Monday, 26 February 2007

Many True Words are Said In Jest

Monday, 26th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The real purpose of the McKew candidacy is to irritate and annoy the Prime Minister.
A good journalist does not necessarily make a good politician said Tony Abbott this morning as Maxine McKew was welcomed in to the world of electoral politics. As a former editorial writer for The Australian, the Health Minister should know. In recent memory Abbott has gone from being seen as a potential leader of his party to just another useful bully boy of a minister.
Which is a role Ms McKew is unlikely to ever play for her adopted Labor Party. She is much too refined and nice for that – perhaps too much so. Candidates who dare to tackle a Prime Minister in his own seat can expect the going to get tough and it is yet to be seen how the dignified interviewer from ABC television adapts to a bit of rough and tumble. As the weeks go by Ms McKew will find obscure details of her past dredged up for public examination. It is hard for even real hard heads to keep their composure under such scrutiny.
How the Bennelong challenger fares will determine her political future. She and the Party are talking as if this is a serious challenge to John Howard in his own seat. They are armed with the good news of the recent Crikey-Morgan poll and the knowledge that changes to the Bennelong boundaries have brought the electorate into the theoretically winnable category for Labor if the kind of swing which would deliver government is actually on.
This is really bravado with the real purpose of the McKew candidacy being to irritate and annoy the Prime Minister to help Labor beat his government throughout Australia rather than to actually defeat him in his own seat. A high profile opponent probably increases the chances of Howard being returned whatever happens nationally. There is unlikely to be a protest vote against a man who has led the country for a decade in a successful and popular way when the voters realize that there is a real chance of him being defeated. The Labor vote in Bennelong would probably be maximized if Howard was facing an unknown candidate with no apparent chance of victory.
Should McKew perform the unlikely and emerge the winner she would naturally become a Labor heroine and be assured a glittering ministerial future. More likely she and her boss Kevin Rudd see this as a training run for the future. How she fares will determine her role in any future Labor administration. If Howard is returned she will become the key adviser in opposition for the next three years. If Labor wins without her winning Bennelong she will emerge as the boss of the Labor media apparatus. Any future as a member of parliament will depend on how she handles the rough and tumble of her first campaign.

A Parliamentary Role Reversal

Monday, 26th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Oppositions normally welcome parliamentary sittings in the run up to an election because they offer the chance of sharing publicity with the government. This week things are different with the Prime Minister John Howard being pleased to get back in to the House of Representatives and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd wishing he could continue gallivanting around the country forever.
Rudd has surprised the Coalition by the skill with which he has generated his own headlines in the last week. He seemed up upstage Howard from Monday to Saturday, from Perth all the way to Sydney. Even vice president Dick Cheney waving Australia good bye with his remark that the American alliance would not be weakened by a pullout from Iraq was giving more points to Labor.
Thus this week in the Parliament we will see a Government desperately looking for diversions that will tarnish the nice guy image of Mr Rudd. Any subject will do even if it rebounds a little on the government itself. A public thinking "a pox on all your houses" is far better at this moment than a public which is attracted to Labor’s fresh face. So the bullies on the government side will be set loose to see how their opponent reacts to continuous verbal abuse and name calling.
It will not be an edifying spectacle during question time but it will have an important bearing on how this election year plays out. If Rudd can resist the taunts, like he largely did during the last House of Representatives meeting week, the government will know it really is in serious trouble. That is when we can expect to start reading those stories about worried back benchers wondering if they did the right thing in telling Peter Costello to stop going on about being the right man to lead them on the next polling day.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Holding a Government Accountable

Friday, 23rd February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
In the light of recent revelations at the hearings of the Crime and Corruption Commission, former Premier Dr Geoff Gallop’s retirement suffering from severe depression appears more and more understandable
The West Australian Greens put a premium on government deliberations, decisions and actions being "transparent to the community who can hold them accountable." It is right there under the heading Participatory Democracy as one of the party’s four key policy principles. What is not spelled out in the policy document is what those words about holding a government accountable actually mean.
As more and more details of the extraordinary Labor Party way of doing business are revealed at the hearings of the Crime and Corruption Commission, West Australians will soon find out. The two Green members of the Legislative Council have it within their power to force a corrupt government to an election by refusing to pass the Government budget. Labor has only 16 of the 34 members in the Council, the Liberals 15 and the Nationals 1. The numbers are right for a state version of a 1975 constitutional crisis.
The circumstances, of course, would be different.
That Federal Labor Government might have been grossly incompetent but there was no suggestion of personal corruption. There was no former party leader behind the scenes acting as a Svengali to buy decisions on behalf of clients. This WA State Government is starting to look rotten to the core and the former Premier Dr Geoff Gallop’s retirement suffering from severe depression appears more and more understandable.
Dr Gallop tried to ban his ministerial colleagues from dealing with former Premier Brian Burke but evidence to the CCC shows how much he was ignored. In what can now be seen as an extraordinary piece of bad judgment, the new Premier Alan Carpenter lifted the Burke veto on taking over. Presumably he was simply bowing to the inevitable. Burke was in charge of many of his ministers and perhaps he knew it.
With hindsight it can be seen that Federal Labor showed some wisdom too. Kim Beazley regarded Brian Burke as a mate and refused to denounce him. Imagine where that misguided loyalty would have the party now as details of Burke’s improper influencing of public officials in WA come to light.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

143 Years On and Still Talking

Thursday, 22nd February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
River Murray Commissioners and Staff before the first Commission meeting at the Department of Works and Railways in Melbourne on 14th February 1917.
From Left to Right: J.S. Dethridge (Victoria); H.H. Dare (New South Wales); Senator the Hon. P.J. Lynch - President (Commonwealth); P.A.Gourgaud - Secretary; G.S. Stewart (South Australia) Photo courtesy MDBC
The colonial governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia met in Melbourne in 1863 to discuss a management plan for the Murray Darling Basin. The conference concluded that the commerce, population, and wealth of Australia could be largely increased by rendering navigable and otherwise utilising the great rivers of the interior such as the Murray, Edward, Murrumbidgee and Darling.
There was nothing concrete decided mind you. Just the agreement that something needed to be done. It would take the great drought of 1914-15, when memories were still fresh of the ‘Federation drought’ from 1885 to 1902 which devastated bush and city communities at a time when the national economy depended almost entirely on agricultural production, for the three states and the Commonwealth to actually set up a joint management body. The River Murray Waters Agreement, providing for the construction of a number of storages, weirs and locks was signed and on 14th February 1917 the first meeting of the River Murray Commission was held in Melbourne.
And the Commonwealth and the States have been talking about the problem ever since as the Brief History of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement on the Murray Darling Basin Commission website outlines in depressing detail. Reading it leaves little doubt about why Prime Minister John Howard decided that if his government was to put in $10 billion to try and solve some of the river system’s problems that it should also be in charge. More than a century of “cooperation” between states has been an abject failure.
That state parochialism still reigns was put neatly by Victorian Premier Steve Bracks when he announced his alternative to the Howard management plan. What Howard proposed was not, said Premier Bracks, in the best interests of Victoria although he made no comment about the best interests of the nation as a whole. As best I can work it out the reason is that NSW might have more of the federal money spent in its state than will go to Victoria with Bracks objecting to his state being penalised for spending more money in the past to improve irrigation practices than its counterpart across the border.
Prime Minister Howard now has to try and stop all such nonsense when he meets with the Premiers tomorrow. Perhaps commonsense will prevail but there is 143 years of history that says otherwise.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Not John

Wednesday, 21st February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Down here where I am in the Barossa Valley, the locals tell me that the best thing about Kevin Rudd is that he is not Johnny Howard and the second best thing is that he is so similar to Johnny Howard. They don’t know much about the Labor Leader really, just that he looks like a serious bloke who doesn’t drop his aitches.
My suspicion is that the popularity that the opinion pollsters are finding is thus based not a positive endorsement of Rudd but on negative feelings about his opponent. Politics was a bit boring when old Kim Beazley was challenging good old Johnny. Now at least there’s a bit of interest in the contest with the young bull going after the old one.
That the bulls seem to be the same breed stops the contest being threatening. The unrepresentative sample of people I mix with in this staunchly Liberal area think you can treat the Rudd versus Howard contest as a game because nothing much would change whoever wins. And while ever that attitude remains common, the Coalition Government is in trouble.
John Howard has to convince people that there really is a difference and that a government led by Kevin Rudd would be different to his in a dangerous way. Hence the emphasis being put on Iraq even though Australian involvement in that conflict is not popular. The Coalition wants to get the idea in to people’s minds that a Labor government would not be tough enough to make the hard decisions necessary in an age of terrorism. The PM and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer were out spreading that message yesterday with their claims that Rudd was a two bob each way man who both supports and opposes policies like sending more Australian soldiers to train the Iraqi military – the Australians should not do training in Iraq but it would be okay for them to do it across the border in Jordan.
Rudd appears to be enjoying his status as being regarded as a better PM than Howard and is increasingly acting as if he is a Prime Minister rather than a Leader of the Opposition. Flying off to Perth to share the limelight with Howard was provocative as was the comment that Howard was now a threat to national security. Howard sensed the opportunity to portray his challenger as an arrogant fellow with his riposte that Rudd is as bit full of himself.
Expect to hear more of the same if the State Premiers do not reach agreement with Howard on Friday on plans to protect the Murray Darling Basin. Rudd has been talking as if he is the leader who will make this policy happen but if it ends in a stale mate he will also start carrying the blame.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Adding a Iemmaism to Orwell’s Slogans

Monday, 19th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

To these classic George Orwell slogans from 1984 we can now add an Iemmaism:

MORE TO DO BUT WE’RE HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Morris Iemma yesterday launched his NSW State election campaign with that plaintive plea. Just when you thought Labor could not move any further to the right! Watch out One Nation, we’re coming to overtake you.
Or are these Iemmaisms really Orwellian. Does this slogan mean that the left has gained control? Do all our political slogans now have opposite meanings to the ones advertised? Stand by for the new Labor Government’s Department of Freedom to impound all yachts in Sydney Harbour after cunningly pretending to allow free extra moorings to the city’s rich and famous. Rejoice. Morris is Jack Lang reincarnated.
More to do indeed! Swallow that bunkum, return Labor and have another four years of costly tunnels and a shortage of water. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
So just remember, with apologies to Dick Tuck, "The Job Needs Morris, And Morris Needs the Job."

Friday, 16 February 2007

Climbing the Economic Freedom Table

Friday, 16th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The next time Treasurer Peter Costello feels the need to defend his credentials as an economic reformer he will surely turn to the Index of Economic Freedom prepared by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal.
Under his stewardship of economic policy Australia has steadily progressed up the table which measures and ranks 161 countries across 10 specific freedoms - things like tax rates and property rights. In the just released 2007 rankings Australia comes in number three with an overall score of 82.7. Back in 1995 when Labor was in charge, Australia was ranked eighth on a lowly 73.8.
The index's objective is to provide an empirical measurement of economic freedom in countries throughout the world, specifically to measure how close each country comes to the ideal of providing "the liberty of individuals to pursue their own economic interests" to enhance prosperity for the larger society.
Australia’s steady improvement during the Costello years is shown below.
Those interested in whether an index like this serves any practical purpose should look at the "investible" index of economic freedom that Liberty Investment, headed by Stefan Spath and John Kirkscey, has just created. Spath and Kirkscey back tested the performance of an Index of Economic Freedom Portfolio, constructed by Chicago-based First Trust, consisting of country funds and the top foreign stocks of countries that the Heritage/Wall Street Journal Index designates as "free". Over the 11 years between 1995 and 2006, the Index of Economic Freedom Portfolio would have outperformed world stocks by close to 2 to 1. While the MSCI World Stock index rose 140% over these 11 years, the (back tested) IEFP rose a whopping 254%.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

A Handy Change of Subject

Wednesday, 14th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Barack Obama
There’s one thing to be said about Barack Obama. For John Howard, the heat generated by talking about him is less than when the subject is global warming. After a week or two of climate change headlines the government needed the focus to be switched to something different. The pollsters tell us that all things environmental are a plus for Labor. Security and foreign policy is where the Coalition reigns.
The first and obvious point to make about Howard’s attack on the Democratic Party presidential candidate is that it will do Howard no harm at home. The diplomatic niceties of not interfering in the politics of another country will concern very few voters here. If anything there will be merit marks for getting stuck in to an American. Puts an end to that notion that our PM is too subservient to those Yanks doesn’t it! Show our PM is a tough old blighter too when he wants to be. We admire a bit of toughness even if we are on the side that wishes it was George W. Bush, not some bloke we have never heard of, that got the tongue lashing.
As to putting the spotlight on to Iraq, I am not so sure. Australians seem to be turning against the war and are increasingly suspicious about why we got involved in the first place. But there are not yet masses of passionate opponents and there will not be while ever the Australian involvement is nothing more than token. It takes more than an accidental death or two overseas to stir up anti-war sentiment to the point where it over shadows concern about living standards back home.
Perhaps the most significant political event of the week, then, is not a slanging match about Barack Obama but the report from the Reserve Bank suggesting that interest rate rises have done their anti-inflation job and the next movement will be down rather than up. As for warning clouds, John Howard should be more worried about that same Bank report’s comments about rising rents than rising temperatures.

From Glug

Bob Carr Upon the Stair

Wednesday, 14th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
"Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today, Oh how I wish he'd go away."
On Sunday former Premier Bob Carr will be the man who wasn't there. Also absent from the stair to the stage at NSW Labor's policy launch will be Graham Richardson. Premier Morris Iemma just wants to begin his formal campaign before, in the words of his spokesman Ben Wilson, "people who have supported Morris throughout his career and people he wants to acknowledge." Thus no celebrities at the Hurstville Civic Theatre, just community members and people he has worked with.
As Carr supported Iemma by promoting him in to the ministry and Richardson elevated him from obscurity by giving him a job on his staff, presumably the pair is in the category of people he does not want to acknowledge. That is a very un-Labor like attitude but one that the state Liberals will surely seize on.
The doggerel "Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today, Oh how I wish he'd go away" would go well in a television commercial pointing out the antecedents of the man trying to win office in his own right. Portray him as the pupil of Rene Rivkin's mate and the inheritor of the policies of Bob Carr.
At least it would give the people of NSW something to chuckle at other than the Opposition Leader Peter Debnam.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Gerard Henderson’s Sleazy Tactic

Tuesday, 13th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Gerard Henderson
In his Sydney Morning Herald columnthis morning Gerard Henderson came to John Howard’s defence for attacking the "US Democratic Party presidential aspirant Barack Hussein Obama". Let’s not worry about the Henderson view that Howard was "essentially correct", if "undiplomatic", in declaring that Obama was ecouraging those who wanted to destabilise and destroy Iraq when he called for a withdrawal of American troops by March next year. The Sydney think tank man is as entitled as the next person to think what he likes. It is with that "Hussein" word that Henderson has sunk down to the sleazy depths of the very worst of the right wing apologists for the George Bush war machine.
The Washington Post put it rather nicely in its editorial of 26 Januarythis year. "It’s become a fad among some conservatives to refer to the junior senator from Illinois by his full name: Barack Hussein Obama. This would be merely juvenile if it weren't so contemptible."
By highlighting a second name that Barack Obama himself never uses the commentators clearly hope to leave the impression that his words can be discounted because he is a Muslim or a Muslim sympathiser and thus not a true American. To quote the Washington Post editorial again: "Those who take pains to insert it when referring to him are trying, none too subtly, to stir up scary images of menacing terrorists and evil dictators. They embarrass only themselves."
The genesis of much of the slime being stirred up about candidate Obama was a Salon.com article "The new face of the Democratic Party -- and America" that appeared back in March 2004. In it the writer Scott Turow mentioned the Muslim heritage, which the conservatives in America, and now Henderson, seem obsessed with, along with the Christian influences, which the same conservatives ignore.
The following extract from Turow’s article gives a more accurate flavour of what was an interesting early life...
"His parents met as college students in 1960. His father, also named Barack Obama, was from Kenya's Luo tribe, the first African exchange student at the University of Hawaii. His mother, Anna, had gone to Hawaii from Kansas with her parents. Even in Hawaii's polyglot culture a black and white couple remained at best an oddity in 1961, when Obama was born; at the time miscegenation was still a crime in many states. Nor was Obama Sr.'s marriage welcomed in Kenya. Under those pressures, Obama's father departed when Barack was 2 to pursue his Ph.D. at Harvard, leaving his son with mother and grandparents. When Obama was 6, Anna remarried. Her new husband was Lolo, an Indonesian oil company manager, and the new family moved to Djakarta, where Obama's sister Maya was born. (Obama describes her looks as those "of a Latin queen.")
"After two years in a Muslim school, then two more in a Catholic school, Obama was sent by his mother back to her parents' home so that he could attend Hawaii's esteemed Punahou Academy. Living with two middle-aged, middle-class white people (his grandfather was a salesman, his grandmother a bank employee trapped by a glass ceiling), Obama struggled as an adolescent with the realities of being African-American, an identity that was in part imposed by others, and yet one he also embraced as the legacy of a father for whom he yearned but with whom he enjoyed only sporadic contact. He attended California's Occidental College, then Columbia. After graduation he moved to Chicago, where he worked for a number of years as a community organizer on the city's South Side, employed by a consortium of church and community groups that hoped to save manufacturing jobs."

Monday, 12 February 2007

A Portuguese Lesson in Reform

Monday, 12th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Prime Minister José Sócrates tried to avoid any backlash against his new government by letting the people decide on abortion laws.
Politicians in democracies dislike dealing with questions about which their supporters have passionately different opinions. There is always the risk that the group the politician does not side with will be so upset they will use the next election to administer punishment. Only the foolhardy and those in safe seats need not worry and it explains why there are so few votes in the world’s parliaments on what can broadly be called matters of conscience.
In Australia the fate of the late Victorian liberal Liberal MHR Barry Simon remains in political memories. He fell victim to a campaign against him by Right to Life supporters in his marginal seat after casting a vote in favour of a woman’s right to abortion. Wherever possible those in marginal seats would prefer not to be forced to make a choice on such questions. Although the current Parliament has been notable for having two conscience votes – on the legalisation of the abortion drug RU486 and the use of stem cells in scientific research - there have been few cries of protest at the Cabinet decision to prevent a federal parliamentary vote on its decision to veto an ACT Government bill to legitimise same sex relationships. With an election only six months or so away, marginal seat holders are relieved at being able to avoid committing themselves one way or the other.
That legislating on matters of morality is a universal problem was shown at the weekend when Portugal went to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether abortion should be made legal. Prime Minister José Sócrates, leader of the center-left Socialist Party tried to avoid any backlash against his new government by letting the people decide although the main conclusion is that most people simply don’t care. Only 44 per cent of the country's 8.9 million registered voters bothered to cast a vote. That was well short of the 50 percent participation figure set by Portuguese law for a referendum result to become binding but up on the 32% who turned out to vote at a similar referendum nine years ago.
Of those who did vote at the weekend, almost 60 percent had approved the proposal allowing women to choose an abortion up to the 10th week of pregnancy. Just over 40 percent opposed it. Mr Sócrates said he was undeterred by the low turnout and promised to enact more-liberal abortion laws in the country where 90 percent of people say they are Catholic. The wisdom of this “courageous” decision will be determined when he next faces a general election.
In Australia this idea of a parliamentary initiated referendum has not proved popular. Labor used it to choose a national anthem but referendums have generally been confined to constitutional matters. An exception was the Federal Government insisting that it would only provide funds to turn Toowomba’s sewage in to drinking water if the people voted in favour. Last year the ratepayers decided by a vote of 62% to 38% and that was the end of that.
And the end too of a promise by Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to let the people of SE Queensland similarly choose if they wanted to drink recycled water. Caught between the Toowoomba No vote and a drought, Beattie decided that his government would have to make the unpopular decision.

The Silent Peter Principle

Monday, 12th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Peter Debnam
The last thing NSW State Liberal Leader Peter Debnam needed was a renewed interest in the Federal election. He is a man desperate to find a way of showing he is a fit and proper person to become Premier of the nation’s largest state but the only election the Sydney media is interested in is Kevin Rudd versus John Howard. There is a fascination with Rudd that is leaving no room for that other opposition leader.
The bookmakers are reflecting the difficulty. The Glug NSW Election Indicator, based on the prices of the major internet players, has the Labor Government of Morris Iemma a 77% chance of retaining office with Debnam a 23% outsider.
Perhaps the best course for the State Liberals is to make a virtue out of their underdog status and quietly accept that their best hope is that enough people will cast a protest vote against a long serving Labor Party to elect enough independents to make a hung Parliament a possibility.

Friday, 9 February 2007

Playing for Kevin in the Grandstand

Friday, 9th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The newspapers this morning might be talking of states baulking at the planned federal water grab but Prime Minister John Howard on television reviewing his meeting with the Premiers looked very relaxed that everything was going to turn out fine in the end.
The Premiers were doing their best to pretend that there were still serious concerns about the Howard plan but their body language suggested too that agreement was not far away.
Only as far away as this morning’s meeting in Sydney where the Premiers allowed Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd to pretend that his intervention was important in securing the future of the Murray Darling Basin. Letting their man in the grandstand get his face on the television was the least a set of Labor colleagues could do. Who knows, Kevin might be Prime Minister one day and it never hurts to have a federal leader grateful for your help.
Howard is a politician and he well understands the rules of the game. For him the reality of a major change in the way the country is run is worth allowing the other side a few moments of glory. Achieving a hand over of powers from the States to the Commonwealth to end the years of interstate rivalry will be a major plus. The votes in protecting the River Murray eventually will go to the Howard government not to the pretender.
Of far more concern to Mr Howard will be the need to further refine his climate change message. A good drop of rain would be a start with that followed by six months of absolutely normal temperatures. That would make global warming seem less important to the voters but in the absence of such help from nature there is a need to ensure that the balance is right between showing a concern for the future and the now. The busiest person in the Liberal team over the next few weeks will be the pollster charged with determining what weight to give to each.

Bald Headed Men Don’t Win

Friday, 9th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Until John Howard came along, a bald headed party leader had not won a general election in Britain or Australia since the television era began. It seemed to reflect, in the words of a BBC commentator, the potent cocktail of associations "that connects hair with power, attractiveness and vitality."
With a receding forehead that met an expanding bald spot at an early age I was delighted that our PM broke the pattern but I could not help wondering watching Peter Garrett on last night’s television debate whether his totally hairless look was just too disconcerting.
Experience studying focus groups has taught me how little television viewers actually take in of the words they are listening to. Judgments are more likely to be made on how someone looks than on what they said. Not that it mattered to those looking at Garratt and the well coiffured Malcolm Turnbull on the ABC’s 7.30 Report. There was nothing in the words that was particularly startling. Both men uttered their lines with calm assurance and the victory, like beauty, was in the eyes of the beholder.
The sceptics who think global warming is all a bit overstated would have gone for the distinguished grey look. The concerned citizens worried about the future of the world would have found the nude nutted ageing rock star to their liking. On balance, and with all the reluctance you would expect from a baldy, my vote goes to Peter Garratt not just because of this television appearance but because of memories of a music man with plenty of power, attractiveness and vitality.
During his first week in Parliament as a senior Labor spokesman, Garrett showed a serious concern about environmental matters without rhetorical flourish. There was no hesitation, however, about putting a scare in to his own constituents with a question to Turnbull about Sydney University research showing that rising sea levels could lead to erosion extending up to 70 metres inland from the promenade at Bondi Beach. If there is going to be a global warming scare campaign between now and the next election it will not only be looks that Labor brings to it.
The question is the extent to which the people will believe that such terrible things really will happen and here it is the credibility of the two major party spokes people will be put to the test. The dire consequences like the disappearance of Bondi Beach are years away while it is but months to the election.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Advice from a Tabloid Editor

Thursday, 8th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Environment and Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull - the House of Representatives is a strange forum in which many great lawyers before him have failed to shine.
One thing tabloid newspaper editors are good at doing it is understanding the prejudices of their readers and then playing to them. There was thus a warning note sounded for politicians when the London Sun reacted to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s endorsement of the Stern report with the headline: "I'm saving the world...YOU lot are paying."
There was another one this morning on ABC radio in Canberra. Not that the national capital is representative of the country as a whole. It certainly is not which is what made the phone in so remarkable. This is a left of centre city which traditionally votes 60% Labor yet the overwhelming reaction of talk back callers asked to give their reaction to global warming was scepticism about the scientific evidence.
Views ranged from outright rejection of what of scientists are saying to a seeming acceptance that global warming created by mankind was no better or worse that warming over the millenia created by nature. So it might be the view of the politicians and commentators that there is only one true view about climate change, and the politicians might be right when they say people are concerned about it, but it does not mean there is yet an acceptance that we all must start paying to fix it.
The people I heard on radio this morning were Mensheviks not Bolsheviks – less of the better future and more of the better now. And they are the group that new Environment and Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull has set out to court during his first week as a minister in the Federal Parliament.
The man might be an experienced public figure well trained in the ways of the media and presenting a case but the House of Representatives is a strange forum in which many great lawyers before him, like Garfield Barwick and Bob Ellicott, have failed to shine. The task of being and looking comfortable became even more difficult when proceedings were opened up for coverage by television. A speaker now must make his impression not only before his peers on the floor of the House but on the public in their sitting rooms at home as well. The first often requires an assertive manner, a raised voice and flights of rhetoric while the second is better suited to reassuring and conversational tones.
Being a man of considerable ambition, Turnbull appears to have his manner directed at his Liberal Party parliamentary colleagues and that is perhaps understandable. Their impression of his leadership potential will be determined primarily by how they judge his performance on their stage and the initial judgment will surely be favourable. For a new Minister he has shown a solid grasp of the facts and figures relevant to his portfolio and there have been no silly slips and stumbles. The man’s confidence in himself has seemed well placed.
On the score of winning future votes for his party rather than himself the verdict is not so clear cut. The message is very much tailored to those cynics identified by the tabloid editor. "Self-inflicted restraint", he told the Parliament yesterday, "will have no effect at all on global warming unless it is matched by a similar reduction around the world." Australia would do what it could but there would be no futile gestures that made some people feel good while putting others out of work for no good reason.
That message, if repeated often enough, will appeal to the Howard battlers but it will be better heard when delivered in a quieter manner. It will be interesting to see how the Turnbull technique adapts to tonight’s debate on Kerry O'Brien’s ABC program.

New Leader but Same Old Adviser?

Thursday, 8th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Federal Labor might have a new leader but reports this morning indicate that Kevin Rudd is about to recycle an old party adviser into the key position on his personal staff.
Simon Banks has worked over the years for five Labor members including former leader Simon Crean. Perhaps one policy cause he will push is the establishment of an independent institute of fiscal studies to promote research and debate on key fiscal issues and to monitor and advise on the Government's fiscal statements.
Banks advocated such an institute in an article published in The Australian last year. "We need more policy debate in Australia, not less" he wrote in what Crikey colleague Henry Thornton described at the time as "a great opinion piece."

After the Trading Scheme Comes the Hard Part

Thursday, 8th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
As Australia moves slowly toward following the Europe with an emissions trading scheme, motor industry lobbyists are already preparing to delay a second stage of proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that have just been proposed by the European Commission.
In the House of Representatives yesterday, Prime Minister John Howard tabled an issues paper arguing that emissions trading is a "more flexible, market-based policy tool than imposing a carbon tax on industry." A few hours later in Brussels the EC proposed binding rules that would force car manufacturers to produce vehicles that would emit less carbon dioxide.
The Financial Times reports that by 2012 the average new car in the European Union will have to emit no more than 120g of carbon per kilometre, from 161g at present, if the measures are approved by EU governments. The proposals were watered down after fierce lobbying from carmakers, who say the move will add thousands of euros to the price of a vehicle and cost jobs. The European Commission says the change is essential to hit the EU’s targets for reducing emissions under the Kyoto protocol to combat climate change.
Politicians in Australia’s major Coalition and Labor parties will be dreading that the climate change debate here moves to motor vehicle emissions because the six cylinder engines of the most popular cars like the Commodore and the Falcon spew out well over 200 grams per kilometer. The Brussels plan is creating an uproar in Germany where standard Mercedes and BMW models produce above 250 grams with the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel backtracking quickly on promises as recently as last month to make the environment would be one of her priorities.
A debate about introducing mandatory targets on the motor vehicle industry will be a perfect vehicle for Greens Leader Bob Brown to reclaim dominance in the environmental debate. As Howard and Kevin Rudd swap words over what should be the nature of an emissions trading scheme that most voters will not understand, the Greens can point out the hypocrisy of both their positions when they fail to do anything to make cars more environmentally friendly. Both leaders will be too scared to tackle the issue because opinion poll after opinion poll has shown the love affair with big cars and gas guzzling four wheel drives. A politician seeking majority support would attack them at his peril.
Bob Brown has the luxury of not needing majority support. He can win by appealing to a concerned minority and he will surely do so.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

An Attack that Should Rebound on Labor

Wednesday, 7th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Labor's immigration spokesman Tony Burke and shadow attorney-general Kelvin Thomson (above) owe Prime Minister Howard an apology.
Labor thinks it is on a winner with its attack this morning on John Howard for having to go back in to Parliament to correct an answer on climate change but in truth the Labor spokespeople are showing appalling taste in attacking a man with a hearing disability.
The Prime Minister told the House of Representatives in Question Time yesterday that the "jury was out" when asked about the connection between emissions and climate change. He went back later to explain he had misheard the question, which he had thought was about the connection between climate change and drought. "Just for the record I do believe there is a connection between climate change and emissions, I don't really think the jury's out on that," Mr Howard said.
Labor's immigration spokesman Tony Burke and shadow attorney-general Kelvin Thomson were reported this morning ignoring the Prime Minister’s explanation with Thompson chuckling about Howard being like the character, The Fonz, from the television show Happy Days. In truth Mr Howard is hard of hearing although he rarely talks about it and when he does it tends to be in the past tense as in this reference during a February 2000 speech when opening the Child Deafness Research Laboratories at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital:
"I have a particular interest in this project. Whilst I am happy to say that I was never afflicted in the way that so many that have been helped here were, hearing impairment is something that affected me as a child and as a young person. And I can well remember my teenage years wearing one of those then not so invisible hearing aids and I wondered at the time of the extraordinary difficulty and challenge in life of children who are born profoundly deaf or for some other combination of reasons such as meningitis or otherwise and that was the very familiar childhood affliction and disease that caused the total or near total deafness. And I have watched with more than just a passing interest and having had the acquaintance over the years of some of the more eminent surgeons in this area who have made such a contribution to improving the enjoyment of life of so many Australians."
Whatever else he might be, John Howard is no fool. In recent months he has been carefully repositioning himself on the question of climate change. He has clearly stated that he understands there is a connection between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change and it is ridiculous to think he would return to believing "the jury is out" with a throw away line in answer to a parliamentary question.
For the doubters, here is what Mr Howard said on the subject as recently as last Saturday: "Well ladies and gentlemen, the United Nations report on climate change is the latest and strongest confirmation of something we’ve known for a long time and that greenhouse gas emissions are doing damage to the earth’s environment. And what it tells all governments including the Australian Government is that we must continue measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
The Prime Minister deserves an apology from Messrs Burke and Thompson for their gross insensitivity.

Betting on a Fall

Wednesday, 7th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Treasurer Peter Costello will he happy this morning that the Reserve Bank has kept interest rates steady and hoping that in the months to come that the seven out of 24 economists surveyed by financial news agency Bloomberg are correct in predicting a fall before year’s end. Costello knows that his chances of becoming the next Liberal Party leader, and perhaps the next Prime Minister, depend on economic conditions remaining favourable.
He certainly does not want the three economists who told Bloomberg this morning that the next interest rate movement will be up to prove right. The government, and Mr Costello, could live with the majority of 14 in the no change brigade getting it correct provided other things go their way.
In the view of the betting market, things are now getting very close. The Crikey election indicator based on the odds offered by the country’s three leading bookmakers this morning has the Government a 51% chance to Labor’s 49%. Labor has improved from 39% back in the first week of December.

Monday, 5 February 2007

A Temporary Greens Decline?

Tuesday, 5th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The surge in support for Labor as measured by the Newspoll out this morning has been at the expense not just of the Coalition but of the Greens as well. Newspoll has Labor’s primary vote at 47% - up nine percentage points on its effort at the last election. The combined vote for the Coalition Liberal and National parties given as 38% is down nine percentage points on the election figure. A fall of three percentage points for the Greens to 5% coincides in the same improvement for other minor parties and independents. If preferences are distributed in the same way as happened at the 2004 election, Labor ends up with a two party preferred vote of 56% to the Coalition’s 44%.
The Greens will be disappointed at the signs of a decline in their support (back in November Newspoll put them as high as 9%) as Labor embraces climate change as a key weakness in the government’s position and presumably attracts back some people who had deserted it on environmental grounds. They should not, however, begin to panic. Some unseasonal weather, a drought and the release of major reports on climate change have pushed the environment to the top of the agenda but John Howard was probably right yesterday when he doubted whether that combination would still be the major influence come election day.
Liberal and Labor will eventually get down to contesting support on the basis of their economic management skills leaving the Greens with the opportunity to stress that the environment is their issue. By year’s end the hypocrisy of the Labor position on uranium will be fully exposed. A party which supports an expansion of uranium mining while refusing to use the dreaded stuff at home will be in stark contrast to Greens who take the moral view that what is bad for one is bad for all. Peter Garrett will have difficulty explaining how his conscience allows him to support a party with such a warped principle.
Garrett and Kevin Rudd will both have the same troubles with forest policy as their predecessors. Greens Leader Bob Brown knows that trees always have been and always will be the key issue when it comes to gaining support. He will exploit the old growth forests of Tasmania with all his skills as Labor flounders around trying to reconcile being against chopping down trees with protecting the jobs of workers in forests and in a planned Tamar Valley pulp mill.

The Next Round of Leadership Speculation

Tuesday, 5th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
We will all know to start taking opinion polls showing Labor comfortably in front seriously when the next round of Liberal leadership speculation begins. The subject has been off the agenda since Peter Costello accepted that John Howard would not be retiring but there is no one like a back bencher fearful of losing to bring it back again.
For the moment, Liberals in marginal seats continue to believe in the invincibility of their great election winner. A Newspoll like today’s putting Labor in front 56 to 44 in terms of the two party preferred vote eight months before the scheduled polling day is not enough to dent their confidence. But let there be three or four more in a row showing similar figures and the speculation about changing Howard for Costello will surely begin. Watch for it.
Just as backbench Liberals do not believe the polls, neither do their Labor counterparts. The idea that Howard is some kind of super campaigner is as ingrained in the opposition as it is in the government. While there is a greater sense of anticipation in the Labor troops as they parliamentary year begins there is no sign yet of the smugness which would help Howard begin a revival in his fortunes.
Peter Costello, meanwhile, has had a quiet summer break with few appearances in the media. He has accepted not just that Kevin Rudd will have a honeymoon period but that Malcolm Turnbull will as well. The Treasurer will wisely continue to sit back and wait to see how his short and long term opponents for the top job handle the task of removing the Labor lead.

Labor’s Latest Third Party Endorsement

Tuesday, 5th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Federal Labor Leader Kevin Rudd clearly has a soul mate in South Australian Premier Mike Rann. In announcing yesterday that Sir Rod Eddington would chair a council of business advisers for a future Labor Government, Rudd is following down the path pioneered by Rann who gave Robert Champion de Crespigny the title of chair of his state’s Economic Development Board and started inviting him to Cabinet meetings.
Speaking yesterday to the Business Council of Australia, the would-be Prime Minister suggested that the former boss of Ansett and British Airways and current News Corp director Eddington would have similar privileged access to decision making. "From time to time, I plan to bring members of the Council of Business Advisers into the cabinet room," Rudd said. He described the role of the Council as providing "a sounding board to improve the quality of policy making."
What he could have added is that Labor hopes giving a well respected businessman a fancy title will help make him look fit to govern. Third party endorsements are keenly sought after in election years.
Not that there is anything new about that. Back in 1983 Bob Hawke actually went so far as to have then business hot-shot Alan Jackson, then head of rubber products company BTR Hopkins, appear in a pre-recorded spot in his Peter Faiman produced policy speech.

Playing Prime Minister

Monday, 5th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
There is a danger for Labor Leader Kevin Rudd that his gimmick of having what he is calling a climate change summit will end up being one of those things that seemed to be a good idea at the time. To put it somewhat crudely Rudd is at risk of being seen as a smart arse – a politician being too clever by half.
While John Howard is delivering an actual policy to deal with at least part of the country’s water problem through his meeting of state premiers to arrange a federal take over of the Murray-Darling Basin, Mr Rudd will be engaging in a talk-fest. Actions will surely create a better political outcome than words.
The motivation for Rudd’s summit is understandable enough. He is trying to overcome the advantages that being able to actually do things gives to an incumbent government. Yet by settling on the need for a discussion to determine a broader strategy than that of Howard, Rudd is being left open to attack on the ground that it shows how hamstrung a future Federal Labor Government would by the need to appease the eight state and territory governments.
This will continue the amazing reversal of a dominant theme of 50 years of federalism where the Liberals portrayed themselves as the protectors of states rights while Labor argued for the efficiency and common sense of a national approach to solve national problems. John Howard has turned federalist on many issues while his opponents have become increasingly constrained by their office holding party colleagues.
Water looks like proving no different as the initial enthusiasm of most Premiers to ceding power over the Murray-Darling to Canberra weakens as every day passes. How the Prime Minister must be hoping that the Premiers will force him to play the role of the strong man acting in the national interest by forcing him to legislate to get his way against their wishes.
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie gave an indication of the way Premiers think yesterday when he suggested that the Commonwealth Government give funding to each and every state and territory government for a major water project of their own choosing. The Beattie argument that “we’ve got to put water infrastructure in to look after where people live” was echoed by Rudd’s criticism of the Howard plan for not containing anything for the 17 million Australians who do not live along the Murray-Darling Basin.

A Novel Definition of Attempted Murder

Monday, 5th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Debate about whether or not the offence of 'material support for terrorism' is or is not an example of retrospective legislation being applied to David Hicks has dominated the discussion on the charges finally being laid by United States military authorities under their revised military commission. Supporters of Hicks being returned to Australia to face any relevant charges are making much of an alleged hypocrisy by the Howard Government.
The argument is that Attorney General Phillip Ruddock has said there could be no such charges unless new laws were applied retrospectively and the Government was opposed to such retrospectivity but was not opposing the US Government doing exactly that because material support for terrorism was not an offence until the Military Commission Act of 2006 made it one.
It is an interesting debating point for lawyers with the US military prosecutor Colonel Moe Davis appearing on ABC radio this morning maintaining that there was such an offence when Hicks was arrested five years ago. "It's not a new offence, the difference here is the forum in which that offence can be prosecuted, so this is not a new crime, so I would say that that's just a load of rubbish," is how the Colonel referred to the arguments of the Hicks supporters.
Perhaps a better cause for protest would be the second charge that the Australian prisoner in Guantanamo Bay is facing – that of attempted murder. Colonel Davis has a novel definition of attempted murder that does not involve actually trying to kill anyone. What is to be alleged against Hicks is that he had a gun at the time of his arrest and was prepared to use it to shoot a US soldier if he had been at the right place at the right time.
Using this kind of definition of a crime there are not many people who would not be open to be charged with something. Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, might find himself stoned to death in a country with sharia law. After all, in a 1976 Playboy article he said: "I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I'm going to do it anyhow, because I'm human and I'm tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, 'I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery.' "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times."
And goodness knows the trouble Bill Clinton would be in if not actually inhaling was no longer a defence against smoking marijuana!

Not Refugees – Just People Seeking Refuge

Monday, 5th February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The next time a boat load of Papuans arrives off the north Australian coast Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews will have a perfect answer for denying them access. He will just have to apply the definition given this week by an Indonesian official to some 2000 people who have left their homes near the Yamo river and are now facing starvation. According to Yamo district head Philipus Tabuni, as recent revelation in the Jakarta Post those fleeing were not classified as refugees, but only as people seeking refuge!
At least there has been some change in Indonesia There might be a novel definition of refugee but the press is now more open and frank about discussing the country’s problems. The recent stories in the Jakarta Post clearly suggest that Australia has not heard the last about problems in West Papua. According to the paper, thousands of people fleeing a crackdown on Papuan separatists are now facing food shortages following police attacks on Free Papua Movement (FPM) rebels inYamo.
The Evangelical Church of Indonesia (GIDI) reports, says the paper, that 5,137 people are now facing hunger while the military puts the figure at 2000. Rev. Herman Saud, speaking from Jayapura said "people are afraid to venture out of the village, while outsiders are afraid to come to the village for fear of being hit by stray bullets." Herman said the situation was reported to the governor, the provincial legislature, the Papua People's Council and the chiefs of the provincial police and military command, but none of them had agreed to discuss the problem.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Michelle Gets Passionate

Friday, 2nd February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
During the 30 plus years I have known Michelle Grattan I have not found her to be a passionate person. Thorough, measured, controlled and accurate have been the hallmarks of her journalism and partisan politics does not intrude into the thoughtful reflections of her opinion pieces. I would not have a clue as to how she has voted over the years.
Which is what makes her recent writings on the detention of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay so remarkable. As you can see for yourself inthis morning’s offering in The Age the Press Gallery veteran seems almost angry. Writing of "the government's mishandling of the affair" she declares that "everything reported back from Guantanamo is also another reminder, both by implication and from what we know of the obvious faults of the US military commissions, that Hicks will get the roughest of justice when he comes to trial."
What the impact of this verdict is on readers of The Age, I know not but its impact on the way other journalists report on Hicks will be considerable. Michelle Grattan is so well respected by her peers, and her entry into advocacy for a cause so rare, that others will be influenced to follow her line.
Gerard Henderson for one is well aware of that. In his Tuesday Sydney Morning Herald column Henderson remarked how last July the "normally reserved and considered journalist" had "abandoned her taciturn writing style and declared that ‘John Howard is obsessive about David Hicks' and accused the Coalition of having ‘lost perspective' on the issue. Grattan also gave credence to Mori's assertion that ‘if Hicks was from a nice suburb in Sydney … or if he was a little cuter' he would not have been detained. The implication was that the Howard Government is not interested in ordinary-looking blokes from South Australia.'"
Well, the signs are that on this issue Michelle will continue to abandon her taciturn style and there must be some within the Coalition who are becoming uneasy about the extent to which the David Hicks team are winning the publicity battle.

A Dam Problem

Friday, 2nd February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
When the last major dam to provide Sydney with water was completed at Warragamba in 1960, New South Wales had a population of 3.9 million. Today the population is up 75% to nearly 7 million but there is not even a site chosen for a new storage reservoir.
Melbourne 's Thompson dam was finished in 1983 and Victoria has added a million people to its population since then without any addition to water capture.
Little wonder that water supplies in our major cities are running short. A combination of nimbyism by people who do not want to have their own land flooded and the prevailing anti-development ethos of most of the environmental movement have bluffed politicians from addressing this most basic of human needs.
The initial signs from the much heralded Federal intervention into water policy suggest that nothing much will change. All the current rhetoric is about better use of what is available rather than providing more.
South Australian Premier Mike Rann is clearly worried that a Liberal-National Coalition federal government will see the needs of irrigating farmers as a better use than providing water for Adelaide. His state is at the end of the Murray Darling Basin line but at least when SA currently tackles the difficult task of dealing with the other governments in the Basin there is not the complication of his state Labor colleagues having to protect rural electorates. That would not be so if a federal National Party minister was in charge.
Rann has been trying to enlist the support of his State Premier peers to ensure this does not happen by proposing some independent body of experts but the NSW Premier Morris Iemma has enough water problems of his own without joining a fight against John Howard.
The extent of those Iemma water problems was revealed in today’s Sydney Daily Telegraph under the banner headline "TWO YEARS OF TOTAL CHAOS". The paper’s state political reporter Simon Benson gave details of secret plans for a desalination plant that will see "a maze of pipes and tunnels … bored under the homes of southern Sydney residents and hundreds of streets dug up in at least 15 suburbs – just to carry water from the proposed desalination plant to the city."

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Bad News for the Ssangyong Korrando

Thursday, 1st February, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Parking your Ssangyong Korrando Hardtop four wheel drive wagon with its 2.9 litre, five cylinder engine outside your home is about to become an expensive business in the London borough of Richmond and the indications are that inner city councils in Australia are about to slug owners of big petrol guzzlers as well.
At a packed meeting at York House in Twickenham this week councillors listened to more than two hours of passionate submissions from members of the public before deciding on parking charges that will see residents in controlled parking zones (CPZs) pay for their permits based on the CO2 emissions of their vehicles. It will mean that owning a monster like the Ssangyong will cost the equivalent of $764 a year to leave in the street.
Cllr Serge Lourie, Leader of Richmond Council, said "Climate change is the defining issue of our age - it is clear that we must all change our behaviour to combat its effects. For our council this is just the first step in a long process that will see us bring forward policies to move our borough and council to lower carbon emissions. I believe that many other councils both in and outside London will now follow our lead. I know nine in London alone have already said they will do so. We have also received the support of the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone who has already said he intends to apply similar principles to the central London congestion zone from 2008."
In Australia the North Sydney Council is already leading the way with a scheme to make polluters pay more for residential parking although the fees are modest compared with those planned for London – from $24 to $88 for the first car. The Council uses the Federal Government's Green Vehicle Guide to rate vehicles from having a very low environmental impact to very high.
Of the 1402 cars listed in the Guide, the Ssangyong Korrando comes out worst with the Toyota Prius at the top of the list with the best overall rating.