Friday, 30 March 2007

The New Motherhood Statement

Friday, 30th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
When in doubt, relate it to jobs. Maintaining jobs. Creating jobs. That is the current Prime Ministerial message. John Howard is speaking about jobs everywhere. Yesterday protecting Australian jobs was the reason for not endorsing the views of the visiting British climate change guru Sir Nicholas Stern. The Stern views are clearly too stern for Mr Howard. Some of them "if implemented would do great damage to the economy" and his government was not going to agree to prescriptions "that are going to cost the jobs of Australian miners."
Earlier in the week in was Work Choices where Mr Howard brought out jobs as his defensive weapon. At a Kirribilli doorstop he rejected criticism of his industrial relations policies in this way: "We're not going to be making any changes of substance to WorkChoices because we believe WorkChoices is a very good policy and we also believe on the first anniversary of WorkChoices, which will be next week, looking back it's very hard to accept that WorkChoices has been unfair when we have a 32 year low in unemployment, …"
Not that this emphasis on jobs is some new development. It has been a constant during the Howard years. The PM’s comments on global warming back in November 1997 were not so much different from his reaction to the Stern report: "Since its election the Government has addressed the critical issue of global warming in a way that effectively promotes Australia’s national interests. … We have also made it plain that we are not prepared to see Australian jobs sacrificed and efficient Australian industries, particularly in the resources sector, robbed of their hard-earned, competitive advantage."
And while many Australians might have forgotten what a negotiating triumph Australia had at the Kyoto Conference back then in 1997, John Howard saw it as "a marvellous day for jobs in Australia" with "an outcome that will protect tens of thousands of Australian jobs…"
With views like that it was no surprise in August 2001 that he told 2JJJ listeners that the forestry agreements struck in Tasmania "were an attempt to strike a balance between preserving the environment and also preserving jobs. …" The theme was the same in a radio interviewnearly four years later: "Well I am not going to become Tasmanian political pundit Tim, I won't do that because I think the obligation I have as Prime Minister is to do the right thing by the workers of Australia and I have always put protecting the workers of Australia at the very top of my agenda whether it comes to employment, family tax benefits, family tax cuts, or anything else. Workers always come first as far as I am concerned."
No surprise either to see jobs on the list of achievements in the press statement headed Coalition Government: Eleven Years of Achievementat the beginning of the month: "Australians are reaping the benefits of the Coalition's economic management, with official figures revealing since 1996 Australians: … enjoy far greater opportunities to find a job, with more than two million jobs created."

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Sending a Chinese Back Home

Wednesday, 28th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
In March last year, according to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the United States State Department, the United Nations Special Rapporteur Nowak reported that Falun Gong practitioners accounted for 66 percent of victims of alleged torture while in Chinese government custody.
In its Country Report on Human Rights Practices, the US Bureau gave no judgment as to the truth or otherwise of that allegation but it did have this to say about the way adherents to this rather strange organisation are treated in China:
Falun Gong members identified by the government as "core leaders" have been singled out for particularly harsh treatment. More than a dozen Falun Gong members have been sentenced to prison for the crime of "endangering state security," but the great majority of Falun Gong members convicted by the courts since 1999 have been sentenced to prison for "organizing or using a sect to undermine the implementation of the law," a less serious offense. Most practitioners, however, were punished administratively. Some practitioners were sentenced to reeducation through labor. Among them, Yuan Yuju and Liang Jinhui, relatives of a Hong Kong journalist working for a television station supportive of Falun Gong, were sentenced to reeducation through labor for distributing Falun Gong materials. Apart from reeducation through labor, some Falun Gong members were sent to "legal education" centers specifically established to "rehabilitate" practitioners who refused to recant their belief voluntarily after release from reeducation-through-labor camps. Government officials denied the existence of such "legal education" centers. In addition, hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners have been confined to mental hospitals, according to overseas groups.Allegations of abuse of Falun Gong practitioners by the police and other security personnel continued during the year. In addition, multiple allegations of government-sanctioned organ harvesting from Falun Gong prisoners surfaced. In April overseas Falun Gong groups claimed that a hospital in Sujiatun, Shenyang, had been the site of a "concentration camp" and of mass organ harvesting, including from live prisoners . The government opened the facility to diplomatic observers and foreign journalists, who found nothing inconsistent with the operation of a hospital.Police continued to detain current and former Falun Gong practitioners and place them in reeducation camps. Police reportedly had quotas for Falun Gong arrests and targeted former practitioners, even if they were no longer practicing. The government continued its use of high-pressure tactics and mandatory anti-Falun Gong study sessions to force practitioners to renounce Falun Gong. Even practitioners who had not protested or made other public demonstrations of belief reportedly were forced to attend anti-Falun Gong classes or were sent directly to reeducation-through-labor camps. These tactics reportedly resulted in large numbers of practitioners signing pledges to renounce the movement.
In Australia this week, as a Falun Gong adherent in the country illegally was prepared for deportation, a spokesperson for the Department of Immigration was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald saying: "We do not return anyone where it will be a breach of our international obligations."

Finding Kevin Rudd's Patsy

Wednesday, 28th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Doug Cameron - prepared to be Kevin Rudd's patsy.
Every Labor Party leader needs a patsy when it comes Federal Conference time. At some stage of the managed debates, the script will call on the top dog to assert himself. An opponent will be allowed to bark out an objection or two before being crushed by a decisive vote in the leader’s favour. For next month’s conference, Doug Cameron, the federal secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, is being prepared for this essential and ritualistic defeat.
As a self proclaimed spokesman for the left, Mr Cameron will be allowed, even encouraged, to argue for Labor to return to its past support of protection for manufacturing industry. Delegates will hear him urge the banning of free trade deals and public private partnerships. There will be a call for the removal of tax on superannuation payouts because it weakens the traditional pension safety net for retired workers. In the cause of old-fashioned equity the first-home owner's grant should not be available to the wealthy. Evil rich speculators should not benefit from negative gearing tax incentives.
Mr Cameron is sure to play the villain’s role with panache and, as a trade union leader with ambitions to enter federal parliament himself and then advance his way to the ministry, will keep the rhetoric within the acceptable limits which Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd told his Caucus colleagues about yesterday. "Internal party democracy is important," a caucus spokesman quoted Mr Rudd as saying. The spokesman added, according to the AAP report, that the leader was "relaxed about the debate – what was important was the tone of the debate."
What will make it even more important for Mr Rudd is that the opposition debaters will come essentially from the ranks of trade union delegates to the Conference. The Parliamentary Party knows it is locked in to committing itself to reversing much of Prime Minister John Howard’s industrial relations legislation but it wants to do all it can to pretend that a Labor Government would not be a trade union puppet. Mr Rudd crushing powerful union bosses on the conference floor will be a powerful and necessary symbol of his independence.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

He Wants to be But Will He?

Tuesday, 27th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Greg Combet - Determined to show he was more than a trade union official.
Any doubts I had about Greg Combet wanting to be a member of parliament disappeared last November in the Adelaide Town Hall when I heard him deliver the 9th annual Hawke Lecture for the University of South Australia's Hawke Centre.
The words were those of a man determined to show he was more than a trade union official with the one track mind dedicated to defeating John Howard's new industrial relations laws. This ACTU boss portraying himself as the man to return Australia to the "shared aspiration for economic prosperity, security from external threat, and the attainment of a fair and just society" that John Howard had undermined.
"Our enduring historic consensus", Mr Combet told his audience, "has been overwhelmed by policies that must invite our deepest attention and questioning. Are we truly convinced that economic prosperity can only be achieved at the expense of social fairness and equality, that democratic rights must be traded for security and that ballooning fiscal surpluses have the principal purpose of providing short-term political advantage?"
The former Prime Minister who thanked Mr Combet for his thoughtful address was positively beaming at the prospect of another ACTU heavyweight staking out a claim for political leadership. As I wrote in Crikey at the time Bob mentioned to me that the Combet style went down well with women too which would prove an electoral asset some time in the future! When that future time would be was not something that Bob Hawke would speculate about. The immediate task of rallying the people against the work place relations laws must not be interfered with.
A transition to the House of Representatives, I concluded, would have to be announced a short time before polling day so that Mr Combet could not be accused of undermining the ACTU campaign but rather of taking the fight against unjust laws to the next level.
With the election still six months off I was surprised to see Jason Koutsoukis in the Sunday Age so definite that the deal to find the Combet seat was done and dusted and that Charlton in the Hunter Valley of NSW was it. A bit too soon for such a revelation which makes me think not that the story is untrue but that a little bit of malice might be involved on the part of someone not keen on Mr Combet becoming a politician. There is no better way of stopping something happening in politics than by premature disclosure.
The sitting member for Charlton, backbencher Kelly Hoare, now certainly has time to prepare her defences. Ms Hoare is determined to stay put and promises to fight any move to replace her with what she describes as "a celebrity candidate."

Big Brother is Getting Closer

Tuesday, 27th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The ability to discover which street a person walked down five years previously, which pub they stopped at and what they drank is closer than we think. The Royal Academy of Engineering yesterday released its report "Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance - Challenges of Technological Change" noting that digital surveillance means that there is no barrier to storing all CCTV footage indefinitely.
Ever-improving means of image-searching, in tandem with developments in face and gait-recognition technologies, allows footage to be searched, said the Academy, for individual people. "This will one day make it possible to 'Google spacetime', to find the location of a specified individual at some particular time and date."
As if to reinforce the point that Big Brother is getting closer, Britain’s police chiefs reacted to the report by revealing they wanted to be able to easily download picture data from privately installed cameras to aid criminal investigations. They found in an 18-month study with the Home Office that new digital systems came in too many formats. "We want a generic technology that allows us to download images easily and quickly," Deputy Chief Constable of Cheshire Graeme Gerrard told the Daily Telegraph. "All those who don't conform would have to change", added Gerrard, who is the CCTV spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers.
The Royal Academy of Engineering's report calls for greater control over the proliferation of camera surveillance and for more research into how public spaces can be monitored while minimising the impact on privacy. Citizens should be able to access information from local CCTV cameras, if only to find out who had been studying the pictures. "If we are being watched, then we need to be able to watch the watchers," said Ian Forbes, one of the report's authors told Reuters. "I may have nothing to hide, but it is still my business. We want technologies which allow us to be both secure and private."
The RAE report argues methods of surveillance need to be explored which can offer the benefits of surveillance whilst being publicly acceptable. This will involve frank discussion of the effectiveness of surveillance. There should also be investigation of the possibility of designing surveillance systems that are successful in reducing crimes whilst reducing collateral intrusion into the lives of law-abiding citizens.
The Home Affairs Select Committee of the British House of Commons will soon begin an examination of the growing surveillance society. Britain is said to be the most watched country in the world, with more than four million CCTV cameras, or one for every 14 people.
In Australia the Australian Law Reform Commission is currently reviewing privacy laws. In its submission to that inquiry the Federal Privacy Commissioner acknowledges that current principles under the Privacy Act are based on the OECD data protection guidelines that were developed almost 30 years ago At that time: • personal computers were scarce, and the internet did not exist
• there was little of biometric technology beyond ink fingerprints
• international counter-terrorism initiatives were not the focus they are today
• surveillance systems like closed circuit television and global positioning systems were not as widespread and
• mobile phones and camera phones were a distant prospect

Time for a Little Treemail

Tuesday, 27th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
If Kevin Rudd does become Prime Minister at the end of this year it is a fair bet that from 1 July 2008 he will find himself having to deal with a Senate in which the Greens hold the balance of power. The likelihood of that Senate outcome, in fact, has increased considerably with the decision by the Opposition Leader to back away from the pro-trees policy of his predecessor Mark Latham.
Whereas Mr Latham opted to lock up substantial areas of old-growth forests in Tasmania, Mr Rudd, according to this morning’s Australian, supports the existing Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement, announced in May 2005 by John Howard. Mr Rudd, writes Steve Lewis, has committed to consulting with unions, industry and the state Government on a "sustainable" forestry plan.
Which translated means that the Greens alone will be campaigning this year as the protector of old growth forests. That should enable them to maximise their own Senate vote and put them in the position where they can do a bit of trading if and when there is ever a Labor Government. So while Labor’s policy might change, the Latham proposal might end up being the political reality.

Political Delusions

Tuesday, 27th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Peter Debnam
The capacity for self delusion among politicians has no limits. That was shown by the reaction of NSW Liberal Leader Peter Debnam on Saturday night when his concession speech sounded like a man who had achieved a great victory.
What in fact happened was a Liberal Party disaster. A very modest increase in the Liberal vote was not enough to win even one seat from Labor. How Debnam can even contemplate continuing as Opposition Leader is beyond me.
Premier Morris Iemma, by contrast, on Saturday night was admirably restrained. He looks to me like a man who actually believes what he says about having heard the criticisms of a people disillusioned with the way they are governed. He will be a more formidable opponent in four years time and that's another reason why any decision to keep Debnam would be completely foolish.

The Three Way Split in NSW

Tuesday, 27th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
That Australia is moving away from a two party system was displayed in the weekend’s New South Wales election. There is clearly a third force to challenge Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition: the "Anybody but Labor and the Coalition" grouping is supported by almost a third of the electorate.
In polling for the lower house the third force received 23.9% of the votes and really showed its strength in the upper house election by reaching 32.7%. No wonder the operatives of the major parties spend so much time trying to make preference deals with the minnows. More than ever before it is the number two on the ballot paper that determines which of Labor or Coalition becomes the government.
These days Labor gets a big start in that department because of the emergence of the Greens as the biggest contributor to the third party vote. On Saturday the Greens gained 8.8% in the lower house (up half a percentage point on their 2003 showing) and 8.1% in the upper house which, despite being down half a point, was enough to increase their numbers in the 42 seat Legislative Council from three to four. The way things look at this stage of counting Labor will have 18 seats meaning that Green support will give the government of Morris Iemma an upper house majority.
If the Greens are winners the Democrats are losers. Despite the substantial overall support for third parties, the Democrats have crashed out of the NSW Parliament after gaining fewer votes than the Reverend Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats and the Shooters Party. This failure to win an upper house seat, following on a similar disappointing result last year in South Australia, does not augur well for the party still being in the Senate following this year’s Federal election. Senator Natasha Stott Despoja might not be a rat but she is clearly leaving a sinking party.
John Howard on Saturday night at least went to his Party’s party where the defeated Peter Debnam was pretending that the Liberal failure to win a seat from Labor was somehow still a victory. Whether the PM was right in his judgment that the state Liberal loss was all its own work and nothing to do with him will be tested soon enough. Labor certainly campaigned by linking Mr Debnam to the Federal industrial relations laws and clearly thinks the issue will be a federal winner later this year.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Better Future Plays the Better Now

Friday, 23rd March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
It is no accident that there is an unfunded liability for superannuation payments to be made in the future to public servants. The liability was accumulated as the result of deliberate decisions by past governments. Those decisions reflected two beliefs: that while future generations might be inheriting this government debt they also inherited assets paid for by the taxes of previous generations; ignoring future payments made life easier for a Treasurer.
Peter Costello was the Treasurer who decided to break the unfunded tradition and there was some sense to it. He, after all, presided over the sale of the assets that previous governments had notionally counted on as being the other side of the balance sheet. The so-called Future Fund, even though it contains only a small proportion of total asset sales by this Liberal-National Government, stops a fair dinkum unfunded superannuation liability eventuating or at least minimises it.
While it is now up and accumulating, the whole concept of the Future Fund has never really been explained to the Australian people. What is destined to be a major influence on the investment market would not even have entered the consciousness of most people. Nor would there be any wide spread appreciation of future superannuation obligations.
That the Labor Party thinks there is nothing sacred about the concept of the Commonwealth Government having an instrumentality which independently invests billions of dollars was shown yesterday when Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd unveiled his plan to divert some of the proceeds of future sales of Telstra shares away from the Fund and in to an investment in broad band internet infrastructure. Treasurer Costello, however, thinks he can convince voters that Labor’s is an absolutely outrageous proposal.
So at last we have another difference of opinion between the Coalition and Labor which conforms with the historical philosophical foundations of the parties. Labor believes government needs to intervene to ensure what is becoming a new basic utility is provided quickly. The Liberals believe the market will eventually provide what is necessary. (No doubt the Nationals are, as always, caught between their belief in privatising profits and socialising losses so I’ll leave them out of the argument.)
The big advantage Labor has in this argument is the support of the major media barons who all see the internet as their future profit maker. Mr Costello and Prime Minister John Howard have the difficult task of explaining to people how it is that re-investing some Telstra proceeds in infrastructure really does mean that the Labor bear has its paw in the honey pot. Human nature being what it is, the idea of receiving a benefit now will be more appealing than making things better for someone else in many year’s time.

Creeping Away with Privacy

Friday, 23rd March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
NSW Senator Kerry Nettle -"ASIS has been mired in controversy in the past about alleged spying on Australians. It now seems the government is formalising ASIS's ability to do so."
The Senate yesterday morning was considering what the Government describes as a little technical matter - the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Amendment Bill 2007 which, among other things, will allow the Australian Security and Intelligence Service (ASIS) to secretly access information held by the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre. Which is another way of saying that the spooks whose job is meant to be spying for their country in other countries can have a little peak at the financial records here at home of any and all Australians.
Why ASIS needs the new power has not been explained during the debate and the Opposition is not objecting. Just mention the words national security these days and Labor runs away in fear of being wedged. Only the Greens, through NSW Senator Kerry Nettle, have had the temerity to question why this Bill has not even had a pro-forma investigation by a Senate committee. "ASIS is Australia's most secret spy agency like the CIA or MI6," says Senator Nettle. "Its job is to spy on overseas governments and organisations, not Australians. ASIS has been mired in controversy in the past about alleged spying on Australians. It now seems the government is formalising ASIS's ability to do so."
The government response that this is only a minor extension of the range of organisations able to access AUSTRAC data will surely serve as a warning to opponents of the Human Services Access Card which the government is introducing. The Access card is being sold as merely a replacement for a number of existing cards, including the Medicare card and various benefit cards issued by Centrelink and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The fear is that once an anti-privacy measure is in place there will be a series of minor but incremental uses for the card until Australia has crept to a de facto ID card.
With ASIS and the AUSTRAC creep the government line this morning was that the office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security was in place to prevent any misuse of information. Exactly how the Inspector-General with a staff of six would achieve this was, of course, kept secret.

Sacrificing Tasmania

Friday, 23rd March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
For the Bob Hawke of 1983, writing off Tasmania was easy enough because there was no state Labor Government to worry about, the prospects of picking up House of Representative seats was negligible and opposing the damming of the Franklin River was a wonderful way of gaining support from the environmentally concerned on the mainland. The strategy worked like a charm and throughout the 1980s Federal Labor courted votes by defending the trees of the island state. Difficulties only started arising when, from the mid 1990s, State Labor was safely back in office.
Mark Latham was a victim of the tension between the chop-the-trees down policies of a development minded State party and the protect-the-trees policy which best suited Federal vote getting. Latham dithered around for months and when he finally stuck with what was most likely to win the greatest number of votes outside Tasmania it was too late to gain any benefit from doing so. Now Kevin Rudd is faced with the same choices as his predecessor and it will be interesting to see if he has the nerve to tell a small time Labor Premier that he does not agree with the way he is approving the Gunns Limited pulp mill.
It would be in the best interests of Mr Rudd and his Federal election chances to do so and to do so quickly. Premier Paul Lennon is rapidly becoming an embarrassment in Hobart with his blustering defence of the decision by Gunns to withdraw from the process agreed to by both the state and federal governments to ensure that the planned mill on the Tamar meets environmental guidelines. Even Tasmanians who are in favour of development are becoming uneasy about a Government allowing itself to be blackmailed by a developer. There are certainly no votes in Tasmania for Mr Rudd being seen as an ally of Mr Lennon.
Yet there are still votes elsewhere in Australia by being on the side of the trees. Certainly the new Liberal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull appreciates that there are votes to be lost by being seen as anti-tree. He now has the unenviable task of having to be involved in the environmental assessments of the Gunns project.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Have the People Stopped Listening?

Thursday, 22nd March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
John Howard gave his underlings a history lesson yesterday – a run down in the party room on when Australian governments changed and why. From the defeat of Chifley Labor in 1949 through to his own magnificent victory over Paul Keating in 1996, via McMahon’s exit in 1972, Whitlam’s loss of 1975 and the Fraser departure of 1983, the PM drew two conclusions: the governments thrown out of power "were not seen as competent or people had stopped listening to them."
Now one part of this tale of the failure of governments, Mr Howard explained, did not apply to his team at the moment despite what the opinion polls might be showing. In the history according to Howard "this Government is seen as a competent government." Which leaves the unanswered question: have the people stopped listening?
Mr Howard must be hoping they haven’t but his whole thesis is open to questioning. Ben Chifley’s lot became unpopular with continued rationing and a policy of bank nationalisation but they were hardly incompetent. And was R.G.Menzies competent or not listened to in 1954 and 1961 when he was returned at elections with less than half the vote? How should we explain 1969, 1990 and 1998 when the party with a majority of the two party preferred vote also lost?
I can understand how Mr Howard would put the incompetent tag on the William McMahon defeat of 1972. The incompetence there was witnessed first hand by the young Sydney solicitor given his campaign experience travelling on the VIP aircraft of the only Prime Minister I have known who suffered from what Jim Killen used to say was von Munchausen ’s syndrome – he actually believing that something was true simply because he said it.
The Gough Whitlam government of 1975 also deserves the incompetent tag but it is a bit harsh on the Treasurer of 1983 to put Malcolm Fraser in the same category as the other two. Perhaps Big Mal just made the people deaf.
And as for Paul Keating, if incompetence or not listening are the real reasons for defeat, how did John Hewson manage to lose? By the time the Liberals under John Howard actually won, Labor was not nearly as bad a government as it had been three years before.
Perhaps another history summit is called for to discuss this important question.
From Glug

Handling the Poisoned Chips

Thursday, 22nd March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The environmental bureaucrats in Canberra, and their minister, would have been very pleased with themselves back in 2004 when they concluded an agreement with the Tasmanian Government that would see a Tasmanian enquiry cover the Commonwealth requirements to ensure that a planned pulp mill in the Tamar Valley was environmentally sound.
Anything to do with trees and Tasmania is a political horror for federal politicians and fobbing things off to a Resource Planning and Development Commission headed by a respected retired judge was a wonderful way of side stepping problems until the Tasmanian Government decided to get rid of the Commission’s enquiry.
The problem is now right back in the lap of the new Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull and dealing with it will be a major test of his political skills as well as those of Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd. Both men will face the very same pressures that were on John Howard and Mark Latham at the last election in trying to develop policies the allow development in Tasmania without alienating the votes of environmentally concerned people in other parts of Australia.
Complicating things for Messrs Howard and Turnbull this time are the statutory requirements imposed by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Whatever the outcome of the public investigations the Act requires, it is hard to see how they can be completed within the time frame of the end of July set by Gunns Limited, the would-be developers of the Tamar pulp mill. If the chairman of the Tasmanian Commission which has been considering the issues for some time thought this deadline was impossible to meet, how will a Commonwealth body starting from scratch be able to do so? Mr Turnbull will need to find a plausible answer if his environmental credentials are not be destroyed before he can ever get around to solving the problems of the Murray Darling River system.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Commonwealth Government needs to be involved in the Tasmanian process given the extraordinary developments which have seen the Labor Premier Paul Lennon accused of "leaning on" the chairman of the pulp mill assessment process Mr Christopher Wright and when unsuccessful proceeding to introduce legislation to take the assessment out of his hands.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

What, Me Worry?

Tuesday, 20th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Alfred E. Neuman
John Howard has become the Alfred E. Neuman of Australian politics. He bounded down the steps of his VIP jet with a cheeky grin as if he did not have a care in the world. The old fellow even carried his own bag and kept the minders out of sight. The image was a Prime Minister capable of doing things on his own; a PM keen to get on with the job of running the country.
The fit and sprightly picture was not a new one. Every day we are reminded that age has not wearied him. Australians have got used to their track suited leader striding out every morning. But on this visit to the war zones of the world Mr Howard did give us a new look. A brown leather bomber jacket replaced the sports coat as he mingled with the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not exactly the style of a modern youth but at least an advance to a look of the 70s.
Off the plane and in to a television studio with Kerry O’Brien where the smiles continued as Mr Howard feigned a little anger with Santo Santoro and gave us a dash of self deprecating humour with a reference to needing him like a hold in the head. An entry in our cliché collection for sure but at least an appropriate one.
There was no sign of the twitching shoulder which marks John Howard under pressure. Try as he might, red (haired) Kerry could not ruffle his good natured composure. All in all a fine day’s performance.

Back to Basics

Tuesday, 20th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The thesis of ANOP's Rod Cameron that playing the man is turning voters off the Howard Government looks even more plausible after this morning's Newspoll so in Parliament this week we can expect a little less of Tony Abbott's aggro and rather more discussion by Ministers of matters of substance. Prime Minister John Howard will be much better served by the major speech he plans on the future of Iraq and Australia's involvement in that country than sniping at who Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd has spent his time meeting.
And that is despite the general unpopularity of Australia's involvement in the Middle East. A Prime Minister who keeps plugging away at the disastrous consequences of a collapse or Iraq in to total anarchy might not convince a majority that he is right but he might gain a grudging respect for being a man with the courage of his convictions. So too with his industrial relations changes. Keep describing the Labor and trade union criticisms as scare tactics and hope that by polling day the critics have not turned out to be correct.
Above all Mr Howard and his Treasurer need to keep talking about the need for careful custodianship of the economy. Voters must be persuaded that it is not inevitable that growth continues and that Labor presents a risk to continuing low unemployment. The time is right for an early start to a "where's the money coming from" examination of all Labor Party proposals. The six months until the election give ample opportunity to engender some fear that Labor would need to become the high tax party to pay for its promises.
While the opinion polls suggest that the task of recovering the lead is a difficult one, the Glug Election Indicator says differently. Based on the prices offered by the leading bookmakers and betting exchange, the Indicator has Labor only slightly favoured as a 51.5% chance of forming a government with the Coalition at 48.5%. That is only marginally different to the reading a month ago before this latest surge by Labor in the polls.

Friday, 16 March 2007

What Would Reagan Do?

Friday, 16th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The accuracy or otherwise of the assertion by market researcher Rod Cameron on ABC Lateline Wednesday night - that attacks on Kevin Rudd have rebounded on the Coalition and it will soon stop them - will quickly become obvious. According to the man who was such a key contributor to all the Labor victories during the Hawke years, focus groups conducted by his ANOP company have left Australians puzzled. On Lateline Mr Cameron put it this way:
Well, they are looking in bewilderment at this mud-slinging issue. They hate mud-slinging. They hate it with a passion. In election campaigns they don't like it because it is negative ads, but at least they get the message. Outside of election campaigns, they can't understand why mud is being slung. They don't understand what the issue is all about and therefore, it is rebounding on John Howard's character.
For the last for all of John Howard's political life, they've used the word, "He’s a ‘cunning’ politician," and they've sort of meant it in a vaguely positive way, at least grudgingly, admiringly. They now use it differently. They now say “cunning politician” to mean sneaky, untrustworthy, wrong priorities, playing the man. The Prime Minister has lost the last two weeks in a significant way and I don't think it will be much longer before they drop this whole mud-slinging issue entirely.
Mr Cameron is confident that the Liberal Party’s own researchers will be getting the same message and that their report will have Government Ministers scampering back to talk about the economy as soon as possible … "I think much more important is the battle still to come - economic management. Kevin Rudd has just to convince the Australian population he can run the economy and John Howard has yet to challenge him on it. That's the battleground. I think, hopefully, we've got the mud out of the way."
The research which will determine whether the throwing has in fact stopped will be prepared by the political consulting firm of Crosby/Textor and surely Mark Textor will find the same abhorrence of personal attacks that Rod Cameron referred to. What is not so certain is whether Mr Textor thinks they should stop as he comes from a different school of politics to the man who stopped being on the Labor payroll 15 years ago.
Mark Textor, an ANU trained economist, began as a self taught measurer of public opinion in the Northern Territory for the Country Liberal Party before being introduced to the subtler arts of the pollster in the United States with the help of a Federal Australian Liberal Party which began developing links with the Republican Party after Malcolm Fraser’s loss to Bob Hawke. Mr Textor worked with the research firm started by Ronald Reagan’s opinion pollster Richard B. Wirthlin and naturally was influenced by the emphasis Americans put on the dark arts of character assassination.
Should the Howard Government continue with its attacks on the character of Kevin Rudd despite the findings that voters are turned off by them, we can assume there is a difference of opinion between the two practitioners with winning records. Whereas Rod Cameron clearly thinks that repetition of details of the supposed character flaws of the Labor Leader will continue to be counter-productive, it is quite possible that Mark Textor believes in the end that the mud will stick.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

The Personal Attacks Go On As Expected

Thursday, 15th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
If there was any doubt about the Coalition Government continuing to probe away at the personal foibles and supposed failings of Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd then the Health Minister Tony Abbott has surely dispelled them. With Labor still crying dirty politics and reports still fresh of polls showing Labor increasing its lead, Mr Abbott used a column in this morning’s Fairfax papers to keep questioning Mr Rudd’s honesty.
The basis of this latest attack is Mr Rudd’s recollections of the events surrounding his father’s death when he was an 11 year old child. The Labor Leader recently told a television interviewer that one day he would like to study the inquest documents to see if there was any truth to suggestions that the care dad received in hospital after an accident was not of the highest standard. Others have saved him the trouble with the record being closely examined and Piers Akermann in the Sydney Telegraph concluding "It’s a pity he did not check because the coroner’s report contains no suggestion of medical malpractice."
Mr Abbott did not delve himself in to the detail but linked in the same sentence "the slippery way he handled the Burke business" and "his oft-related account of medical neglect contributing to his father's death." Then it was on to Mr Rudd’s memories of "the much-told story about eviction from the farm" with Mr Abbott concluding the "problem with his story is that it now sounds too self-serving to be true."
Then, after 866 words attacking the Rudd integrity, the Health Minister turned to loftier things for a concluding 175. "Rudd's real test won't be how he handles consorting allegations," he wrote. "It will be explaining how it's possible to tear up workplace agreements and halve greenhouse gas emissions without sabotaging the economy. Politicians can't win holiness contests and shouldn't try. The real measure of a politician is the extent to which all the arts of politics are turned to the national interest."

Howard Makes the Television Advertisements

Thursday, 15th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Prime Minister John Howard hit the television screens of New South Wales last night urging a vote for the Liberal Party of Peter Debnam. Nothing unusual about that, you might say, but for the fact the advertisements were paid for by the Australian Labor Party. "I’ll do everything I can to help Peter Debnam." says the PM in the ads before arguing that the result of a State Liberal Party win would be the handing over of state industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth.
That those powers are already effectively in Canberra for most workers was conveniently forgotten. This 30 seconds interrupting Dancing With the Stars was nothing more than an attempt to link an unpopular Federal Government with a largely unknown State Opposition.
What impact, if any, will the strategy have? Owl readers can make their own judgment by entering our NSW State Election Bragging Rights Contest where in the 93 electorates our tipping contest pits the ALP versus The Rest with The Rest being a combination of Nationals, Liberals, Greens, Family First, independents and whatever else. Tippers must choose between the two teams and give a probability about being right.
You will find the full details of this intelligent person’s tipping contest here.

Howard Focussing on the Economy

Thursday, 15th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
John Howard is focussing on the economy. He told us so yesterday in Tokyo; five times in three sentences.
As he said at his daily doorstop, "I will be focussing, and my colleagues will be focussing very heavily in the weeks and months ahead on the way in which Labor has sought to frustrate the very prosperity they will seek to exploit in their pre-election promises. Their starting point will be the strong economy which they opposed arriving and I will be focussing on that and I will be certainly focussing very heavily on the risk that Labor represents to the Australian economy, particularly in the area of workplace relations where the destruction of our changes will set the economy back, reinstall the unions as the driving force in the management of labour relations in this country and return the spectre of unfair dismissal laws for small business. Now we will be focussing on those things, but we'll continue to hold the Labor Party and individuals in the Labor Party to account."
Now translate that in to the context of a six month election campaign, add in the rhetoric about Kevin Rudd being inexperienced and prone to errors in judgment, and it is apparent the government is finding it hard to differentiate its record and future plans from the product Labor is offering. What the Liberal-National promise gets down to is that Labor is not much different to us but we can do it better. Don’t take a chance. Stick with the tried and true so that the good times keep rolling.
In yesterday’s comments Mr Howard could draw attention to only one specific policy difference and it is no certainty that will work to his advantage. "I believe very strongly in WorkChoices," he said. "I think WorkChoices is the future. The repeal of WorkChoices is the past and Labor is offering a return to the past by saying that it's going to repeal WorkChoices. I believe in it as a policy instrument because I believe in a more flexible labour market, I've believed in that all my political life and I believe the economic conditions of the 21st Century and the competitive world environment in which Australia operates requires that we keep faith with a more flexible workplace. The evidence to me is that the economy has benefited."
Mr Rudd and his trade union supporters will happily disagree with that assessment. They believe that a significant part of the lead Labor has had in the polls since well before Kevin Rudd succeeded Kim Beazley comes from community concern about the impact of industrial relations changes on wage earning Australians. The main benefit of the new face at the top of the party is to persuade people that there really might be a chance of returning some power and influence from employers to employees via the traditional referees in the conciliation and arbitration system. From now until October is not long for Mr Howard and his colleagues to persuade Australians that all those sad stories featured in ACTU advertisements are not real.
Little wonder that Treasurer Peter Costello was reported by Glenn Milne in one of his columns a month ago to be putting a different slant on the conditions best suited to a campaign based on we can manage the economy better than them. According to Milne it was "no wonder Peter Costello is telling anyone who'll listen, behind the back of his hand, that it might not be such a bad thing if the economy hits a few bumps. In the treasurer's eyes such a scenario would put some voter apprehension back into the election mix."
Having gone through campaigns with the Labor Party in 1987 and 1990, I understand where the Treasurer might be coming from. Those two victories were achieved in the face of high unemployment and high interest rates because people were reluctant to risk inexperienced management despite the pain being imposed on them. Punishment was exacted later on Paul Keating, and the risk taken with John Howard, when the good times had returned but the memories still remained.
A bit sad really if what John Howard really needs to win again is another interest rate rise, a flood of mortgagee sales and growing fear about job security.

Thursday, 15th March, 2007 - Richard Farmer The battle of the keywords is now well under way as Labor and the Coalition struggle to damage their opposing leader. For Labor the recent task has been portraying John Howard as one of those clever politicians who are too tricky by half. For the Liberals the emphasis is on the words judgment and inexperience as they search to find a way of turning Labor's superman leader back into a mere political Clark Kent. Treasurer Peter Costello was at the forefront of the attack a month ago – Labor is drawing inspiration for its economic analysis from a Donald Duck magazine. This is the evolutionary cycle of the Labor Party. We have moved from Mark Latham's roosters to Kevin Rudd's ducks. Managing the Australian economy, which is a $1 trillion economy, takes experience and commitment and you do not get your analysis from Donald Duck comics. 11 February 2007. Prime Minister John Howard recently stepped up the description - It does demonstrate a very serious error of judgment, a lack of experience on Mr Rudd's part. 2 March 2007 Joe Hockey showed his ability to follow a party line on the same day as the PM - Kevin is challenging to be Prime Minister. We've got to test his judgment. I mean, we've got to test his experience. 2 March 2007 He's a new opposition leader, he's been in Parliament less time than me, you've got to work hard to be prime minister, it doesn't come to you easily, and judgment is a key part of it. 2 March 2007 Perhaps the real lack of experience was shown when the Opposition Leader was caught using one of the Liberal words about himself. Mr Rudd said he did nothing wrong apart from demonstrating "misplaced judgment". – report on 2 March 2007 Immigration Minister Julie Bishop had clearly read her briefing notes too. Laurie, this is where Mr Rudd is showing great inexperience, there are no grounds for an early election. 4 March 2007 As the Rudd meetings with Brian Burke received greater publicity so did the use of judgment and experience - What I'm wanting is for Mr Rudd to come clean. This is a very serious error of judgment, to behave in a way that you might be indebted to a person like Mr Burke... He has compounded that very big error of judgment by covering up the real circumstances of those meetings... And as each day goes by, he refuses to come clean about what actually did happen he only compounds the original error of judgment. – John Howard 5 March 2007 And the PM again - This is a very serious error of judgment, to behave in a way that you might be indebted to a person like Mr Burke - John Howard , 5 March 2007 Soon even the underlings were at it - It's about judgment and it's about experience, and both (Labor leader) Kevin Rudd and Kelvin Thomson have demonstrated that the Labor Party team doesn't have the judgment or the experience that's needed to run a $1 trillion economy like Australia. - Parliamentary Secretary Christopher Pyne - 9 March 2007 Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews sought to broaden the attack on Labor beyond just Mr Rudd. - What this shows once again is the inexperience of the Labor Party federally and the fact that they simply could not be trusted to govern Australia. - 11 March 2007 Even the Japanese press were introduced to the concept at a Prime Ministerial press conference in Tokyo. JOURNALIST: Do you think that Kelvin Thomson is a grubby sort of character? PRIME MINISTER: I think Kelvin Thomson showed very bad judgment.

Thursday, 15th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Ask voters anywhere what they think about politicians slinging off at each other and the answer invariably is that they hate it and wish it didn't happen.
People always say their representatives should accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. And the politicians keep right on ignoring Johnny Mercer's lyric and continue to make disparaging remarks about each other which pollsters like ACNeilsen in today's Fairfax press find angers and annoys those they question.
How can this be? Why do political campaigns ignore such findings as four fifths of people not caring about the Brian Burke affair and carry on attacking?
For the very good reason that electoral history has shown the politicians that on election-day, negative campaigning regularly works. The very same people who tell the pollster they abhor person attacks end up being influenced by them
So with the headlines after a fortnight of Liberals accusing Kevin Rudd of dealing with a spiv for his own political advancement and the pollsters reporting Labor facing a Ruddslide, there will be no backing off. The probes in to the integrity of the Labor Leader will not just continue but intensify as really desperate men start to say and do really desperate things.
There is a risk in the strategy. In the United States where the art of negative campaigning was refined, the absence of compulsory voting means that making a person so sick of politics that they do not bother to vote can be as good as winning a vote. In Australia where over 90 percent of people vote rather than under 50 percent as in the US, a campaign that is too negative can rebound. The people revolted by negative tactics have the option of punishing the tacticians by voting for a third party or independents.
The way things are shaping up, the Greens can look forward to a record high vote.

A Judgment on Inexperience

Thursday, 15th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The battle of the keywords is now well under way as Labor and the Coalition struggle to damage their opposing leader. For Labor the recent task has been portraying John Howard as one of those clever politicians who are too tricky by half. For the Liberals the emphasis is on the words judgment and inexperience as they search to find a way of turning Labor's superman leader back into a mere political Clark Kent.
Treasurer Peter Costello was at the forefront of the attack a month ago – Labor is drawing inspiration for its economic analysis from a Donald Duck magazine. This is the evolutionary cycle of the Labor Party. We have moved from Mark Latham's roosters to Kevin Rudd's ducks. Managing the Australian economy, which is a $1 trillion economy,takes experience and commitment and you do not get your analysis from Donald Duck comics. 11 February 2007.
Prime Minister John Howard recently stepped up the description - It does demonstrate a very serious error of judgment, a lack of experience on Mr Rudd's part. 2 March 2007
Joe Hockey showed his ability to follow a party line on the same day as the PM - Kevin is challenging to be Prime Minister. We've got to test his judgment. I mean, we've got to test his experience. 2 March 2007
He's a new opposition leader, he's been in Parliament less time than me, you've got to work hard to be prime minister, it doesn't come to you easily, and judgment is a key part of it. 2 March 2007
Perhaps the real lack of experience was shown when the Opposition Leader was caught using one of the Liberal words about himself.
Mr Rudd said he did nothing wrong apart from demonstrating"misplaced judgment". – report on 2 March 2007
Immigration Minister Julie Bishop had clearly read her briefing notes too.
Laurie, this is where Mr Rudd is showing great inexperience, there are no grounds for an early election. 4 March 2007
As the Rudd meetings with Brian Burke received greater publicity so did the use of judgment and experience - What I'm wanting is for Mr Rudd to come clean. This is a very serious error of judgment, to behave in a way that you might be indebted to a person like Mr Burke... He has compounded that very big error of judgment by covering up the real circumstances of those meetings... And as each day goes by, he refuses to come clean about what actually did happen he onlycompounds the original error of judgment. – John Howard 5 March 2007
And the PM again - This is a very serious error of judgment, to behave in a way that you might be indebted to a person like Mr Burke - John Howard , 5 March 2007
Soon even the underlings were at it - It's about judgment and it's aboutexperience, and both (Labor leader) Kevin Rudd and Kelvin Thomson have demonstrated that the Labor Party team doesn't have the judgment or the experience that's needed to run a $1 trillion economy like Australia. - Parliamentary Secretary Christopher Pyne - 9 March 2007
Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews sought to broaden the attack on Labor beyond just Mr Rudd. - What this shows once again is the inexperience of the Labor Party federally and the fact that they simply could not be trusted to govern Australia. - 11 March 2007
Even the Japanese press were introduced to the concept at a Prime Ministerial press conference in Tokyo.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that Kelvin Thomson is a grubby sort of character?
PRIME MINISTER: I think Kelvin Thomson showed very bad judgment.

Friday, 9 March 2007

The Lobbyists Begin Lobbying

Friday, 9th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
There’s nothing like restricting entry to a profession or trade to force the fee level up so it was no surprise this morning that Canberra’s lobbyists have begun lobbying for what they call professional registration to make entry in to their industry harder.
Publicly fronting the call in an op-ed piece in The Australian is Andrew Parker, the managing partner of Parker & Partners Public Affairs which in turn is a subsidiary of the Australian division of Ogilvy PR Worldwide in which John Singleton’s STW Group has a significant holding.
Parker, with the brilliant personal track record in politics of helping John Hewson lose an unlosable election and then helping Jeff Kennett do the same in Victoria, was prompted to defend lobbying as “a vital part of any democracy” following the odium attached to the word by the exposure of the Brian Burke style of operation. He supports calls for registration of lobbyists and wrote that “this week I have spoken to a wide range of industry colleagues and the consensus is that we do need to act to formally register the professionals and their clients and ensure our own high individual standards and codes of ethics are more uniformly shared among the wider industry. This will help us promote the serious, credible operators and weed out the unsavoury minority.”
While registration that the Labor Party is calling for does not frighten Parker, he is clearly disturbed at suggestions made by me, among others, that there should be a disclosure of what companies pay their lobbyists to perform their tasks. “At the same time,” he writes, “the loopier claims and demands from anti-business crusaders dressed up as journalists need their own scrutiny. Suggestions of corruption across the industry are deeply insulting and without evidence. Calls for complete financial disclosure are not only unprecedented for other professional service sectors but are designed to simply give these crusaders the ability to misrepresent and deceive.”
Or, depending on your point of view, the ability to expose and inform.
The lobbying debate will surely be an interesting one.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

No Peerages But Plenty of Perks

Thursday, 8th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Lord Levy claims he was the victim of a smear campaign by unnamed figures.
The big attraction of businessmen to politicians is their capacity to deliver the money that enables the politicians to deliver the votes that enables them to run the campaigns that keeps them in a job. And never has this been better demonstrated than in Britain where the sordid influence of fund raising has been exposed by a police investigation that makes any misuse of a printing and postal allowance by an Australian politician seem very small scale indeed.
What has been exposed to public view in London is the payment of millions of dollars to political parties in a form that avoided public disclosure and the rewarding of donors by the Labour Government with peerages and other so-called honours.
For the Government it has been quite embarrassing with The Guardian, this week publishing an article on its front page accusing Lord Levy, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s principal fundraiser, of seeking to "shape" the testimony given to the police in the case by Ruth Turner, the prime minister's director of external relations. Lord Levy is the principal person under investigation by police for organizing the fund raising scam.
According to the Guardian police have been investigating whether Ms Turner was being asked by Lord Levy to modify information that might have been of interest to the inquiry. Officers have been trying to piece together details of a meeting they had last year. Ms Turner gave an account of it to her lawyers and this has been passed to police. It is this legal document and the exchange between Ms Turner and Lord Levy that has been at the heart of the inquiry in recent months, and which, the paper said, prompted the focus to shift from whether there was an effort to sell peerages to whether there has been a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
In Australia where we have no peerages for politicians to hand out and the honours system at least some elementary checks and balances the return on investment for businessmen donating company funds must take another form. There is the obvious one exposed for all to see in Western Australia – improved access to the politicians before they make decisions. And then the personal perk of appointments to the myriad boards and advisory committees of government instrumentalities.

Moving Along Nicely

Thursday, 8th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
We are in to the second week of the Coalition campaign to remind people that all politicians stink and things are going marvellously well.
The spotlight might temporarily be off Kevin Rudd and there are some residual casualties on the Coalition’s own side but the public standing of politicians can rarely have been lower. That is precisely what was needed to take the gloss off the new Labor Leader. Welcome down to the depths with the rest of us Kevin where we can all splash around in the mud until election day.
The only winners in this process are the independents who can pretend not to be politicians at all.
The one prediction I will make about the coming election is that the combined vote for the Coalition and Labor parties will resume the downward trend of the last 20 years that was interrupted by a slight rise in 2004. It augurs well for the Greens to end up in control of the Senate.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

John Howard is a Clever Politician – the Labor Party Tell Us So

Wednesday, 7th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Perhaps there is a clue to what Labor Party researchers are finding about attitudes to John Howard in this collection of recent quotations from Labor Party frontbenchers.
When it comes to Mr Howard, as a clever politician, deciding to sack Senator Campbell today, he was deploying standards that were invented on the run in Parliament last Thursday – Kevin Rudd, 5 March 2007
On the question concerning Senator Campbell, my view is plain that Mr Howard, a clever politician, decided to sack Senator Campbell to gain political advantage… Kevin Rudd, 5 March 2007
… his objective is not to get in the road of Mr Howard’s political attack right now because Mr Howard, a clever politician, wants to establish a case in the lead-up to the election … Kevin Rudd, 5 March 2007
He's using his office as prime minister to be a very clever politician but is not using his office of prime minister in the interests of the nation and where we are going to be as a country ten years from now. – Julia Gillard, 5 March 2007
John Howard is a clever politician but he has a very, very limited grasp of the future needs of this country – Labor Senator Kim Carr, 5 March 2007
People will always see John Howard as a clever politician, but I think they expect a bit more from their prime minister… Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek, 5 March 2007
John Howard is a clever politician. He'll do anything and spend any amount of money if he thinks he can get away with it.- Labor frontbencher Penny Wong, 2 March 2007
It's going to be an interesting year. Howard is a very clever politician who will pull every trick in the book and he should never be underestimated. - Tony Burke Opposition immigration spokesman 27 February 2007
Maxine put this proposal to me weeks ago - it was her idea and we’re up against the cleverest politician that Australia has. – Kevin Rudd, 26 February 2007
And Mr Howard is the most clever politician I think this country has produced. - Kevin Rudd, 26 February 2007
Mr Howard’s been behind before in the polls, he’s a very clever politician – Kevin Rudd, 20 February 2007
Elections are always close in this country and we know that John Howard is a clever politician and a vicious street fighter. – Wayne Swan, Labor shadow Treasurer, 12 February 2007
John Howard is a clever politician, but this week we saw him make mistakes that he would not have made two years ago. – Anthony Albanese, Labor front bencher 12 February 2007
I mean John Howard's a very clever politician, but two years ago you never saw him making mistakes like that. – Tony Burke, Opposition immigration spokesman, 7 February 2007

From Glug

When Cheques Replace Checks

Wednesday, 7th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
Sir John "Black Jack" McEwen
When I entered the wonderful world of the lobbyist nearly 40 years ago, helping the Japanese External Trade Relations Organisation (JETRO) navigate the mire of tariff protection, there was no point in going along and having a chat with the Minister. Sir John "Black Jack" McEwen might have negotiated an Australia-Japan trade agreement but he was a dedicated protectionist when it came to industry policy. If the dreaded Nips wanted a tariff reduced they could fight their own battle through the Tariff Board.
Which at least gave JETRO, and its adviser, an occasional sporting chance for the public service back in those 1960s was still an independent and apolitical body. Public servants got their jobs working in bodies like the Tariff Board on merit not on an assessment of the extent to which their administration and policy advice would fit in with the views of their ministerial head. Tariff reports thus regularly created tension between the advisory body and McEwen. Lobbyists could occasionally have a win because of the strength of the case they presented and when the forces of protectionist darkness intervened with the minister to override a Tariff Board recommendation it was at least transparent that they had done so.
Over the years since then the art of the lobbyist has changed considerably as practitioners have adapted to the dramatic change in the nature of the public service. No longer is there a career public service where departmental heads are permanent and chosen from a list, based on merit, submitted to Cabinet by an independent Public Service Board. Now they are employed on contracts after being chosen with their political leanings dominant among the selection criteria. Any departmental secretary who does not bend easily to the wishes of a minister is replaced. Ministers now have their own personally appointed advisers working in their office to cajole public servants and second guess them where necessary.
It is not only that the Australian system has become more presidential with increased power to a Prime Minister. The power of ordinary ministers has increased as well. Even when I stopped working as a lobbyist a decade ago, it was still advisable to try and persuade the public servants at the level where the policy you wanted adopted would be carried out that your case had merit. There was still a slight fear of being exposed, and thus defeated, by going straight to a ministerial mate with something the public servants thought was not advisable.
After a decade of the Howard Government the need to cultivate the thorough and decent public servants working on policy matters is no longer relevant. Their promotional opportunities depend on the whims of the departmental heads whose contracts depend on their ministers. A lobbyist these days can win by going straight to the top. Which is wonderful news for people with connections but hardly good news for the system of government. What is so interesting about the influence of Brian Burke in the way that Western Australia is run is that the way cronyism works has been brought in to public gaze. The lunches and dinners, threats and campaign donations are not unique to the West. They are the new weapons of the lobbyist throughout the Australian system of government that have replaced the old method of research and hard work. And therein lies a danger for John Howard as he seeks to tag Labor Leader Kevin Rudd as somehow not being fit to be Prime Minister because he met three times with a lobbyist who once went to jail. Close associates of the PMs are thick on the ground in Canberra peddling their client’s wares because they have privileged access. Rudd will not be the hard nosed politician his dealings with Burke suggest he is if he does not probe away at the propriety of the way the Coalition Government does business with them.

Mentally Bright or Superficially Skilful?

Wednesday, 7th March, 2007  - Richard Farmer 
The Labor Party clearly believes that Australians do not think the word clever has the meaning "mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able" that my web dictionary list first among four meanings.
The policy of calling Prime Minister John Howard a clever fellow, as outlined by the Owl yesterday, clearly refers to definition two: "superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile: It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value."
So perhaps if Labor continues to apply the clever tag we will see a Liberal Party advertising campaign based on definition number three with the Prime Minister portrayed "showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious: His clever device was the first to solve the problem."
Not that definition number four is likely to be given an airing by either side of politics. No one who has seen John Howard bowl could describe him as "adroit with the hands or body; dexterous or nimble."