Sunday, February 05, 2012

Leftist fear and loathing of a mining magnate

By Ian Hanke (Ian Hanke is director of communications and strategy for the H. R. Nicholls Society)

LIKE many people who write about her, I don't know Gina Rinehart. But I think I would like to. A person who can stir so much passion and debate would, I think, be stimulating company.

The mining magnate, Australia's richest person, appears to be someone whose mere name spreads alarm throughout the left. Among the cadres of sometimes complacent and compliant journalists, she is deemed to be a right-wing ogre.

It seems that by taking a substantial shareholding in Fairfax Media (which owns this newspaper as well as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review), this one person is going to tear down society - and the media will be a tool, putty in her hands, to do just that.

The left try to tarnish her because her views are not in accord with their own.

Rinehart's views, according to people who don't know her, are on the "far right of the political spectrum", as academic and former Greens candidate Clive Hamilton told readers of this page yesterday. Rinehart has been vilified because she appears not to share the left's concerns about climate change and because she is advocating turning the north of Australia into a special economic zone with tax breaks.

Nothing new in that; it has been advocated for years.

Apparently she knows the businessman Hugh Morgan, who was instrumental in setting up the H. R. Nicholls Society, which advocates workplace relations reform. And Morgan, we are told, is also close to the - shock, horror - Institute of Public Affairs, which supports liberalism and a free market.

It is clear Rinehart must be a fiend, albeit via association.

And some sections of the media are quick to snap up this "conspiracy". According to some reports, Rinehart has "extreme views" on Australia's economic direction and her raid on the Fairfax share register is about "wielding influence and gaining political access in the corridors of Canberra", rather than being the action of an investor.

Yet this is a dubious proposition. With a reported worth of $20 billion, Rinehart already has access and influence.

And she has been dabbling in the media for the past couple of years. In 2010 she bought a substantial stake in Channel Ten. It is alleged, without much evidence, she was responsible for The Bolt Report, the show hosted by controversial columnist Andrew Bolt - and, of course, Bolt is anathema to the left because he refuses to bow to their orthodoxy.

Yet let us just say, for the sake of argument, that Rinehart was indeed responsible for the commissioning of The Bolt Report. That program, with its "unorthodox view", consistently out-rates Ten's more traditional Meet the Press. People seem to like watching The Bolt Report, where alternative views are given an airing. Can't have that, can we?

And now, by increasing her stake in Fairfax, Rinehart has again rattled the cages of the self-appointed cognoscenti, those guardians of the left who believe they, and only they, have correct policy settings for Australia - and that you should be damned if you disagree.

Certainly, it would seem Rinehart does not share the left's values, and good luck to her for that. We do, after all, live in a pluralistic society in which we should foster alternative views.

Yet some on the left seem to believe her views should preclude Rinehart from sitting on the Fairfax board if she gets the required shareholding.

What is wrong with a person with an alternative view of the world to that of the self-appointed guardians of the media sitting on the board of a media company? Nothing, I say. In fact, I say this could be damn good for Australia.

Fairfax is a company that has been ailing for some time. Its share price has collapsed. Five years ago it was selling at about $5 a share. It had fallen to as low as 54¢ recently and is now about 80¢ after Rinehart's foray. For shareholders in Fairfax, the value of their holdings has gone up by about 15 per cent since her move. Surely that is good news.

Instead of reading this foray as some dreadful attack, it should be embraced as a sign that one of Australia's most successful business operatives has endorsed not only an ailing business empire but also the media sector more broadly, which has also been languishing. To me, the investment, alongside her 10 per cent stake in Ten, signals there is still value in traditional media, even as the world moves to new platforms.

If Rinehart does take up a board position at Fairfax, it is to be hoped she brings the dynamism to the task that has made her what she is.

Fairfax needs an injection of new ideas. We have already seen some: the appointment of Greg Hywood as CEO and new editors at the AFR. But the company has long been in need of a radical shake-up and Rinehart, with her acumen and alternative view of the world, may well help provide it.

So I say, good luck to her. If she acts as some kind of lightning rod for change at Fairfax, that will surely be a good thing - except for those who feel only those in accord with their own view of the world should sit on a media company's board.

And, who knows, maybe her appointment will act as a catalyst for views other than the left's orthodoxy to be seen and read across the broadsheet mainstream of the Fairfax empire.


They do: Qld sets same-sex union date

Queensland's first same-sex civil unions are set to occur in a month's time, a move Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser is heralding as the sign of a “modern, progressive state”.

The enactment of the civil partnerships law will come three months after it was passed with support from most Labor MPs and one independent but opposed by the Liberal National Party and other crossbenchers.

The state government will today announce the law formally commences on February 23, meaning the first civil unions could occur on March 5, following the 10-day waiting period required after paperwork lodgement.

That timeframe should mean the scheme will remain in place if the opposing LNP wins office as expected on March 24, because its leader, Campbell Newman, has indicated the law would only be scrapped if no couples had entered into such arrangements at the time of a change of government.

Mr Fraser, who championed the civil unions push in a move dismissed by the LNP as a “stunt”, said the enactment of the law would be a “landmark and historic occasion” for the state.

“I know that for many people this day has been a long time coming,” he said in a statement.

“While it isn't marriage, it is the next best thing and as far as a state government can go in promoting relationship equality.”

The legislation allows any couple, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation, to formally register their relationship as a civil union and have a ceremony if they wish to.

Attorney General Paul Lucas said couples would be able to lodge the paperwork with Queensland's Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages from February 23, and then have their civil unions formalised from Monday, March 5.

Mr Lucas said ceremonies would be able to be held at the registry or at various magistrates' courts from the start date, while “notaries” to preside over ceremonies in other settings would be appointed from April.

“This legislation removes the artificial and arbitrary barriers to same-sex couples having their relationship formally and legally recognised,” he said.

“I expect many couples to use the progressive laws to see their relationship recognised either through registration or a formal ceremony and I congratulate them in advance.”

The civil unions bill was passed in State Parliament on November 30 during the final sitting week of the year, with the support of most Labor MPs along with independent MP Peter Wellington.

Four Labor MPs, the entire LNP parliamentary team and most cross-benchers voted against the laws, with some opponents arguing the civil unions scheme mimicked marriage, which they believed should remain between a man and a woman.

Mr Newman, who does not yet sit in Parliament but announced LNP MPs would vote as a bloc against Mr Fraser's private member's bill, has previously vowed to repeal the law “if it can be”.

During an interview with in December, Mr Newman indicated he would not push ahead with scrapping the law if civil unions had already occurred at the time of a change of government, because of the impact on couples who had entered into such partnerships.

“If that had occurred that would obviously be an unacceptable and intolerable situation for them, so in that scenario we wouldn't be doing anything,” he said.

Mr Fraser today took another swipe at the LNP for not letting its MPs put forward their own personal views during the parliamentary debate, and called on Mr Newman to stand by his pledge if he won the election and civil unions had already occurred.

“There are thousands of Queenslanders to whom these laws mean so much. The whole state will hold Mr Newman to account and see if he stands by his word,” Mr Fraser said.

Mr Newman, who has revealed his personal support for allowing same-sex marriage, has previously dismissed Mr Fraser's civil unions push as a “stunt” and “distraction” and argued any change should be done at a federal level so there was consistency from state to state.


Protectionism hurts us all

It is no coincidence that each week brings news of another manufacturer forced to lay off staff, reduce their hours or shut up shop completely. Confronting a high Aussie dollar and an army of cheap labour overseas, it was the turn of Holden and the manufacturers of Mortein, Reckitt Benckiser, to announce job losses this week. Such events are invariably accompanied by calls for more industry assistance.

What you might not hear so much about is that the government already pours many billions of taxpayers' dollars each year into assisting industries to survive. The two most common forms of assistance are tariffs - duties imposed on imported goods to give local producers a leg up - and direct budgetary assistance, comprising direct subsidies and tax concessions.

"Hey, didn't they abolish all the tariffs already?" I hear you thinking. Well, no, tariff rates have been dramatically reduced since the 1980s, but remain in place on many manufactured goods like cars, clothing and food. Did you know that Australia still imposes tariffs on grapes and softwood conifers?

The Productivity Commission's latest annual review of industry assistance shows the gross value of these tariffs to Australian import-competing industry was $9.4 billion in 2009-10.

However, such tariffs also impose a penalty on other businesses which rely on imported goods to do business, such as construction firms and retailers. This input penalty is estimated to cost about $8 billion a year, bringing the net value of tariff assistance to the entire Australian economy down to just $1.4 billion.

But while tariffs have fallen out of fashion, and rightly so given the costs they impose on consumers and other businesses, industry continues to clamour for direct government subsidies and tax concessions. Australian industry received some $7.9 billion from such assistance in 2009-10. About half came in the form of direct payments and half in tax concessions.

To put that into perspective, the cost of budgetary assistance to Australian industry is approaching half of the federal government annual spending on defence ($21 billion) and a third of what it spends each year on education ($30 billion). These are no small bickies.

So where does it all go?

Across all industries, about one-third goes to research and development. A quarter is spent on industry-specific assistance, followed by small business grants and tax offsets (18 per cent) and 8 per cent on export assistance.

Manufacturing continues to enjoy the most privileged position of government protection due to tariffs. But its share of budgetary assistance has shrunk recently, from 36 per cent of assistance in 2003-04 to 23 per cent in 2009-10. Services industries, which employ around two-thirds of workers, have enjoyed an increasing share of assistance, up from 28 per cent to 46 per cent.

Peering closer, property and business services enjoy the highest level of budgetary assistance, $799 million a year, of all the 34 industries tracked by the commission. Coming in second place is finance and insurance ($794 million), thanks to tax concessions designed to transform Australia into a "finance hub". Vehicles and parts comes in third, with $721 million, thanks largely to the Automotive Competitiveness and Investment Scheme. Car industry assistance, then, accounts for a little under 10¢ in every government dollar spent on industry assistance.

Next time you hear an industry calling for more assistance, remember it all adds up. The hidden cost for tax taxpayers is either higher taxes or less spending on health, education and other services - sometimes both.


A land of tough talk and thin skins

If there is anything to be learned from this year's jingoistic festival of self-congratulation, it's that we're not as tough and laidback as the cultural mythologists say.

Dr Charlie Teo's Australia Day speech acknowledged our "hidden and sometimes overt racism". He told of a visiting Indian neuroscientist being spat on and his daughter told to "go home" because she looks Chinese.

Most interesting were the sort of public responses posted on the Daily Telegraph blog, which suggested "It's we white Australians that cop it". This was no rare sentiment. One commenter claimed the "Australian Labor government was racist against it's [sic] own people". There was no example provided, but this recurrent fear of government favouritism towards foreigners has been in the backwater of Australian politics for some time.

Commonly, it manifests on talkback radio in shrieking complaints about welfare, asylum seekers and immigration. There is latent anger among those who feel taxpayer dollars are unjustly spent on these programs instead of propping up "real Australians", a term impossible to deploy without ingrained racism.

The Challenging Racism Project at the University of Western Sydney found 84.4 per cent of Australians polled believe there is racial prejudice in this country. It is not for nothing that a well known satirical world map, which depicts the US as "freedom and Jesus" and Russia as "mail order brides", brands Australia with a single word, "racists". But tell Australians this and they get very defensive, very sensitive. We don't take criticism well.

Consider a second story, its protagonist the benign blogger Jennifer Wilson, who had the audacity to call commentator Melinda Tankard Reist a closet Baptist. Tankard Reist took such umbrage that she threatened Wilson with a defamation suit if the offending posts were not removed and an apology issued.

As Wilson has pointed out, as a commentator, Tankard Reist has ample public space to defend herself against any accusation. Hypersensitivity, again, appears to have provoked an extreme response. Equally, the huge support for Wilson on Twitter - not a medium predisposed to backing someone like Tankard Reist - has an air of extremity to it, like an over-zealous witch-hunt to shouts of "There she is - get her!"

Finally, a continuing tale that dates from November, when a News Ltd writer called Alison Stephenson penned an editorialised "news" story with her despairing view of A Night With The Stars, a one-off TV special hosted by Kyle Sandilands and Jackie "O" Henderson. No master of understatement, Sandilands's reaction was to call her a "fat bitter thing" and "a piece of shit".

The response from much of the community was to condemn Sandilands and call for his sacking from Southern Cross Austereo. This did not happen, but such was the uproar that more than 15 sponsors pulled their support.

This was not enough for those hellbent on Sandilands's demise, who then organised movements with the sole purpose of seeing him off. Last week, a blog called "Sack Vile Kyle", also campaigning on Facebook and Twitter, successfully petitioned Jenny Craig to withdraw its sponsorship of the show. This was hailed as a major victory and press releases flew across the land. Two ad executives have also been made redundant, portrayed as scapegoats to the cause.

There has long been an elitist witch-hunt against Sandilands, which has taken on a competitive nature among those vying to be the final scalp-taker. But what were the actual crimes? Sandilands needn't have been so incensed or so rude about the opinion of a crusading journalist earning a hundredth of his wage. It was silly that he responded in a crass way, yet his detractors have painted it as the crime of the century.

Emotion, it seems to me, rules the roost more than ever in Australia, while sober argument is relegated to an afterthought. Perhaps that's inevitable. But what we can avoid is this tendency to slice down anyone who breaches our little bubble of sensitivity. It is a censorious instinct that seeks to silence such people, not conducive at all to the flourishing of free speech or our supposed culture of larrikinism.

Those who cry foul do so because these "offensive" attacks cut to deep insecurities, which are often based in truth.



Paul said...

Election year stunt, and meaningless because it still isn't marriage for those who seem to want it so badly. I expected something on the heels of the Australia Day dirty trick screw-up, and they never disappoint (or fail to disappoint). Watch the Feds for a dovetailing effect coming into the Federal Election season.

Ari from Finland said...

I have been a member of the board of the Finnish Alliance. In one meeting I heard in my own ears, when chairman Heikki Tala told the board that Helsinki District Court was ready to ban our organization! An official had told this threat to our chairman in a meeting in the Ministry for Internal Affairs.

This happened before the New York Times interviewed our chairman and published an article about Finland on December 25, 2005. This article mentioned our organization.

As far as I have understood, president Halonen, Prime Minister Vanhanen and other leading politicians were behind this threat to ban the Finnish Alliance - without any reason!

A government's threat to ban a peaceful organization (because of its opinions) violates the principles of democracy.