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The Recurring Questions About the Joint Strike Fighter

In 2002 the Howard Government made the decision to purchase up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) from the United States of America, making it the largest single defence purchase in the history of Australia. Now, a decade on, the JSF program is struggling to deal with major flaws in capabilities and the project is at least 5 years behind schedule. And to top it all off, the original cost of the jet has gone from $40 million each to almost $130 billion dollars per aircraft.

The troubled JSF program was the subject of a Four Corners documentary on Monday night which shows that the problems surrounding the construction of the plane are continuing. When it all boils down, the same questions are being asked about the program that have been for years now. But the questions become even more relevant with every mishap and every delay in the delivery of the Joint Strike Fighter.

The overriding question is: Should we have purchased the fighter jet when we did? But the situation involving the procurement of the JSF is far more complex. Another important question is: Should we have put the purchase of new aircraft out to tender? The final very important question is: Would a tender process have improved the situation?

There is absolutely no question that the decision is a budgetary disaster, with the cost per aircraft ballooning by about $90 billion dollars. We have had to purchase 24 Super Hornets as interim aircraft while we await the delivery of the F-35. Due to domestic budgetary constraints we have delayed delivery of twelve of the aircraft, but those delays will be trumped by the design delays.

In short, the government should not have made the F-35 procurement decision when they did. The decision to purchase was made too early and, according to a former Defence official interviewed by Four Corners, based on a reportedly persuasive conversation former ADF Chief Angus Houston had with a defence official from the United States of America. The government should have waited until there was more concrete information on the aircraft. Word of mouth is not particularly strong grounds for making decisions about buying new military capabilities.

The question of a tender process is both simple and complex. It is simple in the sense that a tender process would have been the most prudent option for what was the most significant single defence purchase made by an Australian government.

A formal tender process would have given Australia options, even if the JSF still turned out to be the most sought after option after competitive bidding. More importantly, there would have been greater oversight of the decision-making process. Competitive bidding would have also driven down cost somewhat and that would have been helpful given the cost blowout over the last decade.

But the shambles that is the F-35 purchase might not have been avoided under a competitive bidding regime. What we are dealing with is, above all, a manufacturing and design problem. There is absolutely no guarantee that competition in the bidding process would have meant the absence of flaws in the aircraft’s design. In fact, we can be certain that a bidding process would have had no impact on the design of the plane.

The distinct lack of process is striking when it comes to the Joint Strike Fighter. Even without knowing what the documentary revealed, we should acknowledge there have been problems with the procurement of the JSF. We should have started a tender process leading up to the 2002 decision which still could have been made. We would have saved some money, but could have easily encountered the same problems unless we had bought an aircraft already under production.

The funny thing is, for all the extra money and time, we should still end up with a very advanced air capability at the end of the drawn out process – providing the technology is not superseded.

Half Good High Court Judgement, But Let’s Have Some Common Sense Changes to NSCP

In one of a string of highly anticipated High Court judgements this year the Canberra-based court ruled by a majority of 6-1 that the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) is unconstitutional because it goes beyond the powers of the commonwealth enshrined in the Constitution. The court reached this decision despite the commonwealth arguing that it was able to provide the funding for the policy under s61 of the Constitution which says that executive power “extends to the execution and maintenance” of the foundation document as well as “the laws of the commonwealth”.

There was no legislation governing the agreement.

On the other hand, the court ruled against the plaintiff based on s116 of the Australian Constitution which deals with religious freedom, saying that the program was not an affront to the freedom to practise, or not practise religion.

The court said that while there was a religious test involved in the hiring of school chaplains, a test not required by the commonwealth to hold a government position, the state was not involved in the direct provision of these services and so that section of the Constitution was not breached by the chaplaincy program.

The High Court ruled that the program, delivered in Queensland by the Scripture Union of Queensland did not constitute holding a commonwealth office under s116 as the state was not a party to contractual agreements with the school chaplains employed under the program.

The first major thing to point out is that it is a potentially very positive decision for the devolution of power from the executive branch of government, the ministry, which made the decision on the National School Chaplaincy Program under former Prime Minister John Howard.

The future of the program as a whole is unsure though it would seem quite likely that legislation could be put through which gives either the commonwealth or the states the power and funding to provide for the continuation of the chaplaincy services, though legal experts have said that it is far from clear that accompanying legislation would properly remedy the constitutionality of the NSCP.

But arguments against the pr0gram as it stands also go well beyond the legal and constitutional aspects as judged today by the High Court of Australia and common sense rather than legal argument should  lead to a determination that the idea as it stands does not give students real choice when needing to seek the assistance and counsel of suitably qualified adults.

Changes to alter the NSCP which were put forward by the Labor Government to amend the policy had been inserted to give schools a choice as to whether or not they provided a religious or a non-religious chaplain to offer counselling services to students.

What any good program should do in the counselling area is to provide the parents, not the school with the choice of whether or not their sons or daughters are able to seek the confidence of a chaplain or a counsellor. That is, the programs should give the opportunity to provide both, rather than one or the other at the very least.

An even better option would be to provide students, particularly the older ones with the ability to decide what is best for themselves the opportunity to choose who they seek to get advice from.

The High Court judgement in this way is half good at least as far as power concentration goes but where the court did not judge in favour of choice there should be common sense moves to allow greater choice for the students or their families in all cases with a preference towards offering professional counsel above and beyond that which religion provides.

Those Two Words We Dare Not Speaketh Will Not Appear in Our Ads

The carbon tax, carbon price, whatever you wish to call it is now just a matter of weeks from fruition, coming into effect on July 1 at a starting price of $23 per tonne. This policy backflip has been the cause of so much poll pain for the Australian Labor Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and sees the ALP trailing the Tony Abbott led Coalition by double digits.

With every major policy, especially the ones that cause controversy and are much harder to sell (think WorkChoices as a recent example) generally comes a substantial advertising campaign trying to bring the public around to what the government of the day thinks are the benefits of such a package and how these benefits will outweigh the much argued about costs.

That is no different than with the so-called “Clean Energy Future” policy package which has been legislated by the Commonwealth parliament and set to take effect in roughly a month and a half.

The Gillard Government has announced a $36 million advertising budget to attempt to sell the package to a wary and largely switched off public that didn’t particularly enjoy the change of mind brought on by the minority government situation.

In just the next 6 weeks, the government will spend $14 million of that total budget allocation in a likely wasted attempt to ameliorate concerns over the package. This amounts to a total spend per day of appromimately $270,000 over that month-and-a-half long period.

The media blitz focuses on the compensation packaged related to the carbon pricing legislation which totals $4.2 billion and makes the total spend on advertising the Clean Energy Future package $70 million dollars.

This in itself is a very high amount for a Labor Government that took office, under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, promising to reign in unnecessary government spending on advertising and public relations, particularly in the wake of the Howard Government spending an enormous $121 million dollars promoting the controversial WorkChoices legislation which played a significant part in the downfall of the Howard Government after over a decade in office.

Compared to the spending on WorkChoices advertising, $70 million dollars does seem small, but only in comparison. Advertising to attempt to change public perceptions on legislation seems a dubious idea and could be better spent on other policies.

What is most horrific about the current advertising package is not the cost, but the way that it attempts to sell the household assistance that will be received by millions in the very near future.

The latest advertisement, which has just started airing makes absolutely no mention of the fact that the assistance package is part of the response to the inevitable price rises which will be caused by the instigation of the carbon price. It is just referred to as the “household assistance package” and this gives the impression that the government are trying to sell the package to the unaware as effectively money for nothing.

There is no reference anywhere in the entire 30 seconds of any of the related ads, be it the ad targetted at seniors, singles or families of those two words that have become so dangerous for the government, ‘carbon’ and ‘tax’, that when put together, even as the “carbon price” iteration, spells disaster for the on the nose government.

So when you see those ads and think of the extra money you will be receiving from the government, remind yourself that you are not receiving money for nothing.

NOTE: Not referring to the Dire Straits song when I use the phrase “money for nothing”. Just to clear that up 🙂

Costello Gets a Gong That Will Make Him Feel at Home Even Though it’s in Queensland

In politics, not many come any bigger than Peter Costello, long-service Treasurer in the Howard Government and despite their personal relationship, one of his strongest political lieutenants. His political stature above all else is what he is known for. He and Howard were confronted with a budget in deficit in 1996 and $96 billion in government debt accrued by the Labor Government before them. He did that and did that well delivering surplus after surplus in the decade-plus of the Howard Government. He was a big-hitter with a big ego that was matched by big performances in his portfolio, in the parliament with his stinging attacks on the long-term Opposition, and also outside of it against the same team, his humour often dry and biting when in full flight.

But yes, aside from his personality it was his performance as Treasurer that won him and the government he represented the most support from the Australian people. Just recently against advice he was knocked back as the next chairperson of the Future Fund that he created in the later years of the Howard-Costello partnership to fund future costs of the public sector superannuation.

Costello missed that gong just a short period of time ago and with an incoming LNP Government under Premier Campbell Newman and Treasurer Tim Nicholls in Queensland, which was swept to power in such a dramatic fashion on Saturday night, has found himself in a position to do what he does best. The former Australian Treasurer will chair a Commission of Audit to recommend a path or paths forward for a new LNP Government looking to take the Queensland economy forward after 20 of the last 22 years under the Australian Labor Party.

At the end of the year it is projected that Queensland will find itself in $62 billion dollars of debt as reported by the new Queensland Treasurer, Tim Nicholls in his statement today while announcing the appointment of Mr Costello as commission chair. Looking at the state of the books and how to reduce this  debt so LNP promises can be delivered will be part of the task ahead for the audit committee where he will be joined by Dr Doug McTaggart of QIC and Professor Sandra Harding, former Under Treasurer of Queensland and now Vice Chancellor of James Cook University.

The former economic manager in the Howard Government will also, through charting possible ways of cutting down debt and inefficiencies in the government spending, hopefully plot a course back to a AAA credit rating with Queensland, despite its mineral resources and the wealth they create, being the only mainland state without the full credit rating.

The cuts look like being deep and hard, with some programs already being dismantled by the newly sworn Premier Newman and his Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney and Treasurer Tim Nicholls. Tomorrow the other ministers responsible for government departments will be named and will get to work after being sworn in by the Queensland Governor early next week, doing the same to already identified programs in their respective gambits of responsibility.

One thing is for certain, Mr Costello will be at home examining the Queensland economy and government spending and the budget priorities of the current and past governments and just where they fit in terms of efficiency and priority and helping to navigate Queensland to a better fiscal position along with the rest of his team and with the LNP Government who will make the final important decisions after being provided with the learned advice.

I’m Leaving and Oh WorkChoices…

Today it became clear that Jeff Lawrence, the boss of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) would be leaving the post in the near future. Some say Mr Lawrence leaves under duress, being forced out after losing the confidence of senior union officials in recent times, for being an ineffective communicator particularly when it comes to media. The ACTU boss on the other hand says that he was certainly not forced out of the position, reportedly last Friday and instead could simply not complete another 3 years in the job as he approached 60 years of age.

Going by experience it is almost certain that the former is true, the head union official was likely pushed out by those in the union movement unhappy with the way he has performed in the role since assuming the position.  It seems as though the coup has been even more seamless than those in the ALP that have highly involved the union movement in recent years.

The ACTU Secretary, by any objective or subjective analysis has been a very poor performer in the position since taking the reigns. His media presence has at times been so non-existent as to foment questions as to his whereabouts, well not really, but you get the picture. This media spotlight has consequently been grabbed by other media hungry union bosses, including such well-known men who now have a face like Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union and Dave Oliver of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

In a cruel twist one of the names touted to take over the position of ACTU Secretary is Dave Oliver, whose media profile has sky-rocketed in the past 12 months in particular, gaining regular access to the ear of Julia Gillard as the Prime Minister attempts to work through the manufacturing woes which have escalated since around the time of the GFC.

But it is not only the lack of media presence that Mr Lawrence brought to the role. The ACTU boss is very poor at delivery of message and was not even effective at displaying feigned anger, even at issues which usually provoke animated debate with the union movement, like labour market deregulation.

Since the “Your Rights at Work” Campaign too, very few people would be able to associate Jeff Lawrence with any particular high-profile public relations campaign on any workplace related issue, no matter how hard they tried.

Predictably, on announcing his departure as a union boss, Mr Lawrence took the opportunity to have an ineffective prod that came across almost as a pat at the business community who are calling for some flexibility in the workplace.

The union movement, still obviously cocky from their very effective campaign against the Howard Government WorkChoices legislation, which in large part led to its downfall, think that any tinkering with the Gillard Government’s  “Fair Work” laws equates to a wholesale return to WorkChoices, so the ACTU Secretary obviously could not resist temptation.

A return to WorkChoices is never going to happen, the collective pants of the Coalition are scared off permanently save for a desire for some meagre flexibility changes which would not even qualify as the ugly cousin of that divisive thing called WorkChoices. But hey, what do the unions have to talk about which scares people en masse if they don’t have something which actually does like WorkChoices? Not very much.

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