Friday, February 14, 2014

Finally, a Conservative Leader

A view from America

In the middle of 2013, a French journalist asked me who I thought was today's outstanding center-right head of government. After a few moments' thought, I responded: "She died in April. Requiescat in pace."

Looking around the world, the search for what might be called a full-spectrum conservative government leader was, until recently, a depressing exercise. On many issues, Britain's Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron seems positively ill-at-ease with most of his own MPs (and certainly grass-roots Tories) who are more-than-a-few clicks to the right of him. Across the Channel, most European center-right governments are pursuing policies best described as marginally-less-social-democratic than those of the left. In Latin America, the picture is equally disheartening, especially after Michele Bachelot's return to the Chilean presidency, following what some regard as a mediocre performance by the hitherto-governing center-right administration.

Lately, however, there has been a sign of hope. And it comes in the form of Australia's new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Thus far Abbott has matched his open adherence to distinctly conservative convictions by implementing policies that reflect those principles.

Elected prime minister in September last year, Abbott is in many respects the left's nightmare come true. For one thing, he's a practicing Catholic, who, though he doesn't draw attention to his faith, is generally associated in people's minds with the Church's conservative wing. Among other brickbats, that's earned him (rather sectarian) epithets such as the "mad monk."

At the same time, Abbott possesses - like his political mentor, Australia's most successful modern conservative politician, John Howard - the common touch. In private and public, he comes across as rather normal and unpretentious. In Australian politics, that will take you a very, very long way. But Abbott is unique insofar as he combines an ability to communicate with ordinary people with being that rarity among conservative politicians: someone genuinely interested in ideas.

I can't think of any other contemporary government leader who would quote one of modern conservatism's leading intellectuals, Roger Scruton, in a speech to the World Economic Forum. A Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate, Abbott actually reads serious books, is well acquainted with the writings of conservative luminaries old and new, and somehow managed to find time while being an MP and cabinet minister to contribute articles relatively regularly to serious-minded Australian conservative and free market publications such as Quadrant and Policy. In short, he's unafraid to bring intellectual steel into the public square.

p>Even more worryingly for the left, however, Abbott has been willing to buck the "popular" (i.e., lefty) wisdom on many occasions because of his beliefs. In 2009, he became leader of the then-opposition Liberal Party after resigning from the shadow cabinet and leading a parliamentary revolt against a Cameron-like leader who had signed up holus-bolus to the climate change agenda. "Unelectable" was most Australian commentators' verdict on Abbott. How wrong they were.

Abbott's willingness to match his ideas with corresponding actions has been very evident of late. On economic policy, his government has moved in the opposite direction of those who favor Dodd-Frank-like behemoth approaches to the financial industry. Instead it's opted to simplify regulation. As the minister responsible for the reform bluntly pointed out, "no amount of legislation will ever be a guarantee against another Storm Financial." Indeed it's often excessive regulation that creates opportunities for financial shenanigans by industry insiders.

Regarding the welfare state, Abbott's minister for Social Security, Kevin Andrews (another conservative politician-thinker), has announced a major overhaul of a welfare system that was starting to drift in a distinctly European-direction. Predictably the left are up in arms. But so too are those rent-seeking Australian businesses who now find themselves dealing with a government uninterested in subsidizing them. That's nothing, however, to the fury that greeted Abbott's disbanding of the climate-change bureaucracy established by the preceding Labor government.

Abbott has also long understood that conservative governments can't treat cultural issues as the orphans of their policy agenda. He's never hidden his belief that Western civilization is generally a very good thing - particularly its Anglosphere component. Nor have Abbott's views on social issues ever won him applause from the left. On these and other subjects, Abbott has stressed he's never been impressed by the "inevitability" argument that's invariably trotted out by progressivists as they try to stream-roll their preferred objectives. That suggests Abbott isn't likely to fall for the trap which John Stuart Mill proposed as the best way to transform conservatives into liberals: i.e., you convince conservatives that a liberal position is actually a conservative view.

The first sign of Abbott's seriousness about obstructing the left's long march through the institutions was his government's appointment of the policy-director of the center-right Institute of Public Affairs to the nation's Human Rights Commission. This was widely seen as the beginning of an effort to re-balance an organization long criticized as monolithically left-wing. Since then Abbott has indicated that major changes are coming to the ABC: Australia's government-funded institutional - and ideological - equivalent of the BBC. The left isn't disguising its nervousness.

Along the same lines, Abbott's education minister, Christopher Pyne, has initiated a review of the national curriculum implemented by the previous government. A moment's glance at the curriculum's treatment of history soon illustrates the extent to which it seeks to downplay Australia's indisputably Western heritage. In the words of Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, "Europe, Britain and the United States are mentioned 76 times, while Asia is referred to on more than 200 occasions." This disparity is odd because although Australia is certainly in Asia, no objective observer could say that Australia is "of" Asia. Moreover, while Australian students learn about "Gaia" and other deep-green fantasies in grade 9, many Australian universities find they need to put the same students through remedial English classes once they begin college.

Then there are Abbott's initial steps on the international stage. Take, for instance, his recent remarks at Davos. Much of the address was devoted to pushing a strong free trade agenda and insisting that governments should let business do what it does best: promote lasting economic growth. "After all," Abbott said, "government doesn't create wealth; people do, when they run profitable businesses."

In the same speech, however, Abbott made the conservative point that economic prosperity and freedom can't be sustained in a value-neutral world. Nor did Abbott shy away from relentlessly pressing one of the most important moral arguments for free trade articulated long ago by Adam Smith: that economic freedom, combined with the right institutions, radically reduces poverty faster than any other approach. "No country," Abbott added, "has ever taxed or subsidized its way to prosperity."

All in all, the address added up to a solid integration of sound economics with conservative principles. That's what makes Abbott different from, say, Canada's Stephen Harper or Spain's Mariano Rajoy. Abbott happily engages in the indispensable task of moral suasion in favor of conservative positions. What's more, he's quite good at it. With his rare combination of plain-speaking and intellectual substance, Abbott makes conservative ideas sound, well, reasonable to the average voter.

Of course no conservative government can do everything. Even Margaret Thatcher couldn't shrink the state's share of GDP during her time in office. Australia's three-year parliamentary terms additionally limit any government's room for maneuver. Abbott also surely knows that not all his MPs embrace all his views. The Liberal Party has always been an amalgam of Whigs, Tories, classical liberals, social conservatives, free marketers, protectionists, quiet religious believers, equally quiet skeptics, assorted careerists, and unabashed pragmatists.

Yet, like John Howard, Abbott has thus far proved adept at managing those differences. He also appears to grasp that what the conservative historian Maurice Cowling once said of the Tory party applies equally to its Australian equivalent: its business is to win elections. This is important, not just because ideological puritanism sometimes make the perfect the enemy of the good. It also matters because if Abbott's government can maintain its current course and win elections, Abbott has an outside chance of doing, albeit in a more modest way, for his generation of conservatives across the world what Reagan and Thatcher did for theirs.

For a "mad monk," that would be no small achievement.


CFMEU chiefs blacklisted from all Victorian building sites

MORE than a dozen militant union chiefs have been slapped with building site bans in a dramatic escalation of hostilities in Victoria's $39 billion construction industry.

Mugshots of officials, including CFMEU state secretary John Setka and his chief lieutenants, will be sent to building site managers.
The Master Builders Association of Victoria, which represents 7500 building companies, has issued the picture gallery, saying the unionists' right-of-entry permits issued under federal law had lapsed.

MBAV industrial relations general manager Lawrie Cross told the Herald Sun that the list and photographs would be a new tool in the fight against unlawful entry.  "Project managers on sites can use this to identify those officials who do not have permits," he said.

The builders' fightback came as the Federal Government launched a widespread royal commission into corruption and bribery in the building industry this week.  The $100 million inquiry is expected to focus on unlawful entry to building sites and standover tactics as part of its probe.

Federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz supported the MBAV's move, saying that officials walking on to sites without permits was a "perennial problem in Victoria".

The list of officials from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union who have no valid right-of-entry permits include its entire leadership.  Mr Setka, assistant secretaries Shaun Reardon and Elias Spernovasilis, president Ralph Edwards and vice-presidents Noel Washington and Derek Christopher top the list.  There are 13 banned CFMEU workers on the list, including organisers Mick Powell and Paul Sullivan.

Union officials are supposed to provide 24 hours' notice for entry for industrial relations disputes but can go on site immediately if they identify a safety concern.

But builders complain the right of entry is abused and officials come on to sites to go on "fishing expeditions", which leads to penalties for late jobs.

A memo to builders, seen by the Herald Sun, details the officials who do not have the right to visit construction sites.  "Attached is a list of current personnel from CFMEU Vic & Tas (Construction and General) in relation to their current federal right-of-entry permit status as at the 11th of February 2014," the statement says.  "Any personnel in red do not have a federal right-of-entry permit and can be refused entry onto your site under all circumstances as they do not have authority to enter your workplace under the Fair Work Act 2009."

Senator Abetz said illegal entry to building sites could be included within the royal commission if there was evidence.
"This has been a perennial problem especially in Victoria," he said.

The Herald Sun understands some officials allow their right-of-entry permits to lapse to make it more difficult to have them removed.  Building company bosses then only have the option of calling police to have officials removed for trespassing.

Mr Setka has convictions for trespass dating back to 1987.
Christopher was convicted and fined $1500 last year for an incident on a building site.  Christopher pleaded guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court in August.


Greens to move motion to remove Lord's Prayer in favour of 'silent reflection'

The Lord's Prayer will be put on the parliamentary chopping block on Thursday and replaced with silent reflection, if the Greens have their way.

Greens spokesman on multiculturalism, Richard Di Natale, will move a motion in the upper house on Thursday morning to refer the prayer to the Senate's Procedure Committee.

Senator Di Natale's motion will ask the committee to consider amending section 50 of the Senate's standing orders to replace the prayer with the following:

"Senators, let us in silence pray or reflect upon our responsibilities to the people of Australia, to the States and Territories which we represent, and to all future generations."

This text is based on what the ACT legislative assembly says at the start of its sitting days.

Federal parliament has been reciting prayers at the start of each sitting day since 1901 - a practice that Senator Di Natale argues is an "anachronism" in today's multicultural Australia and a breach of church-state separation.

Senator Di Natale first announced his plan to get rid of the Lord's Prayer last month, while Christine Milne was on leave and he was acting Greens leader.

He says that since then, his plan has received unanimous support from within his party, but had a mixed reaction from other MPs.

Senator Di Natale said he had also received some "gentle ribbing" from fellow MPs during the prayers in the Senate this week.

Coalition MPs are not expected to support the Greens move in the Senate.

In January, government Senate leader Eric Abetz said he strongly supported keeping the prayer, describing Senator Di Natale's move as a "Green attack" as part of "their ongoing attempt to rewrite our history and deny our heritage".

DLP senator John Madigan dismissed the idea at the time, saying it was ironic that a man whose last name translates to "of Christmas" was trying to change parliamentary prayers.

Labor has not had an official position, although lower house frontbencher Mark Dreyfus, who is Jewish, has called for a multi-faith model, rather than abolishing the Lord's Prayer.


And not a drop to drink without a certificate

A reader is astonished:

"I work in the food and beverage industry in South Australia, and just thought I would forward you on this bizarre and ridiculous junk that I spend many hours attending to every week. I have just been informed that I need to be registered to provide drinking water to patrons."

Astonishing. Just read all the questions on that form at the link.  Bureaucrats are tougher on people who’d give you water than on people who’d let you thirst.

Let us now rewrite St John’s Gospel in the manner now preferred by the South Australian Department of Health:

4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. Besides, I have not filled in my Application for Registration as a Drinking Water Provider.

10 Jesus wept.


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