Beating the retreat (1). Knowing when to beat the strategic retreat is an important attribute for a politician and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd showed he has that attribute when he decided to abandon the Friday sham parliamentary sittings. The promise to make Parliament sit for a full five day week seemed like a clever thing to say when in opposition. When in government, and ministers have so much to do and so little time, it was not nearly so clever. Hence the initial decision to have a pretend fifth parliamentary day where ministers would not have to be present. After one Friday when it became clear that the Opposition would not cop a pretend parliamentary day, the idea has been called off. A very sensible decision as the mob blame governments for disorderly behaviour even when it is largely caused by an opposition.

Beating the retreat (2). The fuss over stories that the forthcoming Budget may remove some minor support payments to pensioners and carers is a perfect illustration of the difficulties governments always face when they take something away from people. The Rudd team have promised to be very tough on spending in May and again later in the year as they attempt to do their bit to combat rising inflation. If they actually do what they are saying then the screams heard so far will be minor compared with the protests to come. And the way that the Prime Minister at the weekend thought it necessary to say that he would not leave seniors and carers “in the lurch” suggests he will not be at all comfortable when the pressure really goes on. How much easier it would have been if there had been no $30 billion of promised tax cuts during the election campaign. It is still not too late for a change of heart and the pain of not giving people something will be far less than the pain that will be inflicted on the government when it starts taking more things away.

A measure of creeping centralisation. Data collected by Kirsty Laurie and Jason McDonald, two researchers in the Budget Policy Division of the Australian Treasury, and published on the Treasury website as part of the summer Economic Roundup, gives an interesting insight into what happened to the size of government during the Howard years. Clearly Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello were not the small government conservatives they sometimes pretended to be. After making allowance for the terms of trade effect on nominal GDP, which masks a significant increase in real spending, the authors show real government spending in 2006-07 dollars, has grown significantly over the past decade, from $174.7 billion in 1997-98 to $264.1 billion in 2007-08, and is projected to grow to $282.1 billion by 2010-11.

The number of public servants involved in spending the extra money has been growing faster than employment in the rest of the economy. The average (full-time equivalent) staffing level (ASL) has increased by 29% since 1998-99 from 189,137 to an expected 243,859 in 2007-08. This equates to average annual compound growth of 2.9% per annum compared to average annual compound growth in full-time equivalent employment of 2.1%.

What makes this growth rate seem extraordinarily high to me is that it occurred despite significant parts of what used to be public service jobs (like information technology and legal services) being contracted out to the private sector. The centralisation of government functions to Canberra under the Howard-Costello team was more significant than I realised.

Rod on the spot. The campaign against the use of plastic bags relies heavily on stories of damage to marine animals, which inadvertently gobble them up, to gain public sympathy. The ABC news website at the weekend illustrated the problem with a picture of a turtle with a large fragment of a blue plastic bag hanging out of its mouth that was “supplied” by a Rod Prendergast.

Rod really must have been the man on the spot because his shot is the only one shown on Google Images recording this particular eating habit apart from a turtle in similar pose chewing on a transparent plastic bag which appears on the website of Aussie Kids Turning the Tide. The blue bag does make for a more dramatic picture and while I am intrigued by the unnatural bluish tinge on the back of the turtle I am sure that the ABC would not be using a digitally enhanced image on its website without stating it. To clear the matter up I have sent the following message to the ABC online editor:

I will keep you posted as to the answer.

The Daily Reality Check

It somehow seems unfair when the denial of a story makes the best read list before the story itself but such was the fate of Glenn Milne’s exclusive report in the Murdoch tabloid Sundays that supermarkets would have to charge between 25 cents and $1 for every plastic bag we use to carry away our shopping purchases. Not so said Labor’s Environment Minister Peter Garrett within hours of the Sunday papers hitting the streets. As the ABC reported, Mr Garrett released a statement saying “under no circumstances” would the Government introduce a levy on the bags. Not that the Murdoch tabloids wanted such a blunt denial to get between them and an exclusive however wrong their story might be. By mid yesterday afternoon the Daily Telegraph website still was refusing to admit the misleading nature of the Milne report with its story saying that “as families are being hit by spiralling interest rates and inflation, Labor’s Environment Minister Peter Garrett is moving to introduce the charge on shoppers in a bid to protect the environment.”

The Pick of this Morning’s Political Coverage

The Pick of the Weekend’s Political Coverage

I have come under attack from within my extended family for my narrow attitude in determining what is a significant political story. I failed, you see, on Friday to include the report in the Sydney Morning Herald of the resistance by the South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson to efforts to have R18+ ratings for games. I plead guilty. My experience with games does not go past Spider Solitaire, with which I am obsessed, but my ignorance should not have prevented me realizing that this story raises important questions about censorship and the nanny state. Belatedly I am including it on the top of my Weekend List.

Peter Fray

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