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New South Wales

Feb 9, 2017

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The new Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, is soon to face two electoral tests in the Liberal heartland of Sydney’s northern suburbs: the preselections, then byelections, to replace former health minister Jillian Skinner and Berejiklian’s predecessor as premier, Mike Baird.

The race for Baird’s seat of Manly has drawn the most attention thus far. This is due not only to the star quality that still lingers over Teflon Mike, but the proxy war being fought between the moderates aligned to Michael Photios and the more conservative forces, aligned to former PM Tony Abbott.

Local Liberals are despairing at the public brawling. As reported in Crikey, it appears likely the only woman in the contest, Greg Pearce’s former staffer Natalie Ward, will drop out. On the face of it this might seem a loss for gender balance in the party, but rumour suggests she may have a wink-and-nod deal to replace Pearce when he goes, giving her a constituent-free upper house seat.  That leaves three: Abbott’s campaign manager Walter Villatora, local Mayor James Griffin, and Alex Dore, the NSW divisional president of the Young Liberals.

[Gladys Berejiklian, the unknown quantity, takes over from Teflon Mike]

Nasty words are flying about Griffin, who was referred to as “Spawn of the Greens when The Australian gleefully chronicled a protest held outside Tony Abbott’s office it linked to Griffin. The link drawn between Griffin and the protest is his mother, a local Greens councillor, who was protesting against energy policy, with the pearl-clutching implication it was highly improper to be associated in any way with protests against the leader-in-exile. At this stage the implied criticism seems two-fold: that Griffin is a tree Tory who has chosen the blue side of the turquoise line but may waver over it at any stage, with added sniggering implying he is too young and tied to his mother’s apron strings to be taken seriously.

This might not matter, though, if the reports of Photios swinging the 56 admin committee votes behind Griffin are accurate, a report that is proving to be a source of considerable angst to some local Liberals. The complaint in this area remains the same as with the election of Trent Zimmerman to Joe Hockey’s vacancy and Jason Falinski’s election to the seat of Mackellar, vacated by Bronwyn “Choppergate” Bishop: that local party democracy is being stifled.

[The battle for Bronny’s turf, and the truth about Liberal ‘factions’]

There is a factional flavour to the complaints. Abbott’s camp has been critical of preselection processes before, with the ABC reporting in 2015 three party members had been suspended for speaking against current preselection processes and urging further democratic reform in local preselections. In the ABC story one Liberal member is quoted as saying the suspensions only fed negative media interest, and were self-serving and petty; it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Abbott’s preferred candidate, Walter Villatora, was praised by the member for Warringah for supporting party reform, but questions might be asked about whether this would be the case if conservative tendencies held the numbers on the admin committee.

All this has either a nauseating familiarity or a picaresque flavour to it for NSW politics watchers. Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi et al were notorious for fiddling while Rome burned, installing premiers and obsessing over local government elections while the ALP’s support plummeted. Some worry the same will apply in Manly in particular for the Liberals. Before Baird, the seat was held by independents for 16 years. The Liberal Party should expect a swing against it, perhaps one even beyond the normal anti-incumbency numbers. On that basis, should anyone be taking Manly for granted?

New South Wales

Feb 6, 2017

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Things are getting complex in the Liberal preselection for Manly.

The Australian has Mike Baird supporting James Griffin, a moderate and former deputy mayor of Manly. Tony Abbott’s forces are said to be backing Walter Villatora, Abbott’s former campaign manager, who was unsuccessful in his bid to replace Bronwyn Bishop in Mackellar.

Also in the mix are Natalie Ward and Alex Dore. Ward is a former deputy chief of staff to Greg Pearce MLC, and rumour has it she will not be staying in the race. That leaves Dore, the NSW divisional president of the Young Liberals, to complete the sausage-fest run alongside Villatora and Griffin.

While the Tele reported on Dore’s close links to both Baird and Abbott, it hasn’t repeated its 2013 story linking Ward to “controversial Liberal powerbroker” Michael Photios via her husband, who (in 2013) was in business with Photios. At that time, the links between Ward’s husband and insurers at a time when insurance reforms were before Parliament caused controversy.

If Ward does drop out, that leaves Dore, Villatora and Griffin. The numbers would appear to be with Griffin if Photios supports him via the 56 votes from the Liberal Party admin committee.

There appears to be some internal unease about Griffin and a perception that he is unsuitable based on opposition to Liberal initiatives like shark nets and Council amalgamations. Whether this is true or simply a smear based on Griffin’s family is unclear. Two Griffins served on Manly Council; Griffin Sr is in this instance Greens councillor Cathy Griffin, who has publicly come out against shark nets.

Tony Abbott’s former campaign manager is no stranger to controversy. Villatora has been the subject of internal nastiness before; a shit-sheet circulated about him during last year’s Mackellar preselection. What it failed to discuss in detail (instead focusing on a resume that was supposedly padded) was his mention at ICAC. When former Liberal official John Caputo was questioned about thousands of dollars in cheques given to former energy minister and hard-right Central Coast MP Chris Hartcher, Walter Villatora was one of the people he threw under the bus as allegedly authorising the payments. Under cross-examination, Caputo testified he re-directed cheques through the Manly State Conference to Hartcher, and named Villatora as someone who authorised the scheme. ICAC would later recommend Hartcher be charged for larceny relating to those cheques. ICAC made no recommendations about Villatora. 

[Baird’s resignation fires starting gun on NSW Liberal factional warfare]

Caputo also didn’t help himself with the party after agreeing to speak at a Christian Democratic Party launch; contributing via ICAC to the downfall of Hartcher won’t have helped his standing either. 

ICAC has cut a swathe through both major parties, and questions are now being asked about a series of companies owned by Villatora. Company searches show him as the director of Gibbs Media Pty Ltd, Gibbs TV Pty Ltd, and Wunkydoo Pty Ltd, as well as others.

For aficionados of Australian children’s literature, these names will ring bells: the “Gibbs” appears to be May Gibbs, and Wunkydoo is gumnut baby Chucklebud’s brother. Upon her death, May Gibbs left her copyright jointly to what is now the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the NSW Society for Crippled Children, now known as Northcott

Managing Gibbs’ legacy has long been a haunt of aspiring Liberal politicians and their families, and it all goes full circle with the preselection for Baird’s seat: the wife of Greg Pearce, Shauna Jarrett, was ousted from the board of Nutcote (the historic home run as a Gibbs museum) by Stephen Barbour, a North Sydney Liberal councillor. 

How Liberal preselectors will deal with this is anyone’s guess. If recent performances are anything to go by, though, Villatora might not be gracious at being passed over again, and the master of white-anting, Tony Abbott, is on hand to assist. Given Villatora is associated with a former PM who makes Kevin Rudd look like a rank amateur in this area, it will be an interesting space to watch. 

Tips and rumours

Feb 1, 2017

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The replacements for former NSW premier Mike Baird are circling after the member for Manly’s shock resignation announcement last week, and quite a few familiar names are part of the speculation. The Oz reports today Baird will recommend moderate James Griffin, while Tony Abbott-ally Walter Villatora, who also challenged Bronwyn Bishop for her federal seat of Mackellar last year, is also likely to throw his hat in the ring. A tipster tells Crikey most doubt Baird will show favouritism to any candidates, and that Villatora’s chances are good if Abbott loyalists vote for him. Manly is a plum seat for the Liberals and is likely to attract a large field of candidates. We also hear that some Liberals have encouraged Baird to make the move to federal politics; they suggested the seat of Warringah would be a good fit.

News

Feb 1, 2017

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

What a terrible place, a pub with high taxes. It’s not quite a scene from Cheers, but yesterday the Business Council of Australia opened a new front in its war on company taxes, this time roping in a young bartender concerned about her job without trickle-down economics. “I’m worried there will be fewer job opportunities around here because of high company tax,” the tweet quoted. Because, let’s be honest, what young bar worker hasn’t at some point mused on the effects of onerous company tax on employment options?

Was this #faketradie take two? No need to worry, the BCA assured followers the bartender was real, writing “No need to Google. She’s a #realbartender in a real pub in Adelaide, South Australia where they know that real investment=real jobs.”

Sleuthing from Crikey’s Josh Taylor confirmed that this was indeed a real bar — The General Havelock or “the Havey” in Adelaide — and it appeared that the woman in the photo does indeed work there.

Of course, it’s not just any old bar. Blogger Nathan Lee tweeted that the Havelock is owned by the Fahey family, one of whom, Greg Fahey, is the former vice-president (and a life member) of the South Australian branch of employer lobbying group the Australia Hotels Association. Greg’s sons Jason and Trent are also both currently on the AHASA Council. One of AHASA’s pet causes is — you guessed it — onerous tax burdens on hospitality businesses. Lee backed his assertion with a PDF of the AHASA’s official publication from July 2012. It’s not clear if the Fahey family still owns the bar.

We gave the Havelock a call, but they declined to comment or put us in contact with the #realbartender.

Roll up, roll up, the sideshow continues. While One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has resisted calls to drop David Archibald as the candidate for the WA seat of Pilbara (the charmer who said single mothers were “too lazy to attract and hold a mate” in a Quadrant article in 2015). Now it turns out Archibald was actually the second choice for the seat, after nurse Andrea Randle pulled out of the running. Archibald was only announced as the candidate last week, which is when he told the local ABC he was “part Aboriginal” and didn’t believe in the stolen generations. 

Vultures circle. The replacements for former NSW premier Mike Baird are circling after the member for Manly’s shock resignation announcement last week, and quite a few familiar names are part of the speculation. The Oz reports today Baird will recommend moderate James Griffin, while Tony Abbott-ally Walter Villatora, who also challenged Bronwyn Bishop for her federal seat of Mackellar last year, is also likely to throw his hat in the ring. A tipster tells Crikey most doubt Baird will show favouritism to any candidates, and that Villatora’s chances are good if Abbott loyalists vote for him. Manly is a plum seat for the Liberals and is likely to attract a large field of candidates. We also hear that some Liberals have encouraged Baird to make the move to federal politics; they suggested the seat of Warringah would be a good fit.

Daily MailHerald SunIn recent times the Herald Sun has (deservedly) given the Daily Mail a hard time for stealing its stories — especially court yarns. But how did this item end up tucked at the bottom of page 6 of the Hun and on page 15 of the Adelaide Advertiser, with no attribution, and very little detail about the study that said women with breast cancer could avoid mastectomies?

A tipster tells us the item is almost, word for word, a rip-off of a story that was in the Daily Mail two days ago. Oops.

 

Make George Christensen great again. George Christensen wants to make Australia great again, but he is literally powerless to do so. Australia’s favourite whip-packing MP appeared on Sky last night to talk about Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order (guess where Christensen falls on the issue), donning a red “Make Australia Great Again” cap, the must-have accessory for the hard right of his party. A topic that was not discussed was what role Christensen — who has, after all, been part of the elected government for three years — has played in Australia’s ongoing lack of greatness.

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

New South Wales

Jan 30, 2017

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Gladys Berejiklian, the new Premier of New South Wales, has put her stamp of authority on state politics in the most dramatic and self-assured fashion.

Responding to the wave of angry populism representing voters who feel “left behind”, Berejiklian has undergone a political makeover. She is no longer the build-at-any-cost transport minister or the thrusting banker-turned-treasurer; now she is “delivering for everyone” and “making life easier for people right across NSW”.

As she quietly affirmed, at her very first press conference as premier: “The nature of politics is changing.”

After today’s swearing-in of her first cabinet, Berejiklian will shift the Coalition’s current emphasis on transforming Sydney into a “global city” and switch to projects in cities and towns in regional and rural NSW. It involves the major re-direction of government resources, i.e. pork-barrelling, and an assault on the Sydney-centricity within the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy and CBD boardrooms.

From today the new power elite in NSW is the Gladys Group — a.k.a. “the Armenians” in reference to the premier’s migrant background.

Her core group of senior ministers are all long-time Berejiklian supporters: Transport Minister Andrew Constance; Education Minister Rob Stokes; Minister for Resources, Energy, Utilities and Arts Don Harwin; Minister for Western Sydney, WestConnex and Sport Stuart Ayres (partner of federal Defence Minister Marise Payne); Minister for the Environment and Local Government Gabrielle Upton; and Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Matthew Kean.

The “outsiders” are all right-wingers, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Planning Minister Anthony Roberts, Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Terrorism and Corrective Services Minister David Elliott.

Is their role to make Berejiklian’s premiership a rousing success? I doubt it; their inclination will be to watch her fail.

[Will Berejiklian’s deputy kill her chances?]

Her smartest move is to make Mark Speakman SC, MP for Cronulla, the attorney-General in a stand-alone portfolio. She has stripped Justice, Corrective Services and Police from the previous AG mega-portfolio, which had led to grotesque conflicts of interests.

Speakman is the Coalition’s smartest legal brain by a country mile. A graduate in law and economics from Sydney University and Cambridge, he won the chief lawmaker’s position in spite of demonic lobbying by the hard right in support of Alister Henskens, a  Sydney barrister who replaced premier Barry O’Farrell in the north shore seat of Ku-ring-gai.

Winning back the support of the judiciary, the bar and the legal profession will involve switching off radio ranters like Alan Jones and Ray Hadley and ignoring legal epistles from The Australian’s commentariat.

The elevation of Don Harwin to cabinet means he will stand down as upper house president, thus creating a vacancy for the much-coveted sinecure. Harwin is a veteran marginal seats campaigner and deal-maker who is detested by the hard right.

His promotion into the frontline of Berejiklian’s ministry will infuriate his opponents and deepen hostilities between “wets” and “dries”.

Mike Baird and outgoing health minister Jillian Skinner will leave Parliament immediately, creating critical byelections in Manly and North Shore respectively. Berejiklian needs to win both to cement her leadership.

Baird and Berejiklian have been choreographing their baton change since early December last year, so media stories about his resignation being a “surprise” are either disingenuous or just plain wrong.

So far, the transition has gone smoothly and the state’s second female premier has received a rapturous reception. Like British Prime Minister Theresa May, she is driven by moral certainty. She believes her policies are right and they are good for everyone else. People who oppose her certainties are regarded as ignorant or slow coaches. On the other hand, she regards herself as self-evidently correct.

Experience shows that those who proclaim their mission is doing good for all, usually end up doing well for themselves.

If Berejiklian practises what she preaches — “I’m right, follow me” — I give her a year.

New South Wales

Jan 23, 2017

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Liberal MPs have endorsed Gladys Berejiklian as the 45th premier of NSW, the state’s seventh premier in 12 years.

She won the unanimous support of her bitterly divided party after agreeing to scrap policies she previously favoured and handing out cabinet positions to her bitterest opponents in the hard-right faction. By attempting a balancing act between party “wets” and “dries”, Berejiklian has created an inherently unstable administration.

Her new deputy Dominic Perrottet, the hard-right’s premier-in-waiting, will become Treasurer and deputy Liberal leader to pursue his philosophy of wholesale privatisation, smaller government and lower taxation for companies and entrepreneurs.

The gushing media welcome for 46-year-old Berejiklian ignores the fact that her professional and political career has been sponsored by preferment. Her carefully cultivated image of the first-generation immigrant woman who succeeded by dint of brilliance and diligence will be tested between now and the next state election in March 2019.

The fact remains that she has never experienced leadership at the pointy end because her strength has been as a backroom operator, and she has never been challenged with the carriage of major policy issues. In the past, she has ducked the ownership of tough decisions and gone along with the prevailing cabinet view. As premier, however, there’s no place to hide.

With a new cabinet to be announced this weekend, Berejiklian will have to declare her policy on critical matters:

  • Will the Coalition’s council amalgamation program go ahead or will it be unscrambled?
  • Will the deeply unpopular lock-out laws, sponsored by the NSW Police Association, be junked?
  • Will plans to cripple the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) be aborted?
  • Will the new premier choose an independent police commissioner or will she leave the selection to Alan Jones and the Police Association?
  • Will she halt the sale of Crown land and historic buildings?
  • Will she tackle the affordable housing emergency by releasing public land for new housing estates equipped with renewable energy and the NBN?

For the moment, Berejiklian is basking in wildly adoring publicity in the mainstream media, led by Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald and Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids.

The Daily Telegraph editorial said: “Berejiklian, part of the Coalition team that has already done so much to rebuild the state, now says her aim as premier will be to make NSW even greater.” 

Its sister paper, the Sunday Telegraph, said: “Gladys Berejiklian is the right Premier for NSW now. She is the only member of the Coalition who is premier material. Ms Berejiklian has been an outstanding Treasurer and she deserves support.” 

Since 2005, four Labor premiers have passed through the revolving door — Bob Carr, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally — and three Liberals: Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Berejiklian.

For the Liberals, Berejiklian’s ascension to the leadership sets a new record for the party. In the past 20 years, the party has had seven leaders, Peter Collins, Kerry Chikarovski, John Brogden, Peter Debnam, O’Farrell, Baird and Berejiklian. Only two of them, Chikarovski and Debnam, were from the right-wing “dry” faction while all the others have been “wets”.

Both Chikarovski and Keneally, the state’s first female premier, tried to introduce political chic into their appeal to voters. It didn’t work. The electorate drew the conclusion, unfairly or otherwise, that they were lightweights and moved on.

Berejiklian’s ace is hard work, competence and honesty but, regrettably, those are not attributes that necessarily win elections. A privileged, hard-working former banker from the North Shore doesn’t raise enthusiasm in western Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Orange, Dubbo, the Blue Mountains or Ballina.

With a tight election due in March 2019, the backstabbing isn’t over yet. If the Berejiklian experiment fails to encourage support for the Coalition, she won’t remain unchallenged.

And if Labor’s Luke Foley continues his uninspiring leadership of the opposition, he will face a late challenge too.

New South Wales

Jan 20, 2017

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 Mike Baird’s surprise resignation as New South Wales Premier makes him the fifth person to vacate the position since 2008, and the first to do so on his own terms since Bob Carr in 2005.

Given the circumstances of his departure, and his success in keeping his nose clean as leader of a state that has become proverbial for political malfeasance, most reacted to the news sympathetically (Mark Latham being a seemingly inevitable exception).

Even so, Baird leaves office with a patchy electoral record, and with recent polls suggesting the public was growing increasingly disenchanted with his leadership.

The Coalition was handily re-elected a year after Baird took office in April 2014, but such was the unprecedented scale of Barry O’Farrell’s landslide win in 2011 that the strength of his performance was hard to evaluate.

On the one hand, the Coalition emerged with a healthy majority of 54 seats out of 93 — but on the other, it lost 15 seats and suffered an advserse two-party swing of 10%.

[Baird’s resignation fires starting gun on NSW Liberal factional warfare]

Depending on how you look at it, it was either the Coalition’s worst performance at a state election in a quarter of a century, or its second best.

Fair-minded observers would incline to the more favourable view, since the gloss had already worn off the government by the time Baird succeeded O’Farrell three years into the government’s first term.

The property developer donations scandals that claimed eight Liberal scalps had introduced some element of equivalence with state Labor’s dismal record of corruption, and the government had been hammered by a 26% swing to Labor at a byelection in the Sutherland Shire seat of Miranda six months before Baird took on the job.

Furthermore, Baird has been the only premier of the post-Carr era to have substantially gained in popularity over any period while in the job — a point illustrated by the opinion poll trends displayed in the chart below — and his upward trajectory at the time of the 2015 election presumably added fat to the Coalition’s winning margin.

Certainly it’s worth observing that Baird’s victory made him only the second New South Wales Liberal leader to win a parliamentary majority since 1988, and the first to do so while seeking re-election since 1973.

However, it’s only been in the second term that things have truly turned sour, resulting in a slump in personal support all too familiar in the state’s recent political history.

Lockout laws and council amalgamations have commonly featured in aggregations of the post-election black marks against Baird’s name, but by far the biggest question mark over his political smarts relates to his banning and then unbanning of the greyhound racing industry.

This culminated in a byelection disaster in mid-November to rival that suffered by O’Farrell in Miranda, when the Nationals-held seat of Orange was lost to Shooters Fishers and Farmers, prompting Nationals leader Troy Grant to fall on his sword two days later.

[The ballad of Baird: how Teflon Mike became the big bad wolf]

Yet despite all that, the Coalition has maintained leads over Labor in every published opinion poll.

The scale of those leads has been rather modest of late — the most recent results from Newspoll and Essential Research both had it at 51-49 on two-party preferred — but this is a position that most governments would be more than happy with at the mid-point of their second term.

If storm clouds loomed on the horizon, they had less to do with Baird’s unpopularity than with tensions in a party organisation in which empire-building moderates have increasingly gained the ascendancy, to the bitter chagrin their conservative rivals.

The challenge of managing these tensions will now fall to a new leader — expected to be Gladys Berejiklian, who reportedly stands to benefit from a deal between her own moderate faction and young right up-and-comer Dominic Perrottet, who looks set to succeed her as deputy leader and treasurer.

Recent history suggests Berejiklian will come to her new role with considerable public goodwill.

But it also suggests the goodwill will be fickle and fleeting, with no guarantee that she will be able to carry it through to an election still more than two years away.

New South Wales

Jan 19, 2017

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Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird’s resignation leaves the Coalition government in a shambles and has turned his succession into a cage fight between bitterly divided factions.

His exit probably hands the next state election, in March 2019, to Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who has been clawing back support for scandal-ridden NSW Labor.

Baird was ultimately worn down by six factors:

  • His deep unpopularity among electors, which, despite several attempts, he was unable to reverse;
  • The constant backstabbing, rancour and factional division within the Liberal Party, led by hard-line right-wing Christian forces;
  • Rabid “regime-change” journalists in the press gallery from Rupert Murdoch’s empire, Fairfax Media and the ABC who claimed they were merely reflecting “popular anger”;
  • His Premier and Cabinet Department was staffed by toadying flunkies instead of hard-headed political types. These out-of-touch ultra-loyalists might have been responsible for cheering him up, but they gave him the dumbest advice;
  • Brutally bad publicity, worsening polls and vicious social media trolling had a damaging impact on his family. In the end, they’d had enough as well and told him so; and
  • The National Party decision to oust his loyal and competent deputy premier Troy Grant last November was the last straw. Baird began to lose interest and started to focus on clearing his in-tray.

Like his father, Bruce Baird, a former NSW transport and Olympics minister, Mike Baird is a “good time” politician. He enjoys making announcements of achievement and success such as opening new buildings, tilling the first sod on infrastructure projects and wearing safety helmets on construction sites.

But if there is an accident, a bungle or a seismic stuff-up, Baird is less likely to be on hand. His minders steer him away from bad publicity with almost religious zeal.

[Foley gains on ‘Teflon’ Mike as greyhound ban splits NSW Coalition]

However, it doesn’t help. It simply makes him look weak, evasive and unaccountable, and the polls drop another couple of points.

Lining up to take over the premiership are North Shore MP and Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, Anthony Roberts, MP for Lane Cove and a former John Howard staffer with close connections to broadcaster Alan Jones, and Dominic Perrottet, MP for Hawkesbury, an avid supporter of privatisation, small government and free markets.

Berejiklian is the most competent of the lot and the stand-out candidate. However, she won’t be supported by the party’s platoon of misogynists or the dominant right-wing faction. Pittwater MP Rob Stokes is another Liberal with major qualifications for the job, but he is branded “unsound” by Tony Abbott’s followers in the NSW division of the Liberal Party.

What you have, therefore, is a lot of candidates, many from the second or third division, backed by extra-parliamentary vested interests. Many of the aspirants want to use their remaining time in Macquarie Street to make money and friends in the CBD boardrooms.

[The ballad of Baird: how Teflon Mike became the big bad wolf]

Labor’s Luke Foley will be enthused by Baird’s exit. Although he didn’t have to raise a finger, he will be claiming Baird’s “scalp” to enhance his foggy image.

There will be other celebrations among groups opposed to the WestConnex motorway, Australia’s biggest infrastructure project, which is causing community outrage in inner-city suburbs where the ALP and Greens are competing for seats.

Their celebrations will be short lived; whoever takes over Baird’s job will pursue the project to its conclusion. And so will Luke Foley if he is elected in 2019.

Companies

Jan 19, 2017

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The epic fight over the greyhound racing ban will mar departing New South Wales Premier Mike Baird’s legacy, but one of his greatest triumphs was turning one of the most controversial issues in NSW politics for more than a decade into a nonevent. When Baird sold off another significant chunk of the NSW electricity network at the end of last year, this time to industry super funds, it drew barely a comment from either NSW Labor or the Electrical Trades Union — despite being the issue Labor tore itself apart over, and lost party leaders for, at various points since the Bob Carr era.

It’s quite a contrast from the hysterical, racist campaign Labor and the unions waged against privatisation before the 2015 election, with the CFMEU complaining about selling “our” electricity network to China and Labor telling blatant lies about the impact of privatisation on electricity prices. This was far from being an irrational resistance to privatisation: Labor and the unions were out to protect union jobs in the industry, putting the benefits to consumers of privatisation in a distant second place. The CFMEU is a major donor to NSW Labor, and so, too, is the Electrical Trades Union, which gave over $81,000 to Labor in the lead-up to the 2015 election.

But in responding to the Ausgrid sale by the Baird government, Labor leader and nonentity Luke Foley could only bring himself to complain that the government could have got a better deal if it had waited longer and shopped the assets around more. At least that time Foley offered a coherent response; his response to Baird’s previous sale, of Transgrid (to foreign investors), was to tenuously link it to the WestConnex project so disliked by some of Sydney’s inner-city types. More interesting was the response from the ETU, which declared “as private owners go — we could do worse than an Australian Super fund.”

The non-reaction illustrates that governments looking to sell assets are often taking on two political problems, not just one: selling assets is disliked by the electorate, and foreign ownership is also regarded with hostility. The Keating and Howard government dealt with this by putting in place foreign ownership limits of one kind or another for Qantas, the CBA and Telstra. Scott Morrison’s ham-fisted intervention in the Ausgrid sale to block Asian investors accomplished something similar.

But that it wasn’t just Australian super funds but industry super funds that ended up purchasing the half-stake in Augrid appears to have also been important. Neither foreign nor, strictly, private sector, industry super funds are ostensibly a more benign entity to take control of a piece of infrastructure and its employees. It’s an illusion, of course; super funds of any stripe will seek managers who will run assets as efficiently and cheaply as possible and extract maximum revenue, just like a private corporation. And most super funds — industry, retail and corporate — invest in privatised entities like Telstra, Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. Most Australian workers, therefore, have a long-term stake in privatised companies, but don’t necessarily associate themselves with the “shareholders” that they perceive as benefiting from the misdeeds of such companies.

The ideal way forward would be for politicians and business leaders to explain to voters the benefits of foreign investment and of properly regulated privatisation (where governments don’t structure the sale to minimise competition for the asset and thus maximise their return). But with no one either willing or, it seems, capable of doing that, super funds seem to offer an effective political cheat code for politicians dealing with truculent, privatisation-averse electorates.

Music

Nov 29, 2016

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Pills, pingas, stingas, disco biscuits and googs are some of the names bouncing around as punters gear up for the festival season. But what goes into these widely, and wildly, consumed drugs, and do users have the right to know?

Pill testing, or drug checking, aims to decipher what is in the drugs someone is about to take. The kits arm drug users with the knowledge of what is in their pills, which allows them to make an informed decision as to whether to take them.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone wants illegal drugs to be tested for safety, which is making it harder for organisations to provide kits and gain data about their effectiveness in Australia. But as we head into summer music festival season, the debate around pill testing has come up again.

What is pill testing?

Pill testing is a way for people to  identify the present substances and find out the active ingredients in their drugs. As the drugs being tested are illegal, there are no ingredient lists and no safety standards. This strategy puts some power back into the users hands and aims to reduce the harm and deaths caused by drugs each year.

How does it work?

A sample of the drug, about the size of a match head, is mixed into a clear chemical solution in a plastic tube. Much like the pH tests in high school science, the liquid then changes colour to indicate the active ingredient present in the sample. A chart is provided to match against the colour to see if the drug is what the user thinks it is.

The kits available for purchase online are basic and can miss certain substances. Advocates for the scheme want to see pill-testing booths set up at festivals and parties with laboratory-grade equipment, to better understand the active ingredients and help users decipher the results.

A lot of different things are being found when tested: caffeine, paracetamol and ADHD drug Ritalin are all commonly found, as well as dangerous chemicals and unadvertised illicit drugs like ice.

Is it legal to test illegal drugs in Australia?

While the drugs people are testing are illegal, the testing kits are legal everywhere Australia.

Many schemes include an “amnesty bin”, where dodgy pills can be disposed of, which could leave those running the booths open to charges of drug possession. If people are lining up at a booth they could also be targeted by police.

NSW Premier Mike Baird has promised to prosecute anyone associated with pill-testing trials in the state, despite many deaths in festivals around the state.

Can I expect to see testing kits at Australian festivals this year?

Yes, but not in any official capacities. Some NGOs are claiming they will covertly be giving out free basic testing kits at some festivals this year.

Anyone can buy a pill-testing kit online or through retail outlets.

Who supports legalising pill testing?

The Greens. In March the Parliamentary Drug Summit, co-hosted by Senator Richard Di Natale, created the Canberra Declaration on Illicit Drugs. Among other points, the declaration said:

“Drug checking presents as a potentially valuable option for reducing harm at public events and governments should enable trials to be implemented as a matter of priority.”

Other advocates testing include NGOs like the Ted Noffs Foundation, Unharm, DanceSafe and Drug Policy Australia.

Many academics working and researching in the area are also supportive of the testing. In 2014, UNSW Professor Alison Ritter said getting people into testing booths was an opportunity for education and at the very least, the country needs to pilot the scheme.

“Australia should run a trial of pill testing and assess its benefits and harms so we can then make an informed choice about this intervention,” Ritter wrote.

Who opposes pill testing?

Most politicians currently in power in Australia are against the idea. The majority see it as condoning drug use.

NSW Premier Mike Baird’s advice? “Don’t do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine.”

Where can you buy pill-testing kits?

There are many online stores providing pill testing kits to Australians: