Posts tagged ‘Australian politics’

Wayne Swan still in the ring for ‘The Good Fight’

swanAustralian male politicians like their violent metaphors especially when describing their own exploits. Tony Abbott’s autobiography Battlelines reflected his pugilism while one of his former opponents, former Labor deputy PM and Treasurer Wayne Swan, prefers to be remembered for “The Good Fight”. Swan was my local MP and as I started my journalism career I interviewed him before the 2007 election (an interview for which I remain extremely grateful – his LNP opponent turned me down). Swan batted away my questions with aplomb, but tougher questions were coming. Labor, of course won that election, and Swan was installed Treasurer of a country about to sway in vicious global headwinds. His Good Fight was just beginning.

He begins the book in early January 2008 while on holidays at the Sunshine Coast with a recollection of a phone call from his American counterpart. US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was worried by an economy buffeted by a sub-prime mortgage crisis that started in mid-2007. US housing prices were falling and the country was in recession. Paulson told Swan a recovery was possible but only if there wasn’t a “meltdown” in housing prices. Swan’s Treasury advice was that global risks were substantial but Australia was well placed to ride it out. His holiday reading of Alan Greenspan’s memoir combined with a biography of Australian depression-era treasurer EG Theodore brought the fear of another collapse home to him and made him realise the next few years would not be “an easy cruise”.

Though it started in 2007, the prospect of a financial crisis made little impact on the election that year. It never came up in discussion in my own interview with Swan and I was not alone – neither the media nor the Treasury saw it as a live issue. The priorities of the incoming Labor government were carbon pricing, water reform and federal financial relations. The massive overspending of the final years of the Howard Government had led to inflationary pressures and interest rates were on the rise thanks to China’s enormous appetite for Australian iron ore. Labor, keen to be seen as economically cautious, committed itself to a 1.5% budget surplus and its razor gang went in search of savings. By the time of its first budget, interest rates had risen to over 7% though the sub-prime crisis in America rumbled on. Swan had just returned from IMF meetings in Washington which predicted world losses of 1 trillion dollars. Swan was walking a tightrope between global turbulence and an overheated Australian economy, a paradox expressed in talking points as “countervailing forces”.

The budget promised $33b in savings but only $7b in the first year, which caused The Australian to complain it didn’t tackle inflationary pressures. But Swan’s American experiences meant he didn’t want to ‘slam the economy into a wall’. That wall was fast approaching and by August 2008 Swan was discussing the possibility of a recession with officials. Treasury boss Ken Henry told him if a stimulus was needed, it had to be 1% of GDP, about $10b. The June National Accounts showed just 0.3% of growth, not a recession, but very close. On September 7, US mortgage underwriters Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had to be bailed out by Washington. Then a week later came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. A day later AIG also needed a Federal bailout. Immediately credit markets froze and investors ran for cover. Swan admitted it was terrifying news but publicly said Australian ‘fundamentals remained strong’. An extraordinary week ended with a US $700b financial rescue plan to mop up toxic assets.

The first Australian response was to buy $4b in mortgage-backed securities to keep the flow of credit and preserve mortgage competition. When US Congress voted down the rescue package, the Dow plunged 7%, the ASX down 4% the following day. The RBA cut interest rates by a full 1% and Henry advised Rudd and Swan to ‘go early, go hard, go households’ on a stimulus especially with a slowdown on Chinese growth. The stimulus came in at $10.4b targeted at pensioners and low-income earners in time for Christmas. Half the surplus was gone in one hit and Swan’s staff prepared for an even bigger second package. The world was a different place from 2007. The G7 was recording negative growth and global stocks had lost half their value. Rock bottom had not yet been reached.

Swan was “rewarded” with growth of 0.1% which meant recession was technically avoided but the knock on effects of the global crisis were starting to hit.  More policy levers were pulled. The government established the OzCar special purpose vehicle to provide liquidity to car dealer financers, brought forward transport projects, and people were encouraged to spend their Mark I stimulus bonus. Mark II would cost another $42b, 4% of GDP, including a $900 ‘consumption payment’ for individuals, the school Building the Education Revolution program and the insulation program for 2.7 million homes. The idea was that for every dollar providing immediate stimulus, another $2 would have future benefits.

With the Opposition’s wait and see approach against the package, the government negotiated with cross-benchers including Nick Xenophon who wanted a water buyback scheme. The December quarter had negative growth of 0.5% with the global economy expected to contact 1% in 2009 so the pressure was on for the next three months again to avoid recession. Swan’s second budget would be the victim of massive write-downs and unemployment around 0.5%. It project a deficit of $7b though as Swan called ‘a massive own goal’, he never mentioned the actual figure.

He was on safer ground when he said Labor protected Australia against the brutality of a global recession. His strategy worked – Australia recorded 0.4% growth in the March quarter and technical recession was avoided once more. With the worst of the GFC apparently over, there were calls to halt or decrease the stimulus. Swan held the line that growth was still weak and stimulus filled the gap. There was now a ‘two speed economy’ with coal and gas demand rising in 2009-2010 pushing the dollar up while other industries stagnated. GDP growth continued around 0.5% for 2009.

The story of slow recovery continues in the second half of Swan’s book. But it is overshadowed by growing political conflict between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Swan begins with the July 2009 backflip by Malcolm Turnbull on Opposition support for a carbon price. Rudd ordered ministers to negotiate with the Liberals on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme but also told them to deliberately drag it out to extract maximum political advantage. It was a fatal miscalculation. Rudd dithered on forcing the double dissolution on carbon and pinned his hopes on a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009. His failure there sent him into meltdown, according to Swan.

By then Turnbull had been replaced by Tony Abbott who called the CPRS a ‘great big new tax’. Rudd went to Christmas without making a decision on 2010 strategy while Swan was tied up with the Henry Tax review recommendation to introduce a mining tax. In the New Year Rudd threw his energies into a federal takeover of the health system leaving Swan and Gillard to carry the messy CPRS and mining tax. In April Rudd announced the CPRS would be delayed three years.

May 2010 brought the fight over the mining tax. Swan said mining profits in 2008-2009 were $80b higher than 10 years earlier but the government was only collecting an additional $9b in revenue. Royalty and resource charges had reduced from 31% to 14%. The industry, the Opposition and Murdoch newspapers said the world would cave in if the tax was implemented and the scare campaign ramped up with slick advertising. Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers collapsed exposing his weak support in the party room.

Swan said he was a reluctant starter on the idea of replacing Rudd with Gillard. “I could see Kevin was leading us into the wilderness,” he said, “but I was torn between the dread of that and the undoubted ugliness that would accompany his ousting”. Swan said Rudd was prone to vengeful behaviour and over-centralised leadership due to a “pathological fear of leaks”. He dragged meetings on for hours without making decisions and complex briefing papers went unread.  There was high staff turnover in his office.  A Labor mauling in a NSW state by-election was partially put down to federal issues and by mid June 2010 Gillard was ready to challenge.

Swan knew removing a popular first-term PM was dangerous but saw it as unavoidable. When the spill came, Rudd did not stand. Swan said this robbed the party of a frank debate in the party room. Swan said he felt sorry for a man he had worked with since their days in the Queensland Goss Government from 1989 and their families had been close for a decade with Rudd a godfather to Swan’s only son. But he was now deputy prime minister under Gillard.

They focussed on three problems: climate change, asylum seekers and the mining tax.  They hammered out a deal with the big mining companies that dropped the profits-based tax from 40 to 30% and applied to iron ore and coal only.  It cleared the way for a 21 August election. Rudd remained in the spotlight and his strategic leaks damaged Gillard who didn’t help her cause with her talk of ‘the real Julia’.   There was a sizeable swing against Labor in an election that ended in a draw. Swan narrowly retained his seat.

Suddenly the independents held the balance of power and after 17 long days and a $11b costing blunder by the Coalition, Windsor and Oakeshott gave the reins of power to Gillard. Swan thought minority government was suited to Gillard’s collegiate style but he later realised it suited Rudd too.

While Australia was recovering, Europe remained in strife and Treasury was making plans for a second GFC. Swan had reduced government spending but revenue shortfalls were making return to budget surplus more difficult by the day. Swan’s budget revenues had declined by $160b in 2007

Natural disasters like the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi were costly and the Japanese tsunami and the Auckland earthquake also suppressed demand. Though unemployment was down to 5.1%, the lowest in the industrial world, the budget fetish meant the media roasted Swan in December 2012 when he finally admitted Australia would not return to surplus in 2012-2013.

Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions emerged openly in 2012. He resigned as foreign minister in February over a perceived slight by Simon Crean. Gillard called a leadership ballot and beat Rudd 71-31. Rudd slid off to the backbench but immediately started work on his return.

Labor pressed on with the NDIS and Gonski reforms, but their hopes of getting ‘clear air’ were destroyed by issues such as Speaker Peter Slipper’s and Labor MP Craig Thompson’s legal problems.  Rudd’s strategically-timed leaks also caused media disasters.  On March 21 2013, Simon Crean engineered another leadership challenge, apparently promised the deputy PM position by Rudd. But Rudd didn’t take the bait forcing Crean to resign.

In Swan’s final budget he funded Gonski and the NDIS over ten years by closing corporate tax loopholes.  With Gillard’s poll numbers never recovering from her broken promise on carbon taxing, Rudd was irrepressible. By June 2013 commentators were openly saying Gillard would not make it to the election. Gillard called a third spill on June 26 and lost 57-45. Swan resigned as deputy leader and treasurer. Rudd’s three year war of attrition had succeeded. But the cost was too high. Though Australia’s economy had grown 14% since the GFC, Australians did not feel better off. Labor’s leadership turmoil added to the sense of disgruntlement. The trenchant criticisms of Rudd made by Swan and other senior leaders after the failed March coup would haunt Rudd in the election campaign which was one disaster after another. As Swan said, Rudd’s campaign was only “selfie deep”.  By election day, many were predicting Labor would have been better off sticking with Gillard. Rudd lost comfortably to Tony Abbott.

Swan’s “good fight” went on to his own election in Lilley, which he won “against the odds”. It was one of Labor’s few success stories on the night. Swan said Rudd had a plan for getting rid of Gillard but not for ruling the country. Swan said his own political philosophy was ‘where do we stand?’ not ‘what’s in it for me?’  Whether Swan’s fighting instinct still has something in it for him remains to be seen. Though now in opposition and on the back bench, the call remains. “For me,” he concluded, “the good fight will never be over.”

December 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm Leave a comment

Victorian bells toll for Federal Liberals

On this morning’s edition of Insiders, Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb tried to explain why his Victorian Liberal colleagues loss in yesterday’s state election had nothing to do with the Federal Government. The problem was not a new one, he said, they were down in the polls by the same “flatline difference” for at least three years. Robb was undoubtedly correct in his assessment but left himself open for an obvious retort, which interviewer Barrie Cassidy quickly pounced on. Wasn’t this what was happening in Canberra now, he asked. A somewhat flummoxed Robb ask what did he mean. Cassidy repeated Robb’s point that the Abbott Government were also flatlining in the polls. Robb quickly adjusted his radar and said ah that was different, they still had two years to improve their position.

Robb was granting his government the gift of the future, the same gift the Victorian Government had two years ago. It was a present Melbourne could not open and there is little reason to believe Robb’s colleagues will be similarly blessed. The Abbott Government is hopeless adrift and compromised fatally by the raft of promises and resolutions it made in opposition it could not possibly fill in government, especially when its right-wing credentials started to be felt as soon as it took office.

There are plenty of warnings for Abbott in Denis Napthine’s defeat overnight not least of which is the fable Australians will not dismiss a first time government. It might be the first time it has happened in 60 years in Victoria but federally the electorate is lot more volatile. The newly elected governments held on in their first elections in 1984, 1998 and 2010 but all were extremely tight and in all cases the incumbents had the preferred Prime Minister. This time round the Government is in freefall with an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister whom it becoming charitable to call hapless. Their management of the Senate independents is execrable and their few policy victories have had to be shared with Clive Palmer.  Tony Abbott’s one area of strength seemed to be as a world leader especially in the wake of MH17 but he squandered that goodwill with his idiotic shirtfront comment and then looked like a bumbling, provincial and irrelevant fool as he hosted the G20 meeting.

The silly games his government played to keep climate change off the agenda rebounded badly and he is unlikely to garner much credit even if they succeed in the economic imperative of 2.1% world growth. The slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” is itself stupid and does not take into account confidence levels and perceptions of a shambolic leadership. Victoria’s economy was in good shape before this election as was Australia’s economy before the 2013 federal election. But Victoria was undone by the wrangling over Geoff Shaw and Labor was fatally debilitated by the Rudd/Gillard wars.

Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten has been castigated by the left as a ‘do nothing’ politician but he remains popular and was able to assist in the Victorian election campaign to help a similarly anodyne but effective leader Daniel Andrews. Meanwhile the Abbott brand was considered far too toxic to be seen anywhere south of the Murray this last month or so.

Abbott once famously called himself a weather vane. He must be aware that heavy storms are coming his way, especially as he tries to chart a course for a second budget while still negotiating the tricky reefs of his first one. Treasurer Hockey has been a poor performer in the first year, but the people will blame Abbott not him.
As Insiders also pointed out this morning, Abbott’s Prime Minister’s Office is becoming as notorious as Kevin Rudd’s for its obsessiveness with the message and its failure to deliver. Whether that is a problem with the office or the man is a moot point, but it is looking like a doomed Prime Ministership.

Abbott will face his reckoning either massacred at the next election, if he is lucky, or more likely stabbed in back by his own colleagues next December as panicked parliamentarians look to someone else, anyone, who can help save their skins. It will be, as Andrew Robb inadvertently pointed out today, already too late. The Liberal goose was cooked in early in 2014 and will uneaten and poisonous on the table until Labor feasts on its entrails in 2016.

November 30, 2014 at 11:38 am Leave a comment

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

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