Shitstorm: The Rudd Government’s response to the Global Financial Crisis

The Germans, in their infinite wisdom, chose the word “shitstorm” as their Anglicism of the Year in 2012. The jury defined shitstorm as a public outcry in which arguments mix with threats and insults to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction. Shitstorm, they said, filled a gap in German vocabulary “through changes in the culture of public debate.” The influential urban dictionary has a more pithy definition, calling it a “gigantic cluster fuck”.  The 2010 book Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days by Lenore Taylor and David Uren is about the gigantic cluster fuck that was the Global Financial Crisis. Taylor is one of the country’s most respected political journalists while Uren has written on economic issues for 35 years. They team up well to discuss how the GFC shitstorm impacted Australian politics and the economy.

The book takes its name from a quote from then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a television interview. On March 8, 2009, Rudd spoke to a live studio audience on the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program about the government’s response to the GFC. Responding to opposition claims about the debt Labor created to fund its stimulus, Rudd said it was a choice between letting the market fix it up or intervening with temporary borrowings. “People have to understand that,” Rudd said, “because there is going to be the usual political shitstorm – sorry, political storm over that.” The swearword was likely a choreographed error from Rudd who left little to chance.

shitstormDeliberate or not, the choice of words was typical Rudd. The cover of the book Shitstorm shows the four members of the kitchen cabinet: Rudd, Linday Tanner, Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard. Rudd has his back to the camera. He is not interested in us, he is conducting his orchestra. But his players are not in tune. Finance Minister Tanner is looking off right, Treasurer Swan is looking left and only Rudd’s deputy Gillard is looking vaguely in his direction, but with her own agenda. The gang of four of the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee (SPBC) made most political decisions many of which are still debated. But Australia avoided a recession, when the economies of the world crashed like ninepins around them.

Rudd was right about the shitstorm, but could not see he would be a casualty. His sensational sacking happened after the book was released. Taylor and Uren never saw it coming either. No one did outside a small circle of Labor apparatchiks. The panic-stricken parliamentary putsch in June 2010 that cost Rudd his job as first-term Prime Minister left the Australian polity reeling, locked the nation into costly backflips, and severely damaged the trust between Labor and their own supporters not yet repaired today.

The Julia Gillard government scraped over the line in the October 2010 election thanks to her negotiating skills. But she had to promise no carbon tax reversing a 2007 election promise. The distant drum of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis had little effect in 2007. In Australia the worry was interest rates which had risen 10 times due to mining growth.

Rudd and Howard knew the crash was coming but kept it out of the election campaign. Rudd couldn’t risk talking about a crisis as it would highlight Labor “inexperience” while it was inconvenient to Howard’s “don’t risk good times” message. When Labor won there was little time to celebrate. The first effect in Australia was the cost of borrowing. The big banks’ short term loans were suddenly exposed as money fled the system. No Australian bank closed its doors but there were times when the queue was down the street (prompting banks to consider how to keep large queues inside).

As the cost of money rose, the Australian banks took the near unprecedented step of rising interest rates without a Reserve Bank signal. The first bank tipped off Swan in advance but the next one didn’t. The treasurer advised people to switch banks but he could see there was a problem brewing. While on summer holidays on the Sunshine Coast, he took a call from US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that terrified him. Paulson said the US “might be able to see a way” through the crisis if house prices didn’t collapse. Swan knew it was a big if.

It was the first item of business when Rudd returned to work after Christmas. Labor promised a budget surplus of $18 billion (around 1.5% GDP). China continued to eat up Aussie minerals, but elsewhere the news kept getting worse. When Rudd went to Washington in March, he met the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn who told him the sub-prime lending mess would cost the world a trillion dollars (a figure later upgraded to $3 trillion). Governments ultimately bore much of that cost.

By the May 2008 budget, Swan was under pressure to abandon $47 billion of promised tax cuts. The Government held firm but held back on cuts they hoped would keep the books in the black. Swan couldn’t yet admit the growing crisis for fear of impacting consumer confidence. Matters spiralled out of control in September 2008 when the fourth largest US investment bank, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt with $613 billion owing on uncertain assets. Trillions in securities across the world guaranteed or counter-signed by Lehmans were now at risk. The US’s largest insurer AIG’s shares dipped 70% with $550 billion tied up in sub-prime mortgages. Largest US mortgage-lender Washington Mutual shares nosedived and mutual funds dumped securities to meet a run on redemptions. The bond market died as no one would lend for anything longer than one day.

Australia had $800 billion of debt, $500 billion short-term subject to constant finance. As America’s financial wobble threatened to tsunami across the Pacific, Swan’s message was simple: “We are not immune but better placed than most to weather the coming storm”. An IMF meeting in Washington in October 2008 told him the storm was worsening: it was enough for a clean bank to have links with a toxic bank to be in trouble. China’s boom would not save Australia.

Swan knew financial stimulus was needed. Rudd quickly warmed to the idea. Over Christmas Rudd had been reading the economic ideas of EG Theodore whose bitter regret was a lack of Australian government action which prolonged the 1930s Great Depression. Rudd was not about to let it happen again. Panicky people salted $5.5 billion out of Australian banks in ten weeks since Lehman went bust, and second tier banks Suncorp and Bankwest were at risk of collapse. Rudd guaranteed all term wholesale bank funding and retail deposits. Smaller mortgagees like Challenger Howard were not protected and in two years the four big banks increased home-lending share from 60% to 85% .

While the SPBC was arguing over the size of a stimulus, it was startled by the news the Reserve bank had dropped interest rates by 1%. This was twice as much as Treasury recommended. Rudd had learned the lesson from Treasury relief package models which was to “go early, go hard, go households”. The SPBC would also double Treasury’s recommendation with a $10 billion package –  $8.7m in cash handouts and $1.5m on the First Home Owner Grant. There was also $6.2m to build a green car. Rudd’s message was they were “deploying the surplus” to secure the economy. Shocked Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull gave immediate bi-partisan support. Labor’s own cabinet was in the dark about the proposal and unhappy about it. Rudd blamed the need for speed and “extreme market sensitivities” but his downfall can be charted to this decision.

The IMF predicted the world economy would stagnate in 2009. The stimulus kept Australian tills ringing through Christmas but business confidence was low. The Government pushed hard to strengthen Howard’s G20 as a forum to make global recommendations. They were supported by the US which saw the G8 as too happy to install euro-centric banking controls, anathema to the Bush administration. In November 2008, the IMF told the G20 they needed a stimulus worth 2% of GDP.  This was huge, yet they were underplaying the situation. IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard knew any higher recommendation would “scare people to death”. Countries took notice. Even mighty China announced a $600b Keynesian spending package on infrastructure projects.

The Rudd Government was in difficult political territory. Spending would ease unemployment but would kill their surplus. Rudd and Swan refused to say the word deficit for months until finally admitting it was temporary. The linguistic games showed frustrated ministers Rudd’s office had centralised decision-making to an unacceptable level.

Rudd plotted a large-scale construction program to keep up employment. Schools were chosen because they didn’t need much lead time or lengthy council planning approvals. The $16.2b Building the Education Revolution program was supplemented by a $6.6b social housing program and $2.7b on a solar installation package. As a quick sugar hit they gave another $8b cash handout to taxpayers designed to keep money circulating. The total package was 2.4% of GDP in the first year, beyond the IMF measure but reduced to 1.8% in 2010-2011. By the second package in February 2009, Treasury was predicting Australia would avoid a recession. It was a magnificent achievement but there were serious flaws. The solar rebate was so high, it led to huge demand and shonky work practices with fatal results.

There was another casualty of the downturn – the ETS, known in Ruddspeak as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The CPRS was due in 2010 but the Government delayed it a year to include extra compensation called a ‘global recession buffer’. Rudd decided to get his new “browner” plan through the Senate with the help of the Liberals rather than with the Greens who wanted tougher environmental action. Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull was supportive but undone by deep divisions in his own party. The eventual compromise was torpedoed by Liberal hardliners led by Nick Minchin and a spill led to the surprise election of Tony Abbott as opposition leader in December 2009.

Abbott reneged on the CPRS, leaving Labor stranded. Rudd was so sure the Liberals would support it, he spent no time selling it to the public. It would be impossible to run a double dissolution election on a complicated scheme Abbott was calling a “great new tax on everything”. The failure of the Copenhagen climate change talks in December was the nail in the coffin and Rudd delayed the “great moral imperative of our time” to 2013.

As Taylor and Uren’s book approached deadline, Labor’s three-year-long polling honeymoon was over and the Liberals were neck-and-neck. The media hammered Labor over stimulus plan failures. Rudd axed the installation scheme and made Peter Garrett the scapegoat ministerial scalp. The audit office found colossal waste in BER including substandard work and inflexible design. The budget surplus was a mirage and the Government had troubling selling its economic message for different reasons than before. During the height of the crisis, minister could not be frank for fear of damaging confidence, now they couldn’t sell the recovery because it would draw attention to spending issues.

To Rudd and Swan’s credit, they saw the GFC coming earlier than most. They acted quicker than most and deeper and with the help of the Reserve Bank and China, Australia emerged almost unscathed. Abbott ridiculed 25 months of “Whitlamesque spending” but Rudd saved the country from years of austerity with his infrastructure stimulus. What no-one saw was Australia would recover so quickly. His successor Julia Gillard suffered in the 2010 poll but held on with a debt burden that would cripple Australia’s ability to implement real change in the difficult decades to come. As Taylor and Uren concluded, the political shitstorm would be “wilder and more damaging than Kevin Rudd ever imagined”.

On Jonathan Moylan and the Whitehaven coal hoax

The latest in a long line of Aussie hoaxes was perpetrated to great effect this week though its creator might yet pay a penalty of 10 years and half a million bucks. Anti-coal activist Jonathan Moylan is in trouble for putting out a press release in the name of ANZ Bank on Tuesday. The release said the bank was divesting its $1.2b loan to Whitehaven Coal for its Maules Creek Coal Project. If true, it was an important announcement. In Whitehaven’s own words, Maules Creek was “one of only a few remaining tier 1 undeveloped coal assets in Australia. It is also one of the largest coal deposits in Australia with 362 Mt of recoverable reserves.”

Before it could be exposed as a hoax, the news triggered a stock market collapse for the coal company. While almost all losses were recovered before the day was out, Moylan’s actions raised serious political as well as ethical and legal issues. Using dubious means, he focussed attention on the important question about whether we should be investing in major coal projects in a time when fossil fuel emission is the biggest issue on the planet.
Maules Creek is in the heart of NSW’s rich Gunnedah Basin. NSW and Queensland produce 97 percent of Australia’s black coal. It is an industry in decline with Australia producing 405 million tonnes of raw black coal in 2010-11 down from 471 Mt. in 2009-10. Australia remains the world’s fourth largest coal producer and the world’s leading exporter with markets in Japan, South Korea, China, India and Europe. Coal fired generators are leading contributors (20 percent) to a greenhouse effect as heavy-grade emitters of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

The Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions acknowledges fixing the coal issue will be difficult. Coal is cheap, important for energy needs in developing countries, and has good lobby groups in countries like the US, which is the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” Coal-fired generators could still play a role if carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology ever takes off, possibly 10-15 years away. There would also be a need for a carbon market, priced at around $30 a ton of CO2 and a way of retrofitting CCS into existing technology. An ANZ that truly considered its customers interests would ensure such boxes were being ticked. But it has no plans to do so and there is no scrutiny of whether such interests are considered.

Instead, the argument focussed on Moylan dividing people on whether his hoax ends justified the means. Supporters like Bob Brown called it necessary civil disobedience to expose ANZ’s investment in coal. The coalition’s Eric Abetz turned it into an attack on Lee Rhiannon and the Greens’ “extreme political tendencies.”

Moylan planned his attack well. He put together a fake ANZ press template, a website and dummy email inbox. The press release was perfect managerial language to frame an argument quite unusual and brave in an Australian business context. Moylan used the voice of ANZ Corporate Communications to announce the bank would not support the project. Toby Kent, “Group head of corporate sustainability” was quoted to say the company wouldn’t invest in coal projects that cause “significant dislocation of farmers, unacceptable damage to the environment, or social conflict.” The decision was made after “a careful analysis of reputational risks and analysis of the returns on this mine in the current climate of high volatility in the coal export market.” It concluded with the statement ANZ was undertaking “a review of coal and gas investments on productive agricultural lands and areas of high biodiversity.”

The release was quickly picked up by AAP Newswire who failed to conduct basic identity checks. At the bottom of the emails are phone numbers for Toby Kent and Joanne McCulloch “Media Relations Advisor” which would have quickly exposed this email as a hoax. A quick check of ANZ’s database of media releases would also have been enough to dispel, or at least doubt, the information.

Instead AAP swallowed the news and provided it directly to the markets. When traders in the Australian Stock Exchange saw the newswires shortly after midday Tuesday, they went ballistic. Whitehaven bore the brunt as 85% owners of Maules Creek Coal. Maules Creek is 18km north-east of Boggabri on the Kamilaroi Highway between Narrabri and Gunnadah. It is 16km from the railway line servicing the coal terminals at the Port of Newcastle, 360km south-east. Maules Creek’s current resources are expected to support a large open cut mining operation for 30 years at an average saleable coal production rate of 10.8 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa). Subject to approvals, the first coal production will commence in mid 2013, with saleable production exceeding 10Mtpa from 2016.

It was a dead duck without ANZ’s investment, and within minutes Whitehaven shares plunged from $3.52 to $3.21. Whitehaven Coal lost more than $276 million in market value. It capped off a bad year for the company since it merged with Nathan Tinkler’s Aston last April giving him 19.4 percent ownership. The share price has lost over half its value with CEO Tony Haggarty and the board blaming it on Tinkler’s financial woes. Tinkler returned fire on Haggarty saying he wanted to increase his holding not decrease it.

That plan may now be in tatters. The price did not recover until the real ANZ responded with a media release (pdf) entitled “Fraudulent media release regarding Whitehaven Coal”. This release (which looked remarkably like the fraudulent one) said ANZ remained “fully supportive of Whitehaven Coal.”

At the end of trading, Whitehaven was 2c down on the day reflecting other issues with the project. The damage to Tinkler was estimated between $50m and $180m (assuming it wasn’t him who picked up the shares when they were on the rebound).

Moylan will suffer significant collateral damage. There is a strong prima facie case his actions were illegal according to Section 1041E of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth). It an offence if a person makes a knowingly false statement likely to make people dispose of shares. The maximum jail term for individuals is 10 years, with fines of up to $495,000. Organisations face fines to $4.6 million.

The Australian Securities Investment Commission said it would investigate whether there had been a breach of Corporations Act rules on false or misleading statements. According to dean of law at the University of Western Sydney Michael Adams the legislation on corporate fraud imposes a high penalty on false or misleading statements about traded securities on the ASX. Adams believes a successful prosecution will hang on the difference between a public nuisance and civil disobedience. “A protest normally provides publicity for a cause and brings the matter to the general public’s attention, but causes little harm to the community,” Adams said. “A fraud – and in particular one that impacts on the share market – has huge consequences”.

Research fellow on ethics Edward Spence picked up on Abetz’s argument about ends and means. Spence said Moylan’s ethical failings were harmful to the “integrity of the digital informational environment”. Its trustworthiness, Spence said “we all rely on to conduct our legitimate informational transactions.” We are not only biological beings, he said, but increasingly informational beings. “When the informational environment is harmed we are also harmed.”

Spence may be right but he doesn’t excuse AAP not doing its job properly. Nor did the rest of the media use the hoax to expose ANZ’s dealings with the coal industry. Why didn’t anyone ask the bank if they would do “a review of coal and gas investments on productive agricultural lands and areas of high biodiversity”. Why is it acceptable for the bank to invest in projects that cause “significant dislocation of farmers, unacceptable damage to the environment, or social conflict?”

A new start it ain’t: Jenny Macklin and unemployment

The new Australian political (and election) year did not get off to an auspicious start with the Macklin affair though some good might yet come of it. The affair has seen a government minister tied up in knots about a nonsensical hypothesis, the media whipped up in frenzies of righteous wrath, and the leader of another party now wanting to live out the nonsense.

The problem occurred on New Year’s Day. Families Minister Jenny Macklin held a door-stop media conference at a Melbourne hospital to promote the government’s Dad and Partner Pay scheme introduced on January 1. The scheme brings in government-funded paternity leave for two weeks so it should have been a good news story for Macklin.

However the journalists there were not interested in the good news, they were more interested in a bad news change that also came in on January 1. This change was a follow on from a change John Howard made in 2006 which was to end the supporting parent allowance when the child turned eight. Howard exempted those already receiving the parenting payment before July 2006 who were able to keep it until their youngest turned 16. This meant there would be exemptions until 2014. However the Gillard Government has now ended that immediately, saving $728 million over four years.

This change shifts 80,000 single parents from the parenting payment to the Newstart allowance when their youngest child turns eight. Some parents will be up to $110 a week worse off with the new arrangements and it was this issue that journalists turned to when one asked Macklin if she could live on the dole on $246 a week. Macklin could have done many things at this point, including refusing to answer on the grounds it was a very stupid question. Fellow Minister Tanya Plibersek later answered the question “properly” by saying “I don’t think anyone thinks it’s easy.”

But Macklin gave the worst possible answer: “Yes I could”. She then made matters worse by omitting her answer from the transcript issued by her office. Macklin tried to push on by telling journalists they had simply applied existing rules to people who had on the payment since 2006. “What’s important for people who are unemployed is that we do everything possible to do everything we can to help people get into work and that’s what we’ll be doing with these single parents as well,” she said.

But it was too late. The killer quote did the damage. TV cameras captured that answer which immediately provided the headline for broadcast and print media and the non-appearance in the transcript merely fuelled speculation of a cover-up. Susie O’Brien in the Herald Sun called it “obscene”. Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie also took Macklin to task, but ridiculed calls for the minister to try surviving on the Newstart allowance. “You can’t replicate that experience if you are a senior member of government,” she said.

Goldie’s comment came as Greens’ leader Adam Bandt repeated tragedy as farce by announcing he would live on the $246 allowance for one week, challenging Macklin to do the same. “Once you take into account your rent your bills, your food, there’s not much change left over from $35 a day,” he told reporters in Melbourne, but didn’t elaborate how much of his modern lifestyle and well-tailored suits would be pushed to one side to make ends meet in that week.

Bandt’s stunt had little to do with the Newstart Allowance and everything to do with his struggle to retain Melbourne at the next election. But the affair highlights issues with the low benefit rate when there are systemic problems of under-employment. While the current rate of unemployment is low at 5.2 per cent by historic and international standards there is a high degree of volatility within this rate. In March 2012 the unemployment rate in Tasmania was 7.0 per cent, nearly twice the 3.7 per cent rate in the Northern Territory.  In March 2012 the unemployment rate for those aged 15-19 is 18 per cent, more than three times the national average.

There are “dole cheats” but the dole queue remains a humiliating experience for most people. Economist John Quiggan said that instead of completing the Howard agenda, the Gillard government ought to be looking at increasing the real value of benefits, “allowing the unemployed to share in some of the growth in incomes for the community as a whole”. Even thinking about the absurdity of living on $246 a week, reminds us many people have to do exactly that and some parents of those aged eight and over will now pay the price for the Government’s budget balance obsession.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard preferred to focus on solving the inequities of employment in the “patchwork economy” rather than increasing dole payments. “Some today see a problem, they offer blame”, Gillard told the Sydney Institute last year. “I see a person, a person who can work. I offer only opportunity, I ask only responsibility in return.” If Gillard gets the public space to tackle that agenda, she might yet be grateful for Macklin’s mistake.

Should people be free to bushwalk unprepared?

A Victorian bushwalker in NSW has been fined on charges of “lack of planning or preparation”. The 29-year-old man, name unknown, went off on a long walk last Saturday in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. He left from Newnes in the Wolgan Valley heading east across the rugged Wollemi National Park to Colo Heights. He carried a kilo of potatoes and naan bread which he estimated would last him three days.

He told friends who dropped him off he would meet them at the other end on Wednesday at 3pm. When he didn’t rendezvous at the appointed time, his friends alerted authorities who mounted a search and rescue operation. With the help of two helicopters, they found him four hours later on the track.

The first helicopter spotted him and the second winched him out of the Wolgan Valley. According to Police, the man had suffered a minor ankle injury and declined treatment. Police took him to Katoomba station for questioning before giving him a $500 infringement notice.

None of the media covering the story stated why this was an offence (they were all too obsessed with the spuds and naan he survived on) but they quoted NSW Police Force Rescue commander Brenton Charlton who said the route through remote terrain was extremely difficult to complete safely and had taken much longer than estimated. “Getting the basics right with trekking is so easy – all people have to do is notify the police or other responsible person of their trip intention and carry a personal locator beacon,” Charlton said. “Making use of available technology, together with some commonsense trip preparation, could mean the difference between life or death.”

It is clear the man was underprepared. Though some people on a bushwalk forum said the walk was possible in three days, even a modicum of research would have uncovered it was likely to take much longer. According to this site devoted to walks at Newnes, the track to Upper Colo is listed as a very hard grade walk that takes seven days.  The walk “is for experienced and well prepared walkers only! Country traversed is rugged and there are no tracks beyond Annie Rowan Creek.” Its advice is “Check with your local bushwalking club before attempting this one.”

The Victorian did not take this into account but should that be an offence? And should all bushwalkers be forced to take a personal locator beam? PLBs are distress radio beacons which transmit location information about individuals directly to Search and Rescue forces letting them know the owner is in grave and imminent danger. They retail on Gumtree for $225 second hand. When Briton Jamie Neale was found alive after being missing in 2009 for 12 nights, Blue Mountains police superintendent Tony McWhirter told media they have free PLB for bushwalkers so they can locate them. However since then, the law has changed.

The NSW police media release (the basis for all media stories – no journalist did original research) stated why the fine was activated. It was issued under the National Parks and Wildlife Regulations of 2009 for engaging “in activity that risks the safety of self/others”. The relevant clause is 22(1)(d) which reads “Sporting, recreational and other activities
(1) A person must not in a park:
(d) engage in any activity or recreational pursuit that involves risking the safety of the person or the safety of other persons or damaging the environment.
Maximum penalty: 30 penalty units.”

A contributor to a NSW bushwalk forum said the fine was “troubling”. “ Guy sounds like an idiot, said colinm, “but I don’t see that it necessarily warrants a fine. Since he’s a Victorian, I bet he doesn’t contest the charge, so is a bit of a soft target.” So should bushwalkers be forced to be prepared or should anyone have the right to go out and do what they want? Was it necessary for an expensive search and rescue operation to be mounted when the man was just four hours late? And what equipment should be compulsory on any trip? These angles were not covered by media. In their efforts to make the trekker look like a fool, the naan proved more alluring than the nanny state.