Posts tagged ‘Australian politics’

Budget facepalmer

The medieval theatre of the set-piece nonsense of lock-ups, Treasurer speeches and Opposition replies are over and now it’s down to the horsetrading to get the budget through. Until June 30, the balance of power in that unrepresentative swill of a Senate remains stubbornly with the Labor and Green alliance. The much vaunted elimination of the carbon and mining taxes still hasn’t happened and Labor-Green can afford the budget similar treatment, by simply echoing the Abbottesque-howl of “broken promises” and reject every negotiation between now and the end of June.

But if the budget remains in limbo on July 1, then the numbers in the Senate will change. Labor-Green will lose the balance of power and the government can look to six of the 10 independents and minor party seats to get their budget – and their broader agenda – through. The inconsistently brilliant operator Clive Palmer oscillates between acting magnificently contemptuous – including finding parliamentary theatre so dull that it sends him to sleep – and then revealing his hand with his willingness to ditch carbon pricing as well as demand retrospective payments for previous carbon taxing expenditure.

Sitting alone in the green chamber, Palmer can hold the stage but it is in the Upper House where his strength will be revealed when three Palmer senators and his patsy Ricky Muir will dance to his tunes. Perhaps this is what the current government is betting on as it launches its strange ‘war on everything’ budget. Of course, it is not war on everything, war itself is one of the few budget winners. But attacking such normally supportive vested interest groups such as pensioners, large families and motorists is expensive political capital being expended in the first year of government.

Fiscal prudence is a good thing, but to say Australia is living beyond its means is meaningless until we fully examine what those means are. Joe Hockey’s budget presumes a crisis but neither he nor Abbott can successfully say why this is so. Shorten exposed that with his facts and figures about what state Labor left the economy in September. But again it is Palmer who goes straight to the point and labels the emergency a fraud.

Where I draw a point of difference with Palmer, is that there is a genuine emergency. If say, the entire budget was put at the mercy of say, solving the problems of climate change, then there a Prime Minister would have a good case to sell to the nation. Such a notion still lies far outside Australia’s political Overton Window, the view vigorously policed by a media more willing to ridicule than to assist, and a host of Murdoch apparatchiks all too willing to impress the boss.

It is Murdoch’s flagship that wants to destroy the Greens at the ballot box. It is his journalists that are nitpicking Palmer’s career. It is his tabloids that built up Rudd to smash Gillard and then Abbott to smash Rudd. What is clear from all this is that we should be destroying Murdoch at the ballot boxes and launching campaigns NOT to vote for whoever they are recommending. What’s good for Murdoch, is only good for Murdoch.

The man he annointed, Tony Abbott, is now a rabbit in the spotlight, agonising over his every word between a mess of ums and ahs. I heard him described last week as first postmodernist PM (surely that was Kevin Rudd?) as someone who swaps ideologies and convictions at whim. It is hard to know what he believes in apart from three word slogans and being a weathervane. It is hard to imagine what influence he has in a heavyweight party room full of masculine ideologues other than getting the occasional “captain’s pick”. Quaint cricketing analogies worked for John Howard because he loved cricket. Abbott on the other hand sounds like a dill when he says it. And his “picks” like PPL, which on face value is a good thing, end up ditched hated by the left as inferior to childcare and by the right as too expensive. No wonder it barely featured in the budget that was a running sore of bleeding cuts.

The deficit was the excuse, but making government smaller is always an avowed aim of the Liberal Party. Apart from the innate belief that private sector will do everything better (excepting police and defence forces) and the downsizing of pesky organisations partial to inconvenient truths, they also want to reach into Menzies’ playbook to create a nation of “lifters” not “leaners”, a variant on the similarly catchy “hand up” not “hand out” philosophy. Despite the 1950s language, this is no bad thing of itself. In our most disadvantaged community, the Indigenous community, there are many voices saying that is precisely what they need. People like Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are saying end the ‘sitdown money’ and instead give the communities the means to look after themselves.

This argument appealing to personal dignity, also works at the wider level where people who are not contributing to the economy should be encouraged to do so. The problem is that Hockey doesn’t leave those on the bottom with any dignity at all. His approach, is all stick and not a skerrick of carrot. The leaners are not given anything to lift. The government knows that motivating people by taking away their allowances rarely works, which is why it won’t bring in many new income-related taxes. But while it understands that wealth creation by the well-to-do needs a bit of leeway, it does not offer the same privileges to the less well off.

No one can honestly say how things will pan out when Palmer becomes kingmaker. The ultimate sanction of a double dissolution would likely only leave him in an even stronger position. The government may hope he is generally on their page as a former LNP member with similar economic outlooks. But as the actions of the similar disposed Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott showed, there can be much cantankerousness as well as honour and wisdom in independence. There will also be much bluffing to come. But Palmer is holding four aces and willing to gamble them to gain an even better hand.

May 19, 2014 at 3:53 pm Leave a comment

Donnelly applies the whitener to Australian history

A few years back there was an ad campaign based on people’s ignorance of Australian history. According to the ad, everyone knew George Washington was the first US president but no one could name Australia’s First Prime Minister. The ad itself ensured that the name of Edmund Barton, if not his legacy, was at least temporarily remembered.

What the ad was trying to do was to encourage more interest in Australian history, but therein lies a problem and a likely clue as to why no-one knew his name in the first place –  it is a contested space and full of cobwebs many want to remain undisturbed. One of Barton’s first acts as Prime Minister was to introduce the White Australia Policy telling the country’s parliament in 1901 that Melanesian Kanakas were inferior to Europeans and they (the white parliamentarians) were guarding the last part of the world where ‘the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher civilisation’.  Barton’s point of view was shared by most white Australians in 1901, but these days is more than a bit inconvenient for anyone wishing to laud the positives of Australia’s past.

This is Kevin Donnelly’s problem when he speaks about the Australian education system. The curriculum should be impartial and disinterested, he said, and should be based on the search for wisdom, understanding and the truth. This is motherhood stuff and a hint of what he is really complaining about comes when he bemoans the lack of focus on western civilisation and Judeo-Christian teaching in Australian history.  In some respects, Donnelly’s complaint is codswallop, as religion and western civilisation pervade all aspects of our educational system. But given his focus on Australian history and his concern those values are being “airbrushed” from the education system, Donnelly might not like it, if the truth was really told.

How, for instance, would you apply western civilisation and Judeo-Christian values to the question of why the Europeans came to Australia in the first place, uninvited and with a self-given mandate to take over?  How much was western civilisation and Christian values at fault when those that did come to Australia felt superior to those that lived here before, unwilling or unable to recognise Aboriginal culture when they didn’t see cities, councils, cathedrals or crops? How might civilisation and culture explain why the Europeans destroyed what went before, treating Indigenous people like either vermin to be killed off, animals to be tamed,  or children to be educated in white ways?  Or why those that came in the name of religion at missionaries and churches treated natives like slaves and their children like souls to be bartered off to the highest bidder?

Why was it a Barton-led nation at Federation determined Australia would be for whites only, preferably British, and the Aboriginals were no better than flora and fauna?  Would that religion explain our nation’s fetish for war – as long as they weren’t ones that took place on native soil? Would the “Judeo” bit explain Australian anti-semitism between the wars and the country’s refusal to take in refugees from Nazi Germany? And why did the various branches of the “Christian” bit hate each other so much and leave a legacy of bitterness and bigotry that spanned generations?

Maybe Donnelly might tell us which aspect of western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage explains why in 2014 we are such a pack of bastards when it comes to letting others into the country and then washing our dirty immigration laundry in other people’s sinks. Never mind complaining about the new $8000 media visa into Nauru, why not examine the circumstances by how we permit this vile charade to happen?

Maybe too, Donnelly might have a quiet word with the marketing managers at Aldi and tell them why t-shirts with “Australia Est 1788” mixing snappy corporate branding with unfunny, inaccurate history is not such a good idea.

But I suspect Donnelly will do none of those things, being more keen to wallow in the reflected glory of western civilisation and religion celebrated than explore the murky shadows of their massive blind spots. The common point in all these questions is the selectiveness of what we choose to remember. Donnelly wants us to ignore the elements that make us feel uncomfortable and bask in those that make us feel good.  His views are a proxy for those who want to paint a clean veneer of white-picket fence philosophy onto the messy and complex canvas of modern Australia.

Kevin Donnelly is doing the donkey work for more powerful actors. This pandering to Anzacs and Gallipoli is leftover secret men’s business from the days of the Howard government with many of the same players in the same positions of power to finish off the agenda. This is not education, this is cultural indoctrination.

January 13, 2014 at 1:27 pm Leave a comment

Forget the Preamble, what Australia needs is a Treaty

The new Coalition Government has been making noises on a referendum to change the constitution to recognise First Australians. The wording of the change has yet to be announced but Prime Minister Tony Abbott is saying the change would “complete our constitution rather than change it.” What exactly Abbott means by completion rather than change is not clear from the article but I assume it means the change will have purely ornamental rather than legal force. According to his deputy Julie Bishop, the government wants to have a “deep discussion” with the Australian people before agreeing to the wording but here’s a free tip from me if the changes are purely for show: Forget it.

I say forget it, not because Australian  constitutional referendums have a habit of failing, but because there are genuine things constitutional change could do to improve the situation of First Australians. The most profound change would be to turn the preamble into a Treaty, common enough in other settler countries, but the first ever in 225 years of European occupation of Australia.  Unlike a flowery but pointless preamble, a treaty would genuinely acknowledge past failures and injustices and show sincere desire for a better future and more just relationship.

A Treaty is a political document between sovereign people and it was this difficulty that saw John Howard reject the idea as far back as 1988 as an absurd proposition that “a nation should make a treaty with some of its own citizens.”  Yet the idea is far from absurd to the many Indigenous people who see this as the first step in the recognition of the wars and dispossession of their country and the genocide that followed.  It was Howard’s assimilatory ideas in the face of historical evidence that were blatantly contradictory and hence absurd. Howard’s culture of forgetting was shared by his later immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock who told ABC in October 1998 there couldn’t be a treaty because there never had been a war in this country.

Ruddock’s idea of war was flawed as was his view of a Treaty.  A Treaty (also known by its Yolgnu name Makarrata meaning thigh) was long established as an appropriate way by which whites could acknowledge Aboriginal equality and prior ownership. In 1979 an Aboriginal treaty committee was formed by prominent whites almost all came from political and intellectual left. Then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser offered to discuss treaty conditions with Aborigines while 8 years later his successor Bob Hawke spoke of ‘a compact of understanding’.  But this whitefella idea of a treaty was rejected by the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils because of insufficient consultation with Aborigines, doubts of its significance and consequences and because it would legalise occupation and use of sovereign Aboriginal lands by the Australian settler state. The Aboriginal Sovereign Treaty campaign in 1988 called for sovereign recognition and treaty. It was enshrined in the Barunga Statement presented to Hawke.

Barunga called for a treaty, a national system of land rights, compensation for land loss, end to discrimination, Aboriginal self-determination and protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Hawke promised a treaty but it faded from agenda, replaced by land rights issues in the 1990s. As Prime Minister in the end of that decade John Howard fought land rights and firmly rejected treaty recommendation in favour of what he called ‘practical reconciliation‘.  There was no reason the two couldn’t co-exist and indeed there is a view that practical reconciliation is impossible without a treaty framework. True or not, Australia has never sat at the table and negotiated the basic terms of peaceful coexistence between the first peoples of this continent and those who came later. It is no coincidence, Australia’s first peoples typically find themselves on the lowest rung of our society and largely locked out of the wealth of a very affluent country.

A Treaty that might address these failings has mutual obligations. For the Government it would mean responsibility to long-term funding and administrative support for education and health. For the Indigenous community it would mean taking the primary responsibility for child protection, community justice and substance abuse. There are three key elements to a treaty: a) a starting point of acknowledgement b) a process of negotiation and c) outcomes in the form of rights, obligations and opportunities. The hardest part will be part c, working out what outcomes would be suitable for a Treaty.   A Treaty must be on the reasonable basis that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have been injured and harmed throughout the colonisation process and just recompense is owed.  This means giving away power or land or some sovereignty – none of which will be easy. It might mean governments stop fighting land claims or guaranteeing a number of Indigenous seats in parliament or returning Aboriginal reserves or other Crown land to original owners. There will be resistance to some or all of these moves. But if they are not addressed, we will simply be coping by the act of forgetting and moving on a an aged-old moral problem to the next generation to grapple with. Without a Treaty, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander people have difficulty advancing claims of title, compensation and sovereignty.

But a Treaty is not just an important opportunity for blackfellas. It is also important to non-Indigenous people to allow them to come to grips with a challenging issue of great difficulty and complexity. That is how they relate to the Indigenous peoples of the Australian continent. Unlike a preamble which goes nowhere, a Treaty would help bridge the gulf, mutual understanding, better public policy, better use of money.  A Treaty would eventually be a source of pride, like Waitangi is to modern New Zealand. As a way of righting grievous wrongs, it can also help in building a better nation, more secure in its identity, its symbols and its values.  A Preamble with no legal heft behind it would achieve none of those things.

January 3, 2014 at 11:52 am 9 comments

Slowly recovering from Kevin Rudd

Photo credit: Andrew Meares

Photo credit: Andrew Meares

Little wonder that Tony Abbott should lead the plaudits for the retiring Kevin Rudd, as few helped Abbott to the Prime Ministership as much as his predecessor.

Rudd’s three year destablisation of the former Gillard Government eventually succeeded in ousting her from the leadership. But the damage done in the process had too greatly tarnished Labor in the public mind and the seemingly unelectable Abbott easily triumphed in September. In that election Rudd’s supporters bragged that their man had ‘saved the furniture‘ but it was his vandalism that left Labor’s tables and chairs in such a precarious place in the first place. Gillard never got the credit for her work and in tandem with Abbott and Rupert Murdoch, Rudd worked to destroy her legacy.

Rudd was always a long-term planner when it came to self interest. From the moment he was elected to parliament in 1998, he assiduously courted the media, contacting opinion editors to get his work published and going over their heads when they refused. He gained influence of a different sort when he tandem-teamed with Joe Hockey on the Seven Sunrise program for several years. He considered running as leader against Latham in 2004, defeated Kim Beazley two years later and then oversaw Howard’s End in 2007. As Prime Minister his approval ratings soared with big ticket statements such as the Apology adding to his lustre while he and Wayne Swan oversaw Australia’s interventionist response to the GFC which saved Australia from recession.

But Rudd seemed to have too many ideas that went nowhere. He started to unravel in December 2009 after he failed to bring home a climate change agreement in Copenhagen. This was the same month the domestic political consensus on climate change unravelled under new Opposition leader Tony Abbott and his right wing supporters. As Rudd flagged in the polls, word got out this was a prime minister who fretted over irrelevancies while the tumbleweeds gathered over the big decisions. Rudd was the consummate media performer – it was mastery over the airwaves that got him his huge public profile in the first place – but as Prime Minister he worked the entire government’s decision-making process into the media cycle. As Kerry-Anne Walsh said in The Stalking of Julia Gillard, Rudd took didn’t have what it took to lead a political party: “A steely and steady personality, the ability to be calm under great pressure and under the weight of extreme criticism, and consistently clear thinking.”

Most of these deficiencies were known to party colleagues from the time he ran against Kim Beazley in 2006. Yet those same colleagues knew Rudd was more popular than Beazley and backed him anyway. But by mid-2010 that popularity had finally waned and Rudd was cut loose. If anyone thought Rudd would gently stand aside and quit, they were quickly mistaken. Within weeks of his overthrow, journalists were printing exclusive inside stories of Gillard’s “bastardry”. In the lead-up the 2010 election, Gillard’s hopes of clinging to victory were undermined by a series of devastating questions from Laurie Oakes that showed intimate knowledge of what happened on the night Rudd was deposed.

In the end Gillard retained the Prime Ministership by dint of her negotiation skills with former Nationals Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Together they carved out an agreement that would ensure a minority government would last the full three years. Minority governments are common in Europe but in Australia they were considered a recipe for chaos and the Opposition aided by a friendly press continually pointed this out, despite the 43rd parliament’s good record on passing legislation. Rudd, meanwhile was never far from the action, and always ready to thrust himself back in the limelight whenever the opportunity offered itself – usually at the worst possible time for Gillard.

Early in the term, Gillard sealed her fate by agreeing to Green and Independent demands to put a fixed price on carbon. It was Abbott who declared the fixed price a tax and thus hung Gillard on her pre-election statement there would be no carbon tax. Less well remembered was the second half of that sentence: “..but let me be clear, I will be putting a price on carbon and I will move to an emission trading scheme.” It didn’t matter – from that moment shock jock Alan Jones and others could get away with calling Gillard “Juliar”. By the time of the first anniversary of Rudd’s defeat, the knives were out, both inside and outside parliament. Newspapers feverishly reported “exclusive” polls in marginal seats that showed voters were clamouring for Rudd’s return. At the last moment Rudd and wife Therese Rein cancelled what the media called an Assassination Party “for K’s former and current staff to say thank you” as Rein tweeted.

While Gillard passed the carbon pricing package with help of the Greens, Rudd stole the limelight once more with an announcement he was having heart surgery. As Walsh said Rudd knew the key to media success was “a consistent presence combined with a dash of theatre”.  So whether it was a blow-by-blow account of his ticker troubles or designing a blend of tea for a competition, Rudd would always pop up reminding people of what they were missing. The media lapped it up and ran it in tandem with Gillard’s disaster du jour and op eds that blared “Rudd was Labor’s last chance”. Yet even as Labor slipped in the polls, the caucus remained firmly behind Gillard. Unlike Rudd, she was consultative and dependable, albeit apparently unelectable.

Rudd’s supporters – Alan Griffin and Mark Bishop – denounced the people that brought Gillard to power as ‘faceless men’ without a hint of irony that Rudd’s own shadowy undermining campaign depends on anonymity and sourceless quotes to favourites in the media. Rudd then relied on the momentum they created in the media to finally overwhelm his opponent (ie Gillard, not Abbott).  Much was made of the likely slaughter for the ALP in Queensland in the 2013 election with pundits predicting only Rudd would survive.  Yet Rudd’s feverish campaigning in the 2012 state election for Anna Bligh had little or no effect on the election – analysts ignored this, preferring to concentrate on what they thought Bligh’s annihilation would mean for Gillard. Rudd meanwhile “zipped” around, secure in his public popularity and posing for public selfies with adoring fans.

On February 18, 2012 a strange video popped up on Youtube entitled Kevin Rudd is a happy little Vegemite. It is the first public glimpse of a Rudd many insiders knew, foul-mouthed, explosive temper and quick to blame. A few days later, he resigned as foreign minister citing attacks by colleagues and declaring he had lost the support of Gillard. With a leadership fight out in the open, Gillard calls in the heavy artillery. In an extraordinary series of public attacks, minister after minister denounced Rudd’s tactics. Wayne Swan said they were sick of Rudd “driving the vote down by sabotaging policy announcements and undermining our substantial economic successes.”

Gillard called for a ballot and Rudd delayed, knowing he did not have the numbers. The media helped again, saying that it might be a two-phase ballot with defeat followed by victory six months later a la Paul Keating in 1991. Gillard eventually won the ballot easily 71-31. Rudd retired to the back bench but the cameras followed him as he lapped up the attention. The “clear air” Gillard’s team craved never came. The media carving remained relentless and the Chinese whispers only served to add to the pollution. History repeated itself as farce in March 2013 when Simon Crean fell on his own sword in an attempt to coax Rudd out for another challenge. Rudd counted the numbers and ducked the challenge rather than lose to Gillard again. But still the sideshow went on, Rudd pumped his persona up and Labor’s poll numbers went down. In June, staring defeat in the face, Bill Shorten blinked and handed Rudd back the leadership.

There was an instant coffee effect with polls briefly returning to 50-50. But Rudd was the souffle that tried to rise twice. Murdoch’s empire was just as ruthless to him as they were to Gillard and as soon as he called the election, they openly called on the electorate to “kick this mob out“. Labor were a rabble, but it was as much Rudd’s doing as any. As Walsh wrote, Rudd “always had to be at the chaotic centre of attention, and whose needs and ambitions inevitably took priority over the interests of the government and the Labor Party, or his loyalty to colleague.” He had no workable strategy, which is why once returned, he was defeated by the most underscrutinised Opposition in Australian political history. As ever with Kevin Rudd, the collateral damage was immense, leaving Labor a broken party.  More importantly he badly failed the public. His failure to implement the “great moral challenge of our generation” leaves the next generation blaming Rudd’s megalomania as much as Abbott’s foolish policies for Australia’s climate change intransigence.

November 15, 2013 at 12:32 pm 1 comment

Lynton Crosby’s clients are trouble for his political paymasters

The British Tories Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby is coming increasingly under the spotlight due to potential conflicts of interest due to his lobbying firm Crosby/Textor.  Prime Minister David Cameron has been forced to defend Crosby over his links to the tobacco industry in the wake of the Government’s decision to delay a decision on plain packaging; a decision Cameron denies has anything to do with Crosby. Meanwhile environmentalists have homed in on Crosby/Textor’s representation of Australian oil and gas lobby group APPEA in a bid to encourage more shale gas development in Britain.

How much of this is due to Crosby/Textor lobbying is a moot point and probably oversold, but it is no doubt it has been a major force in Australian, and increasingly British politics. Crosby and his partner Mark Textor were instrumental in John Howard’s four election wins and this is not the first time their activities have prompted calls of conflict of interest.   Among their Australian clients are Qantas and as Howard headed into the election year of 2007, Crosby/Textor aggressively campaigned for an $11b takeover of Qantas by Airline Partners Australia.  Company spokesman John Kent brushed off media concerns by saying “we never talk to anyone about anything about clients” but it was their insider status that APA wanted when they hire them to be their lobbyists.

Lobbying is at the heart of Crosby/Textor’s business which has been closely associated with the conservative side of politics since it started in 2003. According to their own blurb Crosby/Textor offers “an unmatched pedigree combining comprehensive experience in market research, strategic communications and campaign execution”.  Today Mark Textor leads the Sydney operation while Lynton Crosby runs the London offshoot Crosby Textor Fullbrook.

Lynton Crosby rose through the ranks of the Liberal Party and became Federal Director in 1997. John Howard appointed Crosby as campaign director for his second victory in 1998. Crosby is known for his mastery of dog whistle politics and was responsible for the 2001 wedge campaign which promoted fear and hatred of refugees in the wake of the Tampa crisis.  His ruthless targeting of key marginal constituencies with highly localised campaigning was more responsible than most for keeping Howard prime minister for 11 years.

Mark Textor cut his teeth in his native Northern Territory when he was part of the successful Country-Liberal Party’s election campaign committee in 1994. Buoyed by the success of this campaign, he went on to mastermind the strategy behind the breakthrough 1996 Liberal federal victory. He went on to be principal Liberal pollster for the next three elections.

Textor and Crosby’s firm had immediate success in 2004 when they ran the Liberal federal re-election campaign. In 2005 the Crosby/Textor machine was behind another Howard election campaign, this time Michael Howard leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. Crosby was criticised for bringing Australian divisive tactics to the British campaign such as immigration, asylum seekers, gypsies, law and order and abortion. Although Howard lost, blemishing Crosby-Textor’s perfect record, the previously hapless Tories gained 36 seats to put them within reach of Government for the next election.

After John Howard lost to Rudd in Australia, Crosby returned to British politics for the May 2008 London Mayoral Campaign. He masterminded the campaign that saw Conservative candidate Boris Johnson beat the Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone. Last year he repeated this success as Campaign Director for Boris Johnson for a second term in “Back Boris 2012” despite a large nationwide swing against the Tories in the British council elections.

It was this success that brought him to the doorstep of David Cameron in November last year.  The hope among supporters, as expressed by Iain Dale was that Crosby would bring a sense of direction and strategy in a year that was “a complete shambles for the Conservative party.” Opponents meanwhile saw it as a shift to the right and a sign that Cameron’s supposedly more caring image was a sham to be discarded.

Whichever attitude is right, it is lobbying that is at the centre of Crosby’s (and Cameron’s) issues today.  When the Queen opened parliament in May, it was the shelving of crackdowns on tobacco and alcohol that the media picked up on. As well as Crosby’s links to tobacco, the Mirror noted Crosby/Textor had the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia listed as a client.  While the paper couldn’t say whether UK offshoot represented any drinks firms, it was mud they could legitimately throw. Whether it will stick remains to be seen.

July 16, 2013 at 9:31 pm Leave a comment

Australian Labor and the Barcaldine tree of knowledge

The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is now a national monument

The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is now a national monument

It seemed to appropriate for me to be driving through Blackall and Barcaldine a day after Kevin Rudd’s return as Prime Minister. Rudd’s resurrection seems to confirm the death of difference between the two major parties in Australia. But there was a time when Labor really was a labour party and Blackall and Barcaldine are crucial to that story. The two western Queensland towns showed it wasn’t just the Australian economy that rode on the sheep’s back, so did the trade union movement.

Nowadays it seems absurd to think conservative and remote rural Queensland might be in any way key to the development of the labour politics. Blackall and Barcaldine have populations of no more than a couple of thousand each, are a thousand kilometres from the state capital Brisbane and are part of an electorate that is National Party (now Liberal National Party) heartland with two long-term members.  Federally Bruce Scott holds the second safest seat in the country in Maranoa since 1990 while the state member for Gregory Vaughn Johnson has been there a year longer and holds a two party-preferred margin of 75-25.

Yet a clue it wasn’t always this way is in the history of the Gregory electorate. The Country/Nationals only grabbed the seat after the long-term Queensland Labor government imploded in 1957. Before that it had been a Labor stronghold since 1899. That was the year trade unionist William Hamilton took the seat. Hamilton was a miner and a shearer who found himself in the shearing sheds at Clermont in central Queensland in 1891.

Australia was going into its worst ever depression that year due to a global financial crisis. A year earlier, the collapse of Baring’s finance house in London caused overseas investment to collapse in Australia which in turn led to large-scale unemployment as public works programs were scaled back.  There was a run on overextended banks and building societies several of which collapsed while in rural areas, the problem was worsened by a fall in the price of wool.

Shearing was one of the most demanding occupations of the era and one of the poorest paid. The Australian Shearers Union was spreading its influence and in 1890 prohibited its members from working at non-union sheds.  In 1890 Blackall’s gun shearer Jackie Howe (who would two years later break the world record for numbers of sheep shorn in one day) was instrumental in merging the local union with the Queensland union.  Nearby Barcaldine was the focus of the trouble as was then the terminus for the western railway line.  Howe brought a Blackall contingent up to Barcaldine in 1891 for one of the world’s earliest May Day rallies commemorating the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Affair.

By then pastoralists had struck back with anti-union contracts and the Australian Shearers Union called a national strike.  It was the first serious confrontation between capital and labour in Australia.   Shearers struck camp at the edge of town and plotted a course of action they called ‘moral suasion’ but to their opponents it was intimidation. The shearers burnt grass, set fire to the woolsheds and attacked scab labourers.  After four months of feuding, the state called in the army to break up the strike. The leaders were tried for conspiracy, rioting and sedition and sent to St Helena prison in Moreton Bay for three years.

While the strike was unsuccessful, it led to calls for a new political party. Legend has they gathered under a well-known ghost gum called the Tree of Knowledge outside Barcaldine railway station. Historians Peter and Sheila Forrest debunked that theory in their book Bush Battleground who said it was only the scene of angry confrontations as scab labourers arrived by train. The party was more likely to be developed in the camp sites but it was the tree that grabbed the mythology.

Myth or not, the party quickly after the leaders of the strike emerged from prison. One of those was William Hamilton who returned to western Queensland to take Gregory in 1899. In December that year, Queensland Governor Samuel Griffith invited Labor leader Anderson Dawson to take office, becoming the first Labor government in the world. It lasted just six days, but it showed Labor had arrived.

Several more Labor governments followed with Blackall prominent in the strongest of them. By 1909 shearer Jackie Howe was president of the local labour association and friends with a solicitor named Thomas Joseph Ryan who dealt with union cases in the western region.  He invited Ryan to stand for the local seat of Barcoo which he won that year. By 1915, he was Premier of Queensland with a large majority to institute sweeping change. His was the first Labor government to rule in Australia without the need for a coalition. He nationalised many industries and allowed women to stand for parliament. His opposition to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s conscription campaign enraged Hughes and made Ryan a national figure.  Elected to federal parliament in 1919, he was touted as a future leader but died of pneumonia in 1921.

The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is also now dead, though its cause is less clear. It was mysteriously poisoned (the Forrests think it was done accidentally by railway workers) and died in 2006. It is tempting to draw a comparison with the rise to power as Labor leader of Kevin Rudd, also in 2006. But Labor’s industrial values had long since died before then. From the time the Hawke-Keating Government floated the dollar and removed tariffs in the mid-1980s, Labor proved it was no longer a party of labour, but of capital with a social democratic veneer. The veneer was disguised by the credibility of the towering egos of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.  But by the 21st century they were gone and like the tree in Barcaldine, Labor survives now only by the decreasing force of its own mythmaking.

June 28, 2013 at 10:00 pm 2 comments

Fifty-five pieces of legislation

THE thing politics has over policy is that it is a sport.  When The Age tried to call this out in its editorial asking for the head of Julia Gillard, it was roundly condemned for not setting the agenda of policy themselves instead of focussing on palace politics. But would The Age have sold as many copies if it focussed too much on the what when the who is infinitely more interesting?

We all profess to be tired of the Gillard-Rudd business but you can be sure the hashtag spill would go ballistic if and when the long drawn-out battle actually ever takes place.  Everyone would want to know the result.  The Age know the personal drama is infinitely more interesting than the 55 or so pieces of legislation yet to pass in the final week of the 43rd parliament of Australia.

But here where I don’t have to pander to profit or personal drama, I can take the time to look at all 55 remaining bills, in alphabetical order.  They cover a full gamut of legislative issues such as environment, the world economy, employment, education, tax reform and agriculture.

You may or may not find these interesting reading and they are mostly ignored by the media.

But this is what parliament is for: to change and enact law. Each of the 55 bills is important to someone or something; a truth the independent members of parliament (who raised most of them) know all too well. I’m hoping you’ll feel a little more informed if you read them; I did for writing them down.

1. African development bank Bill 2013 

Enables Australia to become a member of the African Development Bank Group by authorising the payments required to subscribe to membership shares in the African Development Bank and meet membership and ongoing subscriptions to the African Development Fund.

According to Bernie Ripoll (Lab) the bank promotes sustainable economic growth to reduce poverty in Africa. The bank currently has 78 member countries, comprising 54 African and 24 non-African countries. In 2011, the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness recommended that Australia join the group as it would represent value for money, and be a high-level indication of Australia’s commitment to development in Africa.

2. Australian Jobs Bill 2013 

The far-reaching bill would require private and public projects of half a billion dollars or more to develop an Australian Industry Participation plan. A new quango, the Australian Industry Participation Authority would be set up to administer and monitor compliance of the plan reporting back to parliament. In the first debate, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly  saw an obvious problem: The measure would see government officers embedded in business, “just like it used to be in the Soviet Union”.

The planning regime itself will cost $1 billion dollars to implement, so I wonder if it will be subject to an Australian Industry Participation plan if it passes.

3 Australian Ownership Bill 2013

This Katterbill wants to limit foreign investment in Australian agribusiness and agricultural land. It would do this requiring the Foreign Investment Review Board to take “the national interest” (a contested concept if ever there was one) into account in foreign investment and also prevent non-Australians from owing half or more of an agribusiness or land more than four hectares.

4 Aviation Laws Amendment (Australian Ownership and Operation) Bill 2013

Another Katterbill to amend air acts to ensure Australian international and domestic air services are at least 51% Australian owned and operated, do at least 80% maintenance in Australia and use only Aussie crews.

5.  Broadcasting Services Amendment (Advertising for Sports Betting) Bill 2013 [No. 2]

Greens bill to amend the 1992 broadcasting act to prohibit ads on odds, restrict betting ads to after 9pm, and prohibit “non-ad ads” and freeze betting ads before sports broadcasts. Given the 1992 act is ludicrously pre-Internet, this seems papering over some enormous cracks.

6. Competition and Consumer Amendment (Australian Food Labelling) Bill 2012

This one from the Greens wants to amend the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to: specify country of origin on food with labelling based on the weight of the ingredients.

7.  Competition and Consumer Amendment (Strengthening Rules About Misuse of Market Power) Bill 2013 is an adjunct of 6 to strengthen the act to protect people in complicated supply chains eg where a $1 litre of milk to the customer is a net cost to the producer.

8. Customs Amendment (Prohibition of Certain Coal Exports) Bill 2013

Amends the Customs Act 1901 to prohibit the export of coal mined in the water catchment valleys and district of Wyong (NSW) and enable the minister to prohibit the export of coal mined “in other areas”. This is Craig Thomson’s attempt to shut down a possible Wallarah Two underground mine despite no politician ruling it in at the moment. “People in electorates trust the laws, they don’t necessarily trust the politicians,” Thomson said. “And that’s why I tabled a bill today that looks to restrict the export licences of miners in the Wyong Shire in particular, but more broadly any other area that the minister by legislative means, deems to be appropriate.”

9 Dairy Industry (Drinking Milk) Bill 2013

Katter’s call to register dairy regional representative bodies and Fair Work Australia to determine a modern award for dairy farmers with dairy farmers and processors to establish enterprise agreements and collective negotiations.

10 Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013

This one from Peter Garrett. Establishes the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account to provide $300m over two years to long day care services to pay employees wages, costs and expenses and is an early pay off for Gonski in an attempt to make kindy-teaching a better paying job.

11 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Making Marine Parks Accountable) Bill 2012 [No. 2]

Townsville LNP’s George Christiansen’s “Making Marine Parks Accountable” bill amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to allow Government to set an area of sea, or land and sea, as a Commonwealth reserve with the help of an independent scientific reference panel and a stakeholder advisory group. Christiansen wants to protect his fishing constituents access to marine parks.

12 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Moratorium on Aquifer Drilling Connected with Coal Seam Gas Extraction) Bill 2013

Amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to place a two year moratorium on aquifer drilling connected with coal seam gas extraction; and impose penalties for any contravention. Katter wants to ban CSG mining for 24 months.

13 Fair Indexation of Military Superannuation Entitlements Bill 2012

Katterbill to index military retirement benefits the same way as Australian age and service pensions, currently based on a higher-end consumer price index.

14 Fair Work (Job Security and Fairer Bargaining) Amendment Bill 2012

This Greens bill amends the Fair Work Act 2009 to expand enterprise agreements, settle disputes, and make provisions on industrial action. The object is to consider items of job security, full employment and work/life balance when the full bench makes a workplace determination.

15 Fair Work Amendment (Arbitration) Bill 2013

Katterbill to remove the restriction of Fair Work Australia dealing with disputes by arbitration, mediation or conciliation, or by making a recommendation or expressing an opinion.

16 Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Amendment (Cubbie Station) Bill 2012

Katterbill to stop the foreign takeover of Cubbie cotton station near Dirranbandi, Qld.

17 Grape and Wine Legislation Amendment (Australian Grape and Wine Authority) Bill 2013

Ag Minister Joe Ludwig’s bill to create a new Grape and Wine Authority by merging Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation (GWRDC) and the Wine Australia Corporation. The merger would align strategy and achieve efficiency gains.

18 Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013

Social inclusion minister Mark Butler’s bill introduced with the Homelessness Bill 2013, to repeal the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 and makes an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. The bill ensures homeless people can still vote in elections.

19 Homelessness Bill 2013

Butler’s main bill which provides for the recognition of homeless people and those at risk of homelessness. There is a recognition of homelessness and an aspiration everyone should have a home. The aim is to remove barriers in social inclusion and improve service delivery.

20 Imported Food Warning Labels Bill 2013

This Katterbill imposes penalties on those who don’t label imported food properly.

21 Income Tax Rates Amendment (Unlawful Payments from Regulated Superannuation Funds) Bill 2012

Bill Shorten’s bill – Combined with the Superannuation Legislation Amendment, the bill amends the Income Tax Rates Act 1986 to impose a 45 per cent tax on superannuation benefits that are illegally released early. See also 50.

22 Infrastructure (Priority Funding) Amendment Bill 2013

Greens bill to amend the Infrastructure Australia Act 2008 to prioritise Commonwealth rail funding over roads, with the exception of road projects designed to fix an urgent road safety issue or on which construction has already begun.

23 Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2013

Greg Combet’s bill to tighten IP laws on crown use, implement a TRIPS protocol to supply developing countries with generic versions of patented medicines, protect plant breeder IP and bring in joint patent regime for Australia and New Zealand.  Despite its international importance, this huge bill affecting several acts of parliament has got zero attention in local media as far as I can tell. It features in International Business Times which said the law would enable Australian companies to respond to future health crises in less developed nations.

24 International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2013

Bob Carr’s bill to amend the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Act 1963 to give privileges and immunities to the International Committee for the Red Cross and the International Criminal Court. The first part is required because Australia has signed an MOU with the Red Cross making it a legal entity while the second provides support for victims in ICC trials and removed a roadblock to Australia’s accession to the ICC Agreement on Privileges and Immunities.

25 Live Animal Export Restriction and Prohibition Bill 2013

Andrew Wilkie’s bill calls for the end to live animal export by 2017 and in the interim ensure “satisfactory treatment” before slaughter.

26 Malabar Headland Protection Bill 2012

Minister for State Gary Gray’s bill provides for the protection of Malabar Headland following divestment to New South Wales. Malabar Headland is in south-east Sydney and was declared a 70 hectare national park in 2010. It was transferred to NSW in 2012 after remediation of the site. The bill ensures Commonwealth oversight of the site.

27 Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013

Andrew Wilkie’s bill to amend marine regulations to ensure Australian standards are followed despite the rundown of Australia’s merchant fleet.

28 Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012

Greens bill to allow gay marriage. Likely to fail due to Liberal block of conscience vote. We may have to wait a few years yet for parliament to catch up with public opinion on this.

29 Migration Amendment (Reinstatement of Temporary Protection Visas) Bill 2013

The Coalition’s Scott Morrisons’ bill to restore two new temporary protection visa classes lasting three years. One is the offshore entry TPV for refugees entering at an “excised offshore place” (eg Christmas Island) but who meet Australian protection obligations, the other a “secondary movement” offshore visa which is the same as above except the person is a non-citizen who transited in a country other than Australia where the person could have sought protection.

30 Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013

Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor’s variation on the TPV bill and one of the few bills gathering media attention due to the furore over 457 visas which are a subclass of TPVs.  It require sponsors in the TPV program to do Australian labour marketing testing with Fair Work inspectors oversight before employing someone on these visas.

31 Military Court of Australia (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012

and 32 Military Court of Australia Bill 2012

Nicola Roxon’s bill (from her time as A-G) to establish the Military Court of Australia as part of the Federal Court to overcome the High Court challenge to the 2007 Military Court to deal with widespread military abuse. Interestingly, the court case Lane v Morrison that sank the previous court came out of a recruitment drive here in Roma in 2005. After a round of golf and drinks, Lane supposedly ”tea-bagged” an army sergeant but denied the charge before the military court. Lane successfully argued the court was unconstitutional.

33 Minerals Resource Rent Tax Amendment (Protecting Revenue) Bill 2013

Greens amendment to the ill-fated Minerals Resource Rent Tax Act 2012 to disregard increases in state royalties after 1 July 2011 when calculating royalty credits for the tax.  Adam Bandt’s objective is to protect tax revenue from being eroded by increased State Government royalties.

34 National Electricity Bill 2012

Rob Oakeshott’s bill to make the national electricity law a Commonwealth law rather than state law. Oakeshott said the states electricity networks have seen the biggest increases in electricity prices  and still have the biggest say in how the pricing rules are set.
“There’s a clear conflict of interest in states owning monopolies and regulating monopolies at the same time,” he said.

35 National Health Reform Amendment (Definitions) Bill 2013

Amend definitions in the 2011 National Health Reform Act to allow the new National Health Performance Authority report on the performance of hospitals and primary health care organisations.

36 Native Title Amendment Bill 2012

Nicola Roxon’s A-G bill to amend the Native Title Act 1993 to disregard some historical extinguishment of native title and broaden the scope for voluntary indigenous land use agreements. 

37 Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Consolidation) Bill 2011

Families Minister Jenny Macklin’s bill to clarify provisions related to ‘keeping in touch’ days. This means that they can come to work for up to 10 days during their parental leave, without it affecting their unpaid parental leave entitlements.

38 Pay As You Go Withholding Non-compliance Tax Bill 2011

Wayne Swan’s bill imposes a pay as you go (PAYG) withholding non-compliance tax on directors and some associates where their company has a PAYG withholding liability for an income year and the director or associate is entitled to a credit for amounts withheld by the company during the income year.  These amendments reduce the scope for companies to engage in fraudulent phoenix activity or escape liabilities and payments of employee entitlements.

39 Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Amendment (Australian Grape and Wine Authority) Bill 2013

Joe Ludwig’s bill amends three acts to form the new Australian Grape and Wine Authority (see 17).

40 Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Amendment Bill 2013

Ludwig’s bill removes product specific maximum rates for R&D charges and marketing charges as changing them is difficult, slow and expensive. See also 42 and 48.

41 Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment (Australian Grape and Wine Authority) Bill 2013

Another Ludwig bill changing three acts to form the new Australian Grape and Wine Authority (see 17 and 39).

42 Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment Bill 2013

Another Ludwig bill to implement the government’s rural R&D policy, to remove product specific maximum levy rates for R&D levies and marketing levies. See 40 and 48.

43 Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012

Wilkie bill and companion to number 44 with consequential amendments to four acts.

44 Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Bill 2012

Wilkie’s bill provides a comprehensive definition of public interest disclosure and provides protections to public officials to make such disclosures. 

45 Reducing Supermarket Dominance Bill 2013

Katterbill to reduce market share to 20% by enforced divestiture over six years and establish a Commissioner for Food Retailing.

46 Renewable Fuel Bill 2013

Katterbill to regulate renewable fuel and mandate 5% ethanol by 2017 and 10% by 2020.

47 Reserve Bank Amendment (Australian Reconstruction and Development Board) Bill 2013

Katterbill to establish an Australian Reconstruction and Development Board to fix financial arrangements of stressed Australian agriculture businesses and associated industries.

48 Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill 2013

Ludwig’s third R&D bill affecting 8 acts. See 40 and 42.

49 Student Identifiers Bill 2013

Tertiary Education Minister Chris Bowen’s bill to introduce a national student id from 2014. Needed because there is no single repository of records for vocational education and training.

50 Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Reducing Illegal Early Release and Other Measures) Bill 2012

In conjunction with 21, Bill Shorten’s complex bill to ensure civil and criminal penalties for promoters illegal early release of superannuation benefits, part of his “stronger super”  reforms.

51 Tax Laws Amendment (Disclosure of MRRT Information) Bill 2013

Joe Hockey’s bill to provide an exception to the prohibition imposed on taxation officers about the disclosure of information regarding the tax affairs of a taxpayer. Hockey wants to remove doubt tax officers can provide information about the MRRT when the Minister wants to make it publicly available. The intention is to reveal how much the mining tax has raised, without breaching tax privacy laws.

52 Tax Laws Amendment (Special Conditions for Not-for-profit Concessions) Bill 2012

Treasurer Swan’s bill to amend taxation legislation to restate the ‘in Australia’ special conditions for income tax exempt entities. The bill is raised after the High Court found charities are considered to be pursuing their objectives principally ‘in Australia’ if they merely operate to pass funds within Australia to another charity that conducts its activities overseas.

53 Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Bill 2013

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s bill amends the Do Not Call Register Act to clarify who is responsible for making telemarketing calls and faxes where third parties are involved, vary industry codes and tighten the ombudsman standards.

54 Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Claims for Travel Expenses) Bill 2010

Julia Gillard’s own bill to amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986  to extend the time period for lodging a claim for non-treatment related travel expenses from 3 to 12 months and enable further extensions of time in exceptional circumstances.

55 Voice for Animals (Independent Office of Animal Welfare) Bill 2013

Greens bill to establish the Office of Animal Welfare as an independent statutory authority which was originally planned by Labor. Bandt said the Office would be a centre of excellence for animal welfare science and law and work to harmonise and improve animal welfare laws across the country. He also said  it would give animals a voice in parliament, independent of the Agriculture Department and Ministry, to reduce animal cruelty.

June 25, 2013 at 12:34 am Leave a comment

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