be raised should be unlimited.

If in the course of Question Time the Opposition wants to table a document that they say supports their claim, in the interests of openness and accountability this should always be allowed.

Interjections really get under the skin of both sides of politics, they appear to cause the most angst in both chambers. They result in name-calling and can completely destroy the tone of any reasonable debate that exists in the parliament. If someone is overheard making offensive remarks about another politician across the chamber, they should be immediately booted, but only after being asked to withdraw first.

Both the government and the Opposition should have what could be described as a ‘captain’s challenge’. This would be a rule where the Prime Minister or Manager of Government Business on the government side and the Leader of the Opposition or Manager of Opposition Business on the other side can call for a video review by a third umpire when they think interjections are at their loudest on the opposite side. Question Time is then stopped and on the video evidence, anyone found interjecting on the opposite side of the chamber is immediately evicted for an hour under Standing Order 94a.

A bullshit meter was also considered, but frankly, they would cost too much as they’d be broken a number of times every day and our economy simply could not support that kind of spending.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The first Question Time of the week has passed and boy was it a cracker, well, if you like comedic theatre anyway. There were interjections, aggressive answers and a number of Opposition MP’s that found themselves on the end of Standing Order 94a. Tensions were heightened it seemed, perhaps as a result of carry-over energy from the debate of the previous week in the federal parliament where asylum seekers was the main issue early in the week and then debate returned to the carbon tax field. Things were so loud, over the top and angry today that even the Manager of Opposition Business and the Leader of the Opposition found themselves out of the chamber for a beverage break.

After an initial few questions based around the budget and spending priorities from the Opposition through Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, questions returned to that all too familiar area, the carbon price. Today these questions focused around small businesses and the carbon tax, mostly fruit related businesses as it turned out.

The Gillard Government, for their part, was more diverse in the policy areas that were highlighted in Questions Without Notice today. There were questions on the carbon price, the economy and infrastructure. But the Labor Party started out asking itself about education reform with the Prime Minister today announcing intentions to overhaul school funding, but not the funding to match just yet.

With the surprising start to Question Time of the Joe Hockey asking questions on the budget and funding commitments, it seems likely that this area will again be breached on Tuesday and beyond.

The overwhelming focus of the Opposition though, will without any shred of a doubt, continue to be over the price on carbon. Any prospect for a change in this strategy would be simply too hard to believe. The bulk of the Coalition election strategy is built around this area of policy, though not all about the policy itself.

The Labor Party will probably again look to highlight a wide array of areas of policy action with education taking a greater focus as we get closer to an announcement of actual funds.

Labor though will continue to prosecute its case for the carbon tax, mostly around the compensation and how the perceptions of the tax have failed to materialise.

As happened during Questions Without Notice on Monday, it would be reasonable to expect questions from the Labor side also on the economy and infrastructure and perhaps social policy, chiefly the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Was today a sign of things to come this week in the brutal arena that is Question Time? Just how noisy will our MP’s get? And how many more will find themselves being sin-binned?

%d bloggers like this: