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A populist Prime Minister, desperate to stay in power, willing to do anything – no matter how abysmal it may be in policy terms and what awkward precedents it may set. An ambitious Treasurer who knows his leader’s posturings are bad economics – and, in the long term, worse politics?
A populist Prime Minister, desperate to stay in power, willing to do anything – no matter how abysmal it may be in policy terms and what awkward precedents it may set. An ambitious Treasurer who knows his leader’s posturings are bad economics – and, in the long term, worse politics?

Yup, you guessed it. I’m talking Malcolm Fraser and John Howard in 1982. Great start to the year of social policy

When you’ve spent too long in Parliament House, strange things start to happen. By the end of the first sitting week, many Government members and advisers were suffering from a strange outbreak of mass delusion. They were convinced that the debate over mandatory sentencing was a blessing, as it distracted from the GST and National Textiles.

This cannot be true. Instead, mandatory sentencing should be a key focus for the Government – let alone the Prime Minister – for 2000 is the Coalition’s year of social policy.

Here’s what the PM had to say on the matter on November 4 last year, in a speech he made to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia:

“Now, there are a number of areas of not only the Australian economy but a number of areas of the Australian community where further reform is necessary. One of the things that we are going to focus on at our national convention of the Liberal Party in Melbourne next year is social policy. Having focussed an enormous amount over the last several years on economic change and economic reform we believe that some of the fundamental directions of social policy in this country deserve a more serious examination at a national political level.”

To underline this theme, he followed it up with these comments in an article penned for The Australian, “Quest for a decent society”, on 22 December 1999:

“The Government has fostered the notion of a social coalition. Put simply, it describes a partnership of individuals, families, business, government, welfare and charitable organisations, each contributing their unique resources and expertise to tackle disadvantage at its source.”

The PM even returned to the subject three weeks ago with his Federation Addreess:

“The Government I lead does not pursue economic policies which will deliver higher sustainable growth as ends in themselves or as part of some rigid ideology. We are committed to them because they contribute to building a stronger, fairer and more prosperous Australian society.”

The fact is that without a stable and fair society in which the avenues of opportunity and achievement are open for all Australians, our economic progress will be shallow and brittle. Equally, without an Australian economy that can generate growth, investment and jobs, the capacity to fund assistance programs for those in need will be seriously diminished.

“I look to an Australia in 2010 in which our unmatched reputation for achievement, for tolerance, for understanding and compassion, for independence of spirit and for ability to work together in adversity has been even further enhanced.”

These fine words cannot have been forgotten. The gaoling of 15 year-olds for minor property crimes would appear to be a prime example of where tolerance, understanding and compassion are needed. Schizophrenia?

One reason why our great leader and his government may be slow to move on mandatory sentencing is that he can’t quite decide just what international treaties mean for Australia. I’m writing this on Friday morning, having just heard the PM make these comments on AM:

SALLY SARA: “Mr Howard, I need to take you into mandatory sentencing. The United Nations says that it’s concerned about the laws as they apply to juveniles. How can you be sure that we’re not breaching our commitments in terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?”

JOHN HOWARD: “Well, I’ll be seeing the UN Secretary General here in Canberra. No doubt if he has any particular concerns about it he’ll raise it. But in the end, of course, Australia decides what happens in this country through the laws in the parliaments of Australia, and in the end we are not told what to do by anybody. We make our own moral judgements on that.”

This is a very different approach to international treaties compared to what the PM had to say on the same program just two months ago, on December 17:

MATT PEACOCK: “Professor Pennington gave you a bit of a blast on heroin trials this morning suggesting as you did that it could be breaching international treaties to have a heroin safe injecting trial. What is your legal advice?”

JOHN HOWARD: “We are still getting it because until we know the exact form of the trial and the conditions attached to it the Attorney-General has told me that he can’t give advice. I do know incidentally that as far back as September the then, or the still current Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department in Canberra, the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, did write to the justice authorities in Victoria drawing their attention to this potential legal problem. So the argument has been advanced by some of the States in recent days that we have, sort of, not previously expressed any concern about this issue is not correct.”

The PM seems to be acutely aware of international treaty obligations at some times, and then forget them completely. Is he well? Has he had a brain scan lately?

Mandatory taxation

The North Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service estimates it will cost at least $150,000 to keep 21-year-old Jamie Wurramarao in gaol for the next 12 months for heinous crime of stealing $23 worth of biscuits. Sending anyone to gaol is an expensive option. And in this case, guess who’s footing the bill? You are – or, at least, the vast majority of it.

If the Prime Minister can’t see that the Northern Territory’s mandatory sentencing policy is offensive in human rights terms, perhaps he should look at the dollars and cents. The Northern Territory is hopelessly dependent on Commonwealth support – or, in other words, funds from the rest of Australia. Have a look at what Territory Treasurer, Michael Reed, said in his Budget speech last year:

“Turning to 1999-2000, Commonwealth grants are budgeted to rise by close to 2%. Importantly, untied grants rise by 3.8% following the review of relativities by the Commonwealth Grants Commission. This means there will be certainty in over 80% of the Territory’s funding for at least 3 years and more likely 5 years.”

Now, to be fair to the Territory, its dependence on Commonwealth funds has increased since the High Court struck down state excise duties. But despite this, it’s still a money junkie. There are around 180,000 Territorians. We must expect that a clear majority of these are taxpayers. After all, as Mr Reed was so keen to point out elsewhere in his Budget speech, the Territory has the highest labour force participation rate and the lowest unemployment in the country.

This still means, though, that around 18 million other Australians are subsidising the Northern Territory. Do they like footing the bill for a vindictive policy? Even more important, do they like footing the bill for a vindictive policy that doesn’t work?

An Australian Institute of Criminology report last December found that mandatory sentence laws had not significantly reduced property crimes. While robbery and property offences in the Northern Territory fell by almost 500 the year they were introduced, 1997, cases of unlawful entry with intent jumped in 1998. In another twist, reported property offences had actually been falling before the introduction of mandatory sentences. So, Prime Minister, are you going to act on this waste of public money? Or this yet another case of ad hoc assistance for regional Australia?

M.I.A?

Territory Labor is naturally outraged over mandatory sentencing. Your correspondent checked AAP Newscast – an on-line service which provides full text of AAP wire stories, the full text of most of Australia’s major metro newspapers and some key regionals, as well as extracts of a very broad range of other publications – to check their comments on the matter. This is what turned up: – Clare Martin, Leader of the Opposition in the Territory Assembly – no mentions – Warren Snowdon, Member for the Northern Territory – no mentions – Trish Crossin, Senator for the Northern Territory – one mention in the

Illawarra Mercury of Saturday February 12.

We commend them for their efforts. Another serious issue Journalists never reveal their sources. It’s not only part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of practice. For some lucky hacks, it can also lead to a conviction for contempt of court that offers all sorts of career opportunities.

Naturally, our quality national daily, the Australian, firmly follows this practice. Its weekend edition of February 12 quoted former Liberal leader John “Who” Hewson’s views on the National Textiles bailout at length. And no mention was made of the source – Hewson’s regular column in the Financial Review the previous day.

ED’s note: Graham Leech suggested in The Australian’s Melba column last week that Hillary was really just some tired old hack journalist. Crikey would never misrepresent the status of Hillary who had to be talked out of publishing the PM’s direct line at The Lodge as a way of proving his/her bone fides.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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