Sunday, March 06, 2011

Ditch the Greens

YOU have to feel for Julia Gillard, the grand negotiator. Saddled with a minority Government, she has to appease the Greens and accommodate the silky Bob Brown, while throwing a few bones to Nick Xenophon and Andrew Wilkie and buttering up the turncoat independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, mopping their brows when the heat gets too much. All the while she has to make sure she doesn't venture so far into Left-loony land that her own MPs revolt.

Can you imagine what a nightmare for the Prime Minister those daily cups of tea with the Greens and independents have become? She must just feel like picking up the Earl Grey and smashing it against a wall.

No wonder Bob Brown looks pleased with himself, striding around Canberra like the Deadly Mantis, dispensing his wisdom to all and sundry. He can't believe his luck, as Gillard cedes her power and authority. He smells total capitulation to his world view, with the shadowy shock troops of GetUp at his disposal.

It was his carbon tax that opened up the fault line Gillard is struggling to straddle now, as angry voters bombard Labor MPs' offices with emails complaining about the Green colonisation of Labor's soul.

They're the people who really count -- Labor's authentic base, the working families in suburban seats, the aspirational classes for whom soaring electricity and fuel costs aren't some theoretical exercise but a painful daily reality. Working people employed by BlueScope Steel are Labor's base, not inner-city greenies with protected salaries.

And nothing will alienate them quicker than Green demands that petrol be included in the carbon tax, no matter how Brown tries to sugarcoat it. As Graham Richardson told Gillard: include petrol and you're dead (memo to Tony Windsor: that's not a death threat).

So why doesn't Gillard just tell Bob Brown to go to hell? Stop the cups of tea. Call his bluff, for the sake of the nation. The Greens will never side with Tony Abbott, anyway. He is the anti-Christ to them.

The Greens are the party of punishers and straighteners, the wowsers of the 21st century, the fun police, the Malthusian pessimists, the pinched-faced moralists lecturing the rest of us on our sins. They are defined by what they are against: humans, mainly, and everything that makes life civilised, from cars and air-conditioning to industry and traditional families.

They have only one lousy vote out of 150 in the House of Representatives. Yet Brown already looks like the cat that swallowed the canary. He'll be insufferable come July 1 when the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate.

Gillard was happy enough to break a promise to the Australian people that she'd never bring in a carbon tax. So why not break the pact with Brown she signed so memorably in that Ribbentrop-esque tableau last September? Why not take on the Greens, expose them, cost their policies, hold them up to the light?

She is making Brown look prime ministerial. And for what? There's no rule in politics that says you have to dance with the one who brought you. What is the worst Brown can do? Stamp his feet. He knows the Greens are vulnerable to the wrath of the people, just as the independents are.

In Ireland, which just about went broke under its coalition Green government, the Greens party has been wiped out, with all six Green MPs losing their seats in the general election.

In any case, why should Labor reward the Greens, when it was the Greens who put the wrecking ball through Kevin Rudd's government, refusing to endorse his ETS and setting in train the events that led to his downfall, and to Labor's close shave at the polls?

Look at how Ted Baillieu was rewarded in Victoria for his decision not to preference the Greens. Barry O'Farrell looks set to do the same in NSW in three weeks, billing the election as a referendum on a carbon tax. It is shaping up to be a bloodbath for Labor, with polls showing the Keneally Government has sunk to a 23 per cent primary vote.

Most people have figured out the tax will do nothing to stop global warming, since Australia accounts for only 1.4 per cent of global emissions. Internal Liberal polling in NSW marginal seats reportedly shows 75 per cent of voters don't see the tax as helping the environment; more than half regard it as a cost-of-living issue.

The backlash in NSW bodes ill for Windsor and Oakeshott too. Peter Besseling, Oakeshott's protege in Port Macquarie, is set for a wipeout. When Oakeshott announced he would campaign for three country independents, they must have been looking for a rock to slip under.

Tony Abbott quoted Macbeth in Parliament last week but King Lear is the most relevant of Shakespeare's tragedies today. Like Windsor and Oakeshott, who forgot they owed their position to their constituents, Lear offers his kingdom to whichever of his daughters shows him the most love. He chooses Goneril and Regan (Gillard and Swan), who flatter him most, a foolish decision for which he is driven mad with grief. It ends badly for everyone.


Gay marriage stance could ruin PM

THERE are two key questions around the issue of gay marriage. One is the pretty straight-forward question of whether you support it or not, and the polls suggest it is line ball.

The other question is whether you support the idea of politicians keeping their promises. I haven't seen the polling on that but I would presume that no research firm has bothered to do any, as you would expect about 100 per cent of people to answer 'yes, politicians should obviously keep their promises, what a silly question to ask'.

Having gone to the last election saying there would be no carbon tax under a government she leads, Julia Gillard will now be introducing one on July 1 next year.

It's a serious breach of voter confidence and one which has done her serious political damage. As many have argued, when John Howard changed his mind on the GST, which he promised to never ever introduce, he at least had the decency to return to the polls in 1998 to let the voters re-elect or turf him on a clearly-stated platform of tax reform.

Gillard's promise not to introduce a carbon tax was almost as unequivocal as Howard's on the goods and services tax, yet she failed to give the voters a chance to accept or reject her change of heart. It may yet be the issue which costs her power at the next election.

At a time when the Prime Minister is struggling to maintain her credibility over the carbon tax backflip, it is truly bizarre that there are some within the Labor Party who are now trying to bludgeon her into a similar backflip over the question of gay marriage.

Despite her lengthy membership of Labor's Left Faction, which has long regarded gay marriage as a cause worth fighting for, Gillard has taken a clear and frequently-stated stance against same-sex unions. She spent much of the election campaign saying it is her view and the party's view that marriage is between a man and woman.

At the instigation of the Greens, and with the active support of several members of the Labor Left, Labor Caucus has now signed off on legislation which would prevent the Commonwealth from interfering if gay marriage were legalised in the territories.

The political issues are twofold. Hot on the heels of her nasty little fib over the carbon tax, it puts Julia Gillard at risk of looking like a liar all over again as a result of her oft-stated insistence that only heterosexual couples be allowed to marry.

More ominously, it emphasises the growing public view that this Labor Government is bright green on the inside, that Julia Gillard has one hand on the steering wheel and is sharing it with everyone from Bob Brown, Adam Bandt and Christine Milne to country independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.

You could also throw in the question of priorities -- is this really such an important issue for the Government to busy itself with? Surely working out how a carbon tax can operate without belting household budgets is a more pressing task?

Julia Gillard went to the trouble this week of outlining the major policy differences between Labor and the Greens. The fact that she went to these lengths was a clear sign that she is worried that voters think it is not her but the likes of Bob Brown calling the shots.

Julia Gillard has very few arguments at her disposal to explain her U-turn on carbon.

If Labor's Left wants to force the Prime Minister to break another of her promises, it should do so in the knowledge that it is writing the script for the Coalition's negative advertisements for the next election campaign, depicting a government which has not one but several leaders and cannot be taken on its word.

None of those observations by the way have anything to do with the concept of gay marriage. I suspect many voters don't really care about the issue. It would be another broken promise, which would make the Greens look even more like the Government of the day, on an issue which many voters rank well down on the list of importance.


Millions wasted on windmills and the like while Australia's roads go to pot

Public investment reached a peak of 6 per cent of gross domestic product in the 1960s as the population boomed and sparked a rush to clear a backlog of public works that had built up during the war years.

Since those halcyon days, government spending on social needs such as education, health and welfare has steadily snared a much bigger slice of the pie, leaving less to spend on so-called "hard infrastructure" such as roads and railways. It has left the country saddled with antiquated transport systems.

Infrastructure Australia calculates the nation has a $300 billion backlog - $13,287 for every man, woman and child - in infrastructure spending over the next decade. Some estimates are closer to $700 billion. Set up by Kevin Rudd to co-ordinate public and private investment, Infrastructure Australia has drawn up a "strategic blueprint" for the country's needs, which includes a long overdue upgrade to the Pacific Highway, road and rail building in Sydney and commuter transport in Melbourne. Industry lobby groups, too, have their own lengthy wish-list of projects.

But without money and political will, plans remain just that.

"It's a matter of money at the end of the day and there are many calls on the government purse," says Sir Rod Eddington, the chairman of Infrastructure Australia. "One of the reasons why we need to take a much more robust look at how the private sector can participate with infrastructure is [because] federal and state governments simply no longer have the cash to do all the things that are needed."

As motorists in the major cities sit in cars gridlocked on highways and commuters stew in packed trains, they cannot help but contemplate a sense of Australia falling behind. Doing nothing about traffic congestion in the capital cities is costing the economy $12.9 billion a year, according to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics. With the population growing rapidly, this cost is set to rise to $20 billion a year by 2020.

Penny Bingham-Hall, a former strategy boss at the construction company Leighton, says Australia is lagging behind other nations in infrastructure construction because of its "chronic lack of investment and the short-termism of our political thinking".

"Australians like to think of their country as a modern developed nation and think of Asia as Third-World. But the world is changing," she says. "When I first started travelling to Asia 20 years ago that thinking may have been accurate but now Asia is boasting some of the best infrastructure in the world."

Japan has long had some of the best and most technologically advanced transport systems in the world. Across the East China Sea, an emerging superpower has been building infrastructure at an astonishing rate, laying thousands of kilometres of new rail lines. China is spending about 11 per cent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure.

In Beijing - whose population is about the same as Australia's - more than 150 kilometres of underground urban railway have been built over the last five years. "You just have to get on the metro system in Hong Kong or Singapore, or get a high-speed train in Japan or China, or attend a convention in Kuala Lumpur," Bingham-Hall says. "Sure, our cities are not as densely populated as Hong Kong or in Europe but we are a wealthy country."

Peter Stopher, a professor of transport planning at the University of Sydney, agrees Australia is a "long way behind where it ought to be", especially in intercity motorways.

Stopher, who lived in the US for 32 years before coming to Australia, says America's superior interstate highway system stems from 1956, when the US government established the Highway Trust Fund. It redirected federal taxes on fuel to the construction of an extensive highway system.

He is quick to point out that the Highway Trust Fund is not necessarily the best model because it focused on building a motorway system that was arguably responsible for the US finding itself too reliant on the car.

It creates a quandary for governments facing ever-growing demands for health, education and welfare. Eddington, a former boss of British Airways and chairman of Ansett, believes state governments need to take a hard look at selling existing infrastructure to release capital for investment in other infrastructure.

"Governments have got less room to move than they used to have. One of the ways they can give themselves more room given the call on the public purse is to sell existing infrastructure," he says. "The more difficult question is whether the community would support deficit spending into infrastructure. This is a difficult issue because states and the federal government have been zealous in their attempts to ensure they run a viable entity. They don't want large chunks of debt hanging around their neck."

Eddington stresses that there is "no silver bullet". "If you build unwisely, then you will build infrastructure that doesn't resolve the infrastructure bottlenecks. It is a political challenge as well as an economic challenge."


Erratic Gillard is no Thatcher

By Jeff Kennett, a former premier of Victoria

THE Prime Minister and her fragile Government fall short of what the electorate expects. The very future of the ALP hinges on Julia Gillard's wayward strategy.

JULIA Gillard is no Margaret Thatcher. She has always been ambitious. There is no greater example of that than last year, when although Kevin Rudd's "loyal deputy" she dumped him to pursue her own ambitions to lead the Labor Party and become Prime Minister.

The major reasons Gillard gave at the time were that the Labor Party had lost its way under Kevin Rudd, he had become a one-man show, and the majority of her colleagues had come to her, wanting her to lead the ALP.

That's history, but what's changed? My sources in the Labor Party at a federal level tell me nothing has changed. Instead of Rudd and his kitchen Cabinet of four - Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner - the current leadership of the Government is equally void of internal consultations, and Cabinet and backbenchers read about government policy through media reports.

The frustration levels among federal Labor about its leadership have not been higher since 2007. Increasingly, policy is being made on the run, to placate the Greens or independents, and is being announced without any detailed consideration being given to the substance of the policy and how it will actually be implemented, let alone an appreciation of the costs involved.

Let's use the announcement of the Federal Government's carbon tax last week as a prime example of policy formulated on the run.

The policy was announced without any detail of substance, except:

WHATEVER funds were collected from the tax would be returned to lower-income households so the tax would not adversely affect such households. This is a stupid policy because it simply encourages such households to keep using the products generated from the use of carbon as there is no penalty not to do so. The more wasteful lower-income families might be, the more subsidies they will receive.

AUSTRALIAN households will pay a carbon tax but there will be no tax applied to the millions of tonnes of coal Australia exports to other countries, which will then use our cheap coal to pollute the atmosphere quicker than ever before. This is hypocritical policy.

NO DETAIL was given as to the application of the carbon tax. For example, would it be applied to petroleum products?

AUSTRALIA will be the first country in the world to introduce a carbon tax that will add huge costs to industry and some households, but will have less than 1 per cent impact on the world's carbon levels. In essence, we are putting at risk Australia's competitiveness with our trading partners.

THE POLICY position was announced by the Prime Minister and her Climate Change Minister, Greg Combet, on February 24. With them, nodding and smiling, were senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne of the Greens, and independents Tony Windsor and Bob Oakeshott. The clear perception is that the Greens and independents now drive government policy.

THE POLICY announcement was a betrayal of the community on the basis of a personal commitment from Gillard in the last week of the election campaign only seven months ago. Dishonest politics betrays community trust in the Prime Minister and the Government she leads.

The least the Prime Minister should have done, as John Howard did when he changed his position on the need for the introduction of a GST, was to take the issue back to the community at the next federal election, and let the electorate vote on the policies then on offer.

There are clearly two distinct issues here: the arguments for and against the introduction of a carbon tax and the Prime Minister's betrayal of trust. I suspect the latter will be resolved more quickly than the former.

Over the past few days Gillard has been compared with Baroness Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979-1990. Be assured Gillard is no Thatcher.

The latter served 11 years as an MP before she became a minister in 1970 under prime minister Edward Heath. She became Opposition leader in 1975, and the first female prime minister in 1979. She was a highly experienced politician, with clear views and such a heightened level of consistency, that words she used about herself were often used by others to describe her: "This lady is not for turning."

Gillard has turned so often in the past 12 months, one has great trouble understanding what she or her Government stands for today, or whether a position communicated today will be acted on or reversed tomorrow. It is hardly the sort of environment in which individuals or businesses can be expected to plan and operate with confidence.

I am not opposed to an education program or even legislation that will have us - either as individuals or as industry - think and act more responsibly about the conduct of our affairs in order to reduce levels of manmade pollution.

Programs on road safety, smoking and even water use have all changed community and industry behaviour over time. The same should and could happen with polluting practices.

But such a policy should be clearly thought through, and all the various ramifications understood, before such a policy is publicly released, to ensure the public can have confidence in the new position. Certainly any fresh direction should not put Australia's fragile economy at risk.

I have a good personal relationship with Prime Minister Gillard, although maybe not after this honest assessment. But sometimes the truth, while no doubt hurting, can deliver better outcomes. I hope so in this case.

I had an excellent relationship with Paul Keating who, when prime minister, assisted my government to make the hard decisions necessary to rebuild Victoria's economy.

The underlying value of my relationship with Keating was based on the fact that once he gave his word, his commitment was absolutely ironclad. He never changed his mind and, as a result, we had that vital certainty on which to continue our policies to rebuild the state.

JULIA Gillard needs to take a lesson from Keating and for that matter Thatcher as well. My fear is that we have a Government in name but not in practice; we have a Prime Minister in name but not in practice. We might have a manager or a good number cruncher elevated to a leadership role who, sadly, is not a leader.

There is still time for this reality or perception to be changed. Short of a by-election that increases the Opposition's tally by one, and a change of government occurring, I believe this Government will serve its full term.

The independents, Oakeshott and Windsor in particular, will certainly do everything they can to support the Government as they will not want to face the wrath of their electorates, which they deserted when helping Labor form government. Neither will be re-elected, nor should they be, and their employment options beyond Parliament will be self-employment options.

Gillard and her Government need to take time out, review their behaviour over the past seven months and decide whether they are going to deliver more of the same, in which case God help us all and goodbye Labor; or whether the past seven months - in particular the past eight weeks - will be seen as a wake-up call, and make the necessary changes to provide thoughtful and consistent policy leadership.

Australia needs the latter, otherwise this period of prosperity, when we should be building on our strengths, will be lost for all time.


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