Monday, September 23, 2013

New Broom: Commonwealth agencies to be cut by Abbott Government

AGENCIES responsible for tackling obesity, city planning and security advice on asylum seekers are to be slashed as Tony Abbott takes the axe to Labor's reform agenda.

Less than a week after taking office, the Coalition Government has scrapped plans to build a multimillion-dollar embassy in Africa, and will also wipe $100 million off research funding.

The Prime Minister has also pulled the pin on a key Kevin Rudd initiative - Community Cabinet - as he instructs his new ministry team to put the broom through the bureaucracy.

Key elements of Labor's reform agenda are being dismantled.

The Major Cities Unit - which provided advice on developing Australia's 18 biggest cities - and the Social Inclusion Unit in Mr Abbott's own Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet will be dismantled.

The Coalition will also begin unwinding key "nanny state" agencies such as the Australian National Preventative Health Agency, established to lead the national fight against obesity, alcohol abuse and tobacco use.  Health Minister Peter Dutton has been critical of ANPHA's decision to spend $500,000 on a study into a potential "fat tax" despite neither side of politics supporting such a move.

Senior ministers are now searching for big savings from departments with a raft of back office operations and smaller agencies on the chopping block.

"It's out of control," one senior minister said, of the rapid growth in Commonwealth agencies.

Even the Australian Institute of Criminology, established by Gough Whitlam in 1973, is under review and could be merged with a major university. in a bid to save millions of taxpayer dollars.

Two major health agencies - the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the year-old National Health Performance Authority - are under review and could have their combined budgets - of around $40 million a year - slashed.

One micro agency likely to be scrapped is the Independent Reviewer of Adverse Security Assessments. It was established in 2012 last year and reviews assessments by ASIO into people in detention.  But with a $1 million a year price tag, the Government will likely scrap the organisation.

The future is also uncertain for key agencies such as the Human Rights Commission.

Some senior Coalition figures are keen to scrap the Commission altogether - but that would provoke a serious political brawl that Mr Abbott is not keen to have.

Attorney-General George Brandis has signalled his intention to challenge what he sees as a Left-controlled human rights agenda, and the role of issue-specific commissioners - such as Disability - could be broadened as part of an overhaul of the HRC.

The future of the national Children's Commissioner - announced by former PM Julia Gillard in February - is also in doubt. Its role could be radically reshaped to focus on cyber bullying.

Around $100 million will be cut from Australian Research Council grants with the Government determined to wipe out costly academic indulgences, such as a $443,000 study into the "God of Hegel's Post-Kantian idealism".

Senior Coalition figures say the Australian Institute of Criminology will be reviewed to see whether it should remain a stand-alone agency.  The Institute produces academic-style research papers and there is a view that its operations should be taken over by a big university, saving taxpayers a considerable sum of money.

Climate Change Minister Greg Hunt has already taken the knife to key agencies, including the Climate Commission.

And another of Kevin Rudd's pet initiatives, Community Cabinet, will be scrapped with a saving of around $13 million over the four year forward estimates.

Other key Rudd reforms - including the expensive bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council - are being wound back with a planned new Australian embassy in Senegal to be abandoned.

Scrapping ANPHA will leave the Government open to criticism that it's not taking seriously a raft of key health challenges - including the growing obesity challenge and tobacco and alcohol control.

But Mr Dutton is determined to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in bureaucratic expenses and is reviewing the ongoing role of the AIHW - which provides a national service on health and welfare statistics.

The National Health Performance Authority - established in 2011 to provide uniform statistics on the performance of hospitals and other health facilities - could also be absorbed back into the health department.


Companies to get protection from activists' boycotts

CONSERVATION groups seeking boycotts of products linked to alleged poor environmental practices may soon be liable for prosecution under consumer law.

The move, which could severely hamper market-based campaigns by groups such as Markets for Change and GetUp!, is to be pursued by the Abbott government.

Parliamentary secretary for agriculture Richard Colbeck told The Australian the move would prevent green groups from holding companies to ransom in their markets.

"We'll be looking at the way some of the environmental groups work because we are very concerned about some of the activities they conduct in the markets," Senator Colbeck said. "They have exemptions for secondary boycott activities under the Consumer and Competition Act. We are going to have a complete review of the act.

"And one of the things I'd be looking at would be to bring a level playing field back so that environment groups are required to comply with the same requirements as business and industry."

The move has strong backing within the Liberal and Nationals parties, as well as among sections of the ALP, concerned about groups targeting the customers of timber and agricultural products in campaigns against old-growth logging and live-animal exports.

Section 45D of the act prevents action to hinder or prevent a third person supplying goods to, or buying them from, another person. The law restrains business from unfair dealings and trade unions from dragging third parties into industrial disputes via sympathy strikes or trade boycotts. However, section 45DA exempts people from the secondary boycott provisions if their actions are "substantially related to environmental or consumer protection".

The timber industry has long complained about green groups organising boycotts and campaigns to pressure their customers not to accept products sourced from so-called high-conservation-value forests. The tactic has been used successfully in Australia and in Japan to pressure timber companies such as Gunns and Ta Ann to shift out of contentious forest areas and to adopt top-flight green certification. Senator Colbeck also told The Australian the Coalition would push ahead with its policy to ask UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to rescind the recent Gillard government listing of an additional 100,000ha of Tasmania's forests. "That was our commitment to the Tasmanian people and we intend to carry through with our commitments," he said.

"So we will sit down with our departments and work through processes, as far as that is concerned, and look to see how we go about doing it."

He was not swayed by calls from the timber industry - including the CFMEU forest union, Ta Ann and the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania - for the policy to be scrapped because it would jeopardise environmentalists' support for the sector.

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement - a landmark peace deal three years in the making - has seen the peak green groups join industry on joint trade missions to win back markets lost during the so-called forest wars. However, signatories to the deal fear seeking to unwind the World Heritage listing at the heart of the agreement would destroy it.


Coalition bid to cut green tape and fix project paralysis

MASTER plans for future development of the Great Barrier Reef and the nation's major coal, iron ore and gas regions have been fast-tracked to help deliver a Coalition promise to cut green tape and break the decision-making "paralysis" of the Rudd and Gillard governments.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said 50 projects had been left stranded by the former government without a decision on whether they even needed to be assessed under bipartisan legislation to protect prime farmland and groundwater.

Mr Hunt has promised to act immediately on the projects and complete strategic plans for the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, the Pilbara in Western Australia and the Hunter Valley in NSW.

Renewed urgency will be given to joint planning with state governments to manage bushfires in South Australia and development of north Queensland's major urban growth project at Mount Peter, 15km south of Cairns.

Mr Hunt said a master plan of environmental values and commonwealth concerns would enable the creation of a "one-stop shop" for environmental approvals promised by the Coalition.

Future projects would be measured against the strategic assessment template and state governments would be given the power to make assessments.

Writing in The Australian today, the parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, Josh Frydenberg, says an "avalanche of green and red tape stifles investment and innovation, seriously hurting the economy".

Mr Frydenberg, who has responsibility for driving the government's deregulation agenda, has pledged a "paradigm shift" in tackling bureaucracy.

"Ministers will be required to include regulatory impact statements on their submissions as well as establishing their own ministerial advisory committees from which they will seek recommendations on cutting red and green tape," the Liberal MP writes today.

He says the performance of senior members of the public service "will be assessed in part according to their proven record in reducing regulation, with their remuneration calculated accordingly", and the Productivity Commission ordered to determine a framework for auditing the performance of regulatory agencies.

Business groups have lobbied hard for a review of the environmental review process, claiming it is delaying projects and threatening billions of dollars worth of investments.

Labor and the Greens had argued that state governments could not be trusted to make final environmental decisions on behalf of the commonwealth.

Environment groups have warned a full delegation of decision making to the states poses a risk to business of lengthy and expensive delays in the courts.

Mr Hunt said the strategic assessments were a "vital framework that has largely been missing".

Strategic assessments to date had focused on planning for major urban growth corridors rather than industrial projects, he said.

"It is a model where you really begin to look at the deep, long-term cumulative impacts."

Completing the strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef and onshore development in co-operation with the Queensland government was the Coalition government's priority.

"I think it is very important for our international commitments as well as to the future wellbeing of the Great Barrier Reef," Mr Hunt said. "The Great Barrier Reef is the No 1 environmental asset in Australia and you need to look at the reef as a whole."

Mr Hunt said he believed it would be possible to complete the strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef within two months.

The federal Environment Department has been instructed to have the remaining priority areas assessed and open for public exhibition in the first half of next year.

"The big picture is about achieving two things: a deep strategic assessment of the environment allows proper consideration of cumulative impacts and the connectedness of the region and it allows for a much more streamlined process," Mr Hunt said.

"If you know the environmental concerns of a region you don't have to reinvent them in every case. Everything is then seen against the grand strategic framework of the environment and the economy."

Mr Hunt said environmental decision making had become paralysed in the final months of the Gillard/Rudd government.

He said 50 projects had been left "in complete limbo" because the Labor government had been unable to make a decision on whether they should even be assessed under the new water trigger legislation.

"They didn't make a single decision after the legislation was passed," Mr Hunt said.

"It was not even whether projects should proceed but whether they should even be considered. From my perspective it is a legacy of complete chaos that 50 decisions are left in limbo. It is not right that the law is changed and there is then complete indecision about what you do about it.

"The dying months (of Labor) were a complete paralysis."


Once again rural and regional areas have seats at the cabinet table

LAST week we saw the Labor opposition selectively highlight demographics in an attempt to measure how representative the Abbott-Truss government is. But this does not serve to inform the public of anything substantial.

The commentary has focused on the lack of women in the Abbott-Truss ministry. But in terms of outcomes, gender is less important than geography.

Representatives with a broad range of experiences who are connected to constituents will result in real and effective change.

Aside from competence - a commodity lacking around the cabinet table for the past six years - individual experience informs the decision-making process more than gender, religion or race.

The Rudd-Gillard governments, in their various guises, suffered from a significant lack of regional experience in their ministries. At the low-water mark, there were no cabinet ministers who represented regional areas. This was evident in the decisions the government made that had disproportionately negative impacts on regional economies and communities - decisions such as bringing in the carbon tax, the mining tax and shutting down the live export trade, to name just a few.

The former government's own figures showed that the carbon tax made electricity at least 10 per cent more expensive and gas bills at least 9 per cent more expensive, rising each year as the carbon tax increases. This hit families, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers in regional areas particularly hard.

One year after the implementation of the carbon tax, dairy farmers were experiencing an estimated cost increase of between $5500 and $7000 a year.

The ban on live exports was similarly disastrous for regional communities in Australia's north. Indeed, Australia's largest beef cattle producer, Australian Agricultural Company, blamed the suspension of live exports to Indonesia for a March-quarter loss of $46.5 million. The uncertainty has had serious effects on exporters' livelihoods and consequently on their mental health.

Changing the eligibly rules for Youth Allowance, disproportionately disadvantaging rural and regional students, was another example of the former government's contempt for rural Australia. Or perhaps there was simply no one at the cabinet room table who thought to ask, "How will this affect country kids?"

In 1999, National Party leader John Anderson said: "The sense of alienation, of being left behind, of no longer being recognised and respected for the contribution to the nation being made, is deep and palpable in much of rural and regional Australia today." That mood has been felt strongly in many regions during the past six years.

In stark contrast, more than 30 per cent of those in the Abbott-Truss ministry have direct and significant experience of regional Australia. Interestingly, they are not all farmers, neither are they all men, but each understands the crucial role local industry plays in underpinning the national economy. This understanding is more important than gender in making the strategic decisions necessary in government. Regional Australia has the most to lose from hasty, ill thought out political decisions and is often the first and worst hit in recessionary periods. It will also lead our economic recovery. This is the reason it needs adequate representation at the decision-making level of government. As the academic Jennifer Curtin has noted: "Rural representation provides us with a social perspective that is fluid but place-based. Without it we risk undermining the communicative and responsive dimensions of a representative democracy."

That is why the Abbott-Truss ministry has prioritised rural and regional Australia.

It's important that our political representatives have a range of personal experiences, so each member can, in the words of Edmund Burke, exercise their "unbiased opinion, mature judgment, enlightened conscience". Our role is to represent our constituents, not to simply reflect the physical make-up of Australia's population.

I am sure we would all like to see more women, fewer lawyers and union officials and a greater diversity of ages, backgrounds and cultures in our parliament and in senior government positions, to better reflect the population of modern Australia. This is something that will happen over time.

In the meantime though, geography is more important than demography in governing for all Australians.


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