Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Malcolm Turnbull: A loser popular with the Left

What is it about Malcolm Turnbull that enraptures so many people?

At swanky dinner parties across town, you can be sure eyes will light up at the mere mention of the climate enthusiast, gay marriage advocate and former republican activist. On the ABC talk-show circuit, it's the subject of intense conversation: if only the enlightened Turnbull replaced that nasty right-winger Abbott!

Take last week's Q&A. "Liberals shot themselves in the foot when they ousted Turnbull as leader," read one tweet. A few moments later, a panellist held up a placard which proclaimed "MALCOLM for PM" and implored her fellow guest to challenge Tony Abbott. With that, the studio audience burst into wild applause.

But the Turnbull who is so adored on the ABC's flagship program is also the man who once led the Liberals to near catastrophe

We all too often forget history in the 24/7 internet and media environment. But an account of Turnbull's record as opposition leader three years ago helps explain why ordinary Australians shrug their shoulders with a profound lack of interest. All that he displayed as leader was an ignorance of his party's core beliefs, a detachment from a clear majority of the electorate, and his own arrogance and inexperience.

Go back to those dark days of 2009. The average two-party preferred vote was of Gillard-esque proportions, in reverse: Labor 56, Coalition 44. The Liberals lost their credentials as economic managers. And the leader's personal disapproval rating skyrocketed. Disaster loomed everywhere.

And yet Turnbull looked like one of those doctors in Grey's Anatomy who had observed the ailment but misdiagnosed it. He insisted that failure to support Labor's emissions trading scheme would destroy the Coalition.

Journalists admired him for his courage and conviction in trying to stare down the party's sceptics. But it was a foolish and dangerous tactic, one that would be his undoing, and reveal his lack of political nous once and for all.

Turnbull had failed to grasp that the key to successful opposition is to make and win arguments. To repudiate your own base, and pretend bipartisanship exists when it does not, plays into the hands of the government and leads to the political wilderness.

Such a strategy might resonate with global warmists who, in any case, won't vote for the party of Menzies. But it is self-evidently not in tune with middle Australia, where the centre of political gravity is decidedly to the right of your typical Q&A audience on a cold winter's night. To slam Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt might appeal to trendies in Glebe and Newtown, but it alienates your own people in the suburbs.

If Turnbull had compromised and made the ETS conditional on the outcome of the Copenhagen talks or US cap-and-trade legislation, history might have been different. He could have emerged as a credible leader after the UN's failure to reach a binding global deal and the US Senate's refusal to even debate a modest climate bill.

But having been influenced by David Cameron - another Tory wet who has tarnished conservatism in Britain - Turnbull ran to the left of his party, even publicly denouncing his colleagues. Liberal Party members had been upset for months, angered by what they saw as their leader falling over himself to accommodate Labor at every turn. But discontent had also spread into the federal parliamentary party. A rebellion on his front and backbenches presaged his downfall.

But it wasn't just that Liberal partisans felt ignored and ill-led. It was also that crucial swing voters were turning off.

All this vindicates Abbott's strategy to oppose aggressively Labor's agenda. By making the case against Kevin Rudd's ETS, and then Julia Gillard's carbon tax, Liberals have won back key segments of working and lower-middle class families who are mortgaged to the hilt. These pragmatic and patriotic voters, based in Sydney's outer west and Queensland's sun-belt seats, are primarily motivated by hip-pocket issues.

For these folks, Labor's policy to increase energy prices when our trade competitors refuse to decarbonise their economies is not in the national interest. Nor is it a vote winner, especially during a global financial crisis.

Meanwhile, Turnbull demonstrated precious little evidence of competence. Recall the Godwin Grech scandal: here he was calling for the treasurer and prime minister to resign on the basis of what turned out to be a concocted email produced by an eccentric bureaucrat.

If Abbott had shown such appalling judgment, the press gallery would have written him off. In the eyes of the media, however, Turnbull is the Teflon politician who is virtually immune to criticism.

In fairness to Turnbull, he is an independent thinker who can digress on anything from demography and US-China relations to classical history and the Jewish diaspora. Warm and engaging in private, he is also a formidable shadow minister.

One can concede this self-made man has his strengths and talents and still believe he is not fit to lead the Liberals again.

Abbott might be a boo-word in polite society, a shorthand for extremism, negativity and John Howard on steroids. The cold, hard reality, though, is that since he replaced Turnbull in late 2009, the conservative vote has dramatically increased. Moreover, since Gillard's controversial backflip 16 months ago, the Coalition has convincingly led Labor in the polls. The carbon tax continues to rile a lot of Australians. It is also the main point of difference between Abbott and Turnbull.

For any politician, the big danger is vanity and a belief in his own publicity. Q&A types merely feed Turnbull's sense of entitlement to the Liberal leadership. But the obsessions of metropolitan sophisticates are of little interest in the parliamentary party and most parts of the nation.


Negligent Melbourne public hospital kills baby

A MELBOURNE couple, who tried for eight years before finally having a baby, are angry and relieved after a coroner found her death was preventable.

Heartbroken parents Shashi and Vasudev Madamshetty lost their daughter, conceived through IVF after eight years of trying, one month after her birth on August 30, 2007.

Victorian Coroner Kim Parkinson's finding on Monday, that Dishita's death could have been prevented if hospital staff had monitored her more closely, brought some relief.

"Yes I am happy just to an extent ... but still our baby will not come back. We lost her," Mrs Madamshetty told journalists.

"But it gives us a little bit of relief because it's the hospital's fault it has happened."

Dishita suffered severe hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, during her birth at Sunshine Hospital and died a month later.

Ms Parkinson found the death could have been prevented if the hospital had acted earlier to monitor and deliver the overdue baby within 48 hours of Mrs Madamshetty's visit to the hospital on August 27.

For Mrs Madamshetty, looking at other babies playing still reminds her of Dishita.

"Yeah, I'm angry but at the end of the day, even I'm angry, if I have frustration on them, unfortunately my baby will not come back."

The coroner also found the hospital delayed too long in responding to a foetal heart monitor, which showed a rapid decline in Dishita's heart rate on the day of her birth.

Ms Parkinson said doctors should have been more engaged with the couple and recommended that the hospital adopt formal foetal heart monitoring procedures.

The Madamshettys had agitated for a caesarean and complained of a lack of communication by the hospital.

The couple's lawyer Dimitra Dubrow said the couple will be seeking compensation from the hospital.


Loss of Christian values ominous

Given the Judeo-Christian origins of our long-held tradition of caring for the frail, census data indicating the demise of Christianity and the ageing of Australia's population could herald a perfect social storm.

The 2011 census makes clear that Christian affiliation is diminishing, falling 7 per cent over the past decade to 61 per cent. The slack has been picked up by the "nones", those claiming "no religion", with almost 5 million of us, or 22.3 per cent, turning our backs on God (or, at least, on God's registered brands). That's up 7 per cent since 2001.

At the same time, we're getting older. The median age rose in the last decade from 35 to 37. That might not sound like much but it indicates a significant increase in the number of elderly people in our community. HammondCare, a leader in aged-care and dementia services, notes that by 2050, one in 20 Australians will be 85 or older. Coupled with this is an expected increase in the number of us with dementia, from 269,000 to a million.

And here's the problem. For almost 2000 years, the biblical claim all humans are made in the "image of God", and so are profoundly and inherently valuable, has called on those who believe that idea to treat men and women as "sacred", regardless of capacities or contributions to society.

Of course, the secularist will point to all the evils of Christendom. But these just show Christians haven't been Christian enough. They don't obscure the fact it was the Judeo-Christian view of the human being that gave the West its hospitals, charities and the language of the "rights" of the weak. As yet, there is no alternative narrative that can guarantee the inherent dignity of all, regardless of capacities.

Of course, most of us love our grandmas. We don't need religion to tell us to look after them. But as more Australians move into high-care facilities and dementia units, sometimes at a great distance from family, society will need a solid intellectual ground for increasing contributions to those who can no longer give back.

Ancient Greece and Rome, the cultures against which Christianity first competed, had little by way of philosophical reasoning that could guarantee the inherent worth of those lacking rational capacity or social utility. So infanticide was common and social welfare for the aged and dying was virtually non-existent.

Christianity changed this. It inherited from the Jews a theology of human dignity and a program of social welfare, and added the thought that Christ had died for the world, even for the lowly and neglected. Compassion was due to all, especially to the overlooked. And so was born the tradition of "charity".

Educated Greeks and Romans criticised Christianity for this. To them it was a religion for the poor and useless. Atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first in the modern era to admit that the "death of God" meant the end of objective ethical values. He didn't mean that we would all descend into immorality as soon as we stopped believing in a creator, only that at the philosophical level a secular society has to abandon the notion of a universal "moral law". Ethics could, henceforth, only be based on social convention or practical utility.

The secularist may feel like saying humanity is "inestimably precious", atheist philosopher Raimond Gaita says, but "only someone who is religious can speak seriously of the sacred".

Yale's great philosopher-theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff goes further in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs. He argues that a rational justification for treating humans as "inestimably precious", regardless of capacities, can only be found in a theistic framework. Only if the abandoned infant on the hills of ancient Rome or the estranged resident in a Sydney dementia unit is created in the image of God, can we secure an intellectual basis for treating both individuals with the same dignity we afford society's most able.

If he is right, we should all be concerned that there is an ageing population at the same time there is a decline in belief in a transcendent narrative of humanity's sacred worth. The secular West may one day be able to offer an account of human dignity equal in power to the biblical one. Or perhaps one of the other religions on the rise in Australia will take Christianity's place in providing the conceptual framework for "defending life's disinherited and condemned"'. Until then, I worry that "we all love our gran" won't cut it in the long run.


In business, comfortable and rich don't go together

Propping up the weak a spanner in productivity works

Why do firms innovate? According to the bureau's survey, three-quarters of innovative firms report undertaking innovation to improve profits. About 40 per cent also wanted to increase or maintain their market share and a quarter needed to develop products that were more competitively priced.

That's pretty much what you'd expect, but the second source of productivity gain is less obvious and less benign: it improves when production in an industry shifts from low-productivity firms to high-productivity firms.

A study of Australia firms in the 1990s found a remarkably wide range in their efficiency. The labour productivity of the most efficient firms was about four times that of the least efficient. Only about half this difference seems to be explained by differences in size.

So the productivity of an industry is improved when low-productivity firms are taken over or otherwise cease to exist, and also when new businesses with bright ideas start and grow.

Few people realise how much turnover there is of firms, even when the economy is growing strongly. According to figures from the bureau, about 8 per cent of firms close down each year. And about 40 per cent of new firms exit in less than four years.

Get this: overseas estimates suggest the net effect of the entry and exit of firms accounts for between a fifth and a half of the improvement in labour productivity over time. In high-technology industries, in particular, start-ups play an important role in promoting technological adoption and experimentation, Gruen says.

Hint to politicians: "Policies that act to slow the movement of resources will tend to limit this source of productivity improvement."

Another way to study productivity at the firm level is to look at management practices. Like productivity, management is about how well resources are used in production. So if you can rate particular management practices and give management teams a score, maybe this will help explain productivity differences across firms and even across countries.

One long-running study is doing this for 9000 medium and large manufacturing firms in 20 countries. It gives good ratings to firms that monitor what's going on in the firm and use this information for continuous improvement; set targets and track outcomes, and promote employees based on their performance.

The study shows management practices in Australia are mid-range: well below the United States, Germany, Sweden, Japan and Canada, but similar to France, Italy and Britain. And we have a larger tail of companies at the poor management end of the distribution compared with the US.

Looking at the performance of Australian firms, large manufacturers tend to be much better managed than small ones - a worry because our firms tend to be smaller than those in other countries. And it does seem clear better-managed firms are more innovative and have higher productivity.

Gruen argues periods of significant structural change - as at present - are often periods of growth and reform for the economy.
For a firm that's been doing the same thing for a long time, changes in business models are risky, difficult and may well require staff lay-offs. But when structural change means doing the same old thing is likely to be unprofitable, the opportunity cost of transforming work practices is substantially lowered.

Structural change usually involves firms coming under greater competitive pressure. And tough competition and innovative activity seem to go together.

In Australia, firms that report having more competitors, that are in industries with low mark-ups, that export, or that experience downward pressure on profit margins are more likely to be innovators.

Case studies of Australian manufacturers hit by the reduction of import protection in the 1980s and '90s show the firms that succeeded did so by changing their practices. The number of plants diminished, plants became more specialised, model ranges were cut and world-best technology introduced.

Of course, some firms close down and leave the industry. But that's the harsh part of the lovely sounding productivity improvement: Competition boosts productivity partly by moving resources to more successful firms.

Get it? When politicians protect firms from closing, they risk stifling productivity improvement. For countries, comfortable and rich don't go together.


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