“Federation” Fiasco: Turnbull Now Courting Election Defeat

CHASTENED, humiliated, and looking more spooked than fit to govern, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has led the Coalition to the precipice of electoral defeat; the hurried, half-baked “reform” plan scuttled by state Premiers shows little has been learned from the ills of the Abbott era, and that Turnbull has learned nothing from his disastrous first stint as Liberal leader. This year’s election is his to lose. On current form, it may well be lost.

It comes as no surprise that the latest half-baked, half-arsed “reform” proposal cooked up by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — this time, a plot to cede income taxing powers to the states to enable the Commonwealth to wipe its hands of school and hospital funding, let’s be candid about it — was turned into a smoking ruin yesterday by state Premiers who refused to be hoodwinked by such a blatant exercise in buck-passing.

Yes, Health and Education are state responsibilities and yes, the Commonwealth had been progressively sucked into larger and larger obligations for funding them over a period of decades, as successive federal governments of both political hues have used benevolent largesse to curry favour with voters on a secondary front and to parade their credentials as champions of these critical areas of state expenditure.

Yet whilst the notion of forcing the states to take back and shoulder more of the burden for paying for them is, on the surface, sound, the rock-hard political reality is that doing so — however viable, workable and legitimate the mechanism, if convoluted — invites at best the rank cynical opportunism of a scare campaign that will resonate, and at worst the end consequence of such a noisome enterprise in the form of electoral defeat, as journalist Laurie Oakes observes in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph this morning.

And it is facing this blunt reality that Turnbull’s government now finds itself.

It also finds itself marooned in the worst of all worlds: for not only has an unworkable and politically toxic proposal been aired and scuttled — in less than 48 hours, incredibly — but the Coalition will now find itself carrying the consequences of the least popular elements of the policy, ratched up by an obligatory and predictable ALP scare campaign, but without the policy being enacted at all or its purported benefits being realised.

In this sense, what the government has been up to this week is eerily reminiscent of the handiwork of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey over the notorious 2014 budget.

I don’t especially wish to be seen to be talking the Coalition’s election prospects down — the fact I never supported Turnbull as Prime Minister notwithstanding — but by the same token, I’m not prepared to buy into the consensus position of the wider commentariat that the government is cruising toward re-election (however narrowly) when I don’t think it is.

I was pilloried for writing Queensland Premier Campbell Newman off two-and-a-bit years out from the 2015 state election and was ultimately vindicated, and whilst I don’t think the federal government’s fate is a foregone conclusion just yet, there is an urgent need for the Liberal Party in particular to get real about the fact that it has done little to warrant a second term in office, and its ongoing antics are sufficient to permit an ALP victory by default unless the government collectively gets a grip on itself, and quickly.

The dysfunctional micromanagement regime operated by Peta Credlin, with Abbott’s explicit imprimatur, may be gone, but it has simply been replaced by a different variety of the same degree of ineptitude.

Aside from the abolition of knighthoods — the repeal of which I don’t entirely agree with — just about the only outcome of any substance that has been delivered on Turnbull’s watch has been the overhaul of the way the Senate is to be elected. Whilst laudable, even that could lose the Coalition votes unless the demented, self-obsessed bleating of the crossbench and the opportunistic negativity of the ALP are summarily slapped down.

But since Turnbull became Prime Minister, voters have witnessed not one, but two, comprehensive ministerial reshuffles; the first was to offload Abbott loyalists after the leadership change (in some cases, quite appropriately) but the second was the almost direct result of Turnbull’s appointment of foreseeable liabilities to key positions around whom avoidable scandals subsequently erupted with almost Karmic predictability.

That process — which is ongoing, with new allegations swirling around Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinis — was an early indication that Turnbull had learned nothing from his disastrous first stint as Liberal leader; more have followed, of course, but the bald indulgence of promoting henchmen and acolytes when he could and should have known better was an indictment on his judgement that validated the concerns of many conservatives who believed Turnbull should never have been restored to the post.

The practice of kite-flying that contributed to the dysfunction of Abbott’s government — running policy ideas up the flagpole, only to yank them back down when the early public reaction (or the confected, hyperventilating rage of the ALP) was unfavourable — is one that has been continued with mindless enthusiasm on Turnbull’s watch; this year we have seen a tax “debate” that has raised and torpedoed all manner of potential reforms, and all but precluded the Coalition from reforming the tax system at all. Other areas, like ballooning welfare costs and labour market flexibility, have either been ignored by a gun-shy government or quietly allowed to be dropped.

And of course, the complete inability to sell anything that so cruelled Abbott also remains alive and well; the markers of this affliction are everywhere, but a prime example is laid bare by Des Houghton in today’s Courier Mail, taking aim at the government’s (thoroughly appropriate) push to reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission, but with the case for doing so either not properly set out before the voting public or, latterly, not bothered with at all.

One month ago, I speculated whether Turnbull could lose this year’s election, and finished with an open conclusion to the question; that article sets out the background to why an election defeat loomed as a possibility even then in much greater detail, and I strongly urge those who missed it at the time to read it now.

As a backdrop to the embarrassment Turnbull has presided over this week, it is both telling and prescient, and with every week that has since passed, it seems, the government itself appears increasingly determined to flirt with its political mortality.

One issue we haven’t touched upon lately is the horrendous state of the federal budget, and the almost criminal amount of government debt — now approaching half a trillion dollars — that has been allowed to accrue on the Commonwealth balance sheet as a direct result of the ineptitude and economic vandalism of the ALP during its last period on the Treasury benches.

Nobody is suggesting the Rudd government was in error by responding to the onset of the Global Financial Crisis with some kind of stimulus package, even if the quantum and targeting of such a package, in the end, left virtually everything to be desired.

But not only was the “temporary” stimulus spending never stopped, but Julia Gillard and her execrable Treasurer — the insidious, self-important Wayne Swan — went to enormous lengths to ensure recurrent spending was ramped up far beyond the capacity of the budget to pay for it without heavy ongoing borrowings, and as we’ve discussed before, the “booby trapping” of the budget to render it unmanageable to an incoming Liberal government was an explicit Labor objective.

The damage, of course, is reflected in that half-trillion dollar debt, and is accompanied by collateral consequences: the capacity of the Commonwealth to respond to any new global economic emergency and/or a domestic recession is now severely compromised as a direct result of Swan’s and Gillard’s handiwork.

All of this has been vastly exacerbated by the behaviour of Labor under Bill Shorten, with help from the Communist Party Greens and the odious Palmer United Party, which have either refused to pass any legislation that cuts outlays, whilst clamouring to pass anything that increases them (Labor, Greens) or passed Abbott-era measures like the abolition of the mining tax, but with conditions attached that left billions of dollars in spending measures in place (Palmer).

And all of this is relevant because the two strongest electoral cards in the Coalition’s hand — rampant misconduct and illegal activity by a lawless union movement, and the precarious federal budget now balanced on the edge of a cliff — just happen to be two of the issues this government, under both Abbott and Turnbull, has proven least capable of gleaning any advantage whatsoever from.

It comes back to one of my most consistent criticisms of this Coalition government: it couldn’t organise the purchase of sex in a brothel.

Its management — if you could even call it that — of the Senate has been woeful; its political tactics and strategy have been of the worst possible kind, and fashioned it often seems only to aid the opposition; its ability to communicate its intentions and programs clearly, simply and forcefully to voters is not easily recognisable; and its ability to actually sell anything is non-existent.

Regular readers know that despite being flatly opposed to Turnbull’s return as Liberal Party leader and thus Prime Minister, I was nevertheless prepared to give him a go; far from the “wait and see” approach this has taken that for too long was more “wait” than see,” this week Turnbull belatedly showed his hand. As a spectacle, it was a train wreck: unedifying, humiliating, and amateurish, Turnbull’s so-called “big idea” made the government look more like a bunch of panicked novices than an outfit seriously suited to the governance of this country.

That should in no way be interpreted as any kind of endorsement of “Billy Bullshit” or of the ALP he thinks he will “lead” into office later this year: and I will come back to him shortly.

But my calls for Turnbull to go to an election late last year, urgently, weren’t some pie-in-the-sky delusion; I fully expected that after the stellar opinion poll spike — and fully expecting Turnbull’s defective political judgement to reappear in spades at some point, probably sooner rather than later — that the government’s fortunes would quickly nose-dive. In this sense, what we are seeing now is no more than anyone should have expected back in September, when Turnbull and 53 other idiot Liberal MPs knifed Abbott.

That is not to say Abbott would have won an election — I think he was doomed, and said so at the time — but the Coalition is now looking down the barrel of being doomed anyway unless someone or something can break the government out of the indulgent funk into which it has slumped.

Australia cannot afford a Labor government; the ALP, if elected, will do nothing to fix the budget mess it, itself created — irrespective of anything it says to the contrary — but it will ramp up more spending, with increased taxes, and do enormous damage to both the national economy and the federal budget.

Unions, freed from the threat of being held to account for their behaviour, will become impossible to control: it is no exaggeration to suggest that a Labor government would allow the vast expansion of the influence unions wield over every aspect of Australian society, perhaps even to the point of giving them the right of veto over government appointments and sanctioning the blackballing of non-unionised industries and businesses. These are not ambit concerns, for they represent no more than the present thuggish union domination of the building industry replicated on a wider basis.

And the would-be Prime Minister — Labor’s so-called “leader,” the ethically deficient Bill Shorten — is the most inappropriate candidate put forward for high office by either major party since the 1960s, if not ever: at least Bill McMahon wasn’t shrouded in a smelly trail of accusations of misconduct, even if he was a national joke, and at least Doc Evatt actually stood for something, even if he was insane.

Shorten doesn’t stand for anything except the indulgence of his own ambitions, and in tandem with the fact he is just another union cat’s paw, is one individual who has no moral right to ever aspire to the Prime Ministership.

But Turnbull and his mates — after months of false starts, confusion, mixed messages and general pissing about — showed their hands this week. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

There is some suggestion that the “outcome” was what they wanted; there will now be a “slow process” of investigating with the states untying Commonwealth grants for Health and Education in return for a reserved share of income tax monies being handed to them, rather than giving the states the power to levy income tax themselves.

It has been a hell of a lot of grief just for that: and if that is what the government wanted from the outset, it should have said so. It didn’t.

So here we are: the government — slowly running out of time to do something, anything ahead of an election bearing down on it — has weathered one of its worst weeks since it took office in 2013, and is spending the weekend looking chastened, humiliated, and very, very silly.

The problem is that there is no sign any of this is going to stop; that anyone at the Coalition has a clue about putting well designed and properly calibrated policy packages before the public; or that when push really comes to shove, in the context of an election campaign, that it can get its shit together at all.

It has been suggested to me that come election time, Shorten will simply crumble under the pressure, and go to water: this is a dangerous miscalculation indeed, for Shorten has spent more than two years weathering (and surviving) literally everything that has been thrown at him, or which has leapt out at him from left field, or into which he has blundered.

After the whole union Royal Commission, allegations of wrongdoing as a union official, excruciating public discourse, allegations of sexual misconduct, totalling several cars in Melbourne whilst illegally drinking coffee, and later showing a continued cavalier disregard for road safety by sending text messages whilst driving — and anything else you can add — Shorten is still Labor “leader,” will lead it to an election, and might just win.

Late last year, Shorten was about to be dumped from his post: what I published in this column was grounded in fact, not delusion. Then the Federal Police raided the home of former Special Minister of State (and Turnbull henchman) Mal Brough. Labor caught its breath and Shorten believed he was in with a chance again. And that was that.

If he does win, it will be 100% the fault of the Coalition parties, and of Malcolm Turnbull more than most.

This week has been an instructive insight into the functionality, or otherwise, of Turnbull’s government, and a demonstration of the unfortunate fact that it seems determined to flirt with political mortality despite having nothing solid, or even workable, to justify winning the looming election other than “we’re not Labor.”

Foolhardy behaviour often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and unbelievably, Turnbull and his cohorts appear determined to put their government’s life on the line.

The defeat of the Coalition became a little more likely this week. The outcome of this year’s election is in no way a foregone conclusion. And if the Prime Minister and his chums continue to tempt fate, it might just explode in their faces at the ballot box.

 

AND ANOTHER THING: to those of my followers on Twitter hassling me about voting for the Australian Liberty Alliance, please don’t: it isn’t going to happen. Conservative politics in this country has its problems, almost all of them self-inflicted, but the ALA is no answer. I’ve had a look, I don’t approve, and you won’t convince me. So don’t try.

 

Federal Reform: Is Australia Overgoverned?

TONY ABBOTT’S PUSH to overhaul and modernise governance in Australia is welcome, and should be embraced by all sides of the political spectrum as well as stakeholder groups in the wider community. Abbott is right to include unpopular subjects (like taxation) as part of a broad and sweeping approach to simplifying public administration. Crucially, the question of whether there is too much government in Australia must also be confronted.

I want to talk very generally this morning, as public discussion of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s quest to “fix” arrangements of governance in Australia begins to attract widespread coverage in the mainstream press, and as the initial indications that he is serious about developing a template to present to voters in 2016 appear more promising than the most recent attempt by a Prime Minister to do the same: notably, Kevin Rudd, whose own plans do enact similar reforms amounted to nought.

In case anyone thinks I am merely taking a partisan pot shot at Rudd, I note that the concept of “fixing” Federation is a question that, to date, has bedevilled every government and leader who has considered it; even the tax reforms of the Howard government at the end of the 1990s — which handed the states a residual growth tax in the form of the GST — appear a little dated, with spending by the states having since grown far beyond the capacity of the GST to keep pace, and the grotesque spectacle of Premiers trudging to Canberra with outstretched hands, which it was meant to end once and for all, seems more entrenched than ever.

I have been “holding on” to an article in my web browser for the past couple of weeks in readiness for beginning to talk about some of the reform items that must be considered; published in The Australian, I do think some of the findings it talks through — such as support for the creation of a fourth tier of government — are a bit ridiculous. But some of the trends and figures the article notes, from the biennial Constitutional Values Survey conducted by Newspoll, are telling.

This survey notes, among other things, support for the creation of new states, and potentially for a new tier of government — regional government — that makes me wonder whether there are a couple of discrete messages here that have become a bit intertwined in each other; after all, high trust in local government combined with high support to abolish it, at the same time as support for the creation of “regional government” and more states is being registered, would seem to send a conflicted message.

And whilst support to axe the states is said to have fallen, with a quarter of Newspoll’s respondents indicating support for such an action, it remains high.

It makes me wonder whether the “trust” in local government that this survey has picked up is really transferable to the potential tier of regional government: and were the states to be abolished, it is inevitable that a beefed-up version of the local tier would emerge, as frontline delivery of government services is increasingly devolved to local administrations.

So let’s as the blunt question about whether Australia is overgoverned or not, but in the obverse: aside from facilitating provincial rivalries and preserving a tangible colonial history that the world has arguably moved on from, do the states really serve any meaningful or constructive purpose in 21st century Australia?

The survey discussed in the article I have linked already shows clear support for federal government to pick up responsibility for the health system: a reform I think is well past due, especially with Medicare cemented as the centrepiece of public healthcare in Australia.

After all, the overwhelming bulk of public health money derives from the federal government; yet there are two distinct health bureaucracies — one federal, and one operated severally by the states — and this model, as is well-known and long lamented, throws up the duplication of resources (and the attendant wastage involved in transferring money between governments) that could be eliminated by consolidating them.

It surprises people who know me that for someone of conservative leanings, I am an enthusiastic advocate for abolishing the states as sovereign entities, a position that obviously places me at odds with Abbott’s desire to ensure the states are “sovereign in their own sphere.”

But aside from giving the Queenslanders something to fight about at State of Origin time each year, I really can’t see much point in retaining this anachronistic relic of colonial settlement in modern, 21st century Australia.

Certainly, there may be some practical applications for what were state boundaries that may be retained, and as we push further into consideration of reform in Australia over coming weeks, some of the ideas I have for these will become apparent (such as using state boundaries to apportion Senate representation, both to give effect to constitutional considerations around the structure of the upper house, and to help provide form for a decentralised two-tier model of government that I think is ideal for Australia, a population still only a bit more than a third of the size of Britain’s), and that would be far more efficient than often ramshackle arrangements that exist now.

What constructive or useful purpose is served, for example, in having eight disparate criminal codes across one country of 24 million people? Similarly, what use is eight separate education curriculums, operated by eight separate education bureaucracies, with the best resources in terms of planning, resourcing and administration split eight ways and often replicated eight times over? What point is there in having eight separate regimes for management of roads, the environment, urban transport, and so on?

Some will argue that this serves to facilitate “competition” between the states but in the end, who does this serve? I would suggest not the people who live in them, but rather the army of consultants, bureaucrats, PR hacks and other gravy train surfers who make their money out of playing different states off against each other for commercial favour, federal government largesse, and pushing paper between different levels of government for no other reason than to “process” money transfers that exist solely because of an outdated multi-layered structure that exists only because it always has.

And sometimes, this is the worst reason of all to persist with something: just because it has always existed doesn’t necessarily make it right, or the best option, or the most ideal way of doing things.

But really, what actual useful purpose is imbued in the retention of the states as sovereign entities? (I’m listening…).

I have advocated previously — and will do so again, as we move further in — that abolishing the states and moving to a two-tier structure of a central Commonwealth government consolidating essential functions of the kind we’ve alluded here, with responsibility for frontline service delivery being devolved to what could in fact be a system of regional governments, as identified by this survey: and largely ending, once and for all, the blame game/duplication/Canberra vs the states farce that consumes an unhealthy stipend of activity in Australia, both at the political level and where the public service is concerned.

My piece today is really only to start to get everyone talking about these things, which is why I am not going too deep on specifics for now.

But I would note that the costs involved in duplicating federal-state bureaucracies runs into the tens of billions of dollars; I haven’t seen any quantification of just how much this runs into, and to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been seriously quantified. But the point is that aside from anything else, there is a colossal reserve of money locked up in needless paper-pushing that, if redirected to services, could unlock a tremendous new source of funding for hospitals, roads and urban infrastructure, and so forth.

One criticism I have heard many times is that the states should not be abolished because the loss of public service jobs would be far too steep to justify the move.

To this I make two points: one, that quite some proportion of these roles would disappear along with the states, but reappear in local and federal workforces that pick up the slack as bureaucracies are consolidated and streamlined; and two, whilst nobody likes the idea of unemployment, or arbitrarily adding to it, the notion that public servants should always be entitled to public service jobs because those jobs have always existed is a copout, and should be offensive to every taxpayer who helps pick up the tab for their wages.

Yes, there will always be a public service; such a calling is a noble one. But that service shouldn’t merely be bloated for the sake of it — especially if the elimination of duplication makes some roles redundant.

And anyway, cutting jobs out of the public service often sees additional employment appear in the private sector, as efficient bureaucracies invest more in goods and services rather than in bureaucratic functions: precisely this phenomenon occurred in Victoria under the Kennett government in the 1990s.

But in the big scheme of things, what would really be lost by eliminating state governments? And to those who argue for their retention, what functions — and be very specific — are so integral to the current model of state government that could not be performed by enhanced local/regional governments on the one hand, or transferred to the federal government on the other?

To me, local interests can easily be safeguarded by the ongoing local/regional tier; at the risk of seeming trite, this is why they are designated “local” in the first place.

As I said at the outset, today’s piece is really a conversation starter, and as ever I look forward to the discussion with and between readers. And as under the pump as I am at present, we will shortly begin to discuss some of the areas for reform I spelt out last week in greater detail, and in view of the Abbott push that now appears to be gathering pace, governance generally would seem the logical place to start.