Friday, December 19, 2014

Abbott Government needs a new course of action to win next election

DESPITE signing off on a series of significant policy triumphs, the Coalition hasn’t finished the year with a tick from the public in the opinion polls.

The reaction from some members of the government has followed a traditional path – blame the leadership. But it’s not Prime Minister Tony Abbott who has been the subject of the hushed water cooler conversations, it is his chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, the striking woman who cemented her place in the Liberal leadership office under Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.

Targeting the chief-of-staff rather than the leader is also traditional. It would take a critical level of distress for MPs to brief against the Prime Minister.

Abbott faltered in his defence of Credlin on Friday when he moved into the gender mire exploited by former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard. “Do you really think that my chief of staff would be under this kind of criticism if her name was P-E-T-E-R as opposed to P-E-T-A?” he told ABC television. “I think people need to take a long hard look at themselves with some of these criticisms.”

He said if people had a problem with his office they should bring the complaints to him. “This is the same office which ran a very effective opposition, it’s the same office which has got an enormous amount done this year sometimes under very difficult circumstances.”

All true. However, Credlin didn’t get her job because she’s a woman, far from it, and if and when she leaves it will have nothing to do with sexism.

Credlin’s gender is only an issue with feminists unhappy that her very presence in the prime ministerial (and previously Opposition leader’s) office undermined Gillard’s malicious claim that Abbott was a misogynist.

What the government is discovering is that being in government is markedly different from being in opposition and requires very different skill sets.

That being said, what is the actual criticism of Credlin? It is widely remarked that she is too controlling and that she went too far in vetting senior ministerial staff and over-stepped the mark when she demanded that some experienced veterans move to Canberra if they wished to remain in ranking roles in the Abbott government.

There is no doubt that the Coalition lost some very good people who did not wish to uproot their families to satisfy that demand, particularly those with spouses who could not meet that demand.

There is little point in comparing the operation of Abbott’s office to the manner in which either of his immediate predecessors’ affairs were handled. Both Gillard and Rudd let adolescents run the shop and it showed.

Then again, neither Gillard nor Rudd had as much parliamentary experience as Abbott when they took office nor did they have the benefit of working with a master like former Coalition prime minister John Howard.

Howard had three chiefs-of-staff during his nearly 12 years in office, none of them became media figures in their own right. They were Grahame Morris, Arthur Sinodinos and Tony Nutt.

Howard had a very rough first year. He set a very high standard for ministerial conduct which saw seven ministers resign in his government’s first 18 months in office.

Abbott’s poor polling can be put down to a number of different causes but the major weakness is its failure to sell its core message. It has failed to hammer home the message that Labor so badly mishandled the national wealth it plunged into ongoing debt that will affect future generations. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen should be laughed out of court whenever he appears and criticises the government for its handling of the debt – it’s his debt, Labor’s debt that the government is trying to fix.

As Abbott has said he relies heavily on Credlin, he must ask himself whether her advice has been helpful or has it been ignored? Why has the government so spectacularly failed to meet public expectations? Has too much energy in the prime minister’s office gone into micro-managing and centralising of control, as the internal critics claim, at the expense of reminding the public of the simple and understandable narrative that the government used to win office?

There is either a lack of strategy or the government’s tactics need overhauling as the polls would indicate that they seem to have been ineffectual.

That communications from the Abbott government need overhauling – the lack of consultation with (even conservative) premiers about budgetary measures which dramatically affected their states – is self-evident.

It seems to have been caught flat-footed by the election of the PUPs and Independent senators.

Abbott has some breathing space over Christmas to consider why his government has not got its message through and decide a course of action.

Leaders are often forced to choose between what is best for their organisations and their loyalty to those who they believe have served them well but whose skills no longer match changing operational needs.

Abbott’s goal must be to win the next election and realise his nation-saving policies.


Need a budget 'narrative' - this is it

Forget insider words like 'message' and 'spin' and avert your eyes from the Senate railway wreckage. If the Abbott government wants to reset the budget debate here's what it should do.

The first step is to acknowledge past mistakes. In opposition, the Coalition underestimated the scope of the budgetary challenge they are now facing. In government, it has remained unable to articulate what budget problem they are trying to solve. Consequently, people don't believe the harsh budget is necessary and the government can't explain how their reforms will help.

The government has tried to scare the electorate with inflated projections of government debt and it wants us to be angry at Australia's monthly interest payments. This is the wrong approach; the real issue has always been the deficit. Fix the deficit and the debt will be manageable.

Having clarified the real problems and solutions, in the lead-up to next year's budget the next step is to convince the public of three things.

*    Australia has a structural budget deficit stemming from Howard, Gillard and Rudd permanently increasing spending funded either by temporary revenue from the mining boom (Howard) or nothing (Rudd - Gillard).

*    The Commonwealth now has to find tens of billions of dollars of additional funding in the medium term for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

*    It also needs to find an additional 4% or 5% of GDP over the longer term to pay for the ageing of our population and rising health care costs.

While selling this message, the government must make crystal clear that these problems won't fix themselves - now or ever. Either spending has to be cut substantially or a huge amount of additional revenue has to be raised, and in both cases this burden will overwhelmingly fall on the middle class. Ordinary people will either get much less from government or pay much more (or both).

The final step is for government to convince itself that these hard choices are real. New spending through big (the medical research fund and massive gold-plated paid parental leave scheme) and small (marriage counselling vouchers) all must be dumped. Not renegotiated, not repackaged, not renewed - axed.

Furthermore, the government must never again produce a budget that implies increasing revenue from existing taxes will largely balance the budget. Governments have been waiting five years post the GFC for this to happen. It won't, as those tax forecasts have less substance than fairy floss; albeit being equally deftly spun.

Only once the government has done these things can it lay all the blame at the feet of intransigence in the Senate.


The obnoxious Human Rights Commission made to pull its horns in

Old bag Triggs at the head of it is a lying Leftist hack

THE federal government will carve $5 million from the Aus­tralian Human Rights Commission over the next three years in order to fund part of an extension for the child abuse royal commission, leading to job cuts and the shrinking of “key projects”.

In a letter to commission president Gillian Triggs obtained by The Australian, the Attorney-General, George Brandis, acknowledges the loss of funds will “temporarily affect the ordinary operations”.

The AHRC has singled out work with business on human rights and constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as crucial areas that will suffer.

In his letter, Mr Brandis argues that the Royal Commission into Institutional Res­ponses to Child Sexual Abuse, which he extended for two years in September, is an important tool in the fight for the human rights of children.

“I believe it is critical that institutions responsible for the care of children be able to learn from the ongoing work of the inquiry and be better able to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the future,” he writes. “The Australian Human Rights Commission is an appropriate source from which to draw a proportion of the offsets for this measure.

“The royal commission is a critical child rights measure for our nation and is consistent with Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

The two-year extension will cost $125 million on top of $377m allocated. Mr Brandis said $1.6m would be stripped in 2015-16 and $1.7m for the two following years, to be announced in the government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.

The cuts are in addition to the $1.7m saving over four years announced in the budget, achieved by reducing the number of commissioners by one. The commission is also subject to a 2.25 per cent efficiency dividend over the forward estimates.

Commonwealth funding of the agency in 2015-16, when the new cuts begin, was projected to be $16.786m. The Coalition intends to fold the Privacy Commissioner into the AHRC — with an extra $5.5m in funding specifically for the independent privacy role — but this legislation has not been passed. The Australian understands staff at the agency — about 120 — would be slashed 10 per cent.

Professor Triggs said: “These cuts will have a profound impact on the ability of the commission to carry out its role as an independent human rights org­anisation.

“The commission is a small and lean organisation and does not have the ability to absorb a cut of this magnitude. There will be job losses and impacts on our core functions such as complaint handling and advocating on ­behalf of the disadvantaged.”

The commission handled about 21,000 inquiries and complaints in the past year and raises about $6m of its own revenue, ­although this must be spent on the projects that earn the income.

The Coalition has clashed frequently with the Human Rights Commission, announcing the ­instalment of Tim Wilson — on the record calling for its abolition — as Freedom Commissioner at the end of last year and accusing Professor Triggs of stalling on its inquiry into children in detention for political purposes.

Professor Triggs admitted she did not initiate the inquiry during Labor’s term because it was too close to an election and would be “highly politicised”. The commission’s report on that matter has been handed to government, but will not be tabled until next year.

Professor Triggs wants the cuts abandoned. “Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right and in a healthy democracy this must include an independent human rights organisation that is free to speak out,” she said.


Community opposition stops Islamic boy's school in Far North Queensland

AN Islamic school proposed for Mareeba will not go ahead, but developers have not ruled out establishing the $70 million project elsewhere in the Far North.

Standard Bearers Academy has confirmed it will not be submitting a proposal for its boarding school to the Mareeba Shire Council.

The school, which was to be located on 40ha at Tinaroo Creek Rd, was to be Australia’s first Standard Bearers Academy.

The facility aimed to cater for about 1200, Year 5 to Year 12 boys, from across Australia, along with a small contingent of international students.

The school was to have an Islamic focus but it was promoted as a multi-denominational campus, open to all faiths and students with no religious beliefs.

In a statement released yesterday, Standard Bearers Academy said one of the original proponents of the school was no longer involved, which had temporarily halted the project.

“The board of directors have been considering a number of location options and while recognising the beauty of Mareeba, believe that there are more suitable places for a significant project of this size,’’ he said.

“Mareeba was initially selected because of its inspiring natural surroundings and for providing an ideal location for agricultural training, sporting and equestrian activities that the school intended to provide.

“The future location is yet to be decided.”

The spokesman said the project intended to provide a substantial economic, education and community benefit to the Mareeba shire.

“An initial investment of $70 million would have been injected into the local economy by providing employment and contracts to local tradespeople.

“SBA intended to provide employment opportunities to local residents in the field of hospitality, administration, landscaping and grounds keeping, and in the field of teaching and teacher support.

“It would have also been a substantial consumer of locally produced goods and services with the expected annual economic benefit to Mareeba Shire exceeding $20 million.”

The spokesman said the directors of the school remained committed to providing a state-of-the-art boarding school for students of all faiths.

“SBA wishes to thank all members of the Mareeba community who showed their support for the proposed project,’’ he said.

Mareeba Shire Mayor Tom Gilmore said it was difficult for the council to determine its position on the school, as there was no development application.


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