Friday, June 25, 2010

An Excellent System

One of the immediate reactions to the leadership change of the Labor Party yesterday was the view expressed by many people that they had not voted for Julia Gillard to be Prime Minister. Many people felt that the had voted for Kevin Rudd in 2007 and that there was something wrong about the way in which a party can depose a Prime Minister by choosing to change leaders during the course of a parliamentary term. It was Kevin Rudd who was put forward by the party to be their leader in the 2007 election, and the feeling is that people voted on the basis that he would continue to be the leader. It is almost as if some people feel that they have been cheated of the opportunity to go to the election with Kevin Rudd in the position, even if it is only, in some cases at least, to have the opportunity to vote against him.

Of course, the fact is that we do not directly elect our Prime Minister, or any of the Cabinet for that matter. We all vote for our local members, who belong for the most part to one party or the other, and the party with the majority of seats becomes the Government. It is up to the party to decide who will fill what positions. In fact, after an election it is quite normal for a new government to shuffle portfolios so that a Shadow Minister might become a Minister for an entirely different portfolio. So why should it be any different with the Prime Minister? Even the very title of the job should make it clear that the PM is nothing more than the first among equals, rather than any kind of autocrat.

There is also some concern over the idea that the so called “faceless men” working in the shadows can determine who will and will not be Prime Minister. It is an image which really can be quite disturbing, giving the idea that dubious people with hidden agendas can pull the puppet strings with no accountability. Of course, it’s not really an accurate image at all. While the people who run the party, which in turn runs the government, are described as powerbrokers, they remain answerable to their own members. When it comes to mounting a leadership challenge, despite whatever influence they may wield, they cannot make it work without convincing a majority of the parliamentary party members to support it.

To some extent, political parties themselves have been responsible for promoting the importance of the leadership position by increasingly building Presidential style campaigns around the personalities they install in the top job. But ours is not a Presidential system. It is a Westminster Parliamentary Democracy, which in many respects is actually much better. Because the Prime Minister is not guaranteed a term in office, and must rely on the support of his colleagues to remain in power, it means our system avoids concentrating too much power in one person’s hands, and actively precludes the possibility of any leader becoming a dictator without staging a full scale revolution. In that respect, our system is excellent, and it might also offer a clue as to why Kevin Rudd no longer enjoyed the support of his colleagues.

As Winston Churchill observed, democracy is a terrible system of government but it is better than all of the alternatives.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

New Boss: Same As The Old Boss?

There’s a well known line in the old song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, a hit for The Who back in 1971, which goes “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. After today’s extraordinary change of leadership in the Federal Labor Party, giving Australia our first woman Prime Minister, there will no doubt be some people who will say that no matter whether it is Julia or Kevin in charge of the Labor Party, it is still the same party that ran into so much trouble with a string of controversies. Whether it’s the school building program, the home insulation program or the decision to abandon the proposed emissions trading scheme, Julia Gillard was on board with every decision along the way. So is the new boss really the same as the old boss, or is there likely to be a genuine change in the way the Government?

The first point has to be that Kevin Rudd is a little different from your average politician. Obviously intelligent and hardworking, he nevertheless seemed to have some difficulty connecting with ordinary everyday people. Famously referred to as the “Ruddbot” by many, he seemed to be driven by a relentless logic which often left others in its wake. When he made the decision to delay the emissions trading scheme it was for purely pragmatic reasons but it was done in such a passionless way that it left many wondering if he had any principles at all. Stories of his workaholic habits, his relentless demands of staff, and what seemed to be a deficiency in people skills, along with his particular way of speaking, all added up to the perception that he was, well a bit of a control freak.

The second point is one that I made more than a week ago (see my blog entry “Mixed Messages…” on Wednesday June 16). In recent weeks, there had been a growing disconnect between what the then Prime Minister was saying on the proposed mining tax and the statements of many of his senior colleagues. At a time when Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Craig Emmerson, and even Wayne Swan were all talking up the possibility of negotiating a resolution with the mining industry, Kevin Rudd was saying such things as “no retreat”, and “no backdown”, indicating something at odds with any normally accepted concept of negotiation. It was clear even then that there was a growing gap between Mr. Rudd and a significant number of his senior colleagues. For those reasons, the events of today are not entirely surprising, notwithstanding their exceedingly dramatic nature.

The challenge for Julia Gillard now is to make it clear that as the new boss, she is not just the same as the old boss. Her first step in that direction was taken when she announced that she was opening the doors of the government to the mining industry for real negotiation. As part of the deal she announced the immediate withdrawal of the government’s advertising for the tax, and called upon the mining industry to do the same to demonstrate their good faith. It was a decisive strategic step which will go a long way towards breaking the circuit. If the mining companies go along with the proposal it represents a win for the new Prime Minister. If they refuse, then it is still a win for the Prime Minister because it would simply leave the mining companies looking desperate and greedy. Will it work? Well, it already has, with BHP having suspended its advertising this afternoon.

Perhaps, the new boss is not really the same as the old boss at all, but either way, that doesn’t mean that the government has changed it’s stripes.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Wealthy And The Desperate

Apparently Tony Abbott forgot to update his Parliamentary register of interests to include the fact that he had refinanced his house a couple of years ago. You might remember that shortly after losing office in the 2007 election, Tony Abbott made the headlines complaining about the difficulty of making ends meet after losing about half of his income because he was no longer a Government Minister. At the time, it triggered a minor debate about whether or not politicians should be paid more, a discussion which returns from time to time along with the suggestion that we get what we pay for. The argument goes that if we pay more we would attract a better qualified type of person to politics. What we didn’t know at the time was that Tony was finding the going so tough that he had to borrow $710 000 against the family home.

Technically, the failure to update the Parliamentary register was a breach of the requirements, and the Opposition Leader’s office says that it was an oversight and nothing more. While it might be embarrassing, it is not exactly a career ending mistake, but it has revived once again the question of whether or not our politicians are paid appropriately. Some people think they are not paid well enough, but many people think they are already paid too much. In fact, the Telegraph ran an on-line survey and when I last checked the figures it showed that a little over 75% of people believe that politicians a paid enough, leaving just under 25% who believe that politicians should be paid more. Presumably, not all of those 25% are actually politicians themselves.

Of course, there will always be plenty of people who think that any amount is too much to pay politicians because of the cynical view that none of them are any good, and they’re all there just to hitch a ride on the gravy train. While it is certainly true that paying anybody a six figure salary to sit on their hands would be an insult to us all, surely it is reasonable to suggest that anybody’s remuneration should be set at a level which reflects the responsibility of their position, as well as their performance in that position, whether they are in politics or any other profession. To pay so little that only the wealthy or the desperate would bother entering politics could mean that we miss out on having the best people in the job. In fact, some say that is precisely the situation now.

At the same time, the starting salary for a backbencher is currently around $130 000, before all the benefits, allowances, and perks, so I still believe what I said a couple of years ago when Tony Abbott first raised the matter: anyone who can’t make ends meet on a salary that’s double the average wage and more than four times the minimum wage has such a lack of budgeting and management skills that perhaps they should not be running the country in the first place. And further to that, anyone who simply forgets to comply with the requirements of the Parliamentary rules might also be a poor choice for leadership. Those who would aspire to be Prime Minister can’t afford embarrassing “oversights”.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Forever In Their Debt

The news that three Australian soldiers had died in Afghanistan so soon aft the last two casualties just a fortnight ago has saddened all Australians. It has also prompted an increasing number of people to question the Australian military deployment in Afghanistan, with Newspoll figures showing that around 60% of people believe that our forces should be brought home. While it is natural that we should abhor the violence and loss of life involved in any war, many Australians feel that the tragedy is amplified because they believe that Afghanistan is not our war to fight, and not our country to defend. People are asking just what has it all been for?

Despite the belief of some that Australia’s involvement is driven by the dictates of our ally the United States, the truth is that the multinational forces in Afghanistan come from almost 50 nations, led by NATO, under the mandate of the United Nations. The fact is that there were legitimate international security reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago, and there continue to be legitimate concerns about the ongoing threat to international security, including the direct interests of Australia. It’s a tough call to make, and there are serious consequences, but the truth is that ignoring the threat can have even more serious consequences.

However, while both the Government and the Opposition continue to stand by the commitment to Afghanistan, it is clear that growing numbers of Australians have doubts. Perhaps this indicates that our Government has not done a good job of explaining why it is important to our national security that our troops fight and die in Afghanistan. Perhaps the Government needs to do more to answer the questions that Australians are beginning to ask. The first question is: do we need to be in Afghanistan at all? If so, the second question is: what is the mission, what is the objective to be achieved? The third question is: can the objective be achieved? Is it attainable, or is it slipping further and further out of reach as the conflict drags on? After eight years and counting, is the situation becoming intractable? If it is, then the next question must be: at what point do we decide to cut our losses and withdraw our soldiers? And if we do, does that mean that all the effort expended so far, all the lives lost, have been for nothing?

The problem remains that an unstable Afghanistan will once again become a safe haven and training ground for terrorists who want to destroy not just America, but all who enjoy the freedoms that most of us take for granted. Terrorists like the ones who targeted Australians in Bali, and would do so again if given the chance. And if Afghanistan descends again into the darkness where the Taliban regime murdered and mutilated its own people as well as attacking ours, what of neighboring Pakistan which could also fall under the control of extremists? It’s not enough to say that Pakistan isn’t our problem when it controls an arsenal of nuclear weapons which could conceivably threaten all of us.

Although Australians want desperately to keep our soldiers safe, the truth is that they are dedicating their lives, and sometimes giving their lives, to keep us safe. For that I am deeply grateful, and forever indebted.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Only A Miracle Can Save The New South Wales Government

Perhaps it goes without saying that the New South Wales government is headed for oblivion. The Penrith byelection at the weekend delivered a result which, although it was well anticipated in the opinion polls, must surely have sent shivers through the ranks of the government. Recording a swing of 25.5%, the Liberal candidate Stuart Ayres will now become the youngest member of the State Parliament. The swing sets a new record, exceeding the mark set by another byelection against the same government two years ago when former deputy Premier John Watkins retired. Given the travails of the government over the past three years it can hardly be seen as an unexpected result.

It was reported over the weekend that if the same swing occurred across the state at the general election next March, the Labor Party would not only lose office, but hang on to just a half dozen seats. It was a massive swing, and it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of it was due to the ignominious manner of the departure of the previous member Karen Palluzzano. It’s not likely that the swing across the board next March will be so extreme, but observers are suggesting that the Party might be reduced to holding perhaps two dozen seats out of the 93 in total, with some pessimistic forecasts suggesting even fewer. With numbers like these, even the most optimistic outlook foreshadows a massive defeat for the Labor Government.

But none of this is really news to anyone who has been watching the fortunes of the New South Wales Government for the past three years. Quite aside from the fact that they have been there so long that there will be some voters who weren't even in primary school the last time there was Coalition Government in this state, inspiring an overwhelming “it’s time” feeling, the current term in particular has been a topsy turvy rollercoaster ride up and down the constantly changing policy priorities of a series of Premiers entering and leaving the top office through a revolving door.

Since the 2007 election, there have been three Premiers in three years, each with a different set of policies, promises, and plans for the future. Each time there has been a change of Premier, there has been a change of plan, resulting in the very expensive process of dumping one set of plans and replacing them with another, and then another. As charming and intelligent as Kristina Keneally is, she could have been the Dalai Lama and a significant number of people would still refuse to trust this government because they have already made up their minds.

If Kristina Keneally does manage to salvage some dignity from the wreckage and turn the government’s fortunes around before next March, it would a miracle of such magnitude that she should really consider starting her own religion.