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Limping to the Election

Federal parliament returns tomorrow, bringing with it Question Time and all the shouty goodness we’ve grown to expect from our parliamentarians. And today the new Gillard Government ministers were sworn in by the Governor-General in Canberra. After that there was time for a meeting of Labor caucus which endorsed Senator Stephen Conroy as the Leader of the Government in the Senate and back Senator Penny Wong as his deputy. Finally, in that same caucus meeting there was time for a little bit of a warning from the Prime Minister.

All of today’s events, in their own separate ways, provide lessons. They should serve as a reminder that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about participating in the business of party politics.

Two senior Gillard Government MP’s announced their retirements at the weekend, sparking a reshuffle of the ministry late in the election cycle, close to seven months before the 2013 election. This is not an irregular event before an election, especially one where the incumbents are expected to lose. To have two go in the same day is particularly bad, especially when one is the Attorney-General.

Such a public exodus of ministers, especially when combined with MP’s, does the job of reinforcing to the public that the incumbents are on the way out. It also fuels the cynic’s, in many cases the realists’ fire. It looks like they are going to preserve the best possible parliamentary pension that they can.

It is strange that so close to an election that the Labor Party will likely lose, that the Prime Minister would choose to finally promote some of the more talented members of her caucus. Mark Dreyfus QC  has been made Attorney-General, in place of Nicola Roxon and is, in terms of legal prowess and standing, a much more robust choice for the role. Chris Bowen finally breaks free of the shackles of the immigration portfolio, while Mike Kelly takes on Defence Materiel.

What happens to the talent in the event of a stint in opposition? Surely some will want to return to their private lives before being granted the chance to govern again?

Let’s not forget that the Liberal Party will also see a number of MP’s making an exit at the election too. In fact, at this stage more Liberal member’s of parliament are leaving the Australian parliament. This is not however about electoral prospects, but rather, more liberal Liberals giving up representing an increasingly conservative Liberal Party.

The ALP caucus today erred on a further two fronts. First of all, endorsing Senator Conroy as Leader of the Government in the Senate is a poor decision, though of course it will not matter so much in terms of the election result. Senator Conroy is one of the most underwhelming parliamentarians and one of the poorest communicators. His new deputy, Senator Wong, would have made a much better choice. In fact almost anyone on the Labor side in the Senate bar Senator Ludwig, would have been a better option.

Finally this afternoon, the Labor Party was given a bit of a lecture from the PM where Ms Gillard warned against leaks. Leaks are inevitable, that’s politics. But to be outwardly warning your party against such unwise actions after a recent history of damaging tit-for-tat backgrounding is unfortunate. It also helps reinforce the argument that tensions within the government are making it unstable. How many warnings against harmful leaks need to go completely unheeded? If everyone in the party room does not yet know that the enemy is the opposition and not each other, then that is a real shame for the Australian Labor Party.

There needs to be far more discipline shown by Labor. They need to prove they are not in complete disarray and at the very least mitigate against the potential for a major loss of seats on September 14th.

After close to 6 years in office, the Labor Party should have finally learned to make the right decisions in terms of internal governance. Instead a still stewing split between the Gillard and Rudd supporters has helped hijack the chances of more sensible  and more strategically sound decision-making.

It’s too late for any of that to make a real difference now.

Budget Announcements and Half Announcements are Outdoing Possible Leaks

It is a regular feature of Australian politics that in the days and weeks leading up to the delivery of the budget by the Treasurer of the day budget leaks and rumour generally abound from the Australian political centre that is Canberra. This year however, announcements of budget items seem to have outdone the whisperings about possible spending allocations and cuts that followers of politics are used to leading up to that Tuesday in May when the Treasurer steps up to the despatch box to inform the country of their governments fiscal priorities.

There has been, for some days now a rumour abounding in Canberra and fuelled by the heightened interest of politicians in ensuring it does not occur, that the Gillard Government is set to announce cuts to the foreign aid budget.

This follows a promise by Labor, under former Prime Minister, now humble backbencher, Kevin Rudd that the Labor Government he once led, would increase foreign aid spending to a total of 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) by financial year 2015-16.

The belief around Canberra and the aid sector seems to be that the government are set to scrap their commitment to head toward spending on foreign aid of 0.5% of GNI.

The rumour mill surrounding this has almost exploded from being overworked and it would appear, with the strength of the political backlash to the simple report of this possible move that there has to be a real element of truth in it, without any real details having been leaked on the matter. So this item, almost alone in specific and credible rumours will be one to keep an ear out for confirmation of or otherwise from 7:30pm next Tuesday, May 8th.

But for this one real virulent rumour there have been more confirmations of and half announcements of both cuts and new spending to be allocated in what the Labor Government hopes will be a budget that returns to surplus in 2012-13.

Aged care is set to be overhauled in the 2012-13 budget to be delivered by Treasurer Wayne Swan on Tuesday. Back in April it was announced that the government would commence, on the 1st of July 2012 a ten year plan costing $3.7 billion to transform the way aged care is delivered, allowing more people to seek care in their own homes and making the cost of aged care homes easier to bear for the most financially vulnerable.

The Australian Government, via Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Monday at the NDIS rally in Sydney half announced that there would be an allocation of funds toward starting the National Disability Insurance Scheme a year earlier, commencing at 4 different launch sites from July next year.

But it was only a partial announcement from the PM, albeit a very welcome development for Australian’s with a serious and permanent disability and their families and carers. Prime Minister Gillard announced that next year these 4 launch sites would assist an initial 10,000 Australians with a disability and double the next year to provide help to another 10,000 people.

What this announcement lacked was detail, including most importantly, the estimated cost of the program rollout, but also what parts of Australia would be given the opportunity to be covered by the Medicare-like framework. The PM said we must wait until the budget for the details, a real tease, if not a hope building one in this important area of government policy.

In a budget where the expectations were for savage spending cuts, a new spending initiative is a very interesting element in the budgetary discussion which is ramping up five days from its announcement.

Today too, the government have announced $214 million toward the planning of 12 new submarines to replace the Collins Class fleet which had their troubles, particularly in the initial stages of development and operation.

Again though, for these not insignificant spending allocations, the Labor Party have also flagged ahead of May 8, areas where they will seek to slash or defer public spending.

The government today also announced in the area of defence spending that there will be both cuts and the deferral of spending in the area of purchasing defence materiel.

It was announced today that the planned requisition of self-propelled artillery will be scrapped altogether and this alone would save the budget bottom line a total of $250 million dollars.

The trouble-plagued delivery of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will be delayed two years from the previously expected date of receipt, moving our acquisition of this defence capability into line with that of the US. In doing this $1.6 billion will be saved from the budget from this measure by itself.

In announcing the cuts to defence spending, both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith assured Australia that defence cuts would not impinge on or include cuts to spending related to our operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas.

The leaks and rumour mill have been almost non-existent over the budget-planning period and look set to remain minimal with only three full working days left before the final announcement of spending priorities occurs in Canberra. This could be put down to the poll woes that have faced the government for a prolonged period of time, trying to get some messages out early to cloud what is supposed to be a difficult budget, according to the warnings repeatedly given, no matter how unbelievable.

Nevertheless it has been an interesting exercise to observe the seemingly comparative lack of rumours as we hurtle toward the 2012-13 budget.

Another Example of Getting Things Done Wrong

The Prime Minister often remarks, particularly in the parliament that her Labor Government are “getting things done” and the number of bills passed obviously does bear out this argument, although this does equal more regulation and “red tape” for business and the individual. It can also, by implication mean that policies and programs are being rushed and established processes not being followed correctly as has been alleged on a number of times over the period of both the Rudd and Gillard Government’s.

This argument is also borne out in the case of the Australia Network tender process which was deeply flawed, rushed, changed and awarded to the ABC in perpetuity despite recommendations to the contrary.

Today the Auditor-General released a report into the botched tender process which does not make for good reading for a government that is trying to gain a foothold to climb the gap that exists in the polls just under 18 months out from the next federal election.

The tender for the Australia Network was for a $223 million contract to broadcast news content overseas, an important form of what is termed “soft diplomacy”- in short, displaying through various media the Australian culture, values and policies which we think will make our nation an attractive place to continue to visit and conduct business with.

Initially, the process was under the purview of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, with departmental recommendations saying the government could extend the ABC contract or put the contract out to tender, with the department arguing to keep the contract with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs subsequently decided that the contract should be put to tender, with the winner of the contract granted a long contract to provide the news service.

The audit found that before the tender was awarded, that both the Prime Minister’s office and that of the Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy were aware of which party would win the tender.

Then the weirdness escalated- the government began seeking advice as to whether the final nod of approval could be transferred to the Communications Minister from the DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson and it was.

The tender then underwent significant changes and the leaks began in earnest. These leaks revealed that twice the tender board recommended Sky News be awarded the contract. They were not.

The Government walked away from the tender process after the leaks were reported in the press and then proceeded to award the contract permanently to the ABC which had previously been the broadcaster of the Australia Network.

This flawed process could legitimately be seen as both a symptom of a government in trouble politically and electorally, floundering in the polls and trying to rush to “get things done” and also as a result of a toxic relationship between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, whose department should have had the final say on the award of the sizeable contract.

As a result, the government have had to pay compensation for a failure in managing a process and even managing internal relationships between MPs who should be seeking to achieve the same ends regardless of conflicts in personality. Not only that, but the ALP Government have added another failed process to the list of mistakes only adding to the poor perceptions of Prime Minister Gillard and her MP’s.

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