Commission of Audit hits those who are most vulnerable

May 1, 2014

The government’s Commission of Audit report was finally released today. It’s over 500 pages long, but already it’s proving to be targeted at those who can least afford it.

These are just some of the recommendations:

PENSIONS

Aged pension eligibility to be raised to 70 years old.

Pension eligibility criteria to be tightened.

The family home to be counted as an asset in means testing.

Pension payments to be gradually reduced to 28% of average weekly earnings.

Carer’s Allowance to be means tested.

HEALTH

NDIS rollout to be ‘slowed’.

GP visits to cost $15 in ‘co-payment’.

Those who turn up at an Emergency Department whose situations are deemed ‘less urgent’ to be forced to make a co-payment.

Everyone to pay more for medicines, including those currently listed under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This includes medicines that are currently free.

In a rare recommendation not aimed at the poorest and most in need in Australian society, high income earners would be required to take out private health insurance in order to access Medicare. The Commission also recommended a 2% increase in the Medicare Levy surcharge to encourage the shift to private health insurance.

NEWSTART

Payments to young job seekers to be cut after 12 months.

Job-seekers between 22 and 30 be forced to relocate to take a job after 12 months, or lose benefits.

EDUCATION

Gonski reformed to be scrapped.

States to have full control of schools.

Higher education to cost more.

Students to start paying back their FEE-HELP debt earlier.

FAMILIES

The Commission recommended the Paid Parental Leave Scheme salary cap be scaled back to $57,000 per year.

Family Tax Benefit B to be abolished.

A new FTB A ‘supplement’ to be available to sole parents with children under 8 years of age.

INFRASTRUCTURE, INDUSTRY AND PUBLIC SERVICES

More road tolls.

Industry assistance, including to the car industry, to be slashed.

Seven Commonwealth bodies to be scrapped, including the Climate Change Authority and Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Over 60 other departments to be merged; for example, Border Protection with Customs.

The Snowy-Hydro scheme, the Australian Submarine Corporation, Defence Housing, Australian Rail Track Corporation, Australia Post, Medibank, the Royal Mint and the National Broadband Network to be sold off over time.

The Commission estimates this will mean that 15,000 fewer public servants will be needed, especially in Canberra.

New targets for funding the ABC and SBS, while the Australian Broadcasting Network would be abolished.

The minimum wage case to be abolished, with a new benchmark of 44% of average weekly earnings.

It takes no special knowledge whatsoever to see that this report is a nightmare. It targets the weakest, poorest, least able to adapt to extreme changes in their fiscal circumstances. Now, Treasurer Joe Hockey has been at pains to stress that this is a report, not the Budget, but he’s not ruling anything out, either. Some of these recommendations have already been signalled as ‘under consideration’.

Take an ‘average’ family – one parent works, making about the average weekly age. The other parent stays at home with the kids, who are 14 and 10 respectively. If the Commission’s recommendations are adopted, they’ve just lost Family Tax Benefit B. They’re probably paying higher fees to send their kids to government schools than they were even one year ago. If the kids get sick, they not only have to find the money to see the doctor, but also the money to pay for whatever gets prescribed.

How about someone approaching 65, and thinking about retirement? Their superannuation funds aren’t great, because they’ve never had a high earning job. They won’t be able to even try for the pension for five more years, and even then there’s no guarantee. You see, they own their home, which they’ve paid off over decades. Thanks to gentrification in the area, it’s probably worth a fair bit now – almost certainly enough to exclude them from the pension.

Or someone leaving high school, wanting to go to university? Well, they’d have to pay more for their degrees, but hey, there’s always FEE-HELP, right? Except that debt will be higher, and they’ll have to start paying it back much sooner. They could always go on the job market and try to save money, but if they have trouble getting a job, they might well find themselves forced to move anywhere the government deems fit, or else be back where they started with no means of support.

Even a single, able-bodied, employed person doesn’t get off scott-free. They’ll be mostly okay – as long as they don’t get sick, require regular (or even semi-regular) GP visits and medicines, lose their job, drive to work, sign up for the NBN … you get the picture.

Amazingly, the government would like us to believe that this is all necessary. It’s all the previous administration’s fault, of course. The message is clear and consistent: the Coalition don’t want to do this, but they must. Why? Because, in Hockey’s words, ‘What this report proves is that we have inherited a mess’.

Really, Mr Hockey? Are pensioners out in the streets desperately trying to make their terrible circumstances known, as they are in Greece? Is our inflation rate at almost 60%, as it is in Venezuela? Is our debt as a percentage of GDP at 230%, as it is in Japan?

The short answer is NO. They’re not.

Our inflation rate is 2.9%.

Our debt as a percentage of GDP is 28$.

Yes, we have a deficit. Yes, if a completely unforeseen disaster happened right now, we would need to borrow more money to combat that. But that deficit came about as a result of spending designed to cushion us from the impact of the Global Financial Crisis. It was strategy – and it worked.

The government would have us believe this was ‘wasteful’. They prattle about pink batts and school halls, and just about turn themselves inside out trying to obscure the real effect of the Rudd and Gillard governments’ spending initiatives.

And yet the Coalition decided to increase the deficit by $8 billion ‘just in case’.

And yet the Coalition decided to spend $24 billion on buying Joint Strike Fighters in a highly questionable business deal.

The same people who even now wring their hands and all but confirm that their sights are squarely trained on the most vulnerable of us.

Hockey says the Commission’s recommendations are ‘courageous’.

No, Mr Hockey. What would be courageous would be your government refusing to kick people when they’re already down.

But what are the chances of that?

Guess it’s over to you, Labor, Greens, PUP. Anybody? Anybody?


The Budget Reply, 2013 (via Storify)

May 16, 2013

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s Budget Reply speech, with annotations from yours truly.


NDIS launch obscured by political noise

April 30, 2012

When you’re a political blogger, you never know what you’re going to get (unless it’s an attempted censure motion by the Opposition in Question Time, of course). There are good days – some juicy bit of policy to pick apart, strategy to analyse, election campaigns to follow. There are frustrating days – when all you have to work with is the same old message. And there are dead days.

But on some days, it just doesn’t do to get out of bed.

Today is one of those days.

It might surprise you to know that Gillard launched the National Disability Insurance Scheme today, committing $8 billion and commencing building for the initial sites a year ahead of the Productivity Commission. The NDIS was supposedly bipartisan, yet now the Coalition is backing away from it, describing it in ‘aspirational’ terms and trying to point the finger at the government as somehow being at fault for going ahead with it.

Substantial policy stuff, the NDIS is the kind of program that has been needed for decades, and hundreds of people have worked tirelessly to lobby successive governments on the matter. For this to finally be happening – funds committed, legislation passed – is a real victory for disabled people, their relatives and their carers.

And if you want to find out about it, you have to wait until the bottom of the half hour on the news channels – because, apparently, there are much more important things to discuss. Because, apparently, political scandal, hypocrisy and the demonstrated contempt of our politicians for both the political process and their representatives rates higher in media priorities than letting vulnerable sectors of society know they will be able to access help they desperately need.

First, there’s the ongoing Craig Thomson saga. The embattled Member for Dobell remains firmly in the Opposition’s sights, despite never having a single charge levelled against him, either civil or criminal. There’s been a Fair Work Australia investigation into the Health Services Union, with which Thomson was involved before entering Parliament. Nothing has come of it to date. FWA found it was probable that the union criminally misused member funds. The Australian Federal Police called for a proper brief. To date, they have not received one.

Nonetheless, the Opposition were relentless. Thomson should resign! Thomson is tainted! The PM is clinging to power through a corrupt vote! This government is illegitimate! Et cetera.

Either Abbott employs a team of super-psychics, who can discover dirt that no one else in the country can find, or this is simply the same grandiose political manoeuvring that’s led him to call for an election on almost a daily basis since the Coalition’s loss in 2010. Either way, he kept at it, and finally got a victory.

The government was firmly behind Thomson and firmly on message. He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence. There are no grounds to remove him. We support him. Which is exactly what they should have done. But then yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Thomson had been expelled from Labor Caucus, and would move to the cross-benches.

To make matters worse, she went on to say that Speaker Peter Slipper, who stood aside when allegations of fraud were made against him by a former staffer, would continue to be out of the Speaker’s chair until civil proceedings from that same staffer were resolved. It was another about-face; right up until the day before the government staunchly defended Slipper’s right to return to the Speaker’s chair if he was not facing criminal charges, while the Opposition called for him at least to stay out of the job until the civil matter was resolved, and preferably resign altogether.

In both cases, she justified the action as stemming from a public perception of a shadow over the Parliament. In other words, it looked bad to keep supporting them.

It’s a big call, but this is very probably the weakest thing Gillard’s done since becoming Prime Minister. She allowed herself to be stampeded by an Opposition led by someone Independent MP Tony Windsor describes as ‘a rabid dog’, and did exactly what he’d been demanding.

Maybe she thought this would defuse the issue. With Thomson out of the Caucus, maybe Abbott would have no talking points. If so, it was a shocking misjudgment. Having gained ground on the Thomson issue, Abbott immediately upped the stakes. It’s not good enough to have Thomson out of the caucus, he argued. His vote shouldn’t be counted at all – it was ‘tainted’, and Gillard would rely on that corrupt vote, rendering the entire government illegitimate. The only way out of this situation was – you guessed it – an election. ‘There is nothing wrong with our country that a change of government can’t fix,’ he said today at yet another media conference on the evils of the carbon price and the mining tax.

Of course, he’s not going to attempt a no confidence motion, because he knows he won’t win. Thomson would vote with the government, as would Bandt. Wilkie’s a question mark, but self-interest alone may lead him to support the government (given the Coalition’s oft-repeated dedication to tearing him out of his seat at the next election). The crucial votes, then, are those of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott – and neither of them support Abbott’s policies. The likely result, then, is a tie, which would be resolved in the negative by Acting Speaker Anna Burke, Labor MP for Chisholm.

But Abbott doesn’t need to bring a no confidence motion. He just needs to keep grabbing the media spotlight, and hammering home his message. Gillard’s backdown on Thomson and Slipper is the best thing to happen to him, and he will capitalise on that every moment he can, while continually pushing for more capitulation. At the same time, he can sideswipe Windsor and Oakeshott by implying in the national media that they’re not listening to their constituencies, who want the minority government gone. And of course, he doesn’t have to provide any evidence – with much of the media slavishly repeating his assertions as fact, and Gillard giving them legitimacy by backing down.

And let’s no forget these standards Abbott sets for the government don’t apply to the Opposition in his eyes. Oh, no. Just take a look, and you decide how far the hypocrisy goes.

Coalition front-bencher Sophie Mirabella is entangled in civil action at the moment connected with a probate case – but Abbott won’t ask her to step aside until it’s resolved.

Senator Mary Jo Fisher was the subject of criminal proceedings, and stepped aside from her Senate Committee position while they were underway – but continued to be paid for that role, and was never called upon to resign altogether.

The Coalition was happy to accept Peter Slipper’s vote when allegations were made against him in 2003, arguing that there were no charges against him – yet now says the government must not do the same with Thomson.

On the subject of poaching Parliamentarians for political advantage – in 1996, Labor Senator Mal Colston left the ALP at the urging of the Coalition, who installed him (as a nominal Independent) as Deputy President of the Senate. A year later he was charged with defrauding the Commonwealth – yet continued to serve in the Senate right through the investigation period.

And finally, Abbott’s declaration today that ‘I don’t do deals’, when asked why he didn’t approach Windsor and Oakeshott directly to gain their support for a no confidence motion – despite offering a swag of money (including no less than $1 billion for the Royal Hobart Hospital) to Andrew Wilkie for his vote to form government in 2010.

And knowing all this, Gillard still backed down. It’s a monumental blunder, and Abbott is far too wily a political animal not to seize on that weakness. Any way you look at it, you can file this under ‘FUBAR’.

At least we have a little absurdity to relieve the seemingly unending round of blunder, bluster, hypocrisy and posturing. Strangely, that comes in the form of mining magnate Clive Palmer.

We’ve seen a lot of Palmer lately. He’s become a bit of a poster child for opposition to the mining tax and carbon price packages – and, apparently makes good television. He secured a guernsey on QandA to regale us all with his considered opinions on how the Greens were running the government and exporting all our jobs to China. He got the media running to Canberra for his announcement that the Greens were, in fact, funded by the CIA – then, when confronted by the ridiculousness of his own claim, grinned and claimed he’d done it deliberately to pull focus away from a government announcement.

This is the man who wants to build Titanic II (thought apparently without the help of James Cameron); who thinks cutting off government subsidies to millionaires will jeopardise their children’s future (perhaps they’ll only have three cars and two homes); and who avowedly ‘loves to litigate’. He’s a long-time contributor to the Queensland Liberal National Party, a vocal opponent of anything that smacks of environmental responsibility and a staunch defender of the right to cut benefits to poor people while maintaining upper class welfare.

And now he wants to go into politics. Specifically, he wants to run against Treasurer Wayne Swan in the seat of Lilley at the next federal election. He announced he would seek LNP pre-selection today against a backdrop emblazoned with the motto ‘Swan’s Song’ – not the clearest of messages, mind you. Palmer put his metaphorical hand on his heart and pledged to work to ‘grow the nation’s prosperity and lift standards in Parliament’. Of course, he doesn’t see why he should give up his business while he’s actually in Parliament. It’s ‘only a small family company’, after all.

Yeah, you read that right.

Uh, Mr Palmer? Have you ever heard of a little thing called ‘conflict of interest’? It’s when your private interests and investments clash directly with your duty as a Parliamentarian. You’re proposing to sit in Parliament as a member of a government that is pledged to repeal taxes and schemes that you’ve shouted far and wide will significantly disadvantage you – and yet you think you can continue to run your mining company at the same time?

(Mind you, this isn’t the first time Palmer’s taken a run at federal politics. As far back as 1984, he stood for pre-selection in the LNP and was soundly defeated.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that he was beaten by Peter Slipper.)

Seriously, Mr Palmer, get a political strategist to go with that media advisor you so desperately need. Even Abbott isn’t comfortable with this – he repeatedly refused to endorse you today. Take a hint.

Even before the sun’s set, this is the kind of day in politics we’ve got. And this is what’s taking up all the air in the media. ABCNews24 just announced their afternoon current affairs program would focus on Thomson and Palmer. Not a whiff about the NDIS. Really, it’s enough to make anyone interested in actually examining policy weep.

Like I said, some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed.


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