Archive for March, 2012

Moving beyond political soap opera

by David Hetherington

A debate over fair distribution of Australia’s mining income gives Labor a platform to reconnect with ordinary voters on national values

Australia’s Gillard government resembles a half-written political drama, but the most creative scriptwriter would struggle to pack in the twists and turns that have marked its first 18 months in office.

Undoubtedly, there have been policy successes – a carbon price, a national broadband network and a streamlined income tax system. Yet there have also been serious misjudgements on the part of the government and the prime minister herself, which have surprised many since she was so sure-footed as education minister.

These self-inflicted wounds include a botched deal to repatriate asylum seekers to Malaysia, an ugly internal ‘stoush’ over same-sex marriage, and the reversal of proposed reforms to address chronic gambling. Excuses can be mounted for each in isolation, but together they’ve betrayed a worrying pattern.

The most recent twists have centred on a high-profile dramatis persona with former prime minister Kevin Rudd. After months of speculation and a sudden late-night resignation as foreign minister, Rudd formally challenged Gillard for the Labor leadership on 27 February. Despite his dramatic intervention, Rudd was roundly beaten, a loss that puts his ambitions on ice for the foreseeable future. Ultimately this was a contest of personalities rather than policies, with Rudd arguing his popularity with voters gave him the better chance of winning the 2013 election. Evidently, his parliamentary colleagues did not agree.

Barely hours after this challenge, another powerful player, senator Mark Arbib, announced his sudden resignation from the government. This in turn opened the door for Gillard to draft in Bob Carr, a wise elder statesman of the party, as the new foreign minister.

This process was far from smooth, and had all the elements of a play-within-a-play. Gillard, fresh from her resounding leadership victory, jumped at the suggestion of Carr’s appointment, with media reports hailing it a done deal. Then, in a sudden about-turn, the government poured water on the idea: it appeared the prime minister had been outmanoeveured by ambitious members of her team.

Three days later, against all expectations, Gillard called a press conference to unveil Carr as her new foreign minister, and in doing so, asserted her control of the government in no uncertain terms. This belated show of strength was certainly a win for the PM, but the stop-start process dulled much of the afterglow of her leadership ballot victory.

This may have proved compulsive viewing for political watchers, but it has left the ordinary voter with an impression of Labor more absorbed in its internal machinations than in running the country.

In need of a new, positive twist, the government found an unlikely hero, treasurer Wayne Swan. A credible if unflashy finance minister, Swan used a major essay to consider the challenges Australia faces in the fair distribution of its mining income. In particular, he highlighted the role of a handful of mining billionaires in resisting attempts to price carbon emissions and to tax mining super-profits.

These magnates have paid for mass media campaigns against the government. In response, Swan placed the debate in the context of the shared national values of egalitarianism and fairness. His intervention was successful in part because it was so unexpected. It surprised a lot of people who’d forgotten that Australian politicians could talk meaningfully about values as part of the wider public debate.

Labor has found it difficult to articulate its raison d’etre in recent times, struggling to explain how its policy achievements connect into a vision for the country. If Swan is able to drive a mature debate about inequality, wealth distribution and the role of media campaigns in policymaking, he will remind voters that Labor is addressing issues of real importance to Australia’s future – a worthy next chapter in Labor’s story.

A contribution to State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network’s Social Democracy Observatory

David Hetherington is executive director at Per Capita, a progressive thinktank based in Sydney

Spending on Dam Safety Upgrades Slashed By O’Farrell

State Water will slash its capital expenditure on dam safety upgrades in order to meet the O’Farrell Government’s dividend requirements, the NSW Labor Opposition has revealed.
 
The government owned State Water Corporation operates 21 dams in rural NSW, and its 2011/12 Statement of Corporate Intent reveals dam safety spending will be $120 million lower than previously budgeted over the next decade because of the O’Farrell Government’s dividend policy.
 
The drastic cuts will occur despite the report warning that many of State Water’s dams no longer comply with the NSW Dam Safety Committee’s (DSC) standards and guidelines for extreme floods and earthquakes”.*
 
The Statement of Corporate Intent has been personally signed off by Treasurer Mike Baird and Finance Minister Greg Pearce, and was tabled in the State Parliament late last month
 
“The Statement of Corporate Intent notes State Water has been forced to develop a ‘more fiscally efficient dam safety upgrade program’ in order to meet O’Farrell Government dividend requirements,” Shadow Water Minister, Luke Foley said today.**
 
“State Water has revised its 10 year business forecasts to defer Stage 2 dam safety upgrade works – designed to reduce safety risks in accordance with Dam Safety Committee requirements – across all 21 of State Water’s dams.
 
“The O’Farrell Government is budgeting for an extra $260 million in dividends from State Water over the next 10 years.
 
“This means tens of millions of dollars that State Water could and should spend on upgrading dam safety will instead be paid to the O’Farrell Government as dividend payments.”
 
State Water is subject to a Government dividend policy of 70 per cent of net profit after tax. It admits that it cannot meet that level of dividend payments and continue with the scheduled Dam Safety Program:
 
“State Water can sustain a dividend payout ratio in the range of 35 per cent to 50 per cent, but not as high as 70 per cent, if water sales are less than the 20 year average and if debt continues to increase as a result of the Stage 2 Dam Safety Upgrade Program.” ***
 
“A government that cuts back on dam safety upgrades at a time when people across NSW are battling flood waters is a government with the wrong priorities,” Mr Foley said.
 
“There can be no excuse for the O’Farrell Government putting dividend gouging ahead of dam safety in NSW.”
 
 
*Source: State Water Corporation Statement of Corporate Intent 2011-12, page 17.
**Source: State Water Corporation Statement of Corporate Intent 2011-12, page 19.
***Source: State Water Corporation Statement of Corporate Intent 2011-12, page 23

The Putty Valley is no place for the Coal Seam Gas industry

by Luke Foley

 Nine days ago I visited the Putty Valley and met with local residents.

 The Putty Valley is mid way between Windsor and Singleton, nestled between the Wollombi and Yengo national parks, and within the electoral district of Upper Hunter and the local government area of Singleton.

 It is a place of indescribable beauty. A place where heaven meets earth.

 The Putty Valley immediately brought to my mind the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone, in the north of Ireland.

 My wife was born and reared in that valley, and we were married there.

 The Putty Valley and the Clogher Valley have both been dominated by dairy farms for generations.

 In Putty Valley, most of the dairy farms have given way to grazing.

 The rugged terrain of the wilderness and mountain ranges surrounding Putty is reminiscent of County Tyrone’s Sperrin Mountains.

 The Wollemi National Park encompasses the largest wilderness area in New South Wales, and is part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, as is the Yengo National Park.

 The area is home to one of the world’s great biological mysteries: how did the Wollemi pine, the ‘dinosaur tree’, survive 5 million years secluded in a single canyon before being discovered?

 The rural environment of the Putty Valley is today threatened by the coal seam gas industry.

 So are the surrounding national parks, notwithstanding their protected status under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.

 We know that the extraction of large volumes of water impacts on connected surface and groundwater systems.

 On 19 August 2011 Dart Energy commenced drilling a core hole to explore for coal seam gas at a property on Putty Road, in the Putty Valley area.

 The bore site is just over 500 metres from the boundary of a World Heritage listed area of international significance.

 The exploration site is 40 metres from Long Wheeney Creek which runs into Putty Creek, Wollemi Creek and the pristine and protected Colo River through the Wollemi National Park, before joining the Hawkesbury River.

 Prior to the election, the Liberal and National parties announced that they would introduce a Strategic Regional Land Use Policy to “strike the right balance between our important agricultural, mining and energy sectors, while ensuring the protection of high value conservation lands“.

 The Coalition’s election policy stated that “The NSW Liberals and Nationals believe that agricultural land and other sensitive areas exist in NSW where mining and coal seam gas extraction should not occur.”

 Today’s announcement of the Government’s Draft Upper Hunter Strategic Regional Land Use Plan provides no comfort whatsoever to the people of the Putty Valley.

 The protection of strategic agricultural lands and high conservation values is left to a process which can sideline water protection and be sidelined itself if the government deems the project to be ‘exceptional’.  

 There’s no certainty for sustainable agriculture nor threatened habitats.

 I do accept a role for gas in this state’s energy mix.

 I also believe that there should be no go areas.

 The NSW Liberals and Nationals used to believe this too – at least until polling day last year.

 I believe that the Putty Valley is a perfect example of a sensitive area that should exclude mining and extractive industries, in order to protect its significant environmental values.

 Allowing the coal seam gas industry into the Putty Valley would create a pustule of industrialisation in the heart of the Wollemi and Yengo World Heritage areas.

 The Putty Valley is no place for the gas industry.

  Luke Foley MLC is the Leader of the Opposition in the NSW Legislative Council

 

O’Farrell Bypasses Scientific Advice to Approve Coal Seam Gas Licenses

 The O’Farrell Government’s draft strategic land use policy gives Ministers the power to bypass independent scientific panels and approve Coal Seam Gas extraction licenses in secret at the cabinet table, the NSW Labor Opposition said today.

“The O’Farrell Government’s draft strategic land use policy gives politicians the power to green light Coal Seam Gas extraction licenses, regardless of how close they are to homes and prime agricultural land,” Opposition Leader, John Robertson said today.

“Cabinet may declare a project to be an exceptional circumstance project if the subject resource is of exceptional value to the state. For an exceptional circumstance project, the requirement for a gateway certificate would not apply.”

(p86, New England North West and Upper Hunter Draft Strategic Regional Land Use Plan)

“Under this new policy, Ministers would be given the power to bypass independent approval requirements if the Coal Seam Gas project had ‘exceptional value’,” Mr Robertson said.

“This strategy is not what the people of NSW were led to believe would occur prior to the election.

“This sneaky addition on page 86 flies in the face of the O’Farrell Government’s commitment to having independent panels scrutinising Coal Seam Gas license approvals.

“The O’Farrell Government is politicising the Coal Seam Gas industry approvals process and offering no protection to areas with ‘high value’ projects nearby.

“Even the Government’s own aquifer interference policy will allow Coal Seam Gas pilot or test wells to operate for years before an aquifer license would be required.

“While elements of this policy are positive, the fact restrictions would only occur in the extraction process and not the lengthy exploration period beforehand would still allow significant damage to potentially occur.

“The O’Farrell Government needs to adopt Labor’s policy to suspend all current Coal Seam Gas exploration licenses and cease issuing new extraction licenses to protect the State’s aquifers and water resources.

“Until a water-tight regulatory framework is in place based on independent scientific research and conclusive evidence, we should not be allowing Coal Seam Gas mining to proceed unabated.

“Instead of sneakily giving itself the power to approve major Coal Seam Gas projects under the cover of darkness, the O’Farrell Government needs to act now to protect our precious ground water resources.”

The Carr that skittled Kevin

by Richard Laidlaw

Appointing Bob Carr as foreign minister-designate – ahead of the New South Wales parliament formally electing him to the vacancy caused by the unexpected departure of no longer faceless man Mark Arbib – may be just what Prime Minister Julia Gillard needed as a circuit-breaker.

There are certainly signs the Liberal opposition thinks so (along with such parts of the National Party as are able to think further than the brims of their hats); its confected incandescence over the Rudd non-coup and Labor brawling show that very clearly.

Two things emerge immediately from the Carr appointment. The first is that Gillard has finally (albeit messily as usual) stamped her authority as leader on something of moment. Many commentators have already noted this. The second is that Carr neutralises – though neuters may be the better term – Rudd as an alternative foreign affairs voice, again something that other commentators have noted. Both these outcomes are beneficial for Gillard and Labor. It remains to be seen whether benefit then flows on to governance or indeed to Australia’s foreign representation.

It is in the chaotic workings of the law of unintended consequences, however, that longer-term questions arise over the events of the past week. Tony Abbott’s charge for The Lodge 2013 has not yet been officially dented – we’ll have to see several sequential opinion polls for any real assessment there – but there’s no denying that a working Labor government would claw things back to a very contestable margin at the next election.

Gillard’s image is tarnished. The manner of her 2010 coup against Rudd, his devious behaviour and disloyalty since, and the marginal outcome of the 2011 election, would have taken the shine off any prime minister. The fact that until now Gillard has looked like a leader only by power-dressing – overcooked events at the Lobby restaurant in Canberra on Australia Day aside – hasn’t helped.

Rudd has now been very effectively sidelined. Well, no: actually he sidelined himself, the victim of his own unbridled hubris and self-image. He won’t be back in the medium term, if ever. The drubbing he got last week speaks volumes. If there’s a future challenger this term, it’s unlikely to be him. He may remain the member for Griffith. But as that old scoundrel Graham Richardson said during the week on Sky TV – who cares what Rudd thinks; and he might usefully have added, or does.

If Gillard does get her act together the focus will rightly turn onto Abbott and his credentials as alternative Australian prime minister. Other than for agenda-setters on The Australian newspaper and some of the tabloid TV channels, this is where it should be.

It is not true to say – as Labor trolls in the all-pervasive social media continuously assert – that Abbott is unfit to govern. He does have policies (some of them are execrable but that’s another issue, especially for traditional small-l Liberals) and he does have a working team. It would be folly to assume an incoming Liberal-National government would be train-wreckers in disguise. That’s just what people on opposite sides in politics say about each other.

Labor hasn’t been a wrecker in office since 2007 (well Rudd was, but he is now his own problem) and no one able to see out of the political prism would suggest it has. It hasn’t been very good at governing, but – again – that was a situation wrought upon Labor by the 2010 election. Bob Brown’s a pleasant fellow, but he’s never easy to work with and he has his own politics to consider – continuing to grow the Green vote. The independents are relevant only on the numbers in the present parliament. A fresh election, in all the new circumstances, might well sort them out.

Abbott articulates an argument that is specifically designed for opposition. He does it very well, although he’s had a lot of stumble-footed help from the government to push along his argument that Labor’s a dog. That’s essentially his job, until an election comes along and he has to say what he’ll do instead of just what the other side should do. It’s worked for him as leader, in the opinion polls. But effectively they don’t count, other than as material likely to cause euphoria on one side and indigestion on the other. The reality is that on Election Day – in the only poll that really counts – the margins are likely to be far tighter than public opinion sampling has previously indicated. Abbott knows this as well as anyone.

And that’s his real dilemma. If Gillard’s a dud – his continual assertion – and remains so, Labor will ultimately fix its own problem. It won’t do so by drafting Rudd: he’s killed his own chances. If on the other hand Gillard does now actually get it – if she can lead without internal distractions and with the real support of all her colleagues – and public opinion (as gauged) begins to swing Labor’s way, Abbott’s in trouble.

He’s a combative character (he’s an engaging one too, in private) with views that he articulates well but which are not necessarily those of a swinging voter, or even of many small-l Liberals. It’s not just that his frequent macho war-cry is tedious to most people, or that he and his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison shamelessly beat the jingoistic drum on illegal boat arrivals.

His problem seems to be that from time to time he’s confused as to whether he’s leading Opus Dei or the Australian opposition.

It’s possible to be an abortion sceptic, if you remember to couch that scepticism in line with the fact that half the people you want to vote for you are women whose views on pregnancy termination are rather more important than those of men. And that they are largely the opposite of yours.

It is permissible to be out of step with the global scientific community on global warming, but it’s not wise to then let the view grow, among those whose urban votes you wish to attract, that therefore no one need worry overmuch about cleaning up the atmosphere.

It is conceivable that many Australians support the philosophic concept of cutting back on welfare. But that, in the smugly self-indulged society that is today’s Australia, would be a very brave call indeed.

It is possible to believe that wages – real or relative – should be cut to fuel productivity improvements, but that may be rather more of a Luddite position than most 21st century Australian voters accept is feasible or proper.

Abbott is unchallenged. But he is not unchallengeable, especially if the polls start flowing Labor’s way. That may be the ultimate result if Gillard now gets down to the real work.

Richard Laidlaw is a former Queensland journalist and political adviser who now mostly lives in Indonesia. He blogs at www.8degreesoflatitude.wordpress.com and can be contacted by email at richardlaidlaw1944@gmail.com.

First published in On Line Opinion.

 

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