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The Trajectory of Politics According to Malcolm Fraser

The most recent episode of One Plus One, a one-on-one interview based program was thought-provoking and delightfully honest. It was all about politics, past and present- though it was mainly about the present day political situation. The whole half hour show was about politics in the Australian context and where it is headed. The guest on the show was a former Prime Minister, an outspoken former member of the Liberal Party- Malcolm Fraser. And as always he was willing to tread where few dare when it comes to commenting on and critiquing the political discourse.

The half hour program identified four key issues in the front of Malcolm Fraser’s mind when it comes to Australian politics. Two of these issues are policy-based concerns and the other two about politics in a broader context. In short, the former Prime Minister is concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers, Australia being a dependent nation, career politicians and  that the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are becoming closer. More specifically on the latter point, Fraser is concerned about the Liberal Party and their eroding liberal values.

Malcolm Fraser, as a former Liberal Prime Minister, is perhaps the most well-known in terms of support for refugees and asylum seekers. During his time as the nation’s leader from 1975-1983, Australia took in nearly 250,000 Vietnamese refugees during and after the Vietnam War in which Australia participated.

Since leaving the parliament, Fraser’s commitment to the refugee cause has been maintained, if not expanded. He constantly lambasts Liberal and Labor alike for their unfortunate and often inhumane convergence on the asylum seeker issue.

And he is right to do so. To put it simply, the asylum seeker ‘issue’ is not an issue. There is no “peaceful invasion” and we are not being overtaken by undesirables. What is happening is that we are dealing with a world where regions are in significant conflict. That conflict is either within or between countries. And people movement is an impact of that disruption to peace.

We should take more refugees and can afford to. In the long-run, taking in more refugees will prove a cheaper option than pursuing and locking up those that arrive on our shores, like they have committed some heinous crime- which they have not.

And we need to treat asylum seekers better. There should be no rubbish talk or actions involving turning boats around or issuing Temporary Protection Visas. And we should not send asylum seekers to foreign lands to languish in truly atrocious conditions. These are all concerns held by Malcolm Fraser and he is right to be worried. Australia too should be worried.

There is another policy that worries the former PM and that is what he sees as an increasing dependence on the United States of America in terms of security and Australia’s broader foreign policy. He is both right and wrong.

Australia has had a long-held relationship with the United States of America, dating back chiefly to the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. And we have had strong diplomatic ties since. Our relationship too has escalated, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks with our commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq and the recent move to station US Marines in the north of Australia.

But is this immediately a bad thing? Are we immediately, by extension, too dependent on the US? The answer to both questions is no, not necessarily. A number of nations enjoy similar relationships with allies. The trick here is that we not neglect our regional neighbours in the Asia-Pacific more generally and more specifically, in the Indo-Pacific. Australia can pursue an abiding relationship with the US and in our regional neighbourhood.

It is at this point where we begin to look at politics in a slightly broader sense, delving into the world of party politics and the modern politician, both of which Malcolm Fraser is wary of.

A significant concern of Malcolm Fraser’s, particularly in the last decade, has been the trajectory of the Liberal Party. Indeed it proved the catalyst for his resignation from the party he so proudly represented in the highest office in the land.

In short, Mr Fraser believes the Liberal Party is no longer the party of Robert Menzies. And he is largely correct. Over the last decade and a half the Liberal Party has become progressively more conservative in social policy, to the point of being regressive at times. Social liberalism has long given way to social conservatism and the remaining adherents to the former ideology are continuing to disappear.

The Liberal Party was set up, in the words of its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, “to be a progressive party, in no way conservative, in no way reactionary”. And indeed that is what it has largely become. There is still an allusion to individual rights and freedoms, but the conservative viewpoint within the party is clearly in the ascendancy. There needs to be a shift in the opposite direction, as the two theories are largely incompatible.

It is of not much concern that the Liberal Party are economically conservative. It is inherently sensible for government to live within its means and the Liberal Party has a long-established association with this particular ideology, most strikingly, in the Howard years.

Economic liberalism, in terms of support for public goods, is something that the Liberal Party should rediscover. The glory days when the Liberal Party were much more concerned about the provision of education and healthcare in particular have long passed.

The final concern Malcolm Fraser elaborated on during the interview with Jane Hutcheon was about the increasing prevalence of so-called ‘career politicians’. These are people who have little or no experience in the world outside of politics. These are people who have usually studied politics at university and gone to work as staffers of MP’s soon after graduation.

The ‘career politician’ Malcolm Fraser argues, is fast becoming a major issue for our democracy as political parties begin to favour party operatives more than talented candidates.

The major issue for present day politics however is the narrow skill set of our political representatives. Most are lawyers and former union officials and then business people. The latter is fine, particularly if they were small business owners in a previous life and so is a mix of former lawyers and union officials, but the point is that a broader skill needs to be represented in the parliament.

It is unquestionable that politics needs to be on a different trajectory. Right now we are headed even further toward rampant voter apathy and that is not healthy for a democracy such as ours, where to at least turn up to a polling booth on election day is compulsory.

A shift in ideology and in some public policy areas is also necessary.

Old Lessons Still Proving Hard to Learn for Confused Labor

Labor had been in the doldrums for a long time and then along came a Newspoll, probably errant, but buoying the ALP nonetheless. That pleasant feeling must not have lasted for long. Another Essential Media poll this week put the lead Coalition lead at about where it has been this year, 55% for the Opposition and 45% for the Gillard Government. As if the realisation that things were likely nowhere near as good as they seemed last week, along came Lindsay Tanner today to make unpleasant feelings a whole lot worse.

The former ALP MP and Finance Minister under the leadership of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd again sparked the flames that Labor probably felt had been extinguished, or at least brought under control after the February leadership vote which Mr Rudd lost so comprehensively. But far from just rubbing salt into the slowly healing Labor Party wounds in relationship to leadership matters, Mr Tanner also ventured deeply into criticisms of the ALP, questioning whether or not they still hold any values.

The former frontbench MP today said of the decision to dump Kevin Rudd for Julia Gillard that it was a “poll-driven panic” which of course even the most casual of political observers, even the uninformed, would say is an accurate classification of the circumstances and events that saw Kevin Rudd so ruthlessly dumped by the Labor Party.

He goes on to say that the factional bosses have learnt from the shockingly stupid and incredibly premature move in mid 2010. That is almost certainly the case too. While now actually faced with little to no prospects of re-election for a long period of time, the Australian Labor Party have remained strongly attached to the leadership of Julia Gillard.

Again covering old territory, though slightly more recent, Tanner said that the strongly vitriolic criticisms directed at Kevin Rudd, just prior to and during the February leadership brouhaha were silly then an would have lasting consequences for the electorally troubled party.

But where the dismay at the ALP from Lindsay gets more interesting, though no less dated, indeed, arguably much more long-term than the Rudd leadership coup and internal party ructions around that, is whether there are any Labor values anymore. He says that “the Labor Party is ceasing to be an incubator and a driver of reform.”

This is not far from the truth. Despite what you think about the costs and benefits of the National Broadband Network, which are both high and highly questionable, it is essentially a Labor reform and one that would have historically been recognised as such.

There are other Labor reforms, like the NDIS and the recent Gonski and dental health announcements which would be recognised as Labor reforms. But these have tended to be grand announcements which the ALP has little or no intention of funding, nor would they think that their administration would have to fund them, though part funding has been allocated to both the National Disability Insurance Scheme and oral healthcare changes. In the case of the NDIS too, Tanner says the design and development was outsourced to the Productivity Commission and would not have been in the past.

Tanner goes on to say that the Labor Party is becoming “a reactor, a passive political player that sits there responding to circumstances and pressures rather than being the driver of where our nation heads.”

This suggests that Tanner believes the ALP is becoming more conservative in nature, that is not tending to engage in change because it might be the smart thing to do in certain policy areas.

The use of the word ‘reactor’ by Mr Tanner also tends to bear out this argument as conservatives too, when actually engaging in change tend to react well behind the curve.

It has become clear, through actions too, particularly post-Rudd that the plea of the former ALP PM in 2010 to not swing to the right, has fallen on deaf ears. Almost immediately the new Prime Minister swung to the right on asylum seekers, a move that probably resulted in a wry smile on the face of former Prime Minister John Howard.

But again, this is old news. The party of the right, the Liberal Party swung farther to the right, from social liberal mixed with some religious conservatism to almost full-blown conservatism with a little liberalism mixed in from time to time. This probably occurred earlier than Labor began their evolution into a party that doesn’t particularly represent their traditional values.

Uncomfortable for some, this could be largely down to political realities which appear to show that some form of conservatism suits the people, those going out to vote. But both sides of politics could lose more true believers of the ideologies that are supposed to dominate the core thinking of the two major political parties.

These lessons from Tanner are in no way new, apart from the fact that this is really the first time he has publicly directed both barrels at the party he once served in government. What his words do is bear out some truths in the shift that has occurred in ALP politics both after Kevin Rudd and more broadly over the political history of the ALP, the last 15 to 20 years in particular.

Tanner’s words, repetitive as they are, also prove that these lessons, though repeatedly taught are proving hard to learn from.

1950’s Style Brain Farts Continue in Queensland

The Queensland LNP Convention has been and gone over the weekend, just months after the Liberal National Party in Queensland crushed the Bligh Government at the ballot box in an historic victory which saw the ALP reduced to just 7 seats in the 89 seat unicameral legislature. Since the electoral rout pundits have been saying that the LNP would have the ability to do pretty much anything and they have, with some of us, this author included, slow to realise just how far back the Newman Government is prepared to wind the metaphorical clock.

So far, since gaining power the new government have moved to alter, albeit not completely, but 3/4 of the way the civil unions legislation introduced into the parliament by former Deputy Premier and Treasurer, Andrew Fraser.

The LNP administration decided to remove the similarity to marriage as well as the state-sanctioned civil ceremony. To be a little fair, we did expect worse as Queenslanders with the consensus being that a full repeal was on the way. But who’s been hurt by proper civil unions anyway? Certainly not me.

They have also decided to move to ban so-called ‘altruistic surrogacy’ laws brought in by the former Bligh Government which recognised surrogate rights of same-sex couples, single people and couples that have been in de facto relationships for less than 2 years.

And that’s just a start before the over the top and censorial moves that the LNP State Convention agreed to over the weekend.

The first move was a motion put to the convention asking the Queensland Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek to ban what was termed as “post-normal science”, read climate science, from the curriculum and examination materials.

Government simply does not and should not have the right to decide what is right and correct science and individual MP’s and the government’s that they represent simply do not have the scientific expertise to determine what is correct and what is not.

Fair enough if the government simply wanted the raw science of climate change to betaught without it being coloured with some of the extreme predictions which have so far failed to materialise.

And then came that motion from Young LNP State Secretary Luke Barnes, who proposed an end to the Abstudy program for indigenous people. The motion narrowly prevailed despite vigorous protestations by LNP federal MP Paul Neville that passage of the proposal would lead to the LNP being labelled “bigots”.

It’s certainly the case that the motion will lead to the LNP being called bigots, but that is nothing new for the party, they’ve been labelled bigots at the state and federal level numerous times before, including for their stance on civil unions and the surrogacy changes.

The LNP in passing this motion, however marginal the motion victory shows a complete lack of understanding of the importance of the Abstudy program to the principle of equality of opportunity in education.

Indigenous students under the program receive an $8000 grant to assist with education, travel and accommodation costs which are quite high for rural and regional students having to travel large distances to have access to education, particularly at the tertiary and secondary school level.

Indigenous students travelling for study from areas outside the major cities and education hubs are often out of pocket even after having the grant, so any downgrade bringing it in line with similar programs would just make it all the more challenging for this group to be able to continue undertaking a basic level of education that is so important to future life opportunities.

Thankfully after the passage of the motion yesterday, it has been slammed by the federal indigenous affairs spokesperson, Nigel Scullion as an idea that nobody with “half a brain” would want to bring into effect, a glorious slapdown to the brain fart of a suggestion put forward at the convention.

Another positive, if it can be called such, is that the federal government controls the Abstudy program and so the Queensland LNP, whilst now being forced to call for the abolition of the grant is unable to touch the important and essential policy, especially after the glorious slapdown by their federal counterparts.

All of these moves are a sign of a party at least as far as Queensland goes and to a similar extent the federal party sliding to the right and further away from the ideology of liberalism that gives the party its name.

Yes, from the beginning it is true that the Liberal Party was founded on a combination of a liberal and conservative tradition, with the latter always particularly based around a form of religious conservatism and that still clearly holds true today.

However, progress should be toward more individual rights  and promoting more opportunities for all as well as less government intervention in the day-to-day lives of the individual and their relationships.

A very strong separation of church and state is also required where at present the collective church is wagging the government tail, more so at the Queensland state government level, but this observation also applies to an extent to the federal government and the opposition.

Of course too, as already highlighted, these moves are in large part a result of the unprecedented power that the LNP gained at the ballot box, especially aided and abetted without an upper house to put a check on extreme use of power to deny individual rights and progress.

It’s about time to head down to that op shop for some trendy 1950s garb, but at least one decision by the state party won’t take Queensland any further back in time despite strong efforts at the weekend.

My Kind of Liberalism/Liberal Conservatism is Mixed with a Bit of Big Government

I would like to take the chance today to outline in a broad sense the kind of liberalism/liberal conservatism that I identify with personally and how that translates into my thoughts in different policy areas, be they economic or social.I fully expect to lose a number of followers in the hours after this post gets out as people discover that I am not quite as conservative as I thought I once was.

On economic policy I would consider myself to be strongly of the economic conservative faith, believing that, for the most part, government spending should be kept to a minimum. I also believe in trying to avoid deficit spending, a key facet of fiscal conservatism as well as lower taxes and deregulation of the economy.

In saying this, I do not believe that all government spending is evil and should be avoided, there are some areas where government should be spending, particularly in the area of providing public goods making me also by definition a fan of the theory of economic liberalism.

Although both of these theories argue for limited government intervention in economic decision making and regulation, I do believe it is a political reality that there is and needs to be some level of limited regulation in the economy that provides some kind of protection to the individual. In saying this I, do not believe that regulation needs to be drastically added to, on the contrary, I think in many areas that regulations can and should be eased.

On social issues I consider myself to be a bit of a mixed bag again, combining some social conservatism with social liberalism, though I think that the latter is the predominate issue in my thoughts on social policy.

I firmly believe as social conservatives do, that the family is one of the most important institutions that exist in society along with the courts and other bodies that have long been a foundation of western society and our beliefs.

Where I differ with social conservatives  and where my social liberalism comes in is a firm belief in basic human rights, including freedom of speech, that have for a long time been an important and essential consideration in policy and political discussion.

While I believe that the family is an essential institution, I do not believe, like many social conservatives seem to, that the family is under threat from gay marriage. It is a ridiculous claim in my view, to assert that the family would be impacted in a detrimental way if same sex marriage were to become law in Australia. The family will continue to exist after this inevitable change is made and in any case is more under threat from the incredibly high levels of divorce in many western nations.

There are also areas of social policy where I would also consider myself at times to be a fan of a big government approach. The biggest of those would be disability policy.

I am a firm supporter of the Gillard Government policy of a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) providing that it allows individuals to exercise their own free choice of which particular service or services they need to or choose to access which is best suited to their own individual needs and is not overly influenced by any healthcare practitioner or government regulation.

I also believe that the government needs to step in to strictly regulate areas which impede equality of access for people with a disability that destroy the ability of those of us with a physical or intellectual impairment from participating fully in the day to day activities that any “able bod” is fully able to enjoy at any given time.

For me this means strict accessibility provisions imposed upon both government and private institutions to, wherever possible provide all reasonable access for people of different physical abilities in everyday life. This means widespread accessible transport, buildings and housing.

I therefore think, as I have stated before, that principles of ‘universal design’ ought to be mandated by government, to provide the 1 in 5 Australian’s with a disability and the rapidly ageing population ready access to new dwellings built to these strict construction guidelines.

Furthermore, guidelines for accessibility to buildings need to be much stricter than they are at present and both local and state governments need to stoke up the courage to deal with this important area.

On transport, I believe that all transport  provided by local or state government should be accessible for people whether they are in a wheelchair, on crutches or have a slight physical impairment. No particular group in the community should have to organise for a particular form of transport to be made available to them because they happen to have been born with a condition impacting their ability to move around freely.

On transport infrastructure, where possible, I believe that all possible efforts should be made to transform all possible facilities related to public transport into disability friendly ones. I concede that there is a possibility that, because of the surrounds of some particular transport infrastructure, that because of topography, accessibility may be an almost complete hindrance to accessibility.

Also on social policy, I believe in some form of freedom of movement and therefore am against the fear that conservatives seem to have toward asylum seekers. This by no means indicates that I think people movements should be completely unfettered, they should not. We do need as a nation to discourage, wherever possible the unsafe journeys that people fleeing persecution continue to make.

So let the accusations of me being a “leftie” begin to fly as they inevitably will after this becomes public knowledge, I’m prepared for it. But the simple fact is that I am in wide, almost complete agreement and most of my thoughts completely consistent with the principles which underpin liberal philosophy and that of the Liberal Party which also embraces conservative political ideas. So bring it on.

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