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The Costings Fetish and What it May Mean

Australian politics is undoubtedly at a strange place. Since the 2010 election when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Labor Government scraped into the power with the support of the Greens and three Independent MP’s, all the usual hostilities have ramped up. Some new battles have even been established too. Much of this can be put down to one simple factor and that is the vicinity of power to the two political leaders. The Labor Party are just holding onto power, only just and the Liberal and National Party coalition still look very close to taking power at the 2013 election despite narrowing poll margins.

Of all the interesting and at times absurd events fomented by the fragile state of play, one of the most interesting has been the growing desire and outward protestations from the ALP , particularly over recent weeks and months, for the Coalition to cost their policies and do so now.

There are always calls from incumbent governments, it is true, for opposition parties to release and cost their policies as early as possible. Why would governments not want to do that? Were that to occur, to be common practice, it would certainly help the reigning political party or coalition to construct a strategy to rip apart the figures.

It has come to light this week that a relatively unusual event has occurred in Australian politics. The Gillard Government, it was revealed, asked Treasury to cost three existing Coalition policies. That analysis found that those three policies would come at a cost of $4.57 billion to businesses in the first year of a Coalition Government from 2013.

As was mentioned before, governments seeking costings in a rather energetic way has always been a bit of a thing. But now it appears to have developed into a fetish. Rarely before have the calls been so relentless and so vocal. Again, that mostly goes down to the thirst for either maintaining or gaining power, a hunger that both sides of politics have at the present time.

Really though, it is completely stupid to be asking, to be demanding that opposition parties release their policies so far out from the election. If the budget state is uncertain and your party have announced, or have a well-entrenched focus on achieving a particular budget outcome, then it would be folly to release your costed policies so far out from the election.

It is almost without doubt that the Coalition will either drop outright or alter, either in part or dramatically, their existing policies. You could almost be sure that the paid parental leave scheme will be different to the existing policy. The rhetoric around that policy has shifted and talk about it from the Coalition is no longer a priority, almost to the point of no words being uttered willingly about the proposed scheme.

Not only that, but the Opposition would surely be considering a number of cuts to existing government programs. That’s a hallmark of Liberal administrations.

An interesting thought does come to mind when thinking about the reasons for the Gillard Government seeking and then leaking costings of Liberal Party policies.

The possibility of a March election has been raised in the last week or so in response to a rush on the part of the Labor Party to get legislation through the parliament before it rises for the Christmas break.

Of course, running up to an election, as a government, you might want to look like you are getting things done, even though to some, too much government is a very bad thing. Australians though, on the whole, while they hate their government, whatever the political complexion, they tend to want, or rely on its intervention.

And so the recent suggestion of the Coalition has some weight. An early poll probably will not eventuate, but the thought must not be discounted.

Really, the most likely reason for the politicisation of Treasury is the thirst for more political blood. Surely the Gillard Government is itching for more momentum, to capitalise on recent movements.

It is the job of the Coalition to release their final suite of policies close enough to the election to put them in the context of the fiscal position but far enough out from the polls so that the public get a good look.

Now is too far out, despite what the Labor Party and sections of the media will have you believe.

An Open Letter to State and Federal Politicians Regarding the NDIS

Dear state and federal governments,

I do not believe that all of you, despite protestations to the contrary, are actually one hundred percent serious about pursuing the implementation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. Furthermore, I am concerned that the bipartisanship at the federal level may well be in name only.

Labor: You announced, with great fanfare as a result of work precipitated largely by Bill Shorten as Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities through the Productivity Commission, that a NDIS was needed. That report identified that the disability services sector is fragmented and under-funded. You pledged to work towards implementing such a scheme.

The Coalition: You announced swiftly, despite a perceived disposition towards opposing major reforms, that you wholeheartedly supported the idea to assist some of the most vulnerable Australians.

Since that wonderful day when you, our federal politicians gave a feeling of hope that many people with a disability and their carers have never experienced before, things have changed.

The future of the much-needed reform looks far less certain than it did this time last year and that worries me. I have no doubt it also worries many others with a connection to disability. We are used to disappointment and people with a disability are used to being largely left out of government calculations.

I acknowledge that the problem is not wholly because of you, the federal government. Blame for the uncertainty must also be laid squarely at the feet of some of our state governments. Yes, you did ignore, as governments generally do an important recommendation. This recommendation from the Productivity Commission said that you, the commonwealth should be the sole funding government of this important initiative.

To Tasmania, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and later New South Wales and Victoria: Thank to all of you for getting past the Gillard Government’s refusal to be the sole contributor to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Your contribution is much appreciated, even yours NSW and Victoria. At least you were willing to remain at the negotiating table even if your government’s played it trickily for a while.

Queensland: Despite the dumping of the key recommendation from the report into the insurance scheme, you could have contributed a modest amount of funds toward a launch site.

You should have been able to get past that point and negotiate with the federal government from the viewpoint that they must be responsible still for the bulk of money contributed towards the establishment of a NDIS. We know and acknowledge that your revenue streams, as with all states, are limited. However, giving something was entirely possible.

To all the states: Please now operate on the assumption that the commonwealth government should provide the vast majority of the funds toward the NDIS. That includes you Queensland.

But back to you, the federal government: A half thanks for the $1 billion over 4 years in the May budget. You contributed something. But in the scheme of things it falls remarkably short of the mark. The meagre sum of $250 million a year for four years for a project that will cost over $13 billion in the first full year is a bit of a joke, especially considering how much more you like to waste in other areas.

To the federal Opposition: Thanks for what appeared, at least initially, to be earnest support for an essential new way of catering to the unmet needs of people with a disability.

Since that initial endorsement though, there have been mixed messages which make me and many others concerned that your professed interest in pursuing this in government might actually be a little on the fake side.

If this is a false assumption then please stop people like Joe Hockey from appearing to question the ability to fully fund the scheme years into the future. Please stop the Shadow Treasurer from referring to it in a negative light.

Contribution to the scheme will be more than possible by the time of implementation put forward by the Productivity Commission. Even the timetable of the ALP Government is within reason. It is only one year earlier.

Again to Labor: I hope you did not think that my concern over your actions, or lack thereof was limited to that already mentioned. It is not.

I am very concerned at your ability to appear to be doing something while actually doing little at all, other than mostly talking. You now say you will introduce legislation to establish aspects of the NDIS, including the transitional agency. That is great, but it is useless without money being funneled towards it.

You have said, or at least hinted over the past couple of days at more money being directed toward the policy, but only next year. If your hilariously small contribution in the May budget is anything to go by, then a contribution next year, keeping in mind the state of the budget and the fact that it is an election year, will either be inadequate or potentially peeled back upon change of government.

The disability community would appreciate it if all of you would address our concerns. Some of you are doing very well, some okay and one state, that’s you Queensland, doing terribly.

There are a lot of people now more cautious, some cynical and some even scared about the prospects of not having the NDIS going ahead. We need reassurance that our concerns are not based in reality. That can only be achieved through strong actions, not strong rhetoric.

Yours Sincerely,

A NDIS fan

Foreign Investment and the Coalition With the National Party

Foreign investment has been in the media a lot recently. Increased talk about foreign investment as part of the Australian political discourse has amped up over the last few years in particular with reports of particularly Chinese-based companies buying up farmland, chiefly across New South Wales. It’s prompted raised concerns from some in Australian politics. The interesting thing is that most of the questioning of foreign investment in Australia, again mostly in relation to farmland has come from the conservative side of politics. What is not so surprising  is that most of the scepticism around foreigners buying up and investing in our country from the right side of politics has come from the National Party, the party traditionally of the farmers.

But what is very interesting about this and different from previous times is the willingness of the National Party’s major coalition partner, the Liberal Party to indulge the National’s in the debate with a proposal to examine more deeply, at a lower threshold, more of the proposed investments of companies from outside of Australia.

There’s been much mixed messaging from the Coalition, from National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce openly questioning the appropriateness of too much foreign investment at any opportunity, to Tony Abbott in China appearing to talk down to China about their investing in Australia whilst overseas as a guest in their country. Then just in the last week or so we had Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott both talking down the prospects of a change in foreign investment rules and scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Then today, flanked by Joe Hockey and Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced a discussion paper which flags a lowering of the purchase price of agricultural land and businesses at which the Foreign Investment Review Board will examine purchases.

The paper proposes that the FIRB look at purchases of agricultural land valued at over $15 million dollars and purchases by foreign companies of agriculture businesses valued at $53 million. This is way down from the current threshold at which injections of funds of $214 million and over are examined by the review board.

The change in policy has copped criticism from both sides of politics, with the ALP jumping at the chance to have a dig at the party of the free market for wanting to lower the scrutiny threshold.

But there’s also been criticism from their own side of politics, with not just conflicting words in the lead-up to today’s decision from Liberal and National Party politicians, but also from former Coalition MP Peter Reith who launched an attack on Twitter today. Mr Reith in comments today on social media said that the move was “crazy, stupid politics.”

Reith also said that the decision “is just a quick fix to satisfy the Nats, but which will come back to bite the national interest”. Peter Reith, in saying this is not far from the truth, perhaps even spot on with his comments.

The Nationals, in an incoming Coalition Government, which now appears a certainty, would have much higher influence within the joint party-room than they do at present in the current parliament. So this announcement today can easily be seen as a move to placate the National Party ahead of the next election. Tony Abbott and the Opposition leadership undoubtedly realise there will be much more competition of ideas and much more competitive and vigorous debate from two contradictory standpoints within the Coalition caucus.

But what about the decision itself and what Tony Abbott says it will mean for the future of foreign investment in Australia?

Well, for his part Mr Abbott says he wants to “make it absolutely crystal clear that the Coalition unambiguously supports foreign investment in Australia.” Further, he says “we need it, we want it, it is essential for our continued national prosperity.” He also said, “what’s very important though is that the public have confidence that the foreign investment we need and want is in Australia’s national interest.”

Well, it seems pretty ambiguous the level of support there is on one side of the Coalition for further foreign investment in Australia. The Liberal Party are undoubtedly all for it, with the current level of examination likely deemed more than sufficient, perhaps too much for a number in the Liberal and National Party room. But the National Party, particularly given the words of its loudest member, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is certainly far from sure about people from overseas investing in Australia.

The Coalition for its part says that the move is all about increased “scrutiny” of foreign investment decisions as they relate to agricultural land. But this standpoint, is actually to be taken as read and believed, has unintended consequences at best.

If it’s just about a ramped up level of scrutiny in foreign investment and every investment decision that applies to this lower threshold is given the tick of approval, then there’s just unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape for inevitable decisions.

But more likely, with the same “national interest” test applying, albeit at a lower monetary level, then smaller purchase decisions, much smaller ones in fact, will be denied if the national interest test requirements are not met.

Could this and other recent decisions and thought bubbles or proposals of a similar protectionist nature be a sign of things to come?

Positive Signs on NDIS from the Prime Minister as we Await the Budget

Today in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Hobart rallies were held as a show of support for the policy of a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Those who could converged on events in their capital cities with their friends, families and supporters of the cause to put a strong public face to the calls for action in the often neglected and always underfunded area of disability policy. Today the silent  minority, Australia’s largest minority in fact, found their collective voice.

The numbers were propped up in many cities by the presence of politicians of all political colours, with attendees at different rallies around the country including the Prime Minister, Minister for Disability Reform, the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, the Shadow Minister for Disabilities, Attorney-General and others.

It was a red sea of sorts at rally locations around the country. All in attendance were united in the fight to pursue the announced but not yet commenced policy development and implementation of the NDIS which the Productivity Commission has identified as a necessity for so many Australians who receive little or no support  and face barriers of inclusion because of their impairments.

Speculation surrounding the NDIS and the upcoming federal budget has been rife in recent weeks, with speculation mounting that there would be a significant announcement in the fiscal statement on the evening of May 8 on the future of the policy.

Today the Prime Minister announced, at the Sydney NDIS rally that the speculation was indeed true, though, giving us the detail of an earlier commencement of the scheme, but teased us with just how it would be funded, saying we would have to wait for the budget to be told how the quicker rollout would be achieved.

Prime Minister Gillard today announced that the Medicare-like scheme would commence in July next year in four sites around the country, helping approximately 10 000 people with significant and permanent disabilities seek the treatment and care that they need to be able to, in many cases, perform basic daily functions.

The Prime Minister also stated that those covered by the program would double to 20 000 by the following year after the initial implementation of the scheme.

Probably of most importance and central to the delivery of this policy promise, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the agency to oversee the NDIS. The new body to oversee the delivery of the necessary care and support programs will be called the Disability Transition Agency.

For their part, the Coalition came out in strong bipartisan support again for the NDIS, as they have reaffirmed in recent weeks save for comments from the Shadow Treasurer questioning how the federal government would be able to fund the scheme.

But nevertheless, Mr Hockey reiterated that it was an “extremely important” initiative and that it did have bipartisan support.

Truth be told, the scepticism will probably continue to exist until the budget and even the eventual delivery of the scheme. People with a disability who cannot help themselves and their carers have been let down time after time with piecemeal action in this big and complex policy area and even a reluctance to deal with the issue since de-institutionalisation.

But the budget should and will go a long way to placating many of those who are wary about how the promise will be funded and in any case, the query seems to be more about how it could be funded in what we have been warned to expect to be a tough budget with the government trying to return the budget to surplus.

What is important in the end is that the bipartisan nature of the NDIS continues and there are few real indications that it will not, except perhaps in terms of detailed negotiations on the scheme with the states.

In another 8 days the government will outline just how this essential policy will be funded and further detail on the rollout will be outlined and the Opposition have already locked in supporting any supply bills for the scheme.

The signs are good, but we wait for the detail and the costs.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The day is Thursday, the last day in a sitting week in the Parliament of Australia in Canberra and that usually means fireworks as parliamentary politics winds down for the week. Yesterday it was the unexpected topic of customs and their role in gun control which stole the show in Question Time in the House of Representatives. Today the proverbial battle lines should be much clearer with the Fair Work Australia investigation into the Victorian branch which has just concluded the sure focus of Coalition questions to the Gillard Government.

The Fair Work Australia Investigation into Victoria Number 1 branch has reached a conclusion and was reported yesterday and will see 3 former officials from the union seeking possibly pecuniary penalties as a result of their alleged actions in the Federal Court of Australia. The officials will not be subjected to criminal prosecution.

At the same time the Commonwealth Ombudsman has commenced an investigation into the actions of the General Manager of Fair Work Australia, Bernadette O’Neill over the 3 years of the investigation into the Health Services Union. The complaint seeks an imminent end to the investigations into the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, in addition to answers over the snail-like pace of the overall investigation into the union

The Coalition, likely led in the questioning by Tony Abbott and key front-bencher’s like Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop will continue to pursue the government over the issue focusing on the length of the investigation and seeking help to draw the remaining examinations to a close in the very near future.

The Opposition may follow up with a few questions following on from yesterday where it launched an attack on the Government over the importation of firearms and government cuts to customs.

The ALP Government will certainly continue to highlight the spending that is associated with its mining tax, the MRRT in particular, but also the carbon tax. The government is also likely to draw attention to the Coalition and the Greens blocking the big business tax cuts, albeit for different reasons with the Greens blocking it because big business in their mind shouldn’t receive cuts and the Coalition, because the cuts are associated with the mining tax which they say they will rescind.

There is a high likelihood that the tensions which have been exhibited all week, including yesterday when more than a handful of Coalition MPs were booted for an hour under Standing Order 94a will continue today. This would likely see a comparative number of MPs booted, again heavily expected to be from the Coalition side.

A motion to suspend Standing Orders is also a high possibility, likely in relation to the Fair Work Australia investigation into the HSU and Craig Thomson, a focus of Opposition questions for some time now.

All will be revealed and debated with nothing held back from 2pm AEDT

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