Big Labor Spend-Up From Empty Coffers On Gonski, NDIS

JUST IN TIME for an election at which bribes, fear, empty populism and reckless irresponsibility collectively offer its only viable path to victory, Labor has wheeled out a stunning double whammy of almost $100bn in uncosted, unfunded promises and the arrant stupidity of its pious, self-important, utterly useless former Treasurer Wayne Swan to sell them. Plenty of options exist for Australians to vote for. Labor does not deserve to be one of them.

Here’s a fact: there is not some bottomless well of money for governments in Australia to plumb and throw largesse from like confetti; there never was.

Here’s another fact: there is an endless list of things political parties would like to promise to give voters if they win elections, and endless lists of things voters want from governments if they do: some of these are undeniably worthy; some are dubious, designed to buy off sectional constituencies depending on political stripe; and some are simply downright ridiculous.

But the kicker in this short statement of facts is that with gross government debt now approaching half a trillion dollars — or almost 40% of GDP — over the four-year budget outlook period, this country is no longer one whose debt is “low by international standards,” as ALP politicians like to proclaim; debt at 60% of GDP reaches the lower outskirts of the structurally unsound economies in Europe, whilst debt at 80% of GDP lands squarely in Eurotrash territory that sees several of those economies unable to fund their way out of chronic debt and borrowing.

Here in Australia, we have gone from gross debt levels of -5% of GDP to almost 40% of GDP in less than a decade. It’s now just a virtual hop, skip and a jump now until we hit real trouble: the sort of Armageddon the Liberal Party warned about prior to its return to government, and was ridiculed by the ALP for its trouble.

But just in time for a federal election at which dishonest, unprincipled and magic pudding money management offer its only viable option to puncture the apparent Turnbull juggernaut, the ALP yesterday dusted off its cudgels over two of its most beloved — and least affordable — relics from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era, with “leader” Bill Shorten promising to sluice $37 billion in new spending around the education system over the next decade if it wins office, and its insidious, contemptible standard bearer for maladministration and unaffordable largesse getting out and about again in the form of one Wayne Maxwell Swan.

Swan — for the negligible value he represents in Australian politics beyond being a Labor machine henchman — has been spruiking the tired and deluded fantasy of his adequacy and skill as Treasurer, insisting that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (set to cost $22 billion per year within eight years) was left fully funded by the ALP in office: it wasn’t, and as this column said at the time, the “transitional” arrangements put in place were only ever enough to cover part of the start-up phase, and initially until 2018.

It took months — and a change of government — for the true eventual annual cost of the NDIS to be revealed, the original figure of $8bn declared by Swan having been comprehensively shown to be a gross understatement; so desperate was the ALP to conceal the true cost of the program before voters kicked it out of office, it was “sold” on a claim its cost was only a third of the true figure.

But Labor, despite its machismo about being responsible managers of money, was more concerned with sabotaging and booby-trapping the budget at that time to render it completely unmanageable by an incoming Liberal government than it was by any genuine regard for the lot of disabled people.

You’d have to say that that dubious project, against a backdrop of entrenched $50bn annual deficits, was an unqualified success. But remember, Swan was the man who, in tandem with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was party to no fewer than 600 solemn pledges of a budget in surplus under Labor, even going so far in 2012 to talk in Parliament of “the four years of surpluses I announce tonight.”

Needless to say, no surplus ever materialised.

But just like a solitary swallow well before the Spring, Swan has decided to emerge from whatever hole he has spent three years skulking in to proclaim that NDIS costs were covered for an initial ten years when he was Treasurer, despite independent Treasury advice to the government that from this year it would be forced to find an extra $5bn per year to cover them over and above the funding already legislated, rising to $11bn per year by 2022.

The pot of money that was supposed to pay for the NDIS until 2018 is already exhausted, which is no surprise given the growth in people accessing welfare provisions for disability has continued to balloon under the Coalition, which — remember — has been prevented by a ragtag assortment of ALP, Communist Greens, Palmer (and subsequent stand-alone troublemakers) and other crossbench Senators from passing almost every budget saving it has tried to legislate in a desperate (if to date misdirected) attempt to push public finances back onto a sustainable footing.

In other words, the NDIS wasn’t fully funded when Labor left office, a situation compounded by the fact that measures attempted by the Liberals that might have made it so now have been relentlessly voted down in the Senate. Rises in the Medicare levy to 2% and then to 2.5% were only ever a fig leaf (and I said that at the time, too).

But this doesn’t bother Labor, which credits average voters with such absolute stupidity as to be queueing up to bombard them anew with — you guessed it — more unfunded, unaffordable spending measures, with solemn (albeit meaningless) statements of fiscal rectitude and promises that every cent of the proposed new money is paid for.

Warming to this irresponsible agenda, Shorten recommitted the ALP this week to fully funding not just the final two years of spending contained in the Gonski report commissioned by Gillard — which Labor failed to legislate, and which the Coalition was upfront about its refusal to pay for before the last election — but to go further, committing the ALP to $37bn in new education funding over a 10-year period in the unlikely event it wins government later this year.

According to Shorten, the outlay on education was “in the black” on account of increased taxes on tobacco consumption, increased taxes on superannuation, increased taxes on multinational companies, and abolishing the (unexpectedly successful) Coalition policy on Direct Action to combat emissions growth.

Taxes on tobacco are likely to impede Labor’s ability to win an election, disproportionately impacting its own lower-class electoral bedrock as they do; taxes on superannuation will push more self-funded retirees onto at least partial pensions as their ability to support themselves in retirement is eroded, wiping out any savings this red herring might deliver; and taxes on multinationals is a hoax currently being used by left-wing parties not currently in government everywhere in the Western world to hoodwink voters into believing there is something grievously amiss with the sector that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs. There isn’t.

Just this week, ultra-socialist British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was singing from the same vinegar-stained songbook about Google in the House of Commons as Shorten does in Australia; no concrete details of how this purported crackdown might be effected were given, of course — because it never will be — and no explanation for why, when Labour held office in the UK for 13 years until 2010, no attempt to fix the “problem” was made in government.

New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the same tactic ahead of his election win late last year but of course, now ensconced in office, any mention of “forcing multinational companies to pay their own share” has predictably evaporated.

And so it is with Australian Labor, which didn’t do anything to remedy this alleged outrage of public administration of the business sector — under the astute and competent stewardship of the nation’s finances by Swan, no less — and won’t if, God forbid, it should ever win another election in this country.

But the grab bag of taxes doesn’t end there, with Labor committed to reintroducing not one carbon tax, but two, if restored to office: and with its flat refusal to countenance the cutting of so much as a cent from lavish social expenditure programs that might or might not be worthy, but which simply can’t be justified at a time the budget is haemorrhaging red ink in the tens of billions of dollars per annum, only a fool should believe that a Labor government would usher in anything less than unprecedented, massive, and crippling new taxation measures to pay for it if it makes any attempt at all to balance the budget.

Which, of course, it won’t: responsible economic management, with the partial exception of the Hawke-Keating years, simply isn’t the Labor way.

And anyone who believes Shorten’s latest protestations to fiscal prudence — based on the extremely dodgy nature of his “revenue” measures and on his party’s record in office — should seek urgent psychiatric assessment: the re-emergence of Swan to help hammer out the Labor message in this regard merely underlines the point.

I have been attacked, viciously, for merely suggesting in this column a re-examination of the arrangements for the NDIS and a recosting of the program to look for efficiencies whilst not compromising service delivery; any single social spending program whose first-up slated operating costs are $22 billion annually simply must be capable of yielding several billions of dollars in annual fat without compromising its objectives. But even the mention of looking for savings in a scheme that is a Labor sacred cow is jumped on and disgracefully attacked as somehow an attempt to cast disabled people into abject poverty.

Those attacks, of course, are horse shit, to use the vernacular: but it’s as bad as that when any fair consideration of Labor’s economic responsibility is considered; you can’t even look for ways to deliver the same outcomes for less money without being screamed down as a nasty bastard.

As for education — which isn’t a federal responsibility anyway — the problem far transcends the want of some $37 billion magic pudding handout, and goes to the heart of Labor’s sheer ineptitude in a portfolio it arrogantly and misguidedly insists it owns.

Labor was in office in every state and federally in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the university entry requirements for teachers’ courses were drastically lowered, admitting an army of candidates with severe deficiencies in literacy, numeracy, and critical reasoning to what used to be a noble profession.

I’d say the role of universities is not to teach kids how to think, but the various “education” faculties across the country seem to do a fine job churning out rounded little socialists on a mission to brainwash upcoming generations with their insidious socialist pedagogy.

Once ensconced in classrooms, these teachers — not all of them, mind, for one of the travesties of Labor’s education legacy is that the reputation of good teachers is sullied by the ranks of the incompetents infecting their midst — have presided over the steady fall in educational outcomes that has seen Australia’s international standing as an education nation slip from among the world’s best to the middle of the pack. and have directly facilitated an entire generation of kids that is mostly defective in reading, writing and basic arithmetic: not coincidentally, the same defects as those who should never have been admitted to tertiary teacher training courses to begin with.

Because of the diminished calibre of teachers in the overall pool, it is difficult to justify the continuing employment of a rising number of them on the grounds of merit, performance or outcomes: and also not coincidentally, this has seen teacher unions grow in relevance to the point it’s difficult not to rank them among the nation’s most powerful, if not the most powerful.

Simply throwing money at this problem, in the bucketloads of billions, isn’t going to redress the real problem behind education in Australia: the standard of people entering teaching, overall, is very poor indeed compared to 30 or 40 years ago.

Labor’s education policies are to blame for this — and have created a generation of union-dependent mediocrity that makes it impossible for the best teachers to be paid what they are worth, as the teacher unions insist on equal outcomes for all their members, and which perpetuates an undercurrent of uselessness whose end destination is the generation of Australian kids who simply aren’t equipped by their flawed teachers to face the world when they leave school.

It’s little wonder, when I hear stories of the better state teachers I have known over the years, that so many of them have left the industry, retired early, gone to private schools that pay more for quality hires, or are running specialist and/or remedial private sector educational enterprises based mostly on fixing the faults of state-provided “learning.”

The problem is even further complicated by the fact that to criticise the poor teachers who unfairly sully the fine reputation of the best is to invite abuse from Labor and teacher unions that to criticise the poor is to criticise them all: and this renders the problem impossible to fix. The unions use their muscle to destroy Liberal state governments who try to fix it. Labor state governments, of course, fiddle, but have neither the interest in nor the stomach for slaying the beast their own policies created.

If Shorten, and Labor, wanted to preside over a true “Education Revolution,” biting the bullet and overseeing a root and branch overhaul of the entire Education monolith would be a far better way of doing it than simply throwing money around.

But that’s all Labor knows; tax, spend, tax, spend, borrow, borrow, tax, spend.

In 2016, Shorten Labor is no different, and already, the shamefully irresponsible bribes that only Labor maintains are affordable are already being thrown around, with nary a care as to whether they bankrupt the country, or compromise the living standards of future generations to the point Australia begins to rocket backwards in coming decades relative to comparable Western countries.

Just today, Reserve Bank governor John Fraser has sounded the warning that without budget redress and a hefty cut in the bloated expenditures of the Commonwealth, Australia faces the loss of its AAA credit rating; the consequences of that is that interest on the half-trillion of government debt would rocket, as lending to Australian governments becomes more expensive as global money markets factor in premiums for the risk of default.

There may be a case to argue both Labor and the Coalition are responsible for the mess that must be fixed, but on account of the appearance of $300bn of debt on its watch in government where none existed previously, and more debt-fuelled recurrent spending legislated prior to its defeat — coupled with its stout refusal to allow the Coalition’s savings measures to pass the Senate, content to let the budget haemorrhage, believing this opens opportunities for political attack — Labor is far, far more heavily culpable than anyone could credibly accuse the Coalition.

Some additional material on these themes is available to readers here and here, and it should be noted that — as usual — these articles all come from the Murdoch press simply because the Fairfax titles have published little to nothing where any serious attempt to hold the ALP to account over its incompetence with money is concerned.

There are plenty of options at the looming election for people to vote for; true to type, the Labor offering seems increasingly certain to feature taxes that are either fairy stories or inflict unmanageable burdens on ordinary Australians, whilst promising tens (or hundreds) of billions in bribes that will either never be delivered or which will bankrupt the country.

For those people who actually care about whether the Australia remains a great country in future decades, the ALP is not an option that should seriously be considered as they mark their ballot papers; the risks are simply too great.

And whilst this might mean certain programs are either not delivered or are cut back to make them affordable — even if those programs are, on the face of it, worthy — then that’s the way it must be; the bucket of largesse isn’t bottomless, and there is increasing evidence that it no longer even exists. If it ever did.

Next time Bill Shorten and/or his cronies are in your face promising extravagant spending with supposedly little pain associated with its delivery, readers would do well to bear the points we have covered this morning in mind.

 

Video Performance Reviews Of Teachers An Excellent Initiative

AN IDEA from business identity, former Sydney councillor and Gonski panel member Kathryn Greiner offers the missing link to reconcile the salary expectations of teachers with the educational outcomes the incomes they aspire to demand; the use of video to review teacher performance is a brilliant concept that should be introduced and developed as an integral plank of education policy. If teacher unions object, then frankly, to hell with them.

It’s so simple — and so obvious — it begs the question of why it hasn’t been raised before and/or debated in the context of the perennial argument over how much teachers should be reasonably paid; certainly, the matter has arisen several times in this column over the years, and I am happy to take the idea on board and champion it with vigour.

The call by Gonski education review panel member Kathryn Greiner for teachers to be filmed so their performance can be reviewed and improved has enormous merit; properly implemented, it would see all of the key stakeholders in the education process — government, teachers, students, parents, and the community at large — emerge as winners.

The one group almost certain to be hit hard by the measure — and equally certain to lash out with a viciously obstructive campaign against it — is the unions, who in my view can take a long walk off the proverbial short pier. More on them a bit later.

I find it something of an irony that the only major media outlet reporting on this is Fairfax; to be sure, dear old Uncle Fairfax has dutifully noted the warning shots fired across the bows by teacher unions and other self-interested figures about not using video for “punitive” purposes, but it’s refreshing to see it at least record news that threatens the left-wing cabal on which what remains of its influence rests.

It’s also ironic that my remarks today will reference a truly useful, meaningful role for more bureaucrats; as readers know, my view on civil service roles is that they should be created and filled strictly as required and otherwise not at all, so today there’s something for the public service here in the blue corner, too.

But first things first: Greiner hits the nail squarely on the head when she says that “it is about time teachers understood that they must be assessed, they must be a part of professional development;” in what seems an unmistakable allusion to the perception that teachers — through the might of their unions — expect rocketing levels of remuneration that are in no way accompanied by commensurate improvements in educational outcomes, she suggests that every teacher in Australia should be reviewed using video.

I’ll leave readers to peruse the article from The Age, but here are my thoughts on the matter after some reflection.

I have long advocated that the best teachers in our classrooms should indeed be paid more, and perhaps significantly so, depending on the outcomes they deliver — namely, the results those students in their charge achieve on a range of educational indicators including the basics, but also their ability to gain critical insights into the material they study and a solid practical grounding on which to build in later years beyond the classroom.

The entire concept of collective bargaining on which unions are predicated is utter anathema to me, best evidenced of late in the educational arena in the protracted standoff over teacher pay in Victoria, in which an attempt to introduce so-called performance pay was brutally and savagely faced down by teacher unions which refused to accept differential remunerative arrangements for individual teachers.

I find it ridiculous and contemptible that a 22-year-old “teacher” — fresh from school to university to school again, with little or no adult life experience to speak of except a couple of paper qualifications — should automatically be entitled to be paid well in excess of $1,000 per week from the minute they set foot at the front of a classroom. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, an obscenity of the union bargaining process.

And by the same token (and this is an old story when it comes to awards, union enterprise agreements and similarly offensive collective bargaining instruments), I simply don’t agree that the “best of the best” of teachers should be limited in what they may be paid by the number at the top of the highest band of teacher rankings.

As an aside, what are those bands based on? Qualifications? Seniority? It seems implausible that they are based on outcomes; if they were, Australia wouldn’t be sliding down the international rankings when it comes to the top performing nations on educational indicators weighed against other developed countries.

I think Greiner’s idea is one that can and should be introduced as part of a suite of reforms to monitor teacher performance; an obvious first step is for governments and independent school boards to have cameras installed in all classrooms, along with adequate data storage infrastructure to file the footage for, say, each calendar year on a rolling basis — a measure that could be funded at a relatively small cost, given the colossal and burgeoning amounts of money expended on education with no apparent benefit in terms of outcomes.

I agree fully with some of the privacy concerns raised in The Age‘s article: obviously, the footage would be strictly for internal use only, with teachers able to review their own classes at will, or for formal review purposes (and of course, for performance appraisal purposes and any appeals that might arise from those), but certainly not to be made public in any way.

The application of the idea in terms of measuring teacher performance is relatively straightforward: a random selection of each teacher’s classroom time (say, one hour per month or term) may be extracted and reviewed by a panel comprising — for instance — the head of subject in a high school, along with a member of a School’s Inspectorate (I said there would be something for the public service) and perhaps an independent member of the school board. The exact composition of such a panel may be argued, but I think the principle is clear.

Such a process — benchmarked against the progress of the teacher’s students, their educational achievements and weighted against results across a given state — would provide an effective means by which to more accurately determine individual teacher performance; it would also offer a tool with which to better identify those teachers who are the best performers, and to pay them accordingly.

I think the reinstitution of an inspectorate-style regime for schools would restore (and better utilise) an important link in education regimes that has been mostly abolished by state governments, or effectively neutered; such a division within state education departments (and their equivalents in independent school authorities) would need to be well resourced, and come with the happy additional consequence of providing yet another potential career avenue for the very top teachers it would be charged with identifying, rewarding, and indeed promoting.

And such a wholistic shift in performance management and benchmarking of teachers from the collective to the individual would also restore to some extent to role of the school principal, which — by virtue of the collective agreements struck between teacher unions and governments over pay and conditions — has been rendered almost redundant when it comes to having meaningful input into the management of the workforce within his or her school.

I have little time for the almost complete aversion to anything that may carry negative repercussions for poor teachers when it comes to their performance: teacher unions have gone to great lengths in recent decades to engineer a public environment in which their members are treated as sacrosanct on questions of security of employment and entitlement to guaranteed pay rises at or above the cost of living.

If this country is to live up to the “clever country” moniker demanded of it in the 1980s (by a Labor government, no less), this is the sort of outdated thinking that must be abandoned.

Teachers are no different to any other body of professionals or employees in that there will be outstanding teachers, acceptable teachers, and poor teachers.

In my view, the outstanding ones should be rewarded; the acceptable ones coached, encouraged, and provided additional training and support; and the poor ones — just like poor employees in other walks of life — should, to put it kindly, be involuntarily motivated toward alternative employment opportunities.

It goes without saying that the powerful education unions will react with outrage to suggestions of the kind I am making here: bully for them if they do.

Over the past 20 years (and it neatly correlates with a time in the early 1990s, when most of the states were electing new Liberal governments), teacher unions have enhanced their muscle by campaigning on blatant fearmongering about the intentions of conservative governments and the impact of those purported intentions on the schooling of children.

Consequently, the education unions are now among the most powerful — if not the most powerful — of all the unions in Australia.

I don’t think they serve their members well — after all, there’s a limit to how well you can do for yourself under the EBA regime if you’re a brilliant teacher — and I don’t think they serve their students well either, given anyone able to complete teacher qualifications but who is otherwise an idiot can find their way into a classroom full of kids.

Frankly, the unions should embrace the use of video technology for performance management of their members: the only genuine reason to object is to protect the pitiful among their ranks; education is not a charity pursuit, but in fact the vocation every bit as critical to nurturing new generations of Australians as the leaders of teacher unions loudly proclaim — with an outstretched collective hand.

This is an idea that certainly merits further discussion, and I am very pleased Mrs Greiner has raised it.

At the end of the day, however, the teacher unions have two choices: embrace such a measure in a constructively critical spirit, or do what they always do when standards of increased accountability are put on the table, and cause as much trouble and disruption as possible (including to the education of their students) to ensure it never sees the light of day.

To be entirely candid, if the unions take the latter path, they can go to hell. And every parent, school principal or decent teacher with a real stake in improving the standard of the education each student receives should tell them precisely which way that is.

 

AND ANOTHER THING: For those who might like to accuse me of being doctrinaire, advocating the smashing of teacher unions (not that it’s a bad idea) or simply regurgitating conservative dogma on education, I’ll point out I’ve got a daughter due to start school in 12 months’ time and a son a few years behind her: this is an issue of great personal relevance, and I shudder to think of some of the excesses of teacher union conduct that have been played out publicly in recent years being applied to the education of my own children.

 

Newspoll Shock: Labor Ahead, 52-48

A TUMULTUOUS fortnight in federal politics has produced the first real shock in opinion polling for this parliamentary term, with the highly respected Newspoll finding — for today’s issue of The Australian — a four-point movement to Labor in two weeks to put that party ahead 52-48 after preferences. Some of this is the result of typically filthy Labor Party political tactics. For the Liberals, some of it is self-inflicted.

Nobody should get too excited about these numbers, representing as they do a single poll, and nobody over at the ALP should point to the rogue result posted by Nielsen a fortnight ago — with its election-winning lead for Labor — as evidence of a trend, because it isn’t.

Yet the results of the latest Newspoll represent a clear instance of cause and effect influencing the results of opinion sampling; these do not translate into dire forebodings of doom for the new government, but by the same token they do sound a warning note that would be ignored only by a fool.

Newspoll finds Labor’s primary vote rising three points to 38%, with that of the Coalition parties falling by the same amount to sit at 40%; the Greens come in this fortnight on 9% (-1%) with “Others” sitting at 13% (+1%).

As indicated, this translates into a 52-48 result on the two-party measure: enough, if replicated at an election, for the ALP to win a small six-seat majority over all other parties on a swing of a little over 5% since the election.

It simply isn’t going to happen. Not yet, anyway.

Unsurprisingly, however, a movement like this has spilled over into Newspoll’s findings of the leaders, with Shorten (34%, +1%) beginning to gain on Abbott (41%, -3%) on the question of who might make the better Prime Minister.

And it’s the same story on the leaders’ individual numbers; Abbott finds his approval rating in this survey at 40% (-2%), with 45% (+3%) disapproving of his performance; conversely, the overall result has allowed Bill Shorten to record respectable approval (44%, +5%) and disapproval (27%, unch) figures respectively.

There are three big issues that are likely to have fuelled this result.

First, the old Labor principle of throwing as much shit as possible, as hard as possible, in the knowledge at least some will probably stick has been given a solid workout in recent weeks on the issue of government debt and, specifically, the Abbott government’s attempt to lift the debt ceiling from $300bn to $500bn.

It seems like Groundhog Day to make this point yet again, but Labor has deployed one of its trademark dishonesty bombs on this issue, running around telling anyone who will listen that Abbott and his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, are “putting up debt from $300bn to $500bn” and framing the lie in a pantomime of hypocritical outrage over — you guessed it — debt and the deficit.

The ALP knows that its own budget measures — already legislated as traps for the Liberals — will push commonwealth debt well over $400bn without anyone lifting a finger to push it along.

But yelling the loudest ensures being heard, as Labor knows, and even though the debt limit has been abandoned (on a Coalition/Greens Senate deal) it’s likely some of the rubbish Labor peddled over the issue has resonated with those in the community with limited comprehension of national affairs and/or those who take little active interest in politics.

Those groups, despite the increasing sophistication of the electorate as a whole, still include millions of enrolled voters.

Second, the uproar over Education funding last week was ill-contrived, poorly handled, and an object lesson from minister Christopher Pyne in how not to conduct attempted modifications to funding programs that sit not only in politically delicate portfolios but in areas that are Labor’s electoral strong suits to boot.

This column has made absolutely no secret of its distaste for the so-called Gonski reforms — which will amount to no more than a funding packet for teacher pay increases in practice, despite the lofty rhetoric surrounding them — and stands by the call to abolish them, as published here eleven days ago.

I credited Pyne with the smarts to be able to carry such a move through adroitly, framing his case in terms of the soon-to-be-confirmed reality of just how poor the state of the commonwealth budget really is; the fact is that he didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, and the episode — far from being a passing storm in a teacup — has now placed an unfair and unnecessary question mark over the degree to which Abbott’s government will operate in good faith, to say nothing of necessitating $15bn from somewhere else in the budget to offset the money that could have reasonably and credibly been saved in Education.

As an aside, it probably also had the consequence of marking Pyne out early as a weak link in the government; he can expect to face a far more determined onslaught from Labor now.

And third — to be brutally candid — the horrifying spectacle of the Liberal Party’s dirty laundry being aired publicly will have fed into this current measurement of public opinion, too.

It is has been well documented in the press that considerable internal unrest is brewing over the degree of control exercised by Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, over everything from the recruitment of ministerial advisers to access to the Prime Minister for business leaders to what may or may not be said in a press conference by a government minister.

I do not propose at this time to add anything in relation to these matters beyond what has already appeared in the press, other than to simply observe that I believe the anger and dissatisfaction around Ms Credlin’s execution of her duties to be deeper and more widespread than reported.

Even so, whatever complaints or otherwise exist in relation to Ms Credlin, it is imperative they be confined behind closed doors.

Those closest to her have been ferocious in their defence of Credlin, insisting that what has surfaced in media reports is simply the work of a disgruntled few who have proved why they — personally — have fallen foul of the regime in charge of the new government’s innermost workings.

The fact is, however, that for a government barely three months in office, the existence of such reports at all — and of the Liberal Party leaks that fuel them — is a poor look.

It sends ominous echoes of the chaos presided over by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard ricocheting through a hungry media pack angry at Abbott’s victory in September and more than willing to exploit anything that might move the Liberals — even in increments of fractions of a millimetre — back toward the opposition benches at the earliest available opportunity.

And for those in the electorate who listen to those who yell the loudest in politics — Labor — it “confirms” the story the ALP has sought to propagate since September 8: that the Coalition isn’t ready to govern, it isn’t fit to govern, and it can’t be trusted to govern.

For now, that’s all it is: a story, and a fairly wishful one at that on Labor’s part.

The Liberal Party wouldn’t, in fact, lose an election were one to be held this weekend; of that I am certain.

But Coalition figures would do well to consider the raft of factors that have driven this particular Newspoll into unfriendly territory — we’ve looked at the main ones here, but there are others — and make arighting the ship the top priority in terms of its order of business.

 

Why “Gonski” — On Balance — Should Be Abandoned

THE UPROAR over Education minister Christopher Pyne signalling some elements of Julia Gillard’s so-called Gonski reforms would be reviewed is as predictable as the package’s demise was certain following Labor’s election defeat. It was a political tool and poor policy, and it should be junked.

At the risk of saying “I told you so,” I’d like readers to start by reading this article I wrote back in April; everything that was wrong with the Gonski funding reforms at time is still wrong now, and the Liberal Premiers who foolishly bought into the Gillard government’s chicanery are about to see their handiwork explode in their faces.

There will, in coming months, be much to rattle the bars of the cages of the Left as Tony Abbott’s government looks to clean up the mess left behind by the Rudd-Gillard regime.

The realignment of Australia’s foreign policy focus toward traditional allies (America, Japan, Britain) in priority to China — something that has stimulated “outrage” on the Left this week — is a very good early example.

The recalibration of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia (which, despite the howls of indignation from the Left, has been immaculately handled by Abbott) is another.

And when it comes to the management of Australia’s economy and the Commonwealth budget, many of the Left’s treasured edifices — built to pander to the climate change movement, minority lobbies, and the lunatic Leftist fringe at the end of a Communist Party Greens gun — are slated to simply be erased from existence.

The newly-defeated ALP made an artform of using taxpayers’ money (or more correctly, borrowed foreign money) in government to erect its monuments and enact its grand gestures, driving Australia deeper into debt than at any time in its history, and using this money to lay political landmines for its Liberal successors to trip over.

Which brings us to “Gonski” — a package that should never have been adopted in the first place, and which the new government is right to ditch.

Let’s deal with the “broken promises” aspect of this course of action first.

The two areas of government expenditure that the Liberal Party promised, in its election pitch, would be quarantined from expenditure cuts are Health and Defence.

Abbott and his team were entirely candid about the fact that every other expenditure measure would be a potential target for savings upon winning government and being able to properly study the true state of the government’s position.

It is obviously very early days in the new Liberal government’s life; its Commission of Audit hasn’t even begun its work. But there are already tangible and ominous signs that the real state of the budget is far worse than its predecessors publicly admitted.

Treasurer Joe Hockey has asked Parliament to legislate an increase in the country’s debt ceiling, from $300bn to $500bn; this is to accommodate recurrent expenditure items locked in and legislated by the previous government, whilst leaving some room to spare as a contingency.

Those spending measures alone will push debt to $400 billion without the Abbott administration spending a single additional cent: far from a “generous” offer by the ALP and the Greens to agree to an increase in the ceiling to $400bn, such a change would almost certainly require an immediate additional increase, which in turn the ALP and the Greens would indisputably attempt to use as “evidence” of Liberal mismanagement with which to engage in tacky, dishonest politicking.

Even now, the more sober (but brazenly hypocritical) barbs from the Left describe the proposed increase in the debt ceiling as “unprecedented” and point to Liberal statements that “the that the answer to debt is never more debt” as if this somehow absolves it of responsibility for the irresponsible time bombs Labor built into the budget.

The more reckless attacks — including by Labor “leader” Bill Shorten — proclaim that Abbott and Hockey “are putting debt up from $300bn to $500bn,” the sheer dishonesty of which typifies the nihilism and ethical bankruptcy into which the ALP has sunk.

Where all of this becomes relevant to Pyne’s first step in walking away from Gonski (and I’ll call a spade a spade: it’s the first step in doing exactly that) is the fact that Abbott made it perfectly clear that the integrity of all spending promises, bar those in Health and Defence, were contingent on the state of the books. It was made abundantly clear.

Quietly hidden away in a corner of the Rudd-Gillard government’s Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook (PEFO) was the revelation, largely unnoticed as intended before polling day, that Labor had itself cut $1.2bn from education funding that it never disclosed in yet another of its shabby attempts to undercook the true extent of its financial ineptitude.

It is this fact — and, in Pyne’s words, the resulting shortfall of money allocated to education expenditure — that sees him now move away from honouring the delivery of the package.

Taken in the cumulative sense, does all of this add up to a broken promise on Education by the Liberal Party? I contend that it doesn’t.

It needs to be pointed out that Pyne has committed to maintain education funding for 2014 “at the levels that would have occurred under Gonski;” indeed, he has offered the states that did not sign on to the package (Queensland, WA, and the NT) the same increase in Commonwealth money for 2014.

Beyond that, no guarantees have been made — and nor should they be.

The Gonski funding reform package was a deeply flawed, poorly directed initiative that was more about driving political wedges into the Liberal Party than it was about any serious commitment to proper funding of quality educational measures.

It featured $2.8bn in cuts to tertiary education funding to help offset the $14.5bn cost of the package — hardly the act, on Labor’s part, of an entity whose “commitment” to education is anything other than as a political tool.

It was in no way tied to educational outcomes, or to improvements in standards of literacy or numeracy on the states’ part; a cynical view would expect the extra money to fund pay rises for teachers, which is simply not an acceptable reason for the Commonwealth to hock itself to the tune of $14.5bn under the guise of “fixing” funding for schools.

Gillard herself was forced into an admission in an interview on the ABC’s 7.30 programme earlier this year that the package was underfunded by $5bn — an amount additional to the $1.2bn Labor has hidden in its pre-election budget documents.

And the states that signed up (yes, I am criticising Liberal Premiers) allowed themselves to be hoodwinked into a shocking political bribe that was only ever going to be to their own political detriment.

One clue was the “no ifs, no buts” deadline that kept getting extended whenever there were no takers for the snake oil Gillard was peddling.

Another was the variable amounts of money being dangled by Gillard: at first, it was a 2:1 offer by the Commonwealth; then, it was a 3:1 offer.

Where Messrs Napthine and (especially) O’Farrell thought this additional money would appear from — or how they thought it would survive a post-election budget review — is anyone’s guess.

Certainly, both of them should have had the sense to realise that with the general state of Commonwealth debt already widely known — if not the exact extent of it — an Abbott government following through on its pledge to right the state of the ship would cut hard on wasteful expenditure.

Make no mistake, the Gonski money — free of meaningful accountabilities as it is — is a waste of money.

And if none of that was enough to induce a state of “buyer beware,” the six-year duration of the proposed package should have had all comers experiencing palpitations at the thought it was anything other than a political trap.

In this sense, Colin Barnett, Campbell Newman and Adam Giles have all shown themselves to be more astute and shrewd than their counterparts in the larger states.

The point that has been conveniently missed in the ruckus generated by Labor and its mates at Fairfax and the ABC is that Pyne has said that 2014 is a bridging year; that is, school funding for 2014 will occur at Gonski levels whilst the whole question of education funding is reviewed.

Pyne has also said that his objective, ideally, is to come up with an ongoing funding model under which “the quantum” of money that would be paid under the Gonski package is maintained.

Of course, that leaves a lot of scope for modification — and perhaps even the extension of the time in which that money is paid. Time will tell on such considerations.

But a bad spending package contrived in the political interests of the ALP — not, as it loftily claims, Australian students — that fails to concern itself at all with improving standards, and costs $14.5 billion in borrowed money over six years, is not a package any responsible government ought to be “honouring.”

Far from being condemned, Pyne should be applauded for applying rigorous management standards to yet another mess the Coalition has inherited from the Labor Party.

Gonski — to put it bluntly — should be Goneski.

 

 

Budget Reply Has Sausages And Sizzle, But Skips The Wedges

TONY ABBOTT has used his budget reply speech to appeal directly to voters for their support; measured and Prime Ministerial, he dodged the attempted political wedges Labor built into its budget, making it clear the footprints of this ALP government will largely be erased by a Coalition government.

Budget reply speeches — indeed, budget speeches themselves, as evidenced by Wayne Swan on Tuesday — have increasingly become political rather than economic exercises, aimed more at the achievement of a set of political objectives than they are at the announcement and debate of specific measures and initiatives, or their cost.

In this context, Abbott’s address tonight was a triumph; he has emerged the victor in terms of the annual battle between Treasurer and opposition leader, and is now seemingly set to proceed to a colossal election win against Julia Gillard in September.

(Readers can access a transcript of the speech here).

Make no mistake, tonight’s speech represented a balancing act that could well have gone disastrously wrong.

Labor — with a budget crafted as cleverly as its straitened and self-inflicted circumstances permitted — had set traps for Abbott everywhere, then tried to goad the opposition leader into rescinding cuts it had announced and/or reneging on supporting spending measures.

That Abbott was able to neuter these tactics is no surprise; that he did so with great aplomb and dexterity caught some on the government benches by surprise.

His announcement that a Liberal government would “reserve the right” to implement any or all of Labor’s cuts, along with implementing none of Labor’s spending commitments “unless specified,” clearly ensures Labor will wear the political opprobrium for the budget deficits it has presided over, as well as the political pain associated with fixing the mess.

It allows Abbott the flexibility as Prime Minister to restore individual measures if additional offsetting savings can be found, but cut them — and do so in Wayne Swan’s name — if they can’t.

Abbott has confirmed that a Liberal government will proceed, as pledged, with the NDIS; on Gonski, however, it seems obvious those “reforms” will never be implemented, with Abbott saying his government would not be held to a scheme that is not national.

As foreshadowed in our dissection of the budget, abandoning Gonski could be a good decision: it also saves billions of dollars that are additional savings over and beyond those earmarked by Swan.

Much of what was said tonight — on trust, credibility, and restoring confidence in government — goes to the heart of the Liberals’ likely election campaign; watch for a lot of running to be made on the themes of honesty and trust as the Coalition continues to hammer Labor on what has been its weakest point since 2013.

Abbott confirmed what he has previously promised — to abolish the carbon tax, but retain the compensatory measures already introduced — whilst announcing an additional $5 billion in savings to pay for them.

This has already led to howls of outrage from Labor figures — particularly superannuation minister Bill Shorten — about spending cuts for battlers and tax cuts for billionaires.

Yet it remains to be seen what credible case Labor can make for opposing these measures, with a bloated bureaucracy to remain larger than in 2007 even after Abbott’s cuts, and other measures for low-income earners abolished on account of the revenue instrument supposedly funding them raising no money, and slated by the Liberals for abolition.

Abbott has flagged that any Coalition spending policies released between now and the election will be revenue neutral; he has also undertaken to release costings once the pre-election update of government finances is released shortly before polling day.

Yet his approach tonight — what the Coalition might keep, cut, or introduce anew in office — has pre-purchased an incoming Liberal government enormous flexibility.

Any grilling on policy costings need now only be met with a formulation simply stating that a) Labor has lied about the numbers for six years, b) any commitments are contingent on the discovery of the true state of government finances, and that c) adjustments may need to be made if further budget blowouts are discovered after the election.

And having thwarted the budget landmines Labor had planted for Abbott, the government was faced with the galling experience of having to watch Abbott speak directly to voters in what can only be described as an election speech — and a rather good one at that.

It was instructive to observe the reactions on the faces of Labor frontbenchers.

Wayne Swan looked typically smug, as if there were some hidden threat to Abbott that remained undiscovered; being the old numbers man he is and was, Swan will no doubt continue to plot and scheme, but his political skills to date suggest Abbott has little to fear.

A seething Julia Gillard, on the other hand, looked as if she might spontaneously combust; it isn’t difficult to understand why when Abbott’s speech tonight probably hammered the final nail into Labor’s coffin, and the coming election campaign will obliterate any remnants of her political credibility — and Gillard knows it.

The budget was basically the last big chance for Labor to turn the political contest around, and it has failed.

There are no more big-ticket agenda items left in this term of Parliament; and to the extent there may be — a no-confidence vote moved against the government by the Liberals — the Gillard government will, perversely, be in far worse political health if it survives it than if it were thrown from office at that point.

Above all, Abbott’s speech tonight was simple, honest and credible: attributes that provide a stark contrast to his opponents and to the budget delivered by Wayne Swan on Tuesday, and an approach which will be, if maintained, an asset to Abbott as Prime Minister.

BREAKING: “Baby Bonus” Abolished In Federal Budget

IT HAS been confirmed the Baby Bonus — a Howard government initiative introduced by Peter Costello to drive population growth — is to be abolished; with it goes more assistance for the “working families” this government claims to represent even as it attacks them on as many fronts as possible.

This latest “initiative” by Wayne Swan — predicted several weeks ago in this column — simply underscores the obsessive mentality of the government when it comes to a handful of its “signature reforms” at the cost of anything standing in their way.

Our position at The Red And The Blue is that tonight’s budget will be devoid of credibility; and whilst Labor types may describe the decision to axe the Baby Bonus as an example of a “responsible save” — to help fund the NDIS and Gonski reforms — the truth is simpler.

The Rudd-Gillard government has spent five and a half years attacking families; the Baby Bonus has been fiddled before, reducing the rate for second and subsequent children from $5,000 to $3,000, and splitting its payment into instalments to dilute its value (indeed, this was initially presented as “parental leave” by Gillard, until government hardheads realised such grotesque spin simply didn’t pass muster).

We will be watching the budget very closely this evening; my tip is that the axing of the Baby Bonus won’t be the last nasty to remain under (official) wraps up to this point.

And I will be posting again late tonight.

But the point simply needs to be made that robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t necessarily clear the invoice; and given families are doing it tough as it is — with income levels over $80,000 per year enough for this government to decree a household as rolling in clover when, in reality, it isn’t — at some point there won’t be any kids to educate, or disabled folk to insure: it’ll be too damned expensive to have them in the first place.

Yet again, the government has thumbed its nose at the great silent majority in the middle of Australian society, and in doing so it shovels a little more dirt out of the grave it has been digging itself in readiness for its date with destiny on 14 September.

Credibility-Free Budget: Swansong Signals Joke Nearing Its Punchline

JUST HOURS from now, Wayne Swan will deliver his sixth and last budget: a document innocent of credibility, it will consolidate callous spending cuts, dishonest rhetoric, unaffordable promises, and blatant adversarial politics. The budget — and its author — should be dismissed with contempt.

If “this is as good as it gets” — as Paul Keating once declared famously of one of his budgets — then I’d hate to see what things would look like if the excrement had really hit the fan.

The greatest shame about tonight’s budget is that it will be 12 months before the next is delivered; certainly, Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott and his putative Treasurer, Joe Hockey, will have some kind of emergency budget late this year, but the real thing is a year away and that is to Australia’s cost.

No government is perfect, and no Treasurer completely resists the temptation to engage in a little budget-related politicking; it goes with the turf.

But on the watch of the pious, self-important, bubbling lump of inferiority and resentment who has presided over the five largest deficits in Australian history and — if he’s honest — will tonight announce the sixth, this country has never been so poorly served by its servants in government as it has been by the present Labor regime and its Treasurer.

Perversely, it isn’t even a question of whether the economy is in the worst state it has ever been in: clearly, it isn’t.

But for mismanagement, incompetence, a questionable command of the realities and abstractions of economics, vapid communication skills and sheer political amateurism, this government and this Treasurer are certainly the worst Australia has ever witnessed.

Swan — and his beleaguered colleagues — can’t even get their stories straight.

“Unprecedented revenue writedowns” have been a favourite thing to blame in Labor circles for its failure to deliver on 600 explicit guarantees of a budget surplus tonight: this mythological loss of revenue has “grown” from $7.5 billion in December to $26 billion now (including an increase in the past fortnight alone from $12 billion to $26 billion).

Interestingly, actual government revenue has increased in the past year, by 7%, and the source for this inconvenient figure is Swan’s own 2012-13 mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO) papers.

The really interesting thing, of course, is that the “writedown” is nothing more than a measure of just how overcooked Swan’s own inept economic forecasting has been; if you wish upon a star for $26 billion more than you actually have, there’s always the chance you might get it, but the overwhelming probability is that you won’t.

And you can’t blame “experts at Treasury”, as Gillard calls them, if the money doesn’t materialise; they can’t be “experts” one day and brainless, useless dolts the next.

“Writedowns,” however, aren’t the only thing Swan and Gillard blame for their dismal economic stewardship.

John Howard and Peter Costello are responsible, despite not being in government for almost six years.

The Global Financial Crisis is responsible, despite the fact five years — five years — have passed since that point.

The high value of the Australian dollar against other currencies is prominent on Swan’s blame list this year, despite it being lower than it was twelve months ago, even before it began to fall below parity with the US dollar yesterday.

In fact, there is a litany of factors responsible for the appalling budget management Labor has recorded since 2007 — to list them all would take too long — but the really funny thing about that is that none of them, as Swan and Gillard tell the story, is their fault.

Yet the GFC, whilst a “cause” of all the writedowns Swan needs to blame someone or something for — to backtrack for a moment — is also the crucible of Labor’s greatest claim to fame when it comes to the economy: because of Swan, Australia didn’t go into recession!

It’s true; Australia didn’t. But it recorded one of the two quarters of negative economic growth that technically define a recession, and avoided the second with a quarterly growth figure of just 0.1%.

It’s a pretty crass thing to trumpet anyway, but when it is remembered that “stimulus” spending (of $43 billion) is also routinely offered by the government as the justification, along with the GFC, for the almost $300 billion in commonwealth debt it has racked up since taking office, the “credentials” Labor seeks to brandish don’t carry so much weight.

I have noticed in recent days that Swan has been bragging that since 2007, economic growth in Australia has been 13%.

Which is all well and good, until it is remembered that this is barely more than the 2% per annum generally considered to be the minimum level of growth for the economy simply to replace the jobs that are lost each year.

It’s hardly a stellar result.

And it’s only a little more than half the result recorded by Swan’s (and Labor’s) Liberal predecessors over the nearly 12 year lifespan of the Howard government.

Swan, and Labor, have gone out of their way to offend some sizeable communities and sectional interest groups, including several ordinarily disposed to support the ALP.

It has thrown tens of thousands of single mothers off a parenting payment and onto a significantly lower pension in Newstart; in turn, it has failed to increase the rate of that unemployment benefit, despite deafening calls from its own constituencies to do so.

It’s cancelled (carbon tax related) tax cuts, despite repeated pledges to honour these whilst having the temerity to target the Liberal Party for cutting a separate carbon tax related measure.

It has alienated families struggling with soaring cost of living pressures (which the Labor Party essentially states do not exist) by cutting increases to Family Tax Benefit payments.

And it has raised the Medicare levy — to 2% — supposedly to pay for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, 70% of the cost for which is otherwise unfunded.

The Medicare levy increase is particularly salient, as Swan will freeze indexation of Medicare schedule fees; the government says doctors will absorb the effect of this, but anyone with a brain knows the decision will simply add to gap payments struggling families face to visit a doctor, with some finding it prohibitively expensive to seek treatment.

It’s especially offensive given Health minister Tanya Plibersek has been running around for days trumpeting “record” bulk billing rates: how long does Labor seriously expect it to take before these begin to slide in the face of their budget foibles, and slide steeply?

And reports that the budget will seek to “lock in” $100 billion in recurrent spending over ten years, to fund the NDIS and Gonski reforms in education, should be taken with a grain of salt: these might be worthy but they are not affordable, and I wager will never see the light of day in their entirety.

Just a tip.

Swan’s budget is good for some cheap, tacky politics, too: here in Victoria, the state government has decided to build a road tunnel to connect the Eastern Freeway with the Western Ring Road in an attempt to alleviate Melbourne’s congestion problems.

A second mooted major infrastructure project is a 9km underground rail line to boost capacity on the city’s public train network.

Both projects, in round terms, cost $10 billion.

The state Liberal government and the federal (Liberal) opposition are both pledged to fund the road tunnel, and approaches have been made to the Gillard government to contribute.

Instead, Swan’s budget tonight allocates funding to the rail tunnel, and ignores the road.

It’s the sort of cheap gimmick that represents everything wrong with politics in this country, and with the Labor Party approach to it in particular.

And talking of cheap gimmicks, the runup to this budget has been marked by yet more of the ubiquitous slogans Labor politicians seem to think that — if droned on rote, ad nauseum — will cause millions of stupid voters to recognise the “error” of their ways, and change their intended vote in the ALP’s favour.

Labor is “supporting jobs and growth.” The Liberals will “cut to the bone.”

No explanation or rationale of how either of these are occurring — or might occur, if people really are stupid enough to act on their intent to elect the Liberals — is given or offered.

But that’s an old story where this government is concerned; say whatever sounds good and keep on saying it. But far from convincing anyone, it just sounds stupid.

Genuinely stupid.

And that’s the point; an endless trail of broken promises, poor decisions, shocking management and abominable presentation can all be fixed with a bit of smarm, smug spin, a few smart answers, and an imputation that anyone who disagrees is just plain dumb.

Tonight’s budget is the pinnacle (for want of a better word) of a dubious bad joke; six years of Labor government that will reach the punchline in September, as millions of ordinary Australians deal out an electoral drubbing that the party may take decades to recover from, if at all.

Whatever else anyone thinks of this government, or the alternative — and let’s face it, the Liberals could hardly be worse than the masquerade of effective government the ALP has staged — tonight’s budget is an exercise in credibility-free posturing, and should be viewed accordingly.

And if Wayne Swan offers you, your family, your community or your cause any money, believe it when you see it; or, indeed, believe it at your peril.