Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cruel results of Labor party "compassion"

AS the nation was shocked by news of the Christmas Island tragedy, Sarah Hanson-Young issued a statement via Twitter. The Australian Greens' immigration spokeswoman expressed horror at the "terrible tragedy" and said this day was "for expressing sorrow for what has happened, and for providing support and compassion for everyone involved".

A few hours later, while rescue teams would still have been scouring huge seas for survivors, the senator tweeted again: "Sharon Jones at the Gov. [Governor Hindmarsh Hotel, Adelaide] Brilliant!"

That moment crystallised for me the core of the problem with those who argue about border protection from a standpoint of moral superiority and self-declared compassion. It is all care, no responsibility.

The border-protection issue highlights the difference between the emotional self-aggrandisement of the progressives and the hard-headed pragmatism of the conservatives. It's the difference between displaying empathy and attempting to solve a problem.

The Howard government took hard decisions and deliberately designed them to appear even tougher than they were. This sent an unambiguous message to places where the prospective customers of people-smugglers were gathering: if you attempt an unauthorised arrival you may never get to Australia, and if you do make it into the country you may not receive permanent residency.

Cruel, claimed many. But to the extent that it was cruel, it was cruel to be kind. We will never know how many lives it saved by removing the incentive for dangerous voyages.

And here's the rub: while it stopped the people-smuggling trade, it did not reduce the number of refugees who received sanctuary in Australia. We still filled our humanitarian quota; only the refugees were chosen through orderly process, not self-selected by access to a people-smuggler's fare or a willingness to take terrible risks.

When it came to power, Labor set about unravelling this tough regime. It was a way to be popular, to appease the emotive pleadings of people such as Hanson-Young and other potential Greens voters. Labor was warned as it did this that it would restart the people-smuggling business. Then opposition immigration spokesman Chris Ellison said: "The weakening of Australia's strong immigration detention policy will send a clear message to the region that we are relaxing border control. The intelligence we have demonstrates there are still people-smugglers in the region."

Proclaiming the end of the so-called Pacific Solution, Labor shouted to the world that most of the asylum-seekers the previous government had sent to Nauru were resettled in Australia anyway. This, they said, betrayed the futility of the Pacific Solution.

On the contrary, it demonstrated the genius of that arrangement. Refugees eventually and quietly were provided with the new life they sought. But the hardline perception was maintained to dissuade more asylum-seekers.

Since the policy softening in 2008, boat arrivals have accelerated, detention centres have filled and two fatal tragedies have taken more than 50 lives.

Throughout this period, conservative politicians have argued for the reinstatement of a tough regime and warned of lives at risk. For their trouble they have endured constant accusations from Labor, the Greens, activists and the media of being heartless, racist and opportunistic.

Even in the wake of the Christmas Island horror, the abuse continued with claims of "dog whistling" and "demonising" asylum-seekers. Yet the opposition's focus on saving the lives of asylum-seekers is largely ignored by the media.

In November last year, then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull called a press conference to explain how Labor's softening of the border-protection regime would have to be reversed: "We are determined to keep our borders secure, to prevent and discourage asylum-seekers from risking their lives in perilous journeys and to protect the integrity of our generous immigration program."

Almost six months earlier then opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone told Radio National: "What we're worried about, though, is that you actually put your life in the hands of criminals who have no interest in your safety, who are of course interested in getting you in the cheapest boat, one-way route possible."

In October last year, frontbencher Scott Morrison, who has since assumed the immigration role, was asked on Canberra's Radio 2CC why he was creating "hysteria" about small numbers of asylum-seekers.

"Because people can die, literally, by coming by boat," he replied. "It is the most risky and dangerous way to come here. So I have a real serious concern about the wellbeing of these people who are being encouraged to take this massive risk and risk their lives and those of their families in this way."

Even before he became opposition leader, Tony Abbott warned on ABC1's Lateline in October last year that "once the flow starts, who knows how many of them might end up perishing at sea".

A few months later, as leader, he told a news conference: "What endangers lives is contracting out Australia's immigration program to people-smugglers. What endangers lives is doing anything that encourages people to take to the sea in leaky boats." This is just a small sample, but you get the picture.

With stunning audacity, Julia Gillard has now effectively called for a bipartisan truce on this issue. Such calls for calm were not made in 2001 after the tragic loss of 353 lives in the sinking of the SIEV X. Back then, distasteful conspiracy theories accused the Australian defence forces of complicity in the deaths. Labor luminaries, such as senator John Faulkner and even Gillard, fuelled the SIEV X fury, pushing for inquiries and hinting at government cover-ups.

And so, within hours of the Christmas Island disaster, the same conspiracy theorists were at it again, with David Marr and Tony Kevin suggesting Australia could have done more to save these lives. Gillard and Labor were on the receiving end of the madness they once cultivated.

They couldn't stop even the dangerous stupidity of one of the independents who keeps them in power. Rob Oakeshott went into print and on the airwaves repeating malicious rumours about Australian complicity while demanding they be refuted. Such incendiary nonsense from our politicians should not be tolerated.

Apart from anything else, it grossly impugns the quality of our defence force personnel and wildly misjudges our national character. No matter how baseless, such claims trigger distress, resentment and even violence in detention centres and suburbs.

Much vitriol was directed at commentator Andrew Bolt for saying Gillard had "blood on her hands". But his strident language was backed by a clear, important and rational argument: that is, the government was repeatedly warned that softening the border-protection regime would put lives at risk.

Gillard, Marr, Hanson-Young, the ABC, some church leaders and others who trumpet the so-called compassionate approach must recognise that cessation of third-country processing, coupled with limited detention periods and near-guaranteed permanent residency, gave the people-smugglers a plausible product to sell. This product, the promise of a relatively trouble-free passage into Australian suburban life, is what tragically lured the men, women and children into entrusting their lives to people-smugglers on that doomed Christmas Island voyage.

The day after the tragedy Hanson-Young tweeted again: "Compassion, nothing more to say really." In fact, while Morrison, Abbott and Turnbull share the same feelings of compassion and trauma about the deaths, they did have more to say. Despite the vile abuse it often attracts, they continued to argue for a plan to prevent future disasters.


Labor should just stop meddling with markets

They don't understand them

Gavin Atkins

EVERYBODY has their favourite theory as to why the Rudd-Gillard government has been so dreadful. Kevin Rudd's favourite theory is that there are too many factional bullies in the schoolyard. Julia Gillard's theory is that it's a government that lost its way. In other words, it is the innocent victim of unfortunate circumstances.

Another theory that is gaining popularity is that the government has been hanging around with a bad crowd: the Australian Greens.

I'm not buying this argument. Of the various debacles we have seen such as the on-again, off-again emissions trading scheme, the mining tax, the get-here-and-stay border protection scheme, pink batts, schools stimulus waste, the failure to deliver laptops or build childcare centres, how many were orchestrated by the Greens?

I have another theory. Most of the mistakes made by the government can be put down to a failure to pay attention to some Year 9 economics. The back yard, the concept of supply and demand, seems to scare and titillate the federal ALP in equal measure. Unfortunately for the government, when it comes to interacting with markets, there is a certain inevitability about it eventually running away from the scene yelping.

Just before Rudd was elected, you may recall, he boasted that being an economic conservative was "a badge I wear with pride".

In fact, Kevin proved to be such a deregulation fiend that one of the first things he did was abolish temporary protection visas and a range of other deterrence measures, making it easier for asylum-seekers to stay in Australia.

In response, 5600 asylum-seekers made it to Australia by boat in the last financial year, compared with none in 2004-05.

As asylum-seekers are known to pay about $10,000 to people-smugglers, it is safe to say Rudd created a $50 million a year industry just by deregulating the market.

Confusingly, not long after pulling off one of the most daring acts of deregulation in this country, Rudd put together a near unreadable essay over Christmas in 2008, calling for government intervention in world markets.

Although the global financial crisis was triggered by bad loans held by US government-sponsored financial institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Rudd attributed the global recession to "extreme capitalism".

It's hardly surprising, then, that so much of Rudd's response to the GFC - always involving more government meddling in markets - proved to be so disastrous.

When billions of dollars were made available for insulation schemes and school halls, the sudden imbalance of demand led to rorts and disasters that are still being picked through today.

In its own way, government meddling in Australian markets as a response to the GFC was just as disastrous as government meddling in the US housing market that started it all in the first place.

Wherever you find money, you will also find scammers. This is understood by every shopkeeper, but seems to have eluded the apparatchiks in the Rudd and Gillard governments every time.

Gillard, God bless her, is less inclined to write a treatise on economics during her holidays, but it would be hard to find someone less qualified to understand markets than a union lawyer who was a member of the Socialist Forum for the best part of her adult life.

With Australia's economic growth figures for the September quarter on a precipice at 0.2 per cent, Gillard wants to introduce a tax on mining, the one thing that kept Australia out of recession these past few years, and then get to work on a carbon price.

Now we hear that the government wants to legislate against exit fees in home loans, a measure that non-banks assure us will make them less competitive.

The truth is that the Gillard government has the same chronic problem that crippled the Rudd government: neither incarnation seems to have the faintest clue about markets.

Watching them blunder through each fresh initiative leaves you with a feeling of helplessness reminiscent of being an audience member at a kids' puppet show.

The idea that meddling in markets has a range of adverse consequences seems to be a source of constant surprise for this government. When this eventually affects our gross domestic product and our power bills, it will undoubtedly see it expelled.


Runaway growth of government must be stopped

This has been a terrible year for Canberra, as expressed in the reputation of the federal public service and the very idea that Canberra should be an imperial power within Australia, constantly expanding its reach into the rest of the nation.

Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, separated by a knife-edge in Parliament, need to think about the growth of federal power, the growth and cost of the federal bureaucracy, and the growth and cost of the national capital itself. It needs to stop.

This should be a point of difference between the Coalition and the big-spending Labor-Greens alliance, which is now trying to take 30 per cent of the GST revenue from the states and limit the rights of the states to impose their own taxes. The public approval of the federal government has shrunk to a dire bedrock of 34 per cent, expressed in recent opinion polls. This must reflect the government's dreadful combination of basic mediocrity and soaring ambition.

On average, every week brings a new debacle. In the past seven days we have seen the demise of three different federal interventions. First to go down was the $200 million Green Start energy loans program, which was a replacement for the disastrous Green Loans scheme. The government is stuck with a $30 million compensation bill for unwinding the thousands of jobs eliminated by ending the scheme.

Next to go down the policy chute was the Home Ownership on Indigenous Land scheme, which collapsed under the weight of its own inertia. The only measurable outcome was spending $10 million on public servants, who managed to provide 15 loans under the program, for a cluster of homes in the Tiwi Islands.

The week's third debacle was another backdown on the government's proposed new tax on the mining sector, with Gillard's minerals resource rent tax being dropped. This putative tax was itself a replacement for Kevin Rudd's proposed resource super profits tax, which was abandoned after it turned into an electoral disaster. And that tax was, in turn, part of the completely botched response to the comprehensive Henry tax reforms formulated by the head of the Treasury department, Ken Henry, who last week pulled the pin and announced his retirement.

The infamous pink batts blunder kept rolling along, with the South Australian government revealing that a third of the roof insulation jobs in the state were done illegally by unregistered operators.

That was last week. In the previous week the government's abject handling of the asylum seekers issue imploded in the waters off Christmas Island, while chronic backlogs in processing new arrivals spilled into new detention camps opening around the country.

The Labor-Greens alliance seems impervious to the reality that Canberra's track record of delivering services is not intrinsically better than that of the states, which have done the hard work of delivering health, transport, energy and education for more than 100 years. The federal government still wants to take 30 per cent of GST revenue in exchange for taking control of the hospital system, but has already alienated the states with high-handed demands, unrealistic deadlines and rigid processes. This is exactly the opposite direction – more centralisation and bureaucratisation – to what the hospital system needs.

The incorrigible imperialists of federal Labor have also picked a brawl with the states – specifically the engine room of Australia's exports, Western Australia and Queensland – by proposing to cap their ability to impose higher royalties on mining companies. Canberra wants to control all the extra revenue that can be extracted from the resource boom.

This leads into an unfolding blunder of potentially historic proportions, as great as the combined cost of the gold-plated Building the Education Revolution, the ill-fated home insulation scheme, the multibillion-dollar spending and debt binge of last year, the spiralling costs of the detention centres, the useless green and indigenous loan schemes and the financial black hole known as the national broadband network.

This is Labor's handling of the once-in-a-century resource boom, its suctioning away of revenue to pay for political debts in south-eastern Australia. Western Australia is crying out for revenue to invest in the infrastructure needed to expand and sustain its boom.

Rudd was the architect of this period of imperial overstretch by Canberra. He thought he could transform the federal bureaucracy, within months, into a major service provider. It was not and is not.

Rudd failed spectacularly and was sacked by his colleagues. His successor government was sacked by the public. The only reason it remains in power, as dysfunctional now as it was before the election, is that Labor was bailed out by the poseur from Port Macquarie, Rob Oakeshott, even as his electorate, in both the House and Senate votes, provided the second-largest anti-Labor vote in the nation. Oakeshott can take credit for every stuff-up by this government because he, more than any other, manufactured its now non-existent mandate for Canberra's expanding imperialism.


Coalition tips more problems for syllabus, warning it may be delayed beyond 2013

THE national school curriculum may not be ready for implementation even by 2013 because of fundamental problems and glaring omissions, the Coalition has warned.

Schools Education Minister Peter Garrett has also copped more criticism over his delivery of government initiatives, with opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne pointing to his management of the bungled home insulation scheme, green loans and solar panel programs.

The Australian reported today that Victoria was joining NSW and Western Australia in opting to delay implementation of the curriculum until 2013, despite the government's preferred timetable for the courses to be introduced next year.

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority said in a memo that it would spend the next two tears trialling and training teachers and refining the curriculum before starting to implement it.

Mr Pyne seized on the development, telling The Australian Online the curriculum still had key flaws and was not ready for implementation. “We have been warning for 18 months that the national curriculum would not be ready in January 2011,” he said.

It is cumbersome, overly prescriptive and lacks the resources necessary for the training of teachers and as a consequence it could never begin in January 2011,” he told The Australian Online.

Mr Pyne poured scorn on Mr Garrett who, following a meeting of the nation's education ministers earlier this month, claimed an historic victory after they endorsed the content of the first four subjects - English, mathematics, science and history - to be taught in classrooms. “I can only assume that Peter Garrett, in wanting to cover the back of his Prime Minister, pretended something had been achieved at the ministerial council that hadn't. “Because the real villain in the piece of the national curriculum is Julia Gillard, who of course was the minister responsible for its implementation.”

To ensure a smooth implementation of the curriculum, Mr Pyne said the government needed to listen to the “teaching profession and to the experts about what the curriculum should contain”. He warned its “fundamental basics” had not been bedded down and pointed out the history section didn't “acknowledge that the Vietnam War needs to be taught”. Mr Pyne said he wouldn't be surprised if the 2013 timeline “gets pushed out even further”.

Changes to the curriculum can be made until the deadline of October next year and this has the potential to affect teachers introducing courses in their classrooms next year.

Only the Australian Capital Territory will start teaching the new courses next year, with Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory spending the year familiarising teachers with the new courses and running trials.


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