Sunday, 11 May 1997

Freedom to speak his own mind

Edition 1SUN 11 MAY 1997, Page 133
Freedom to speak his own mind
A PARTY leader who deliberately turns his back on ministerial office is an unusual politician -and Ron Boswell is just that.
Although the National Party leader in the Upper House, Senator Boswell is not the minister for anything. He has chosen the greater independence of not being restricted by the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility to the perks and pay of high office.
When he speaks, Senator Boswell wants to be able to speak his own mind -and he's not reticent about doing just that.
Not that the senior Queensland senator is some oddball rebel. His freedom of speech is exercised with restraint and normally he is as reliable a vote as the Coalition Government can get.
Senator Boswell is as good a conservative as they come, but occasionally he feels the need to fire a verbal broadside at his colleagues who have chosen the conventional route to political influence by joining the ministry.
One of those occasions was in the past week, when it became apparent that National Party federal president Don McDonald and Prime Minister John Howard had a different version of what had been agreed in talks between them over planned landrights legislation.
Mr McDonald thought there would be changes to Mr Howard's 10-point plan that would clearly extinguish native title on pastoral leases.
Mr Howard said Mr McDonald was "absolutely wrong" in believing he had agreed to make any major changes to the plan.
According to Senator Boswell, it doesn't help anybody to have the organisational leader of the National Party at loggerheads with the PM.
The Prime Minister, he said, should be able to "come out with the notes that were taken" at the meeting.
It was a scarcely disguised way of suggesting that perhaps the PM wasn't telling the truth, and Mr Howard naturally took offence.
As far as Mr Howard is concerned, "I don't hear (National Party leader Tim) Fischer saying that, and as far as I'm concerned, Mr Fischer is the National Party."
Which is a very interesting assumption by the PM that will be tested in the coming months as the landrights legislation wends its way through Parliament.
Mr Fischer might be the National Party leader in the House of Representatives, but because he is Deputy PM he is bound to support Cabinet decisions whatever his own views.
When it comes to the crunch in the National Party room, there's no guarantee that Mr Fischer, rather than Senator Boswell, will have the numbers.

Sunday, 27 April 1997

PM can't ignore demons of the Right

Edition 1SUN 27 APR 1997, Page 043
PM can't ignore demons of the Right
LIBERAL Party tacticians could do worse than read the history of the party during the 1950s and early 1960s as they grapple with how to handle the growth of fanatical parties of the Right.
Back in the pre-Whitlam days, Labor was reduced to political impotency by not knowing how to react to the various shades of Marxism within its own ranks.
The Liberal and National Parties now risk the same fate as they try to work out how to live with Pauline Hanson and the motley collection of parties springing up on a belief that the established conservative Coalition does not take its policies far enough.
The Labor Party's dilemma of old has many similarities with that of Prime Minister John Howard today. Within the Labor Party there were many who agreed with the Marxists about the utopia of the socialist State to come.
The differences were about how to get to the promised land, rather than what would eventually be found in the collectively owned paradise.
An acceptance that the ends justified the means meant that many Labor officials were reluctant to confront the totalitarian Marxists and thus made plausible the taunts of the Menzies Liberals that Labor was soft on communism and would fundamentally change the nature of Australian society.
It took nearly 20 years of electoral defeats before Gough Whitlam could finally crush the influence of the Left-wing fanatics and make Labor fit to govern.
It was a difficult task that took great political courage but without the confrontation engineered by Mr Whitlam, thinking Australians would have voted Liberal forever.
Since then, Labor has been judged a plausible alternative government and has spent more years in office than out.
Now it is the turn of the Liberal and National parties to have their credibility eaten away by the fanatics who say many things that appeal to a considerable proportion of the membership of both parties.
For make no mistake, the anti-immigration, anti-Asian, anti-Aborigine and anti-welfare message of the newly emerging Right has plenty of Liberal and National supporters, just as the socialist State used to have within Labor.
The political danger comes when the sensible majority of Australians in the centre begin to worry about what kind of country they would be living in should a government ever do the things the fanatics call for.
The reaction so far of Mr Howard suggests that he is still more concerned with the short-term problem of keeping peace within the Coalition than with the slightly longer-term one of maintaining harmony in the community.
His historical guide is the Labor appeasement of the 1950s. He needs to be careful that his excessive caution does not produce for him the same fate that befell Harold Vere Evatt and Arthur Calwell.

Sunday, 20 April 1997

Bad guys hurt the good guys

Edition 1SUN 20 APR 1997, Page 138
Bad guys hurt the good guys
BLAMING the government -whether it is responsible or not -is the normal reaction of voters and John Howard well knows it. It is the reason that he is floundering around trying to make it look like he is doing something about Mal Colston while hoping to keep benefiting from his presence in the Senate.
For more than a year the Labor Opposition has been unable to dent Mr Howard's high standing in the opinion polls by pointing to things that he has actually done or left undone.
Now the disclosure of the details of the travel and other expense claims of the Queensland Independent Senator, claims for which the government is in no way responsible, is starting to hurt the Coalition's standing.
There is certainly very little that is fair about politics when the actions of the bad guys hurt the good guys, but that is how it is.
All politicians get smeared with the muck raked up about the few and one part of Mr Howard would love to put an end it. There is no way the Prime Minister personally approves of the padding of expense claims that Senator Colston has allegedly engaged in, and he is entitled to feel peeved that his electoral honeymoon has ended for such a grubby reason.
Yet for Mr Howard the knowledge of what is theoretically right and proper is tempered by the pragmatism that goes with wanting to be able to govern.
Should Senator Colston finally be forced from his position the constitution says his replacement must be the nominee of the Labor Party under whose banner he was originally elected.
When that happens Mr Howard would be back having to depend on the Democrats and the Greens to get his legislation passed.
Which is why there was the attempt last week to be too clever by half and say that the government would refuse to accept Senator Colston's vote.
Mr Howard wanted to make it look like he was dropping Senator Colston while in reality he was doing nothing of the kind.
Having a Coalition senator absent whenever Senator Colston chose to vote with it would not remove the majority of the government plus Tasmanian Independent Senator Brian Harradine.
The public reaction to this attempt to have the best of both worlds will surely be an increase in the disenchantment with all politicians, which means that the Government will suffer most.
And the big winners will end up being the minor parties, who can look forward to record votes at the next Senate election.
Mr Howard, by going to extraordinary lengths to have a majority in this Parliament, is guaranteeing that he will not have one in the next.
He is merely postponing the day when he has to deal again with the Democrats and the Greens plus, perhaps, a senator or two from a Right wing group like that formed by Pauline Hanson.

Sunday, 30 March 1997

Howard's image in full retreat

Edition 1SUN 30 MAR 1997, Page 123
Howard's image in full retreat
JOHN Howard is not blessed with any of the normal physical attributes of a charismatic politician, but during his long career in the House of Representatives he has shown a willingness to make the best of what he has.
Look at a picture of a smiling Mr Howard 20 years ago and compare it with one today.
You'll see a triumph of the dentist's art. Study the before and after eyebrows, and note the difference.
Clearly on display is a politician prepared to allow some minor cosmetic artistry to improve on nature's handiwork.
And quite sensibly, too.
In this television age, the distraction of physical oddity is sufficient to overshadow the power of any words uttered.
Look too unusual, and it doesn't matter how sensible a politician is.
Having decided that he wanted to give becoming Prime Minister a go, it was a natural step for Mr Howard to put himself forward in the most attractive light. Hence the capped teeth and cropped eyebrows.
But until very recently, Mr Howard wasn't prepared to change his fundamental self.
His views, his beliefs, were sacred.
It was this persistence which earned him the title "Honest John". Here was that rare beast, a politician of principle, and Mr Howard gained the admiration -if sometimes a little grudging of the Australian people.
There was admiration, too, for the courage of this man who kept getting up after being knocked down by a party flirting with the more photogenic talents of Andrew Peacock and John Hewson.
Somewhere along the line in his long battle towards the top, it appears Mr Howard made the fundamental decision that to be successful, he needed to change more than his physical appearance.
The first sign was bowing to the unthinking cries of "racist" which greeted his commonsense comments about the majority of Australians'
resistance to too rapid an increase in Asian migration.
"Honest John", the politician prepared to say it how it is, beat a retreat to the wishy-washy orthodoxy of the rest of our elected representatives.
Since that step backwards on immigration, the retreat from principle has become a gallop.
The cruel hoax of the so-called "work for the dole" scheme Mr Howard is now advocating is exactly the kind of populist policy he would have torn to shreds when he made his "Honest John" reputation.
Cynicism and pragmatism have overtaken the belief in principle.

Sunday, 2 March 1997

Furthering family values

Edition 1SUN 02 MAR 1997, Page 132
Furthering family values

FAMILY values have taken on a new meaning since the Government of John Howard became dependant on Senator Mal Colston to achieve majority support in the Senate.
How to keep the valuable dollars within the family is the example being set.
First of all, employ your wife on the secretarial staff and when she suffers an unfortunate accident which requires compensation from the public purse, bestow the job upon a student son and bring his spouse in on the payroll for good measure.
That makes it easier to share the drive-yourself government car around the family in a way that maximises its use because Deputy Senate President dad can always get a chauffered one if he really needs it.
Above all, do not stint on the living-away-from-home allowances.
There's a nice little earn on the difference between the daily allowance for a Senator and the cost of a flat across the border in the struggle town of Queanbeyan.
A little bit of creativity and there might even be a way of proving that the family home in Canberra is not really home at all so that son and daughter-in-law are eligible for living-away-from-home allowances as well.
Then the family that is paid together can stay together on occasions when those horrid photographers and cameramen are on the prowl.
If the prospect of an extra $16,000 a year as Deputy President was enough for Senator Mal to leave the Labor Party then surely it was reasonable for his staff to be upgraded in salary as well.
They too, after all, would have to suffer the attention of those journalists and the taunts from former colleagues of being Labor rats.
A couple of days before the vote on Telstra's privatisation seemed an appropriate time for the adjustment in compensation to happen, and so it was.
Mr Howard's generosity made it one big happy Colston family for Christmas as he put the extra value into the family's values.
How pleased the unemployed must be to know that there is such a caring family man in charge.
Mr Howard even sacrifices living in the Prime Ministerial Lodge in Canberra and puts up with Kirribilli House on the shores of polluted Sydney Harbour so that he can spend more time with his own wife and children. Now that's devotion for you.
How wicked that the horrid Labor Party is venting its spleen on those champions of family values by suggesting that there is something more than a little sick about all these shenanigans. 

Sunday, 23 February 1997

Meddling in morals But 'irrational' senator not forcing PM's hand

Edition 1SUN 23 FEB 1997, Page 126
Meddling in morals/But 'irrational' senator not forcing PM's hand
TO blame Brian Harradine for the latest example of the Federal Government's imposition of its own version of political correctness is to miss the point.
The Tasmanian senator is not forcing John Howard to make decisions which are against the Prime Minister's better judgment.
Australia is now run by a very conservative man who needs no encouragement at all to impose his moral values on the rest of us.
There is a startling inconsistency in Mr Howard's intellectual position.
When it comes to economic life, he embraces the virtues of a free market in which individuals should be able to make rational decisions which they see as being to their benefit.
In that respect, Adam Smith would be proud of him.
But when it comes to the actions of individuals in their personal lives, Mr Howard abandons any pretence of libertarianism.
It's quite all right for the State, which should keep out of matters economic, to meddle in the area of personal morality.
Old Adam would be appalled by that!
With Senator Harradine, there is at least an honesty about his Christian views that lets him see a role for government in imposing its values on both personal and economic aspects of life.
Unlike the Prime Minister, he is not rational about one aspect and irrational about the other, but simply irrational about both.
Having the vital vote in a deadlocked Senate quite obviously puts Senator Harradine in a position where his irrational views have to be listened to.
Perhaps that gives those liberals still in the Liberal Party an excuse for staying there.
They can pretend to themselves that it's pragmatic politics, not a real power shift, that is responsible for things like the blackballing of a professor who once suggested that drugs might be a better way of causing abortions than the surgeon's knife.
In truth, of course, there has been a power shift, and the Cabinet veto on Professor John Funder as head of the National Health and Medical Research Council is but the latest example of it.
Prime Minister Howard heads a party in which the strongest faction is the Christian fundamentalists of the Lyons Forum, of which he is a member.
They are the group behind the attack on legal euthanasia already before Parliament and on the attack on the Medicare funding of legal abortions, which is to come.

Sunday, 16 February 1997

Minister for Irresponsibility

Edition 1SUN 16 FEB 1997, Page 129
Minister for Irresponsibility
THERE was a time when ministers of the Crown took [responsibility] for the way government administers things, but that was all long ago when people even believed that the House of Representatives was an important component in running the country.
Nowadays, when the relevance of the Lower House has been reduced to determining once every three years which party becomes the government, ministers are prepared to take the credit when things go right but not the criticism when something goes wrong.
The very institutional framework has been changed to try to make the people believe that is how things should be.
The cover for the new system of ministerial care but no ministerial responsibility is the notion of statutory offices where legislation gives an unelected person a power to make decisions in a supposedly independent fashion.
There have long been a few such positions in Australian government where politicians thought there was a good reason to put a buffer between them selves and some decision making.
Police commissioners are an obvious example where government ministers wanted someone else available to take the rap should it be necessary.
The independent governor of the Reserve Bank is another.
Having interest rates set by someone with a statutory charter lets a Treasurer take credit for creating the favourable economic conditions which allow rates to fall, while deflecting the anger when they increase.
Not just ministers see merit in separating the good from the bad in this way. For senior public servants, laying out some grand policy plan for the advancement of an aspect of government is stimulating and exciting work.
Actually putting a policy into practice can be tedious and even difficult. Little wonder that the head of a department favours a system of divorcing policy from administration.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the retreat from ministerial and departmental secretary responsibility was in civil aviation.
Virtually the whole of the old Department of Civil Aviation was fobbed off into a statutory Civil Aviation Authority with an unelected board made responsible for setting the rules, policing them and making a profit from ensuring the skies were safe.
When the new order did not work because of the inherent conflict between running a business of air traffic control and regulating airlines and pilots, the one statutory authority was instead split in to two.
The new Transport Minister, John Sharp, was not happy with the board members given the responsibility for air safety that he inherited.
For almost a year now he has been trying to replace them with selections of his own.
It would be far preferable for him to move the Civil Aviation Safety Authority back into his own ministerial department and let the responsibility lie where it should be. With him.

Sunday, 9 February 1997

Paying the price of infamy

Edition 3SUN 09 FEB 1997, Page 126
Paying the price of infamy
WHEN you choose to take a job where you determine for people what is best for them, it should not surprise you that there is a price to be paid.
Being in public life inevitably means that your life becomes far more public than that of an ordinary citizen.
Even the politicians last week pretending outrage at the publication of some pictures embarrassing to one of their own would concede that much.
Which is why the attack on the newspapers is for their invading the privacy of the wife of Senator Bob Woods rather than that of the resigning senator himself.
Yet in truth it ever was, and ever will be, impossible to insulate the families of politicians from the consequences of the actions of the politicians. It is rather like, I suppose, that the families of a convicted murderer end up having to live with the embarrassment of having been close to the killer.
It was not their fault that they were thrust in to the limelight because of birth or marriage, but thrust they were.
Why was it less fair, for example, to show a picture of Mrs Woods than in the same week to highlight the distress of the second Mrs Alan Bond as her husband was led back to the cells?
There was no cacophony of noise from politicians expressing their horror at that intrusion into the privacy of an innocent woman, and nor should there have been on behalf of Mrs Woods.
If you marry a politician, or allow your spouse to become one, then the disruption of your life is one of the consequences.
Mrs Woods, as the daughter of a politician, was better prepared than most women to know that. The sympathy which people will have for her is not because she had her picture in the paper but because of what her husband has put her through. Compounding the interest in this latest story of the frailties of the political flesh is the dash of hypocrisy that will continue to rear its head whenever one of the Liberal Party fold is shown to be human after all.
It is the Prime Minister, John Howard, who has been preaching about traditional Christian family values and is aiding and abetting the imposition of his moral standards on the majority of Australians who have, for example, a quite different view to him on a question like voluntary euthanasia.
That puts a new dimension on questions of this kind and should lead to a more intensive scrutiny of the personal moral actions of those who are preaching morality to others.

Sunday, 2 February 1997

Minority poised for victory

Edition 1SUN 02 FEB 1997, Page 047
Minority poised for victory
THE moral minority is on the verge of a horrible victory. While the opinion pollsters might tell us an overwhelming majority of Australians favour voluntary euthanasia, the Federal Parliament is about to veto a Northern Territory law that allows it.
The House of Representatives has already voted that way and the Senate is almost certainly going to follow suit.
Yet again, what the people think is being proved irrelevant.
There are two reasons that occur to me in explanation of the willingness of our elected members of parliament to ignore the views of those they are elected to represent.
The first is the unfortunate ability of a minority which feels strongly about a question to influence MPs in a way that a sensible majority never can.
Very few, if any, of the 75 per cent of ordinary Australians who support euthanasia would switch their vote from one candidate to another on the basis of this issue alone.
Sensible people see the way we are allowed to die as but one of a myriad of important issues. Yet among the militant "antis" there are many whose moral indignation about euthanasia runs so deeply they would change from Labor to Liberal or vice versa on this question alone.
In these circumstances politicians, who naturally enough see their primary interest as being elected, are far more influenced by the minority that will change than the majority that will not.
What the politicians might think themselves in many cases becomes irrelevant.
Added to this electoral self-interest of the politician is a second influence which favours disregarding the wishes of the majority.
Almost by definition, the people who enter parliament are those who have a belief they know what is best for their fellow men and women.
MPs tend to have a great confidence that if it were not for the restraints imposed on them by the need to be elected they could solve all the problems of the country.
When this do-gooder desire to meddle in the lives of people is reinforced by the electoral imperative of winning votes through the meddling then there is no stopping them.
Thus it will prove on euthanasia and would have proved on abortion if it had been left to the parliaments of Australia to make laws, rather than to the courts to find a way of giving expression to the view of the majority.
Our system of government does not produce rulers capable of making even popular decisions because the very good sense of most voters, who see each decision as but one minor part of a whole rather than as an end in itself, prevents them punishing politicians who pander to the militant minorities.
It is a depressing truth.

Sunday, 19 January 1997

Why parties can't govern

Edition 1SUN 19 JAN 1997, Page 049
Why parties can't govern
WESTERN Australia provides the latest example of a fundamental problem affecting the way this country is run.
We have a parliamentary system predicated on there being two parties, one of which becomes the government and the other the Opposition.
But parliaments are elected in a way which regularly gives third forces a balance of power. The result is governments that cannot govern.
West Australian Premier Richard Court is in that position.
He was returned to office last month after his Liberal-National coalition increased its majority in the Lower House, where the government is decided.
It was a clear endorsement.
But quite perversely, proportional representation resulted in minor parties and Labor ending up with as many members in the Upper House as the Government.
There is an an element of rough justice in this.
The Labor governments that preceded Mr Court's were always in the same predicament.
It's not surprising, perhaps, that the Labor Opposition is relishing the opportunity to give a little tit for all the tat they suffered in their years trying to govern without an Upper House majority.
A pity. It's the type of short-sighted tactical decision which will reinforce the growing scepticism of the people about their political rulers.
Labor has not agreed to provide the presiding officer in the Upper House which would give the Government a majority of one.
A Labor Party truly committed to majority rule would make this concession, but political parties are not naturally democratic institutions.
In the past, our system generally produced governments sensible enough to do the things that had to be done.
Now they depend on minority support and cannot provide strong government.
Perhaps we do need an elected president.

Sunday, 5 January 1997

Year ends on note of hope

Edition 1SUN 05 JAN 1997, Page 048
Year ends on note of hope
THE two governments in Canberra, federal and local, ended 1996 in ways that give some hope of changes for the better in the way Australia is governed.
Prime Minister John Howard's government managed to end up with a privatised Telstra and at least some changes to industrial-relations laws because of the creation of a second group of Senate power-holders.
And Chief Minister Kate Carnell's minority ACT government defied all expectations by legislating to change land administration with the support of the Labor Opposition.
The example from the junior Canberra legislature was perhaps the more significant, for here was a rare example of an Opposition acting in a way that was against its own immediate electoral interests.
In the national capital, as elsewhere, people upset by a change are prone to alter the way they cast their next vote -and there are few things more controversial than changes to the rules allowing the knocking down of houses and the building of apartments in the suburbs.
In the year until the next local election, there are bound to be many groups angered by development that Labor leader Andrew Whitecross could have courted in his effort to replace Ms Carnell as Chief Minister.
That he chose to ignore that potential gain because he actually believes the Government's changes were right and proper, was a rare example of the bipartisanship that could give politicians a good name.
Up on Capital Hill, Kim Beazley should take note. His Labor Party is in no mood to abandon the traditional ways of an opposition opposing, which is what made the desertion of Senator Mal Colston such a blessing for good government.
With Federal Labor denying any notion of a mandate, the Liberal-National coalition has to win the support of one of the minority groups in the Senate before it can actually do anything.
With changes to the composition of the Senate from July 1 and the subsequent defection of Senator Colston to the cross benches with Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine, there are now three options. Any one of the Independents, the Democrats or the two Greens will provide the majority needed.