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Economy

May 9, 2017

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Look. I’m no Delphic Oracle, but if forced to lay my drachma down on naming the general character of Treasurer Scott Morrison’s budget tonight, I’d go with “neoliberal”. This era of economic policy — to avoid confusion, one characterised by the mobilisation of the state in the interest of firms — is on life-support. It is upheld not only by public assets, most evident in the US bailouts following the financial crisis of 2007-08, but by hot air.

Overwhelmingly, Western political leaders and commentators of all stripes refuse to identify the problems divulged by this era of policy. If poverty is on the rise, then this must be the result of bad parenting. If housing prices exceed the reach of young Australians, then this must be the result of them buying posh coffee. If wages are stagnating, this must be the result of unreasonable union demands. These last two claims were made not by overt right moralisers, but by Stephen Koukoulas, a putatively progressive economist, and a then-custodian of the labour movement, Paul Howes.

In his 2014 interview with Leigh Sales, Howes said that what was needed for wages reform was an end to “politicising” its debate. As if there ever has been a matter less political than one’s personal financial survival. This, however, is the public assertion made, even by the purported “left”, to justify 40 years of market-friendly techniques: wages are not political, silly. As David Cameron said, we are all Thatcherites now.

Neoliberalism is the horizon beyond which many are unable to see. It is not an avid reconstitution, as is powerfully argued by Mark Blyth in his marvellous book Austerity: The History of a Bad Idea, of classical models of economic thought, but something that is seen by elites as a natural end to world progress — a real End of History deal. Why fix what the god of Reason ordained?

Well, because it’s not working. The crises of housing, poverty and wage stagnation in Australia did not unfold due to a lack of personal virtue in those afflicted by them, but because capitalism produces regular crises. And you don’t have to be a material leftist to believe this. You just have to be Paul Keating.

In an interview this week with Troy Bramston, who is shortly to release a book on the former leader, Keating restates his newly emerged view that neoliberalism is a crock. Of course, being Keating, he doesn’t admit the part that his government played in creating present conditions — just ask him and he’ll tell you that all Australians benefited from the Hawke-Keating brand of neoliberalism-lite — but he does, unlike most others, actually concede that economic history has cycles.

Morrison will deliver a budget based on the belief that the “free-market” has a natural equilibrium. Notwithstanding all the hard work done by business-friendly administrations across the world to deliver this “freedom”, this is now the widespread view. Even if Keating dismisses the recent remarks by ACTU secretary Sally McManus that neoliberalism was always a bad idea destined to screw large numbers of people, he is, at least, urging for a dynamic view of history.

John Maynard Keynes, the economist whose thinking was adopted to address the crisis of 1929 and whose prescriptions were ended by Keating, almost certainly never said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But, you know, he meant it. And so does Keating. Things transform and so, in a reasonable nation, must economic policy.

The fix for the problems of neoliberalism is unlikely to be more neoliberalism. To be, as today’s many undeclared advocates for neoliberalism are, personally moralising about it: you don’t reward a toddler for crapping all over your rug. If you’re an economic parent, like Keating, who combines authority with liberalism, you attempt to resolve the matter by containing your child, or risk an unmanageable steam-cleaning bill.

You need have no particular political allegiance, other than that to the classical fiction of market equilibrium, to know that things change, sir, and so must minds. When things changed to produce the Great Depression, the new technique of full employment was tried. When full employment produced the stagflation of the 1970s, as predicted, the new technique of neoliberalism was tried.

When neoliberalism shat itself, we applied more neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has produced mediocre ideologues and difficult conditions for many in the nation and the world. Despite claims made by many in the press — particularly following the election of Emmanuel Macron in France — that this aging neoliberalism is a fresh new resistance, it will continue to produce harsh political results.

Keating is, of course, an arrogant man. But he’s not one nth as arrogant as those many, from the labour movement to the IPA, who believe that neoliberalism is the natural and apolitical extension of human nature. And he’s not as deluded as a man like Howes who believes there to be no necessary connection between politics and individual survival.

It’s time to change your mind, sir, and acknowledge the intimate link between politics and economies that neoliberalism has cunningly obscured. If minds don’t change, facts will, in any case.

Journalism

May 5, 2014

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When the true players won’t say much on the record and you’re sick of interviewing other journalists, you need people who’ll tell you what you probably already know in a way you can convey to your audience.

It helps if these people have big names, are happy to court controversy, and have a certain turn of phrase. These media tarts, often former players themselves, can offer insight on the way things are done, and the reasons behind the press conferences. Most importantly, they’ll take your call and hurry down to your studio when something breaks. For reasons of their own, they’re happy to have their face on a breaking story as an expert and guide. For some of them, that willingness has translated into lucrative paid gigs. For others, it just helps keep them relevant.

So who are Australia’s biggest media tarts? We sent a list of 20 likely suspects —  see the full list here — to media monitoring firm iSentia, which trawled its data for the number of interviews given by these well-known political commentators over the past six months.

Our figure show total quoted interviews, which means they take into account both exclusive interviews, things uttered and repeated in press conferences as well as interviews syndicated across a number of outlets. As such, they show who journalists think is newsworthy as well as those commentators who are happy to speak to the media. It takes two sides of the equation to make a media tart.

So who’s the biggest, the best, and the most quotable? None other than former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett.

He’s got plenty of feathers in his hat. Kennett’s the chairman of Beyondblue, and until 2011 was president of Hawthorn Football Club. Last year he joined Seven as its national political commentator, adding regular TV roles to his radio work. His pronouncements continue to make headlines. In the past fortnight alone, he was in The Daily Telegraph advising New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, speaking to the ABC about courage in political life, and penning opinion pieces in the Herald Sun about the retirement age. A former ad man premier with a love of AFL — you’d be hard pressed to find a more versatile person to throw on air, or to commission in print.

The second player on our list rose to prominence as the young, charismatic face of the Australian Workers’ Union, Paul Howes. A rare powerbroker who wasn’t afraid to call himself one, he was, however, reluctant to comment to Crikey when we gave him a ring this morning. And indeed, while our data goes from November 1, 2013 to May 1, Howes has kept a decidedly lower profile since resigning from his position in late March.

Crikey understands Howes has only done four interviews this year. His last was with The Australian Financial Review after his retirement announcement, where he admitted to being a media tart, but said he only did it to give the union movement a loud, national voice. Even if, now no longer working for that movement, he keeps a lower profile, he’s given enough press conferences, interviews and speeches to ensure he’ll keep getting quoted even if he’s not saying much.

Number of interviews: November 2013 – May 2014

Paul Keating, the former prime minister, is the third most quoted figure. Like Howes, it’s less likely that he’s given hundreds of interviews than that when he does give one, everyone reports on it. But like Kennett, he’s also happy to weigh in on all and sundry when he feels like it. In the past month, he’s decried a new plan for the Sydney Botanic Gardens, and paid tribute to former NSW premier Neville Wran. Like Kennett, he’s a politician known for his charisma and turn of phrase, so it’s no surprise the media is happy to have him whenever he deigns.

Sky News presenter and former Labor insider Graham Richardson is fourth on our list. He’s followed by the only woman to make the top five, former NSW opposition leader Kerry Chikarovski — another favourite at Sky and ABC’s The Drum who also hosts her own radio show.

The heavy hitters are largely male, white and middle-aged. After Chikarovski, Amanda Vanstone was interviewed 472 times, despite her recent role in the Commission of Audit. That puts her behind people like John Hewson, Gerard Henderson or even Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger. Former NSW premier Kristina Kenneally was only quoted 20 times over the period, coming dead last out of the names Crikey gave to iSentia. It’s an astonishingly low figure given her place in recent history. But we could see more of Kenneally soon — she’s filling in for Ita Buttrose on Studio 10 later this month.

iSentia’s figures show both media mentions and people actually quoted in the media. On mentions, John Howard dominates with more than twice the coverage of the next most-mentioned commentator, Keating. But Howard is quiet — he’s been quoted only 2466 times across all media in the past six months.

Australia

Apr 3, 2014

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In the United Kingdom, you could hardly say that Labour and its leader Ed Miliband are riding high. Having sat at no more than a 3% lead over the Tories for some months, they’ve now fallen to 1% — well within the margin of error. Nevertheless, even the 1% margin has been enough for the party to believe that it is on track for victory, for one simple reason — and its name is UKIP. The batty UK Independence Party, though lacking a single seat in the House of Commons, has managed to consistently poll 10%, most of it taken from the Tories, and making UKIP a valid fourth party. And in a first-past-the-post system, that could prove disastrous. Given that Miliband has moved the party to the Left from its New Labour nadir while keeping many of the shire votes it needs to win, that’s not nothing.

So there was considerable gnashing of teeth when Left filmmaker Ken Loach made a public call this week for a new Left party to replace Labour, arguing for Left Unity — one of two or three distinct groups floating around to offer this sort of positionality. There’s been no groundswell to turn these groups into parties, and splitting Labour (at the Right end last time) has spelt disaster before. So it would be in the UK — but in Australia, it’s exactly what should be considered. Not a new party, but something more modest, yet possibly more effective — separate candidacies by a progressive trade union list in key seats and the Senate. In this case, it is not the Left that is leaving the party, but the party that is leaving the Left.

The campaign to separate Labor from the unions is in full swing. There is no doubt that the relationship has to be revised, that the union-factions-party connection promotes sclerosis and contentless “microfactions” — really gangs — coalesced around a charismatic figure, or David Feeney. But that is not really the main impetus for the new push for separation, which is being run out of The Australian, in the space between its obsessive and grinding anti-18C and anti-ABC campaigns. The Labor-union separation push is coming from the party’s pro-market forces, who want to wind back such commitment as the Rudd/Gillard government had made, and present the party as little more than a steward of the markets, extending “opportunity” through further neoliberalisation — and caring little, it would seem, about the greater entrenching of every sort of inequality that such a process represents.

They’re a strange mob, Labor’s gung-ho marketistas. They’re led by some, such as Craig Emerson, who have compared Australia unfavourably to the United States, admiring the latter’s dynamism (and unruffled by its huge class of working poor, backwardness and public squalor), and by Michael Costa, who swapped a youthful obsessive Trotskyism for a midlife crisis obsessive Hayekism, both sought out for psychological reasons rather than for a real progressive politics. When Costa’s protege, Cassandra Wilkinson, announced she was signing on with the Centre for Independent Studies for a few months and detailed what a daring move this was, it was — well, as shocking as that time when Michael Stipe came out. Really? You’re joining a right-wing think tank? What a surprise. Next you’ll be saying Paul Howes might be seeking a position in the corporate world.

“The truth is, Labor’s marketeers are symptomatic of a deeper-run process …”

The truth is, Labor’s marketeers are symptomatic of a deeper-run process, whereby the separation of the culture/knowledge producer class from which Labor’s elite comes from the mass groups it purports to represent is now so total that no sympathy runs between them. The public remains far more collective, nationalist, protectionist, and statist than the head members of both major parties — who share a mutual sympathy at the stupidity of their own supporters in rejecting neoliberalism. Their support for market solutions is different from the application of it by Hawke/Keating — even though Keating remains a fetish object for them. They regard the neoliberal market not merely as an efficient form, but as a moralising and disciplinary force, to shape a public that would otherwise become lazy and undynamic, and, you know, want a life or something.

Progressive unions should recognise that this is happened, and that the party that was originally constituted as a Labour/Union Representation Committee has now become the opposite of that — the pro-market leadership projects such ideas onto Labor, with a barely concealed hostility for the values of solidarity and full humanity of the worker that the union movement represents. It has become anti-representation, for which union dues still foot the bill.

So key progressive unions should re-represent themselves, a more social democratic set of policies, and their members in the electoral sphere. Half a dozen unions — the CFMEU, the NTEU, ETU and others — could run a candidate in a dozen or so key seats across the country, where the Greens are competitive with Labor. Unlike the dire situation in the UK, the preferential system has been designed to make this a viable process. Such candidates may only get 5% or so — but they would only need 5% to play a key role, scare Labor shitless with a Labor/Greens preference split, or open ticket, or by supporting a high-profile independent in key seats.

The great advantage of such a move would be that it would cement a larger progressive electoral vote bloc than the Greens can currently manage, as it would finally draw away another tranche of Labor stalwarts who, for class and cultural reasons, can’t bring themselves to support the Greens. The Greens might get nervous about it — but since their class base is overwhelmingly in the culture/knowledge/policy class, they cannot fully represent the people that might be attracted by a union/labour list either. Above all, it would expose how threadbare is the support for Labor’s market fundamentalists, a tiny insider elite parasitic on a host party.

Likely? Not from any of the large core unions that continue to support, year in and out, pollies who want to marginalise their members and their world view. These things don’t happen and don’t happen and then they do, and everything changes. If the will is there, and a willingness to risk the margin of error.

Tips and rumours

Nov 1, 2013

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

When Rupert comes to town … The troops at News Corporation’s Courier-Mail were hurriedly dusting and tidying yesterday — the big man is in town. With Rupert Murdoch stalking the halls of Bowen Hills HQ today, journos were ordered to clean the place up. Plenty weren’t impressed — there’s some simmering tension between some hacks and newish editor Chris Dore, who has become a bit sheltered in his office since taking the job after the mysterious departures of David Fagan and Michael Crutcher.

One view is Dore has been too quick to please management by giving Premier Campbell Newman an easier run — look out for a soft feature in tomorrow’s paper, we’re told. And some hacks reckon he hasn’t made enough of an effort to meet senior reporters after almost six months in the job. But one insider who made the effort to introduce himself insisted to us this morning Dore’s a good guy and has made the paper a better product.

… News gives itself some awards. Murdoch is in town, of course, for the annual News Awards tonight — the self-congratulatory booze-up where managers decide which of their journos did the best work. Crikey has uncovered the venue — the shiny new convention centre at the RNA showgrounds, just around the corner from News Queensland HQ. We’re told it’s a strictly black-tie affair, which ticked off some photographers who don’t have a tux hanging in the cupboard.

… while Rupert enjoys this spoof on Lefties. And finally on Rupert: according to his official Tumblr, he’s been finding some amusing videos while working Down Under:

You can watch the spoof here. It’s an hilarious take on the travails of a Leftie — “you’re an outcast straight away”. We can see why Rupert liked the vid … to clarify, it’s a left-handed cameraman from Fox Footy talking about his struggles.

AFR on the telly. Channel Nine and Fairfax’s joint venture Australian Financial Review Sunday will return in 2014 after a solid ratings performance in its debut year. But will Deborah Knight, formerly a newsreader at Channel Ten, be back as host? Knight signed a one-year contract with Nine, and it has not yet been renewed. Other networks — including Channel Seven’s Sunrise — are said to have been impressed by Knight’s performance and are keen to poach her. Knight’s agent is working hard to get a good deal for her client. A Nine source said the network was keen to retain Knight for next year, but noted there is plenty of TV talent around. The debt-heavy network will not engage in an unrealistic bidding war to keep Knight on staff.

Tony Abbott loves science …

… so much so that he scrapped the role of science minister in his new government. It’s a good thing there’s a prize night to showcase the work of our scientists, because there’s no minister to do the job.

Internal Labor tussle over Vic election. The ALP’s Victorian Socialist Left faction is likely to stare down the party’s Right and contest preselection in the newly created Western Suburbs seat of Werribee, at the state election. Werribee is a grassroots graveyard believed to contain just 40 members. The Left is also likely to open talks about the other new winnable seat in the in the region, Sunbury, created by the Victorian Electoral Commission’s recent redistribution round.

The Victorian branch’s powerful administrative committee met last night and passed a motion referring preselections to the elite Party Officers Committee that will set a timetable to ensure all ballots by December 15, months before the Liberal Party is due to consider its lineup, gifting Victorian Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews a significant advantage in the lead-up to the November 2014 Victorian election. If there is an absence of agreement amongst the party officers committee, Admin will meet again on December 12.

Special dispensation was also granted last night for two preselection candidates, the Benalla-based Rowena Allen and perennial contender Emma Walters (the partner of dominant CFMEU state secretary John Setka) to contest the upcoming round. Walters is believed to have her sights set on Melbourne’s west. Current member for Tarneit, NUW-aligned shadow treasurer Tim Pallas, will almost certainly be accommodated, leaving Werribee, St Albans (previously Derrimut held by Stephen Conroy loyalist Telmo Languiller) and Sunbury. Natalie Suleyman, who famously lost out to Marlene Kairouz in the 2008 battle for Kororoit, has been mooted in St Albans.

The Victorian Right remains divided following Conroy’s explosive interventions in federal preselections in Lalor and the Senate and is considered open to a full-frontal factional attack, should the need arise. But early indications are the party will roughly stick with its 2009 stability pact dividing up the state between the broader Right (excluding the NUW) and the Socialist Left, with minor amendments in the Left’s (which includes the CFMEU) favour.

Meanwhile, there are rumblings that Victorian upper house preselections may go to a ballot of members for the first time under the new regional architecture. Upper house preselections have been decided by Labor’s National Executive, but it is believed Exec members, including opposition leader Bill Shorten, are unlikely to want to intervene in democratic processes following the explosion of popular fervour during the grassroots battle with Anthony Albanese for the top job.

Friday sightings. Crikey relies on our astute readers (also known as stringers) to keep us posted if they see pollies or other influential types out and about.

“Paul Howes likes the top end of town clearly. Last week, spotted in business class section of a Melbourne-Sydney flight. One hour and he couldn’t cope at the back of the plane. Suits a man who lunches with Lachlan well.”

“I think I spotted disgraced former NSW Minister Ian Macdonald [found corrupt by ICAC] walking hand in hand with an attractive woman along the Yarra River in Melbourne. Has he moved south to escape his NSW notoriety?”

Has he indeed? There are not so many coal licences to hand out to mates south of the border … send us your sightings here.

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

Media

Oct 7, 2013

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Howes’ Fin switch. Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes has quit as a columnist at the nation’s highest-selling newspaper to write columns for The Australian Financial Review. The move will see Howes’ readership plummet from an estimated 1.3 million at The Sunday Telegraph to 234,000 at the Fin.

The outspoken powerbroker says it was his decision to leave the Tele, where he has written for the past four years. Howes told Crikey: “It was great writing for the Tele but I thought, I can’t keep writing a piece a week. I wanted a change … The problem with the Tele is you have to write every week and keep it to 700 words.” Howes says he chose the Fin because he can write longer, in-depth pieces (such as his Friday debut backing the privatisation of government assets), it has national reach, and is read by opinion leaders. Howes plans to write a piece a month.

The move means he will be a stablemate of long-time adversary Mark Latham. “I have a lot more in common with Mark than most people who appear on the Fin‘s opinion page,” Howes said. — Matthew Knott

Life as a female editor on a men’s mag.Smith Journal was really conceived as a place to kind of pull out stories that get lost between the internet and other print media or don’t get the attention they deserve, so it could be an old dude building boats or it could be a robot worker, or something like that. But it’s really our goal to be able to showcase these stories in a way that resonates not just for a week or a month but for a long time, so you could pick up Smith in five years time and the story could still speak to you.”

To describe Smith Journal as a men’s magazine conjures entirely the wrong image. The Frankie Press quarterly — “aimed at men and read by interested folk” — is a men’s title where I use not a hint of irony to say its readership buys it for the articles — an eclectic mix of writing and interviews on everything from typography, history and science to design and photography. Its editor is Nadia Saccardo — a female editor, just another way in which the title sets itself apart from the men’s mag category. (Though when I question Saccardo on this aspect she says: “Yeah I need to think up a better answer to this. To be honest, I don’t think about it that much, and I probably should, I get asked that question all the time, but I am just interested in stuff that Smith is interested in as a publication.”)

Saccardo had an unusual path to her current position. Though her first major editorial role was for Right Angle Studio who publish The Thousands, her publishing career started much further afield, in Thailand. “I went over there after uni and got a job at the Bangkok Post newspaper which is one of two English speaking newspapers in Thailand. My aunt was living there at the time and I also felt like publishing in Australia was so competitive and I didn’t really have anything to offer that would make me stand out.” — Bethanie Blanchard (read the full story at Liticism)

Front page of the day. Winner …

Politics

Oct 2, 2013

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Tony does the easy bit. It’s stopping the boats that is important, not using clever words on an Indonesian visit. The Prime Minister’s great diplomatic escape from Jakarta is a long way from being the political triumph some are portraying it as.

The dangerous part of living up to his pre-election policies is yet to come. The Tony Abbott promise to turn back the boats has the potential to become every bit as damaging to him as his predecessor’s “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”.

The problem with cattle and Indonesia. The memories of politicians can be short. Those currently pandering to the wishes of live cattle exporters forget the reason for Labor’s ban on shipments to Indonesia. It was just a little matter of cruelty to animals that sickened most Australians when television exposed them to it. The backlash against the trade was considerable and the Labor government acted as it did in response to that broad public pressure. Animal welfare remains a potent political problem and being seen as pandering to Indonesia by ignoring it just increases the political risks.

Then there’s the Barnaby problem. Abbott might have given his support to Indonesian ownership of Northern Territory land but his Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce seems to have different views.

Paul Howes is a dangerous man. Follow the advice of AWU Secretary Paul Howes on removing conscience votes on same-sex marriage and the Labor Party risks another split. I think Howes is as dangerous a motor mouth as Labor has ever had.

Been there, seen that. US government services halted and US share prices go up. The stock market has seen political idiocy from Republicans before. It might be a few years since the last one but there have been plenty of congressional standoffs before, as this graphic shows:

Eventually the American politicians stopped playing games and governing returned and there is no reason that I know of to think that the lunacy of the Republican Tea Party crowd of today will have any more influence on sensible Republican Congressmen than Newt Gingrich did last time.

News and views noted along the way.

Federal

Sep 8, 2013

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As the curtains came down on the Rudd-Gillard era last night, the press gallery scribes and the op-ed columnists were busy in the wings, bashing away on their keyboards, sizing up the moment, honing the first draft of history.

According to The Age‘s Michael Gordon, despite the swing against the government being smaller than expected, Kevin Rudd is less saviour than villain:

“The Kevin Rudd experiment has failed and failed comprehensively — and Labor now faces the colossal challenge of rebuilding and redefining and reconnecting, most likely under the leadership of Bill Shorten. Rudd insists he is not into ‘what-ifs’ but he and his party must surely reflect on the squandered opportunity of the last six years, and wonder how a talented government that pursued and implemented some landmark policies could succumb to such collective insanity and division.”

Over at The Conversation, however, Michelle Grattan is more forgiving:

“In assessing Kevin Rudd’s performance, it depends where you’re coming from. Rudd’s destabilisation over the last three years has contributed mightily to the perception of a fractured and disunited government. But his return to the leadership has significantly contained the swing against Labor — which under Julia Gillard was likely to be huge — to a relatively modest level.”

Also at The Convo, Shaun Carney warns Abbott will have to quickly change his style as prime minister:

“Vindication is his, but there is still the small matter of actually doing the job now that he has secured it. Abbott as an opposition leader was frenzied, intense, relentless, functionally incapable of pulling back and changing either his tone or his rhetoric. Now that they are in charge, Abbott and his likely treasurer Joe Hockey will have to transform their political approach instantaneously. The hysterics of the past few years will no longer be of use to them.”

No such concerns for the Herald Sun‘s Andrew Bolt. It’s his day to celebrate — and rub the Left’s face in it:

 “Tony Abbott, written off as ‘unelectable’, has led the Coalition to one of its biggest wins. This is a victory over a cultural elite that mocked him and Labor, which vilified him as a ‘misogynist’ and bigot. It is particularly a victory over the green movement, which Abbott fought from the day he won the Opposition leadership four years ago … Labor bet its house on it, smearing Abbott as a woman-hating ‘thug’. Journalists fanned that deceitful stereotype. In fact, Abbott is seriously smart, literate and considerate, as well as ferociously disciplined and competitive. Voters saw that in the campaign.”

The Sunday Telegraph‘s Piers Akerman also took time to gloat:

“Despite the relentless smear campaign which began from the moment he was elected Opposition Leader, Abbott comes to office without any skeletons rattling in his closet. He is neither a bully nor a thug, contrary to the baseless stories peddled by Labor lickspittles in the media pack. He is a man of values and principles, a family man with a loving wife and daughters, a man with mates across the spectrum, mates who may not parade themselves in the public eye for PR purposes but who know the special value of true friendship.”

Also at The Sunday Tele, union leader Paul Howes was stoic in defeat:

“There are so many things the Coalition will now have to support and implement that simply would never have happened if it were not for Labor. Does anyone seriously believe a National Disability Insurance Scheme would be coming in if not for Labor? And just as the electorate will punish a government for poor discipline, similarly they will grow tired very quickly of a small-minded Coalition, which fails to engage seriously with the big, long-term challenges we confront. Labor must remember this, keep calm and carry on.”

The Sun-Herald‘s Peter FitzSimons admits he was wrong to think Abbott was unelectable. Fitzy, too, is looking on the bright side:

“[I]t is possible — just possible — that Abbott will surprise us. If he can get to the prime ministership against all odds, in part on the back of the amazingly generous paid parental leave scheme — which runs entirely contrary to his entire policy drive before that — there has to be a chance that he will embrace other surprising policy U-turns.”

Tips and rumours

Jul 9, 2013

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Paul Howes the new Right darling. It’s not often you see unionists and, well, anti-unionists on the same page. But at yesterday’s annual HR Nicholls Society conference in Melbourne — that’s the Right-leaning industrial relations gang formed under the shadow of Peter Costello — there was a round of applause for the ACTU’s Paul Howes (in absentia). Earlier this week Howes said corrupt union officials should face the same legal liabilities as corrupt corporate directors.

Howard-era minister and union attack dog Peter Reith went further, saying he thought there should be a royal commission into union corruption. “There’s too many examples of it happening. And frankly, it’s in the interests of the union movement to have it,” he said. Tips wonders whether Howes would agree?

Visa teaser … We’ve heard a great deal lately about possible rorting of 457 visas (mainly from the people who run it). This insider reckons IBM is gaming the system:

“IBM brings over Indian IT workers on 457 visas to train them up to take jobs back to India. That is what is happening to Sensis IT jobs right now for example. This is an abuse of the 457 visa system. IBM took over the Sensis IT jobs from Sensis/Telstra this year. Telstra and IBM collude in this process. Given IBM is actively offshoring local IT workers jobs at the moment none of us at IBM has the guts to speak out as you’ll just put yourself into the firing line.”

We put this to IBM, and a spokesperson said said: “IBM does not comment on rumour or speculation. IBM fully complies with the 457 visa laws in Australia.” Ouch! That is no way to speak to Tips.

… and more concerns about outsourcing. Yesterday we raised concerns that with ANZ back-end work increasingly outsourced to Bangalore, private customer data was being transferred to India. In response, ANZ told us its Indian staff adhered to “the same strict privacy requirements” as here and were “bound by Australian privacy laws”. We asked for your inside information. This tipster thought it was not really a problem:

“I worked on a similar outsourcing of back-room admin processing for a large financial services company, we moved the jobs while keeping the existing business applications using Citrix, which is a bit like Microsoft Remote Desktop, but frankly it is trivial to have all the applications and data remain in Australia with the human anywhere with an internet connection. This isn’t a new issue or even a big one as far as privacy is concerned because the banks generally have very tight security around controlling and auditing who can see and do what to various systems.”

But this tipster is not so sure:

“I did some process analysis work at a Westpac processing centre and found that one process was continually being knocked back by management. It dawned on me that this particular task was to be off-shored to India. They ‘fessed up; they wanted this process designed so if the bank had to speak to the customer, it would not be done by an Indian, but by someone in Sydney. I asked them about data protection and privacy and the middle manager concerned said that the data would always be in Australia. I suggested that what she meant was that the data would hosted in Australia, because as far as I am concerned, if someone is viewing customer data in India, that data is in India. That went through to the keeper. As for ANZ staff in Bangalore being ‘bound by Australian privacy laws’, I would have thought that Indian laws would apply in India, not Australian laws. The task to be off-shored was one the bank charged $12 for and took staff (low-paid temps) one minute.”

So that’s how our big four banks manage to be so splendidly profitable.

Mad as a Katter. There have been some great ads for candidates lately, but this is the current favourite in the Crikey bunker.

“This flyer was put on windscreens around the Townsville 400 V8 event on the weekend. Despite the fashionable southern belief that everyone north of Noosa is living in the 1950s, this was such a slapdash black-and-white A4 home printing cut-and-paste effort that it was self-defeating. It’s known locally as The Cut Snake Party … unable to work out if Bronwyn Walker was suggesting Bob should be shot, or just saying what a card,” our supplier said.

If you’ve received some advertising from candidates, please funnel it to Tips. Is Malcolm Turnbull putting out glossy material with lots of photos of himself that appear tan-tastic and might be maximised with the assistance of Photoshop?

Tony’s slip-up. Peter Slipper — facing court over allegedly defrauding the Commonwealth for using Cabcharges worth about $1000 to visit wineries, etc — is excited about Margo Kingston’s revelations that Tony Abbott had to repay taxpayers $9400 for using travel expenses to promote his book. Here’s Slipper on Twitter. Does he have a point?

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

Companies

Jan 25, 2013

5 comments

When leading US pension fund CalPERS blew the whistle on the Walmart board last year for bribing Mexican officials to secure market access to booming markets south of the border, the decision made headlines. The collective assault on nine sitting board members of the world’s third-largest company may have been shot down at the annual shareholders meeting, but the record vote against successfully shined a spotlight on big box abuses in the fledgling narco-state.

It’s the sort of ballsy front-foot activism historically absent locally, where union-backed industry funds have cleaved to a strict interpretation of the Superannuation Industry Act‘s “sole purpose’ test” — that theoretically locks trustees and fund managers into maximising raw returns to the exclusion of anything else.

But for CalPERS, which oversees $US260 billion in retirement savings of Californian public sector employees, it was business as usual. Since the mid-1980s the behemoth has repeatedly intervened at board level in the companies it invests in if, it thinks management — and governance — isn’t up to scratch.

Despite overseeing a hulking pool of assets that jumped 6.6% last year to $281.1 billion (or 19% of Australia’s total super pool of $1.4 trillion), local industry funds and the big public service pension funds (that grew by 5.7% last year to $232.3 billion, or 18% of the total take) have been reluctant to exercise their substantial voting rights. Howls of outrage inevitably follow at the prospect of muscle-flexing, with the spectre of “union-controlled” funds holding commerce to ransom. Yet industry and public service funds draw half their representation from employers, with an independent chair increasingly thrown in for good measure.

When the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union recently asked one its four big super funds, the $18 billion Cbus, to review its relationship with builders Grocon — which was suing the union for $10 million over an industrial dispute — Industrial Relations Minister (and former industry fund trustee) Bill Shorten perked up to complain that “industrial relations disputes should be ever played out at the boardrooms of superannuation funds, full stop. What matters is the best interests of the members of the fund.”

Earlier this month, Crikey first revealed that another CFMEU fund, First Super, was divesting its News Corporation stock over governance issues and financial underperformance linked to Rupert Murdoch’s voting gerrymander. This week The Australian Financial Review reported Australian Super — that boasts Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Paul Howes and ACTU secretary Dave Oliver as trustees — had voted against Rupert Murdoch and son Lachlan at the News AGM last year over the so-called “Murdoch discount“.

“There is a connection between poor governance and investment returns. I think it is going be a growth area …”

The Sisyphean challenge of governing industry super is this: at what point and to what extent should unions intervene when a fund, through its own investments and despite robust returns, starts cutting its members’ necks though job cuts, environmental vandalism and assaults on collective bargaining?

Union attempts to influence boards — using the “100 member rule” that permits dissident motions at AGMs if 100 shareholders agree — are not new: think the Finance Sector Union’s 2003 campaign to place a representative on the ANZ board; the AWU’s 2004 bid, prosecuted by Shorten, to get resolutions passed on executive remuneration and improved corporate governance; or the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union’s 2004 demand that the NRMA hold an extraordinary general meeting to change its constitution in support of roadside patrol officers.

But those kind of actions, that typically occur in the shadow of enterprise bargaining negotiations, seem symbolic when compared to the hulking $600 billion in voting rights overseen by industry and public sector trustees. That heft, that can bolster or serve as an adjunct to broader campaigns, is looming large given declines in other forms of union power — namely a decline in membership density to 18% of the Australian population and the modern day rarity of strikes and secondary boycotts.

At its annual congress last year, the ACTU established a “Capital Stewardship Program” to “protect and advance the interests of superannuation fund members”. The policy pledged to “give workers a voice in the investment markets by intervening in public debates and by leading corporate governance shareholder initiatives and advocating for regulatory reform” by pioneering “new forms of member engagement with their funds, particularly in relation to how funds invest their contributions”.

ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons, also a director of the Industry Super Network, told Crikey the union versus shareholders equation isn’t a zero-sum game.

“There is a connection between poor governance and investment returns,” he said. “I think it is going be a growth area because Australian funds are going to have to take a more aggressive attitude towards the governance of companies because the size and scale of our investments means we’re going to have increasingly significant stakes. In these companies that are really poorly run and demonstrably don’t give proper returns to investors, there’s going to have to be some hard calls made between them.

“It’s possible for people to own the stock but who want the company to operate in a manner which is consistent with principles around ESG [environment social and governance] considerations. Then in the longer term that produces a better return likely to be a more profitable and sustainable company.”

First Super-style divestment, Lyons says, is the “nuclear option” — often simply voting stock against incumbent board members or in favour of progressive resolutions can have an equally pleasing effect.

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Australia

Nov 5, 2012

5 comments

The head of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, Steve Purvinas, has called on Qantas PR boss Olivia Wirth to resign after it was was revealed she was dating Australian Workers Union chief Paul Howes.

“Olivia should be resigning as the media spokesperson for Qantas. She’s got a conflict of interest,” said Purvinas, who until last month was involved in a defamation battle with the media savvy union leader stemming from a bitter demarcation dispute.

Tongues were wagging across the PR and politics worlds this morning after Australian Financial Review Rear Window columnist and former Wirth colleague Joe Aston reported the new couple, “obviously an item”, had decided to step out on Derby Day at the Emirates’ marquee. Emirates is pursuing a tie-up with Qantas and the AWU is one of three major Qantas unions.

But Aston’s connections on this particular yarn are also intriguing. In 2002 he used to live in a Leichhardt house owned by Howes’ mother-in-law Judy Mannering, who at the time was going out with dis-endorsed Lib Greg Barns. Barns had famously fallen foul — alongside then Young Lib VP Aston — of Erica Betz’s right-wing forces in Tasmania and were forced north to sunnier climes (here’s how Crikey reported it at the time). Mannering’s daughter Lucy was freshly married to Howes but the couple lived elsewhere.

Then, later in the decade, Aston popped up working at the Mangy Roo alongside Wirth, before moving on to Etihad. And both Aston and Wirth also worked (at separate times) for Hockey. Now — thanks to Aston — it is public knowledge Paul and Lucy Howes have gone their separate ways, with Aston even drawing attention to The Australian Women‘s Weekly’soft-focus domestic piece on the couple in June. Circles within circles.

Meanwhile, on the industrial front, there could be delicacies given the AWU is a leading Qantas union (representing unlicensed engineers) and was, until September, involved in a turf war with Purvinas. In July, Purvinas accused Howes of “collusion” with Qantas management. Howes dropped the defamation action last month, with the duo agreeing to unite against their common enemies, including Qantas, and sort out their differences “over a beer”. Now, that détente appears to have crumbled.

Musings about how tough Howes will be when it comes to Qantas EBA negotiations are a little further fetched given neither Howes, nor Wirth, personally negotiate them and any weakness wouldn’t be copped by members.

Interestingly, Howes has been very keen to sledge Etihad’s recent purchase of 10% of Virgin in his Sunday Telegraph column but hasn’t been quite as forthcoming on Qantas’ proposed commercial pact with Emirates, in whose marquee he popped up on Saturday. With the deal currently before the competition regulator don’t be surprised if the 31-year-old father of three banishes any doubt and launches a fresh attack on Qantas and Emirates on the pages of Australia’s highest selling newspaper.

Both Wirth and Howes declined to comment this morning.