Still more on: How has it come to this?

There are many factors that have interacted with each other to produce the result we now see. The first two pieces on this subject examined the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor and the Bligh factor. This final piece looks at some other factors that seem to be important in explaining the hung parliament we now have.

The NSW factor

The parlous state of the NSW State Government has had a significant influence on the election outcome. Of all the state Labor governments, NSW is held to be the one most ‘on the nose’. This probably started at the time Bob Carr resigned and has steadily worsened under Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and even the personally popular Kristina Keneally. Chronic maladministration and corruption has marred successive governments and by now defeat next March is taken for granted with Labor’s primary vote in the doldrums. In fact the NSW Labor Government would have been replaced long ago if there had been an anyway decent Opposition. It has certainly done great damage to the Labor brand in NSW and this was widely predicted to cause a major loss of seats in that state. It was feared the 25% swing against Labor in the Penrith state by-election would flow over into the federal poll, which indeed it did in seats in Western Sydney, but that did not pertain universally in NSW. As George Megalogenis put it: in “…the dead state of NSW, …neither side claimed a decisive vote.” This suggests that although the damage to the Labor brand in NSW was palpable in some areas, it was not universal. In Eden-Monaro, usually considered a bell-weather seat, Labor increased its vote, as it did in the very marginal seat of Robertson.

It is reasonable to conclude that, against expectations, Labor did not suffer as serious a loss as anticipated, although clearly the NSW factor was operating.

The Sussex Street factor

Related to the NSW factor is the Sussex Street factor. Sussex Street is the headquarters of the Labor party where the powerbrokers and party apparatchiks do their subterranean work. Long considered to be the controlling influence over Labor internal politics it has harboured the likes of national secretary Karl Bitar and his predecessor Mark Abib, now a Senator, two men said to be ‘joined at the hip’. These men apparently have a profound influence on personnel selection for federal and state parliaments. Mark Abib was kingmaker for Kevin Rudd’s ascent to power, only to engineer his descent. It seems that the same people must take some responsibility for the condition of the NSW State Government, now rendered unelectable in 2011.

Sussex Street can be held responsible for masterminding not only most of the decisions made about Kevin Rudd’s removal and replacement, but also the timing of the consequent election, and the management of the campaign. Others involved were Bill Shorten, David Feeney and unionists Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes. The term ‘faceless men’ that the Opposition so enjoys using to foster a sinister tone reminiscent of the ’36 faceless men’ mantra of a bygone era, is applied not only to the Sussex Street apparatchiks but to others whose faces we know well.

Along with Labor’s public affairs firm, Hawker Britten, they also seem to provide intelligence for the party through polling and focus groups, and to exercise some control over tactics, especially during election campaigns, including what spokespersons have to say. So they have to take some responsibility for how the Labor campaign unfolded. We would like to know who coined the ‘moving forward’ slogan, presumably fashioned to contrast with the Coalition ‘moving backward’, but overdone. We would like to know who dreamed up the sayings: ‘the Government has lost its way’ and needs to change course and ‘get back on track’, that portrayed the Government as wandering lost in the wilderness, not a great image for a party seeking re-election. Why not say ‘the Government will be adjusting its policies to better meet community expectations’? Or ‘Government policies will be re-tuned (or reviewed or reset or re-aligned) to achieve even better outcomes’? There are plenty of words that indicate a change for the better that do not have a depreciatory ring. What evidence did these PR geniuses use to fashion the campaign messages – focus groups, polling data? If so, they need to review their methods.

Whatever the outcome of the current impasse, Labor supporters will look for a much better performance from those responsible for election campaign messages and management. They need to be replaced or to seriously lift their game. Incompetence in this arena is lethal. Maxine McKew and Anna Bligh certainly think so.

Moreover, Labor supporters will look for greater transparency from its party officials, many of whom seem to operate clandestinely behind closed doors manipulating people, policies and plans without apparent accountability. Let’s see who they are, what they believe, and how they operate. They need to understand that they are accountable to the party and all who support it, not to some inner clique who regard themselves as the kingmakers and masterminds.

The Abbott factor

When Tony Abbott won the Coalition leadership, many, including conservative journalists, declared him unelectable. Not surprisingly, after his poor performance in the 2007 election campaign, his extreme views on such matters as industrial relations and climate change, his radical conservatism as expressed in his book Battlelines, his longing for a return to the Howard era, and his pugilistic, aggressive and combative approach to politics. Add to that his inconsistency, his proneness to thought bubbles and errors of judgement for which he regularly seeks forgiveness, and his willingness to opportunistically change his views, and you have someone who does look unelectable. His admirers say Tony is authentic and that you know where he stands. The problem is that he stands in so many places, and changes his stance so often, that it is hard to pin down where he does stand.

But as of now he has almost made it to prime ministership, and will complete the journey if the Country Independents give him the nod. How is this so?

Although I rate the Abbott factor below the ones mentioned previously, it has had a significant influence. Given his proneness to ‘foot in mouth’ disease, his minders have disciplined him strictly less he implode, as well he might have if left to his own devices. He has devised or was given a short set of memorable, short and snappy slogans which he has faithfully uttered at every opportunity. We know them by heart: ‘stop the waste’, ‘repay the debt’, ‘stop new taxes’ and ‘stop the boats’. What could be simpler, and they tick many of the boxes that are concerning people. ‘Help families’ was added later. The Coalition clearly outperformed Labor with its slogans. Of course it’s much easier to create negative slogans than positive, but why couldn’t Labor have created a similar set? What about: ‘a strong economy’, ‘protection from recession’, ‘friendly family support’, ‘excellent education’, ‘better school amenities’, ‘improved health care’, ‘fairer workplaces’, ‘strong support for small business, ‘faster broadband’, ‘equitable taxes’, ‘a better deal for the bush’, ‘a more prosperous country’, ‘a fair and just society’. It might have been more hard pressed to address climate change and the boat people issue, but it could have been bold and tried: ‘tackling global warming’ and ‘stopping people smugglers’. Ask a random audience what Labor’s key messages were, and see how many have the vaguest idea.

Another aspect of the Abbott factor was that he stayed on message and was allowed to do so by a compliant media that failed to pursue him vigorously enough. How many questioned him about how he was going to stop the waste? How long did we have to wait to know how he was going to repay the debt? All we got was a dubious set of ‘savings’ that only a few economics columnists exposed for what it was, and we still don’t know how reliable the figures are. We know how he will avoid new taxes – he’ll not tax the polluters or the miners. But how will he stop the boats? The best the media could do was to invent the BoatPhone as a light-hearted diversion from the serious and potentially hazardous business of turning the boats around. So if you run slick and superficially plausible slogans and you are seldom challenged by the media, it is easy to sustain a consistent message. Abbott and the Coalition did this, Labor did not. I have argued for months that Labor needed a more proficient public relations outfit informed by educators who knew what they were about. This campaign starkly underscores that need.

Tony Abbott avoided putting his foot in it throughout the campaign, something for which he was applauded. Isn’t it amusing that if one is accident-prone, kudos accumulates as accidents are avoided! Points are gained by not stuffing up, rather than by positive contributions. That has been the Abbott story, and it has gained him a lot with his supporters and a compliant media, which have given him a big tick. Who has ever asked whether his avoidance of mistakes for five weeks equips him sufficiently for three years of prime ministership?

Whether or not he becomes PM, we can expect unremitting aggression and combativeness from him. It has served him well so far, so why would he change? The kinder parliament that he talks about is fiction. He will continue to follow Randolph Churchill’s dictum for opposition leaders: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out’.

The Coalition factor

This parallels the Abbott factor. Have you noticed how most Coalition ministers were quarantined? The only ones who appeared regularly were Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb, both concerned with the Coalition’s financial plans that Abbott chose to ignore or avoid, and of course Robb was the campaign spokesman. This technique seems to be in favour as campaigns become more and more presidential. Of course Hockey and Robb made a pretty poor fist of explaining the finances, but Abbott would have been worse.

A key strategy of the Coalition was the use of the fear factor, fear of an ‘invasion’ of boat people, fear of overcrowding in city areas and over population with Muslims, all great for dog-whistling, and fear of Great Big New Taxes. Fear was exploited ruthlessly and it did have an effect in the Western suburbs of Sydney and in the mining states. The tactic was to strike fear in the people’s hearts, then promise to protect them. Fear of the boat people is a classic example.

The other tactic was to paint everything the Government did as bad or useless, its efforts as ineffectual or wasteful, its spending as profligate and ill-directed, and the result, out-of-control debt and deficit. The Government was labelled by each Coalition commentator as 'the worst, the most incompetent government in Australian political history’. As Goebbels said, no matter how implausible, if you tell a lie often enough, the people will believe it.

Although the Coalition factor did have an influence, in my view it was less so than the Abbott factor.

The media factor

As there have been many articles written in the blogosphere and by some in the MSM about the extraordinary influence the media has had on this election, I need not elaborate in detail here. There is no doubt at all that News Limited media has been running an anti-Government, anti-Rudd and pro-Coalition line for at least two years. Think back to the early attempts to discredit Kevin Rudd: the Scores incident, the Burke affair, the RAAF hostess episode and the hairdryer beat-up, all of which surprisingly increased his popularity. So the media turned its attention to attacking Government policy: Fuel Watch and Grocery Watch, the stimulus package, the Home Insulation Program, the computer in schools program, the BER schools building program, even the national curriculum and the MySchool website. These were all worthy initiatives, Fuel Watch was stillborn, killed in the Senate; Grocery Watch did not receive the support it needed to work; the stimpak worked brilliantly, and all the others succeeded, some better than others. But it was not the successes that the media highlighted, it was the problems, and there were some.

Take the BER, how much did we hear about the benefit of the program to children, teachers, parents and the community? Precious little! But we heard plenty about the overruns, the rorts, the slower-than-planned rollout, and the dissatisfaction expressed by some principals and parents. The Australian even ran a regular ‘Schools Watch’ section where every problem, small and large, was highlighted. Yet when the ANAO and Orgill reports found that the program had performed well, with only 2.7% dissatisfaction reported in the latter, it was the 2.7% that captured virtually all the media’s attention, leaving unchallenged the ‘waste and mismanagement’ mantra that the Coalition had been reciting for over a year. The media’s role was reprehensible in the extreme as it deprived the reading public of a balanced picture of this massive program, leaving only the negatives hanging out to dry in full public view.

Even this past week, the News Limited media is openly urging the selection of the Coalition to form government and is using polls in the electorates of the Country independents to put pressure on them.

What’s behind this? We all know Rupert Murdoch’s preference for conservative governments and his desire for control of the media to that end, but there may be other reasons. For example is the NBN seen as a treat to the print empire? Is the advertising revenue from government likely to be more under a Coalition Government? Who know what the motives are, but the end result is clear – News Limited wants a Coalition Government.

Let’s look briefly at the leaks.

All journalists love a scoop. So I suppose when someone leaks something significant to them, the urge to publish it is irresistible, and anyway they may take the line that if they do not publish the leak, the leaker will pass it to someone else. Do they ever decide not to publish a leak, in the public interest? Is there a code of ethics that keeps some matters under wraps? If so, what matters?

Anyway, the leaks that were publicized were damaging to Labor. Laurie Oakes made a rare appearance at the NPC to throw his bombshell at Julia Gillard about the supposed deal that she had made with Kevin Rudd to give him another chance to restore his position as leader. He knew that would be damaging to her, and that she would be hard pressed to rebut the charges because of confidentiality imperatives. And it was very damaging. It astonishes me that an experienced journalist, who is not known for his antagonism to Labor, would deliberately act in a way that would damage Gillard and her campaign so profoundly. Seemingly the scoop is more important than the damage inflicted.

Then there were the leaks about Gillard’s attitude in Cabinet toward a PPL and a pension rise, leaving her having to defend her position while sticking to the protocol of Cabinet confidentially. So the electorate was left suspecting that she opposed these measures.

These leaks were damaging and robbed the second and third weeks of the campaign of space to promote Labor policies, as the media obsessively focussed on the leaks. Without them, the outcome might have been more favourable to Labor.

The final leak was about the Coalition’s faulty costings on an item it had submitted. It embarrassed it, but gave Tony Abbott an excuse, ‘a criminal leak’, for not submitting any more Coalition costings to Treasury. No one knows where the leak arose; the Coalition asked the AFP to investigate. As WHK Horwath, an auditing firm, had been engaged two months beforehand to check the costings, one suspects the Coalition’s use of the leak to suspend submissions to Treasury was just too opportune. That leak was damaging to Labor too because it left the Coalition costings free from proper scrutiny.

The leaks were an embarrassment and did damage the campaign. How much, is conjecture.

As in any complex system, there is a multiplicity of factors that operate, and moreover they interact with each other in a way that multiplies the complexity. Any attempt to isolate one factor as the only, or even the most significant, is always going to be suspect, yet that is what some journalists do, I suppose to sound shrewd and in possession of the wisdom of Solomon. This trilogy has not attempted this, but instead had proposed as significant the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor, the Bligh factor, the NSW factor, the Sussex Street factor, the Abbott factor, the Coalition factor and the media factor. There are more, but not the space to explore them. But even among the factors described, there is intense interaction, the complexity of which we can hardly imagine.

I trust this analysis has provided food for thought, but sadly no insight into what the future holds for Labor, the Coalition and for the electorate. For this we must await the decision of the Country Independents.

What do you think?

More on: How has it come to this?

Although the Rudd factor is arguably the most compelling in attempting to explain how it has come to this, given that the political and social situation is a classic example of a complex adaptive system, there are many other interacting factors that need examination. Some of them receive attention here.

The Gillard factor

Her opponents like to portray her as backstabbing, disloyal, and hungry for the top job. Yet the evidence belies that view. She repeatedly insisted that she was happy in her job as Deputy PM and in her ministry, and had no desire to take Kevin Rudd’s place. She used florid examples to make her point: “There is more chance of me being full forward for the Bulldogs than me becoming PM”. Was she lying? Was this a devious camouflage for a well-planned assassination? Some would believe it was. I believe that is a ridiculous proposition. I believed her when she said she was not coveting Kevin’s job, and I suspect most Australians did too. If that is so, what was the Gillard factor?

As I see it, her capacity to do the job, widely recognized, even by Kevin Rudd himself, was the one essential element in the planning of Rudd’s removal. If the powerbrokers had not had a plausible and acceptable alternative to Rudd, the coup could not have succeeded. Her ability to do the job of PM was the Gillard factor.

From all that has been written, it was not until that fateful day in June that Julia Gillard was confronted with the reality of the internal revolt against Kevin Rudd and the extent of it. It seems she was told that midday that there was deep discontent with Rudd, that he had lost the support of many colleagues, and that if he was not replaced, internal and public polling pointed to a looming electoral defeat with the certain loss of 23 seats, with 32 seats in danger. They told her that she had the numbers to defeat Rudd, but she insisted the numbers be checked. They were, and later that day the powerbrokers assured her that a vote for her was secure, as indeed proved to be the case, with, as rumour has it, only about a quarter of the caucus willing to continue to support Rudd. From all that I have read, it seems then, and only then, that Gillard agreed to challenge Rudd. Without that willingness, there could have been no coup, and the party would have likely gone onto a heavy electoral defeat. Some have argued that with polls showing a TPP of 52/48, Rudd still could have won. We will never know.

So the Gillard factor was the ability to do the job and at the end her preparedness to challenge. She had a long session with Kevin Rudd and John Faulkner during which the facts were laid on the table and her request for a leadership ballot announced. No doubt Rudd resisted, apparently unprepared to accept the reality of the rising tide of opposition to him that reached tsunami proportions that night and swept him away the next day.

It must have been an agonizing choice for Julia, always the loyal deputy. But in the face of the overwhelming evidence that was placed before her, her only choices were to act as she did, or refuse and let the party sink. She did what she felt was right for the party.

The Oakes ‘leak’ that she had promised Rudd a reprieve and a second chance and that she reneged later that day, was damaging even if implausible in the light of subsequent events. She, Rudd and Faulkner refused to comment, leading to frenetic media speculation about the veracity of the leak. Until someone splits, we will never know the full story, and as we have seen with prior ‘deals’: between Hawke and Keating, and Howard and Costello, ‘absolute truth’ is unlikely ever to emerge. Nor are we likely to ever know who leaked. It seems highly unlikely it was Rudd himself; some of his acolytes, possibly one of his displaced staff, are the prime suspects.

What else comprises the Gillard factor? It was apparent early on that her gender was an advantage. The electorate warmed to the thought of a female PM and many women spoke out in her favour. The men were less impressed and later seemed even less so, and even the support of women waned. This might have been a natural process, or it may have been the result of the leaks.

Another element in the Gillard factor was the behind-the-scenes instructions she was being given by the party apparatchiks, the campaign managers. Informed by party polling and focus groups they persuaded her she had to fix the RSPT, do something about defusing the boat people problem, and make reassuring noises about what might be done about climate change – thus the frantic negotiations to change the RSPT to the MRRT, the idea of the East Timor processing centre, and the Citizens Assembly to rebuild community consensus about the need to act on climate change. The latter two were widely poo-poohed, prematurely in my view, and the first was roundly criticized by the smaller miners. She acted quickly and to some extent cleared the deck of these matters for the election. She may have won over some voters who would have otherwise been opposed and to that extent saved some of the furniture.

But even more important was the influence the campaign managers had on Julia’s day by day actions. Running a risk-averse campaign, they restricted her utterances to those that were safe and bland. Journalists became bored and angry at what they termed ‘lack of vision’, ‘lack of policy’ and ‘lack of leadership’, although, as I have written before, they never articulated what vision, policy and leadership might look like. No doubt they have vague notions, but if asked to exemplify these concepts, would likely do poorly. It’s so easy to be critical when you don’t have to do it yourself.

Eventually Julia realized that she was not ‘cutting through’, to use a favourite expression of journalists, and decided to do it her way, to abandon the tight scripting her advisers demanded, and to tone down the ‘moving forward’ slogan that so irritated the journalists. This was when she announced the ‘real Julia’. I would have preferred her to have made the transition without fanfare, but others believe that making the change overt was a circuit breaker. Again we will never know whether a covert or an overt approach would have been preferable – we have only one to observe. Complexity abounds.

Generally she seems to have handled her new role well, albeit not perfectly. The Oakes' leaks were damaging and the one suggesting that she had not supported the PPL and pension rises in Cabinet left her defending her position with one hand – that of Cabinet confidentiality - tied behind her back. She did as well as one might have hoped, but it was bound to be difficult, and because the media’s voracious appetite for ‘scandal’ needed to be satisfied, media coverage took ‘oxygen’ away from her policy announcements in the second and third weeks of the campaign. Amusingly, the media castigated her for not getting her messages out, while it was the main reason this was not possible.

I rate the Gillard factor as positive – it could have been better, but the fact that she stemmed the loss of seats to the extent that the Coalition could not achieve a majority either, should be marked up to her great credit. If given the chance to be the PM, I believe she will do it creditably, especially when not constrained by the exigencies of campaigning.

Let’s now look at what I regard as the next most important factor, what I have called ‘the Queensland factor’.

The Queensland factor

We have become accustomed to hearing about our two-speed economy, the mining boom states versus the rest, but after the election we have another division according to the ever-perceptive George Megalogenis who wrote the following in The Australian on 23 August in “Poll divides the nation into three zones”: “Australia is now divided into three zones by political and economic culture – one conservative one progressive and one split down the middle. The mining states of Queensland and Western Australia are a Labor wasteland. The progressive southern states of Victoria, South Australian and Tasmania don’t want to know the Coalition. Between these two zones is the dead state of NSW, where neither side claimed a decisive vote on Saturday. The parliament was hung because Tony Abbott’s home state did not break the same way for the Coalition as Queensland and Western Australia did.” This perspective highlights the divided state of our nation. We seem not to have one uniform nation, but two or three sub-nations which think and feel quite differently. It is apparent that in this election Queenslanders had a view of federal politics that differed from most of the rest of the nation.

So let’s look at what happened in the Sunshine State.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd, the state’s own boy, took a large swag of seats from the Coalition in a big swing to Labor, picking up seats it hardly expected to win. No doubt there was a local boy factor. It was inevitable that some of these would swing back to the Coalition next time. But why so many?

It seems that Queenslanders became disillusioned with Rudd, especially over his embrace of the mining tax which they perceived threatened jobs in the mining and coal industry along the north coast. There was talk about them having the ‘baseball bats’ out for him, seemingly a peculiarly Queensland approach to out-of-favour politicians. They seemed to want to have the opportunity of beating him with them. Then when he was replaced they became annoyed, I suppose because their Queensland ‘boy’ was so unceremoniously removed, but also maybe because they wanted to do that themselves. It was classic ambivalence, but the outcome was a big fall in TPP support for Labor and a great loss of seats; in fact Labor has lost around half its seats in the mining states. If Queensland had not reacted so violently against its own boy, against Labor, Labor would be in government. Queensland has deeply wounded Labor.

The other critical element of the Queensland factor is the Bligh factor.

The Bligh factor

Since re-election, an outcome made possible by a poor opposition, Anna Blight has become very unpopular, as we understand it over her sale of public assets, a $15 billion state privatisation plan - a plan many voters believe she hid from them before last year's state election. It has been a remarkable turnaround for someone who became Premier in her own right just a short time ago. There seems little doubt that the Bligh factor played out adversely for the federal government, and that Queenslanders are punishing federal Labor for the perceived misdemeanours of the Bligh Government. How much is a matter of conjecture; in NSW such a reaction would have made more sense, yet that was not so much the case there. People will have varying views not so much about whether the Labor brand was diminished by out-of-favour state Labor governments because it clearly was, but how much it actually affected the result in Queensland, and NSW.

The other factors in this complex mix

The way in which the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor and the Bligh factor have interacted to produce the result we now see, is conjectural. There will be many views on this, some strongly held, some with flimsy evidence to support them. This piece attempts to describe some of them and the way they might have played out. But there are more: the NSW factor, the Sussex Street factor, the Abbott factor, the Coalition factor, the media factor, and more. Those are for the next piece.

What do you think?

How has it come to this?

With the election outcome still in limbo, and likely to be so for some time, it might be a good time to reflect on how Labor has come so close to losing power. Many pundits are having a shot at this, but I suspect are approaching it from their own idiosyncratic viewpoint, one that does not take into account the enormous complexity of the political and social system in this country. Anyone who understands the concept of complex adaptive systems will realize how a piecemeal approach will always reveal only part of the truth, with all the distortions that invites. Complex adaptive systems are complex in that they are diverse and made up of multiple interconnected elements, and adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience.

Given that the political situation we face is profoundly complex and that attempts are now being made to learn from experience and adapt, any assessment ought to acknowledge that reality and attempt to accommodate it. I trust this and subsequent pieces do so.

With the caveat that this appraisal will necessarily be incomplete, I will try to tease out what I believe have been the most important factors in Labor’s decline, while acknowledging my own biases. As there is probably no factor in this complex mix of interacting variables that is more significant than the Rudd factor, that is where I begin.

The Rudd factor

I have always liked Kevin Rudd. From when he emerged as Foreign Affairs spokesman while in opposition, his superior intellect, extensive knowledge of his subject, and his capacity for articulately arguing his case, stood out. I delighted seeing him on the 7.30 Report, particularly during the AWB affair where he relentlessly pursued the Government and senior ministers. That they were never brought to account could be attributed not to a failure on Rudd’s behalf, but to the restricted terms of reference of the Cole inquiry that made any pursuit of ministers out of the question.

Then when he became Opposition Leader he relentlessly pursued John Howard and set about deposing him. He portrayed himself as ‘Howard-lite’, an ‘economic conservative’ and ‘a safe pair of hands’. He even adopted the slogan ‘this reckless spending must stop’, attacked the high interest rates under the Coalition, and appealed to concern in the electorate about petrol and grocery prices, giving the impression he could do something about them although never making such a commitment. His most quoted words were about global warming: ‘the greatest moral, economic and moral challenge of our time’, which he assured the electorate he would tackle vigorously, and indeed six months before being elected he commissioned the Garnaut inquiry.

All his pre-election rhetoric fostered a belief that he was a reformer who would tackle the big problems of our time. He created high expectations, and the electorate warmly embraced his ideals and his lofty aims and elected him in a landslide against a long-incumbent PM and a long-standing Coalition. The high expectations became a liability as the reality of effecting the changes mooted in the face of trenchant opposition, struck home.

For two years he ran high in the popularity stakes, reaching levels enjoyed only once before, by Bob Hawke. Labor seemed unassailable.

Then stories emerged, mainly in the News Limited media, of a frenetic PM who slept little, who had multiple projects running simultaneously with a tendency to jump from one to the other, who overworked his staff, who asked for papers to be prepared at short notice at odd hours, some of which were never read, who kept important people waiting, and who was often late for meetings and appointments. Increasingly he was accused of regarding himself as the most important person in the room, able to absorb and analyze vast amounts of data, reach conclusions and fashion action better than anyone else. More and more he became a one man band who consulted with just a small group to make important decisions, often the pejoratively-described ‘gang of four’. Although his ministers insisted that he would consult with them over portfolio matters, decision making in Cabinet and the party room became less collaborative. Submissions with recommendations for action were reported as being presented to Cabinet and even to the relevant minister at the very last minute, leaving paltry time for reflection and thorough discussion.

In retrospect, this state of affairs ought not to have come as a surprise. From the outset Kevin Rudd indicated that he would choose his own ministry instead of the caucus doing so, and his disdain for the factions was well known. He had no substantial support base, operated as a loner, and his autocratic behavior gradually became apparent. However, having won the election and riding high in the polls, he was virtually unchallengeable. He did not need friends and any fermenting enmity was kept well suppressed.

Along came the GFC, which saw Kevin Rudd performing at his very best. With Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner, he took the sound advice of Ken Henry ‘to go early, go hard, go households’, and applied his stimulus measures to great effect, avoiding recession, serious unemployment and business failures. Some still argue about the efficacy of the stimulus, but most economists now acknowledge the stimulus package saved the nation, although accepting that several other factors contributed to success. It was Rudd’s finest hour, but in a sense reinforced his feeling of self-sufficiency, his capacity to solve any problem with little help or the need to consult widely.

His tireless efforts to develop climate change policy, instead of being rewarded by an ETS and later a CPRS, were destroyed by a hostile Senate after Tony Abbott’s defeat of Malcolm Turnbull, who had already agreed to a modified CPRS. How one vote can change the course of history! Then a disappointing Copenhagen left Rudd with virtually no international support for immediate action, and the negative ‘Great Big New Tax’ slogan that Abbott used to assail the CPRS resulted in a decline in public support for action, especially if it were to cost the consumer more than a few dollars. Beset with falling support for action in the opinion polls, Rudd took the fateful decision to postpone action on global warming until the expiry of the Kyoto protocol in 2012. That was portrayed in the media and perceived widely in the electorate as a betrayal of principle and a lack of political courage, even as cowardice. It is widely believed that the Sussex Street apparatchiks, the likes of Karl Bitar and Mark Abib, persuaded Rudd to this view. They also persuaded him that going to a double dissolution on the matter would be dangerous in the face of Abbott’s GBNT. For his part, Rudd went on TV with a mea culpa about his Government's 'failings', that many considered a mistake.

From that moment it was all downhill. The reversal of what the electorate saw as Rudd’s sacredly held principle, no matter how strongly it was portrayed as the only pragmatic move that was possible, disillusioned many who had supported him and confirmed the ‘all talk no action’ belief held by his opponents. He never recovered. The polls dipped and the internal polling indicated that Labor would lose heavily at the coming election.

On the heels of the climate change reversal came the release of the Henry Review with over a hundred recommendations, setting out a sound blueprint for reform of the tax and transfer system for the next decade. The item chosen for early action was a tax on mineral resources, the Resources Super Profit Tax with its consequent benefits to business and superannuation. It was a sound proposal but was introduced without providing for adequate discussion with the miners; even the name was somewhat off-putting. Rudd believed it would be popular with the electorate, and if one can judge from the election outcome, it was in the non-mining states of Victoria, SA and Tasmania where Labor increased its vote, but it was immensely unpopular in the mining states, scared witless by the miners’ propaganda and Abbott’s representation of it as a 'GNBT on everything', although the tax was on the miners who later agreed they could afford to pay more tax. The people were the beneficiaries but they were persuaded that they were being taxed. It showed how fear tactics can override logic and even commonsense.

This episode typified the belief of the Rudd Government that sound policy and fine achievements would sell themselves. Rudd is a victim of his own superior intelligence, seemingly believing that if he can understand something, everyone else should and will. Whoever was advising him saw no need to devise an educational program to communicate with the electorate and ‘sell’ the Government’s concepts, policies and actions. I have commented before about this glaring deficit in its public relations program, and in its promotion of its plans and achievements. So there were few positive messages to counter the negative messages that poured from the Coalition. Because negative messages are always more potent, the positive ones needed to be extraordinary to get any traction.

The RSPT added to the discontent with Rudd in at least the mining states and pushed the polls lower still. The party’s powerbrokers, Mark Abib, Bill Shorten, David Feeney and Co, began to see the replacement of Rudd as the only way to save the party from oblivion.

The brutal and precipitous removal of him occurred on the last day of the June parliamentary sitting, judged by the powerbrokers who organized it to be the last opportunity they had. They would now argue the wisdom of their action by pointing out that even in his own safe electorate of Griffith, Rudd’s margin fell by over 4%.

So we have had a highly intelligent PM who fostered high expectations that proved almost impossible to satisfy, who became increasingly a one man band advised by party apparatchiks obsessed with focus groups and opinion polling, who became isolated from his ministers and backbenchers, increasingly non-consultative, more and more disliked by his colleagues and public servants, and even ‘loathed’, according to David Marr in his Quarterly Essay, Power Trip. It is not surprising then that in the face of opinion polls predicting electoral disaster that his colleagues turned against him in such numbers, so much so that he decided not to nominate when the leadership was declared vacant. It is reported that he was unlikely to get more than a quarter of the votes.

The Rudd factor seems to be the most convincing explanation of why it has come to this. There are many others: the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor, the NSW factor, the Abbott factor, the Coalition factor, the media factor, and even more. They are for other pieces.

I still like Kevin Rudd. I believe him to be a fine person of high integrity and lofty ideals who has a splendid vision for this nation, and many policy ideas for improving the lot of its people. It has been the process of implementing policy and communicating with the electorate that has come unstuck and has disappointed so many of us who have supported him throughout. But I for one still admire him and regret it has come to this.

What do you think?

If you come to a fork in the road, take it

That is the sort of advice that cartoonists might offer to the independents that now seem to hold the future of the Federal parliament in their hands. The outlook for both major parties is uncertain, equally so.

So what can we deduce one day after the election? This is the first in a series. This piece addresses the exigencies of minority government. Later pieces will address what went wrong for Labor and the role of the media.

Labor has sustained a significant loss of seats, declining from 83 to somewhere between 70 and 74, as far as one can tell. If the ‘doubtfuls’ all fell Labor’s way and some seats previously assigned to the Coalition changed to Labor, it is very remotely possible that Labor might get to the magic 76 where it can form government.

The Coalition has gained seats – from 64 previously to between 72 and 74, and again if all the cards fell its way it might get to 76. It is better placed seat-wise than Labor, but is highly unlikely to get to that figure.

The proportion of votes flowing to the parties at present shows that Labor has suffered a swing against it of 5.5%, the Coalition a swing to it of 1.8% and the Greens a swing to them of 3.7%. Proportionately speaking, most of Labor’s bleeding was to the Greens, not the Coalition. But because those figures are applied against different absolute numbers, more votes actually flowed from Labor to the Coalition than to the Greens. The swings are uneven. At present the swings against Labor seem confined to Queensland, NSW, WA and NT, with swings to Labor in the other states. This has not translated into many extra seats in those states, but the contrast is striking and points to the underlying reasons..

So what has happened is that many of the seats that Labor won in 2007, especially in Queensland, have reverted to the Coalition, but not in sufficient numbers to enable it to form government. Remember that at the 2007 election there was a 5.4% swing against the Howard Government nationwide, with a much stronger swing in Queensland of 7.5%. John Howard, three of his ministers and 17 other Coalition MPs lost their seats, although the Liberals gained two marginal Labor seats in WA, a net loss of 19 seats, leaving it with 64 seats. This time the Coalition has regained only 8 of these if we take the current count as 72.

Although yesterday was clearly a great day for the Coalition, it was not in the same category as Labor’s win in 2007. On 24 November 2007 the Coalition slipped from 83 seats to 64, a loss of 19 seats, but on 21 August 2010 it moved from 64 to around 72, a gain of 8, and even with the very best case scenario of, say, 76, a gain of 12, well short of what Labor achieved in 2007.

While Tony Abbott and his Coalition team are justifiably delighted that what looked like a ‘saving the furniture’ exercise six months ago has turned out to be much better than that, their delight needs it be tempered with the reality that unless Julia Gillard is unable to form a minority government with the independents, and Tony Abbott is, he has gained seats but not power. He sensed this when he warned in his speech to the party faithful against triumphalism. His triumph is limited. Nick Minchin and George Brandis were arguing last night that if the Coalition obtained the most seats and the popular vote, it should be ‘entitled’ to attempt first to form a minority government. That is not the way it works. Julia Gillard is PM in caretaker mode and has first option to present a minority government arrangement to the Governor General. If she can’t, Tony Abbott gets his turn, something he seemed to understand when he spoke last night.

What then might we expect? If we accept that neither party will reach 76 and will probably reach only 74, minority government is only possible with the cooperation of the new Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, who has already said he will support Labor, effectively increasing its tally by one, possibly Andrew Wilkie, the whistleblower on the Iraq War whom the Coalition labelled as unbalanced, and who subsequently became an unsuccessful Greens candidate, but looks likely to take Dennison in Tasmania, and three ex-Nationals who left that party because they were dissatisfied and still seem upset with it. Bob Katter of Kennedy in far north Queensland is still angry about the reduction of milk prices for dairy farmers following the Coalition’s deregulation of the industry, the way in which he believes rural Australia is being neglected by government, and last night revealed he had had an abusive call from Warren Truss. Bob does not seem enamoured of the Coalition. Tony Windsor of New England sounds a very reasonable and sensible person who wants to contribute to stable government and support rural people, and Rob Oakeshott of Lyne on the northern NSW coast, who has had experience as an independent in the Greiner Coalition government in NSW, also sounds balanced, stating his decision about which party to support would revolve around which one could provide the most stable government. None of the independents indicated any alignment to the Coalition, but Adam Bandt would align with Labor and Andrew Wilkie might, while still retaining independence. In summary there is not much joy for Tony Abbott there in terms of ideological alignment.

Add to that the fact that there will be nine Greens in the Senate, and a DLP member. Stephen Fielding seems unlikely to retain his seat, but we will have to endure him until the end of next June.

What issues might sway their alignment?

Perhaps the most important might be the NBN which the Greens support and rural members strongly support, in fact complaining on ABC TV last night about poor communications in the bush, such that only a still image could be projected while they spoke to Kerry O’Brien on their mobiles. They say this would enable rural businesses to become more competitive on the world stage. Also contemplate how difficult it would be for Tony Abbott as PM to scuttle the NBN in the Senate, while it is already being rolled out? How would he handle that? Would he be forced to renege on his intention to trash the NBN?

What about global warming? Leaving aside the fact that Bob Katter is a sceptic, and that we don’t know what the other ex-Nationals independents think, we certainly know that Greens want action and are unlikely to go along with Tony Abbott’s ‘action plan’ without a price on carbon. How will Tony handle that?

What about the MRRT? The Greens want an even bigger tax. With them with the balance of power in the Senate, how will Tony cope with their insistence?

What about Abbott’s intention to scrap GP Super Clinics and reduce primary care funding? Would the rural independents support that? Would the Greens? They would applaud the Coalition’s mental health funding, but would want dental care supported.

How would Abbott manage the Greens’ push for same sex marriage?

Consider how the Greens might feel about Tony’s Boatphone, his threat to ‘turn the boats around’, and his reopening of Nauru. It is the Greens that have been the most outspoken about treating asylum-seekers humanely and they are opposed to off-shore processing. .

That’s enough now about what Tony Abbott would need to reflect on as he contemplates minority government with the independents and a Greens-dominated Senate. Running a majority government is difficult enough, accommodating the various views party members have, but party unity usually overcomes dissent, as we saw when he conjured up his PPL without consultation. But he cannot rely on that when he’s required to negotiate with those outside his party. How would he cope with the sort of unremitting obstructionism he had inflicted on Labor for the last three years?

Malcolm Fraser’s ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy’ may take on a vivid new meaning if Abbott ever gets the chance to manage a minority government. Authoritarianism and any tendency towards autocratic behaviour would need to be replaced by painstaking negotiation and the accommodation of views alien to his own. Would he be capable of this? Perhaps he would; he has performed much better on the campaign trail than his colleagues, and even he expected, so anything is possible. But he would have to put away the aggressive, pugilistic Tony and become the collaborative, accommodating Tony, willing and happy to accept ideological and political positions he does not favour. It’s a big ask. I suspect most who comment here would hope he never gets the opportunity to show us one way or the other.

What do you think?

It should be a one horse race

Yes, it should be a one horse race. Based on performance, on the visions and plans for the next three years and beyond, and on the talent it has on its front bench, Labor should be a country mile ahead. Yet the pundits are predicting a very close result, possibly a ‘hung’ parliament and even a Coalition win. How is it so?

The Coalition has painted the Government as hopelessly incompetent and useless, a ‘bad’ Government, in fact ‘the worst in our political history’. They will not acknowledge anything good at all about it. They insist it must be ‘thrown out’. They hope to con the people into this belief so that the voters will elect an Abbott Government, not because it has something visionary to offer, but because it is not as bad as it paints Labor to be.

So let’s look at what this Government has achieved.

Let’s leave aside the Apology and signing Kyoto, and jump to the GFC. There is an increasing body of opinion that the Government’s stimulus package was an important contributor to this nation’s emergence from the GFC. Even acknowledging the reforms of previous Labor and Coalition governments, the strong state of the economy, the solidity of a well-regulated and capitalized banking system, the support given to the banking sector through guarantees, the interest rate adjustments of the Reserve Bank, and the receipts from the mining boom, all of which contributed to shield us from the ravages of the GFC, there are still a few economists, those who have always opposed the stimulus such as Warwick McKibbin, Henry Ergas and Michael Stutchbury, who persist with the view that the effects of the stimulus were small, arrived too late, and created unnecessary debt. Against that, there was first a letter signed by ten economists, and then an open letter from 50 leading economists applauding the stimulus, and a strong statement from Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize-winning economist about how Australia’s stimulus was the best administered in the world.  The Reserve bank itself has applauded the way in which the Bank’s monetary actions in lowering interest rates and the Government’s fiscal stimulus worked in harmony to achieve a good result. With unemployment low, inflation low and business confidence up, Australia has a buoyant economy, largely due to the Government’s actions.

The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the efficacy of the Government’s stimulus package. There is no room left to argue. It is only those with partisan bias who refuse to just accept it. Every person whose job was saved, every businessman whose business was saved, ought to be eternally grateful. Unfortunately many seem not to be aware of ‘the bullet they dodged’.

Next look at the much-maligned Home Insulation Program. All the media commentary is about the deaths and the fires, the direct result of shoddy workmanship, shonky operators and fraudsters. There are many in the industry that has suffered losses as a result of this and the consequent cancelling of the program. Any fault that can reasonably be laid at the Government’s feet is its less-than-adequate administrative oversight of the program, one a Government department should have never been asked to oversee. But let’s not dismiss the fact that one million ceilings have been insulated at Government expense with all the environmental benefits that brings, the occupational health and safety regulations that have been upgraded, and that for every thousand homes insulated, the rate of fires was less than ever before.

Take the BER. Condemned at every utterance by the Coalition and by News Limited outlets for ‘waste and mismanagement’, there has been little acknowledgement of its benefits – only a focus on the 2.7% of complaints instead of the 97.3% of schools that had no complaints. The ‘waste’ amounts to around $840,000 in a $16 billion program, an overrun figure commercial projects would readily accept when speed was the essence of the endeavour. Criticism of waste in the program overlooks completely the ‘waste’ that would result from unemployment and business closure in thousands of towns and suburbs, and the misery that would have occasioned. Much of the overrun occurred in NSW where the rollout was achieved most rapidly. As clearly the speed of rollout was the essence of the program, this is understandable.

Two reports: the Auditor General’s Performance Report on the BER released in May this year and the Building the Education Revolution Implementation Taskforce Report chaired by Brad Orgill were positive about the BER and put the problems that occurred into perspective as relatively minor compared with the enormous benefit of the program for schools, schoolchildren, parents, and the community and the value of the program to local business and tradesmen.

Look at the computers in schools program. Julia Gillard insists that the program is on schedule in delivering computers, not way behind as the Coalition paints, and that some 696,000 computers have been funded, and of these, 297,000 have been rolled out and are in use by students. NSW has almost half its allocated computers, while Victoria has about a quarter and in SA about one-sixth. The cost of the programme has blown out by $1 billion to $2 billion, partly because of IT support, networking and software costs. So was it worthwhile? The Coalition talks only of waste and mismanagement, never about the advantage of the computers to the children that have them. The programme could have been better managed but is certainly better than no programme at all. The Coalition says it will stop the program. Too bad about the kids who haven’t yet received their computer.

While on schools, reflect on the implementation of the national curriculum and the MySchool website, major reforms, now accepted by all.

Let’s examine the ETS. The Government has done its best to get its CPRS legislation through the Senate only to be destroyed by the Coalition, even after a deal had been done to pass it. The disappointment of Copenhagen and the erosion of community support for a tax on carbon resulting from Tony Abbott’s Great Big New Tax slogan have made the task even more difficult. Whether it would have been wiser to go for broke and take the matter to a double dissolution of parliament we will never know. But certainly Labor’s deferral of the ETS has caused it electoral pain. But it did try very hard to give leadership on combating global warming. The Coalition killed it.

Look at the advances in the health field. Remember the doubling of funds for health, the increase in doctors, nurses, primary heath care facilities and GP super clinics, the reduction in elective surgery waiting times, the funding of additional beds and the increase in mental health funding, and the major reforms at a national level to integrate health care at federal, state and local level, a reform only partly completed.

Perhaps the NBN is the most important initiative of this Government. All that it means to this nation was detailed in Would Tony Abbott really be stupid enough to trash the NBN?  Yes, he would. There is no need to elaborate here on this essential advance to our society; just contemplate the threat to abandon it in favour of a Mickey Mouse el-cheapo Coalition scheme that is outdated before it starts.

On top of this Labor has an economic plan based on its achievements. An MRRT will net over $10 billion with benefits flowing to reducing company tax, infrastructure, superannuation and small business. It has well-formulated plans for education, health, and an essential NBN.

Add to all this a talented front bench – Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith, Simon Crean, Anthony Albanese, Martin Ferguson, Jenny Macklin, Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Chris Bowen, Chris Evans, Tony Burke, and so on the list goes.

What does Tony Abbott and the Coalition offer?

We know Tony Abbott has extreme ideological positions, that despite his protestations that WorkChoices is dead, buried and cremated, we should not underestimate the power of business to push Tony Abbott to make ‘regulatory’ adjustments to alter individual contract arrangements and unfair dismissal. We’ve seen enough of Abbott in the last eight months to accept that he is very devious yet able to convince people of his ‘honesty’ with an array of weasel words.

We have already seen Tony Abbott’s proposed savage cuts to existing and planned programs in education, health and pharmaceuticals, his intent to abandon the NBN, his intention to reject $10 billion in mining tax, his opposition to a tax on carbon because of his disbelief in the reality of man-made global warming, and some GBNTs of his own. There are some good things: funding for mental health, hospital beds, apprentices and teachers, but many at the expense of other programs that have been savaged.

But what the Coalition is offering – end the waste, pay back the debt, stop new taxes, and stop the boats – even with the plans mentioned above, when compared with what Labor has done, has still in train, and is planning for the next term is paltry in the extreme. And his front bench team is paper thin, light on talent, and its backbench ageing and out of date.

This ought to be a one horse race, but through a combination of Labor’s problems in program implementation, inadequate publicity of its many achievements and plans, and a viciously negative program of denigration of everything the Government has done by Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb particularly, aided and abetted by a vitriolic News Limited campaign to unseat the Government, the race is now close. We now have to rely on the commonsense and sound judgement of Australia’s voters to save us from the tragedy an Abbott government would be to this, our country.

What do you think?

The enigma of leadership

How many times have we heard journalists accuse political leaders of ‘lacking leadership’ or ‘not showing leadership’? I wonder do they have a clear idea in their minds of what political ‘leadership’ is, and I wonder too whether they share the same ideas about leadership. I suspect that even for the more thoughtful, the term is often used as a fine-sounding catch cry, uninformed by careful consideration of the concept of leadership and its nuances, and in good old groupthink fashion mimicked by the less thoughtful. To many, leadership is an enigma.

Paul Kelly is fond of attributing ‘lack of leadership’ to our leaders, which he does with suitable gravitas. He condemned Kevin Rudd for lack of leadership when he deferred taking action on climate change until the Kyoto Agreement concludes at the end of 2012. In this instance, for Kelly leadership meant Rudd sticking to his principles on climate change and honouring his stated intention to do something about ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’. That utterance seems to have evoked ‘righteous indignation’ in Kelly; by deferring action, Rudd had, in his eyes, failed the leadership test. Kelly asserts that Rudd should have persisted with his ETS agenda, if necessary taking it to the people at a double dissolution of parliament. To Kelly, that would have been a sign of leadership. He gave him no credit at all for making a pragmatic decision that he could do no more at present after the repeated rejection of the ETS legislation in the Senate, the disappointment of Copenhagen, and the withering of public support for action on an ETS. He insisted he should have used up some of his ‘political capital’ by taking the matter to the people, presumably even if that risked loss of Government. Labor strategists saw this option as sufficiently risky to advise deferral of action. So I suppose Kelly would have given Rudd a ‘leadership’ tick if he had gone to a DD, even if he lost power. This would have been paltry consolation for Rudd. Many people agree with Kelly and commentators pinpoint the beginning of Rudd’s steep decline to this decision.

Other journalists have expressed similar sentiments. To many, not sticking to a matter of principle is a sign of lack of leadership, and has evoked the question ‘what does he/she stand for’? For example, some have criticized Tony Abbott for abandoning, at least for the term of the next parliament, his IR principles and his support for the concepts of WorkChoices, which he previously endorsed so enthusiastically.

So let’s accept that most journalists would define leadership as sticking to one’s principles, the things one ‘stands for’. And we need to also accept that this definition does not allow for pragmatic political decisions to defer action on principles, or for a change of attitude. The leader has to go into the battle even if defeat threatens.

There are plenty of journalists still uttering ‘I don’t know what she stands for’ and occasionally ‘I don’t know what he stands for’, despite both leaders having announced polices day after day all through the campaign. Apparently these policy announcements don’t count. Is it because they seem disconnected, or too loosely connected to a set of underlying beliefs, attitudes and principles, to a vision of the future? Maybe the scheduling of their ‘launches’ late in the campaign has left people who think about these things without a unifying framework into which policy announcements can be fitted as they are made. By relying too much on berating the Government at the Coalition’s launch and indulging in a hubristic floor show, Tony Abbott failed to give us the vision of the Australia he has in mind, his aspirations for it and the future it should pursue. He failed to define the strongly held principles that would guide him and his party as he provides leadership to the nation.

We hope Julia Gillard will not make the same mistake at her launch and instead show us how all that she has announced fits into a comprehensive global framework of sacredly held Labor principles, personal intentions and far-seeing vision.

What else do journalists mean by ‘leadership’? We can only guess, because they never spell it out.

Wikipedia has an informative piece on Leadership that makes interesting reading.  It begins by giving a general definition that reads: “Leadership is stated as the ‘process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task’." and "Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen." These are distinctive from the concept of leadership mentioned above. Here the emphasis is on getting others to follow and contribute to a common aim. The article goes onto describe a variety of explanatory theories: trait theory, behavioural and style theories, situational and contingency theories, functional theory, transactional and transformative theories, and environmental leadership theory.

The individual traits considered indicative of leadership include intelligence, adjustment, extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience and general self-efficacy; while styles of leadership include autocratic, participative and laissez-faire, terms that are self-explanatory. It seems as if Kevin Rudd used an autocratic style, which eventually brought him undone.

Ordinary folks might include attributes such as the capacity for a long-term vision, the ability to project confidence and inspire others, openness and honesty, and the talent to affirm values, define philosophy and detail plans for the nation, simply and lucidly.

So how should our political journalists judge political leadership? Is it reasonable to focus on politicians sticking to principles and core values as the prime criterion, while ignoring the necessity for political pragmatism? Or should the main criterion be the capacity to enlist the support of others, to enable their contribution to the common aim, the common task? Or does leadership reside in the capacity to display a coherent framework that encapsulates a vision for the country and a plan for achieving that vision? Perhaps it is all of these.

Whatever it is, when writing about leadership, journalists should state what their leadership criteria are, and how our leaders are meeting, or not meeting those criteria, instead of accusing them of lack of leadership while being too lazy or too ill-informed to spell out what they believe leadership means.

What do you think?

At the Labor launch tomorrow, I hope that we might hear from Julia Gillard a statement her vision, along with her plans for this country for the coming decades. If I had to pen such a statement of vision, it would read like this:

I want this nation of Australia to be peaceful, secure from external and internal threats, prosperous and fair to all its citizens.

I want all Australians to be confident in their future.

I want an Australia that gives everyone a fair go and an equal opportunity to succeed, while supporting those who are less fortunate.

To ensure prosperity, Australia’s economy needs to be robust, sustainable, able to grow at a suitable rate, and flexible. It needs to be able to gainfully engage all those capable of work in meaningful and rewarding employment that provides a satisfying income and a secure retirement.

To maintain this nation’s economy there needs to be a balance between free enterprise and free markets on the one hand, and government support and regulation on the other. Government intervention in crises when the private sector is unable to sustain the economy and full employment must be the brief of national governments.

To maintain fiscal integrity, a national government must strive for surplus budgets and diminishing debt, yet be prepared to borrow in national emergencies to support business and minimize unemployment.

To advance the nation, reforms are needed in sectors where problems, underperformance or inequity exists. Reforms are needed to the tax, pension and superannuation system; to the regulation of business which requires rationalization; to the development of infrastructure that subserves commerce and industry, health and education, in which national governments must play a regulatory and at times a participative role; to the health system that needs reorganization, reorientation and integration; to the education system that needs enhancement with skilled teachers and educational infrastructure, and that is more transparent and accountable; and to the nation’s defence arrangements to maintain Australia’s security. Australia needs a reforming government.

To achieve a strong economy, Australia must provide first class education for all through well-equipped schools, universities and technical institutions staffed by highly motivated, well trained, supported and appropriately rewarded staff, equipped with facilities that make use of every modern technological advance.

To support all Australians there must be a first class health care system, accessible at every level of the community, affordable to all, properly staffed with sufficient numbers and variety of well-trained healthcare personnel. Emergency care for physical and mental illness must be quickly and conveniently available. Waiting time for elective treatment, especially surgery, must be short and not place any person in jeopardy. The health care system needs to be geared especially to the needs of the chronically ill, the disabled, the disadvantaged, the aged, the mentally ill, and those suffering from substance abuse.

To preserve for future generations a habitable and productive land, action on global warming is urgent and indispensable. Mitigating carbon pollution and restoring water flows in our major rivers and wetlands must be a top priority. The preservation of the nation’s natural and irreplaceable resources, and the prudent use of finite resources such as minerals must be a prime responsibility. To this end Australia must play its role as a conscientious global citizen, collaborating with other nations to combat global warming.

To guarantee a congenial lifestyle for all its citizens, Australia needs a sustainable population policy that uses its natural resources prudently, and provides the infrastructure and amenities that an expanding multicultural population requires. Such a policy needs to balance immigration, the need for skilled labour, and the carrying capacity of the land and its town and cities.

Australia must also play its role in ensuring regional and global security, peace and the alleviation of poverty.

To guarantee fulfilling social engagement, communities need to be inclusive, supportive and satisfying for all citizens irrespective of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, belief, and religious and political affiliation. Orderly border protection needs to be capable of ensuring social cohesion and security.

The Government needs to listen to its citizens: from those in the remotest places to those in the centre of cities, from the young to the old, from the least to the most wealthy, from the worker to the employer, from the productive sectors to the service sectors, across the spectrum of political and religious persuasions, so that all the needs of the community can be assessed and addressed and the nation’s resources allocated in the most equitable and productive manner.

To achieve these ends, Australia needs stable governance that integrates local, state and federal governments in a collaborative endeavour that has as its primary aim the advancement of this country in all its richness and diversity to the benefit of its entire people.

All of Labor’s plans are consistent with this vision.

Now, even although the above vision is likely incomplete, it is still a rather verbose statement. If Julia Gillard were to use such words in her launch, what would the media say? Would they applaud ‘the vision splendid’ or cast it as a wordy bore? Would they gleefully acknowledge the ‘leadership’ inherent in making such a statement? Would they describe any attempt at such a statement as ‘visionary’ and see that setting such a template into which plans can be embedded as just what they have been looking for, yearning for, when they talk about ‘vision’, ‘narrative’, ‘leadership’? I doubt it. Just a few would analyse and critique such a statement, one so hard to condense into a few pithy, eye-catching sentences, or a seven second grab for TV or radio. Just a tiny handful might see this as ‘leadership’. For so many journalists, ‘leadership’ really is an enigma, one few seem to have examined carefully.

So don’t be disappointed if Julia does not go this far; she has a better idea of what the media can digest than I have. I am nearly always disappointed.

What do you think?

Medical Records

Thank goodness for the Internet. If it wasn't for that we would have to rely again on what we read in the newspapers, see on TV, hear on the radio and receive through the mailbox at election time, in order to get our election information.

However, as well as being a blessing, it can be a curse as it is also able to overwhelm you with a blizzard of information. So it is for this reason that I have waded through the thicket of facts and figures that fly around in the Health area in order to distil the truths from the half-truths, and tried to lay it out in an easily digestible form.

As Health is such an omnibus area of policy, with so many different facets, and numbers that boggle the mind and pour out of every corner to overwhelm and bamboozle, I decided to therefore condense that data and, hopefully, present it to you in such a way that you might then be able to get a handle on it and use it to inform you in your deliberations before you go to the voting booth.

I thought I might also include a list of the achievements in the area of Health over the last three years by the Rudd/Gillard government because we need to make our decision based not only on promises for the future, but also results over the past term of a government.

In this way, when it comes to election day you will be as fully informed about the issue of Health as possible.

Labor achievements

I will first outline what Labor has achieved over the last 3 years in the area of Health.

- More than 76,000 elective surgery procedures delivered in the last two years and over 125 hospitals receiving new elective surgery equipment and operating theatres.

- Injection of $1.5 billion into public hospital emergency departments – this has already seen more than 35 emergency departments receive upgrades and will expand capacity to rollout a new four hour cap on emergency department waiting times.

- Expanded the number of hospital beds, with investment to build 1,300 new sub-acute hospital beds.

- Doubling the number of GP training places to 1,200 a year by 2014 and funding training for over 1,000 new nurses each year.

- Delivering on a commitment to build 31 GP Super Clinics that locate a range of services in one convenient location – and adding an additional five communities that will benefit.

- Established the Health and Hospitals Fund to make long-term, inter-generational investments in our national health infrastructure. This fund has invested $3.2 billion in 32 projects around the country.

- Investing $2 billion into building a world class cancer care system – including building regional cancer centres to make it easier for Australians to receive the care they need close to home.

- Committed to closing the unacceptable life expectancy gap for Indigenous Australians within two generations and backed this up with an investment of $1.6 billion in an Indigenous Health National Partnership.

- Delivered more than 850,000 dental check-ups to teenagers under the Medicare Teen Dental Plan.

- Providing more attractive incentives and retention bonuses for doctors to work in rural and regional Australia.

- Increased aged care places by more than 10,000 - including 838 new transitional care places to help up to 6,285 older Australians leave hospital sooner each year.

- Closed the tax loophole that saw alcopops sales soar and implemented a $103 million binge drinking strategy. This has seen alcopops consumption fall by 30 per cent.

- Rolled out preventive health programs in schools, workplaces and communities across the country.

- Increased hospitals funding by over 50 per cent.

For a first term government that had been out of power for the previous 12 years I think that we could all agree that this list of achievements is impressive. Especially considering the number of other initiatives that were put up to the parliament but blocked in the Senate. I seem to remember a Denticare Universal Dental Care program was proposed as well. I don't think the legislation came before parliament but that was probably because, by the time it had been mooted, it was already obvious to the Rudd government that they were dealing with a hostile Senate. So I wouldn't be surprised if we saw it reappear in a re-elected Gillard government, especially as The Greens have proposed it as one of their Health policies.

The Coalition

For those who are familiar with what I have written in the past I hope that you would say that I have tried to be 'Fair and Balanced' when it comes to assessing the Coalition and their policies on their merits. Thus it is again in this same spirit that I am going to outline their Health policy proposals.


- $140 million to increase after hours Medicare rebates for GPs.

- $25 million for the After Hours Practice Incentive Payment for GPs. 

- $350 million to increase rebates for longer consultations with health care professionals.

- $115 million to boost Medicare rebates for practice nurses

- $200 million for GP infrastructure Grants.

In August, the Coalition announced a health funding injection of $833 million.

The Coalition says it would retain $437 million in Medicare funding that is allotted to practice nurses, which would be scrapped by the Labor Government. 

Mental Health

- $1.5 billion mental health plan

- Establish 20 Early Psychosis Intervention Centres

- Provide 800 beds for acute and sub-acute care

- Fund an additional 60 Headspace sites

- $395 million over four years for aged care


In June, the Coalition announced $1.5 billion allocated to extend frontline services to Mental Health. The funding will be directed to 800 new acute and sub acute mental health beds, 20 Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Centres and 60 further 'Headspace' youth mental health centres.

The Coalition's $395 million over four years for aged care would include $335 million for an aged care bed incentive program and convalescent care to assist up to 20,000 elderly people waiting in hospital to return home.

Now, looking at the above details I think a couple of salient points need to be made. Firstly, we have to realise that a large proportion of the funding to pay for these initiatives has been found by the Coalition by redirecting funding away from other areas of the Health Budget.

The E-Health initiative of the Labor government will be shelved; funding to continue the rollout of the remaining GP Super Clinics will be canned; and funding for Doctor and Nurse Training places would be redirected.

Essentially, therefore, we have a 'Robbing Peter to Pay Paul' Health strategy. Money from one area of Health has been taken away to fund another area that the Coalition has identified as being more worthy. They have had to do this because there is no Surplus from which to draw additional funds to pay for their policies.

The Greens

As I have just mentioned, The Greens have a suite of Health policies too (well, more like a table and chair of policies than a whole suite). So, in order to be fair to those who might be reading this that want to vote Greens, I have included their proposals.

- Develop a National Health Care Strategy.

- Abolish private health insurance rebate, redirect funds to the public health.

- Increase incentives for GPs and medical specialists to bulk bill.

- Universal access to publicly funded primary dental care.

- Introduce a tax on junk food and alcohol

I believe that, if the Greens do end up holding the balance of power in the Senate with the ALP in government, then we might be seeing some of this wish list become a reality for the Australian people in the next term of parliament.

The Labor Party

- 1,300 new sub-acute hospital beds.

- Emergency department waiting times capped at four hours.

- Training for 5,500 more GPs, double the GPs trained every year

- National after-hours GP service – with a 24-hour advice hotline

- Support for 2,500 additional aged care beds

- $277 million for mental health to help identify and prevent suicide.

- $134 million Rural Health Workforce strategy: to support 2,400 rural doctors.

Labor has reached a deal with most state governments on implementing a National Health and Hospitals Network to provide $5.3 billion in additional funding. Western Australia is the only state holding out from the deal.

Key initiatives outlined by Labor include 1000 new nursing training places every year and an additional 1300 GPs qualified or training by 2013. 

The Party also announced an additional 23 new GP super-clinics, on top of the 36 clinics already stated in the Health overhaul. The clinics would be situated mainly in rural and regional areas.

A 24-hour hotline would provide GP advice and arrange follow up community visits. 

Labor is promising city doctors who move to rural and regional areas up to $120 000 in relocation payments to boost the rural health workforce. 

Labor’s Mental Health package will target four key areas:
- frontline services for those most at risk;
- direct prevention and crisis intervention;
- services targeted to men and looking after kids, both those at risk and generally building their resilience.

Labor says an extra 20,000 young people per year will get mental health assistance with its $277 million support for communities, schools, health services and carers, to do more to identify and prevent suicide.

Now, I think it's a very valid point that what would be the best Mental Health policy of all would be the one that you would get when you combined the Coalition and Labor policies together. I also think that, as it is constrained by the fiscal discipline theme in this campaign, the ALP, should it be re-elected, will take on board the Coalition's propositions in this area and incorporate them into its own response in the future when there is more money in the kitty. I mean you would be a foolish and irresponsible health policy formulator if you didn't take on board what, to my eyes, is a sound proposal from the Opposition. Especially when it came to the area of Mental Health.

So, to sum up, I find myself thinking that the Coalition, as with so much of this campaign's policy announcements, have come up with some sound proposals. The only trouble is, they want to fund them by taking away programs that are worth the money that is being spent on them, whilst at one and the same time refusing to touch Health expenditure in areas that are sacred cows to the Coalition. For example, the Private Health Insurance Rebate, which is effectively a subsidy to the industry, a Private Industry, from the taxpayers' purse. The Libertarian in me thinks that if an industry is unable to thrive and prosper on its own steam, then maybe it shouldn't exist at all. I mean, looking at it from a different perspective, surely the Private Health Industry has a product that is appealing enough to attract paying customers? Surely Private Health Insurance premiums could be structured in such a way as to also be attractive to people who want to benefit from Private Hospitals and the other attractions that the Private Health Industry can provide over the Public Health system? Yes, there needs to be a small stipend to the Private Health Industry to reflect the fact that a large proportion of the taxpaying population uses their services, but not as much as they get from the public purse now.

Also, the Dental Health scheme introduced by Tony Abbott when he was Health Minister should be scrapped, as Labor wants to do, because it has been rorted.

Labor, I think we can also agree, needs to do more in the area of Mental Health and Dental Health. And hopefully they will in years to come.

Well, what do you think? What do you think of the competing policies? Also, what do you think hasn't been included by any of the parties that you would have liked to have seen them offer?

Health. It affects us all.

A salute to a very successful BER

Isn’t it time we saluted the outstanding success of the Building the Education Revolution program? This piece is focussed on what has been achieved rather than the media’s focus on the problems that were encountered, a focus that has detracted sickeningly from the success of the program, one we should all be celebrating.

The BER has been called the ‘$16 billion schools building program’. According to the Auditor General’s Performance Report on the BER tabled on 5 May of this year, the program comprised three elements:

Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21), which initially provided $12.4 billion (later, $14.1 billion) for Australian primary schools to build new facilities, such as libraries and multipurpose halls, or to upgrade existing facilities, by 31 March 2011;

National School Pride, which provided $1.3 billion for minor capital works and refurbishment projects in all eligible Australian schools, to be completed by February 2010; and

Science and Language Centres, which initially provided $1 billion (later, $821.8 million) for construction of new, or refurbishment of existing science laboratories or language learning centres in secondary schools by 30 June 2010.

These add up to little over $16 billion.

The Auditor General’s Report concluded: “Overall, there are some positive early indicators that the program is making progress toward achieving its intended outcomes, despite the slower than expected implementation of the program. Lead economic indicators, including construction approvals, indicate that the introduction of BER P21 has contributed to a reversal in the decline in non‐residential construction activity that resulted from the global financial crisis. Education industry stakeholders, including peak bodies, Education Authorities and a substantial majority of school principals have also been positive about the improvement in primary school facilities that will result from the program.”

This did not prevent the media, particularly The Australian, from reporting on it negatively. The ABC was also negative. On 10 May Anne Connolly from the ABC News Online Investigative Unit writes: School buildings audit 'ignored survey data', that begins: “The troubled $16 billion school building program is again under siege with questions being asked about last week's auditor-general's report.”   There were several related stories: Principals doubt value of school building scheme; BER task force chief inspects first school; and School building task force 'will have teeth' that you can access from that story.

The Orgill Building the Education Revolution Implementation Taskforce Interim Report, presented this last week, focussed on the $14.1 billion P21 program to build new facilities, such as libraries and multipurpose halls, or to upgrade existing facilities in primary schools. $3.9 billion was allocated to 3052 classroom projects; $4.8 billion to 2822 multi-purpose hall projects; $3.6 billion to 3009 library projects; $0.5 billion to 750 covered outdoor learning areas, COLAs; and $1.1 billion to 952 other projects. The graph on page one of the Report gives the breakdown of allocations to States and Territories and school types. 

At the conclusion of the Executive Summary it is stated: “Our analysis suggests BER P21 is delivering quality infrastructure within the timeframe constraints set. For some of the 22 education authorities project costs are materially higher than would have been obtained pre-BER in a business as usual environment. For some education authorities however the costs do not appear to be higher. The Taskforce does not have sufficient pre-BER cost data at this interim stage to conclude, but from what limited data and insights we do have, we think the overall BER versus pre-BER cost differential, for each education authority, is in the range from 0% to plus 12%. The higher costs have resulted from the scale, time and complexity of the undertaking. Overall, delivering BER P21 within the short timeframe to achieve the economic stimulus objectives may have added a premium to pre-BER business as usual costs of between 5-6%. The Taskforce will continue to gather and analyse BER and pre-BER project data to enable us to have a more definitive view on value for money for the BER program as a whole by our November 2010 report.”

Later it recommends: “The Taskforce recommends that, where possible, any projects not yet committed and unlikely to be completed by 30 March 2011 should be delivered in accordance with the relevant education authority’s pre-BER ‘business as usual’ approach to capital works”, ‘business as usual’ meaning under non-urgent conditions.

The effect on the construction industry is documented in Appendix 8 where it says: “The BER provided the construction industry with a significant economic stimulus which prevented many construction organisations from reducing staff and/or the size of their operations to match an otherwise decreasing workload resulting from the GFC. Some indicated that without the work generated by the program they may have had to cease operation.” and “Lower tier contractors expressed the view that the level of reporting quality and safety management systems required of them under the BER project were of a higher level than would ordinarily be required on comparable projects. Almost all designers and builders reported positive experiences with school communities as their projects were completed. Most felt extremely proud to have been part of the program.”

The Report also says: “There has clearly also been an added benefit of construction industry up-skilling, beyond just sustaining employment...”

So both reports say that the BER has achieved its aims and benefitted not only the children, staff and parents of the schools involved, but also the construction industry by providing employment at a time when without it, some operations may have had to cease, and by providing up-skilling of construction workers.

It has been the largest schools infrastructure project in the nation’s history, replacing and improving run-down buildings and amenities neglected in previous years.

We ought to be applauding it with enthusiasm and gratitude, but because of an unremitting negative campaign against it from the Opposition, and unrelenting and at times vicious attacks from the media, especially News Limited and its flagship The Australian, many electors think only ‘waste and mismanagement’ when the BER is mentioned. This is wicked manipulation of public opinion with information that flies in the face of the facts.

In the same way as when the Auditor General’s Performance Report emerged and was largely positive, the media still attacked, dissecting out fragments that suited its adversarial case, it has done the same this time with the Orgill Report.

The Australian online initially had a headline by Justine Ferrari and James Massola that indicated that the Report had recommended that the BER program be scrapped, with the lead sentence ending with words that it ‘should cease’ and later that the Report called for the ‘effective dismantling’ of the program. There is still an article on its website by Justine Ferrari: Report calls for end to BER program, that begins: “The federal government's troubled $16 billion school building program will be dismantled.” Sounds pretty final.

When I looked at the official Report and its Executive Summary and Recommendations to ascertain the details, I could not find reference to the program ceasing; indeed a search for the word ‘cease’ found only one reference and it wasn’t to the BER ceasing. When I went back to The Oz a short time later I found the headline had magically changed to a very different one “BER taskforce finds 'very valid concerns' with Labor's schools building stimulus program” and the following paragraphs: “The taskforce reviewing Labor's troubled $16 billion Building the Education Revolution scheme has recommended the program cease in its current form.” Note the words ‘current form’. “An interim report released today by BER taskforce head Brad Orgill calls for the effective dismantling of the schools building stimulus program as it now stands.” Note the words ‘effective dismantling’ and ‘as it now stands’. “It says any projects not yet under contract, or that are unlikely to finish before the end of March, be delivered by the states under their pre-BER building programs.”

This is very different from the initial headline and initial paragraphs, and even this headline seems to have disappeared. Someone at The Oz must have decided that, even for that newspaper, the initial story was too gross a misrepresentation of the Report to be able to stand, a representation designed to place the Report on the BER in the worst possible light, and in tune with the longstanding campaign by that paper, to demean the BER. This small example shows how much this paper is prepared to stoop in its pursuit of the Labor Government, but Justine Ferrari and James Massola’s initial write up was too much even for The Oz.

The report DID NOT recommend that the BER ‘be dismantled’ or ‘cease’ at all – that was simply the scandalous beat-up perpetrated by The Australian.

Still not satisfied Justine Ferrari writes at the weekend: Publish the costs and be damned that begins: “The level of unhappiness with the BER is greater than the level of official complaints received by the taskforce (2.7 per cent of schools) would suggest. Many schools are mystified by what they have received for their money, but not outraged enough to complain.” She cannot let it go – now she asserts that there are more complainants ‘but not outraged enough to complain’.

The Orgill Report is here

On Grog's Gamut, Grog has a brilliant analysis of it that shows how minimal the complaints were. I will not attempt to repeat his line of reasoning here; please read his piece Election 2010: Day 21 (or who needs perspective).  Be sure to look at the 'Construction Work Done' graph to see the dramatic effect of the BER on public construction work.

In The Weekend Australian Matthew Franklin has combined with Justine Ferrari in BER waste exposed by taskforce that begins: "Julia Gillard has declared she has no regrets about her $16 billion Building the Education Revolution scheme despite a report saying it was wasteful."  Of course Franklin has been an adversary for some time, especially about the BER.

Ray Hadley, 2GB Morning Show presenter writes in The Australian Debacle exposed, and yet she still believes, beginning “I was on air yesterday when the Prime Minister responded to Brad Orgill's interim report. What scared me the most was her confirmation that she'd do it all again. Julia Gillard relied upon the much-discussed ‘saving jobs and saving the economy’ line. She has said it so often now I think she actually believes it. The facts are inescapable: the BER, particularly in NSW, has been an obscene waste of taxpayers' money. The graph on page 29 of Mr Orgill's report showing a state-by-state comparison of project management fees makes it clear that in NSW these fees were, as The Australian has reported, highly inflated.” 

Michael Stutchbury, who also has been a long-time BER detractor takes a different tack with: Saved? We were already safely through the crisis that begins: "Brad Orgill's report card gives Julia Gillard's $16 billion Building the Education Revolution stimulus a tick. This is for delivering both ‘much-needed’ school infrastructure and ‘economic activity across the nation’. Wrong on both counts. In particular, the BER could not have ‘saved’ Australia from recession, as Gillard claimed yesterday, because we'd already dodged the bullet by the time it ramped up. The damning evidence is relegated to a single chart, presented with no explanation on page 75 of Orgill's report. This shows that BER construction for the nation's 7900 primary schools only seriously got going by October last year - eight months after it was announced - when cumulative actual spending first topped $1bn. But, by then, it was clear Australia had escaped the global recession, thanks to Labor's initial cash splash, the Reserve Bank's big interest rate cuts and the momentum behind our China-fuelled mining and population boom.” So the whole BER adventure was unnecessary according to Stutchbury, at least to counter the recession. 

By comparison The Age did not even headline it on its first page, but in School building costs blew out by 12 per cent, taskforce finds pointed out: “Where projects are unlikely to be finished by March next year, it wants them delivered in ‘business as usual’ pre-BER arrangements.” This refers to one of the key recommendations of the Orgill Report.

The Courier Mail had a piece: Queensland schools left wanting in Building the Education Revolution projects that begins: “The rush to roll out recession-busting school works wasted almost $1 billion of taxpayers' money, a damning report shows. The investigation into the centrepiece of the Gillard Government's stimulus measures found the haste may have added as much as 6 per cent to costs." The piece lists complaints from Queensland schools, which when you read them you are likely to conclude that they are largely trivial.

The Daily Telegraph in What a waste of our money writes “The almost comical level of excess spending during the BER program was greatest of all in NSW, where more than $3 billion in taxpayer funds was spread over 2366 school projects. Many of those projects failed to deliver value for money. Unless, of course, you were the contractor involved, in which case the value was very handy indeed.” 

Emma Rodgers writes more positively on the ABC website: Gillard welcomes BER program report that begins "Prime Minister Julia Gillard says a future Labor government will implement all 14 changes recommended in a new report into the troubled $16.2 billion schools building stimulus program."

Most of the rest of the media coverage was negligible, presumably it thought it not worth the space in its pages.

So there it is. We have seen mostly negative media coverage despite two largely positive reports on the BER. How is it possible to counter such a deliberate campaign to demean this program despite its outstanding success in maintaining employment in the construction industry with all its flow-on effects to the economy, and in providing a massive infrastructure boost to schools, the children and teachers that use them, and the parents who send their children there.

It is a sad commentary on how manipulative the media has been in pursuit of its aim - to diminish the Labor Government by demeaning at every opportunity its laudable attempt to alleviate the effects of the GFC on employment and support the construction industry, while enhancing the nation’s schools - schools that were so much in need of essential infrastructure.

What do you think?

Would Tony Abbott really be stupid enough to trash the NBN?

It was Nick Minchin who said that his broadband was fast enough for him. He could not see why the country should embark on an expensive very fast fibre-to-the-home/business/institution National Broadband Network. So if today’s broadband is good enough for Nick, what on earth are the NBN advocates carrying on about?

As has been the case with other worthy initiatives it has introduced, the Government has not clearly explained to the people just what an NBN would do for this country. This piece is an attempt to fill that gap.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in December 2007 there were 7.1 million Internet subscribers: 964, 000 business and government subscribers and 6.14 million household subscribers. An ABS survey found that in 2006–07, 64 per cent of Australian households had home Internet access and 73 per cent had access to a home computer. Children aged five to 14 are major users of computers and the Internet. Of the 2.7 million children in this age group, 65 per cent use the Internet and 92 per cent use a computer. That was three years ago. I heard just this week that 80% of Australians now use the Internet. It can scarcely go much higher unless we give iPads to babies and the very elderly.

To start from the very ordinary, let’s look at simple tasks such as up and downloading files to and from the Internet.

This week, while loading LYN’S DAILY LINKS for July on my remote server, because it was a very large file after the month’s links were aggregated, it took over half an hour, during which I could not use the Internet at all. I’m using Next G Wireless Broadband, which even in rural areas is a lot faster than the old dial-up connection I used previously. How many would now be content with that? As each improvement comes along, it is avidly taken up. When Labor came to power in 2007, our speeds were 35 times slower than the fastest nation. To stay in the race, we needed to improve our performance. No one wants to go back to the old days, or even stay where we are, except perhaps Nick Minchin, who like Tony Abbott spends too much time looking in the rear-view mirror.

What will the NBN do that current broadband won’t?

Well, it will connect 93 percent of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces with broadband services with speeds up to 100 megabits per second – a 100 times faster than those currently used by many households and businesses, and connect all other premises with next generation wireless (4%) and satellite technologies (3%) that will deliver broadband speeds of 12 megabits per second with average data rates more than 20 times higher than most users of these technologies experience today.

For more details of the NBN, click here.  To see the map of where the NBN and the other technologies will be connected, click here.  

What will the NBN do for us?

For those who download music and video, films and the like, download times will be vastly decreased, minutes instead of hours. Now if that was all the NBN achieved, it could be argued that the value of spending $43 billion on it would be questionable. But, good though these faster speeds are for music lovers and film buffs, it is all the other things that will be achieved that make the expense not just worthwhile, but essential.

The most significant hindrance to the NBN is the paucity of imagination of those who offer an opinion. There are applications of this super-fast technology that have not even been thought of. Time and again inventions have been discounted by the unimaginative, such as the US army general who, early last century, said he couldn’t see a place for the new-fangled airplane in warfare. While watching the first episode of Return to Cranford on ABC TV, it was fascinating to see the resistance of the folk in that small village to the advent of the steam train and a rail line coming to their village. They were not only fearful about its effect, but skeptical about its value too. It reminded me of the comments of Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott, who says he will offer a ‘no frills’ version of broadband, not this flash expensive thing called an NBN.

So let’s leave the unimaginative to their narrow thinking and expand our minds to imagine what the NBN can do, might do.

Health care

First let’s contemplate its application in healthcare, in which everyone has an interest. It is now considered equitable to offer the best of specialized services to even the most remotely placed, but as everyone knows it is not possible to staff every small town with the specialized amenities that exist in the heart of big cities. Indeed even outer suburban and regional centres do not have all the sophisticated diagnostic and therapeutic services that those in city centres do. With the NBN this deficiency can be at least partly ameliorated. Let me give some examples.

Imaging is now central to diagnosis and therapy. With 100 Mbps speeds there would be none of the buffering we now experience – images would be transmitted with such speed and resolution from a remote location that it would seem as if one was in the same room as the radiologist looking at his own computerized images, and able to talk with him by VoIP.

Imagine how consultations could be carried out between a patient in a doctor’s consulting room in a remote area and a city-based specialist. By video link a virtual consultation could be carried out by the specialist with both the patient and the doctor, the physical findings provided by the remote doctor, and lab tests, cardiographs and imaging available instantly. In dermatological conditions the remote dermatologist could even see the rash or lesion in high resolution, which with the history is usually all that is needed for diagnosis. Think of the time saved in travel by patients and doctors. This is already beginning to happen. The NBN could revolutionize health care in remote, rural, regional and even suburban areas, largely removing the burden of remoteness and long travel, of which country people are only too aware.

Many doctors and patients now communicate remotely by email. Imagine how much a video link could add to that form of communication. In situations where physical contact is unnecessary, think how well a consultation could be effected via video – it would save the patient travel and waiting time and the doctor too would save time.

e-health is another recent initiative, vital to proper maintenance of patient health records and universally available to any authorized healthcare professional at any time in any place. While able to be implemented without the NBN, it would work so much better with it. It is estimated to make a major improvement in the use of medications by avoiding duplication, mistakes and incompatibilities, and will significantly reduce medical errors and patient morbidity and deaths. Ten percent of patient admissions are related to medication problems. Imagine the cost saving if that number could be reduced through electronic records.

There are now systems which enable monitoring of vital signs such as blood pressure and heart and lung function remotely in nursing homes or patients’ homes, thereby saving on nursing visits; imagine how much better this would be with fast broadband – visual images of the patient could easily be added.

But it gets even better. Nowadays much surgery is done laparoscopically. Kevin Rudd had his gallbladder removed in this way. So-called robot prostate surgery is commonplace. All that is required is that the laparoscope and accompanying instruments be placed in situ by the surgeon, who then operates by manipulating remote ‘play station’ controls while looking at a TV monitor. As the surgeon no longer needs to have his hands on or in the patient, he can operate ‘remotely’. Usually he will be in the operating theatre, but could be next door, or with the NBN in another building, or in another city. So long as the remote doctor is trained to insert the laparoscope and the instruments, which would come within the scope of rural practitioners, the specialist surgeon could be anywhere with 100 Mbps broadband. Think of the saving in time and travel, and the inconvenience avoided. If it sounds too high-flying, wait and see.

What about education?

With NBN speeds teachers need not be where the students are. Although personal contact between students and their teachers is an essential part of the educational process, it is where high tech teaching from specialized teachers is not available that video links from such teachers to any number of classrooms would be possible with the NBN. These highly talented teachers could be spread so much more widely than at present. The NBN could provide virtual excursions for students to hard-to-access locations, and while actual visits are valuable, how many more visits could be made through the virtual world?

The rapid speeds of the NBN and the larger bandwidth would allow much faster access to Internet sites for more students simultaneously – the whole world of information and experience via the Internet would unfold magically in a way we never could have foreseen even a few years ago.

Would it help business?

We live in a globalized world in which already hundreds of thousands of transactions are carried out across the world every day. The NBN will bring even more rapid speeds to transactions, quicker access to databases, and the capacity for virtual communication across the globe. Already VoIP is providing this but is limited by data transmission speeds. With the NBN it will be possible to speak with someone on the other side of the world as if they were sitting across the desk, and share with them files, spreadsheets and databases even better than if they were looking over one’s shoulder. Files would be shunted around the world in an instant.

The need for international travel for meetings and conferences would be diminished, as teleconferencing would provide virtual meeting and conference capabilities. Think of the saving in time and travel, and with it the diminution of carbon emissions occasioned by air travel.

What about local business?

Here the NBN may be even more valuable. Leaving aside the advantages of 100 Mbps speeds mentioned above that apply to local as well as international business, think of what it could do for workplace management. Without minimizing the value of personal contact with workmates, there are situations where such contact may not be necessary every day. Take an office environment where most employees are sitting at their computers working on files or through the Internet. They may see each other at the water cooler or at lunch, but otherwise they sit alone gazing at computer screens. If they need to talk to a colleague they walk to his or her workstation. But even that perambulation is no longer necessary; they send each other emails or Twitters, or phone, and some now use VoIP. They use cloud computing to share and update files that live somewhere in the ether, each update automatically updating all versions of the file on multiple computers. Why could they not do that from home? Why could not employees be rostered to spend one day a week working from home, then two, then maybe three? Some human interaction would be desirable, but it does not need to be every day; after all we still take off weekends, just to get away from it all. With the super fast NBN, rather than walking down the corridor to a colleague, they would communicate by VoIP and if more than one person is involved, by teleconferencing. This would be convenient, instantaneous, and highly effective. The non-verbal signals colleagues might exhibit would be obvious on high definition video.

The need for interstate and overseas travel would diminish, as high-resolution instantaneous teleconferencing would create a virtual conference environment where everyone could see and talk with anyone, where audio or visual presentations could be heard and seen clearly on large high-definition monitors, and where decisions could be taken as efficiently as in an actual meeting. Think of the time saved for example in making a trip for a meeting in another capital city: the time saved in travel to the airport and waiting for embarkation, the hour or two of air travel, the taxi travel at the destination, and all that over again on the way home. An hour-long meeting might take a whole day.

Obviously not all businesses could work in this way. Retail outlets would need staff on location, as would construction projects, but if half the office workforce was enabled to work from home half the time, just imagine how this would contribute to lessening the time spent in travel to and from work, and in easing the road congestion that we hear on the radio every morning and evening, or suffer in our motorcars. Think about how it would take pressure off public transport systems. The burden and expense of building more roads and rail services to overcome our infrastructure deficiencies would be lessened. The NBN might turn out to be one of the most effective means of reducing traffic congestion and lessening travel time.

Now not everyone is suitable for working alone from home, but many already do and many more might be interested and willing, especially as the hours taken for travel mount. Who would not want to avoid being stuck in traffic for a couple of hours a day? Many might be willing to give some of the time saved back to the employer. A plan to enable work-from-home could be introduced slowly, home offices established by the employer, and any expenses incurred would be tax-deductable or reimbursed by the employer.

The reduction in carbon pollution would become increasingly significant as the number taking up this option rose. Firms would need less office space and would pay less rent. The NBN could revolutionize many businesses and work patterns, save money, improve productivity, increase profits and enhance participation and worker satisfaction. The potential economic benefits are enormous.

The personal benefits

Many extended families live in widely separated places that make personal contact expensive and time consuming. Think of the benefits of having regular powwows with siblings, grown children and their families living remotely, with friends, with elderly relatives in nursing homes. Think of the joy of conversing in real time via brilliant images that bring family and friends into the living room in vivid colour.

The social benefits of the NBN have scarcely been considered. They could be very substantial.

The unknown benefits

The benefits mentioned above are just some. The ability to enjoy a vast array of virtual online entertainment opens up countless opportunities for those so inclined.

But benefits will emerge that we have not yet imagined. Some of you may have ideas already.

Where is the NBN at?

According to the Government website, under Stage 1 of the priority rollout in Tasmania, the first services have been switched on in the communities of Midway Point, Smithton and Scottsdale. Stage 2 of the rollout will cover the communities of Sorell, Deloraine, George Town, St Helens, Triabunna, Kingston Beach, and South Hobart. Stage 3 will cover another 90, 000 premises: 40, 000 in Hobart, 30, 000 in Launceston and 10, 000 in each of Devonport and Burnie. The first building blocks of the NBN on the mainland are also underway. Under the NBN Regional Backbone Blackspots Program around 6,000 km of new, competitive fibre optic backbone links are being rolled out in regional Australia. Already, over 1,200 kilometres of fibre has been laid. These backbone links will benefit approximately 400,000 people in over 100 regional locations. This part of the rollout will also create around 1000 full time jobs.

So would Tony Abbott be stupid enough to trash the NBN? Could he?

I believe the answer to the first question is ‘yes’. He is obsessed with his ‘debt and deficit’ mantra, despite Glenn Stevens saying quite recently that: “There is virtually no net public debt in the country at all in contrast to much of the developed world. The most recent figures out of Canberra was a peak of five or six per cent of GDP. So far from that being the highest in history, it is closer to the lowest". The graph on Grog’s Gamut shows this in a startling way.  

Because he is using ‘debt and deficit’ to support his ‘repay the debt’ slogan, and because a large chunk of his ‘savings’ supposedly comes from abandoning the NBN, he has locked himself into this course of action if he becomes PM. So he may well halt the NBN rollout. To my mind this would be the most backward move, the move most limiting to health, education, business and social progress that he could make.

Could he? Writing in iTWire in Could Tony Abbott unscramble the NBN egg? James Riley says: “…could Tony Abbott realistically pull apart a national fibre roll-out that has a considerable momentum of its own through the ambitious efforts of the NBN Company and its energetic NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley.

“Well, yes he can.

“Tens of millions of dollars has been spent across Australia and across the economy – by small business, local councils, state governments, educations institutions, utility companies and multinational giants alike – to prepare for opportunities that would derive from high speed fibre. Huge additional sums have been spent by the communications sector, both potential suppliers to the project in preparing to tender, and by those service providers who will use the network. Construction companies have been tooling up and spooling up for the biggest (geographically and monetarily) job many some will ever see. And, of course, there is the NBN Company itself, well advanced after just one year, both in building the commercial infrastructure of a large, complex business operation and in building the network itself. From the state of the art network-operating centre in Melbourne to the early roll out in Tasmania to the fibre in the ground around Australia, the project has moved quickly.

“But the NBN policy is by no means embedded. The egg is not yet scrambled, the roll-out can be halted with relative ease, the ubiquitous fibre policy dismantled.”

Later Riley says: “This is a genuine problem that has everyone in the telco sector – perhaps excluding Telstra – terrified. It would be just plain bad news. For consumers, for businesses, for the economy.” He concludes: “It is galling that the Coalition would put itself before the Australian people seeking government without even paying lip service to [an NBN]. It is one thing to punch a hole in the NBN Company and sink it without a trace. But developing and explaining a credible alternative policy that doesn't also sink the chances of historic industry reform is quite another. Not even addressing the issue three weeks out from a federal election is unbelievable.”

Stephen Conroy warned an Australian Information Industry Association luncheon last week that given the threat to halt the NBN, a change of government could ‘wreak havoc’ on the biggest micro-economic reform of the past decade. "If we win this one, the NBN will be unstoppable. It is almost unstoppable now, but if we lose the election Tony Abbott could wreak havoc," Conroy said. "In three more years time, as we have pulled the copper out of homes to connect to fibre, there would be no turning back."

So there you have it, Tony Abbott could ‘wreak havoc’ if he wins and probably will. This would not only be stupid but reckless and destructive of our health and education systems, and our economy, just to save a few dollars, just to save the best and largest investment in infrastructure this country has ever had. That is what you will get if he becomes PM.

But have you read any in-depth appraisal of the NBN in the MSM, any critique of its worth or the consequences of halting it? I haven’t; if you have, please post the link. The preference of most of the media for the trivial, the scandalous and the drama of the campaign has resulted is a paucity of sound analysis of policies and plans.

There are many things Abbott is threatening to stop if he gets into power, but of all of these threats, in my view the gravest and most dangerous and destructive one is his threat to trash the NBN.

What do you think?

The election climate

One of the great imponderables over the life of the first term of the Rudd-Gillard government has been why it is that Climate Change and Environmental policy has fallen, not only off the radar, but off a cliff. From something that a politician could confidently claim, in his role as a mirror of the community, that “Climate Change is the great moral and economic challenge of our generation”, to an obscurantist position, which basically says, it's real, but it should not cause a transformative economic upheaval to our society, and politicians should stand idly by for a few years, almost in fear of the backlash that they think will arise from implementing it. A fear of introducing a cost that we must pay for out of our own pockets, to enable this environmental remediation and pro-active protection of our planet to occur.

Well, I've been around long enough to have seen a few environmental 'Crusades' fought; some won, some lost.

As inconsequential as it may seem now, the battle to introduce recycling and recyclable materials, was a long and hard-fought campaign.

Strangely, with respect to the success of that campaign, and maybe this is the key to the Climate Change debate and Julia Gillard is onto something here with her Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change idea, the leadership that was required to forge community-wide consensus, came not from our elected representatives, but from passionate voices arising out of the community itself.

In my own State of NSW, we had pioneers who, as a first step, forced their way, through the power of their arguments, onto our local councils, in numbers sufficient to be able to make things happen.

Things like, 'Reverse Garbage' in Marrickville, where I lived, sprang up to cater for refuse that used to just go to the tip, but which actually turned out to be useful. And the glorious 'Tempe Tip', where old furniture could be deposited and 'recycled' back into the community, instead of also being taken out back, to the real tip, and trashed. Stuff that we value as antiques and collectibles today, but which used to be cast-off as rubbish back then.

I even remember the first newspaper recycling scheme, where we used to have to tie our newspapers in a bundle and leave them out once a week for the garbos to physically pick up and put into the back of an open-top garbage truck.

Then came the beer and wine bottle recycling, which we all used to put into our own personal, stolen, milk crates. Finally, once the plastics were called for, we had been given our first Sulo bin to put it all in. And our old plastic garbage bin was the first item into the new bins for recycling! Momentum and enthusiasm carried all these progressions forward.

Also, it was the time of creativity on the ground. I remember all my friends learning how to make new paper from recycling old paper products, and drinking glasses from old beer and wine bottles (we were poor students, and enthusiastic recyclers). We made our own soap and we made our own clothes. I even made my own furniture so I didn't have to buy products made from Tropical Rainforest timber. I made sure I used Plantation Timber. And no woodchip-based materials for me!

That’s how keen we all were then to make the change happen.

I guess you could say there was a 'Community Consensus' for the sort of changes that we knew in our hearts was needed; and we were prepared to provide the spearhead. It then naturally followed that older demographics, more conservative if you like, gradually became able to see the light that was like a beacon to us. And, hasn't it ever been thus?

So, and I am not claiming to know the mind of Julia Gillard, but, being from the same generation as I am, maybe she went through that transformative period like I did, and maybe she has come to the conclusion that momentum for Climate Change action must come from the roots movements in and of our society again.

On the ground, in every city and every town, the populace needs to feel it in their bones that action has to be taken and the time to take it is now, and the time to bite the bullet is now, if all the evidence is laid out before a representative sample of Ordinary Joes and Janes, who might then act as community activists for the cause if they are convinced of the strength of the argument about the need to act locally whilst thinking globally about the effects of Climate Change.

Thus, only when that innate understanding of the issue is gained by almost everyone again, only then will we 'Man Up' to the task of saving our planet's climate by getting out of our comfort zones and agreeing to make substantive contributions that will, necessarily, hurt our hip-pocket nerve. And I say 'almost everyone' because I acknowledge that there will never be complete agreement about going forward with real action on Climate Change, especially considering the advocacy against substantive action and the trivialising of the issue, or downright denial of the existence and seriousness of Climate Change that Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt advocate on behalf of the Coalition.

We must not let the naysayers deter us yet again as we are confronted by the self-interested prevaricators and denialists, or those without wit enough to see what is actually happening around the world to our Climate. All that should not be enough to deter us. It may seem an intangible concept, but have no doubt; Climate Change is a very, very real phenomenon.

We thus have to find a way to make action happen. Just like we did with recycling. It's too important to let conservative, old, white men and corporate interests win the day. Mother Earth is counting on us.

So, getting down to competing Environmental policy stories, we have 'Faux Action' from the Liberals, up against, 'Putting off till tomorrow what should be done today, but at least it will eventually be done once we get people onside again', from the ALP.

Firstly, to the Coalition.

'Direct Action'

What action to have an effect on Climate Change shouldn't be? You directly want to have an effect, so the action you take ergo needs to be direct. I put it to you that there is no more direct action on Climate Change than making polluters pay for the destructive CO2 that they emit.

I would have been more impressed if the Coalition had advocated 'Effective Action' on Climate Change.

Nevertheless, this is what they have to say about it:

'Direct Action' on soil carbons will be the major plank of our strategy.'

This suggests to me that the Coalition is planning to be a 'One Trick Pony' on Climate Change action, when it comes to implementing its Climate Change 'Action Plan'. That is, anything else it might speak about will only be incidental to its Biochar initiative. It will shoulder most of the burden of bringing down CO2 levels as far as the Coalition's concerned. It also sounds like it is preparing to set up a massive pork barrel for its Agrarian Socialist mates in the National Party, as it is mainly farmers who turn the charcoal back into the ground for soil improvement, which is the basis of the Biochar program.

Yes, it works, but on its own it's not enough. As we all know, the big change needs to happen in the Power Generation Industry, both here, and overseas, where our coal goes. It also needs to have a more ambitious target for CO2 reduction, both to provide an example to other countries and to show that we are good global citizens prepared to do the sort of heavy lifting we expect of those in other countries. This can only come about via the market mechanism of an Emissions Trading Scheme, well designed, to spread the burden as equally as possible between the populace and business and industry. And the Labor Party is the only major political party still advocating one. In contrast, the Coalition has stated that there will 'never ever' be a price on Carbon under its watch.

The Coalition also advocates ‘an Emissions Reduction Fund to support CO2 emissions reduction by business and industry'.

I wonder why it does not want to reward individual action? I thought the Coalition was all for 'the innate worth of the individual...and the need to encourage initiative and personal responsibility'? Well, at least that's what it says in its Mission Statement on its website. Which only leads me to think 'Pork Barrel' again. This time for their mates in the business and industry community who have been their financial backstop.

The Coalition Environment policy goes on to say, 'Through this fund we will support 140 million tonnes per annum abatement by 2020 to meet our 5% target'. Which seems a bit paltry to me, but then so is a 5% target.

Interestingly, the document goes on to add, 'This is a once in a century replenishment of our soil carbon'.

What does this mean?

Has the Coalition committed to 'replenishing soil carbon' only once this century? Has it calculated that a once only commitment of carbon to the soil will satisfy its anaemic target? After that will it be back to 'business as usual'? Not to mention that it stated that Biochar is its main CO2 mitigation plank. So does that mean that their much-touted fund for business and industry will be an overly generous payment for not much action at all to clean up emissions? If only our national journalists would get out of the gutter, from which they have been asking Julia Gillard questions, and ask the Coalition some of these hard questions, instead of simply relaying Coalition Talking Points, ALP gossip and verballing the PM.

Next on to the Coalition's 'One million Solar Panels on a million Roofs' policy.

Well, the fine detail says that the Coalition would invest $100 million/year, Australia-wide, for an additional 1 million Solar Energy homes by 2020. That's 10 years from now, across six States and Territories, or about 12,500/State and Territory/per year.

Now please excuse my skepticism for a moment, but didn't the Rudd government install ceiling insulation into 1 million homes in a couple of years just recently? So actually its a much reduced ambition to spread Solar Energy from the Coalition, as a way of getting CO2 emissions down, when you look at it that way. Also, I imagine that, under the Coalition's plan you would have to have the money to buy the Solar panels first, and then apply for a refund. How many low-income households can afford to do that? Whereas the Rudd government enabled those who are most affected by high electricity prices, which the Coalition have been banging on about endlessly this election campaign, to benefit from their program.

Next, the Coalition go on to promise '...across Australia 125 mid-scale solar projects will be established in schools & communities, and 25 geothermal or tidal power 'micro' projects will be established in suitable towns'.

Now, if you look at these links: and you'll see that the Labor government is already doing these things. So, its good that the Coalition is onboard, but it's hardly visionary policy-making, and it is a case of the 'metooism' they mock the ALP about. Also, as I have noticed on my journeys around my area, all the BER projects, at every school, are coming equipped with Solar panels on their roofs.

The Coalition also has a policy to support a 'study into replacing high voltage overhead cables in our cities with underground cables', and, 'to help reclaim land currently lost to high voltage transmission corridors in our cities'.

Now, whilst an admirable aim, I'd like to see the Coalition's costings for this policy. Dare I say it, due to the massive investment required to make this policy a reality, the Coalition may need to bring in a 'Great Big New Tax' to pay for it, or go into 'Debt and Deficit'. Either that, or a Public/Private Partnership with Energy infrastructure companies that would see electricity prices rise as they pass their costs on to the consumer and put more pressure then on the 'Cost of Living'. All themes that the Liberal Party have been hammering the ALP over in this election campaign, and before.

I also noticed that the Coalition have a plan to 'plant an additional 20 million trees in available public spaces'. Could someone please ask a Coalition spokesman to define an 'available public space'? Will it be confined to Crown Land only? In National Parks? In the park down the corner? On the top of Parliament House in Canberra? I don't know, but I sure would like to because these are the policies that the Coalition promise to implement if elected. One thing I do know, is that when Malcolm Turnbull first announced this policy, he stated that those trees could go anywhere. It was then pointed out that a lot of arable land would thus be taken up by those trees, because they will only grow where there is enough water to keep them alive, and most farmers would rather use that water and that soil to grow a cash crop. So it looks like the Coalition got that message from the farming lobby and has modified its policy as a result. Also, the point was made at the time about what would be the environmental impact of imposing trees on a place where there are none now, and the environment is presently incapable of supporting trees to maturity in 'available public space' where nothing else is at present.

The only area therefore that I can think of that would support large-scale tree planting is in previously logged old-growth forest. However, as that is not public space, yet again I cannot reconcile the facts on the ground with the aspirations of the Coalition policy.

In the Coalition policy document they deride the policies of the Labor government with respect to Climate Change, saying, 'Labor's ETS will increase the Cost of Living, put greater pressure on the household budgets of Australian families, penalise industry, and cost jobs, without delivering commensurate environmental benefits.'

Well, I say to them, prove to me that your policies, which I have outlined above, won't do exactly the same thing to the household budgets of Australian citizens? In fact, I posit that it will have a more detrimental effect to family budgets because the Coalition's policies also call for incentive payments to industry, which is taxpayers' money that they are talking about giving away as 'Good Boy' payments to companies that reduce their CO2 emissions, as opposed to the Labor Party, which would rather use a market mechanism and Emissions Trading Scheme to bring about a positive change in behaviour by companies.

Yes, this would see a flow-through into the price we all pay for our electricity, but I hazard a guess that the price we pay for that ETS-linked electricity would be less than what taxpayers would be asked to pay to fund the 'Great Big New Handout' to industry to thank them for doing what a market mechanism would naturally compel them to.

To say nothing of its Biochar initiative, which whilst it is seemingly an efficient method of locking carbon into the earth from whence it came, nevertheless comes with a hidden cost which lies in the cost of building all the pyrolysis plants to take the biowaste from all across the country to convert to Biochar. I can't see how transporting the large-scale waste far away to a small number of big plants would be economically efficient. Still, I would like to see this initiative eventually get up in some way, as it seems to me from what I have read about it that it has potential to make a valid contribution to our CO2-mitigation initiatives. But only as a bit-player.

No, the heavy lifting WILL have to be done by us all, every individual one of us. This includes business and industry paying their fair share, as we pay ours. Also I cheekily hope that after the election, should the Australian people elect a Labor government and give the Greens the balance of power in the Senate, we will have crafted for us an appropriately responsible Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme of sufficient strength to actually make a difference to our per capita CO2 emissions, which are the highest in the world. Don't let us forget that, despite what the naysayers bleat about any action we may take not ever going to make a difference.

It's time for us to start to build the consensus from the ground up again, and get everyone back on board.

To my eyes the cost of the Coalition's 'Real (Minimalist) Action' policies would be far greater than any ETS, and thus increase electricity costs more, though not in an upfront and obvious way to the end consumer. I think that the only difference is that with the Coalition plan the costs to industry will be paid for with $3 billion of our tax money and this may lead to what looks like lower electricity bills, but we're still paying for it in the end, aren't we? Also, who knows how much it will cost us, as a result of an unstable climate, to suffer the vicissitudes of the sort of climate calamity that will be unleashed in the medium to long term if little or no action is taken (we just have to look at the Black Saturday Bushfires to get a taste of that), and go down the path of immediate self-interest and selfishness, and support with our votes the sort of make-work and feel-good Coalition policies which ultimately seem to be going to cost us just as much, but which will contribute to a less positive effect on Climate Change.

All the polls say that people still believe in the reality of Climate Change. We just have to get together to nut out the best way forward. Create that groundswell movement, and get on with it.

What do you think?