Let’s talk about leaks, baby

July 31, 2010

They are ‘dominating the campaign’. (Helen Dalley)

They are ‘bad news for Labor’. (Kieran Gilbert)

They are ‘signs that the wheels have come off’. (anonymous tweeter)

They are ‘a sign that this is a dysfunctional government’. (Tony Abbott)

Sounds dire, right? Sounds like a terrible report has come to light, showing some massive policy bungle, budget blow-out or breach in national security. Whatever they are, they must be important to get some much media coverage.

What are they?


That’s right. Rumours. Schoolyard whispers. Coffee-machine gossip.

First we had Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes stand up at the National Press Club on July 15 and ask Julia Gillard if she could confirm something he’d been told; that she had reneged on a deal with Kevin Rudd the night she challenged him. Gillard’s response? ‘I’m not commenting on a private conversation.’

That was followed up on July 22 by the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann, claiming he had inside information that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had sent a junior staffer to National Security Committee meetings in his place.

On July 27, Laurie wanted to know if Gillard could confirm that she had opposed paid parental leave and pension increases in Cabinet discussions. Gillard replied that she had questioned whether the government could afford those policies, but had supported them when it was clear that it could.

Then, just after midnight, The Australian reported that it had received leaked information stating that Gillard had sent Andrew Stark, a bodyguard, to represent her at National Security Committee meetings rather than go herself. (Sound familiar?)

There are some common factors here – but not the ones you might think.

Every one of these stories was written from information from a ‘confidential source’. The journalists in question have not disclosed their sources – and nor should they. Journalistic confidentiality is a long-held tradition, and has been responsible, in the past, for some incredible stories. Watergate springs immediately to mind, but it’s by no means the only one.

The other common factor? These rumours are unsubstantiated. No one is willing to go on the record to confirm the details. In fact, the only people who have gone on the record are those who are either denying the story or giving their point of view. Gillard, for example, stated that she had not opposed the parental leave policy, but had questioned its affordability.

Otherwise, what we have is silence. The leakers aren’t about to come forward, and the government has made it clear that they will not discuss private conversations nor publish details about confidential security meetings. At this point, without any further information, the story is stalled. Nothing else can be reported unless the media can dig around and find something to confirm or deny the rumours. Right?

Sadly, no.

These rumours are being reported as fact. Even a story that refers to ‘claims’ and ‘allegations’ (as The Australian did this morning) also features gems like this: a picture of the bodyguard in question with the caption, ‘Andrew Stark, the bodyguard Julia Gillard, as deputy prime minister, sent to sensitive security meetings on her behalf.’

See how they did that? Not ‘alleged’. Not ‘claimed’. It was stated in absolute terms. There’s no ambiguity there whatsoever – and that photo and caption appear above the story, so they become the first thing the reader sees after the headline. The idea is planted before a reader even finds out that it’s a claim with nothing to back it up that can come under public scrutiny.

The same is true of the other stories. A quick Google search will find any number of comments that start from the assumption that the rumours are true, and from there start talking about how damaging it is for the ALP. Now, you’d expect this from the Coalition. It’s to their advantage to damage their opponents’ credibility as much as possible. But they’re not the only ones doing it. Commentators are doing it. Journalists are doing it.

And they’re not saying, ‘this is something that needs to be looked into’. They’re talking about how it looks to have a Prime Minister who opposed paid parental leave, or a former Prime Minister who said he was committed to national security but couldn’t be bothered to attend meetings. This continues even after clarifying statements are made. Gillard says she questioned affordability of a policy, but the questions to other members of the Labor party still start with, ‘Since it’s been revealed that Julia Gillard opposed paid parental leave’.

That’s tantamount to saying, ‘Gillard is lying’, without any proof whatsoever.

There’s an assumption that these ‘leaks’ are coming from Kevin Rudd – an assumption stated as fact by Mark Latham, and one that is going largely unchallenged. As with the rumours themselves, there appears to be no questioning taking place, no attempt to uncover anything like the real story.

This is not good enough. The questions and the commentary about the leaks are eclipsing policy announcements – and contrary to what some media are reporting, there’s a lot of policy out there that deserves scrutiny. Gillard today waxed lyrical about her government’s achievements in apprenticeships and trade training, and said a re-elected ALP would ‘continue to invest’ in them. She provided no details as to how she intended to do this – and she was not asked. Instead, she was asked about polls, and being in Perth – and about the leaks.

As Grog’s Gamut pointed out today in an excellent blog on a related matter, it would have been nice to hear her questioned about policy.


Just in: On the subject of National Security Committee meetings, Gillard said today that she has attended ‘most’ of the meetings, and when she could not, Stark (a former officer with the Australian Federal Police, with a good understanding of security) took notes for her and briefed her. He was never ‘deputised to act on her behalf’.

This is hardly surprising. Prime Ministers travel, both domestically and internationally. There are huge demands on their time. The suggestion that a Prime Minister should never be allowed to miss a briefing is, frankly, ludicrous. That Gillard went to the trouble of asking someone to take notes for her and brief her afterwards could be seen as evidence of diligence, not neglect.

Not if you listen to the immediate commentary, it seems. ‘She should be there … she still have to answer questions … we don’t know exactly what he did.’ She might as well have refused to comment, for all the good it appears to have done.

Mark Latham – don’t feed the troll

July 30, 2010

Right now, I imagine Mark Latham is pretty pleased with his lot in life.

Look at his career up until now – a failed Labor leader who led his party to a crushing defeat against John Howard (with a net loss of four Lower House seats), who occupied the leader’s chair for only 13 months and resigned without ever having held a ministerial position. Once out of politics, he distinguished himself by writing The Latham Diaries. I’ve read that book, and I’ve rarely had to wade through such a sustained rant. Latham’s rage made Andrew Bolt look like a moderately annoyed person on Valium. From time to time since then he’s popped up to give his two cents’ worth, and he’s proved one thing – he’s never slow to give his opinions, as forcefully as possible. He described the 2007 election as ‘the Seinfeld election, an election about nothing’, described his fellow politicians as ‘miserable arsewipes’ and is pretty free with words like ‘arrogant’ and ‘incompetent’.

He’s good value for the media – and so I suppose it was inevitable that they would trot him out during this election. He was guaranteed to generate some juicy sound bites, and he certainly delivered. You certainly couldn’t fault Sky News for that.

But was it necessary to treat him like an elder statesman full of political wisdom? Did we really need not one, but two interviews in quick succession – the second a dedicated prime time half-hour, advertised breathlessly and spruiked for days beforehand? And that’s only what we’ve seen so far. There are three weeks to go in this campaign. Will we see an interview a week? (good grief, I hope not).

And for what? Did we actually get any real analysis, any considered judgement?

No. We got to see Latham enjoying himself in the spotlight, basking in the flattery of Sky’s Paul Murray, who described him as a man with ‘obvious insight’. Insight into what, exactly? Apparently, Latham was the man with the good word on the leaks plaguing the Australian Labor Party.

Now, no one knows who has been leaking stories to Laurie Oakes. The man himself isn’t saying, protecting his sources as a good journalist should. Speculation runs hot, and inevitably the eye falls on Kevin Rudd. There’s no evidence whatsoever to confirm that – but that doesn’t matter to Latham. It’s Rudd all right, being a ‘snake’ and ‘unmanly’. Rudd, the ‘serial leaker’. Rudd, who loved being Prime Minister only because it meant he was able to socially network with world leaders and be followed around by the media. Rudd, who was so angry about being dumped that he thought to himself, ‘if I can’t have it no one else can either’, and ran to the phone.

Rudd should ‘be a man … have some honour’, says Latham. Holding himself up as a model of integrity, Latham wants us to believe that he is more honourable than Rudd because he puts his name to what he says. Gillard should have made Rudd the Defence Minister, or Minister for Foreign Affairs, and sent him to Afghanistan – with the clear implication that maybe the Taliban would take care of the ‘Rudd problem’ once and for all.

Latham offered not one shred of proof. He didn’t have to – because Paul Murray accepted every word of it. There was no challenge, no ‘but wait, how do you know? Can you prove it?’ Murray was almost worshipful in his treatment of Latham – and in fact had said at the beginning of the program how much he admired the man. It was not an interview. It was Paul Murray fawning at Latham’s feet and giving him a stage.

And for what? Rumour-mongering and insults. Swinging voters are ‘apathetic’, according to Latham – they put their kids to bed, watch Masterchef and make up their minds how to vote depending on what campaign ad they last saw. The ALP’s Jason Clare ‘might as well be a ventriloquist’s doll’, because he’s not a real person. Rudd is a coward and a snake. All this, from a man who shakes his head and tut-tuts about those who attack the person rather than the policy because it’s ‘the easy way to make the point’.

The same man, by the way, who used his book to describe his parliamentary colleagues as ‘execrable’ and ‘dirty dogs’, and railed against ‘the new political correctness’ in a speech to Parliament decrying those who were asking for a civil debate.

Another failed leader, the Liberal’s John Hewson, appears regularly both on Sky and on ABC News 24’s The Drum. His contributions are thoughtful, consistently fair, and bring with them all the experience of both his political and post-political life (which includes extensive engagement with business and membership in the Trilateral Commission). He speaks bluntly (without being insulting), reasonably, and takes his lumps when his own failings are pointed out. Well before the election was called, he was taking part in a regular panel on Sky’s AM Agenda program, and has proved himself as a valuable commentator on Australian politics.

The contrast between Hewson and Latham could not be stronger, yet it is Latham who gets the dedicated air time, and Latham whose sound-bites make it onto other networks and are incorporated into Sky News’ promotional ads.

Latham could not be more irrelevant to this election, but today, his opinions – stated as fact – are all over the various news programs, Twitter and Facebook. Ironically, given how irrelevant I think he is, I’m even blogging about him here. The media are peppering Labor politicians for comments on Latham’s words. Quite rightly, they have pretty much all come out and said words to the effect of, ‘Oh please, do I have to dignify his rantings with a comment?’ Apparently they do, because the media are making a lot of hay out of their refusal to engage. Why aren’t they defending Rudd, the commentators ask?

Perhaps because they know – even if the media don’t – that you should never feed a troll. And that’s what Latham is in this campaign. He’s a troll, and the more attention he gets, the more influence he’ll have over the campaign.

Paid parental leave – the policies side-by-side

July 29, 2010

Australia has lagged behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to paid parental leave (the US being a notable exception). Countries as diverse as Japan, Israel and the UK all have schemes, varying in terms of amount and duration. Sweden’s paid parental leave scheme, for example, lasts for up to 15 months. Various groups have been agitating for Australia to institute a scheme of our own.

Now, after years of failed attempts, we have two policies to choose between at this election. Both of these policies have been around for a while, but they haven’t come in for a lot of scrutiny until this week.

So let’s have a look at them side by side. The devil is definitely in the details here.

The ALP’s policy is fairly straightforward. New parents (including those who adopt a newborn) will be able to receive 18 weeks’ parental leave, set at the federal minimum wage (currently $544 per week). People in casual or contract work, or who are self-employed, will also be eligible. The scheme will also allow parents to share the period of leave according to their needs – for example, if both parents wish to spend time as primary carers, they will be able to do so.

Funds for the scheme were set aside in the 2010 budget.

The immediate objection that is likely to be raised is that people taking leave under this scheme may well incur a pay cut. The median gross wage in 2009 for males aged 25-34 was around $1100 per week, and $913 for females (sourced from ABC Diamond). Unlike the normal weekly income, however, paid parental leave is expected to be tax-free, which narrows the gap.

There is also the question of whether 18 weeks is a sufficiently long period. Opinions from experts in early childhood development differ wildly on how much time is ideal, to the point that there is no consensus. In the end, though, personal circumstances are likely to be more important to any family than suggested figures. Parents also have the option of taking their normal holiday leave entitlement after paid parental leave ends if necessary, negotiated with their respective employers.

The most attractive part of the ALP policy has to be its application to both genders. In 2003, men were the primary carers in only 3.4% of families. The major reasons given for this were economic, and many fathers stated they would prefer to spend much more time with their babies. The male median wage is still approximately 20% more than the female, meaning that a man would likely face a greater pay cut if he chose to stay home under the ALP scheme. He would, however, have the option.

The Coalition’s policy as it currently exists on the Liberal Party website is out of date. This week, a press conference with Tony Abbott in Mackay and interviews with Sharman Stone (via news.com.au) and George Brandis (on Sky News AM Agenda program of July 27) have confirmed that the details I’ll outline here now form the policy that the Coalition will take to the election.

Under the Coalition’s scheme, a mother will receive 26 weeks’ paid leave at her normal pay rate (up to $50,000) or the minimum wage, whichever is greater. As with the ALP policy, this includes casual and self-employment. A father will be eligible to receive two weeks’ paternity leave at his normal pay rate. If he becomes the primary carer, however, he will be paid at the mother’s rate.

The scheme will be funded through a levy on businesses earning over $5 million a year.

The original policy referred simply to a ‘primary carer’ as a recipient of paid parental leave, without any mention of different rates for each gender. The change to the current scheme was defended by Sharman Stone, who said it was simply ‘too expensive’ to pay men their full wage for six months. Tony Abbott’s defence focused less on the figures, and more on ideology. The policy is, Abbott said, ‘fundamentally designed to allow mothers to bond with their newborns’ (my italics). It was ‘very good for mothers, very good for women, for families and ultimately our economy as well’.

The policy is deliberately discriminatory. It is designed on the assumption that the primary carer of a baby should be the mother, and effectively penalises a father who wishes to stay at home. There is no provision for shared care – the presumption is that only one parent will be the primary carer during the early weeks of a child’s life. Finally, there is no mention in the Coalition’s policy of adoption, so presumably a family who adopts a newborn baby would not be eligible. This discriminates against couples who are unable to have children through natural conception or IVF. It also discriminates against same-sex couples, particularly males, who may adopt under Australian law.

I should point out that these comparisons operate on the assumption that both parents are working at the time a child is born, and receive the median wage. Neither policy addresses a situation where only the father works, and then takes parental leave. This may be for a number of reasons, including illness related to pregnancy and birth, postpartum depression, existing illness or disability and other family circumstances. As a matter of pure speculation, the ALP policy would likely still apply as is, since the mother’s wage is irrelevant. What would happen under the Coalition’s policy, however, is unclear, since the mother’s wage is the determining factor for the rate of payment.

Purely in financial terms, the Coalition’s policy is likely to be better for some fathers who stay home. Six months at 80% of a normal wage is a higher rate than 18 weeks at approximately 60-70% – so families who are economically disadvantaged would theoretically be better off under the Coalition’s policy. In practical terms, however, women in low-income families tend to earn below the minimum wage – so the end result is that neither policy would be of greater benefit to them. Unless a parent earns below the minimum wage, they would no better off under either policy. The real winners would be high income families, where the mother was earning well above the median wage, since high income families tend to have greater savings and greater economic capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Under the Coalition policy, moreover, they would be less likely to need to spend those savings.

The ALP’s policy assumes that a level playing field is the best possible outcome in terms of fairness, while the Coalition’s is aimed at preserving the family’s before-baby economic status quo – no matter how this might discriminate against some parts of Australian society.

ALP climate change policy 2/2

July 26, 2010

My take on the debate-that-wasn’t coming soon … in the meantime, here’s part 2 of my analysis of the ALP’s climate change policy.

Right now, the ALP may well be wishing they had never announced yesterday that they would set up citizen assemblies to investigate the idea of a carbon tax. The proposal has been roundly condemned from all sides of politics. Malcolm Farr, this morning on Insiders, made the most charitable comment (which happily coincided with my own conclusions) – that it’s a way for Labor to make us feel that they’re listening to our opinions. The condescension implied in such a stance is enough to put most people’s teeeth on edge.

Gillard might have been hoping that the announcements which followed over the last 24 hours would push the story out of the news cycle. Unfortunately, the issue just isn’t going away.

Although it is an idea that deserves strong criticism, it is also eclipsing the rest of the policy – and the proposals released since yesterday morning should really come in for scrutiny. With that in mind, we’ll get stuck into part 2 of analysing the ALP’s climate change policy.

Most of what follows is expected to be funded from what was originally set aside for the now-delayed (perhaps permanently) Emissions Trading Scheme, with other funds already committed and re-directed.

All new power stations will be required to meet best practice standards on their emissions. These standards are actually below the levels set in the ETS. Under that scheme a baseline of 0.86 tonnes of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced was proposed – new power stations will have to come in well under this figure. In particular, proposed coal-fired power stations will have to demonstrate that they are ready to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Alongside this, Gillard has said that existing power-stations, including coal-fired ones, will be required to assess their potential to conserve energy, and to make those assessments public.

A real problem presents itself here. CCS (which is most commonly defined as capturing CO2 before or after the fuel used to generate power is burned, then pumping the gas back into the ground) is a largely unproven technology. There are a handful of industrial scale projects in operation around the world, and none in Australia. Concerns with leakage due to seismic shifting or problems with the pipes carrying the gas have not yet been sufficiently addressed, but would almost certainly require in-depth geological surveys to be completed on any proposed sites. Finally, the increased costs in operating a CCS facility in conjunction with a power plant that would be transferred to the consumer, and the extra fuel required (up to 30% more than current levels) could well render the idea a futile exercise.

In Australia, CCS is not a viable prospect, either technologically or financially. There are currently three operating pilot projects, with five more proposed. The earliest any industrial scale project is expected to be operational is 2020. The ALP’s proposal, then, may well have the effect of preventing any new coal-fired power stations from being built.

There are currently twelve stations which have been approved, and the restrictions will not be applied to those. Perhaps those twelve stations would be able to supply our energy needs until CCS becomes viable for industry. If there is a shortfall, ideally renewable energy production would fill the gap. In a worse-case scenario, however, we might well be looking at energy shortages and inflated prices.

The question, then, turns to just what Labor proposes to do to boost renewable energy production. Gillard has reaffirmed a 2020 target of 20% of Australia’s energy to be supplied by renewables, with a grab bag of funding to encourage this.

The solar flagships project, which has $1.5 billion allocated to it, is expected to award funding to two successful project applications in 2011. Schools will be able to receive up to $50,000 (or $100,000 for multi-campus schools) to install solar or other renewable systems. Finally, a further $100 million will be set aside in a Renewable Energy Venture Capital Fund, to encourage other projects.

In order to utilise renewable energy generation, Labor will invest $1 billion in connecting these new projects to the existing electricity grid. (This would include, for example, current solar projects in Queensland, wind and wave in Western Australia, and geothermal across the country.) Existing electricity market rules will be applied, but if an otherwise viable project does not meet those rules, funding will still be available to implement connection.

On a smaller scale, from July 1, 2011, any business that improves the energy efficiency rating of their existing buildings to 4 stars or higher can claim a 50% tax deduction. This scheme will run until the end of the 2015 financial year. There will also be an extra $30 million for the Green Building Fund. The total cost will be $180 million, rising to around $1 billion by 2018-19. Initial funding has already been provided.

Car owners whose vehicle was manufactured before January 1, 1995, will be able to trade in their car at a dealership for a car which meets current emissions standards and receive a $2000 rebate. The old car will be scrapped and recycled. This scheme is capped at 200,000 vehicles, about 10% of old, emissions-intensive vehicles currently on the road. Just as an example, saving one gallon (just under four litres) per 100 miles (62.5 kilometres), saves 20 pounds (over 40 kilograms) of CO2 – which adds up to approximately one tonne per 10,000 miles (6250 kilometres) of driving.

This is being widely reported as a ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme similar to that introduced in the US to boost manufacturing during the global financial crisis. The American program attracted so much interest that its funding needed to be more than doubled, and some owners upgraded to new cars that were at least as energy-inefficient as their old ones. Labor’s program avoids the latter problem by setting minimum efficiency standards for the new purchases, but $2000 is a very small amount. For example, a new Hyundai Getz (which would be eligible under the scheme) costs, on average, $13,000, making a $2000 cash-back payment seem rather insignificant. The program is not only open to new cars, however, making it attractive to people who may be nursing an old car because they cannot afford a better used car – students and older people, particularly.

It’s not known whether this rebate would be given in addition to any trade-in offered by a dealer, although it appears likely. Finally, at this point there are no mechanisms in place to prevent dealers increasing their prices by $2000, leaving buyers back where they started. In itself, however, the program has much to recommend it. It is a small measure, but one that provides a quick remedy to an ongoing problem.

Funds will be redirected from three existing programs to support the rebate – from solar flagships, carbon capture and storage, and the Renewable Energy Benefit. Gillard stated that the government would still meet its solar and CCS targets; there had been a less-than-expected uptake of funds, so money is available to re-direct without causing a shortfall in the projects.

Lastly, a Labor government would, from 2011, begin legislating new mandatory fuel efficiency standards for future new cars. This would be done in consultation with industry, and take effect in 2015. The lead time would allow manufacturers to re-gear their production so that they could meet the new standards.

Summed up, the ALP’s climate change policy amounts to a collection of relatively small programs, new mandatory standards and one Great Big New Avoidance of the issue of carbon tax. Connecting renewables to the grid has, perhaps, the most potential in terms of boosting uptake of renewable energy projects. Historically, connecting to the grid has been done in a piecemeal fashion – and, in the case of geothermal power, sometimes not possible at all. If the Labor proposal is properly administered, it could see more projects, and more people opting to choose renewable power for their needs.

The citizens’ assembly albatross, however, is going to hang around Labor’s neck for some time to come, I’m afraid.

Open thread – election priorities

July 25, 2010

I’m still plowing through the various announcements of the ALP on climate change, so in the meantime I’m throwing open this thread.

We’re hearing a lot about ‘what Australians want’, this election – yet I don’t recall many of us actually being asked. So in this open thread, I’m asking the question:

What are your top three election priorities?

To kick it off, mine are (in no particular order):

Restoration of student services and financial relief for tertiary students

Targeted funding to address the widening gap between services available in public and private schools

Mental and dental health care available to those who can’t afford the incredibly high fees that providers charge.

ALP climate change policy 1/2

July 24, 2010

Watching or listening to Julia Gillard’s first press conference at the University of Queensland this morning, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the ALP’s climate change policy began and ended with a twelve-month community kaffeeklatsch.

Apparently, that’s all part of the strategy. Rather than make a single announcement with details in media releases, the ALP is slowly doling out the policy in measured doses over several days. There are several reasons why they might be doing this. Multiple announcements can create the impression that an issue is a very high priority for Labor. New measures at every press conferences ensures more media exposure, which could hurt the Coalition (since not everyone watches ABC News 24 or Sky). It also gives them the chance to push any unpopular announcements off the news cycle by bringing in new content.

So yesterday, Julia Gillard made the first of several announcements, launching Labor’s climate change policy. The cornerstone was expected to be a carbon tax, or ‘price on carbon’. (In a nutshell, this is a way of encouraging industry and business to use cleaner standards of production by levying a fee against every tonne of carbon they produce over a ‘baseline’ amount. It’s usually accompanied by financial incentives to ‘green’ the business. The idea is that free market principles – notably, the idea of making bigger profits – will guide industry towards doing the clean thing.)

There was no such announcement. Instead, Gillard told us after the failure of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, that Australia needed to ‘rebuild consensus’. To this end, an independent climate change commission would be established, made up of respected scientists, economists and other experts. The task of this commission would be to convey the science and economics of climate change to the Australian people, to ensure they understand the issue thoroughly.

She also announced the formation of a ‘citizens’ assembly’ – 150 ‘ordinary’ people, drawn randomly from the electoral roll, who would spend 12 months examining the case for putting a price on carbon and the possible consequences of doing so. At the end of this time the assembly would make a recommendation to the government. If that recommendation was not wholeheartedly positive, Gillard said, it would indicate that ‘more needs to be done’ – presumably to build the consensus she is seeking.

These initiatives are projected to cost $9 million, paid for out of the Renewable Energy Future Fund.

It’s easy to see the rationale for establishing the commission. There is still considerable confusion about what exactly is going on with our climate. The science seems at times to be written in some strange alien language, people play fast and loose with the figures, and accurate reporting gets lost in scare-mongering rhetoric – from both sides. Having a commission that would just lay it out for us is long overdue. Of course, the obvious objection is that the panel will be ‘stacked’, but frankly, I think that would be said no matter who was appointed. There is a great deal that a commission can do to explain the situation to us without giving us a party line at the same time.

If the commission does its work well, it could go a long way towards informing and encouraging people to make changes to their lives that will help address climate change. It won’t just be a matter of letting someone change all the light bulbs in the house because it’s free, or complying with water restrictions because there are fines involved. I believe people are more likely to support something they understand, and they will be able to make informed choices as to what appliances they buy, how they regulate their electricity consumption, exactly what the hell ‘green energy’ even means on the electricity bill, and any one of a dozen other measures that have nothing to do with government policy.

But what, exactly, is the point of this citizens’ assembly?

It has no possibility of having a helpful effect, such as the commission could. Its job is, as stated, to report to government. It has no power, nor even any real influence. At best, it would recommend going ahead (‘moving forward’, perhaps) with a carbon tax. At worst, it would be completely ineffectual. Should they hand down a verdict of ‘we don’t like it’, Gillard has indicated she would simply press on with the issue. Just what that would involve, she did not say. Would she press on with a carbon tax anyway? Convene another citizens’ assembly? Or perhaps abandon the carbon tax idea altogether?

The citizens’ assembly appears to be completely useless, in practical terms. So what is really going on here?

I think there’s a clue in Gillard’s speech. ‘We ‘will not allow our country to be held to ransom by a few ppl with extreme views that will never be changed’, she said – but she does want to see a process with a ‘representative range’ of all views. Sound familiar?

On July 6 Gillard addressed the Lowy Institute on the issue of asylum seekers. At that time, she spoke of defusing the fear-based rhetoric that surrounds the issue, taking pains to point out the statistics showing how small the problem really was in Australia, and saying that nothing was helped by those who were ‘overstating’ the issue. Right on the heels of that, however, she gave tacit support to those very people by saying that she understood their ‘very real’ concerns, and that they should not be subject to labels like ‘redneck’ and ‘racist’. There was a very clear attempt to capture both sides of the argument.

I suspect the same thing is happening here. This citizens’ assembly is supposed to be made up of people who are chosen randomly. The obvious reason for this is to prevent any arguments claiming that she has ‘stacked’ the panel. These 150 people will be given a tremendous amount of access to paperwork, science and (presumably) experts. It almost looks like a citizens’ version of a Senate enquiry – and if you’ve ever watched one of those in action, you’ll know how broad its terms of reference can be. It’s not known whether the citizens’ assembly would have the same power to compel answers and documents, or even demand people to front up to be quizzed, though.

When you start factoring in all that access, and the idea of a so-called ‘representative sample’, and you can start to see a strategy at work. This is another attempt to encompass both sides of the issue. This is designed to make people feel heard.

Is that a bad thing, in itself? I’d have to say not. Anything that allows people to have a louder voice cannot be entirely pointless. Ah, but we have one of those in our elected representatives, right? I’d have to say no. How many times have people said, ‘They’re supposed to be speaking for us, why aren’t they?’ The complaint that our politicians ignore what we want is an old one, and not without foundation.

Is it a real strategy for addressing the problem of climate change, though? Of course not. It’s merely a very expensive way of stroking the collective ego of the Australian people. Ultimately, it has no practical purpose.

The citizen’s assembly and commission are not, however, the extent of the ALP policy. Quite a bit more has been announced over the last two days. I’ll be taking a look at that in my next post.

Flashback – the 2007 leader’s debate

July 22, 2010

Back during the 2007 Federal campaign, I decided to write a running commentary on the single leaders’ debate between John Howard and Kevin Rudd. It was an … interesting experience, and so I’ll be repeating that performance here on Sunday, July 25. Notes will be made in real-time, and the final piece published just after the first pundits’ decisions come in.

But first … step into the wayback machine with me for a while, and relive 2007 – the Rise of the Worm.


2007 Leaders’ Debate – the Rise of the Worm

The stage is set. The Great Hall in Parliament House, Sky News’ political editor David Speers, five journalists, a split audience apparently picked 50/50 by both Liberal and Labor representatives … two would-be leaders of the country …

And …

Ladies and gentlemen – we have a worm!

Yes, folks, the plucky lad has managed to wriggle his way into the debate, despite a firm ‘NO’ from John Howard and several rounds of tut-tutting from the National Press Club. Responding to the twirling fingers of 50 voters (described by Channel Nine as ‘swinging’), Our Hero has defied PresidentialPrime Ministerial wrath and made an appearance.

(For them as doesn’t know, the worm provides a visual representation of approval/disapproval in a selected audience watching the debate, measured by turning a dial and displayed on the TV screen.)

Yes, I watched the Channel Nine feed. And I’m glad I did.

It was widely trumpeted last week that John Howard hates the worm. Last night, it became clear that the worm hated Howard. Both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald reported the worm’s verdict – Kevin Rudd was the clear victor, coming in with 65% of the vote, compared with Howard’s 29% (a drop from his Latham debate score of 36%). Tony Abbot was quick to pooh-pooh the result, saying that the worm was rigged to display only audience preconceptions, rather than a true reflection of Mr Howard’s performance.

But is that true? Let’s have a look.

Right from the beginning, Rudd came across as more comfortable, forthright and respectful. Howard looked grumpy – in fact, more than a little put out by something. Howard’s opening statement ran overtime and necessitated two warnings, but he seemed determined to get in every last word.

Running overtime became a recurring phenomenon for Howard. While Rudd went over time once, in a response to a question regarding the leadership of the Liberal Party (‘isn’t a vote for the coalition really a vote for the unknown’). Mr. Howard, on the other hand, ran over seven times, and o two occasions was verbally warned by the moderator not to do it again. Each time, he subsided with obviously bad grace.

Mr Howard made direct, personal attacks at Mr Rudd on several occasions, describing him as ‘dishonest’, ‘pathetic’, ‘hypocritical’, and an ‘appeaser’. Mr Rudd indulged only in one such attack – but it was a doozy.

The first round of questions came from the journalists.

Asked how he would manage the economy, Howard immediately went on the offensive, citing the Dread Spectre of Imminent 17% Interest Rates and making pronouncements of doom should a Labor government be elected.

Asked why we should change governments in the midst of an economic boom, Rudd pointed out that booms inevitably end no matter who is in power and suggested the real emphasis was on managing life afterwards. Howard attacked Rudd again, attempted to educate the public as to the ‘truth’ about fiscal conservatism, and brought up Peter Costello’s record as Treasurer.

Apparently, the worm hates Costello. Every time Costello’s name was mentioned by Howard, the worm dipped – in one case, ‘all the way to Antarctica’, as Tony Wright from The Age put it .

Curiously, an attack on Mr Howard’s record as Federal Treasurer was well received. Mr Rudd’s approval climbed to near the top of the chart for his entire speech, despite the fact that he pulled a fast one with the numbers.

On the vexatious issue of union representation (or over-representation) in the ALP, Mr Rudd fronted up to it – then got cheeky by suggesting the high number of lawyers in the Liberal front bench was similarly unbalanced. He followed it up with the recent James Hardie case, in which union representatives accomplished a good deal in terms of compensation for asbestosis sufferers among Hardie employers, and the approval jumped up. Not even Howard’s ‘scary unions’ riff managed to get much of a rise.

It was particularly interesting to see Rudd cop to the ‘70% of your front bench are union’ charge. Rather than downplaying or denying it, Rudd chose to make it a badge of honour. It seemed to work – a slight dip in approval came when asked how much the ALP owes the unions, but the reverent mention of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke (himself a former President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions) cancelled it out.

The issue of tax relief played reasonably well for Howard – he riffed on it several times throughout the night, to a fairly good effect. Rudd’s contention that tax relief did not address what he called ‘real costs’ in terms of day-to-day living was much more popular, though.

Interest rates have been a big bug-a-boo in this campaign (which only feels like it’s lasted several months already, honest). Last night, it seems that ennui had finally set in with the audience and the commentators. There were minor responses to Howard’s warnings and invocation of the ghost of Paul Keating, but for the most part, it looked like it was no longer an effective Coalition weapon.

When asked to apologise for recent interest rates, Howard said he would only apologise for things which he considered himself accountable. This, at least, is consistent with his stance on indigenous reconciliation.

Industrial Relations – which has played well for Kevin Rudd so far – surprisingly didn’t make much of an appearance in the debate. Rudd’s opening statement contained the unequivocal promise to ‘abolish WorkChoices’, but after that, it was Howard who brought it up several times as an example of successful policy. The worm, apparently, wasn’t listening to that – but it was listening when Howard was asked how he could guarantee no further changes to WorkChoices, given his own front bench had been supporting the idea. Howard’s reassurances that he felt there was nothing more that needed to be done for industrial relations reform were unconvincing, especially after Laurie Oakes (who did a splendid job as devil’s advocate for the night) pointed out he’d said something similar last election – and then ‘lo and behold’, WorkChoices appeared.

The one big stoush of the night came over OECD figures that showed Australia’s woeful record for education spending compared to similar countries. We are, in fact, the only such nation to have cut education spending, in a period when other developed nations rose by up to 48%. Rudd pounced on these, only to be slapped around by Howard – who, it has to be said, appeared petulant in his insistence that Mr Rudd was dishonest, had misrepresented the figures and was ‘pathetic’. Rudd’s response was to smile at the audience and say he’d stand by the OECD report.

Climate change was an area where Howard chose to make a policy announcement – the establishment of a ‘climate change fund’ which would run on the revenue from carbon trading permits, and financial assistance to low income earners who would ‘inevitably’ bear the brunt of ‘inevitable’ higher electricity charges. As policies go, it was pretty well-received. His refusal to ratify Kyoto or go any further than to say ‘we all accept that mankind has made a contribution to global warming’ but ‘must be sensible’ got a lukewarm reception, though.

Rudd didn’t fare much better on climate change. Although the promise to ratify Kyoto was popular, his repeated dodging of specific early targets on emission reduction clearly irritated the worm, and gave him his lowest ratings of the night. It’s a clear weakness for a man who describes himself as ‘passionate’ about addressing issues of global warming.

A supplementary question to Mr Howard asked if he felt it was possible to change President George W. Bush’s mind on climate change. (Let’s leave aside the apparent idiocy of asking this about a President on his way out for a moment). Howard asserted that Bush’s attitude was changing – and the worm expressed its most immediate response of the night. Straight to the bottom. The US President’s unpopularity at home seems to be mirrored here.

Iraq was a particularly telling issue. Asked whether he felt the threat to Australia from terrorism had increased or decreased since our invasion of Iraq, Howard made another policy announcement – this time, that our troops in Iraq would ‘evolve’ to take on a training-based role for Iraqi forces. Pushed on the question, he said things were getting better. Pushed again, he gave ground just far enough to confirm that terrorism was ‘still a real threat’. His failure to answer that question played very badly with the audience.

Rudd gave a firm commitment to bring home the troops, and (in the grab of the night) described the invasion of Iraq as ‘the greatest single error of Australian national security policy-making since Vietnam’. The worm loved him for it – as, no doubt, did the media for that sound-bite.

In follow-up questions, Howard went on the attack again, described Rudd as not serious about the commitment to withdraw from Iraq and calling him hypocritical. During this response he was warned for time twice.

Rudd suffered when trying to defend his record as a bit of a flip-flopper on issues like Commonwealth land for housing and the Medicare Safety Net. His firm statements on working to end capital punishment on a global scale, however, played well.

On the thorny issue of reconciliation, Howard got some approval for his Northern Territory intervention, but repeated that he would never say sorry. It was interesting to note that, for the most part, the worm was fairly content with this. Rudd, pushed on why he’d agreed to the NT intervention, responded ‘we backed it because of the kids’, and followed up with emphasising the value of an apology for bridge-building. This was warmly received by the worm.

The second round of questions were from the leaders to each other. The only real moment of note here was Howard’s continual refusal to answer the question of whether an employee, under WorkChoices, can be stripped of his right to redundancy payments.

By contrast, Howard’s attempt to poke Rudd about his commitment to climate change came off looking like something from the schoolyard. Why didn’t Mr Rudd talk longer to Bush (who he described as the ‘most powerful man’ in the world) about it, if he’s so all fired up, accused Howard. Rudd’s response – that Bush wasn’t about to change his mind – was clearly unexpected by Howard, and there was evident chagrin on his face.

Closing statements were pretty much a recap, and the worm’s responses stayed consistent.

In the entire debate, Rudd dipped just below the midline on only two occasions. Howard spent much of the debate there. At the top end, Rudd hit the peak – and went off the top of the chart – on several occasions. Howard almost got to the top once, but only for a few seconds.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about whether the worm is a true reflection of what happened. To read and listen to the commentators, however, the worm spake true this time. Sky News’ post-game show handed the debate to Rudd without even seeing the worm, and today’s media has been largely unequivocal in following that trend. It’s worth pointing out that, despite the poor showing Howard makes in these debates, he keeps getting elected. Rudd’s team, no doubt, devoutly hopes that is going to change.

Finally, an interesting little note about the worm in action last night. Howard had insisted that the worm not make an appearance in this ‘one and only’ debate – he won’t agree to any more, and he didn’t want the worm anywhere near it. The ABC was happy with that. So was Sky. Channel Nine took a feed from the ABC via the National Press Club, and used the worm with its studio audience. According to Channel Nine, they never agreed to do otherwise.

It appears someone at the National Press Club had other ideas. When it was discovered that the worm was in residence, the ABC made a decision to cut Channel Nine’s feed. An ABC technician with a sense of fair play warned Channel Nine, who went to their back-up feed when it happened. The back-up feed was then cut. Channel Nine scrambled around, and – through the use of a cable box not unlike the ones that sit on top of the TV at home – picked up Sky’s feed, and the worm moved house.

Mr Howard denies authorising any such move, and says no one in his party would have done it. Kevin Rudd wanted the worm – even to the extent of getting a petition going on the Kevin ’07 website to ‘Save the Worm’. Everyone is pointing the finger at the National Press Club, who are angrily saying that Channel Nine were ‘told’ not to use the worm.

Ray Martin summed up my feelings on the matter last night, in his wrap-up : ‘So much for free speech’.

My verdict? It was no contest. Rudd may have won the debate, but the Worm Conquered All.

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