Monday, 24 October 2005

Killing the Voters

Monday, 24th October, 2005
Free drinks distributed by politicians seeking votes in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh killed 19 people in two days because the alcohol was laced with insecticides and other potent chemicals. Government spokesman Narendra Sinha described the scenes in Gorakhpur, 155 miles south-east of Lucknow, as "a free for all" in which five people died with 20 more made seriously ill. "Villagers came in hordes to have free alcohol and food." said Mr Sinha. "Within hours, people started vomiting. Before they could be shifted to hospital five persons died." Two days earlier 14 people had similarly died in two separate villages after being served spurious alcohol.

Monday, 1 August 2005

Pesky Nationals a Welcome Distraction

Monday, 1st August 2005  - Richard Farmer 
With the Senate about to meet for the first time with its new members, a little reminder about the piece we wrote back in December entitled Blackmailers in the Ranks where we described blackmailers outside the Coalition being replaced with blackmailers within it. What we will see in the coming years, we argued then, is not a Senate where the executive can ride roughshod over democracy but a Senate where the power has shifted from third forces like the Greens and the Democrats to backbench Government Senators.
Prime Minister John Howard clearly understands what the "new" Senate regime will be like because his political memory goes back to those days of his boyhood when Senators Reg Wright and Ian Wood crossed the floor regularly on points of principle. That is why Mr Howard is taking the trouble to be extremely cooperative towards the new representative of the Family First Party even though that newcomer's vote should not be necessary to obtain a majority.
That there are Government Senators champing at the bit to be the first to rebel is clear from the bombast that came at the weekend from the annual conference of the Queensland Branch of the National Party. If the Nats actually mean what they say then those merchant bankers should stop counting the millions they expect in fees from the sell off of the remaining Government share in Telstra. And small businessmen waiting for the day when they can sack staff without good reason might have to wait longer than they expect as well.

Monday, 27 June 2005

Memories for a Glug Grower - a Treasurer turned grape grower

Monday, 27th June, 2005  - Richard Farmer 
Politicians retiring voluntarily while at the top are a rare breed but National Party Leader and Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson joined their ranks this week. The timing of his decision to return to the farm at Gunnedah might have caught the members of the fourth estate napping but the decision itself came as no surprise. It was in fact very well previewed.
Which reminded us of the last such high ranking minister who really did surprise the pundits of the press when he handed in his badge without even a whisper before hand. The only reason we mention John Dawkins and his retirement as Paul Keating's Treasurer is that he has since become an Eden Valley grape grower and it was a pleasure to sample the other day a chardonnay which St Hallett's largely made from his 2003 crop. So impressed were we that 2006 will see grapes from the very same vineyard turned in to one of our very own single vineyard wines.

Monday, 20 June 2005

Preparing for an Embarrassing Report

Monday, 20th June, 2005  - Richard Farmer 
The best way to blunt the impact of a critical report is to make changes before the report becomes public. No one knows that better than Prime Minister John Howard. So we have had some concessions on the way illegal immigrants are treated in detention camps. Stand by for the report into the system which resulted in an Australian resident being held in detention.
The PM might not have had the report of former Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer in his hand when he reached agreement with the backbench critics of the detention policy, but he would surely have known the broad thrust of Mr Palmer's findings.
The Immigration Department is sure to get a caning and Mr Howard will continue trying to get the public service to carry the can for the detention abuses. As the impact of the report is played out over coming weeks we should note it down as the formal end of the Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility.

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Raiding the Poker Table When the Horse Has Bolted

Tuesday, 14th June, 2005  - Richard Farmer 
South Australia's finest struck last week to shut down a poker tournament being conducted at a local licensed club. Over in London they prepared the flotation of a company that hosts on the internet a billion poker games a year. A wonderful contrast and an example of how the world is changing faster than some national law enforcers.
The Adelaide police huffed and puffed about poker not being a game of skill and hence an illegal activity. Their job was to ensure that the only gambling going on in the City of Churches was gambling condoned by government. Hence the amazing scenes of a platoon in blue storming in to take down the names of those bold enough to have paid an entrance fee so they could compete for the title of champion.
Meanwhile, sitting at home in front of their computer screens, there were goodness knows how many South Australians betting dollars on hands with like minded souls around the world. Plenty of them I would guess because playing poker on the net is now a major past time. The Economist magazine recently reported that the listing of 23% of PartyGaming shares on the London Stock Exchange was expected to give the firm a market capitalisation of at least $US18 billion. That will make it one of the 100 biggest firms in Britain.
Australian Governments, desperately clinging to gambling as a major revenue source, appear unaware of the changes that the internet is bringing. For it is not only internet poker sites that are booming. There are sports books and casinos aplenty and a growing number of horse race punters have now discovered that the Betfair betting exchange (the English site Glug uses to calculate most of its Election Indicators) now operates on Australian races and that having up to 5% deducted from winnings beats the hell out of the 14% deducted by the TABs.

Tuesday, 7 June 2005

A Cautionary Tale for Political Mr Fixits

A trial started in Adelaide this week that should have the attention of political apparatchiks throughout the nation and from both sides of politics. Facing the court is a former ministerial adviser to the South Australian government and as details of the case unfold there are sure to be many Mr Fixits who think that “there but for the grace of God go I”.
Randall Ashbourne, 51, has pleaded not guilty to improperly using the influence of his position “to bring benefit to former state Labor backbencher and deputy leader Ralph Clarke” between 1 April and 21 November 2002. The allegation is that Mr Ashbourne offered Mr Clarke a seat on a government board if he agreed to drop a defamation suit he had brought against Attorney General Michael Atkinson.
With the trial just under way, this is not the time for commenting on the use by politicians of all stripes of jobs for the boys. Suffice it to say that the Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson should take particular notice of the potential consequences of trying to buy off an opponent with a cushy government job.

Monday, 9 May 2005

Not Listening to His Master's Voice

Monday, 9th May, 2005  - Richard Farmer 
Less than a month ago Rupert Murdoch gave a speech in which he declared that "too many of us editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers." It was no wonder, the News Corporation boss told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, that people, in particular the young, were ditching their newspapers. Today's teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings "don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important."
So what did I find in this morning's Australian previewing its 2005 Budget Special Edition? The promise that 10 of "the nation's most experienced political, economic and business writers" would be featured. All but one of them covered their first budget at least 22 years ago. I could not tell you what the 20-somethings of my acquaintance think of the likes of Paul Kelly (first budget 1973), Alan Wood (first budget 1967) and Mike Steketee (1970) because no youngster of my acquaintance reads them. Only Matt Price (first budget 2001) is on the wave length of my 25 year old son. And that's because he covers the footy every week up the back end of the paper.

Sunday, 8 May 2005

A Poisonous Relationship - Howard and Costello

Sunday, 8th May, 2005  - Richard Farmer 
When politicians talk, what they do not say is every bit as important as what they do say. Consider this exchange on yesterday's Channel Nine Sunday program:
LAURIE OAKES: ... I mean, people must wonder how two people with a relationship as apparently poisonous as yours and John Howard's can get together and produce the right budget for this country.
PETER COSTELLO: Well, I can because I've been fully focused on the budget.
LAURIE OAKES: He hasn't?
PETER COSTELLO: Since — well, since February. And I take responsibility for the budget. Of course I do. I'm the Treasurer.
Treasurer Peter Costello did not even try to deny that his relationship with Prime Minister John Howard is 'poisonous'. Nor did he pretend that the leader and deputy leader of the country are working together on the budget. According to Mr Costello he has been fully focused on the budget but since February Mr Howard has not been.
The bitterness Mr Costello has about Mr Howard could not be plainer.

Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Relaxed No More - Peter Costello waiting for the leaderhip

Tuesday, 3rd May 2005  - Richard Farmer 
John Howard gave a perfectly understandable answer to those journalists who asked him questions about his plans for the future. Of course he gave no hint of an impending retirement. To have done so would have made him a lame duck for the 12 months or so more in which he will be Prime Minister.
The only surprise about this whole affair was the response of Treasurer Peter Costello. He reacted as if he had somehow been dudded. And to think just two weeks ago I made the mistake of writing how relaxed he was about the future. (Changing the Guard - 20th April 2005).
Peter Costello should return to being relaxed. The only way he will not be the leader of the Liberal Party at the next election is if he upsets his colleagues to such an extent that they either implore John Howard to stay on or choose someone else as their leader.

Thursday, 28 April 2005

Wonderful Double Standards - The case of Koongarra's uranium

It was depressing to read in this morning's papers that there is now but one person classified as a traditional owner of the land which contains the Koongarra uranium deposit in the Northern Territory. When I started working for the grand father of that sole survivor we would have 40 or 50 people at meetings under the trees considering whether they wanted mining on their land. And mining they certainly did want despite the desperate efforts of do-gooder environment groups to stop them exercising their right to determine their own future.
Unfortunately for those now departed after a life of abject poverty, Labor Governments stuck to their absurd three mines policy and the mine that would have delivered the traditional owners a taste of economic security was vetoed. Unfortunately the arrival of the Howard Government coincided with a low point in uranium prices so there was no pressure to give belated approval. Not that the environmental groups stopped agitating. The traditional owners decided that they did not want to mine after all and for the last five years the owners of the mining rights have been prohibited from negotiating with them.
With the five years having expired the Australian Conservation Foundation wants laws changed to stop mining companies ever re-approaching traditional owners after they have rejected a mining proposal. It is an amazing double standard from a group that for all those years would never take yes for an answer from an Aborigine.

Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Changing the Guard - John Howard preparing to retire?

Wednesday, 20th April 2005  - Richard Farmer 
There is little doubt in my mind that John Howard is planning his orderly retirement as Prime Minister. For a start he is engaging in an orgy of international travel which is not at all surprising. If you want to be remembered as a major player on the international stage you have to tread the boards in foreign parts as well as having foreign leaders starring in your own political theatre.
Then there is the fascinating spectacle of John Howard taking the rap for the decision to blatantly abandon a key part of last year’s re-election strategy. Substantially increasing the Medicare safety net will cause considerable anger and that anger will grow as the months go by. A Prime Minister considering yet another term in office would have flicked the announcement to his Treasurer or his Finance Minister. Instead the PM is doing the decent thing by his successor in the hope, perhaps, that the anger will depart with him.
The third indication of departure was the offer of the Australian ambassadorship in Washington to Mr Howard’s long serving chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos. Decent politicians care about their loyal employees and the decision by Mr Sinodinos not to accept the post does not change the fact that the offer was made. Presumably he has another future in mind that he finds more appealing.
Exactly when the departure will come is probably in no one’s mind other than Mr Howard’s but the relaxed nature of Treasurer and heir apparent Peter Costello suggests another year at most.

A Stupid Defence - no personal responsibility for criminal behaviour

Wednesday, 20th April 2005  - Richard Farmer 
There is something wonderfully refreshing about the Indonesian legal system. Defence lawyers do not go into attempts to shift the blame from their clients with long descriptions of deprived child hoods and years of abuse. They just make statements of the obvious. Like today when the counsel for two of those arrested as heroin couriers described them as: “Stupid. Just stupid.”
The point was to disassociate the two from any involvement in the planning of the attempt to import heroin into Australia. They were simply simple couriers without the intelligence to understand the risks they were taking let alone develop the strategy to be an importer. The lawyer’s advice to her clients was that spilling the beans was the only way to avoid the death penalty.
No wonder the Australian Federal police were happy enough for their Indonesian colleagues to make the catch. It will avoid three or four years of listening to Sydney criminal lawyers giving reasons why personal responsibility no longer applies.

Tuesday, 5 April 2005

Adelaide's Extraordinary Guessing Game - Who is the alleged pedophile?

Tuesday, 5th April 2005  - Richard Farmer 
In the ranks of the South Australian Parliamentary Labor Party is a member described in a fax sent to 100 media organisations by two voluntary workers for an independent MP as being a pedophile. That independent MP, one Peter Lewis, just happened, until he resigned yesterday, to be the Speaker of the lower house. Now the Labor Government is attempting to have legislation passed to temporarily suspend parliamentary privilege to prevent Mr Lewis or anyone else from naming the alleged pedophile. Hence the great guessing game as the good burgers of Adelaide try to work out whom is being referred to.
It is impossible not to have considerable sympathy with the Labor MP tangled up in this affair. The faxed statutory declaration apparently contained no evidence about the offence allegedly committed and past police investigations uncovered nothing untoward. Yet the Labor Government is going to extraordinary lengths in the attempt to protect one of its own and in the end what will they achieve?
The journalists, politicians and political staffers privy to the name will surely pass it on to a friend or three. Within a week the rumour mill will have spread to over a million. Along the way some will get the name wrong and the innocent victims of the slander will end up being not one Labor MP but half the Labor Party Caucus.

Monday, 4 April 2005

Start an Organisation and Give Yourself a Title

April 2005  - Richard Farmer 
Former minor level military officers who leave the army with a huge chip on their shoulder generally find it hard to have their views taken seriously in the debate about Australia's defence policy. Give that same officer a grand title with an independent sounding organisation and those same views come blasting out of radios and appear on televisions and in newspapers all over the nation.
So it was this morning when Australians woke to find Neil James, the executive director of the Australian Defence Association, giving them the opinion that the nation's Sea King helicopters should have been replaced years ago. He was the media's darling as journalists desperately sought to find somebody, anybody, to talk about Saturday's tragic helicopter crash on Nias Island.
Now the opinion of Mr James might well turn out to be absolutely correct but expertise in the subject was not the reason his views were being sought. Today's appearances, like countless others by the current executive director and his predecessors, were purely and simply the result of the title.
Which brings me to the first rule for anyone wanting to take part in political debate: start an organisation and give yourself a title. If it sounds impressive, believe me you will be heard.
The Australian Defence Association is a wonderful example. It started in Perth in 1975 when Air Marshal Sir Valston Hancock, KBE, CB, DFC, who had been Chief of the Air Staff from May 1961 to May 1965, Jim Harding, described on their website as "a leading Western Australian trade unionist", and Peter Firkins, the director of the Perth Chamber of Commerce, decided that Australia was at a strategic watershed following the fall of Saigon to a major North Vietnamese attack. According to the website "they had the vision to see that an independent and non-partisan ‘ginger group’ was required to stimulate, nurture and monitor effective public debate on national security issues."
The ADA has grown from there to become a regular participant in the defence debate. But who exactly is it? Well its board of directors is these days a long way short of Air Marshal Hancock's status but you can judge that for yourself from the following descriptions taken from the ADA website.
Dr Brian Ridge - Brian Ridge is National President of the ADA. He teaches Linguistics and Asian Studies (including sections on regional security and defence) at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. He has taught previously at other Australian universities and overseas in Singapore and China. Brian is linguistically curious and his day is not complete without a new word from the "Worthless Word For The Day" list (it is a real list!)
Neil James- A graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Neil James served for over 31 years in the Australian Army. His experiences spanned a wide range of regimental, intelligence, liaison, teaching, operational planning and research positions throughout Australia and overseas, including Malaysia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Kashmir, Pakistan, India, Canada, Iraq, the United States and New Zealand. Neil is the author of four ADF and Army operational manuals, has written numerous articles for professional and specialist journals, has contributed chapters to several books on defence matters and has authored several entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He has served with the senior teaching staff at the Army Command and Staff College and the Australian and Canadian defence intelligence schools, and has taught on specialist courses with various Australian and allied intelligence and security agencies. After serving for nearly four years (1997-2000) as foundation director of the Army's 'think-tank', the Land Warfare Studies Centre at Duntroon, his final posting was as head of the operational plans branch at Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand near Wellington. In 2000 the then Australian Defence Studies Centre at UNSW published his comprehensive and critical study paper on reforming the strategic management of Australia's defence. The paper earnt him both his trans-Tasman exile in 2001-02 and his current position as Executive Director of the Association.
Ian Bostock- Ian Bostock is a professional journalist and the editor of a national consumer magazine. He graduated from UNSW in 1993 with a Bachelor of Science, and has been an independent defence writer and analyst for more than a decade. Since 1995 Ian has also been the Australian correspondent for the Jane’s group of international defence journals.
Alan Collier- Alan Collier is a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and served for five years as a an officer in the signals corps. Since leaving the Army in 1982 he has pursued eclectic interests as an electrical engineer, businessman, lawyer, company director and management consultant. He is of the view that there is more importance in defence and national security issues being vigorously debated than in any necessity that he agrees with any particular point of view.
David Forbes- David Forbes is barrister practising in commercial and insolvency law in Melbourne. He is also a volunteer lawyer at the Darebin Community Legal Centre. David joined the ADA in 1984 and has an on-going interest in national security and foreign policy issues. David writes occasional articles for Defender and academic legal journals. He regularly reads The Economist for breakfast.
Dr Malcolm Kennedy- Malcolm Kennedy spent 14 years in the regular and reserve components of the Australian Army. He saw service in Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Laos, and has travelled extensively in East and South-East Asia. Subsequently, he taught at Melbourne and Monash Universities. Editor of Defender, he now works as a freelance writer and editor.
Tom Magee- Tom Magee is a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and served as an infantry officer for 16 years. He counts his time with 3RAR establishing its parachute capability and his three-year secondment to the PNG Defence Force as the highlights of his time in the Service. Since leaving the Army in 1993 he has worked in a variety of executive roles in the resources industry, predominantly in the metalliferous sector. A ‘specialist generalist’, he sees the honest broker role of the ADA as bringing an essential element to public debate of national securit

Thursday, 17 February 2005

Dramatic Switch in Glug WA Election Indicator

In three weeks the West Australian Labor Government has gone from the 42% outsider to the 67% favourite on the Glug WA Election Indicator. It is a dramatic reversal but not completely surprising. I noted back on 28 January that despite the opinion of the bookmakers and the predictions of the pollsters "Governments rarely lose office after a single term and the underdog is the position to be in when campaigning gets underway."

Tuesday, 8 February 2005

The Whitlamites Ruling in Canberra

No wonder the old fellow refuses to fade away. Gough Whitlam’s dedication to reforming Australia’s system of government to make the states largely redundant has never had such support. The nation’s rulers seem to want to get their hands on everything - from industrial relations, to secondary school examinations, to running public hospitals, to reforming the Senate. It is like Canberra in 1972 all over again.
So there was the revered Labor Leader yesterday endorsing the proposals for a federal takeover of industrial relations. "Liberal Prime Minister John Howard correctly wishes our national parliament to have jurisdiction to make laws with respect to the terms and conditions of industrial employment," Mr Whitlam said in a statement which will be studiously ignored by his successors in the Labor Leadership.
These days it is the so-called conservative side of Australian politics that is the advocate of change and the so-called progressive Left that advocates the status quo. When Whitlam became leader of his Party 40 years ago the Liberal and National Parties were the states rights parties and Labor the centralist reformer. The roles are now reversed.

Friday, 28 January 2005

Beazley Wins – ALP Not Completely Stupid

Kim Beazley has had the easy win he needed. Notwithstanding the two poseurs who pretended they were after Labor’s top job, this was no contest. The survival instinct saw to that. The overwhelming majority of Caucus members realised that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are not yet the kind of people that the voters they need to attract are attracted to.
Kevin Rudd smugly gets his face on television and speaks in contrived 15 second grabs that television journalists like because they need so little editing. Yet the subject matter of his comments is irrelevant to winning elections. Foreign policy is not what Labor needs to be worrying about. It is a hindrance rather than a help to have Kevin Rudd available at the flash of a microphone. It creates the impression that the Labor Party is more interested in the dilemmas of Iraq than the housing prices at Blacktown. Over the next year or so Mr Rudd will best serve his Party by virtually disappearing until he gains a new shadow Cabinet position talking about money matters where he can show if he really is a serious leadership contender.
The one thing you can say for Julia Gillard is that before Mark Latham’s second bout of pancreatitis she was a virtual unknown to the eyes of the vast majority of Australians. Now many will recognise the red hair and the grating voice but whether they will like what they see (surely they will not like the voice they hear!) is another question. With prominence comes scrutiny and Ms Gillard’s only test when it comes to a matter of substance was the disaster called Medicare Gold offered at the last election. She escaped the blame for that piece of stupidity because people did not know who she was and the Government found it convenient to paint Mark Latham as the fool. It will not be so next time.
My guess is that the Labor Leader after Kim Beazley will be neither Mr Rudd nor Ms Gillard. The fact that both avoided a formal leadership vote is compelling evidence of a lack of support. When you pull out beforehand you can try and kid people that you were just a little short of the required number. When the numbers are actually cast and counted the truth is clear for everyone to see.

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

Avoiding Boredom on the Back Bench

Most members of Parliament – certainly those not in the Ministry or the Shadow Ministry – have little say in how the country is run. They turn up in Canberra but their opinions are rarely sought and even more rarely listened to.
Which is why the selection of a new leader was such an excitement for so many of the Labor lot over the last few weeks: for once they had a role that might even get them interviewed on the radio and their name put in the newspaper. Now that the choice has been made it will be back to anonymity and the discipline of the factions until the next ballot for positions.
For those in the Liberal Party things are probably worse. The only election they get involved in is for the Leader and with John Howard firmly in control there have not been many of them in recent years.
Liberal backbench boredom is behind the talk of reforms to the taxation system which is getting a bit of an airing in the Murdoch press but that issue is unlikely to amount to much. Neither PM Howard nor Treasurer Peter Costello needs another inquiry to outline the options. When Parliament resumes the backbench stirrers will be reminded of the reality of Liberal Party politics. It does not pay to upset the present and future leader because they alone decide who gets promoted.

Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Find a Speech Therapist - Julia Gillard's voice

A quarter of a century ago Labor had a leader with a voice that grated on many who heard it. Whenever Bill Hayden got a little excited and raised his voice, his pitch went up and it sounded like he was whining. A bit like the howl of a drover's dog really.
During the 1980 election campaign Bill had a bad case of laryngitis which temporarily solved the problem becaused he physically couldn't raise his voice and people started saying how much better he was performing. That encouraged him to seek a permanent solution by employing the actor/director George Ogilvie to give him some voice training.
If Julia Gillard is serious about ever becoming Prime Minister she should follow Bill Hayden's example. Her accent is appalling and would surely turn-off voters in droves.

Friday, 14 January 2005

Age and Experience the Pre-Requisites

Mark Latham does appear to have inherited something from his mentor Gough Whitlam - a dislike of having his summer holidays interrupted. In 1974 Prime Minister Whitlam was most reluctant to return to Australia from Europe when Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin and even when he came back he did not hang around for long before resuming his overseas sojourn.
In 2004 Opposition Leader Latham was well enough to play for an hour or two with his kids in the swimming pool at a holiday resort but not able, apparently, to phone his press secretary to put out a few token few words of sympathy for the victims of the Asian tsunami.
There is perhaps a touch of arrogance there and it is providing Mr Latham's detractors with new ammunition to fire at him. The airwaves are full of breathless journalists quoting unnamed sources in the Labor Caucus predicting his downfall. Those that are not dwelling on the absence of words of sympathy are claiming to be concerned by their leader's pancreatitis.
My own view on the Labor Leadership is that even an extremely sensitive and gifted man of Mr Latham's age would have difficulty in winning an election. The Australian people have a history of choosing leaders they have grown familiar with over a long period. Study the table in the piece Eight Out of Nine A'int Bad which I wrote just over a month ago.