Saturday, October 01, 2011

Barnaby: A maverick and a populist

The article below is an attempted put-down of Barnaby Joyce but does reveal some of his strengths too. The article portrays Joyce/Abbott as ignorant for not going all-out on zero tariffs but omits to mention that no country (At least any I can think of) does that. Even Switzerland has extensive industry protection.

And economists do acknowledge a special case in favor of some industry protection that they in fact call "The Australian case". The concept is that a country which produces goods going out of favor can reasonably protect the development of new industries in that country, preferably by way of a uniform tariff. And Australia's rural exports are a prize example of such a case, with wool going out of favor.

So while Barnaby speaks from instinct, his instincts are far from wholly wrong. I could go on about the national debt and why Australia's is low but I will leave that for another day

Barnaby Joyce readily shifts ground to win an argument. And he has more influence in the Coalition than many realise.

If you want to understand where Tony Abbott got his relentless, angry, barnstorming style of opposition campaigning, the key is contained in two words - Barnaby Joyce.

When Malcolm Turnbull was still Liberal leader, it was Joyce who pioneered the blustery, populist campaign against the Rudd government's carbon policy at a time when Abbott was advising his Liberal colleagues to just wave it through.

"I came up with the line that it's just a great big new tax," Joyce says proudly. "Even reluctantly, the insiders give me credit for that."

And in the trademark Barnaby style, he went on: "It was a statement of the bleeding obvious. Stick your head out the window, look up at the sky and ask yourself - can Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan change that?

"Even they admit they can't. So it's a gesture. How much money do you want to spend on a gesture? What's the moral precedence of that gesture? You could spend that money on AIDS or malaria, saving people's lives."

Colourful, concrete imagery; direct, abrupt language; original framing; deliberate oversimplification; policy non sequiturs; emotional appeal powered by moral outrage; passionate rhetoric. And all this leading to the harshest possible conclusion, that Labor government equals lives lost. Classic Barnaby.

Leading the uprising against the emissions trading scheme, the senator from Queensland split the Coalition on the issue of carbon policy. Turnbull negotiated the Liberals closer and closer to Labor while Joyce pulled further and further away.

At the very moment Turnbull clinched his deal with Rudd for bipartisan legislation, the Joyce rebellion reached critical mass in public opinion. Abbott, who had adroitly changed his public position on the emissions trading scheme only a week earlier, took the leadership by a single vote.

Joyce led, the Nationals followed, the Liberals came along behind.

Abbott was open in his admiration: "I think that Barnaby is a uniquely gifted retail politician," he said within a couple of days of taking the leadership. "I certainly want Barnaby on the frontbench." He made him the finance spokesman for the opposition, but that didn't work out so well.

Mixing up his millions and billions, warning of a possible US government default, scaring voters with his warnings of economic Armageddon, Joyce did not present as a credible economic policymaker. Abbott eventually removed him from the post. But months later, the US did indeed come close to default. Does Barnaby feel vindicated? "It's always annoyed me a little bit. Time has proved me right, but I didn't get the job back. I said it was a distant but real possibility that the US would default. They came within 10 hours - that's pretty bloody real!"

But was Joyce right about American default? He had warned that US government indebtedness would endanger its ability to keep up its repayments to its bondholders, the sort of trouble Greece is in today. Joyce was making a financial and economic forecast. But that was not the reason the US flirted with default this year. It was a political argument in Congress that threatened to cut US payments to bondholders. It was a matter of political will, not financial capacity. Joyce signalled the right risk, but for the wrong reason.

Nonetheless, if anything, he's even more passionate about debt than ever - this time, ours: "Sometimes my metaphors are a little abrupt and I get chided for that. People say there's gotta be more gloss and glamour. I scare people sometimes. But it obviously works. You can judge your approach by results - the US debt default, for example.

"What worries me is that the story goes on. I don't want our nation sleepwalking into default. When the debt was $100 billion you laughed at me. When the debt was $150 billion you laughed at me. When the debt was $200 billion you laughed at me. I'm just waiting for one day you might snap on and say, 'maybe we have a problem here'."

The federal government's gross debt is indeed more than $200 billion. At the end of the last financial year, it was $201.8 billion, according to the Treasury.

For perspective, this is the equivalent of 14.5 per cent of Australia's total economic output, as measured by gross domestic product. This compares with a ratio of an average 110 per cent in the major developed economies. As the US economist David Hale has observed: "Most other G20 governments are deeply envious of Australia's fiscal situation."

Swan makes the point that the net federal debt is only half as big. Net debt - that is, liabilities minus assets - was $84.6 billion last financial year, or 6.1 per cent of GDP. This compares to an average for the major developed countries of 75 per cent in 2010.

In other words, it's modest and manageable. The government projects that its net debt will peak at 7.2 per cent of GDP this financial year, and fall thereafter. But Joyce is having none of it.

"Once you say net, I'm going to challenge you," he fires. He puts these qualifiers on the government's debt figures. First, says Joyce, the Commonwealth has guaranteed about $50 billion in state debt, so its true liabilities are bigger than claimed. (The budget lists this as a contingent liability, some of which has been repaid, now worth $39.5 billion at June 30.)

Second, that the government counts as assets about $75 billion held in the Future Fund. He makes the point that this is supposed to pay for the eventual retirement of federal public servants "so they are using one credit card to pay off another credit card". Third, he says that the government counts as assets money that students owe as HECS or HELP debt, now in the budget at $15.5 billion.

During the Howard government, Treasury used the same accounting methods as the Gillard government's Treasury, so its figuring would have been the same. But even so, even if you accept all of Joyce's qualifications and adjust government debt accordingly, it would still amount to a net debt of $213.7 billion. It would still amount to only about 15 per cent of GDP, still modest and manageable by historical standards and by all international standards.

Wouldn't it Barnaby? "Look at Ireland at the start of the last global financial crisis. Its net debt was 11 per cent." Ireland's situation in 2008 bears no resemblance to Australia's today, but we've heard enough of Joyce's debating style to see that it's reminiscent of Paul Keating's. Neither man will enjoy the comparison. But both aim not for a factual discovery or a dialectical search for an objective truth in the course of a debate, but for emotional dominance. Like Keating, Joyce will readily shift ground, move the goalposts, to win an argument. Neither will take a backward step. It's not chiefly about facts, it's about willpower.

With his deep concern about debt, Joyce could be expected to be an ardent supporter of the Coalition's stated aim of finding $70 billion in savings in federal spending. But no. "It infuriates me whenever I hear that $70 billion being bandied about. It's not my role," says the opposition spokesman for regional development, local government and water. "It's Joe Hockey's role" as shadow treasurer. "But I don't concur with that figure of $70 billion to start with. It's substantially less than that." Because in scrapping a carbon tax, he says, the Coalition would not only lose revenue but also the expense of compensation, and this is not factored into the $70 billion.

He's right, it's not his portfolio. But, as Peter Costello observed of Joyce this week: "These days he is apparently free to speak on all areas of policy". Joyce says he has a very good relationship with his leader. "You wonder if he listens to you, then you hear something you said to him in one of his speeches."

In fact, within the Coalition, Joyce is seen as an Abbott favourite. Frontbenchers also think Abbott does a good job of managing Joyce: "He can be very good, but he's sometimes, frankly, outlandish. Tony does a good job of containing a lot of that."

Costello evidently thinks Abbott doesn't contain him enough. In fact, Costello seems to think that Abbott and Joyce are too much alike for the Liberal Party's good.

In his column in the Herald this week, Costello pointed out the dominance of Catholics and Catholic-educated politicians in the party's leadership. He also pointed out the historical relationship between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Labor Party, the fiercely anti-communist splinter group that broke with Labor in the 1950s and ultimately disappeared in the 1970s. Costello pointed out that senior Liberals including Abbott did some work with the DLP in their youth. And he pointed out that the DLP favoured a good deal of intervention and regulation of the economy.

Subtly but clearly associating Abbott with Joyce, Costello wrote that Joyce seemed "to have an affinity with the old regulated order of the Australian economy".

He said Joyce's protectionist view was "certainly a DLP idea. It might be held in some parts of the Nationals, but it is certainly not a Liberal idea." He went on to urge Abbott not to rule out labour market liberalisation.

Costello's larger point is that an Abbott-Joyce Coalition is shaping up to be a very different sort of government to a Howard-Costello one.

Joyce himself recoils from Howard as any sort of template. Asked whether the Howard government was as mistaken as Labor in proposing an emissions trading scheme, Joyce replies: "I don't have a card for John Howard stuck up on my mantelpiece."

The character of an Abbott government will be a question that will play on the minds of many Liberals as the next election approaches. Who will it resemble more closely - John Howard or Barnaby Joyce?


The hatreds of Julian Burnside QC

Julian Burnside is both a Leftist and a very successful barrister (trial lawyer) so there is no doubt either of his intellectual firepower or the power of his hatreds. In the article below you will encounter nothing other than abuse of conservatives. There is no attempt at a rational argument at all. And that from a distinguished barrister! So it is clear that the foaming hate in him could indeed have generated the abusive Twitter post apparently aimed at Tony Abbott. It could well be that only his awareness of torts caused him to deny the aim of the comment

An example of a rational comment that he might have made were he less enveloped in rage is: "Book says Abbott's attitude to abortion alienates women".

PROMINENT Queen's Counsel Julian Burnside has issued an apology to Tony Abbott after tweeting "Paedos in speedos" during a stream of critical remarks about the Opposition Leader on Twitter.

Mr Burnside said last night he had not intended to suggest Mr Abbott was a pedophile and his Twitter gaffe was only meant to be a private reply to a "rather weak pun about church people".

The barrister has become the latest casualty of the social networking site. Last year, comedian Catherine Deveny lost her regular column in Fairfax's The Age after she tweeted that she hoped child star Bindi Irwin "gets laid" at the Logies. Indigenous lawyer Larissa Behrendt came under fire for suggesting on Twitter that watching bestiality during a television show was "less offensive than Bess Price" - an indigenous activist who is in favour of the Northern Territory intervention.

The Opposition Leader, renowned for wearing Speedos during ocean swimming events, declined to comment on the Twitter remark, but media lawyers said Mr Burnside's comment could be seen to be defamatory.

Mr Burnside's Twitter comment came a day after he used a radio interview about the Andrew Bolt racial discrimination case to say that society had formed a view that there were "limits to what you can say that might vilify or hurt other people".

The Melbourne-based human rights lawyer had been using the social networking site to comment on a new book, Tony Abbott: A Man's Man, by Susan Mitchell, which is highly critical of Mr Abbott. He tweeted " 'sexist' Abbott blasted in new book" and shared the view that the Liberal leader was "a dangerous man with no moral compass".

Mr Burnside said he received a private message and replied to it with the comment "Paedos in speedos" - a remark he said he had heard on the BBC comedy Matt and George last week.

Mr Burnside said that he could not recall whether the message he was replying to was a comment from @RobertaWedge, asking: "@JulianBurnside Are sexist abbots like predator priests?"

Mr Burnside continued to criticise Mr Abbott on Twitter. "The leader shapes the government," he wrote. "Abbott is seriously dangerous, not least because he is a massive hypocrite."

He said he only realised after returning to Twitter hours later that his comment had been interpreted as an attack on Mr Abbott, and had been tweeted to his more than 5000 followers. He then quickly wrote: "Abbott is certainly not a pedophile. Comment was 1:1 reply to a remark about p. priests. Sorry for misunderstanding."

He added: "This is unprompted apology to #Abbott. He is NOT a pedophile and I was not referring to him. He has many flaws, but that is not one of them."

Five hours later, the QC continued to apologise on the social networking site: "I apologise for THAT tweet - apologies to Abbott and to anyone who was offended. It was NOT about Abbott. My blunder."

Mr Burnside said last night he could understand how his comments could have been interpreted as an attack on Mr Abbott, given the way in which a stream of posts on Twitter works.

"I am not sure how many times you can apologise for a mistake," he said last night.

"I really am genuinely sorry. I am critical of Mr Abbott on a number of grounds and I wouldn't want those criticisms to be diminished because people think I throw around utterly baseless, careless allegations."

Mr Burnside has recently used his Twitter account to discuss the Federal Court judgment that Bolt - columnist for News Limited, publisher of The Australian - had breached the Racial Discrimination Act. Media lawyer Justin Quill, who led Bolt's legal team, said Mr Burnside's initial "Paedos in speedos" comment was clearly defamatory. "That something was an accident is not an excuse," he said. "However, Julian's very sensible and prompt response would mean that it probably wouldn't be worth Mr Abbott taking legal action because any damages are unlikely to be significant."

There is no indication that Mr Abbott, who sued author Bob Ellis for defamation, will take action against Mr Burnside. Mr Burnside said last night: "I am not going to give legal advice . . . I would hope no one would take seriously or infer a comment like that would be true of him (Mr Abbott)."


Good manners and civility a key to success

So with their unrelenting rage, Leftists undermine themselves. Not mentioned below, probably because it is unnecessary, is the unfailing civility of one of America's most influential presidents, Ronald Reagan

This week we have seen an extraordinary media focus on the judgment in the Bolt case. Strikes me the subsequent "conversation" in the community is lacking something. Civility.

As one tweep reminded me this week, former Prime Minister John Howard once said "people who exercise free speech have an obligation to do so in a sensitive and caring fashion. That has always been my credo." But Howard also said: "It has also been my credo that, if someone disagrees with the prevailing orthodoxy of the day, that person should not be denigrated as a narrow-minded bigot."

Either way what has been missing in recent years is what our mothers used to call "good manners". I mention this because the one universal trait I have witnessed in the truly successful political and business leaders I've met is courtesy and civility.
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I have found manners to be the clearest window into the character of people. Why?

Don Argus was fond of making a cup of tea for his guests. Finding the time to make a cup of tea for people demonstrates that he was not "hassled", that his office was running efficiently enough that he had the time for this simple courtesy. It demonstrated that he was not overwhelmed by being the CEO of one of Australia's largest banks.

John Howard would always make a genuine inquiry about someone's interests or the health of their family. In doing so he was demonstrating that he was not self-centered, that he was genuinely interested in what was going on outside his prime ministerial cocoon. In doing so he was also signalling that his time with them was an important investment for him, earning loyalty and respect. In fact on one occasion a colleague brought his two young boys in for a quick snap with the then PM, but ended up leaving 45 minutes later after Howard had given the boys a personal tour of his office, shared tea and biscuits and discussed the rugby and sports with them. Given that this happened the afternoon before a state reception for the Queen, the effort was pretty extraordinary, and importantly, never forgotten by the colleague. So manners help loyalty, then.

Former New Zealand National Party leader Don Brash, in his past life, was fond of tapping away on his smart phone while in meetings. This sent a signal at a very personal level to many he met that he was not prepared to listen, and his commitments to them and indeed to the country were formed not on the basis of understanding but of ideology and tactics.

Despite his entertaining personality, privately Boris Johnson will make sure he takes the time to carefully listen to his guests' opinions, ideas and criticism that shows an openness of thinking. He remains courteous and good-humoured even when being confronted with criticism or anger. This shows an open and flexible mind willing to embrace new ideas, rather than rely on his charisma or intellect which could be confronting to others. I have found Andrew Bolt to be the same.

Certainly online conversation mediums are making good manners harder. For one, while "convenient", the online conversation is not "intimate" - there is no need for the special investment that good manners require. I'm as guilty as anyone here. Indeed the "quick draw" nature of forums like Twitter lend themselves to anger and energy, rarely patience or civility. As the blogger Dragonista counsels: "a two-drink limit should always be followed on twitter".

Much has been made in the mainstream media of the growing negativity in politics and the ruthlessness of business. My metrics would indicate that this has always been a factor in both. Perhaps what is missing though is what I first learnt in Territory politics and that is to play politics and business like you would a game of rugby: hard on the field, but to the rules, in the spirit of the game, with some simple courtesies before and after the game to demonstrate there is something bigger at stake. That is the nature of a civil society; not the absence of conflict but the presence of civility, respect and the acceptance that there is a diversity of views out there.

Our mums used to say "don't forget your manners". We should make this a practice rather than relying on laws to make our society civil.


Bolt tongue tied

Adam Creighton

Sometimes it takes an injustice to beget justice. So it may be with Andrew Bolt’s infringement of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975, as a result of articles he wrote in 2009 suggesting that some people claim ‘aboriginality’ for personal gain (a logical certainty at the very least).

Probably not many Australians knew the extent to which courts and government curtail freedom of expression. They do now.

Snuck into the Act by the Keating government in 1995, Section 18C outlaws expressing views in public that encompass ‘race’ and offend people of a particular ‘race.’ Australian courts are now spending valuable public resources inquiring into whether and to what extent people have been offended.

If that is not gratuitous and silly enough, Judge Bromberg’s interpretation appears sorely wanting. Section 18D allows exemptions for ‘fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.’

Judge Bromberg, a former Labor party pre-selection contender, ignored that part because ‘of the manner in which the articles were written [which included] inflammatory and provocative language’! It is not for the judge to pass judgment on the quality or tenor of a particular communication when such criteria are absent from the relevant law.

Moreover, he ignored the title of the relevant sections of the Act, which explicitly refer to ‘behaviour based on racial hatred.’

Bolt’s articles patently had nothing to do with racial hatred. Nevertheless, the judge believed the term had a ‘broader field of operation ... infused by the values of human dignity and equality.’ That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s not what the law says.

It will be surprising if the High Court does not strike down this verdict.

This outcome is also a reminder of the inconsistency and hypocrisy such laws engender. It is quite OK, for instance, for Larissa Behrendt (one of the complainants in the case and NSW Australian of the Year) to claim in public that fellow Aborigine Bess Price is more offensive than a man having sex with a horse because of Price’s views on Aboriginal policy. But it is not OK for Bolt to highlight the perverse incentives created by well-meaning laws.

More generally, using laws to shape people’s morals is ineffective and wasteful. To paraphrase former High Court Justice Harry Gibbs, if we reach a point where we need to codify our morals, then there’s probably not much worth codifying.


Race law should ensure the primacy of free speech

Below are some letters to the editor about Andrew Bolt appearing in today's "Australian"

THE main problem with the Racial Discrimination Act's now notorious section 18C is that it lacks one word: intent.

Judge Mordecai Bromberg was free to impute the effect of Andrew Bolt's words on the complainants, without having to consider whether he meant to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate".

There is a way to avoid this problem. In 2006, when the Blair government responded to British Muslim sensitivities with its Racial and Religious Hatred Act, the House of Lords forced amendments that require a prosecutor to demonstrate an intention to stir up religious hatred.

The protection of freedom of religion clause reads:

"Nothing in this shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system."

An amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act containing that absolute assertion of priorities would ensure the primacy of free speech.

Geoffrey Luck, Killara, NSW


SINCE the first newspapers emerged in the 17th century, journalists have caused offence and made mistakes. They have been punished severely by the state for so doing.

Freedom of the press simply means the freedom to offend people and make mistakes without any intervention whatsoever from the state.

John Henningham, Director, Jschool Journalism College, Brisbane, Qld


I AM gobsmacked. Did a Greens senator from South Australia really write to this newspaper (Letters, 30/9) to say "diddums" to Andrew Bolt?

Surely it didn't actually happen? Surely it was a mindless tweet from some immature schoolgirl, not a note from one of the leaders of our nation?

The juvenile vacuity of the Greens is stunning. Sarah Hanson-Young is a disgrace, but it's the voters of South Australia who should be ashamed of themselves.

Andrew Davey, Perth, WA


LAUD or lament the finding against Andrew Bolt, the reality is more complex than some commentators seem able to admit.

Like George Brandis, I have reservations about laws governing racial vilification ("Section 18C has no place in a society that values freedom of expression", 30/9).

While I sympathise with the intentions behind such legislation, I also believe it risks making bigots into martyrs by having their opinions silenced instead of contested openly in the marketplace of ideas. However, if Bolt had got his facts straight, no adverse finding would have occured. As the judge, Mordecai Bromberg, said:

"Nothing in the orders I make should suggest it is unlawful for a publication to deal with racial identification, including by challenging the genuineness of the identification of a group of people."

I would have preferred to see the plaintiffs sue for libel, instead of having Bolt charged under the hopelessly broad section 18C. But the judgment against him is still partly the result of Bolt's own shoot first, ask questions later approach.

Ben Adams, Park Holme, SA


MY grandfather was born a Bavarian in Bavaria and my grand-children, even though they are obviously not Bavarian, can believe themselves to be fair dinkum Bavarians and call themselves Bavarians if they want to.

But I would find it exceedingly odd if they felt insulted and humiliated if anyone dared to challenge their status as Bavarians.

If the law of the land says otherwise, then let us change the law. It did not come to us from heaven.


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