Minor parties have long played a role in Australian politics, but they’re becoming more powerful and, with that, more vulnerable. How is that going to play out in the battle over the budget?

We've all become accustomed to the two main players on our political landscape. The Liberal/National Coalition and Labor have swapped leadership in Australia for decades. No other party has come close to being able to be a realistic challenge.

It's not for want of trying. Over the years, a number of new parties have flared up and then, just as suddenly, disappeared from view.

One Nation and the Democrats came from nowhere, become major players, wielded considerable power, and then quickly faded away. They live on now only as cautionary tales for other minor parties.

Historically, the major parties could always rely on at least 30% of the electorate turning up and checking their box without really thinking about it too much. Life is different for a minor party. Just about every vote needs to be won and then carefully nurtured, and a single slip can alienate distressingly large numbers of voters.

This is particularly difficult once a minor party actually gathers a little power and influence.

There are so many pitfalls for a small party trying to win a seat or two that many parties who actually achieve their goal then suddenly seem very confused about what to do with it. The disparate clump of followers they have gathered may have been easily won during a campaign, particularly when both the majors have been on the nose with many voters. But they’re much harder to maintain and nurture once they've gifted you a little clout.

The small players are also vulnerable to the sort of internal divisions that can quickly tear a party apart.

We're all tired of hearing about the major parties' factional squabbles, the Labor party was particularly damaged by the public nature of the Kevin v Julia debacle and the Abbott/Turnbull stand-off is never really going to go away. But the major parties are bigger than any one crisis, and certainly much bigger than one person or their ego (even if that person is Kevin Rudd).

Small parties are not so resilient. Support can evaporate faster than you can say “well informed sources”. Parties need to be clear on what they are trying to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. If that direction is not well articulated, things can fall apart pretty quickly.

Such is the difficulty the Greens have faced in regard to the budget.

There has, for a number of years, been tension within the Greens between the idealists and the pragmatists. On one side there are those who see the Greens as needing to fight every battle and die on every hill to further their aims.

These people are purists - their goals are less about power and more about influence. To them, the party should be purely focused on achieving policy outcomes. They regard the role of a minor party as being the expression of their supporter's desire to force change in policy, and are not particularly worried about growing power at the expense of policy outcomes.

Naturally enough, there are also those who want the Greens to mature into a respected, sensible and credible alternative, capable of wielding real political power. They are (not without good reason) wary of ending like the Democrats and disappearing from the Australian political scene altogether. They’re willing to compromise on some principles in the interests of longevity.

This tension has existed for a long time. The Greens are still being criticised for walking away from the negotiations on the ETS - to their opponents that was pure petulance - but there is little doubt it was a victory for the idealists within the party who were not going to sign up to what they regarded as being an inadequate policy.

By the same token, the Green alliance with Julia Gillard’s government was a huge victory for the pragmatists - a level of power and influence that the Greens had never before experienced, albeit at the cost of supporting a watered down carbon emissions reduction scheme.

Adding to the current political confusion is the fight over who owns the left/progressive side of politics. That was a position occupied by Labor for many years, but, as they have reduced their allegiance to the Union movement and simultaneously pursued the centre that the Coalition was dragging further and further to the Right, a space has opened up that the Greens could occupy.

But occupying that spot and trying to become a fixture on the political landscape requires making sacrifices that are wholly unacceptable to many of their members.

The two major parties obviously have their own share of tension between idealists and pragmatists - they have simply resolved it by taking a “do whatever it takes” approach to being elected and then pushing through as many ideological changes as they feel they can get away with. In this way they are actually far more like PUP than the Greens - they place the acquisition of power at the forefront of their goals and then use that power to achieve their goals.

It may be that the Palmer United Party has, or will have, the same internal tensions as all the other political parties. It is difficult to tell, because no one seems to have been able to discern any sensible basis for their policies other than “What Clive Thinks”.

And that’s not a problem in itself. If a party based solely on the personality of a high-profile troublemaker wins votes then it’s clearly giving the electorate something they want.

For now, Clive Palmer appears entirely unfussed by pesky details like longevity, coherence or even comprehensibility. It is possible therefore, that if Palmer gets bored, or, more likely, if the major parties unite against PUP and force them out of their position of power, the Palmer United Party could vanish like a blown out candle.

The problem for PUP is the 30% of the vote that each of the major parties can rely on. PUP doesn't have that cushion. If a major party heads too far off to one side and loses power, they can still rant and rave from opposition and build support for their next tilt at the crown. If PUP loses support they are all too quickly irrelevant again - and they can ask the Democrats how easy it is to rebuild that support again from outside the building.

The major parties’ advantage is reinforced by a preferential voting system that supports the two party system, and electoral funding that is proportionate to the votes received.

Given all this, one can understand why it is so desperately hard for a minor party to get any real traction.

The vote on the budget will be a litmus test for both the Greens and PUP.

For the Greens, the Deficit Levy is a difficult customer. The ideologues within the Greens were no doubt thrilled with the idea of the Deficit Levy. Higher taxes on the rich! A progressive tax system is cornerstone for the Greens, and a government that is prepared to voluntarily legislate for such a change should be actively encouraged to do so.

Never mind that the change is only temporary or that it is clearly a sop to ensure that the government could not be criticised for hitting the poor whilst leaving the rich unscathed. This is an important opportunity to wave through an increase in the tax rates for the rich and to even consider criticising the government for it is counteractive to their basic ideals.

Of course, the pragmatists had a different view. As we have all heard repeated constantly since this tax was announced, Tony Abbott PROMISED no new taxes. This is a new tax. After the horrendous whipping the Libs gave Gillard over her “broken promise”, this is an unmissable opportunity to stick it to Abbott. Taking the fight to Abbott on the issues of trust could increase the chance of the Coalition being kept to one term.

Where the Greens land on this will tell us whether the pragmatists or the idealists have greater sway in the party and give an indication of where they are likely to land on the big issues for the next 3 years.

For PUP - well, who knows? Their 3 senators will take their seats come July and, in all likelihood, create utter havoc for 6 years. If they win a few more seats at the next half senate election then we really will have a show on our hands.

Whatever happens, the minor parties will always be a thorn in the side of the majors, but how much of a thorn is really up to them, and how they choose to utilize the power they’ve managed to accrue.

Published in Weekly Email

The recent budget, and its vicious attack on the poor, may have repercussions the Government didn’t consider. Discounting the power, the reach and the respect the community sector has spent decades earning in Australian communities could be a costly mistake.

By ignoring the community sector before and after the budget, and hurting the people they care for, the Abbott government may have woken a sleeping giant.

The new Government has a clear idea what it wants the community welfare sector to look like. Minister Andrews has long telegraphed his desire to return to a charity or philanthropic sector, where communities are more self-reliant and volunteers provide most of the labour.

After the Budget, the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, told a group of senior members of the community sector that they were “unsung heroes for good”. These people, who have worked for decades to build a rigorous, evidence-based body of work that cares for the most vulnerable members of our community, were trying to explain to him how dangerous the budget is for those vulnerable people.

Minister Andrews is expected to release this week the long-awaited welfare review by Patrick McClure, the former head of Mission Australia. Many in the community sector have expressed concern, alarm and a degree of exasperation that this review has not been done in a way that is transparent or consultative. There have been none of the usual policy development processes, such as terms of reference or public submissions.

The Government has also committed to abolishing the new Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC), again, despite strenuous lobbying from the community sector, who want the ACNC to continue.

So what does all this say about the way this Government thinks about the value of the community sector, let alone the people they work with? And how should the sector respond?

The community sector employs over 220,000 people, a quarter of the total not-for-profit sector, and relies on government funding for three-quarters of their income. Groups in the sector range from youth refuges, to emergency relief providers, to legal centres, to community transport. But more than that, they are experts in what they do and in the overlapping and complex implications of any policy changes. The decision to exclude them from the welfare review, the very people who will be impacted by changes, seems certain to guarantee an outcome that will do harm.

Most community sector organisations don't have the capacity to engage lobbyists or run expensive advertising campaigns. They rely on their peak bodies, who, if they are lucky, will have one communications staff member, probably working part-time. They have volunteer boards and often depend on local good will for their office spaces. This should not matter.

The best of the sector have deep links within their local communities and know instantly where to go to find help for someone in trouble. They know the motel that will put up the homeless family and the place that will give them dinner. They know which nurse at the local hospital to bring the young mum to and who can manage visits to John down the road, who can get a bit sweary.

The community sector has engaged with governments in good faith in the past. They have provided detailed, well-researched submissions in the pre-Budget process, taken time to brief Ministers and been publicly conciliatory to the party in power. Even at the recent ACOSS budget session, after a budget that ignored all of their submissions, the community sector was still imploring the Treasurer to reconsider decisions that will hit the poorest the hardest.

They do this because they do the Government's dirty work. It's no longer the responsibility of those we elect to look after the people who have missed out on Australia's prosperity. That's something for a competitive tender process, and perhaps a social bond to be traded in the marketplace.

But, and it is a big but, none of what the sector has done so far is working, the government is not listening and is pushing ahead with changes that will hit poor people the hardest. For example, despite ample evidence and clever networking with business and unions, there was no movement on increasing Newstart in this Budget or any of the previous ones. This Government, and the last, have instead made higher pension payments even harder to get and condemned those at the bottom to hardship and poverty.

The sector has mustered economic arguments a plenty, with ACOSS detailing billions of dollars that could be found to pay for affordable housing and making sure people can eat. But these arguments are not working to change policy – instead the Government is ignoring the sector, perhaps at its own peril. The good-will of the sector is vital if they are going to continue to provide the services that government wants them to.

The sector has far more power than it thinks it does. Every community has a core group of community organisations that visit older people's homes, puts on hot meals, navigates through Centrelink, pays for electricity bills, lends money for broken washing machines, minds kids after school, makes homes more accessible and takes people shopping. Every one of the people that the sector helps is an ally. Every one of the small businesses that support these organisations is an ally. Imagine how much support could be mobilised through those networks, so that any politician who dared to ignore the sector would be in no doubt of the electoral consequences of their decisions.

The community sector is not charity, but they believe that everyone deserves a fair go. The sector is full of dedicated, hardworking people who have confidence that what they do benefits all of society. The care work they do is the glue that binds a community together and it is powerful. Harnessing this power could do more to change government policy than a million submissions ever will.

Published in Weekly Email

What will happen to energy prices if the government is successful in it's attempt to wind back the renewable energy market?

With barely contained glee, the Abbott government have begun their long threatened plan to remove support for clean technology in Australia. Assuming the senate supports them, they will remove:

  • the carbon price, which supports renewable electricity by making polluting electricity pay for their pollution;
  • the renewable energy target (RET), which mandates that a proportion of the electricity sold to consumers be sourced from renewables; and
  • any grant or program associated with renewables or energy efficiency, including the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Energy Efficiency Opportunities program.


Their argument, or perhaps “words they say when asked”, is that this will reduce pressure on household bills, often with some conflation about how the carbon price is responsible for the large rises of the last few years. They are supported in public statements by all the likely suspects; industry groups complaining that the RET and carbon price make them uncompetitive; the ‘gentailers’ or electricity retailers who also own generators, who complain that supporting renewables hurts their business, and conservative media outlets who just hate renewables because clean electricity is obviously Of the Left.

It’s easy to dismiss the corporate interests. We can know with absolute certainty that they are complaining because they want to make more money and see removing the RET as a way of achieving that. Origin, Energy Australia and AGL all own fossil fuelled generators that become less competitive under a carbon priced regime. And so they should. Mining and shipping coal is killing the communities nearby and burning coal is damaging our atmosphere. For a spectacular example of both at once, remember the fire at Morwell mine near Hazelwood power station in the La Trobe Valley. This is a naked attempt to make money from destructive practices while they still can.

fire

[Image from the ABC]

The argument about lowering bills is a subtle one, mostly wrong, and could have some interesting political consequences. What happens to a party that spends years campaigning to remove the carbon price because it makes electricity bills too high, and then removing it doesn’t impact bills at all?

To understand the impact these schemes have on electricity bills requires an understanding of electricity bills. Your basic household bill contains three charges; the amount of electricity you used, the cost of providing a network to supply electricity and the fees for running the market, billing and some green programs. These are split roughly 40:40:20.

The large increases of the last three years have been driven mostly by network costs, increasing in the order of 50%. Networks have spent upwards of $40b on network infrastructure over the last few years and are entitled, under current regulations, to claim a return on that investment. Consumers demanded more electricity, the networks spent money to ensure that happened and now we are paying for the upgrade. There is a good argument that some of this expenditure was unnecessary, but not all of it, and we were going to face this bill eventually.

Removing the carbon price and the RET will have no impact on the main driver of electricity bill rises in the last three years. Changing the regulations under which the networks work is the only lever available for government to address network costs, and even then it would be difficult as they are so closely entwined with the states.

There is even an opportunity to increase competition in the network and market through deregulating activities which would sit well with a Liberal government, but none of these measures are currently on the political agenda.

The RET and carbon price raise bills by adding to the cost of electricity. The carbon price acts at the point of generation, while the RET acts at the retailer. Under a carbon pricing regime every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted is liable for a cost per tonne, somewhere around $23. Imagine Bayswater power station makes a MWh of electricity at a cost of $40 and emits a tonne of CO2 at the same time. The cost of this to Bayswater is then $40 plus $23 for $63 cost of production. This doesn’t necessarily get passed straight on to the market, as the generators set their price and are under no obligation to recoup exactly the carbon price component. Some of the inefficient generators have chosen to only pass on two-thirds of the price as the full impact of the price would leave them completely uncompetitive.

If we remove the carbon price, that cost at production will disappear. However, unrelated to this transaction, but supported by the carbon price and RET, renewables lower the wholesale price of electricity through two separate but related mechanisms; lowering of demand and the merit order effect.

New renewables in Australia have a pretty clear dichotomy; solar panels on roof tops and wind farms connected to the grid. We have some of the highest penetration of residential solar in the world, but with few grid scale installations to speak of. So the vast bulk of solar power is not ‘seen’ by the grid as generation but as a reduction in demand. The sun comes up and household electricity use plummets. Electricity prices are typically higher during the day than at night and reduced demand acts against this. Households with solar benefit from reduced electricity use, at whatever their purchase rate is, but also the grid at large benefits from reduced peak power prices.

The impact of wind and the merit order effect is similar. Wind generation is what we call ‘semi-scheduled’ generation. The rules of the network require it to take whatever wind generation becomes available and they get paid whatever the market rate is at the time. The real-time pricing of electricity is complicated, with a ‘stack’ of demand filled by the next generation available based on price. Having wind come on means that new demand doesn’t climb the stack and the price remains stable. This lowers overall wholesale prices and in some situations by quite a significant amount.

Removing the carbon price will reduce the cost of fossil fuelled generation. Removing the RET will remove the cost of renewable energy certificates. But, not supporting renewables will also raise electricity prices as the impact of the merit order effect and lowered demand will be reduced. This might not be noticed immediately, but in later years. The cost of running a fossil fuel plant always increases; the coal gets harder to mine, the plant requires more maintenance and the fuel price rises (particularly for gas). For renewables the fuel is always free, but the cost of exploiting it keeps getting cheaper.

It is hard to see now, but there is a point in the future where these two relationships add together to make us pay a lot more for power.

Noting that I am an unashamed renewables advocate, I think removing these carefully constructed policies is bad politics. They have made a very big deal about how the carbon price is raising prices, and so residents are going to want to see a reduction in their bills. I predict no one will notice as the moderate saving is wiped out by network increases in the next twelve-months and then by gas price increases after that. Removing the RET (which I don’t actually think they will do, more likely is a ‘true target’ adjustment) will have a similarly modest impact and could cost them votes. It is the appeasement of a noisy minority who don’t like the sound of rushing air, couched against the literally millions of families who have embraced solar.

I think the Abbott government has greatly underestimated how much Australians like renewables, but I expect we’ll let them know in the coming years.

 

Published in Weekly Email

Clive Palmer is the careless clown of Federal Parliament, but he is also a hint of the future of politics, the post-politics politician bringing about change the political class fear, and worse, don’t even understand.

The Trickster is an enduring character in folklore, literature and religion. Irrational and mischievous, he is the wisefool who disrupts the status quo and, by making us laugh at him, reveals our own hilarious stupidity.

His actions, while they usually cause pain, have an ultimately positive outcome. The Trickster is often helpless, but he acts and speaks with borrowed authority. He mimics the behaviour of the ruling class and thereby draws attention to their hidden shams. He plays the essential role of bringing about change, which is always painful, but rarely pointless.

Clive Palmer is the Trickster of Australian politics. Loki, the agent of change, destined to be his own worst enemy even as he bring destruction to the powerful; Amadan na Briona, the fatal fool whose touch is death; the Coyote, the hopeless jester who expects to be taken seriously but can never succeed in being serious; Palmer has elements of all of them. And because he is so risible it’s easy to miss how much his actions throw into sharp relief the genuine idiocy of the established politicians we are meant to take so seriously.

In the ongoing dance between politicians and political journalists, the only aim is to create or avoid a miss-step, to say nothing using as many words as possible. Palmer is not a politician and, not knowing the steps, dances to his own tune and appears to have no fucks to give about the delight with which the media will seize upon a gaffe. He seems to be concerned only (and equally) with his own entertainment and the good of the nation.

Calling Wendy Deng a Chinese spy may have been something about which he was entirely sincere, or it may have just been for shits and giggles. Political pundits don’t recognise humour from politicians outside the proscribed lines, Puckishness from the leader of a political party is too unfamiliar, too uncategorisable; so it remains unexamined. And it shouldn’t, because he is, without ever being acknowledged for it, describing the shape of things to come.

Tim Dunlop pointed this out to me after watching Palmer on Lateline last week. We are so used to hearing politicians talk senselessness about politics that a non-political politician sounds foolish by talking sense. And Jones, the consummate MSM journo, so impressed by his own self-applied layer of gravitas, ignores utterly what Palmer is saying about policy in his desperate attempt to get him to talk about the politics.

TONY JONES: Now, a couple of other measures. We know you oppose the debt tax on high income earners, but of course that will still get through the Senate if Labor ends up voting for it. Will you be trying to persuade Labor not to do that?

CLIVE PALMER: We oppose anything that is based on a lie and we don't have a debt problem, as I said. We're the third lowest debt country in the OECD. All this is manufactured.

TONY JONES: Yeah, sure, but I guess my question is, since you actually oppose the debt tax, in the end to stop it, you'll need Labor's support in fact. Will you be talking to Labor? Will you be negotiating in fact with both major parties?

CLIVE PALMER: No, well, we haven't done that. We'll just do what we think's the right thing to do and we don't think that we should impose taxes based on what's a lie.

TONY JONES: Let's talk though about the negotiating process briefly. Is it true that Christopher Pyne is the designated go-to man to actually negotiate with you?

CLIVE PALMER: Well that's what it says in the press, but we're not into so much negotiation, just explaining what the strength of the argument is. It's ideas that really matter and it's the benefit of Australian citizens that we won't desert them.

TONY JONES: But we know what happens behind closed doors when negotiations happen. I mean, do you and Christopher Pyne have some sort of rapport that he's been chosen as the one to negotiate with you?

CLIVE PALMER: Well I've known him for a long time, but I think he's chosen to discuss things with our party because he's the Leader of the House and that's in the House of Representatives and Senator Abetz is the Leader in the Senate. He's the one that would discuss it with our senators. But, all in all, we can say that those fundamental things are things that we can't support.

TONY JONES: Well, Tony Abbott says he will accept a certain amount of horse trading over some of these measures. I'm wondering do you regard him as an honourable man that you can negotiate with?

CLIVE PALMER: Well, I don't think I'm prepared to trade our pensioners for anybody, and if we have to go to a double dissolution, it's fair enough that the people of Australia know what they're voting for and we'll have to accept that. That's our democracy we live in.

What would happen if Bill Shorten was that firm and succinct with Tony Jones in a Lateline interview? Actually, that’s a bullshit question, because it wouldn’t ever happen. Shorten would have responded to the politics rather than the policy. And the dance would move smoothly on.

Again, Palmer knows this, his farewell to Jones "It's good to talk to you, Tony. You're a great journalist." delivered with a twinkle in his eye, was a nod to everything in the interview that was a failure of journalism. Jones, in dismissing it as a joke, was and will always be, blinded to his own deficiencies. 

If the media and the politicians are refusing to listen to him, it is also clear that they do not understand why so many in the electorate are. In the same interview, Palmer, the leader of an Australia political party who had this to say on the recent budget cuts to youth unemployment payments:

You'll see an increase in youth suicide, increase in crime. How are these people supposed to get money to eat or support themselves if their parents don't support them? Who's going to look after them? And what sort of society do we want to be as Australians? Do we really hate people so much? This is an ideological budget, it's just about ideology and about smashing someone. It's not really about what's best for the country.

This is not Palmer being or making a joke, this is a political leader speaking truth uncoloured by ideological opposition to a person or party. This is just the world as he sees it, and many many people in the electorate agree with him.

In the article he wrote for The Guardian yesterday, as well as succinctly puncturing the inflated lies sold to the electorate by the government in collusion with the media, Palmer said:

Australians began to desert the major parties in September, when a quarter of the electorate decided to vote for another party other than Labor or the Liberals. It continued in the Western Australian senate election in April, when 46% of Western Australians voted for a party other than Labor or the Liberal party. With a swing of more than 7% against the government (minus 5% for the Liberal party and minus 2% for the National party) the government was a clear loser. The Labor vote in WA crashed to its lowest level in more than a century, with just 21.5%.

Still, the mainstream media and commentators failed to report the significance of what was happening. They were looking back and not forward. Palmer United received a swing of over 7%in the Western Australian senate election. Our vote was nearly two and a half times more than what we received in the 2013 election. Still, the establishment's heads were in the sand. They can't recognise the shift that is taking place in Australian public opinion.

Palmer United will hold the balance of power in the new senate and yet we are still routinely excluded from opinion polls in most of the national papers. This is especially true of the Newspoll in the Australian and the Galaxy Poll in the Courier Mail.

Why is this so? Is it that the owner of Newspoll or the Courier Mail didn’t like what began in September last year, or are they just too slow to understand what is happening? To many Australians, it seemed those papers were just condemning themselves to extinction as they moved out of step with the electorate.

Clive is not a serious politician, in many ways he enjoys that he is not taken seriously. Twerking at a radio station, falling asleep in parliament, claiming the Greens are a CIA conspiracy, the dinosaur golf course and rebuilding the Titanic, not only can you not take him seriously, it’s also clear he doesn’t want you to. Not all the time.

But the comic relief is not just comedy. The interview with Jon Faine, where Faine asked him if his senate candidates had stopped beating their girlfriends yet, was a classic Cleiv:

''Why don't you talk about policy? Why don't you talk about reducing the pensions?

''I'm not going to talk about things…which are not true. These were allegations in a court. The court dealt with them and found them to be no case to answer.''

Mr Palmer then said ''goodbye'' and hung up. Faine said that when his producers called Mr Palmer back, he told them to ''get stuffed''.

Again, the politicians, who would never dare to hang up on an influential talk back radio host or tell their producers to get stuffed, look both stupid and serious by the difference Palmer’s behaviour highlights. His point about policy and pensions is entirely valid. What matters more in media coverage of politics, a gotcha moment or an examination of the basic function of government – how they raise revenue and how they spend that revenue?

Palmer is hilarious because he wants to be, ridiculous because he is everything a politician should not be, but by being the jester in a court of fools he clarifies the very foolishness we all despise about politics. His refusal to play by the rules, particularly given the power that PUP has in the senate, will be a source of pain and laughter, but, as the Trickster always must, he will be a flashpoint of change. By taking our pain onto himself and making us laugh at it, he both makes it more bearable and gives us the opportunity to find another path.

And maybe, he might even stay awake long enough to watch it happen.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 21 May 2014

In painful defence of Pyne

Progressive’s dislike of Christopher Pyne is entirely understandable, but the expression of it leads them to mimic the worst of the behaviour they so despise in conservative commentators.

I have a huge problem with Christopher Pyne. This isn’t the first time this sentiment has been written down; in fact, it’s probably not even the first time that I have written it down (today). Unfortunately, I only have one article and not a War and Peace-length book to list all of the issues that I have with him.

First, of course, are his politics. I have a lot of problems with his politics, as do most people with a heart and ability to feel empathy. Besides that, I also have a huge problem with his public persona, his smug demeanour, the patronizing tone he uses, and the rage that fills me during his appearances on QandA.

There is also the fury that builds during his appearances at Question Time, and essentially at all other times. I think he is disingenuous, uncaring, smug and intolerable. If Australia were Hogwarts, Christopher Pyne would be head boy of Slytherin.

However, none of these are the problem I wish to talk about. The big issue I have with Christopher Pyne at the moment is that I am being forced to defend him, and I really, truly don’t want to.

This may be the only problem I have with Christopher Pyne that is not actually of his own doing. This problem manifests itself in right-wing people, left-wing people, conservatives, libertarians, other politicians, ex-Prime Minister Gillard, Prime Minister Abbott, my family, your family, and a lot of people you know. The problem can be boiled down to two words:

1. Gay

2. Jokes

Now, you have probably heard these two words used separately before, and perhaps you are even familiar with them as a concept when they are combined. If you are reading this, and if you follow me on Twitter, there’s a pretty good chance that you don’t think you make gay jokes. You probably would never consider yourself a homophobe. In fact, you are no doubt outraged when simpletons like Sam Newman espouse homophobic views on television. You probably think yourself far superior to him, as someone who would never be homophobic. You love queer people, your best friend is gay, and you have been to several rallies for marriage equality!

And yet, when Chris Pyne comes on television, who is it that makes snide remarks, sly references, uses innuendo or flat-out says that Chris Pyne is feminine, or that Chris Pyne is gay? It is people like us. People like us who would never consider making a gay joke about Michael Sam. We would never ever disparage someone for being queer. But because Chris Pyne is so unlikeable (see first paragraph of article), a lot of us let jokes slide by that we would typically find unacceptable and would have no hesitation in challenging if they were made about someone we do like.

If we just take a second to think about why these jokes about Pyne are so enduring, it might help us also realise why they should be unacceptable. Let’s get straight (lol) to the point. Kevin Rudd called Pyne, the member for Sturt, the ‘member for skirt’ sarcastically. He was called ‘mincing’ and a ‘poodle’ by Julia Gillard. He has a falling out with his own colleague in 2010, after Tony Abbott, while getting makeup removed after a TV interview, said: “Christopher would probably want his left on”. Pyne wasn’t there, and Abbott had to call him to apologise after learning that the comment would be in the next day’s newspaper.

This wasn’t just a couple of pals ribbing each other. In 2011, staff from QandA contacted Pyne’s office to apologise when a tweet was shown on the screen that said, “Just me, or does Pyne really light up when he’s talking about men in uniform? #qanda”. There have been rumours, innuendo and gossip about Pyne’s involvement in the Ashby/Slipper saga, ranging from Pyne having a drink and a conversation with Ashby, to them having a sordid affair.

And that brings me to my main problem, the nastiness that is directly under the surface in this situation; stereotypes about gay men. The majority of people who make these kinds of comments or jokes about Pyne are doing it for one reason and one reason only; they think he has the mannerisms of a stereotypically gay man. They think Pyne, who is married with four children, is secretly having sex with men and just won’t admit it, purely because he has a high voice and some effete mannerisms. I don’t want to blow your minds here, but a lot of out gay men do not have high voices and a flamboyant manner. Some are even huge manly football players with messy houses and ugly torn shorts. And a lot of men with nasal voices and a lisp, who like a clean house, also love having sex with women. While we’re at it, did you also know that not all lesbians have short hair? Not all bisexual people are confused, not all trans people are homosexual, not all blondes are dumb, not all women love shopping, not all men love sport, not all Irish people are drunks, and I think you can see where I am going with this. Stereotypes are damaging, they are used as weapons to oppress. In the year of our Lord Beyoncé 2014, it is beyond wrong to rely on these kinds of stereotypes to brand someone you don’t like as secretly gay.

And that’s what all of this comes down to; it’s all because we don’t like Chris Pyne. I see versions of homophobia online on an almost daily basis, but this is different. This doesn’t come from people who generally abhor gay people. This comes from the minds and mouths and Twitter accounts of people on the same side of politics as me. People who like and respect their gay friends, people who are pro-gay rights – people who should know better. But all of that is discarded because we disagree with Pyne’s politics and personality. And really, what are you doing even GOING there? Especially if you are heterosexual. Making snide jokes about Pyne’s sexuality, by sniggering that he is gay, by using that to try and bring him down, using that to try to insult him? That is homophobia, there are no two ways about it.

How do you think your gay friends feel when Pyne is on Q&A, and we see ‘joke’ (they are never funny) after ‘joke’ about how Pyne is gay? Being gay shouldn’t be the punchline of your joke about a politician you don’t like. Being gay shouldn’t be used as an insult. And with this, Pyne’s sexuality is truly irrelevant, because I dislike him not a jot more or less if he was actually secretly gay.

Besides it being wrong, there is an ENDLESS supply of real and awful things Pyne has done politically that ARE fair game. If you cannot find something else to make comments about, a different way to insult him, another way to tell people that you dislike him, you are not trying hard enough (or at all).

But the very worst outcome from all of this, and the true disgrace, is that I have felt it necessary to spend time writing an article defending Christopher Pyne.

Look at what you have done.

Published in Weekly Email

The pachyderm in the Parliament: what National School Chaplaincy reveals about government spending

An ardent secularist, Ron Williams is unequivocal about his motive for challenging the Federal government’s right to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program.

“We’re not religious, and I don’t want my kids exposed to religious mumbo-jumbo,” says the Toowoomba father-of-six.

“You can bring Santa to school. You can bring the Tooth Fairy, for all I care”, he told The Australian in 2008. “What you cannot do is tell the children that any of this is true.”

In August 2012 and, again, in May this year, Williams took on the Commonwealth government in the High Court of Australia, arguing that they have no constitutional authority to fund school chaplaincy.

The National School Chaplaincy Program is objectionable on many levels. It is an assault on our secular state school system. It is not like religious instruction. In practical terms, it’s impossible to opt your child out of contact with the chaplain; the chaplain is ubiquitous within the school. The government’s contractual arrangements with large, parachurch chaplaincy providers like Scripture Union, entrenches an institutional bias towards the placement of Christian chaplains from fundamentalist denominations. Worse, chaplaincy places mental health amateurs with a religious agenda into schools as a cheap alternative to university trained guidance counsellors and social workers. All of these issues are of vital concern to Williams and his supporters. But none of them are arguable in court.

Regardless of Williams’ personal feelings about the intrusion of religion into public schools, a successful legal case against chaplaincy cannot be mounted on that basis. The High Court ruling in the Defence of Government Schools case (1981) determined that Section 116 of the Constitution does not provide a separation of church and state. Rightly or wrongly, there is no legal prohibition against the Federal government funding faith-based programs or against the employment of religious evangelists in state schools.

From the beginning, Williams’ legal team advised that his case could not be argued successfully on religious grounds. (The contention that chaplaincy imposes a religious test for an office ‘under the Commonwealth’, was included as a subsidiary argument in Williams’ first case, but with little expectation it would succeed). However, Williams’ barrister, Bret Walker SC, identified an irregularity in the way chaplaincy has been funded under successive governments. The identification of a possible breach of Constitutional law, together with Williams’ status as the parent of children whose school employs a chaplain, provided him with the standing to take his case to the High Court.

At first, the financial aspect seemed like a means to an end. But Williams soon came to understand that the method in which school chaplaincy is funded raises vitally important questions about the health of Australia’s Federation, the balance of power between the Commonwealth and the states, the integrity of our representative system of government, and the accountability and transparency of government spending.

In a revelation comparable to the poem The Blind Men and the Elephant, Williams realised that, while he had grabbed on to something called ‘National School Chaplaincy’ it was only the limb of a much bigger beast. If he wanted to bring down chaplaincy, he was going to have to take on the whole parliamentary pachyderm.

Williams’ financial argument against chaplaincy depends largely upon an earlier ruling in the case of Pape v the Commissioner of Taxation (2009). In Pape, the High Court held that Commonwealth expenditure can only be authorised by legislation (within the parameters imposed by the Constitution) or under the Commonwealth's executive powers.

The High Court ruled that appropriation (setting aside budgetary expenses to be paid from the Commonwealth Revenue Fund) is a prerequisite for government spending, but not sufficient to authorise disbursement. That requires legislation; the passage of a bill which describes and passes into statute, all the details and documentation supporting a particular government initiative.

Following Pape, Williams contends that funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program is invalid because it has never been the subject of a bill. Expenditure on this massively expensive program – nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars either spent or committed since 2006 – has merely been appropriated by successive governments as part of the Federal education budget.

In practical terms, it would be difficult for the Parliament to pass a Chaplaincy bill because, the program does not fit within the limited parameters the Constitution imposes upon Commonwealth spending. In both High Court challenges, Williams has been supported in this contention by the attorneys-general of all six states. There is broad agreement that the Federal government’s determination to pay millions of dollars directly to chaplaincy providers cannot be justified under any Commonwealth ‘head of power’.

Recently, Williams’ barrister noted that the legal arguments surrounding the case of Williams v the Commonwealth and Others have been invoked ‘at the Bar table’ since Federation. Williams is a chapter in a long-running, on-going power struggle between the Commonwealth and the states.

What explains the Commonwealth’s dogged determination to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program directly, when it could, legally, provide grants for the states to administer their own chaplaincy programs?

“In brutal terms,” explains constitutional expert, Professor Anne Twomey:

“it is in the Commonwealth's political interests for the States to be starved of funds so that they are regarded as 'failing', and for the federal system itself to be regarded as failing because of the squabbling, blame-shifting and cost-shifting that results from inadequate funding and blurred responsibilities. This is the excuse for greater centralisation and the accumulation of increased Commonwealth power as well as an opportunity for the Commonwealth to charge in and save the day to win political points.”

In June, 2012, after deliberating for an agonising 10 months, the High Court upheld Williams’ contention that Commonwealth funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program is unconstitutional. Williams won the case in a convincing 6:1 decision and was awarded costs. As expected, the Justices refused to consider the subsidiary claim in respect to Section 116 (the ‘religious’ clause).

It should have been a resounding victory for Williams. But, within days of the decision, the Gillard government introduced ‘emergency legislation’ to circumvent the High Court’s ruling. With $16.4 million outstanding to chaplaincy providers, the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act No. 3 (2012) was rushed through Parliament with unseemly haste and received bipartisan support.

In a breathtaking abrogation of their collective duty to uphold the principles of representative democracy, the Parliament effectively ceded to the Executive (the cabinet, led by the Prime Minister) the right to spend as much as it likes on anything it likes without the need for parliamentary scrutiny. It was an unprecedented delegation of authority to pork-barrel.

Constitutional experts roundly criticised the new legislation. Twomey accused the Parliament of “an abject surrender of its powers of financial scrutiny to the Executive”.

The rationalisation for the new financial legislation (enshrined in the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 as Section 32B) was that the decision in Williams (1) potentially threatened funding for more than 400 other Commonwealth government programs which had also been detoured past the legislative route. Much was made of important programs like Roads to Recovery and Helping Children with Autism which (allegedly) may lose funding. But, very little was said of the many other programs so vaguely and broadly described it is impossible to tell what they’re for, who they serve, or how much thought has gone into them.

Similarly scant attention was given to provisions within the newly-minted Section 32B for the Executive, without legislation or Parliamentary approval:

“To provide funds to support the provision of entitlements to the current Prime Minister, and to former Prime Ministers once they have left Parliament, the Australian Political Exchange Council and related activities, and political party secretariat training.”

“Another description,” said Anne Twomey, “might be political slush funds.”

Speaking against the amendment in the Senate, the current attorney-general, George Brandis, endorsed Twomey’s view that the legislation was almost certainly unconstitutional and, that if it was ever tested in the High Court, the Commonwealth would receive ‘another clobbering’.

But, Brandis voted for it anyway.

The Greens flapped and squawked – but voted for it anyway.

There is good reason why the High Court and constitutional experts insist that government spending should hinge upon the successful passage of a bill. As Twomey explained earlier this year:

“If the High Court forces governments to legislate these programs, it will make Commonwealth spending more efficient, better targeted and subject to more scrutiny.”

On 6 May, this year, Williams returned to the High Court to contest the validity of the financial legislation instituted by (then) treasurer, Nicola Roxon, as ‘a cure’ for the ruling in Williams v the Commonwealth and Others. Williams’ barrister, argued forcefully that Section 32B of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 fails as legislation because it is virtually unconstrained by limitations and, in itself, connects to no head of Commonwealth legislative power. Essentially, Section 32B is an empty vessel; it relies on the programs listed within its schedule to provide the constitutional authority to spend. But, the High Court has already ruled that the National School Chaplaincy Program has no such authority. Whether or not the High Court considers Section 32B valid, it cannot authorise spending on a program which sits outside the remit of Commonwealth powers.

Commentary from constitutional experts suggests that Williams has a better than average chance at succeeding in his second challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program. It seems unlikely the Court will venture so far as to rule on the validity of the financial legislation. Rather, it is expected that the Justices will deem it sufficient to restate their findings in Williams first case; that money cannot be disbursed for a program the Commonwealth has no Constitutional authority to fund.

The difficulty for the Commonwealth is this: the intangible offerings of a faith-based program which prohibits counselling and proscribes proselytising cannot be defined as a ‘benefit’ to students as understood in constitutional law (Constitution, Section 51 xxiiia).

Similarly, the Commonwealth’s appeal to the Executive’s ‘corporations power’ (Section 51 xx) gained little traction when it was wheeled out for a second spin around the court-room in Williams (2).

In Williams (2), particularly, the Commonwealth argued that the Appropriations Act confers almost limitless power on the Executive to spend (without the need for legislation) on any matter they deem to fall under the rubric “for the purposes of the Commonwealth”. But, if the Justices accept that argument, it means overruling their own decisions in both Pape and Williams (1).

In short, as Williams’ barrister pointed out, the arguments from the defence dealt with issues which have already been ‘quelled’.

On 9 May 2014, the High Court bench retired to consider its decision in Williams (2). Four days later, Federal treasurer, Joe Hockey delivered an ‘austerity budget’ which cut $80 billion from hospitals and education funding for the states. Yet, within a budget which enjoined already battling Australians to ‘share the load’, an unprecedented $243.8 million was committed to fund school chaplaincy for another four years.

If you are not concerned, as Ron Williams is, about chaplaincy’s threat to our secular public education system – if you are not outraged that children’s welfare and safety has been compromised to suit ideological and political aims – you should understand that the National School Chaplaincy Program is a symbol of the Commonwealth government’s disdain for financial transparency and accountability, the Constitution, the High Court, the Federation instituted by our founders, and the tenets of representative government. When we’re talking about chaplaincy, that’s the elephant in the room.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Diary of the Budget Lockup

12pm: They confiscated my sandwiches on the way in. The guard said they were “big enough to hide a phone in”. Now what am I supposed to eat?

12.30pm: Already starting to feel hungry. Michelle Grattan has a kebab. Slowly working myself around the perimeter of the room to blindside her.

1.06pm: Grattan ate the kebab. Resigned to hunger for the rest of the day. Trying to distract myself by drawing caricatures of famous soldiers on top of Laurie Oakes’s head. Seems dangerous, but all journalists know Laurie’s had no feeling in his head since 1984.

1.30pm: The lockup has officially begun. As occurs every year, Chris Kenny insists on marking the time by yelling, “Spin dem wheels, Sally!” at the top of his lungs. Literally nobody knows why he does this. Every time you ask him, he just looks at you and growls.

1.46pm: Bored now. Peter Hartcher keeps telling me about the time he woke up on a lobster trawler with Ros Kelly. He thinks that makes him a tough guy. It doesn’t make him a tough guy.

2.19pm: There’s a horrible smell in the lockup.

2.35pm: Decided to have a look through the Budget. Can’t understand any of it. Most of it just seems to be a plot to assassinate the French president.

2.40pm: Katharine Murphy just pointed out that I was reading The Day of the Jackal instead of the Budget.

2.48pm: Read the actual Budget. Still can’t understand any of it. There’s a lot of stuff about deficit reduction and co-payments and sterilising tradesmen. Also, there remains an unusual amount of material about the French president. Might have to study it in a bit more detail. It’s not the easiest read though – the whole thing is in 6-point Arial and every second page is a charcoal sketch of Joe Hockey in various period costumes.

3.14pm: Unrest growing amongst the journalists. All of the chips they left out for us are cheese and onion. Jacqueline Maley says we should go on a hunger strike till they provide pizza shapes. But Bernard Keane claims they have a massive store of barbecue and salt ‘n’ vinegar somewhere in the building, and is demanding we start a tunnel. The gallery has split into two factions over the matter. Just saw Paul Kelly whittling a gun out of lard. Slightly worrying.

3.47pm: Have identified the disturbing smell I noticed earlier. Laura Tingle brought a dead bandicoot into the lockup in her handbag. Some of my fellow journalists are growing impatient with Tingle’s continued flouting of the lockup’s no-marsupials rule.

4pm: A third faction has now formed around Sheehan’s claim that his pockets are full of pretzels. I doubt the claim myself.

4.37pm: Upon further perusal of the Budget, am slightly alarmed by the commitment of $18 billion to a research fund investigating the possibility of turning the entire continent into a spaceship. Even more alarmed by the plan to pay for the scheme by melting single mothers down and turning them into doubloons.

4.59pm: Hockey keeps poking his head around the doorway and giggling at us. Most annoying. I’m going to tell Andrew Robb on him.

5.28pm: Chris Pyne has just come into the lockup in tears. He’s sitting across from me now telling an extremely long story about how his dryer doesn’t work. Asked him if this is a metaphor for public education. He looked at me blankly.

5.56pm: Security just came in and dragged Wayne Swan out from under the fridge. All the way out of the room he was screaming, “NO! I’LL DIE OUT THERE! LET ME STAY!” Many of us predicted this.

6.02pm: If Phil Hudson does not stop cracking his knuckles I am going to belt him one.

6.04pm: The chip war has reached a head. Kelly running around the room pointing his lard gun at people and yelling, “pew pew!” Keane rolling around on the floor moaning that the tunnel has collapsed and trapped someone called “Danny”. Maley loudly announcing that she has died of malnutrition. Difficult to know what to make of all this. Is this a repeat of the 2005 Budget, when the government pumped hallucinogenic gas through the ventilation system?

6.10pm: First fatality of this year’s lockup recorded. Fortunately the guy was from The West Australian, so nobody knew him.

6.55pm: An eerie calm has descended over the lockup. Lenore Taylor has drawn dicks on every page of the Budget, leading to many smiles. Grattan in the corner painting Tony Wright’s toenails. Entire staff of the Australian now completely nude. Annabel Crabb has stuck four slices of bread to her face with jam and is crawling around on all fours whispering, “I’m a witch! Burn me!” It is nice that things are back to normal.

7.17pm: Hockey bursts in in a panic, saying he’s forgotten his speech. Oakes calms him down and points out that the speech is in his back pocket. On closer inspection, speech just contains the c-word repeated three hundred times in progressively larger letters. Still, Joe seemed satisfied.

7.24pm: Hearing reports Bill Shorten has rigged the House of Representatives with C4. Wouldn’t be the first time.

7.28pm: The ordeal is almost over. Everyone passing around mugs of Murphy’s bathtub gin. Wounds being bandaged, keys being grabbed from the bowl. Tonight will be a big night in Canberra.

7.35pm: What the hell is this?

Published in Weekly Email

Tony Abbott made a rare appearance on the ABC this morning, in a telephone interview with Alison Carabine for Radio National’s Breakfast program (transcript below). 

Listening to it, having just read Tim Dunlop’s article about how the Coalition’s rhetoric has been normalised by the media as fact or common sense, was very interesting. Carabine is a good political journalist, but, experienced and knowledgeable as she is, even she fell into some of the traps Dunlop described.

Eight times in a fifteen minute interview, the Prime Minister referred to “Labor’s Debt and deficit disaster”. Eight times. More than once every two minutes. But not once did Carabine challenge him on this, she either ignored it or accepted it as the premise of the answer.

To be fair, if you got bogged down in an argument with Tony Abbot about whether the Rudd/Gillard governments were the worst thing to ever happen to him Australia, you’d never get anywhere in an interview. However, because Abbott and other Coalition ministers are so rarely challenged when they talk about Australia’s “debt and deficit disaster” it has become a premise on which they can base so many flawed arguments, and a belief that is too widespread in the electorate. Thus, the basis on which they then justify a budget that is punitive rather than corrective is already established and tacitly agreed.

It’s certainly true that taxation receipts as a percentage of GDP have fallen in recent years. (with thanks to Greg Jericho for the graph, because apparently you can’t ask him a quick DM question without getting at least two graphs in response).

graph

This however, is an entirely different proposition to a “debt and deficit disaster”. That myth has been pretty well debunked here and here and here and here and here and, well, you get the idea. 

The economic challenges Australia faces is that revenue is decreasing, which is mostly due  to the GFC, the slowing of the mining boom and the decline of manufacturing. While it is true that no budget, no matter how healthy, can withstand decreasing revenue and increasing expenditure for too long, the only solutions proposed in the recent budget are about decreasing expenditure. There are no moves to increase revenue beyond the debt levy on the highest income earners – which is a temporary measure in that it does nothing to increase the revenue base, despite a minor increase in the actual revenue amount. 

This is a problem for the way voters understand the budget because, yet again politics trumps policy in political media. Not just from the politicians, but from the journalists who are meant to be analysing and explaining the actions of government. It’s frustrating and depressing because we know that these journalists are intelligent, talented, knowledgable people. We know that they certainly have the capacity to do far better by their audience than they do. So why do they let the politics outweigh the policy? Why do they let the government drive the agenda when they are the ones asking the questions? Why is a response that is not an answer left to just lie there, with no recognition that it's just words with no meaning?

Why, in this interview, when the Prime Minister tacitly agreed that decreasing funding to the states was a wedge to force them to demand an increase in the GST, was he not called on this?

AC: But with regards to that source funding that you’ve mentioned, the states are feeling cornered. They believe you have engineered a funding crisis to flush them out on the GST. But they’re not biting, they won’t go there, so that tactic seems to have flopped?

TA: Well, let’s wait and see, we’ve got 3 years before the rate of increase drops, we’ve got 3 years of funding as agreed by the Rudd/Gillard government and that’s, as we promised at the election, and then in the 4th year, funding will continue to increase, it’s just that it will increase at a slower rate. So there’s plenty of time to come to grips with all of this and work out the best possible way to deal with it.

Yes, she asked the question, but when the answer clearly said that the tactic has not in fact “flopped” because “let’s wait and see, we’ve got 3 years”, he was allowed to step back from the question. Because the follow up was on the politics not the policy. 

I have a very good understanding of how difficult it is to get it right all the time, how hard it is to fund it and how dispiriting it is when you do a good job at something and cop a shellacking for not doing a perfect job. So while this might look like an attack on Carabine, it isn’t. She is a good journalist and this is not even close to the worst I’ve ever heard, it’s just the most recent and years of feeling frustrated and let down by a profession I so admire is really starting to bite. 

This is the first time since the beginning of the Howard years that we have had a genuine divide between the left and right side of politics. The media, who are  (or should be) the ones explaining those differences to the voting public cannot continue to allow the government and the Murdoch press to set the baseline from which they all start, they do us and themselves a great disservice by doing so.

__

(A quick aside: I was talking to someone last week about the journalists who are really getting it right on political reporting. The names that immediately came up were Sarah Ferguson, Fran Kelly, Lenore Taylor, Laura Tingle and Katherine Murphy. Only after we realised that they were all women did we try to think of some male press gallery journos who are in their class. Couldn’t come up with one. It occurs to me to wonder if, in such a male dominated industry, do those women know that and occasionally, quietly bite their thumbs at their male colleagues. They probably don’t, “getting it right” also meaning having a bit more class and dignity than that, but still, it’s  a nice mental image.)

 

UPDATE: A case in point. In this interview the Prime Minister said, on the health funding for the states:

Well, let’s wait and see, we’ve got 3 years before the rate of increase drops, we’ve got 3 years of funding as agreed by the Rudd/Gillard government and that’s, as we promised at the election, and then in the 4th year, funding will continue to increase, it’s just that it will increase at a slower rate. So there’s plenty of time to come to grips with all of this and work out the best possible way to deal with it.

Lenore Taylor pointed out a few hours later that this is completely inaccurate. Can't wait to see who will be the first one to ask him, or any Government minister, to clarify this. And how they handle the "clarification".

__

This is not an official transcript from the ABC, this is my transcript from the audio file. Any errors or typos are entirely my responsibility and I am happy to make any corrections required (*waves cheerily to Mark Colvin*)

 

AC: Prime Minister, thanks for your time this morning.

 

TA: Good morning Alison.

 

AC: We’ll get to the states in a moment, but we can’t avoid the opinion polls, voters have passed judgement, they are angry and are feeling betrayed. Aren’t you now being called out by the Australian people?

 

TA: Well Alison, no one ever said it was going to be easy to tackle Labor’s debt and deficit disaster, but every day in the lead up to the last election I said to people, we are going to get the budget back under control. So I think the public were on notice that we were going to have to make some very tough decisions, we’ve made them, we’re not making them for our own political benefit, obviously, we’re making them for the long term benefit of the country. That, I believe, is what people elected us to do. They elected us to ensure that we weren’t paying the nation’s mortgage on the credit card because we just could go on spending a billion dollars a month just paying interest on the interest on the borrowing and that’s the situation under Labor.

 

AC: And that’s an argument you’ve prosecuted consistently since you were elected, but you also said yesterday Prime Minister that before  the election people heard different things. That sounds like a concession that you carefully massaged the message pre-election to tell voters what they wanted to hear. Does that amount to deception?

 

TA: (heh heh) If you go back to the pre-election mantra, which people were sick of hearing, I said in interview after interview, I said we’ll stop the boats, we’ll scrap the carbon tax, we’ll build the roads of the 21st century and we’ll get the budget back under control. Now sometimes Alison, the order was different, but they were the elements that I put forward to the Australian people every day during the election camping and we’re getting on with all of them  

 

AC: But you didn’t mention welfare cuts and tax rises, does that mean stopping the boats, scrapping the carbon tax, building the roads, getting the budget back under control, are they the only areas voters should hold your government to account, everything else is carte blanche to the government to do what it likes and not be held to anything it said before the election?

 

TA: Well Alison, we did talk about scrapping the school kids bonus, we did talk about eliminating the low income support payment, we did talk about reducing the public service by some 12,000 people. We put all of this before the Australian people and I don’t think anyone really expected that you would get a soft option budget from the coalition and obviously it’s not a soft option budget from the coalition, but it’s a budget that Australia needs at this time, if we are going to get Labor’s debt and deficit disaster under control.

 

AC: Well if you were so up front with voters before the election how do you account for these terrible polling numbers today?

 

TA: Well look, we never said it was going to be easy. And I think the last government which brought down a very tough budget, the Howard government in 1996, took a big hit in the polls too. But in the end we were elected not to take the easy decisions but to take hard but necessary decisions, and that’s what we’ve done.

 

AC: But what about unfair decisions? 63% of voters according to Nielsen believe the budget to be unfair, that suggests voters are not buying the government line that the burden of budget repair is being shared equally.

 

TA: Well, if you look at the actual decisions in the budget, the high income earners, like politicians, will pay the deficit levy. That’s the top 3% of earners will pay the deficit levy, people like politicians will get a pay freeze for 12 months, judges and senior public servants likewise. Yes everyone is going to pay fuel excise indexation, but for the average family that’s about 40 cents a week in the first year. So look there are tough things in this budget, there’s absolutely no doubt about that, tough things in this budget, but it is absolutely necessary if we are going to get Labor’s debt and deficit under control. And stop paying a billion dollars a month, just in interest on the borrowings. 

 

AC: Prime Minister, I promise you, we’ll get off the polls in a moment, but your own authority appears to have been damaged. Your net approval rating has jumped as high as minus 30, how do you plan to win back people’s trust, or, once people feel that they’ve been mislead by their Prime Minister could it be that that trust is gone forever? Was that the Julia Gillard example?

 

TA: Alison, I’m just getting on with what we were elected to do. As I said we were elected to get the budget under control and you don’t reign in debt and deficit disaster without taking tough decisions, and look, ah, Labor gave us the sixth biggest deficit in our history, Labor left us with debt and deficit stretching out as far as the eye can see, debt peaking at $25,000 per Australian man, woman and child. We have to take tough decisions to tackle this, in the end, my job is not necessarily to win a popularity contest, my job is to run the country effectively and that’s what I’m going to do my best to do.

 

AC: And you’d be well aware that politics is the art of the possible, when you take into account the resistance in the Senate, plus the disapproval of voters, maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew with this budget?

 

TA: Oh, no, we’ve done what is absolutely necessary to tackle Labor’s debt and deficit disaster, I mean, what is the alternative? Labor’s alternative is just to keep borrowing and keep spending. The Greens’ alternative is to just whack up everyone’s taxes. What is the alternative? Now, we have put forward a careful, thoughtful, measured way to get the debt and deficit disaster that the Labor party left us under control. And there is no alternative, certainly no alternative that the Labor party have offered us and that’s why we are going to press steadily forward with the measures that we have brought forward. 

 

AC: Prime Minister, you say that it’s a careful and considered approach to budget repair, but state and territory leaders have unanimously rejected your cuts to health and education funding, they want an urgent COAG meeting to discuss the cuts, but you’ve knocked them back. Why won’t you speak to them?

 

TA: Well, I’m talking to them all the time. I talk to the Premiers all the time, I had a number of conversations with most of the Premiers last week and I daresay I’ll have more conversations this week. But the changes are not cuts, they’re just a reduced rate of growth in spending. They were clearly flagged before the election, we never said that we would honour the Rudd/Gillard government’s pie in the sky promises in the out years. The first of the out years is now coming to the forward estimates as part of the budget, we think what we’ve put forward in the budget is perfectly reasonable. It does involve, as I said, a continued growth in funding and we’re happy to keep talking to the states as part of the federation white paper process about all these issues.

 

AC: You may have said before the election that a coalition government would not be bound by the out years, but you also said there would be no cuts to health and education. Can you understand why people, including the premiers, are confused and quite annoyed with you?

 

TA: But..but..there are no cuts to health or education. In health, all of the money that we’re saving is going into the medical investment fund, the medical research investment fund. And that’s going to be dedicated to finding the treatments and the cures of the future that we need if our population is to live longer and better.

 

AC: But that reshuffling of the money will, according to the Premiers, mean hospital beds will close, no fewer than 1200 on the 1st of July. There’ll also be $300 million in cuts to concessions for the elderly, they will also be lost. And they’re not going to happen in 3 years time, that will be 42 days time according to the Premiers. And they’re saying they can’t absorb these cuts.

 

TA: There was a nation partnership agreement which the Labor party hadn’t funded. There was a national partnership agreement on beds, which the Labor party hadn’t funded and we haven’t decided to renew it. This is actually a Labor cut, it’s not a Coalition cut. On the concessions, look, ah, it is true that for many years the Commonwealth have been paying the states money so the states could offer concessions to pensioners and concession card holders in various areas. We made the decision that in a very touch budgetary climate, if the states wanted to continue to offer those concessions, they should do it themselves. They shouldn’t need the Commonwealth to pay them to offer concessions to people.

 

AC: Prime Minister, you did mention the white paper into the future of the federation. Are you hoping to use that process to see a fundamental shift in who takes responsibility for funding schools and hospitals?

 

TA: Well, let’s see where it goes. What I said pre-election and what I’ve said post election is that I want the states and the territories and the Commonwealth to be sovereign in their own spheres. It’s well-known that the states run public schools and public hospitals but the Commonwealth part funds them. The states find that an unsatisfactory situation because they want funding certainty. I think most of them would prefer to have own source for this, so let’s talk all of this through and come up with a system which means that come 2017/18, which is more than 3 years away, we have schools and hospitals which are well funded, which are better run and let’s have a federation which works better as well. 

 

AC: But with regards to that source funding that you’ve mentioned, the states are feeling cornered. They believe you have engineered a funding crisis to flush them out on the GST. But they’re not biting, they won’t go there, so that tactic seems to have flopped?

 

TA: Well, let’s wait and see, we’ve got 3 years before the rate of increase drops, we’ve got 3 years of funding as agreed by the Rudd/Gillard government and that’s, as we promised at the election, and then in the 4th year, funding will continue to increase, it’s just that it will increase at a slower rate. So there’s plenty of time to come to grips with all of this and work out the best possible way to deal with it.

 

AC: So plenty of time to come to grips with a bigger and broader GST, is that what you’re saying?

 

TA: We have no plans, at the commonwealth level we certainly have no plans whatsoever to change the GST. We went into the election with that position and we’ve come out of the election with that position 

 

AC: Why not? Why won’t you show the same courage that John Howard displayed on tax reform? Why not take a lead on this?

 

TA: Are you accusing me of lacking political courage Alison?

 

AC: No, I’m certainly not doing that Prime Minister.

 

TA: (heh heh heh heh) Thank you.

 

AC: I’m just suggesting that if you did want a bigger and broader GST, you, being the Prime Minister, might be the person perfectly positioned to prosecute that debate. 

 

TA: Well let’s see what comes out of the federation white paper process. I have no plans to change the GST. All of the GST revenue goes to the states. It’s really up to the states if they want to put that stuff on the table. I don’t know whether they will, it’s really up to them and let’s just see where the federation white paper process takes us.

 

AC: Prime Minister, just finally, you’ve got the states offside, that’s clear. So too the voting public, also the senate, which will knock out some of the major budget measures, is it now time to rethink your budget strategy?

 

TA: No. Because there is no alternative to getting Labor’s debt and deficit disaster under control. We cannot go on stealing from our children to spend in the here and now. We just can’t do it. Now Labor has no answers. They are all complaint and no solutions. We have put forward a very carefully thought through, sensible, reasonable, moderate way forward and we just going to push on with it.

 

AC: So it’s crash or crash through?

 

TA: Well, it’s keep going, with a carefully thought through budget strategy. The last government that brought down a tough budget was the Howard government in 1996. That set up a decade of prosperity. Because it demonstrated that the government had political courage and economic strength and that’s what this government is doing. 

 

AC: Prime Minister, you’ve been very generous with your time, thanks so much for joining Radio National breakfast.

 

TA: Thank you Alison.

 

Published in The Shout

The fraught relationship between politicians and the electorate is distorted by the media sitting in the middle setting the basis for discussion. Often this isn't outright bias, it is simply a by-product of the professional desire to achieve “balance”. So, as frustrating and dangerous as the avowedly biased media can be, it is often the journalists who claim the high middle ground who are distorting the picture even further. It is all part of why our politics is broken.

It was as predictable as cat videos on the internet. On Monday morning, The Australian editorialised that political dishonesty was suddenly okay by them:

Unfortunately for the public’s understanding of the challenges confronting the economy, much of the pre-budget commentary in the popular media and on supposedly serious programs such as the ABC’s Insiders has concentrated ad nauseam on whether promises are about to be broken rather than on what would be good for the nation. Promises need to be broken because both sides of politics took unrealistic platforms to last year’s election and because Australia has lived beyond its means for too long.

Ah, yes. Promises need to be broken. As if the Gillard Government and media coverage of their broken promises had never happened.

As I say, it was predictable. But it was still sort of shocking to see it there in all its shameless and unexamined black-is-white glory. Promises need to be broken. Pinch yourself.

It is a powerful reminder that the mainstream media do not simply report, they create. For all their pretence of objectivity, they are part of a mediation process that filters and chooses and spins information. Then spits it out on daily basis, in what amounts to a blancmange, not just of facts, but of opinions, angles, nuances, views, truths, half-truths, quarter-truths and outright lies from which we, the citizen public, are expected to make sense.

Bernard Keane had some interesting things to say along these line on the same day. He argued, for instance, that Tony Abbott is on track to be our first post-modern prime minister, describing him as “a leader unencumbered by any belief in the value of truth or consistency.”

Keane went on to say:

[P]arties like Labor….in Australia, and the Democrats in the US, have struggled to find a way to counter how politicians of the Right have freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence.

This is something I think progressives really need to get their head around. I think it is particularly hard for good journalists to decipher because it means rethinking a lot of the norms of their profession.

So let’s start with the contention that “politicians of the Right have freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence”.

There’s seem little doubt about this. We see it in regard to everything from climate change to austerity economics to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Ideology trumping evidence. A veritable legion of right-wing commentators and journalists willing to say almost anything in the name of group fealty.

The extract from The Australian editorial at the top of this piece is a variation on the theme. It’s not just that they have backflipped on the matter of broken promises, and are willing to give Tony Abbott a pass on something they would never have given to Julia Gillard and Labor. It’s that the whole piece is predicated on the idea that “cuts are necessary to re-establish the conditions for growth and prosperity”.

This in turn buys into the government’s claims that there is some sort of Budget crisis facing the country and that that is being driven by other crises, most specifically those to do with healthcare and pensions.

In other words, the whole contention that “promises need to be broken” is built upon a range of conclusions about the economy that are simply wrong. The alleged crises do not exist. Even if we wanted to be incredibly generous and allow that the underlying contentions are at least debatable, we would still have to note that they are not actually debated in pieces like that editorial. They are merely asserted. They sit there as the unexamined assumptions fuelling the whole “debate”.

In pointing this out, I am certainly not arguing that the economy is perfect or that everything Labor did in regard to it was laudable or that, like any economy, there are not long-term structural matters that have to be managed. But any sort of realistic discussion of the economy simply cannot make the sort of presumptions that the editorial does.

Keane’s question is really, how do the right get away with it? The flip side of which is: why can’t the left?

The answer is actually pretty straightforward. The public space in which these discussions happen are dominated by right wing ideas and commentators. Huge amounts of money, often filtered through think tanks, are spent on ensuring that certain ideas not only dominate public discussion but are normalised as common sense.

In brief, media commentary skews right, and given this, you can just about guarantee that ordinary, everyday journalism will also skew right, pretty much by default.

Let me unpack that.

It is not just that there is a right wing media that dominates and is biased. It is that the opposite of right wing media isn’t left-wing media, it is sensible journalism.

Sensible journalism is what you get when media organisations or individual journalists try self-consciously to be neither of the right nor the left. They try instead to be “balanced” or “objective”. They see this as being professional. But what they end up doing is simply discounting left wing positions and arguments and thus by default give credence to right wing ones.

To put it more clearly, the middle ground to which they are trying cleave is actually occupied by right wing assumptions.

Look at what happened on QandA the other night. Some protesters managed to infiltrate the audience and make a noise about education cuts. When the small kerfuffle was over, host Tony Jones declared:

We had a little musical interlude there while we get democracy back on track.

That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about. And those students should understand that.

I don’t doubt Jones believed what he said, but the sheer adamancy of his assertions speaks to such a conservative understanding of democracy that it can’t help but reinforce right-of-centre preferences. “Protest is bad because it is disruptive and rude” is a totally ring wing cocktail, and Tony Jones had clearly swallowed it in one gulp.

Individual journalists at the ABC may tilt left as some polling suggests, but Aunty is at heart part of the establishment, and Tony Jones, in that outburst, was wearing his establishment heart on his conservative sleeve.

Or look at these comments by Guardian journalist, Katharine Murphy. It is a discussion of Labor’s attempt to censure the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop. Murphy, who I think works really hard to engage with all her readers, openly states that Labor “has a valid point about Bishop and the speakership” and that “the public would be better served, by the Speaker playing it down the line”.

But then comes the “but”:

That said, Christopher Pyne pulled out a bravura performance on the floor. He neutralised the attack in the moment with his signature blend of truly astounding chutzpah – (misogyny, against Bishop, good grief); a sharp instinct for the weaknesses of his opponents (of course Labor is mourning this transition to opposition, the loss of incumbency – so hit them where they hurt); some precision ridicule and satire – and of course, he had the structural advantage. This was a debate the government could not lose. There was no prospect of a loss.

It's been a bad week for the government. Pyne's job to today was to deliver a Chinese burn to Labor, and lift the morale of his troops by dishing out his arch commentary on the road to certain numerical victory.

A simple mission. His success with that venture could be seen in everyone's body language afterwards: Abbott's grin, Bishop's extra tartness from the chair and her newly squared shoulders. The odour of retribution wafted from the front of the House.

Politics imposes a brutal hierarchy and Labor had been reminded of its place in the scheme of things – taking its lumps, out of power, out of numbers – back to that slow drilling through hard boards.

So what started as a discussion of the rights and wrongs of how the Speaker does her job - clearly a topic of major importance - morphs unexamined into a discussion about parliamentary tactics. Once that happens the government is deemed to be the winner.

And notice that final paragraph. It is simply wrong. Our entire system of government - the whole notion of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition - is built on the fact that you get to have your say no matter what the numbers are, that the rights of the minority are protected. Democracy only becomes the brutal numbers game that Murphy describes because those who help shape public opinion and who help influence the norms of political engagement give that aspect of the contest priority.

So in trying (justifiably) not to be “pro Labor”, the discussion ends up being pro government.

And notice the further upshot of all this: an article along these lines biased towards the right would’ve simply concentrated on Pyne “winning” the numbers game and would’ve presented it as a victory for the government. It would’ve been biased and misleading.

An article biased to the left would’ve highlighted the fact that Labor was correct in trying to censure Bishop because she is not doing her job correctly. But that left-bias would also happen to be objectively correct.

The article we have - the one that tries to balance left and right - ends up favouring the right.

I would contend that this sort of thing is actually built into the way a lot of journalism is done. Trying to be balanced in an environment where the basic thrust is right wing ends up being right wing by default. In such circumstances, “objective” actually means “playing down left wing presumptions”.

So getting back to that original quote from Bernard Keane and the question it raises, we can say that the right have “freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence” because the media spaces in which political debate happen are imbued with a right wing sensibility.

Tony Abbott and other right wingers get away with their “postmodernism” because, on balance, nobody holds them to account. The presumptions shared by the right pervade public debate and are thus normalised, and so inconsistency and lack of evidence are not punished but excused or rationalised.

I mean, how else could right wing politicians get away with being inconsistent and lacking in evidence unless the environment in which they put forward these views was biased towards them?

But let’s go a little deeper.

Take the line about Tony Abbott being our first postmodern prime minister. In effect the label is simply a euphemism, and as such and by definition softens judgement of him and as serial deceiver. He’s not lying, he’s being postmodern.

That’s one part of it.

The other is that, to the extent that the media that supports him has freed him from the need for consistency and evidence, “postmodern” might be a workable description. But at the end of the day, even postmodern Tony is pulled up by reality.

Yes, he is breaking many of the promises he made before he was elected, but the reason he is breaking them is because reality is forcing him too. He simply cannot run the economy as if facts don’t matter. He might’ve promised no new taxes but the reality is, the revenue side of the Budget needed attention too, and so some sort of tax increase is necessary to deal with it.

Think about that: it means that The Australian editorial is right. Promises did need to be broken!

But the truly insane thing is that Abbott is the only person who, in our media environment, can do this.

If Labor tried to increase taxes - and they did - they would be subjected to a barrage of abuse and interference from the media and the opposition - and they were. But Abbott, freed from the constraints of consistency by a media that has his back no matter what he does, can do what he likes.

It’s a variation on the conceit that only Nixon can go to China: the only people who can get certain things done - like raising taxes on the wealthy - are the ones who have sworn black and blue that they will never do it. It is their commitment to never do it that makes it possible for them to do it.

It is all so monumentally stupid. And dangerous.

It becomes stupid squared when the Greens and Labor then turn around and say they will not support the tax increases on the grounds that Tony Abbott is breaking promises or, more likely, because they think they can win support by promising not to raise taxes.

In other words, they are trying to play the very game that was so successful for Tony Abbott in the first place.

The trouble is, this can’t work for them. They can’t get away with it because the media environment doesn’t allow them to. It punishes them in a way it doesn’t punish the conservatives.

So the alleged progressive parties end up delivering themselves a double whammy: they try and play a game whose rules are rigged against them, but worse, they end up abandoning principle, accept the terms of politics as defined by the right, damage their standing amongst those most likely to support them, and ultimately enter into the conditions for their own irrelevance.

As I noted on Twitter the other day, the funny thing is, Labor were so on the nose over their leadership nonsense that Tony Abbott would’ve won the election even he had told the truth about everything.

The fact that he didn’t, that he felt that he couldn’t, that he decided the only way to win was to promise a bunch of stuff he has now abandoned, should offer no comfort to the left or the right, to progressives or conservatives.

Just try and get your head around the doublespeak, backtracking, rationalising, up-is-down, black-is-white “logic” that pervades the entire matter of what we call public debate.

Of course, it goes a lot deeper than messaging problems and a slanted, structurally incompetent media. It all points to something fundamentally broken in our politics, though without doubt the brokenness of our politics can’t be separated from the brokenness of our media and other avenues of public discussion.

Both major parties have become so divorced from the electorate that the only reason they continue to exist is because Australia’s institutional arrangements keep them alive by default. Hooked up to this life support, and with nothing meaningful to say to voters, they construct these ridiculous “campaigns” that the media report as if they were the only viable alternatives available to address complex problems.

As it stands, we are living off our democratic capital and not engaging in the sort of rebuilding that is necessary to maintain a society that is both free and fair. The nature of work and a myriad of other social relations have shifted over the last few decades and our institutions are ill-equipped to respond.

What is becoming increasingly obvious is that this is a situation that we can neither argue nor vote our way out of. More fundamental change is needed.

 

CODA: The Budget was brought down just as I finished this piece, and you didn’t have to look hard in the coverage to find examples of the sort of journalism I am talking about above.

This piece by Ross Gittins is a classic of genre.

Gittins increasingly seems to see his role as taking some sort of “sensible” middle ground, offering himself as a savvy wiseman observing and commenting on the comings and goings of the rest of us with detached, gentle weariness.

He goes straight for the faux balance, the killer line to establish his savvy credentials:

This budget isn't as bad as Labor will claim and the Liberal heartland will privately think.

The next line is an explicit rebuke to all those out there (unnamed and unquoted) who dare to suggest that the government might be moving in the direction of other right wing governments around the world and to those who, by implication, worry about the undermining of the welfare state:

It's undoubtedly the toughest budget since John Howard's post-election budget in 1996, but it's hardly austerity economics.

Notice the intent is always to calm the horses, to reject Labor’s views, to reject any interpretation that might suggest we are moving too far to right. As I noted above, what happens isn’t explicitly right wing commentary, but it establishes its (alleged) fairness and reasonableness by setting itself against left wing positions.

He then he offers this overt rebuke to anyone silly enough to have taken Tony Abbott at his word:

Anyone surprised and shocked by the budget can be excused only if last year's election was their first. Any experienced voter who allowed themselves to be persuaded that ''Ju-liar'' Gillard was the first and last prime minister ever to break an election promise should pay their $7 and ask a GP to check for amnesia.

If you thought a man who could promise ''no surprises, no excuses'' was a man who could be trusted to keep his word, more fool you.

This is the ultimate savvy position and it is just dripping with condescension. It is not so much directed at any particular group - I mean, who out there really does think that politicians will keep their promises? - as it is about asserting his own insidery superiority for understanding how these things work.

The insidious thing about it is that invites us in to share in his savviness rather than to actually try and analyse what is going on.

That Gillard was crucified for her change of position on pricing carbon, while Abbott is applauded for his reversals is not considered. Savviness is its own reward and once again, this allegedly objective and reasonable discussion of politics ends up providing a soft landing for the conservatives.

And then there is my favourite section:

I give Joe Hockey's first budgetary exam a distinction on management of the macro economy, a credit on micro-economic reform and a fail on fairness.

...Only those people right at the bottom of the ladder have been hit hard – unemployed young people, the sick poor and, eventually, aged and disabled pensioners – but who cares about them? We've been trained to worry only about ourselves, and to shout and scream over the slightest scratch.

Just think about all that.

The entire article is predicated on this smug mentality of playing down broken promises, of telling us that things aren’t really as bad as that nasty Labor Party would have us believe, of insisting that this isn’t really austerity, and then it has the audacity to imply that people don’t really care about the disadvantaged?

I mean, FFS. You just told us that the Budget wasn’t that bad. Do you really not see the connection between your attempts to play down the consequences of this sort of economic management and what you allege is a lack of care for the disadvantaged?

You say we’ve been “trained” to worry only about ourselves, but it rather begs the question, doesn’t it? Who trained us, Ross?

It is precisely this sort of pathological “balance” that is facilitating the country’s rightward drift.

Published in Weekly Email

Trying to make some sense of it all,

But I can see that it makes no sense at all

Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?

‘Cause I don’t think I can take any more

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,

Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Aside from its alarming treatment of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, one of the other disconcerting things about the first Abbott Government Budget is the counterintuitive behaviour it’s provoked from the major players.

Not only the Coalition government itself, but the Labor opposition and the Greens are behaving in ways that are counter to what voters would normally expect of them.

This is making it more difficult to work out who exactly is on the side of the angels, and could further entrench the unease that voters are currently feeling about the Budget and politics more broadly.

These behavioural contradictions are disturbingly numerous, and seemingly without logic.

For example, anyone with a half a brain would have thought the Government would avoid any perceived or real broken promises after Tony Abbott brutally reframed oath-breaking as a sign of political incompetence during his time as opposition leader.

And yet we find Abbott in recent weeks audaciously denying that clearly breached promises have been flouted; claiming that a previously unknown hierarchy of commitments somehow forgives lesser oaths being sacrificed for major ones; and insisting that Budget decisions that are “consistent with our promises” will suffice.

That’s not to mention Treasurer Joe Hockey’s Twilight Zone logic that voters should have known Abbott’s “no new taxes” commitment didn’t really hold because he‘d already announced a levy on big business to co-fund the Paid Parental Leave scheme.

Said PPL had already set conservative and libertarian supporters of the Coalition spinning off-kilter. A progressive policy that respects and supports the right of working women to breed and return to work – initiated by TONY ABBOTT – was just too hard to assimilate. It even sparked concerns whether Abbott really was “their man” or just a DLP wannabe.

Then another Captain’s Pick policy flopped onto the table – a levy, a TAX, on higher income earners to defray their share of the economic burden.

As they say in the classics, this rustled some jimmies, both within the Coalition party room and without. Yet, the Budget’s soft treatment of corporates will go some way to assuaging that concern, even though the PPL remains loitering palely in the corner.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Greens’ inconsistent behaviour is similarly disconcerting.

Initially Deputy Leader Adam Bandt opposed the sensible and climate-friendly reintroduction of increases to the fuel excise as an unfair impost on Australians’ cost of living. But a few days later, the Greens Leader Christine Milne welcomed the reform saying it was a long-term structural change that the party had long advocated.

The Greens now plan to support the legislation in the Senate but also amend it to divert the funds raised from the excise away from road construction projects to those involving public transport.

Having over-ruled one of her party’s spokespeople to align the Greens’ budget response more closely with their policies, Milne did the complete opposite after having prevailed in a party room stoush over the debt levy. Milne’s subsequent declaration against the temporary tax was a direct contradiction of the Greens’ policy to increase taxes on the wealthy.

And Labor is also suffering from the same topsy turvey disease as the Coalition and the Greens.

The ALP will oppose elements of the budget that are unfair, do what they can in the Senate to stymie the “dismantling of universal healthcare as we know it” and resist any changes to pensions, although that reform is still a long way off.

But Labor also seems to be suggesting they’ll oppose broken promises, regardless of merit. It’s application of this crazy logic that will see the ALP reject the fuel excise increase. This was also the basis of Labor’s initial opposition to the debt levy on high-income earners, although they’re now revisiting that position in light of the income threshold being more than doubled from $80,000 to $180,000.

In short, the Coalition, the Greens and Labor are all over the shop and risk losing more respect every day.

The Greens’ and Labor’s reactions to the Budget will be known once their formal responses are made on Thursday night. In crafting those responses, both parties will be faced with a choice between politically expedient positions that align with their policies, and those that do not.

It will be tempting to adopt Abbott’s patented Mr No persona and simply oppose everything, but to do so would be unwise.

By letting baser politics draw them away from their policy base, all three parties have exposed themselves to accusations of inconsistency, at best, and expedient loyalty at the worst. Returning and sticking to their parties’ core values would be the first step in reversing that perception.

Published in Weekly Email