Floods, photo-ops, and the ghost of levies past

January 28, 2013

As I write, large areas of Queensland are underwater. Residents in Ipswich and Bundaberg are scrambling to evacuate before the expected flood peak – but already their homes and businesses are awash. Some houses are expected to be washed away by the force of the water. In the last few days, the areas surrounding Bundaberg were battered by no less than six tornadoes. The Brisbane River is rising, tearing away pontoons and boardwalks, sending boats downstream, and expected to peak around dinner time. Meanwhile on the Gold Coast, the tail end of Cyclone Oswald lashes the streets of Surfer’s Paradise and the Nerang River broke its banks a few hours ago.

And in the Lockyer Valley, people are isolated, some breaking down under the stress.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s not quite a carbon copy of the 2011 floods, but it’s pretty damned close. Back then, 78 people lost their lives, and countless others lost everything they had. The damage might not be as bad this time around, but it’s a terrible situation – and it’s almost impossible to imagine the trauma being suffered by those who have to go through this again. In some cases, they’d only just finished repairing the damage from two years ago.

To make matters worse, northern New South Wales is also under threat. Lismore residents have been told to prepare to evacuate, as the Tweed River rises, and rises.

Needless to say, the media are all over it. Wall-to-wall coverage on Channel 9 and Sky, frequent updates on ABC News 24, live blogs from newspapers – we can have it all. And that’s without following any particular #qldfloods or similar hashtags. Back in 2011, we saw then Premier Anna Bligh receiving constant updates from emergency services, holding frequent media conferences to deliver important information and urge people to keep their spirits up, and in general, doing what a Premier should do.

Today, we’ve seen the current Premier, Campbell Newman, grabbing every photo opportunity possible. In possibly the most egregious of these, he stood out in the rain clad in a regulation ‘Man-from-Snowy-River’ long coat with the local mayor. With rain dripping from his nose, he frequently interrupted the mayor’s attempt to answer questions about the situation on the ground, and how his constituents were handling things. Newman had his own message to get out – that his government had it under control, and was already looking towards the clean-up. This, before the scope of the disaster can possibly be known – and not without a swipe or two at the former Bligh government.

To back him up, Newman made what can only be regarded as an astoundingly stupid move, politically speaking. He invited Opposition Leader Tony Abbott up to Queensland to ‘tour’ the flood areas. And then we had photos of Abbott filling a sandbag. Of Abbott and Newman studying a map with fierce concentration. Of Abbott moving amongst ‘the people’ with patented handshake and clap-on-the-shoulder ‘you’ll be right, mate’ gestures. And why was Abbott there? Apparently, Newman thought it was important that the ‘alternative Prime Minister’ be fully informed.

Really, we’ve all heard the jokes about Queensland living in the 1950s, but has Newman never heard of a phone?

The stupidity wasn’t confined to Newman and Abbott, though. The Opposition’s Indigenous spokesperson, Andrew Laming, decided to make sure his boss got all the attention he deserved, and took to Twitter.

Indeed, where was the Prime Minister? Why, she was in Victoria with Premier Ted Baillieu, visiting emergency service personnel who had spent the majority of last week fighting ferocious bushfires. Those fires are contained now, but may still burn for months. Nonetheless, the immediate emergency was over – making it a far more appropriate time for a politician to be holding media conferences on site. Arguably, the best time for such an activity is never – but if such is inevitable in politics, then surely the time to make political capital out of disaster is well after the emergency is past?

But hey, that’s politics, right? Stupid MPs mugging for the cameras and popping on their Hi-Vis vests and hard hats for the sake of a good photo?

Maybe. But then there’s this.

Remember back in 2011, when the government introduced a flood levy to help pay for reconstruction from the disastrous floods? You know, the one Tony Abbott said was a cruel impost on the poor? The one he declared would put paid to anyone ever again voluntarily donating to any other disaster relief?

The one we all paid, and no one bemoaned the loss of an average of $1.74 each week?

Well, Abbott’s at it again. The floods haven’t even peaked, and already he’s raising the spectre of The Evil Taxing Labor Government. Oh, he’s being sneaky about it. He’s not going to come right out and say that there will be a new flood levy, but – and he hates to say it – ‘It doesn’t matter what the problem is; spend more, tax more is the Labor Party’s solution’.

Of course, he’s happy to quickly remind people that his Opposition fought the flood levy tooth and nail two years ago. Oh, but now’s not the time to bring politics into it, he hastens to add. Just as long as we’re clear on the Opposition’s principles, and we’ve had the idea planted in our heads that the government will bring in another levy after these floods.

His work here is done. Sandbag filled, soundbite delivered, poison injected. He can return to his high-and-dry home secure in the warm glow of knowledge of a job well done.

But hold on a moment. Suppose he’s right? Suppose the government does decide a new one-off levy is warranted? Or even – say it ain’t so – a Disaster Relief Fund, such as was proposed after the 2011 floods and Cyclone Yasi? How terrible, exactly, would it be?

Probably about as terrible as it already has been. A negligible amount taken from our salaries, in order to help those whose lives have been shattered by fire, flood, or cyclone. Something we wouldn’t even notice. That’s what Abbott – and by extension, Newman – wants us to fear. In the midst of disaster, he wants us to focus on how well he fills sandbags and how Labor is coming to take your hard-earned money away.

It’s shameful, and it shouldn’t go unanswered. For every shovelful of sand Abbott hefts, how many hundreds are being moved off-camera? How many thousands of emergency service personnel risk their lives to save people from drowning or burning to death, while he poses by a Rural Fire Service fire truck in his protective gear? And how many of those emergency services workers are injured, or even lose their lives, while he bleats about the evils of parting with $1.74 per week in order to give our fellow Australians just a little bit of help?

Do we know who they are, those people? Not unless they’re in the background, in which case it’s, ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Tony Abbott?’

It should be the other way around. ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Gary/Jen/whoever?’

Better yet, it should be, ‘Hey, look at those incredibly brave people putting themselves at risk to save other people, and they’re not even getting paid. Real heroes. Isn’t it great that the pollies keep out of their way and make sure they’ve got the resources to do their jobs?’

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.

Open Thread – the Budget

April 21, 2011

We all know it’s coming. We all know it’s going to be ‘tough’ (to quote Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Treasurer Wayne Swan, Finance Minister Penny Wong and a host of others). Yes, Budget time looms again on the horizon – and it’s becoming a de facto election battleground.

Already we’ve seen both the Government and the Opposition in a race to the bottom on welfare. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott delivers a new ‘plan’ or ‘package’ almost every day, which – in his own words – is designed to be ‘a test for government’. All up, it’s a rather ridiculous competition on which side can claim to be fiscally tougher, while challenging the other to fund various areas of Australian life.

Most of this, of course, is simple posturing. We have no details. Oh, the occasional figure gets waved around in a vague manner, but that figure is so hung about with caveats and ‘I’m not playing a rule in, rule out game’ that frankly, it might as well have been pulled out of a hat. For all we know, that’s exactly what’s going on.

None of this is new. It’s almost an article of faith that as Budget time approaches, this sort of dollar-based manoeuvring and points-scoring dominates the political discussion. But it is frustrating. Government money is public money, and our job is to wait and see what they want to do with it. Little wonder, then, that polls fluctuate wildly.

With that in mind, it’s time for The Conscience Vote to put up another Open Thread, and here are some thoughts to kick that off.

What do you want to see out of the Budget?

The government’s promised to keep to its self-imposed schedule to bring Australia back into surplus. Given the terrible disasters that struck earlier this year, and the massive cleanup bill, should they consider moving that date back rather than cutting too deeply into public funds?

Are there any areas that need more funds, not less?

Are there any areas that are already overfunded, in your opinion – and what should the government do about that?

Most of all – why do you think these things should happen?

Go wild. Make a wish list. This isn’t about crunching the numbers – it’s about what you think Australia needs, right now, regardless of what either Gillard or Abbott say.

A PM’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence

February 9, 2011

It was a day when Parliament was entirely given over to condolence motions to victims of the recent natural disasters, and celebrating the life of Corporal Richard Atkinson, killed in action in Afghanistan earlier this month. It was a day when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Nationals Leader Warren Truss, among others, almost broke down during their speeches.

And it was a day when the Coalition finally released their proposed budget cuts to pay for flood relief.

All in all, a pretty full news cycle in terms of Australian politics. There was so much to choose from – bipartisanship, stories about those who died in the floods, pulling apart the budget cuts to see if they stacked up. It was a veritable smorgasbord.

So what became the focus of media attention?

A Prime Minister’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence.

Julia Gillard’s speech of condolence started fairly conventionally, setting the scene with formal words. Then, a few moments later, there was this:

‘Here today, it’s with very great sorrow that I offer words of condolence to Australians who are now facing this hard journey and to assure them they won’t travel that hard journey alone – we won’t let go Mr Speaker, we won’t let go.’

As she said those words, Gillard’s throat seemed to close over and her voice started to thicken and shake. As she continued, it was clear she was fighting back tears – a fight she lost. It wasn’t until her closing remarks that she was able to compose herself. Even then, as she sat down, she looked shattered, surreptitiously wiping tears away while she listened to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s speech.

Those watching and commenting via the internet were stunned. There was clear empathy for Gillard, which was summed up by a tweet from @AshGebranious – ‘Behold Australia. The real Julia’.

But then came the unbelievable accusations that Gillard was ‘faking it’. Internet commentary was vicious – the mainstream media was more circumspect, but still …

Andrew Bolt danced around the issue – paraphrased, his blog (published within minutes of the speech’s conclusion) boiled down to, ‘I won’t say she faked it, but it’s awfully interesting that she should cry just when everyone’s talking about how wooden she is’. He developed his theme later in The Daily Telegraph: it was ‘too perfect, and timed too well’. Everyone would always wonder if those tears were real, he opined – not that he thought that, of course. Dennis Shanahan was a little more clever, confining himself to remarks that crying wouldn’t save Gillard in the eyes of Australia. The 3AW blog commented cynically that it was ‘better late than never’.

See what they did there?

It’s not that they disbelieve her. It’s just that she was so ‘wooden’ and ‘robotic’ that, well, it’s difficult to credit. People could be forgiven for distrusting it. Why, only on Monday night people were talking about it on QandA.

Never mind that Warren Truss, hardly renowned for displaying emotional vulnerability, struggled to control his voice during his own speech. There was not even a hint that Truss might be faking it.

Never mind that Gillard – a notoriously private person who struggles to keep her personal life away from her political one – had tears in her eyes during the Apology to the Stolen Generations. That’s long forgotten.

The emotion that Gillard displayed yesterday was very, very real. To believe she was faking, you’d have to credit her with a talent for acting worthy of Oscar nomination. To believe she was faking, you’d have to accept that she is so completely without any moral sense that she would deliberately work herself into a state where she nearly broke down several times just to get a bump in her approval rating.

Watch this video – it’s a small snippet of the whole thing. There’s nothing fake going on.

Then there was the sh*tstorm in a teacup that boiled over on Tony Abbott last night, courtesy of Channel 7.

Over three months ago Abbott, visiting troops in Afghanistan, engaged a group of soldiers in conversation about. The topic was the recent death of Lance-Corporal Jared McKinney. Ostensibly off-camera, the mic was nonetheless live and it was possible to make out what was being said. On being told, ‘”Was everything done perfectly? Absolutely not. Was it tragic? Absolutely,’ Abbott nodded thoughtfully. He replied, ‘It’s pretty obvious that, uh, well, that sometimes shit happens’. At the time, the soldiers appeared to agree, and certainly no one visible in the footage seemed to take offence. Something must have pinged on Liberal strategists’ radars, though, because for the Opposition engaged Channel 7 in an FOI fight to prevent the incident being aired.

Finally confronted with it by reporter Mark Riley, laptop in hand, Abbott replied, ‘Look, you’ve taken this out of context. You weren’t there. I would never seek to make light of the death of an Australian soldier.’ Riley challenged him to supply the context. Abbott’s reaction was extraordinary.

He stood staring at Riley for a full 70 seconds (although only 24 seconds was aired due to time constraints, according to Channel 7’s Jodie Speers), jerking his head rapidly up and down and shaking slightly. Finally he said only, ‘I’ve given you the response you deserve’, and left.

Media and commentwitters alike leaped to their keyboards to get their reactions out. Shock was quickly followed by condemnation, but it wasn’t long before it settled down into a prevailing opinion that there was nothing wrong with what Abbott said, but rather his reaction to being shown the footage – and that the real villain of the piece was Mark Riley.

Laurie Oakes said Abbott was ‘stupid’, while Hugh Riminton described it as an ‘ugly’ day for the Opposition Leader. There was wide support on the internet for the notion that Abbott should simply have punched Riley in the nose for pulling a stunt like that.

Then came the analysis, and the speculation. Abbott was clearly restraining his fury during that long silence. Why didn’t he just deliver the smackdown to Riley? Was he lost for words? Can he just not handle an off-the-cuff situation? Was this the beginning of the end? Would it trigger a leadership spill?

It didn’t stop there. Over twelve hours later, it’s still the lead story. Members of the Australian Defence Force were invited to comment, as were Lance-Corporal McKinney’s family. Anthony Albanese took the opportunity to sink the boot in, trying to create the impression that Abbott was completely insensitive.

And the man himself? Well, he was out on radio early this morning explaining himself with ever-more frayed patience.

All this over two words and seventy seconds of silence.

‘Shit happens’. It’s one of those all-purpose phrases that can mean everything from callous dismissal of another’s trouble to a philosophical observation that sometimes all the preparation in the world can’t prevent things going wrong. In Abbott’s case, it was fairly obvious that he meant the latter. There was nothing insensitive about it. At worst, it was a clumsy attempt at camaraderie – Abbott trying to show rough sympathy to those who were all too familiar with the feeling of being powerless, who know that you simply can’t anticipate every possibility. That sometimes, shit just happens.

The death of a soldier is something that strikes people deeply. Usually it’s someone who is young, perhaps with a young family, who’s put themselves in harm’s way because we have asked them to do so. We hold it almost sacred – you don’t politicise, you don’t criticise, and you certainly don’t exploit it for a sound bite.

Think of the anger and disgust that surges whenever someone comes out on Anzac Day to protest against war. Even people who might ordinarily feel that war is a terrible evil will condemn someone who decides to profane that day.

Now put yourself in Tony Abbott’s shoes. An opportunistic reporter fronts up to needle him about what must have been a very difficult conversation – and chooses to do it on a day when emotions are already raw. The sense of mourning in the Parliament yesterday was very real, and it’s fair to say that few in the chamber were unaffected. Add to that the fact that part of those speeches dealt with the death of another soldier serving in Afghanistan.

Suddenly 70 seconds of silence starts to look pretty understandable, doesn’t it?

Watch the video. The interview starts about 1:30 minutes in, but it’s clear from the surrounding context that the aim was always to exploit Lance-Corporal McKinney’s death.

Sure, as a politician Abbott probably should have had an answer ready to clarify his remarks and rebuke Riley. Maybe he did have one. He knew he was going to be interviewed about his trip to Afghanistan, although perhaps not the specific questions. But when the moment came, Abbott didn’t react as a politician. He was a man furious with someone who exploited a soldier’s death.

What’s remarkable is that Abbott didn’t verbally flay Riley. He held it in and got himself under control enough to shut down the interview. I’m not sure many of us could have had that kind of restraint under the same circumstances.

So in the end, what we saw yesterday were two political leaders who, for a few moments, weren’t politicians. They were vulnerable human beings showing us sorrow and outrage.

In our political milieu, the most frequent criticism of our elected representatives is that they are not ‘genuine’ – that all we get are scripted remarks designed to deflect scrutiny and convey exactly no information, and confected emotion carefully calculated for maximum appropriateness. It’s extraordinary, then, that on a day when we saw politicians revealed as people, they received such vicious criticism. Gillard and Abbott were pilloried for doing exactly what we said we wanted them to do – step out from behind the political masks and show us the ‘real’ people underneath.

It’s a truism that we get the government we deserve. If yesterday is anything to go by, if our leaders retreat to the safety of scripts and media advisors, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The flood recovery inspectorate – practical politics or weakness?

February 8, 2011

Yesterday Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said that the Coalition would do everything ‘humanly’ possible to bring down the Labor government. Today it’s off to a flying start, and its first target is the creation of a proposed ‘reconstruction inspectorate’ announced by Gillard.

The inspectorate is tasked with overseeing all federally-funded rebuilding projects, to make sure the money is spent wisely. Along with this new oversight body, Gillard said that the states would have to provide independently audited financial statements to support any claim on government funds to rebuild infrastructure.

She appointed former Liberal Premier and federal Finance Minister John Fahey to head up the inspectorate, which will have the power to examine contracts, inspect projects, investigate complaints and help develop tendering process and management systems. It would not duplicate the powers of the newly-created Queensland Recovery Authority, but rather provide a new level of checks and balances.

Fahey is joined by experienced managers from well-respected firms: Martin Albrecht from the mining and construction corporation Thiess and Matt Sheerin from financial firm Deloitte. Gillard also announced that Brad Orgill, who conducted the Building the Education Revolution inquiry, would join the Queensland Reconstruction Authority Board.

Abbott initially slammed the idea of an inspectorate. It was an unnecessary new level of bureaucracy, and proof that the government was addicted to spending. The government and Treasury should be able to handle this task.

But let’s take a look at this proposed inspectorate. This body is not designed to take the place of organisations that actually call for tenders, prepare the financial statements and carry out the rebuilding work. Their purpose is advisory and precautionary. In essence, Gillard created a think tank who, based on years of experience in finance and construction, has the power to prevent the kind of debacle that can result from poor oversight of a major project. The insulation scheme is a case in point.

And it’s headed up by a former Liberal MP. Why a Liberal? There are a few possibilities here, about equally plausible.

First, Fahey is eminently qualified. Over his political career he served at both state and federal levels, with considerable experience in handling major projects and large expenditures.

Second, he’s not a serving MP. He can be said to be politically disinterested.

Third, he’s a former Liberal Minister. He has no reason to co-operate in any potential cover-up of questionable or wasteful spending that might occur. In fact, he’s as close to above reproach as any politician is likely to get. Many would remember how, in 1994, he tackled a would-be assassin who tried to target Prince Charles.

Fourth, as a Liberal, his appointment can be said to show bipartisanship.

Finally, appointing Fahey – and the inspectorate itself, more generally – to oversee expenditure on such a sensitive project sends a message to Australians that the government understands that it needs to take care with public money. Indeed, Gillard herself hinted at this as the primary reason for creating the body.

Practically, there is no downside to the inspectorate, no matter where you place yourself in the political spectrum. If you think the government cannot be trusted with money, then the inspectorate is a way to pull them into line. If you think that, despite the best of intentions, things go wrong occasionally, then it’s an insurance policy. If you think that everything will proceed without a major hitch, then it’s a good advisory body to have around, and a talent pool on which to draw in making big decisions.

It may be that, overnight, the Coalition realised this.

This morning the Coalition dropped the attack on the idea of the inspectorate. Instead, the new message – faithfully repeated in Parliament House doorstops – was that Labor had simply acknowledged that the only person capable of managing money was a Liberal. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey was particularly pleased with the opportunity to expound on this. His grin got wider and wider as he drove home the point – repeatedly – that Labor has proved everything the Coalition has been saying about them. When media attempted to ask him about the – as yet non-existent – proposed Coalition spending cuts, he informed them that what they ‘should’ be reading and writing about was how Labor had effectively endorsed the Coalition as better economic managers.

The suggestion is ludicrous. The Coalition would have us believe that the government has knowingly dealt itself a death blow, by yielding the field on an issue that has been a point of attack for the Opposition, and an area of concern for the public. That Gillard would undermine fatally the government’s long-held stance that it can, and has, managed the economy well in very difficult times. That she would deliver a public slap in the face to Treasurer Wayne Swan and Finance Minister Penny Wong.

The idea has potential traction with the public, however. Based on the failure of the insulation program alone, many people are already inclined to view the Labor government as unable to manage money. That perception is helped along by the Coalition’s constant mis-reporting of the Orgill Inquiry into the BER program as an utter disaster. The reality is that less than 3% of schools had valid cause for complaint regarding value for money or quality of workmanship; nonetheless the message has stuck that the BER – like the insulation scheme – failed.

Given this predisposition, people might well believe that creation of the recovery inspectorate does represent confirmation of their fears.

But here’s an interesting point: remember the Australian Wheat Board scandal, when it was uncovered that agricultural companies were paying kickbacks to circumvent UN sanctions on the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq during the Oil-for-Food program? And how the government’s Cole inquiry was unable to find any evidence that the Howard government knew, condoned or tacitly authorised said kickbacks? Professor Stephen Bartos at the University of Canberra presented a paper showing that lack of a ‘strong sceptical and dispassionate regulator’ was a key failure that allowed the illegal activities to take place – indeed, to flourish.

Far from proving a lack of economic management ability, independent oversight is a sensible, practical way of ensuring value for money. It has the bonus of being a political shield, but the primary benefit is protection of public funds and the needs of the flood disaster victims.

It remains to be seen whether Labor can effectively counter this new Coalition strategy. In doing so, they’ll have to tread very carefully. It’s always risky when governments acknowledge past mistakes and take steps to ensure they do not repeat them. Gillard’s initial announcement held a good mix of humility, sincerity and determination – but Abbott and the Coalition seem now determined to portray that as an admission of weakness and incompetence.

Sadly, it will probably come down to whose rhetoric is louder, repeated more often and makes for better sound bites. And the Coalition isn’t about to let up. If there’s one thing they know how to do well, it’s control the news cycle.

Abbott the wrecker – straight from the horse’s mouth

February 7, 2011

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott met with his Shadow Cabinet today. The topic was flood recovery, the aim to come up with an alternative plan to Labor’s two-pronged approach of flood levy and spending cuts. Tipped off that Abbott was going to interrupt proceedings to make an announcement, the media – mainstream, new and social – pricked up its ears.

Since the release of details of the flood levy, the Coalition have insisted that the entire amount for flood relief could be raised through spending cuts. To date, however, there have been no specifics. Apart from a re-hash of the ‘NBN is bad’ message and a vague notion that – because devastating floods have occurred – we don’t need a water buyback scheme, it’s been all about the rhetoric. There’s ‘fat in the budget’. There are ‘savings to be had’. Abbott is happy to sit down ‘in a spirit of bipartisanship’ to show Labor exactly where those might be. The Coalition, it seems, are great believers in the idea that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it.

What we expected today, then, were a few details as to exactly where Abbott had found the ‘fat’.

What we got was five minutes of railing against the government – accompanied by Abbott’s trademark ‘I’m really savouring this moment’ grin – followed by a reassurance that people supported the Coalition, and that details would be forthcoming. Soon.

Shades of the Abbott-Hockey-Robb merry-go-round during the election campaign. Heavy on the sizzle, light – or in this case, non-existent – on the sausage.

But what we did get was the clearest possible indication of the Coalition’s goals in this Parliamentary session.

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government,’ he said.

‘Every month that this government lasts is, in a sense, a worse month for our country than it should be … it’s our job to bring about change for the better.’

So much for ‘we’re just trying to hold the government to account’. So much for ‘we need to provide a credible alternative government’.

You can’t spin this. It’s a declaration; the Coalition are dedicating themselves to bringing down the Labour government, before July rolls around and the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate.

Listening to Abbott, you could be forgiven for thinking that the election campaign has already started. He accused the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ (yes, he’s still using that line) of being ‘addicted to taxes, addicted to spending and … [having] no agenda for the country other than its own survival’. They ‘can’t be trusted with money’, and they know it. (The mere fact that they’ve established an oversight authority to ensure that all flood recovery money is properly spent proves it, apparently.) The Coalition has a ‘better’ plan, but we won’t find out about it in a hurry.

Sound familiar? Remind you of August last year? It should.

In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, it’s ‘de ja vu all over again’.

There’s one crucial difference, though. It’s only been six months since the election.

That doesn’t seem to matter to the Coalition, though. Their entire attitude since the Independents decided to support Labor has been that this is not a legitimate government, and that somehow the Liberal/National parties were cheated of their ‘rightful’ place as leaders of the country. The ‘we were robbed’ rhetoric dropped off fairly quickly, but the sentiment remains. They protested that they weren’t just out to ‘wreck’ everything the government tried to do, but their actions showed a consistent, almost mindless adherence to the principle of ‘if Labor’s for it then we’re agin it’.

Now we have it confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. Abbott says it’s the Coalition’s ‘job’ to change the government. The only way to do that is to force an election, preferably before the dreaded ‘Labor-Greens alliance’ comes into full effect. And – short of unforeseen circumstances necessitating a by-election – that means blocking the government at every turn, until there is no alternative for Gillard but to declare the government unworkable and call a double dissolution.

It’s an incredibly risky proposition. To make it work, Abbott needs the three Independents on side. That means either wedging them against their own electorates’ best interests, or convincing them that the government simply can’t deliver what it promised. Either will take a good deal of wrangling. Senator Barnaby Joyce in particular is vicious in his attacks on Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and even manages to incur the wrath of Bob Katter (arguably the most right-leaning of the three).

Even if the Coalition can’t convince the Independents, however, they can create a bottleneck. When nothing gets done, people get frustrated; and sometimes, the most appealing alternative is to simply wipe the slate clean and start again.

Whether Abbott can manage to bring down the government is arguable. What’s clear, though, is that he intends to try, and he’s not even bothering to hide it anymore.

Yesterday on Insiders, the Opposition Leader twisted and turned over an incredibly insensitive email asking for donations for the Coalition’s campaign to stop the flood levy that was sent just as Cyclone Yasi bore down on far north Queensland. He refused to take any responsibility, or even apologise on behalf of his party. In an otherwise lightweight interview, he stammered and sweated and would only say that it wasn’t his fault – and in any case, he was just concerned for the well-being of all Australians.

Today, with Deputy Leader Julie Bishop giggling at his side, he embraced the role of wrecker with a huge smile and undisguised relish. Gone was the serious man worried about small business and working families, the self-proclaimed protector of Australia’s standard of living. Instead we were treated to Abbott-as-headkicker, gleefully aggressive and seemingly interested in nothing more than the opportunity to usurp the throne.

It was all a little bit Richard the Third, really.

So the next time Tony Abbott or the Coalition stands up on television or at an event and says they’re just looking out for the ordinary Australian, remember his words today:

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government.’

This isn’t about us. This is about ‘vaulting ambition’, that takes nothing into account but itself. And if we are thrown into turmoil by Opposition blockades, stalled programs and – potentially – another expensive election campaign and the chaos that would result from a Coalition government killing one initiative-in-progress after the other?

That’s just a price we’ll have to pay.

USQ Toowoomba puts flood levy nay-sayers to shame

February 1, 2011

As the rhetoric surrounding the proposed flood levy grows ever more hysterical (as exemplified by Senator George Brandis’ performance on Sky’s AM Agenda this morning), it’s easy to succumb to despair. Sometimes, though, you hear things that restore your faith and admiration in people.

Toowoomba in Queensland was incredibly hard hit by the flash floods that hit the Lockyer Valley, killing at least 20 people. Some of the images from that horrifying day were collected by The Chronicle. As you click through, you can see just how much of the town was affected. The cost of cleaning, rebuilding and replacing everything that was damaged is still being calculated, but is undoubtedly very, very high.

People in Toowoomba could be forgiven for feeling just a little bit selfish right now. The job ahead of them is tremendous. The University of Southern Queensland, though, has its eye on the larger situation. While its Toowoomba campus was relatively unaffected by the floods, USQ has been heavily involved in helping with flood relief for its students and the wider community. They’ve undertaken to provide fleet cars for police and volunteer groups, counselling services through its Faculty of Science and organised collection centres where people can donate food, clothing and money.

It goes much further than that. Yesterday I learned that USQ has also set up a system whereby employees can donate to the flood relief through payroll deductions. Judy Halter, USQ’s Senior Public Relations Co-ordinator, confirmed that the total amount of money raised so far is $29,500.

Many of the staff at the Toowoomba campus live in the surrounding area, which was devastated by floods. They would be automatically exempt from a flood levy. It would be understandable if they decided that under the circumstances, they were going to save their money for their own recovery needs.

They’re not. Judy Halter wrote, ‘USQ’s commitment to assist the people in our communities is supported by all levels from Council, Senior Management, staff and students’.

People at USQ understand the importance of lending a helping hand. Even when their own situations are adversely affected, they’ve dug deep for the whole community.

And yet there are people in Melbourne and Sydney whining about having to sacrifice a single cup of coffee each week so that their fresh fruit and vegetables can make it into the supermarkets. They should take a long, hard look at themselves.

Congratulations, USQ Toowoomba. You provide a wonderful example of generosity and real understanding of community spirit for the rest of us.

Unpacking Gillard’s green program cuts

January 31, 2011

All the focus right now is on the flood levy. Gillard’s announcement last week that for one year, Australians will pay a small amount to help fund rebuilding infrastructure in areas devastated by the recent floods is the topic of the moment.

The rural Independents want a promise of a permanent natural disaster relief fund in return for their vote. New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally wants a special deal so her constituents pay less than the rest of the country. The Opposition is determined to vote against the levy. In an extraordinary display of patronising false humility, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott even volunteered to help Gillard find more things to cut in the budget if it was too hard for her. If his intention was to portray himself as willing to be helpful, it backfired horribly – instead, he created an impression of someone with a superiority complex patting the ‘poor little girl’ on the head. It didn’t help that, over the weekend, he said that voting on the flood levy might be the opportunity his Coalition needs to oust Labor and get back into government.

But while all this is going on, the rest of Gillard’s announced plans to pay for flood recovery are flying under the radar. There was some initial comment from the Greens and the media, but it was quickly lost in the wrangling over the levy.

So let’s have a look at what else is part of this flood recovery package.

Funds will be redirected from infrastructure projects. In her address to the National Press Club, Gillard indicated six roads projects in Queensland would be delayed by one to three years, providing $325 million. Premier Anna Bligh endorsed these delays the same day as they were announced.

Gillard said she would announced a further $675 million, sourced from delays to existing projects, in the coming days.
She also announced caps on a series of programs, including the National Rental Affordability Scheme and the LPG Vehicle Scheme. In education, the Capital Development Pool and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council will be discontinued. Some existing programs – the Building Better Regional Cities and Priority Regional Infrastructure Program – will have their funds redirected to rebuilding flood-damaged infrastructure.

There’s been little, if any comment on this.

It’s the third part of the package, though, that has the Greens in particular hopping mad.

A whole suite of so-called ‘green’ programs are to be either scrapped, deferred or capped.

The Cleaner Car Rebate Scheme (dubbed ‘cash for clunkers’ by the media), Green Car Innovation Fund and the Green Start Fund will be scrapped.

The Solar Hot Water Rebate, Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute and Solar Homes and Communities Plan will all have their funding capped. She explained that for some programs, the ‘cap’ was actually a reduction in the total funds available, as demand had not been as high as anticipated.

Finally, the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships and Solar Flagships programs will be deferred.

It would be fair to say that much of Australia did a double-take when they heard this announcement. Although there is by no means ‘complete consensus’ on the effect of climate change on extreme weather, it’s safe to say the majority of people favour ‘greening up’, if only to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and tackle pollution. Add to that the facts that securing the Greens’ support was vital for Labor to form government, that the Greens will soon hold the balance of power in the Senate and look to be significant players in the upcoming New South Wales election – and Labor’s plan looks like political suicide.

At the very least, it seems to make no sense at all. Labor’s tried to position itself as serious about tackling climate change. Gillard’s rhetoric on the subject of a carbon price has an unmistakable ‘line-in-the-sand’ quality, and she has shown every sign of being willing to do whatever it takes to bring that about. Why, then, would she slash funds from programs linked to one of Labor’s avowed policy pillars??

The clue is in Gillard’s speech:

‘The key to these carbon abatement program savings is my determination to deliver a carbon price.’

All other initiatives, she asserted, flow from the establishment of a price on carbon. Indeed, the pressure of increased carbon costs practically guarantees investment in renewable energy.

Politically, this is a clear attempt to wedge the Greens. If they want programs to tackle climate change, they’ll need to support Labor’s eventual plan for a carbon price. It’s an incredibly risky move. Labor has to walk a fine line here to avoid alienating the Greens entirely, which could see us right back where we were under Kevin Rudd – with a hostile Senate pressuring the government from both the right and left.

Last time that happened, it brought down the Prime Minister. That Labor is willing to take that chance again may be a sign of Gillard’s confidence in her ability to sell something unpopular – or it may be a giant bluff.

This strategy may not have a formal name, but it’s familiar. It’s called ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’.

But politics aside, what are the practical consequences of the proposed cuts to these green programs?

By not going ahead with the Cleaner Cars Rebate, the government rids itself of a program that was unpopular from the start. Both the Opposition and the Greens rubbished the proposal, which would see car buyers given a modest rebate when they traded in old cars for newer, greener models. A similar program in the US suffered cost blowouts, and was widely seen to have done little to encourage drivers to choose energy-efficient vehicles. Although this program was part of Labor’s election promises, breaking it is unlikely to attract much criticism – especially given where the money will go.

And here’s a curious thing about that money – it was sourced, originally, from programs that included Solar Flagships and Carbon Capture and Storage. Both these programs are now slated for deferment as part of the flood recovery package.

Solar Flagships was scheduled to fund two large-scale solar power stations in 2011. This will now be delayed. Gillard has not said for how long, but confirmed that the project was not scrapped. The effect of the delay is difficult to calculate; it’s unknown how much time it would take to build the stations and get them connected to the national grid. Clearly, any further dependence on coal-fired power than is necessary presents a problem, however.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an initiative fraught with problems. Apart from being a technology which seems increasingly unviable, with limited – if any – application in Australia, there are now indications that existing installations are now leaking dangerously. Greens Senator Christine Milne noted back in 2008 that the problems with CCS could lead to increased costs for Australian taxpayers, since the government would be liable for any leaks.

Deferring funding to the Carbon Capture and Storage Institute gives the government a bet each way. If the technology does indeed prove unviable, there can be no claims of waste. If, on the other hand, the Institute starts making real headway with CCS, the government can re-allocate funding in the future. Either way, there are few practical problems associated with re-directing money from this program to flood recovery.

The Green Start program is another millstone around Labor’s neck. Set up to replace their failed Green Loans program, Green Start had already been largely scrapped over a month ago. Gillard’s announcement at the Press Club was really only the final nail in the coffin. Funding was set aside to compensate businesses who might be adversely affected by the closure of Rounds 1 and 2. What little remains will now go towards flood recovery.

The Green Cars Innovation program has had real problems. Widely seen as supporting the automotive industry at the expense of ‘real’ action on climate change, money already granted to companies has seen little in the way of results so far. Of only four cars supposed to be manufactured with the help of the program, only one (the hybrid Toyota Camry) is on the road. The others are due to roll out some time this year. The program has already had its funding lowered due to lower than expected demand, and came in for serious criticism from the Greens.

The capped programs, whose funding pools are to be reduced guided by lack of demand, are still in place. Expected uptake for the Solar Hot Water and Homes and Communities plans did not eventuate. It’s arguable that demand may increase, especially in the areas affected by floods. As things stand, however, the money is unspent and some is able to be re-directed. Unless installation of solar hot water skyrockets in the near future, there will still be rebates available. The government also leaves the way open for raising the ceiling at a later date if demand does increase.

So these cuts to green programs boil down to scrapping two programs that was unlikely to have much beneficial effect on emissions, scrapping another that would have closed down in a month’s time, lowering the ceiling on programs whose uptake was lower than expected, and deferring funding for an initiative fraught with technological problems. As noted above, the effect of deferring Solar Flagships is unknown.

Other ‘green’ programs remain in place. These include school solar funding, the Renewable Energy Venture fund, money for getting renewable power generators connected to the grid, tax deductions for business that improve their energy efficiency rating, new mandatory standards for vehicle emissions and power stations, and a substantial Green Building fund.

Whatever the real situation as regards these proposed program cuts and caps, the problem is that they look bad. The government needs to do a lot more to sell this part of its flood recovery package to parliament and the public alike. They could do worse than start by giving people the information they need to truly assess the effect of these changes.

But then again, asking a government to treat its people as intelligent human beings with a right to know the facts of any given situation has always been a big ask. And we’re all culpable in this – we’ve let our elected representatives get away for too long with giving us only half the facts. This needs to change – and this is as good an opportunity as the current government is ever likely to get.

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