Friday, December 4, 2009

The Puppet Premier

I am reminded of the scene at the end of the original version of "The Planet Of The Apes” when Charlton Heston stood on the beach staring at the wreckage of the Statue of Liberty, saying something like “We finally really did it…. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” That’s the moment when he realizes that mankind has caused its own destruction, and that there is no salvation at hand.

Now, instead of the Statue of Liberty, think of the state of New South Wales and in particular the Labor government. If there was any lingering doubt before, this is the moment when we should all be standing on the beach witnessing the wreckage, realizing that there is utterly no hope of salvation until this government is gone. This is the moment which proves beyond any doubt that the New South Wales Labor party has become so introspective that they have completely abandoned the people they are supposed to serve.

Time and again successive Premiers have promised to lift the game of the government. They have promised to deliver improvements to hospitals, public transport and infrastructure, announcing plans only to have them overturned by the next candidate to blow in through the revolving door of the Premier’s office. It has become so bad that they aren’t even in office long enough to keep the seat warm for the next sacrificial victim.

This is not a judgment of Kristina Keneally, nor of her abilities or otherwise, but a judgment of the party itself and its record in office. It may yet turn out that Ms Keneally is the best thing since sliced bread, but sadly I fear that even if she is she would only suffer the same fate as her predecessors. Nathan Rees had the audacity to attempt to assert his authority as leader and now serves as an example to all who follow. The lesson is that the real power resides elsewhere, starkly illustrating Mr. Rees claim that whoever succeeded him would be a puppet Premier.

Every time there has been leadership speculation over the past couple of years I have expressed the opinion that the only thing a change of leader would achieve would be the creation of yet another ex Premier. That is exactly what has just happened, and I see no reason to believe that the government’s chances of re-election have improved in any way at all. In fact, quite the opposite, as I believe that Nathan Rees was actually starting to win some admirers for standing up to the bully boys who have been hiding in the shadows pulling the strings.

The tragedy is that things such as the public transport blueprint are likely to be delayed yet again as a new Premier announces more new plans, even though the old ones have never been delivered. Public hospitals are still crying out for more money and resources, schools are still waiting for their maintenance and repairs to be done, and Rome is still burning while the fiddling goes on. It has been suggested that some members of the Labor government have given up all hope of being re-elected and instead have opted to extract revenge on Nathan Rees while they still can. That in itself is a damning indictment of both the government and the individuals who run it, illustrating just how little they care about actually doing the job they were supposed to be elected to do.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tony Abbott’s Work Choices

Well, that didn’t take long. Just two days on the job and already Tony Abbott is promising to bring back work choices. Although he refuses to use the phrase, and insists that he is not returning to the full catalog of elements which comprised the failed policy, he has indicated an enthusiasm for restoring individual workplace contracts. It is these contracts which formed the central plank of work choices, and which were the instrument by which rights and conditions were removed form workers whether they liked it or not. No matter whether they are called Australian Workplace Agreements or any other name, it was these individual contracts that were rejected by the people of Australia at the last election.

Mr. Abbott is quoted on the front page of the Herald as saying “Our policy will be to have freer, more flexible and fair labour markets without going anywhere near that dreaded policy that must not speak its name.” But he also made it clear that such a policy includes a place for individual workplace contracts, so what exactly is he talking about? Individual contracts can be appropriate in the case of individuals who command negotiating power because they have a specialist skill or a unique talent. Bert Newton for example might have a contract with Channel Nine because he is a unique talent and there is only one Bert Newton. He cannot simply be replaced by another person playing the part of Bert Newton.

The same can be said for high value individuals who have specific skills or abilities, such as a specialist engineer or a technical expert, where having the right individual for the job makes a material difference to the results. However, the same cannot be said for process workers, fruit pickers, sales clerks, construction workers and so on. In those cases, if one individual leaves, another is found to replace him to perform essentially the same function. The distinction is that the position is defined by the work performed, not by the individual performing it. In such circumstances, it is only fair and reasonable to have a standard minimum set of pay and conditions, which apply no matter who fills the position.

This truth is reflected by the reality that so called individual workplace contracts are in most cases not individual at all. It would be an enormous waste of time and resources for a company with 2000 employees all doing the same job to sit down and negotiate unique individual contracts with every single one of them. Instead, a template contract is drawn up and presented to all of the employees, whose only choice in the matter is to either sign up or not have a job. Far from offering choices, such agreements reduce an individual worker’s choices, along with his bargaining power.

When Tony Abbott talks about flexibility in the labour market, just ask yourself “flexible for whom?” Obviously the ability to unilaterally reduce pay and remove conditions is more flexible for the employer, but it offers no flexibility for the employee, along with no security, and no choice. It’s a one way street that reloads the power balance to favour the big corporate entity against the insignificant individual deprived of the assistance of that other corporate entity, a union. Make no mistake. When Tony Abbott is talking about restoring individual contracts he is talking about returning to work choices, no matter what name he wants to give it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tony Abbott’s Great Gamble

So, what now? After all of the huffing and puffing, it’s all over for the government’s hope to have legislation for its emissions trading scheme in place before the end of the parliamentary year, and more importantly, before the Copenhagen summit starting on Monday. It has been an extraordinary period of unprecedented political upheaval, not for the government, but for the opposition, culminating in this week’s dramatic change of leadership. But now that the vote has finally been taken and the dust will slowly begin to settle the question will inevitably arise: what now?

Despite the noise made by the rowdy band of climate change skeptics, the fact remains that mainstream opinion continues to recognize the need to take action to reduce emissions. That recognition exists on both sides of politics, with Tony Abbott explicitly saying that the coalition remains committed to emissions reduction targets, and will present what he calls an effective policy on climate change. That means that far from being dead, the emissions trading scheme is still the most likely means by which climate change will be addressed.

While Tony Abbott has reached the leadership of his party with the support of those who believe that there is no need to do anything about climate change, he cannot afford to deliver a do nothing policy. Instead, he must devise a policy which meets the emission reduction targets that he has already agreed to, provides industry with certainty for their investment decisions going forward, and is somehow different from the scheme that he has just torpedoed, which was after all negotiated by the coalition just days ago.

The magnitude of the challenge is illustrated by the real risk that he may have already shot down the best deal that he is ever going to get. Weeks of negotiation by Ian McFarlane achieved billions of dollars worth of concessions from the government to the point where a significant number of Liberal members were prepared to support it. More importantly, support from the business community was also strong because of the concessions made and the certainty of having a plan locked in. All that is gone now, and it remains to be seen if Tony Abbott can come up with a better deal that will satisfy business, environmentalists, and the public.

The chances are that the government will deliver an emissions trading scheme with or without the opposition. That could happen either through a double dissolution election, a deal with the Greens, an increased majority at a general election, or even through another leadership change in the Liberal Party. Tony Abbott is gambling instead that he can take climate change as an issue to an election and win. If he is going to have any hope of achieving that he is going to have to come up with an amazing policy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

One Vote Does Make A Difference

Caesar is dead, long live Caesar. Malcolm Turnbull’s reign as Liberal Party leader has come to an end in a stunning and dramatic spectacle in keeping with his meteoric rise. Elected to Parliament in 2004, Minister for the Environment in 2007, Shadow Treasurer that same year, and Leader of the Opposition in 2008. Now, after not quite fifteen months as Leader, the express train of Malcolm Turnbull’s political career has been derailed in unprecedented circumstances.

Never before has there been such deep division within the Liberal Party. There may have been extraordinary rivalries in the past, such as that between Andrew Peacock and John Howard, but this time the divisions have been driven as much by principle as by personality. Never before has a leadership contest played out in such a manner with a result just one vote the difference, one vote informal and one member absent for medical reasons. The tiniest of variations could have caused the greatest of differences in the outcome.

With just one vote the difference, not only has the leadership of the Liberal Party been decided, but so too has the fate of the government’s Emissions Trading Scheme legislation. With just one vote the difference, the entire future history of our country has been rewritten. With just one vote the difference, Australia will go to Copenhagen without a Climate Change policy in place, and Australian industry can no longer make investment decisions with any certainty of how their plans might be affected.

It would not be in character for Malcolm Turnbull to slink away with his tail between his legs. In fact, having staked his career on his convictions and his principles, rather than caving in to pressure from his critics, he can hold his head high. But it remains to be seen if he will have the interest or even the patience to wait in the wilderness of the backbench for another chance to become Leader. It may be that he has already achieved everything he set out to in the corporate world and is happy to remain in politics for the rest of his days, but that just doesn’t sound like him. My guess is that he will leave the Parliament at the next election, looking for a new dominion to conquer.

As for the Liberal Party, the page has been wiped blank. The reset button has been pushed. Everything is back to square one. Tony Abbott has already made clear his course of action on the Emissions Trading Scheme, but everything else is also up for grabs. Some have seen this result as a move back towards the so called hard right approach of the Howard era, and it is true that Tony Abbott was an instrumental part of that regime. Whether this means we should expect a return to a hard line on such things as industrial relations and immigration policies only time will tell. But one thing is certain: the direction of the Liberal Party has taken a sharp turn today and as a result the shape of any future Liberal Government has been altered.

Don’t ever let anybody tell you that one single vote can’t make a difference.

Monday, November 30, 2009

No Winners In Liberal Leadership Battle

No matter which way you look at it, the clock is ticking on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party. It remains to be seen whether or not Joe Hockey will be convinced he should contest the leadership at 9am tomorrow, but if he doesn’t Tony Abbott most certainly will. At last weeks party meeting when Kevin Andrews mounted his tilt at the leadership, there were 35 members ready to dump Malcolm Turnbull then and there. How many more will there be tomorrow when either Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey is the candidate can only be guessed, but the indications are that it will be more than enough.

Of course, it is always possible that Malcolm Turnbull could stare down his opponents and somehow survive the challenge. But even if he could manage that apparent miracle, surely the dramatic divisions of the past week have left him in an untenable position, unable to command clear support among his own colleagues. Of course, the responsibility for that state of affairs lies not with the leader but with those who refused to follow, but it’s a moot point because the effect is the same. A leader without sufficient followers cannot continue to be the leader, so even if Mr. Turnbull wins the day tomorrow, it can only be a matter of time before there is a fresh challenge.

Those who are behind the plot to remove Malcolm Turnbull seem to have decided that they want Joe Hockey to become leader, even though he has so far remained loyal to Mr. Turnbull. If Mr. Hockey gives in to that pressure and puts himself forward, there is little doubt that he will become the new Leader. In doing so, he will have to bring himself to do three things. One, betray his pledge of loyalty to the current leader. Two, go back on his word to support the negotiated amendments to the emissions trading legislation. And three, take an enormous gamble on his own political career by accepting the poison chalice of leadership at a time when an election victory is almost impossible, whereas refusing the opportunity now and remaining loyal would actually reinforce his claim to be the heir apparent further down the line.

If Joe Hockey decides that he does not want to contest the leadership now, that will leave Tony Abbott to challenge Mr. Turnbull. Although support for Mr. Abbott is probably not as strong as for Mr. Hockey, he is still likely to win and become the new Leader. In either case, whichever of the two is the new leader, the opposition will vote against the emissions trading scheme in the Senate, delaying its introduction and possibly triggering an early election which neither Tony Abbott nor Joe Hockey can win. In the end, whether there is a double dissolution election or not, the government will pass an emissions trading scheme, possibly with the help of the Greens. For that to happen, the scheme will have to be a lot more aggressive than the current proposal, and you would think that is the last thing the Liberals would want.

If Malcolm Turnbull had had his way, the emissions trading scheme would have passed as amended and would no longer be an issue, leaving him free to fight the government on his own terms. Instead he has been forced into fighting his own party members. The irony is that his opponents are not only destroying his leadership, they are also destroying the credibility of the party. If there was something to be gained it would all make some kind of sense, but the truth is that there is nothing to be gained for the Liberals in any of this sad sorry mess. Just as the climate skeptics insist that the emissions trading scheme will wreck the economy for no perceptible benefit to the environment, the same skeptics are wrecking the Liberal Party for no perceptible political benefit.

No matter who is the Leader after Tuesday morning, he will be presiding over the wreckage of a party that will not be elected to government anytime soon.