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Federal

Aug 8, 2017

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While last night’s Liberal Party meeting was the least-worst outcome for Malcolm Turnbull — he’s still Prime Minister, his party hasn’t torn itself apart, Coalition MPs haven’t decamped for the crossbench because they despise LGBTI people so intensely — it remains a thing of wonder. All but a handful of the Liberal MPs attending yesterday afternoon’s meeting want marriage equality to go away as an issue. Even advocates for marriage equality within their ranks — echoing the Prime Minister, before he seized that job — make their pitch on the basis that the issue can be done and dusted with a parliamentary vote and the government can get on with talking about something else. Anything else.

The only people who want marriage equality to continue to make life difficult for the government are the far-right trio Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, plus assorted hangers-on like Craig Kelly. They oppose marriage equality, but that’s entirely incidental to the more important goal of knocking off Malcolm Turnbull.

And yet, remarkably, last night’s outcome was the single best way of ensuring the marriage equality will continue to occupy a prominent place on the political agenda. It would almost be impossible to craft a process that would be more likely to maximise the level of distraction and debate. Even simply declaring that there would be no action on marriage equality before the next election would have been a better outcome in terms of the impact on public debate.

Instead, the government has proposed a three-step process for guaranteeing that, no matter what, the issue will be incessantly talked about for the rest of the year and, probably, beyond. First, the plebiscite bill will be returned to the Senate, to waste more time there before it is defeated (should, by some remarkable change, the bill succeed, there would then be a plebiscite campaign that would preoccupy the country for months). Then, the government will pursue this weird junk mail plebiscite, without legislation, which will either be blocked by a court as an unauthorised appropriation of funds or go ahead and be subject to boycotts and dominate the agenda. And then, if the junk mail vote produces a “no” vote, there’ll be no parliamentary vote, guaranteeing the issue continues to haunt the Coalition and MPs cross the floor (marriage equality opponents refuse to abide even by a compulsory referendum outcome, let alone a junk mail vote, so why should marriage equality advocates be bound by it?). And if there’s a “yes” vote, then we’ll finally get a parliamentary vote.

You could construct a whole decision tree about this process — if yes, then this, if no, then that, but all the options, yes and no, lead to further painful debate and distraction. And, for voters, the conclusion that Malcolm Turnbull is a weak leader hostage to his own backbench. Labor must be unable to believe its luck.

Federal

Aug 7, 2017

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The Prime Minister has headed off a revolt by supporters of marriage equality and laid the groundwork for a risky path to a vote on marriage equality later this year after a crisis meeting of Liberal Party MPs this afternoon.

As expected, in the end there was little appetite for a change to the position the party took to the 2016 election, that there would be no parliamentary vote on marriage equality before a plebiscite on the issue; only two other MPs backed the proposed parliamentary vote advocated by Western Australian Senator Dean Smith and four lower house MPs, including veteran equality campaigner Warren Entsch.

Instead, as per the position put to the party room by Malcolm Turnbull and the party leadership, the government will make another effort to pass legislation for a plebiscite through the Senate, which previously rejected it. If that fails, as seems likely, then the government will undertake a voluntary postal plebiscite without legislation. If that plebiscite is successful, there will be a parliamentary vote, which is expected to result in amendments allowing marriage equality and overturning of the Howard government’s changes to legislation in 2004.

However, a postal plebiscite conducted without legislation will be immediately challenged by marriage equality groups. There remain significant concerns that any use of funds for an unlegislated plebiscite would be illegal; however the government claims it has advice that an unlegislated plebiscite would be upheld by courts. The idea also has its critics within the party room — most prominently Tony Abbott, whose plebiscite policy is the cause of this extended period of bitter division with Liberal ranks.

A postal plebiscite will almost certainly be subject to boycotts from marriage equality supporters, and possibly other political parties, strengthening the likelihood of a no vote despite several years of polling showing electoral support for marriage equality. In the event of a no vote, there would be no parliamentary vote — an outcome that would guarantee the issue continues to plague the government until it is resolved either by Parliament or by an election.

Apart from the risks of a postal plebiscite, it remains to be seen whether marriage equality advocates are prepared to accept the process laid down by the party leadership, or back a parliamentary vote anyway — especially if a postal plebiscite is defeated by the courts or yields a no vote due to boycotts.

The outcome enables Malcolm Turnbull to argue that he has thrown his support behind a plebiscite despite the efforts of moderate efforts, but it also provides a tenuous path to a vote in Parliament that would finally get the issue off the political agenda. But it guarantees the issue will not be far from the headlines for weeks, and possibly months, to come, and merely delays a final reckoning between die-hard homophobes within the party and those who advocate an end to discrimination in marriage law. One way or another, however, that it likely before the end of the year.

Federal

Jul 12, 2017

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This week’s mini-furore over the Prime Minister’s Disraeli Prize speech in London is a perfect example of the media and commentators losing sight of the big picture when focusing on the detail. The real story is that Turnbull has a done a Credlin — he’s reframed his political opponents and in doing so may have shifted the nation’s political discussion in his favour.

Being a political warrior, Peta Credlin is adept at influencing the media’s depiction of her adversaries. By reframing them in a way that minimises their strengths while maximising their weaknesses, the quarry is exposed to a new line of attack for which they are ill-prepared. While this was once done “on background” through a few chosen journos when she was in the Prime Minister’s Office, the commentator now uses her own public platforms to manipulate the media.

The phrase “Mr Harbourside Mansion” is the most memorable of Credlin’s efforts to puncture the PM’s authority. But she has also been instrumental in creating a perception that only conservatives matter in the Liberal Party, and that Turnbull has no authority because he’s not an “authentic” Liberal.

That claim began to lose power in the past fortnight, however, as a succession of conservative ministers re-affirmed the historical legitimacy of both progressives/moderates and conservatives in the Liberal party.

Turnbull’s speech in London reinforced that message, but raised it from a debating point aimed at rebuffing Tony Abbott’s latest whinge to a broader national conversation.

The majority of Australians have never studied politics and are unaware of the major political parties’ philosophical roots. Thanks to John Howard limiting the progression of Liberal moderates during his time in government, and Labor/the Greens laying claim to most progressive issues, voters have lost sight of the role moderates play in the Liberal Party and instead see it as a party of conservatives.

[Tony Abbott’s plan for revenge has gone horribly wrong]

This perception lends an ill-informed ring of truth to Tony Abbott’s claim that the Liberal “base” is conservative, because the party’s core vote also involves moderates. But, at the moment, many of those moderates are despondent and have parked their votes with Labor or the Greens.

Turnbull’s London speech is the PM’s first attempt since the May budget to reach out to those moderates by publicly demonstrating that progressive values are legitimately Liberal — perhaps even more so than conservative ones.

Turnbull explained that the Liberal Party’s founder, Robert Menzies, deliberately avoided the conservative label for his new centre-right party, quoting Menzies as saying at the time: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”

Turnbull then argued that “the sensible centre, to use my predecessor Tony Abbott’s phrase, was the place to be, and it remains the place to be now”. According to media reports, this concession to Abbott was a late addition to the speech.

The comments were controversial, but deliberately so, given the need to cut through the domestic news cycle with a speech delivered when most Australians would have been asleep.

Should Turnbull have made the speech at all, given it sparked another round of “leadership tension” stories? Yes, of course he should have — Abbott is reportedly on overseas leave this week, and Credlin appears to be on leave too, providing the PM with clear air to make his case without being white-anted by his high-profile critics.

As for the contention by former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett that domestic issues should not be discussed when overseas, this is a complete furphy. Political scientist Mark Rolfe pointed out a few years ago:

“Political leaders abide by what is known as the London Convention of not talking about domestic politics while on foreign policy business. This was invented by Bob Hawke in the late 1980s when he was getting hassled while overseas by Australian reporters about domestic politics, in particular the problems created by Paul Keating. When Keating was prime minister, however, he didn’t think much of the convention.”

[Turnbull should crash through on Finkel — he’s crashing anyway]

And given the speech was more about rekindling his authority through the normalisation of Liberal moderates in the eyes of the broader Australian population than it was about demonising conservatives, Turnbull had every right to deliver it in a place of his choosing.

That’s not to say the conservatives got off scot-free from the speech, because they did not. Turnbull’s related intention was to loosen their grasp on the claim to be the party’s base.

The PM argued that labels “have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics,” leaving them only to be “appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose”. He could have just as easily said “beware any politician who claims that a philosophical label gives them political authority”.

Malcolm Turnbull has desperately needed a way to reconnect with the moderate/progressive voters that once had high hopes for him but now have stopped listening.

The May budget clearly didn’t meet the authenticity test that would have warranted a second hearing, but the London speech just might.

Federal

Jul 7, 2017

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This article originally appeared on Liberal Party website The Fair Go, republished here with permission.*

Government ministers have condemned the behaviour of a certain former Liberal Party leader, whose behaviour has been seen to be undermining the Turnbull government. The latest minister to upbraid the ex-prime minister in question was Josh Frydenberg, who accused the one-time Howard government health minister of helping to elect the Labor Party. Mr Frydenberg suggested the “constant critiquing” of the Turnbull government by the relevant member of parliament, who represents a well-known electorate on the north shore of one of Australia’s more prominent state capitals, was giving a free kick to Bill Shorten’s opposition.

Mr Frydenberg said that the keen cyclist and triathlete was entitled to his opinions, but questioned who his commentary was benefiting, and suggested that it was Shorten “who’s benefiting most, unfortunately, from the constant interventions from this devoted husband and father of three”.

Mr Frydenberg’s comments come after audio was leaked to Fairfax Media of the individual currently under discussion, attacking the Turnbull government’s budget at a branch meeting in the electorate of Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar. During the speech, the well-known aficionado of vegetables of the genus Allium also called on rank-and-file Liberals to “rise up” against the current direction of the Liberal Party. The man, who is described as of medium height with thinning hair, told the assembled party members that government ministers themselves did not believe in the budget, and that the Liberal Party was currently at a “low ebb”. The former rugby player and amateur boxer said that the party “needed help” because it had been forced by the Senate into a budget that was “second-best”.

A Liberal Party source said that audience was “in raptures” over the address from the self-described feminist and surfing enthusiast, in which the speaker did not wear any of his trademark revealing swimwear, but did make strident comments on climate change and the primacy of jobs over emissions.

The Rhodes scholar’s speech at the branch meeting was just the latest in a string of appearances in which the ex-trainee priest has ruffled the feathers of colleagues with controversial comments on government policy that many have seen as a direct attack on Prime Minister Turnbull. Visits to think tanks, party functions, and various media outlets have led observers to speculate that the British emigre and dietitian’s son may well be readying himself for a second tilt at the Liberal leadership. Cabinet ministers, however, are currently expressing support for Mr Turnbull and have criticised the outspoken erstwhile journalist, who has not ever fathered an ABC sound recordist, for his disloyalty and sniping.

Mr Turnbull refused to comment on the latest comments, saying only, “I won’t get involved with speculation regarding the gentleman in question, notwithstanding his possession of both a Bachelor of Economics and a Bachelor of Laws.”

*As granted to satirist Ben Pobjie, he promises

Federal

Jul 5, 2017

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A superficial interpretation of Tony Abbott’s latest mutterings would suggest the former prime minister is a fan of democracy. He certainly claims to be, particularly when it comes to “democratic” reform of the New South Wales Liberal Party.

But a closer look at Abbott’s motivation for party reform, paired with his calls for changes to the Senate, show he’s only interested in wresting power from those with whom he disagrees.

On its face, Tony Abbott’s call for “democratic” reform of the NSW Liberal Party seems perfectly reasonable. As he rightly noted last weekend, Liberal Party members are generally expected to turn up, pay up and shut up.

All important decisions are made at the highest levels of the state and national divisions of the party, while grassroots members attend monthly meetings to debate policy resolutions that aren’t binding on MPs, run seemingly never-ending fundraising drives, and man the polling booths on election day.

So it makes a lot of sense to re-engage demotivated grassroots members by giving them a greater say in party decision-making, such as the selection of candidates.

But it’s equally fair to say that grassroots members might not have the knowledge or expertise to choose a candidate who can win the seat, let alone be a good local member or minister. This is particularly the case if the members are not representative of the broader electorate, which is usually the case with the Liberal Party.

[Matthewson: Tony Abbott’s plan for revenge has gone horribly wrong]

Despite Abbott’s claims that the NSW division is “haemorrhaging members”, the party’s membership in that state is around 11,000 and has been that way for the “past five years or so”. Across the Murray, the Victorian Liberals have around 13,000 members, and according to the Victorian Liberals’ state president Michael Kroger, half the state party’s members are aged over 70.

There is little to suggest the NSW party’s demographics are significantly different. The state’s Liberal Party members aren’t representative of the broader community, yet Tony Abbott wants them to have a greater say in selecting the party’s candidates.

This is not just because lobbyists are holding senior party positions or having significant influence over party decisions. It is because such lobbyists are wielding that power that the moderates, who’ve taken control of the state party’s decision-making bodies, are blocking the preselection of conservative candidates.

For example, when former treasurer Joe Hockey bowed out of federal politics after Turnbull became leader, the NSW Liberals’ president and leading moderate, Trent Zimmerman, beat the conservatives’ preferred candidate for the position.

And then before the last federal election, conservative warrior Bronwyn Bishop was replaced by Liberal moderate Jason Falinski, who also beat former Abbott campaign manager Walter Villatora for the position. Villatoria lost again to James Griffin, who won preselection for the state seat of Manly after it was vacated by the former NSW premier Mike Baird. There’s even talk the moderates will orchestrate a challenge against Abbott for preselection before the next federal election.

So Tony Abbott’s push for grassroots party members — who are more conservative than the party executive — to have a say in preselection decisions is more an effort to counter the dominance of moderates in the NSW division than it is a fight for democracy.

For if Abbott actually believed in democracy — that is, political equality for all voters – he wouldn’t be arguing for reforms that would allow the government of the day to overrule the Senate. Yet that is what Abbott is calling for in the latest iteration of his “election manifesto”.

Abbott essentially rejects the right of democratically elected senators to reject or negotiate improvements to government legislation, claiming “the Senate has become a house of rejection, not a house of review”. At no time does he acknowledge that the composition of the Senate is a direct result of Australian voters deliberately creating an upper house that will provide checks and balances on the government.

[Abbott’s Australian vision: poorer, hotter, more socialist]

In an effort to end this Senate “gridlock”, Abbott has proposed that section 57 of the constitution be amended by a referendum at the next election, making it possible for legislation rejected twice by the Senate to be put to a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament without the need to hold a double-dissolution election first.

In short, the man whose austerity budget was blocked by a more compassionate Senate wants to change the power dynamic between the two houses of Parliament, to ensure that any governing party with a strong majority in the House of Representatives can overrule a Senate that was created by voters to keep it in check.

Such a move would be the antithesis of democracy, because it would diminish the democratic rights of Senate voters.

During Tony Abbott’s long campaign of attrition against Malcolm Turnbull, political observers have become accustomed to the fact that the former PM is not big on consistency or internal logic. But his diametrically opposed positions on democracy — advocating more for Liberal conservatives but less for Senate voters — are the most incoherent yet. That’s because they are about wresting, consolidating and exercising power, and not about political equality at all.

Federal

Jul 4, 2017

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Some days ago, a backbencher from a conservative party stood up to denounce the leadership of her party in the strongest possible terms: as people who had failed their cause, traduced the politics they were supposed to represent, and failed to recognise the deep disquiet towards politicians among the general public.

The backbencher attracted no great onslaught of criticism because she wasn’t in an Australian political party. Heidi Allen is a Tory MP in the UK, and she was denouncing her own party, actually in the House of Commons. Of the deal done by PM Theresa May, with the Democratic Unionist Party — a deal unnecessary save for leadership survival in Tory internal politics — she said this:

“I can barely put into words my anger at the deal my party has done with the DUP. We didn’t need to do it. I cannot fault the DUP for wanting to achieve the very best for their residents in Ireland, nor for their tough negotiating skills. But I must put on the record my distaste for the use of public funds to garner political control. We should have run with a minority government, and showed the country what mature progressive politics looks like.”

Allen hasn’t lost the whip or been threatened with de-selection, for the simple reason that this is all standard practice in the UK. Backbenchers are not part of the government and not bound to solidarity with it. They can dissent, act on behalf of their constituents, and ask questions that aren’t Dorothy Dixers written out for them on cards held in their trembling hands. The reasons are partly cultural and traditional, but they’re also structural and related to first-past-the-post voting. Any victory in a four- or five-party first-past-the-post system is at least partly a personal vote. The parties are loath to replace Awkward Squad Bot No. 12 for Obedient Doofus No. 23 unless it’s absolutely necessary, or the party has succumbed to full civil war (which UK Labour is clearly on the brink of). Thus, political commentary will sometimes underestimate the degree to which internal political crises are imminent, or miss the rise of a challenger — such as UKIP, up to 2015 — on track to carve out territory.

Would that we had such a problem here. Despite the structural lock of our politics, every tremor is written up as a party’s existential crisis. Christopher Pyne, at the Cherry Bar, in a party fuelled on bubbly champagne, lashings of pop, pops his own cherry with a gloating speech about the very minor matter of same-sex marriage. Tony Abbott, second President of the Republic of Salo, gives a speech outlining a fairly traditional Thatcherite/Reaganite politics with a Catholic twist, and suddenly we’re in political existential crisis.

We’re not of, course, but the right of the Liberal Party need to pretend we are — or they are — to further their purposes of destabilising Malcolm Turnbull. The motives for the press gallery and a wider commentariat are no less murky. The more stable and difficult to disrupt Australian politics is, the more that 24-hour news platforms have to manufacture an atmosphere of crisis, to create new hooks. The effect of this, and perhaps in part its purpose, is to disguise how protected from crisis and public demand the Australian political system is.

Let’s go over this again, en breve. The Australian lower house system is not like any others, because it is a compulsory vote, single-member, exhaustive-preference system. The 30-40% of people who don’t vote in other jurisdictions have to, here. They vote, say, 2:1 towards the usual holder of the seat. So the incumbent party has a 20% cushion of people who were sent to the polling booth by the state. To crack that open, and get to second party status, sufficient to harvest minor party preferences, is extremely difficult.

The atmosphere of crisis is being generated by reference to places — Greece, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands — where populist movements have surged to power on the basis of proportional/multi-member/list systems, or fragmented FPTP electorates. Nothing like that is happening here. The whole point of the compulsory-voting/exhaustive-preferential system is to entrench major parties as quasi-state apparatuses. The press gallery fail in their duty of scrutiny, and fail deliberately, so as to preserve a series of relationships with MPs who will feed the nano-tidbits they need to fuel a four-stories-a-day news cycle. On it goes.

What, after all, is the real threat to the Liberal Party, a party said to be on the brink of collapse by John Roskam, failed preselection champion, a man born looking 40, and who now has the haunted appearance of the stationmaster of a country rail stop who has spent a life waiting for trains that never arrive? If some Thatcherite outfit jacked itself out of the party to compete in 2019, the preference system would backstop the Liberals once more. One Nation? A shambles. The party might lose the next election based on losses in the provinces, but it’s going to take something more to send it to an actual crisis of existence.

That would be welcome of course, but it would take a pretty concerted effort to do. It needs to be done, on that side, and on Labor’s as well. We need high-profile Lib/Lab independent candidates to stand in key electorates; a “rural alliance” to contest New South Wales and South Queensland seats, not as “blueberries” — blue on top, green at the root — but as a genuine centrist, rural-focused movement; and a party of the urban poor organised by socialists and other groups to take votes from the ALP but not the Greens, and gain senators; an Indigenous Peoples Party in the NT, containing a right and left faction within a single, peoples-based party; and a full-court press by NICK’S, sorry, NXT, in SA. The only way change will come is with a lower house crossbench of a dozen or so, which refuses to grant power to either major party until a full raft of structural changes are made to Australian governance. Until then, the cherries will remain unpopped as the press, once again, harvests watermelons.

Australia

Jun 29, 2017

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“There’s a growing political movement for anti-corruption,” someone said at an event your correspondent was speaking at last week. Really? In Australia? Where exactly is it? Where are the street marches and public rallies, the organisations, the pressure? Far from being seen as pressing, the issue is treated by many Australians with a type of fatalism. The manifold evidence is that the political system is riddled with active and passive corruption, from party donations for presumed policy shifts to outright payments to individual MPs and all points in between. The Greens and some crossbenchers have advocated for a federal ICAC, or corruption tribunal. The major parties will not go near it.

With good reason, in terms of their own survival. Every time someone starts a state ICAC, state governments fall, and MPs go to prison. There are backbenchers, ministers and shadows who are pissing razor blades at the possibility that either Turnbull or Shorten will weaken — or strengthen, depending on your view — and establish one. But such people can rest easy. There’s little chance of it. The truth is that the Australian political system can tick over indefinitely with very little regard to the stated wishes of its populace, so long as those stated wishes run against the interests of politicians as a group. The Australian federal system reproduces a system as resilient against real reform as a cockroach against nuclear war.

The MPs within it are helped immensely by the clueless left-liberal discourse that issues from what remains of the press gallery and the Fairfax commentariat (let’s not even get into the News Corp commentariat). Such groups enjoy promoting the myth of the fall, in which the poor state of Australian politics is due to the poor state of Australian politicians. In this myth, there was a time when gods strode the earth, and lo, they came to Canberra, and there they did exercise power. But the gods died away, and those that have come to replace them are puny mortals who can give us no leadership and guidance. Thus the crops die and there is ruin across the land. The gods are Hawke and Keating, and Costello, and even Howard. The magic they wielded was “reform”, neoliberal state reconstruction presented as non-political “common sense”. And so on and so on.

[Matthewson: no, Bill Shorten does not really want a federal ICAC]

There isn’t much doubt that many in the gallery and the op-ed pages actually believe this. For decades, political reporting in Australia has been set up this way: to report on politics you have to pretend that Australian democracy is the envy of the world, a wholly transparent and self-chosen system that perfectly reflects the wishes of the people, etc, etc. You can’t, in Australian political reporting, comment on the structure of the system itself, because political reporting is modeled on reporting of sports, our true national passion. It would make no sense to question the rules of AFL while reporting on the semi-final, and that logic is carried over to politics.

Once you rule out institutional and structural explanations, the myth of the fall is all you have. It has the added advantage of allowing press gallery journalists to put on their Midwinter Ball Woodward-Bernstein masks and play at being fierce advocates of speaking truth to power, etc, etc. In reality, Australian political reporting, with its endless, breathless commentary on micro-deals and personalities, subfactions and “is it on” and “who’s up who” is simply an extension of the system. Which is one reason why no one is reading it in enough volume to make their products profitable. Hence the lobbying for federal subsidies for print, or ex-print, media, which would make the system total: gallery journalists would be reporting on the doings of politicians on whose vote the survival of their publications would depend. But if that’s what it takes to preserve democracy …

The myth of the fall is the exact reversal of what has occurred. Australian federal politics has become more petty political, responsive and corrupt not because the people have got worse and corrupted the system, but because the system, disconnected from any substantial political struggle, offers a sinecure to second-rate people and elevates them to a position practically beyond recall. The last generation of “impressive” major party politicians — Hawke, Keating, Howard, Costello, etc — all entered politics during the years when right and left marked a genuine distinction, a cause to be fought, inside the parties and between them. Australia’s tight political institutional system — the form of politics — was less important than the ideas and issues, the content of politics.

When the right won control of the public sphere in the 1980s, after the collapse of the post-war socialist wave in the 1970s, political division became a matter of relatively minor differences, a left and right of neoliberalism. In Australia, the form of politics came to the fore. What was that form? Our quintuple lock, a system designed to cater to a permanent political caste. Compulsory voting marches the populace to the polls. Exhaustive preferential voting gives them a choice, in most seats, between the two major parties and voting informal. Matched public funding per primary vote favours established parties and is slanted against new entrants. An absence of bans on political donations allows major parties to ignore the electorate entirely and cater to powerful moneyed interests. The managerial nature of such politics allows MPs, after a tour of duty, to slide into boardrooms of banks, super funds, oligopolies, lobby groups and the like.

[Labor simultaneously betrays unions and reneges on its commitment to a federal ICAC]

This is one of the tightest and most anti-democratic parliamentary systems on the planet. The two major parties form the two wings of a single party whose first task is to ensure that this system reproduces itself indefinitely — since there are always people joining it who want to do their 12 years until the lovely gumment super kicks in. To presume that this system can be changed by anything less than major disruption — by the action of conscience and good people and demand — is illusory. Politicians know how hated they are. They know what a rort the system is. By now, many of the players in the major parties have known each other 25 or 30 years, having come up through student politics together. Many of them lost whatever shred of political feeling they had long ago. They know, from left or right, that the best thing would be a thorough overhaul of Australian political systems. But they won’t advocate it. Why? Because they’re clinging to the handlebars as the chopper flies down the hill, thinking “oh, please please please stay upright long enough for me to get that super, get on the board of BOGUS or Shitbank, please let me get that big house, please let me get that beach house, please let me fly first class to Europe, please this was all shit, all a terrible mistake, please let me cash out …”.

The only way in which we will achieve institutional change in Australian politics, and hence be in a position to attack corruption, is if the system is unable to reproduce itself. One way for this to occur would be for the broad Senate crossbench, including the Greens, to simply refuse to pass any legislation — of this government or the next — until there is established a process for rethinking Australian “democracy”, a new convention in which all such political institutions could be debated, and some sense of popular desire established. I am pretty sure that would consider voluntary voting, alternative voting forms, foreign and domestic donations, a federal ICAC, and much more. However, I doubt very much the ability to persuade enough of the crossbench to pledge to that to make it a success.

The alternative process would be have a hung Parliament in the lower house, with the swing votes refusing to endorse any party for government until such was established. The Greens, Andrew Wilkie and the McGowan-style independents might be relied on to do that; Bob Katter less so, I imagine.

But the ranks could be added to by running Labor or Liberal independent candidates in selected seats the Greens cannot win, but where the solid major-party vote could be split in two by a high-profile candidate — actual former MPs, or culture “heroes” of one sort or another — running on exactly this sort of program, and with something of a movement behind them. In other words, don’t ask a Liberal electorate to vote for a left candidate in order to do something about corruption and institutional decay; offer them a true-blue Liberal candidate, who is nevertheless independent of the party fix. Such a candidate, if they can split a solid party vote down the middle, can win with 25% of the primary vote.

That would work. It could be done, with co-operation across the political divide to make it happen. It probably won’t be. The system will chug on, our political institutions will remain largely unexamined, the cosy relationship of politicians and journalists — quite literally making and breaking bread — will continue, even as the latter write endless features about the decay of good government, absence of purpose, integrity, etc, etc. The politicians will welcome such features, because they direct attention away from where the problem lies: institutions and structures that could be transformed in a relatively straightforward fashion, if the will was there, and a focus kept on the real issues.

Tips and rumours

Jun 26, 2017

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Where has Our Gina gone wrong? Mining magnate Gina Rinehart has had a rough time of it recently. Her near $200 million stake in the Ten Network is practically worthless, and according to media reports, Rinehart’s $13 billion Roy Hill iron ore mine in Western Australia (she owns 70%) is still suffering teething problems. It is still to reach its rated production rate of 55 million tonnes a year, despite and promises in late 2016 that this figure would be hit early 2017. The mine started in February 2016. Roy Hill CEO Barry Fitzgerald said late last year: “But we will certainly achieve a 55 million tonnes annualised rate early in the New Year.” We’re yet to see it. 

A Chinese mining seminar was told on Thursday that Roy Hill was expecting to ship 16 million tonnes of iron ore in the six months to this Friday. Sales director Cao Chengjie blamed “unexpected difficulties encountered during production” for the failure to meet expectations at an industry conference in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou on Thursday, according to the Metal Bulletin. That target might have been disclosed to the Chinese iron ore buyers and steel mills, but it hasn’t been made public in Australia.

Penalising employees does not help employment. You’d be aware of the terrible burden that Australia’s hospitality sector is labouring under with penalty rates, that massive burden on the sector that prevents them from employing more people? Some relief is on the way, of course — the Fair Work Commission in its wisdom decided to cut Sunday and public holiday penalty rates for workers in the hospitality and retail sectors. And not a moment too soon — the hospitality sector is critically endangered. In detailed employment data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week for the May quarter, employment in the food and beverage sub-sector plunged to 777,000 workers. Well, by “plunged” we actually mean “surged” — that figure was a 3.7% increase on the February quarter and a 4.6% rise on the corresponding quarter in 2016. And that’s an 18% increase from the corresponding quarter five years ago. At nearly 6.4% of the entire workforce, food and beverage service employs a greater proportion of Australians than at any point in history. But penalty rates, etc, etc.

Rushed GST legislation failed proper processes. If you needed further proof that not a whole lot of thought went into the legislation that will ask overseas online retailers to collect GST for goods sold to Australians, look no further than the failure of Treasury to have a regulatory impact statement for the legislation. Treasury informed Crikey last week it was unable to find any regulatory impact statement for the legislation when we asked for one under freedom of information law. Such a document is required when a government decision is likely to have a regulatory impact on businesses or individuals.

In passing the legislation last week, Parliament delayed the introduction of the new scheme by a year until July 1, 2018, in order to conduct a review of all the proposals, which means that a better review of how the scheme would operate will now be done.

No papering over the cracks at DHS. You would think, given recent events, that the Department of Human Services wouldn’t mind less reliance on technology. But we hear that Centrelink is prioritising claims for payments filled out online ahead of those filled out on paper forms. A tipster told us a message came down to staff from senior levels in the department to not work on paper claims at all for seven days to “teach customers to use electronic means”.

We asked the department about this, and a spokesperson told us:

“There has been no directive to staff to stop processing paper claims. Claims are prioritised by date of receipt, unless the department is made aware of any extenuating issues, such as severe financial hardship. Obviously those claims that are lodged online with all the information required are available for processing sooner than paper claims that arrive through the mail.”

Know more? Let us know.

Get down with the kids. The most common comparison for the Liberals’ new website The Fair Go has been progressive activist group GetUp. But as a party publication that offers only opinion pieces, endorsements of Coalition policy, and no actual campaigns as of yet, it’s actually far closer to the Labor Herald (remember how well that went?). Except way more fun! Ms Tips was intrigued by the article “Who’s your grand-daddy?” — which seems to be attempting to connect with young people by using cool contractions, words like “woke” and comparing sections of society to housemates who don’t pull their weight. But we can’t begin to figure who the supposed audience is for the unforgettable (believe us, we tried) and borderline incomprehensible phrase “Grand-Daddy Corbyn and Sanders are scruffier and less sex than a daddy.”  

After Malcolm Turnbull’s Midwinter Ball speech, Fair Go seems to represent a Coalition move towards bringing the larfs. Just look at “Dear Bob”. It’s a fake agony aunt column, so far featuring a single letter from “always the bridesmaid”, who appears to have a bizarrely convoluted problem referring to the apparent disunity between Labor infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. The letter writer is mocked for having learnt to “play records on two gramophones simultaneously” in an attempt to woo younger members of the “selection panel” (selection panel, in this tortuous exercise, meaning voters).

We completely agree — what could be more embarrassing than politicians spouting faux trendy affectations in a completely tone-deaf attempt to woo younger voters? 

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Federal

Jun 26, 2017

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Disgraced former CIA director David Petraeus bombed on a joke about Turnbull’s insurgency, the head of a lobby group said the Liberals needed to win stupid over voters, and the scars were still evident from the 2016 election win at the 59th Liberal Party Federal Council meeting in Sydney.

Friday:

4.30pm: Delegates, staffers and politicians begin to arrive at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian would later say that the building — opened in December last year — was a testament to Liberal government, but then in the same breath reminded the audience she was the third premier in two terms. Labor’s national conference a few years ago was dominated by people in jeans and T-shirts — usually with union or Labor slogans. Not so for the Liberal Party federal council, which more resembles a conference for a mid-tier accounting firm. Business and power suits are the uniform of the day.

4.45pm: Media are assembled at the top of the escalator, awaiting the arrival of politicians, almost the reverse of how Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign. One delegate gets to the top of the escalator and promptly announces “I’m not anyone important,” and quickly dashes away. Attorney-General George Brandis holds a very brief press conference on the Victorian Supreme Court decision not to go after his colleagues Alan Tudge, Greg Hunt or Michael Sukkar for contempt of court. “I’m not a commentator on the courts,” he says. The “Yarra Three” are nowhere to be seen.

5pm: Those in attendance file through metal detectors before entering the blue-lit conference hall. TVs line the hallway playing anti-Labor attack ads. The Prime Minister, ministers and party officials are seated at a main table on the conference stage surrounded by six Australian flags, while delegates from each of the branches are seated immediately at the front. Peter Dutton, Mitch Fifield, Arthur Sinodinos, Scott Morrison, James Paterson and other Liberal MPs sit further back.

5.11pm: Outgoing federal Liberal president Richard Alston kicks off the event, and everyone stands for the national anthem. To boost the patriotic feel, an animated Australian flag is put on the TV screens while the anthem plays (just the first verse). There is no acknowledgement of country, though Berejiklian would do one later on.

A video is then played explaining that the Liberals are “not the party of hate” or “the party of anger”. Instead they are a party that rewards effort, while Labor tries to tear people down just for wanting to succeed.

5.20pm: Alston delivers his presidential report. All the appointments go according to plan. Andrew Hirst as federal director, Nick Greiner as president. Alston rallies the troops. The Liberals face fierce opposition from Labor, the unions and GetUp, he says. This is a familiar theme for the evening. Cheers from the audience at describing Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as a charlatan.

5.44pm: There are four vice-president positions to fill and five candidates. Although the Liberals often talk of opposition to quotas, there is a position reserved for a woman. It isn’t needed, however. Three women and only one man are elected. There is some confusion, however, during the voting rounds, and Christopher Pyne has to step up and ask for the ballot to be run again. The candidates’ speeches run the familiar ground of needing to run negative campaigns, because Mediscare and GetUp.

6.16pm: Policy motions are voted on. The first up is one endorsing Menzie’s Forgotten People speech, which is much like getting children to vote for Christmas. It’s followed by an endorsement of the PM’s national security approach. Dutton is warmly welcomed, again children voting for Christmas. Another motion endorsing the government’s approach to small business motion passes without controversy.

6.40pm: The Tasmanian Liberals want handing out how-to-vote cards at polling booths banned. It is a gauntlet where people are harassed and it is quite aggressive, and the Tassie Liberals claim they were outgunned by eight or nine groups in Tasmania. “If you looked at all the how to votes, they all put the Liberal Party last,” the delegate says.

But there is dissent! Two speak against it. The first says people “are not rugby tackled to be given a how-to-vote card if they don’t want it. It is part of our democratic tradition, let’s keep it that way.” Then Marriage Alliance’s Sophie York — who we are convinced is a plant for the pro-marriage equality movement — contributes that it shouldn’t be assumed that low-IQ people or special needs people would vote Labor, and photos on how-to-votes can help their candidates. York appears to still be a member of the Liberals despite questions over how Marriage Alliance added a bunch of NSW Liberal email addresses to its mailing list without permission. After the night’s comments, it is now not clear if she isn’t a plant for another political party.

Regardless, the Tasmanian motion fails, and HTVs remain.

7pm: After a motion on gas reserves, there is a Western Australian motion on reviewing GST distribution — which the PM has already commissioned. “GST is socialist. It leads to a misallocation of sources … dependency on others, and takes away decentralisation of decision making on which our party is based,” the delegate says. The meeting is suspended at 7.20pm so everyone can head to cocktails and dinner, with no decision made.

At the end of the evening meeting, the mentions count is:

GetUp: 6

Menzies: 8

Mediscare: 3

Agile and innovative: 1

Jobs and growth: 1

CFMEU: 1

7.30pm: Miranda Devine joins the event, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce passes her on his way to a private party around the side. Even at the Liberal Party federal council there seems to be a chairman’s lounge. No meringue pies in sight.

8pm: After guests file into the brightly blue-lit dinner hall, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop jokingly advises that all the speeches are off the record. The PM is on a high, after securing the passage of the Gonski 2.0 legislation. The crowd applauds, but the introduction of former PM John Howard and celebrations of former NSW premier Mike Baird and Alston bring many more cheers.

8.30pm: John Howard introduces General David Petraeus by mentioning he first met him in Afghanistan when Petraeus was deployed by George W. Bush. There are cheers for W. “Yes, give George Bush a clap,” Howard says. “He’s a great bloke to work with, and I will always defend him as a good friend.”

9.30pm: Petraeus’ talk goes well. Despite a week of the government talking up the need for immigrants to speak better English because or national security, they for some reason give a pass to someone who leaked national security information to his mistress. Journalists at the event are shocked at all the news coming from his talk — from the South China Sea to encryption to his views on the Trump administration. An anecdote at the start about Petraeus meeting Turnbull two years ago and asking Turnbull where his career was going just days before he flew to Canberra to challenge Tony Abbott the following week goes over well in one half of the room, but it is met with murmurs with another half. Abbott is absent.

10.30pm: Petraeus is given a word of thanks by Andrew “Tasty” Hastie. The former SAS officer brings the war analogy to politics, and it goes well with the crowd.

Saturday:

9.20am: Acting federal director Andrew Bragg discusses the party’s woes. The Liberals are being outspent to the tune of $300 million by an “anti-Liberal, anti-enterprise” cabal including Labor, the Greens, the unions and groups like GetUp. Bragg calls this a democratic deficit and says they must fight “extreme greens and unions” attempting to take over corporate structures, such as the “brazen attempt” to install the GetUp deputy chair at the Press Council (boos from the audience).

“The bottom line is we have to fight harder to stop them,” he says. To that end, he announces the launch of a new Labor Herald-style Liberal publication called “The Fair Go”. There is also a new ad parodying Labor’s infamous white workers ad. Turnbull might have had the better Midwinter Ball speech than Shorten, but this ad was more of the Rowan Dean school of conservative comedy.

9.40am: After a short debate on the GST motion, the next motion is the Young Liberals’ call to keep Australia Day on January 26, and to not change the flag. “National symbols are under attack from the latte-sipping belt,” Eric Abetz staffer Josh Manuatu told the conference. If you needed a sign that this terminology is seriously outdated, there seemed to be several Liberal delegates more than happy with the lattes and soy milk on offer at the coffee cart immediately outside the conference room.

Another delegate makes the case that it is almost the 116th birthday of the Australian flag, and not many people are aware of the “unique” history of the flag (the one that is often confused for New Zealand’s and contains another country’s flag in the top left corner), so they should be promoting this. The motion passes. Children voting for Christmas.

9.54am: After a motion passes in favour of easing restrictions on hunting great white sharks, a contentious debate on moving public servants out of the ACT is held. ACT Liberals are obviously against the policy, and they make the case that it disrupts family life and would result in sending Labor voters into marginal electorates the Liberals are trying to secure. There is vast opposition, mainly from Queensland delegates and MPs. It is interrupted by a speech from Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, but the motion ultimately fails.

“A valiant try, Arthur. and I’m sure the people of the ACT will be very grateful for you,” Alston says.

11.04am: After morning tea, more motions on electricity, aged care, and divorce assets pass with little controversy, then at 11.30 Treasurer Scott Morrison stands to deliver his widely reported (in The Daily Telegraph) speech that Menzies’ Forgotten People have forgotten politicians and have tuned out the media. Following his speech, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop speaks. In one awkward moment, the camera cuts to Tony Abbott. He realises the camera is on him and has the most pained and uncomfortable look on his face. Turnbull gets up to speak at noon. It is notable that the biggest cheer he receives is for mentioning Abbott, a greater reception than he gets mentioning Gonski or the other 125 pieces of legislation that have passed through Parliament since the election. The citizenship legislation and stopping the boats are also popular in the room. Turnbull makes it through his entire speech about energy without mentioning climate change. 

At the end of his speech, and as the public component of the council meeting drew to a close, the PM is given a standing ovation. Journalists attempt to see if Abbott is among those standing, but he could not be spotted — perhaps he adjourned to the foyer to have a soy latte?

Tips and rumours

May 23, 2017

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

New digital agency head at Lib fundraiser. The new CEO of Malcolm Turnbull’s pet project, the Digital Transformation Agency, has admitted he needs to get better acquainted with rules around public servant impartiality after he attended a Liberal Party fundraiser on budget night just days into his new job.

In Senate estimates today, Gavin Slater said he wasn’t aware that the Liberal Party’s fundraising dinner in the Great Hall in Parliament House on budget night was a party political event.

“It is fair to say I have a lot to learn about obligations,” he said, adding he was invited by a friend — Angus Barker, a special adviser to Trade Minister Steve Ciobo — and didn’t pay for his ticket. Attorney-General George Brandis said that the event had people from “a very wide cross-section of the Australian community” and he didn’t think there was any rule against public servants attending political events.

Ms Tips passed the event on budget night, and the Liberal logo was very hard to miss on the door out front — that’s the Liberal Party logos above where the seating charts were displayed.

 

Given some Liberals are chasing Gillian Triggs for daring to speak at an event organised by the Bob Brown Foundation, some might find Brandis’ dismissal of the criticism too cute.

Strange days as Liberals and Catholics go to war. One of the most common tactics used by governments to influence debate over any sort of controversial policy is to drop data, sourced either from within the government bureaucracy or sourced from an “independent” consultant, usually paid by the government or sectoral interests, to a favoured journalist. The data will purport to show how claims being made by the opposition or a sector making life difficult for the government are false and the government correct.

But the government’s surrender on Gonski school funding reform has produced the bizarre sight of a Coalition government handing out such drops to journalists as part of an attack on the Catholic education system. In the Fin Review and the Fairfax metros today, readers found out how the Catholic Church subsidises rich schools ahead of some of the poorest schools in the country. Anyone familiar with the Howard years, when that government opened the funding floodgates to Catholic schools as part of its taxpayer-funded “aspirational agenda”, would be shocked to see the Liberals’ guns turned on the Church of Rome. As would poor Simon Benson at The Australian, normally the Coalition go-to guy for drops. He was left to run a (literally) Howard-era piece on plucky Catholic schools vowing to fight the government.

One Nation quiet on ABC complaints. When the ABC’s Andrew Probyn revealed on Insiders in March that Pauline Hanson was set to visit Australian troops in the Middle East on Anzac Day, the party was furious, as the trip ended up being cancelled for security reasons. Hanson went on to announce on Facebook that she was boycotting the national broadcaster. “You know what I was really looking forward to, is spending Anzac Day with them,” she said.”Good on you Andrew, great one, mate.”

As we revealed at the time, Defence had already put the dates up online, but took them down in a later version of a pamphlet sent to MPs.

But how angry was she really? A freedom of information request reveals the ABC hasn’t received any complaints about the program, so while Hanson had time for a Facebook video, she didn’t actually contact the public broadcaster about it.

House of Reps or The West WingYesterday, Sky News played “name that MP” using footage of Parliament’s less known representatives to test out just how well they knew some of the more camera-shy backbenchers. Tasmanian Labor MP Ross Hart took his inclusion in the segment quite well, tweeting a photo of himself with the caption “Ziegler perhaps?”

We had wondered if we were the only ones who saw the resemblance with the character Toby Ziegler from The West Wing. Sounds like he’s heard that one before.

Just the tonic. It was gin o’clock at Senate estimates last night as parliamentary librarian Dr Dianne Heriot was questioned about just how the Parliament House gift shop began selling the “parliamentary librarian’s gin”. Heriot told the committee the idea to sell the gin was her own, while chair Senator James Paterson chimed in to say that he was a fan. The committee heard it’s a good seller, with a following on Twitter. While Heriot said she wasn’t involved in the distilling process, she is available for autographing bottles. 

“I thought it was a good idea,” Heriot told the committee. “Because when I’m on holidays I often go to parliaments because I’m tragic in that regard and I noticed that branded spirits often sell very well, and gin was a trending beverage.”

Senator Penny Wong ended the gin speculation by bringing the committee back to more serious matters, asking “what about your resourcing?”.

Unfortunately she meant funding for the Parliamentary Library’s work, not the provenance of the juniper berries.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form