Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ALP should get practical and follow Hawke

Tony Abbott, below, rules out a mining tax, a carbon tax and the NBN boondoggle. His article is in fact a pretty good statement of classic conservatism

THE last federal election to produce a hung parliament was in 1940. On that occasion, the incumbent government limped on but the prime minister faced growing party dissent. The opposition, previously in disarray, looked increasingly like a credible alternative government. Eighteen months later, after a parliamentary vote of no confidence, the independents changed sides and the new government won a landslide at the next election, held at the normal time.

In her Chifley lecture on the weekend, the Prime Minister invoked this 1940-43 parliament as one of Australia's finest. One detail she failed to mention, though, was the mid-term baton change to a new government. Less surprising was the kinship she claimed with Ben Chifley, given the resemblances between bank nationalisation and National Broadband Network.

What matters, regardless of the state of the parliament, is the government's preparedness to address the country's problems. In this respect there's a fundamental difference between the Gillard government and other governments (such as Bob Hawke's in 1984 and John Howard's in 1998) that lost seats in their first bid for re-election. Unlike the current one, those governments had embarked on culture-changing reforms in their first term. They weren't poor governments that had been judged harshly but reforming governments that were prepared to risk a backlash against policies that they believed were right for Australia.

It's possible that the Gillard government could follow the trajectory of Hawke or Howard rather than that of Robert Menzies in 1940, but only if it changes its character. It's too early to declare that Julia Gillard will be a worse prime minister than Kevin Rudd but the government's performance certainly went from bad to worse after it changed leaders and has deteriorated further in the four weeks since the election.

The revised mining tax began to unravel almost as soon as it was announced and is now subject to the Greens veto. The East Timor asylum-seeker processing centre will never be built because the Prime Minister neglected to ask the East Timorese before she made her announcement and it's now been superseded by the new onshore processing centres that, during the campaign, she denied would happen. The citizens' assembly that she announced during the election has subsequently been dumped in favour of a parliamentary committee pre-programmed to support a carbon price, most likely the carbon tax that the Prime Minister also ruled out during the campaign.

Everyone who wants the best for Australia is hoping that it will be better government this term than last. For Australia's sake, it's important that the government has learned from its near-death experience. Unfortunately, it's hard to see any new-found attention to detail in the 10 changes to the ministry made between its announcement and its swearing in. And it's hard to see rediscovered respect for the public in the declaration that election commitments don't need to be kept by a minority government.

Cobbling together a majority by the skin of its teeth seems to have persuaded the Labor Party that there's almost nothing that it can't spin away. There's been fake Julia and real Julia; make-promises-Julia and break-promises-Julia. The government thinks it can win the next election by lowering expectations but voters won't be satisfied by spin.

During the coming term, they'll expect real tax reform to ease the burden on families and small businesses, serious job creation in viable industries, significant progress on long-term environmental problems such as water, a more assured future for regional towns and overdue infrastructure improvements in outer suburbs. Political management skills won't save the government if it can't address these problems.

For our part, though naturally disappointed, the Coalition accepts the election result as the outcome of a system of government that we profoundly respect. We rededicate ourselves to the task of opposition and are determined to be even more effective in the coming parliament than we were in the last one. Where the government delivers for the Australian people, we will give credit where it's due. Where it fails, we will be unrelenting in holding it to account, because that's what people expect of an opposition.

We are determined to be the party of ideas and of policy innovation against a government that's trapped by its alliance with the Greens and in a fiscal straitjacket because it's incapable of cutting its own spending.

When a government lacks authority and has no mandate, a strong opposition can help voters to keep their faith in the political process. Someone has to have positions that can be relied on when the government doesn't. The Coalition will continue to oppose the mining tax because it threatens the goose that keeps laying golden eggs for Australia. We will oppose a go-it-alone carbon tax because it won't help the environment but will inflict enormous damage on our export industries. We will oppose the NBN because there are better, cheaper ways to improve telecommunications services.

Unlike Labor, the Coalition's instinct is not to see bigger government and more public spending as the answer to every problem. Government's job is to empower individuals and communities, not just to take on more responsibilities itself.

An opposition that's only a couple of by-elections or two independents' change of heart away from government has to be more than just a critic.

The Coalition took strong policies of its own to the election and will outline more in the months ahead. Almost the first task of government is to respect taxpayers' funds; hence our determination is to return to surplus by the high road of reducing wasteful spending rather than the low road of imposing new taxes.

We want direct action to improve the environment rather than new taxes dressed up as environmental benefits. We support community control of schools and hospitals. Above all, we want to foster an opportunity society rather than a welfare state by providing incentives to seniors and young people to move off welfare, and a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme to help families and to keep mothers in the workforce, if that's their choice.


Preferential treatment for "alternative" school?

The government giving the preferential treatment is a Leftist one. You know: The "equality" preachers

Rose Park Primary School parents want the Education Minister to investigate if the department deliberately altered a report on a smaller learning facility on the premises that has divided the school community.

The Family Unit, established in 1980, is a Reception to Year 7 "school within a school" that has about 50 students, offering an alternative approach to education based on the Reggio Emilia method.

An independent report last year was supposed to address growing animosity between parents at both schools, the Education Department and principals.

Supporters say the unit provides more space and a better teacher-student ratio than the mainstream school, while its opponents say the unit receives preferential treatment, taking up the two largest teaching spaces, resulting in overcrowding in the rest of the school.

The original report, released under Freedom of Information laws, shows parts of the report - including tables showing the difference in classroom space per student and issues around school zoning - were removed from the versions given to parents. After an uproar from parents, the Ombudsman's office determined the department was required to release the original report.

Parent Terina Verrall said the department had been "dishonest" about withholding information in the report. "We didn't get an independent report, we got a DECS tampered report and we knew that right from the word go," she said. "The real report would have allowed for real discussion."

The issue escalated over the past two years, with the mainstream school's governing council members voting to have the unit moved to another school.

Following consultation with Parkside Primary School in June, that school's governing council formally rejected a bid to relocate the Family Unit to their site.

Education Minister Jay Weatherill admitted the situation "wasn't handled well".

Earlier this month, he announced the unit would remain at Rose Park Primary. However, contact between the two facilities would be minimised and they would be administered separately, with a long-term view to relocating the unit in the future. "I met all of the parent and school groups involved and my decision takes into account all of the concerns raised, including concerns about what was excluded from the report," he said. "I have made my decision and that decision stands."


Left-wingers' sound and fury signify nothing

The Australian is relentlessly under attack from miffed media progressives.

Like taking a drag on a post-coital cigarette, after each election in recent years the political Left has a habit of letting off some steam after the big event. They reach for their keyboards or grab a microphone to take a swipe at the media. Make that the media with which they vehemently disagree.

After the 2007 election, progressives within the media were calling for a "cleansing" of conservatives from News Limited newspapers under the ruse that such voices were no longer required in the new left-wing era under Labor and Kevin Rudd.

It made for an amusing misread of politics: Rudd campaigned as a conservative. And a hypocritical one: there was no similar call for a purging of left-wing voices when John Howard was elected in 1996. Not to mention disingenuous: the same group complaining about a stifling of dissent during the Howard years wanted to stifle dissent in 2007.

This time left-leaning critics are busy scolding the news coverage and news analysis in The Australian with the same reckless disregard for facts. Same hypocrisy, too. Same Orwellian language about improving the national debate.

As media crimes go, the post-election accusers are guilty of committing the partisan offences they wrongly convict others of having committed. Travelling in an ideological pack, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Brown, ABC journalists at Media Watch, Insiders and Radio National, the echo chamber bloggers at Crikey and Laura Tingle in The Australian Financial Review assert The Australian has gone too far in scrutinising the record of the Rudd government and the anti-growth policies of the Greens, a party now part of the minority Gillard government. Add John Menadue to that list.

Last week, the Whitlam-era head of the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet - a self-described "grumpy old man" - accused the media of failing "almost absolutely" in examining critical issues such as the two-speed economy and Julia Gillard's citizens' assembly. Wrong on both counts.

This newspaper has reported, analysed and editorialised at length about the consequences of this country's two-speed economy and has been highly critical of the vacuous citizens' assembly.

Describing this newspaper as "the Mad Hatter's Tea Party", Menadue claimed The Australian was "pernicious" in the way it reported waste within the schools building program when in fact the Auditor-General's report showed that "Australians got very good value for money". Wrong again.

The report by the Australian National Audit Office did not audit value. It did find 82 per cent of schools that were self-managing projects - mostly private schools - believed they had received value for money compared with just 40 per cent for other schools. The Orgill interim report released last month revealed Building the Education Revolution cost premiums of 5 per cent to 6 per cent (or $800 million) and extreme variations among BER projects, with centralised systems such as those in NSW costing double those of ACT public schools and Catholic schools in Tasmania and Queensland. That is not value for money.

Indeed, The Australian has uncovered a steady stream of mismanagement, rorts and waste under the $16.2 billion stimulus program. And unashamedly so. That's the role of quality media. Other so-called quality media outlets - such as Fairfax and the ABC - dropped the ball here, picking it up late and half-heartedly.

Menadue's spray continued: "And you watch them, [The Australian] will be doing the same thing on the NBN." Yes, The Australian will continue to report, analyse and editorialise about taxpayers getting value for money under the Gillard government's latest big spending initiative, the $43bn National Broadband Network. And unashamedly so.

Menadue took particular aim at Dennis Shanahan for living off Newspoll, creating news out of Newspoll and beating up stories against the Rudd government. Wrong again. As political editor of this newspaper, Shanahan's job is to report Newspoll results. When Labor's primary vote started to fall, he reported it.

Critics who claimed Shanahan was guilty of "playing down" Labor's two-party preferred vote were disconnected from reality. Rudd publicly admitted he was being "whacked" in the polls. Then, in June, the falling primary vote led to Rudd's removal.

Menadue was smoking some cigarette during last Wednesday morning's hissy fit. And so was ABC local radio host Deb Cameron. As Shanahan said in an email to Cameron, her failure to challenge Menadue about errors of basic facts suggested she was either ignorant about the election coverage or in complete agreement with Menadue's misinformation.

As chairman of the Centre for Policy Development, Menadue lectures about the "lack of honesty and transparency in public discourse", of holding people to account for their "mistakes and untruths". So let's do what Cameron should have done and get honest and transparent about Menadue's contribution to public discourse. Let's hold him to account for his mistakes and untruths.

Menadue is not an independent, objective observer. He is a player and his attack is political. Harbouring a long history of unhappiness with sections of the media which do not toe his leftist views, he set up the New Matilda website to provide "independent political commentary". Of course, it's just his platform to run a predictable genre of political whinge.

Menadue's philosophical leanings are diametrically opposed to those of The Australian on everything from economics to social policies. More Keynesian than Keynes, Menadue advised the worst government in Australia's history.

In fact, academic writings record that Menadue has the distinction of criticising a May 1975 cabinet submission about budget strategy by then treasurer Jim Cairns for not being Keynesian enough. (Cairns, not Menadue, was willing to consider the inflationary warnings from Milton Friedman when the economist visited Australia in April 1975.)

Menadue has been a long-time political activist, opposing the Iraq war as a signatory to the Gang of 43 letter, a vocal lobbyist for a human rights act where a handful of judges, not the Australian people, dictate social policy, and a prominent refugee advocate highly critical of the Howard government's policies, reaffirmed at election after election by the Australian people. Loved at writers' festivals and by the comrades at Workers Online, his obsession with the Murdoch papers - like that of others before him - betrays a moralising dismissal of Australians who may share this newspaper's values about smaller government, lower taxes, freer trade, economic liberalism and social polices that sit at the pragmatic centre of Australia.

Menadue, like his progressive comrades, is entitled to his political positions. But let's put those political views on the table in the interest of disclosing all relevant facts when assessing the cacophony of leftist claims that the media failed in its role at the last election.

When the facts are known, it's clear enough that Menadue has not provided serious or independent analysis of the media's performance at the last election.

Indeed, his ill-informed tirade last week - and the gushing response from Cameron - exposes the consistently shabby state of the so-called intellectual Left. By all means let's have a debate about the media, but progressives will need to lift their game if they want to make a meaningful contribution to that debate.


Another public hospital system in trouble -- South Australia

THE state's public hospitals are far from being able to meet waiting-time targets, the latest SA Health figures show. Earlier this month, an 87-year-old woman waited 19 hours in a corridor at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital after being assessed.

Margot Djordjewitsch's upset family said up to 10 other patients were also "accommodated" in a corridor. They are seeking a response from their local MP.

Australian Medical Association state president Dr Andrew Lavender said waiting up to 19 hours was "not unusual" - but even he was surprised at the QEH's statistics. The State Government wants 95 per cent of patients admitted or discharged within four hours.

This target - the subject of robust discussions with doctors - is set for 2013 and was an election commitment fulfilled in last week's Budget.

But emergency department figures show wild variations in hospitals' performance, with just one in five patients at the QEH being admitted or discharged within four hours in June this year. At the Royal Adelaide Hospital, the figure is just over half - the same as it was last year - and other major metropolitan hospitals have not improved.

Dr Lavender said because of the mix of older, more chronically ill patients and a large psychiatric load, the QEH would struggle to meet the four-hour target. "It's often clinically impossible to get those patients assessed and directed to an appropriate unit," he said. "That's one of the concerns about the four-hour rule is it needs to be seen as an aspirational target and as a tool to indicate where resources need to be directed, but not a benchmark by which to judge the clinical performance of the doctors and staff."

Health Minister John Hill said any life-threatening issues were treated immediately, but in other cases people were forced to wait a long time for complex reasons. He said with planned increases in resources, staff and funding, new infrastructure and beds, and more efficient practices, he was optimistic benchmarks could be met.


Malthus not a good guide for Australian population policy

By Jessica Brown

Thomas Malthus, the eighteenth century British thinker who predicted that over-population would lead to global famine, has lately had something of a resurgence. With everyone from Bob Brown to Bob Carr in wild agreement that Australia’s population growth must be cut, Malthusian prophecies of doom are back in fashion.

But a new book by Fred Pearce, Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash, highlights just what a nasty character Malthus actually was.

Malthus’ issue wasn’t really with the growth in England’s population but the growth in the number of poor people. His solution was to stop them from marrying and, therefore, procreating. He was virulent in his opposition to charity on the grounds that giving food to the poor would just prolong their inevitable deaths.

Malthus was immortalised as the detestable ‘Scrooge’ in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But his legacy did not only live on in literature. His teachings informed officials in charge of coming up with a solution to the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1849. Spurred on in part by hatred of the Irish and in part by Malthusian logic, one English Treasury official argued that the famine was a good ‘mechanism for reducing surplus population’ and ‘a direct strike of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.’ In what became a self-fulfilling prophecy, an estimated one million people died.

While this example is perhaps extreme in the context of Australia’s current population debate, it nevertheless highlights why liberals should be wary of the new Malthusianism.

At its heart, the theory is profoundly illiberal. Malthusian thinking has spawned countless policies across the globe – forced sterilisations in India are the best known example – that have tossed aside the rights of the individual in order to achieve some perceived greater good.

It’s also fundamentally pessimistic. It assumes that catastrophic consequences of population growth are inevitable, so we shouldn’t bother looking for solutions.

Malthus was an eighteenth century country pastor who didn’t get out much. In a sense, it’s not surprising that he took such a dim view of the world.

But this is 2010, and we live in an open, successful and entrepreneurial country. Surely, in our population debate, we can do better.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 17 September. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

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