Turnbull and authenticity

Question: What do Donald Trump (Republican Presidential hopeful) and Jeremy Corbyn (Leader of the British Labour Party) have in common? Well it can’t be their politics.

Trump comes from the right hand side of the spectrum — he wants to keep the ‘illegals’ out, defeat Islamic State, favours traditional marriage (he’s been married three times), argues that climate change is a hoax and government borrowing and stimulus measures are detrimental to the US and objects to Chinese and Japanese interests manipulating their currencies and flooding the US with low-cost exports (despite Trump branded products coming out of China).

Corbyn by contrast voted against bombing Islamic State interests in Syria, supported investing in infrastructure to grow the economy, creating a National Education Service, renationalising British railways, scrapping tuition fees introducing rent control in unaffordable areas and investing in the arts.

The answer is they both seem to be saying what they believe, not necessarily what their minders and party hierarchy want them to say. They are both outsiders from the party machine and appear sincere, qualities which resonate with voters, as even if the voter hasn’t personally met the leader there is a connection.

One of the current management-speak buzzwords is authenticity. A dictionary definition of the word is ‘the quality of being authentic; genuineness’ which sort of seems obvious really! Corbyn and Trump are not the only people in the world to have entered politics claiming to acknowledge and reflect on the concerns of ‘the common (wo)man’, but it could be argued that these two who are diametrically opposed politically have similar abilities to represent their views in a way that resonates with people.

Being authentic is actually quite difficult. Not only do you have to present your ideas in a way that people can understand and respond to, you have to demonstrate that you also share the ideas and implement them in your personal and professional lives. While Corbyn and Trump have no ability to govern ‘authentically’ at this stage, they will be held to account for the actions that they can control — such as their behaviour at rallies, media occasions and public appearances. In addition, they would be expected to promote their apparent values and demonstrate how genuine they are in their interactions with their staff and the public. Incidents such as greeting a member of the public warmly, appearing to listen to their concerns and stage whispering that the person was a nutter soon after would place a large dent in their credibility.

Justin Trudeau in Canada brought his party from a distant third in a three horse race to government in a short space of time. This article in The Guardian soon after Trudeau won discusses the problems Trudeau faces; namely that he promised real and immediate change — now he has to deliver. Written soon after his ascension to power, this Huffington Post article lists some of the expectations of Trudeau. Yahoo News suggests that ‘After stumble, Canada’s Trudeau glides through first world trip’. It’s a good start, but there is a great deal of expectation. To be fair he was probably ‘helped’ by his predecessor as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, making increasingly banal, personal attacks on Trudeau, including TV advertising criticising his hairstyle. Now that Trudeau has the top job he has to deliver on his authenticity in the view of the Canadian electorate, which will probably be a harder ask than the promotion.

It could be argued that Bob Hawke was an Australian authentic leader (before the term came into vogue). After a long career in the union movement, earning the reputation for being a builder of consensus to resolve conflict, he entered Parliament in the 1980 election. He challenged Bill Hayden for the leadership on 16 July 1982 and lost; then challenged again on 3 February 1983 almost at the same time as then Prime Minister Fraser was calling an early general election. Fraser lost the election and Hawke as prime minister won the next four elections until the eventual challenge and replacement by Paul Keating in 1991.

Soon after election, Hawke convened an ‘Economic Summit’ during April 1983 where political, employer and union leaders met over a number of days at Parliament House in Canberra to form a national consensus on future economic policy. The ‘Prices and Incomes Accord’ between the Hawke government and the union movement, where the unions promised to minimise wage increases and the government promised to minimise inflation, introduce a ‘social wage’ and increase spending on education and welfare was a result. As well as the economic reform managed by Hawke and his Treasurer Paul Keating, he also modernised legislation regarding industrial relations and social security while introducing legislation covering World Heritage area protection, outlawing sex discrimination, safeguarding privacy and establishing organisations such as ATSIC and the Australian Postal Commission. While Hawke’s personal reputation was not immaculate either before or during office, he publically promised to give up drinking while he was prime minister:
There is no doubt that excessive drink sometimes brought out an unpleasant personality change which, had I continued to drink, would have made me unfit to be Prime Minister.
The point here about Hawke is the authenticity he demonstrated as a leader, of both the union movement and government, to encourage people to accept compromise for the common good. Those that can remember the era would probably also remember that when the ‘Summit’ was announced, there was general derision that it would not end well. The reality is that the Accord held for the majority of the Hawke years as prime minister albeit with various amendments to reflect changing conditions and circumstances.

Unlike Kevin (I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help) Rudd who sold his message well, Hawke demonstrated that the item they purchased in the election was as advertised on the box. While Rudd did sign the Kyoto Agreement and say sorry to the stolen generations, Hawke delivered meaningful change on an ongoing basis, leading to a long term of prime ministership. While Rudd was afraid to use his political capital to push through action on climate change, Hawke made brave and calculated decisions for the betterment of Australia — and took the majority of the voters along on the ride with him. Howard also took calculated decisions that could have used a lot of his political capital: namely the GST, gun control and his treatment of refugees. It seems that while those actions were acceptable to the majority of voters, his attempt to restructure workplace relations crossed the line.

The history of the challenges between current Prime Minister Turnbull and former Prime Minister Abbott is well known and it’s not worth re-hashing it here. Suffice to say that the (reasonably) recent challenge to Abbott by Turnbull was not the first vote on his leadership. The first one was in February 2015, where no one put up their hand to replace Abbott. Abbott won by a less than convincing 61 to 39. Just think about that for a minute; 39 of his own colleagues preferred ‘anyone but Abbott’ less than two years after a ‘famous’ election victory.

Clearly Abbott, in the view of the majority of his colleagues, had lost his mojo, so to try and get their message across, the baton was passed to Turnbull (despite his previous history). AAP (via Yahoo News) reported:
Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said Mr Turnbull's personal quest for the top job was now fulfilled but she wondered where that left the country.

"He's very smooth and I think that'll work for him in the short term but people will very quickly come to see that smoothness as a sort of slick merchant banker approach to public life," she told ABC radio.
ALP Leader Bill Shorten said:
“I think it is a good thing for this country that Tony Abbott is no longer PM of Australia,” Mr Shorten said.

“I certainly believe that with the change in leadership in the Liberal Party, the chances of having an intelligent discussion and negotiation, I certainly hope they’ve improved.”
So how’s Turnbull going? Well for a start, he hasn’t changed much as predicted by Plibersek. Despite the claims of being a new government with new ideas, the ‘steady as she goes’ mindset doesn’t bode well for the LNP when part of Abbott’s problem was that one of the key deliverables in government was a budget in May 2014 that still hasn’t passed the Parliament in full — hardly the work of an authentic leader.

While Shorten’s personal approval has taken a gigantic hit with the advent of Turnbull’s prime ministership, William Bowe’s Pollbludger (an average of the polls taken in the last month) suggests that the ALP is doing considerably better in the polls than Shorten’s popularity and a win in 2016 is not a laughable suggestion. Bob Hawke in what has become an annual speech at the Woodford Folk Festival is reported to have said
When asked whether the Member for Wentworth was a threat to his party, Mr Hawke replied "of course he is".

But he was far less effusive of the PM's predecessor, who he said "wasn't a great prime minister but he was a decent man".
So Hawke suggests that Turnbull is at least competitive — but is he an authentic leader? He was rolled in 2009 because he supported the ALP’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Now he supports the LNP’s Direct Action, just as Abbott did. Turnbull was the leader of the Republican movement in the late 1990’s when the referendum was held: today he supports Abbott’s monarchy. Turnbull in 2009 supported same sex marriage: today he supports Abbott’s plebiscite (if it ever happens). So what are the differences. The SMH article linked above gives a few wishy-washy examples where the words have ‘wriggle room’ so large that you could drive a bus through.

Maybe that’s it. Turnbull has tweeted that he likes catching the 389 or 333 bus to Circular Quay from his electorate office. Abbott (if he used public transport) would get the Manly ferry. Turnbull also seems to dress better than Abbott (and probably would never be seen in ‘budgie smugglers’). Small and incremental change doesn’t win elections, just ask Malcolm Fraser (who lost to Hawke in 1983) or the various LNP leaders in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Stephen Harper may also have a few comments from a Canadian perspective.

Shorten came to fame as a Union leader who managed to achieve results for his members while maintaining the ability to work with management — sound familiar? Turnbull is showing no signs of authentic leadership, except for a predilection for ‘nice’ suits and catching buses. As soon as he suggests a change, Andrews, Abetz, Abbott or Bernardi get on the airwaves and the suggestion is taken quietly down a dark alley; then strangled.

With an election later this year it’s not a hard choice to find the authentic leader and he isn’t on the 389 from Bondi.

What do you think?


The year of the union

For the Chinese, 2016 is the ‘Year of the Monkey’ but I think in Australia it may well be the year of the union — although not in a positive way. As it is an election year, and in the light of the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) report in December, we can expect the Coalition government to have a lot to say about unions during the year. Turnbull, in releasing the TURC report, has already indicated that he will make union ‘corruption’ an election issue if his legislation to implement the TURC recommendations, including the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), does not pass parliament.

Unions of course will not take this lying down. The ACTU responded to the release of the TURC report by stating:
The ACTU rejects any accusation of widespread corrupt, unlawful behaviour in the union movement. We take a zero-tolerance approach to unlawful conduct, whether in the union movement or elsewhere. Isolated instances of unlawful conduct must always be referred to the police. Unions stand united to ensure any individuals convicted should feel the full force of the law. There is no place for crooks in our movement.

The ACTU welcomes sensible discussions about best practice governance. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must allow space and time for these discussions to occur. This report should not be used to rush legislation that removes employee rights.
It also saw that the TURC report and a Productivity Commission review, which recommended a reduction in penalty rates, were related:
It is clear from the timing of the Royal Commission’s report that these two reports were always designed to attack the rights and pay of working people and undermine unions who defend their rights and pay.
We do not often see issues discussed in terms of workers’ rights in Australian media but the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC, representing 180 million workers world-wide and currently led by former ACTU president Sharan Burrow) has rated Australia as having ‘regular violation of rights’. This appears in the ITUC Global Rights Index which tracks legislation that limits workers’ rights and actual incidents of violations: these are tallied together and each country then given a score between 1 and 5, where 1 represents rights being generally guaranteed and 5 being no guarantee of rights.

Australia’s score of 3 means:
Governments and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of those rights. There are deficiencies in laws and/or certain practices which make frequent violations possible.
By comparison, the USA scores 4 (systematic violations of rights) and Brazil 2 (slightly weaker collective labour rights than those with a rating of 1 but certain rights have come under repeated attack).

Interestingly, however, the USA, since a 1977 Supreme Court decision, has had a rule that public sector workers who benefit from union representation — such as higher wages and improved conditions — can be made to pay their fair share to the union and a number of states did introduce laws to enforce this. In other words, in the land of ‘free enterprise’ the union basically can claim a ‘fee for service’. (That is currently being challenged in another court case, with a ruling expected in June 2016).

In Australia, governments across the country have introduced ‘fee for service’ models into all sorts of public services but refuse to recognise it in respect to union activities and are doing as much as they can to undermine unions and workers’ collective rights. In fact, ‘fee for bargaining services’ is explicitly made illegal in Australia, other than union membership dues — but because a person cannot be made to join a union, it is possible in Australia to have ‘free riders’ who benefit from union bargaining without making any contribution. (The ‘free rider’ effect was what led to the original US Supreme Court decision.) In that regard, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) has found that in Australia, although less than 20% of employees are union members, 60% of employees work under collectively bargained conditions.

The ITUC provides quite a long list of the problems in Australia — note that these relate to a period up to early 2014: the link is here but also click on ‘In Practice’ to see the rest of the list. It includes:
  • employers have a discretionary right to refuse to bargain with representative trade unions
  • prior authorisation or approval by authorities is required to hold a lawful strike
  • restrictions with respect to the objective of a strike (eg economic and social issues, political, sympathy and solidarity reasons are not allowed)
  • authorities’ or employers’ have power to unilaterally prohibit, limit, suspend or cease a strike action
  • employers are using delaying tactics to avoid collective bargaining
  • individual agreements are undermining collective bargaining
  • many employers (particularly in the mining sector) do their best to frustrate trade union activity
Some employers try to avoid bargaining with a union and the ITUC assessment provides one extreme example:
The employer went to great lengths to avoid bargaining with the union by closing the mine for three months (to avoid certain transfer provisions in the Fair Work Act), hiring a small number of employees (21 from a required total of over 400) who were thought to be non-members, and negotiating an agreement directly with the employees and excluding the union. The employer essentially forced the employees to relinquish their rights to be represented by the union by having them appoint themselves as their own representatives for the bargaining.
In America, and to some extent in Australia, this is done under the banner of the ‘right to work’. That is a neo-liberal banner that claims each individual should be free to choose the manner and conditions of their work and not be ruled by external influences — like collective bargaining and union involvement. It was an idea that was originally abandoned in Australia in the Harvester decision in 1907 when Mr Justice Higgins determined that:
The provision of fair and reasonable remuneration is obviously designed for the benefit of the employees in the industry; and it must be meant to secure to them something which they cannot get by the ordinary system of individual bargaining. [emphasis added]
Since the 1970s, however, individual bargaining has eased its way back towards centre stage.

The attempts to reduce workers’ rights and working conditions, and remove unions from the equation, has been reflected in agreement negotiations in the Australian Public Service. Some public servants have not had a pay rise since 2014 as, at the direction of the government, public service departments delayed negotiations or included proposals that staff could not agree to. One interesting approach was to offer to maintain conditions but to remove them from agreements and make them ‘policy’. In December 2015, the CPSU (Community and Public Sector Union) warned staff in the agriculture department that:
If your rights are taken out of your agreement and put into policy, they can be removed or changed at any time. In some agencies that have voted yes this is already happening!

Just weeks after a small majority of workers said yes in DSS, management moved to change their consultative arrangements in a way that meant union delegates were no longer being consulted.
Effectively taking unions out of the industrial relations loop is part of the ‘right to work’ approach and has been pursued by the Howard, Abbott and now Turnbull governments. Turnbull may cloak it in fine words but the intention of his proposed legislation in response to the TURC report is to further erode the influence of unions.

All this may not mean much to many in the electorate but there are 1.6 million union members in Australia: that is the ABS figure for 2014, whereas the ACTU claimed late in 2015 that the membership in its records suggested a figure of 1.8 million. Either way, that is certainly the lowest level of union membership in the workforce since detailed records have been kept: it has come down from about 40% of the workforce in 1992.

While the official ABS figures suggest union membership is down to 14% of those in employment, that is slightly misleading because the ABS counts owner-managers of both incorporated and unincorporated enterprises and many, if not most, of those would not be likely to join a union in any case. Union membership only for those who are employees is somewhat higher at 17%, or 19% if we use the ACTU figure.

As at 30 September 2015, there were 15,259,399 enrolled voters in Australia. Union membership, therefore, represents between 10.5% (using the ABS figure) and 11.7% (the ACTU figure) of voters — which gives unionists about half the electoral power of those aged 65 and over, who represent 21.8% of the electorate (which also gives a clear indication why the ‘grey vote’ is so important). Even so, about 12% of the electorate is a figure that cannot really be ignored and especially so if one considers that there may be influences to non-union members in a person’s family or circle of friends.

The problem is that union members are not evenly distributed across electorates. Although I do not have actual figures, I suspect they are disproportionately represented in what are strong or safe Labor seats which is why the government believes it can launch its union attacks. It knows the attacks may cost votes in Labor seats but that will make no difference to an election outcome. It is hoping that by bashing the unions, it can gain enough votes in ‘swinging’ seats to hold on to government.

The government, however, should note that, as reported in The Guardian, Essential Research found in 2015 that 62% of Australians believed unions were important (that figure had increased since 2012) and 45% believed workers would be better off if unions were stronger (compared to 26% who thought workers would be worse off). Given those figures, government attacks on unions can backfire if that 62% begin to believe that the government is going too far — as they did when Howard introduced WorkChoices.

Before people start believing the government’s rhetoric regarding unions they should consider some of the facts, even as revealed by the ABS which by no means can be considered a propagandist for unions. The median weekly income for employed persons in a union in 2013‒14 was $1,200 compared to $960 for non-union employees (and the mean was $1,295 compared to $1,162). Overall 24% of those in employment did not have paid leave entitlements: while this includes the owner-managers, it would also include some casual and part-time workers. Of union members, however, 91% had paid leave entitlements.

In America, workers have no nationally mandated paid leave: it is entirely a matter for employers and employees and to some extent state and local regulations. It was found in 2006 that workers who were union members in the USA received on average 13 days paid leave and 8 paid public holidays while non-union workers received 9 days paid leave and 6 paid public holidays. Given our experience in Australia, it is difficult to comprehend that the amount of leave a worker is entitled to can be dependent on whether or not one is a union member.

Even with all the changes that have taken place in Australia, the Fair Work provisions include ten nationally mandated minimum standards including:
  • a standard 38-hour week
  • four weeks paid annual leave
  • ten days paid personal/carer’s leave each year and two days paid compassionate leave for each eligible bereavement
  • long service leave
  • a right to request flexible working arrangements
While these conditions may now be legally mandated, they did not arise out of the blue nor out of the goodness of heart of employers or government. Those conditions, now accepted as the norm, were fought for over many years by unions. If the role of unions is further diminished in coming years, where will improvements in workers’ conditions come from in the future?

Turnbull may think he is on a winner bashing the unions but the effectiveness of his campaign will depend on two crucial external factors:
  • the effectiveness of any union campaign against the changes he proposes (they did, after all, mount an effective campaign against WorkChoices), and
  • whether the 62% of Australians who support unions perceive that he is going too far (the unions will certainly do their best to foster that view)
So his task will not be easy and can unravel and backfire on him and on the Coalition’s electoral chances. Despite the risks, I believe Turnbull and the Coalition will persist with it because it is consistent with their neo-liberal economic agenda and has the support of their big supporter — big business.

What do you think?
Why did Turnbull promise to make union ‘corruption’ an election issue? Is it no more than his pursuit of an ideological agenda in support of big business?

Please let us know what you think are the pros and cons of Turnbull’s approach both for the Coalition and Labor.


More about Puff the Magic Malcolm



In the first of this short series, I described how after the disaster of Tony Abbott, the promise that Malcolm Turnbull brought to prime ministership was already fracturing as he fails, day after day, to live up to his own values, and reneges on his strongly held views. Abbott flagrantly and unashamedly broke his promises. With Turnbull it is subtler; he is saying and doing things that we all know are contrary to his position. This is perhaps most obvious with the issue of climate change, a matter that was covered exhaustively in the first in the series.

This the second, deals with Turnbull’s position on marriage equality, the Gonski reforms, the NBN, Australia becoming a Republic, his immigration policy, his cities policy, and his economic policy.

Marriage Equality. Everyone who has been listening to Turnbull knows that he is strongly in favour of marriage equality. He has said so many times in parliament and out. Moreover, he advocated a vote in parliament to determine the matter. But once he became PM he reverted to Abbott’s delaying tactic of a plebiscite after the next election. Although he would regard the result as binding on the parliament, his old guard of conservatives, Eric Abetz, Cori Bernardi et al vow to vote as they wish, irrespective of the views of the electorate. It seems as if this conservative clique is calling the shots, and Turnbull does not feel secure enough in his hold on leadership to stand up to them. What a disappointment from the one who challenged Abbott on the grounds of poor leadership!

The hope that Turnbull would reverse the Abbott tactic, and either have a vote in the parliament or at least hold the plebiscite at the time of the election, thereby saving an estimated 160 million dollars, has so far been dashed. If he is hoping to run either of these lines, he is leaving it pretty late,

Disappointingly, the promise of a Turnbull different from Abbott on this important social matter has been tarnished.

The Gonski school reform is another area where Turnbull’s promise is fading. He talks about the need for innovation, agility and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t add that these attributes are built on a foundation of sound education that starts in preschool and extends to university and beyond. And it must be available to all who can benefit from it. The Gonski school reforms were designed to bring this about. After telling us all pre-election that he was on the same Gonski page as Labor, Abbott reneged post-election on the vital last two years of funding. Any hope that Turnbull would see the fallacy of curtailing spending on education was dashed after he and his education minister repeated the same weary line that ‘you can’t solve the schooling problem by throwing money at it’. Apart from being a stupid thing to say, suggestions about how the government would solve the problem, with or without money, were never forthcoming. So Gonski is in limbo.

The creation of a smart, innovative, agile nation will have to wait until Turnbull works out what to do about school education. His attitude to education accelerates disillusionment about him.

The NBN project has been a great disappointment for those who expected him to handle the NBN project with skill and flair. We all know he is a tech-head, a nerd when it comes to communications gadgets, the founder of OzEmail, one of our earliest email services. We remember that he was instructed by Abbott to ‘demolish the NBN’ which Labor had initiated, but hoped he would find a way of maintaining its initial design, which was to provide a super-fast broadband service to 97% of Australians with ‘fibre-to-the premises’ (FTTP) technology. He salvaged the NBN from Abbott’s onslaught by adopting a multi-technology approach, and substituting the inferior ‘fibre-to-the-node’ (FTTN) option, where fibre extends only to boxes on street corners, with Telstra’s old copper wire finishing the connection to the premises. In doing so, he lumbered this nation with a second rate facility just when we needed to be world leaders in an increasingly competitive global environment.

In a comprehensive assessment of the Coalition’s FTTN NBN in September 2105, Richard Chirgwin, telco analyst and journalist writing in The Register, gave credit for some aspects of the government’s rollout, but was scathing about many, for example, in the critical areas of technology, the rollout timeline, speed, and the cost, He wrote:

The Liberal Party's pre-election policy document stated ”Our aim is that everyone in the nation should have access to broadband with download data rates of between 25 and 100 megabits per second by 2016”.

“That timeline was quickly exposed as optimistic and the "aim" unrealistic. The universal 25 Mbps service promise has now been pushed out to 2020.

“Fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), however, has to be regarded as the greatest disappointment of the policy: the government has failed to deliver either the rapid rollout or the amount of savings promised in the policy.

“Approximately 65 per cent of the FTTN portion of the rollout is expected to be completed by 2016-17. The remaining 35 per cent will be deployed in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and will in most cases be in areas served by HFC [Hybrid Fibre Co-Axial technology] networks”, the policy stated.

“At the most recent NBN presentation, the company hopes to activate 1.8 million premises on FTTN by 2018. That's a little late. Also, absent a full footprint plan detailing which premises will receive which technology, it's impossible to say if the promise of 65 per cent FTTN completion is on track.

Verdict: Promises not kept.
Turnbull was scornful when he spoke of the cost of Labor’s NBN, which he deemed prohibitively wasteful. He ought now to be eating his words. Chirgwin had this to say:

Cost: By far the worst performance is in the matter of the cost of the NBN.

“The pre-election assertion that [Labor’s] FTTP network would cost $90 billion was quickly revised down to $73 billion, which is still a lot of money, but at the same time, Turnbull's statements about the cost of his multi-technology model have repeatedly been revised upwards.

“The $20.4 billion capex [capital expenditure], and peak funding of $29.5 billion, were obsolete within a year, and after several revisions, the most recent estimates for the NBN build are peak funding of between $46 billion and $53 billion.

“The government protected its own books by the simple expedient of capping its investment. To meet the balance, NBN will have to raise its own debt.

Verdict: The government has performed no better than its predecessor in making cost forecasts.”
You can read the sorry story in full here.

The use of the image below to head Chirgwin’s piece tells the story.



In summary, Turnbull’s demonized Labor’s FTTP NBN, and made wild promises about how much cheaper the Coalition’s FTTN NBN would be, and how much faster it would roll out to more homes. Once again he brought disillusionment to many – another Turnbull promise remains unmet.

Australia becoming a Republic has been a Turnbull dream for years. He was a member of the Australian Republican Movement since its formation in 1991 and later chairman. He headed the ARM team at the 1998 Australian Constitutional Convention, but John Howard’s manipulations thwarted his endeavours and the referendum in 1999 was lost, a stinging defeat that still lingers in Turnbull’s memory. Yet his advent to prime ministership kindled hopes that at last this nation might move away from being a constitutional monarchy to becoming a republic. Writing in The Age, Tim Mayfield expressed this hope in Australian republicans take hope from Malcolm Turnbull's ascent.

Expect yet another disappointment on this front. Perhaps understandably after his bitter 1999 defeat, he seems in no hurry to address the republic issue. He seems to be unwilling to spend any of his considerable personal political capital on this venture, especially in the face of resistance from his monarchist colleagues.

Political survival is more important to him than pursuing the cherished principle of Australia becoming a Republic.

Immigration policy has been dealt with here recently in Australia’s diabolical dilemma. We are still waiting to see if Turnbull returns the 267 adults and 72 children now in Australia on ‘humanitarian’ grounds. NZ Prime Minister John Key has shown his compassionate face by offering to take them. Will Turnbull persist with the harsh Abbott policy, or show that he has a more benevolent attitude?

Cities policy was hailed as one of Turnbull’s most enlightened moves. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in September of last year, in an article titled: Turnbull government's cities portfolio: What does it mean and will it work?, Nicole Hasham reported the reaction of Committee for Sydney chief executive Tim Williams: “…the decision to appoint a Minister for Cities is simply an idea "whose time has come". Hasham continued: “Infrastructure chiefs across the nation have been buoyed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's enthusiasm for urban planning, including Jamie Briggs' appointment as the first Minister for Cities and the Built Environment and the government's new willingness to consider public transport investment."

That was then. What has happened since? We know what happened to Jamie Briggs, so how will his successor, rural MP Angus Taylor, fare? Turnbull has rejected suggestions he has downgraded cities policy in his ministry reshuffle.

At the very least,we expect Turnbull to discard Abbott’s environmentally destructive pro-roads, anti-public transport attitude.

Anthony Albanese, who carries the splendid tag: ‘Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Shadow Minister for Tourism, and Shadow Minister for Cities’, is sceptical about progress so far. Here’s what he said a few days ago about Turnbull’s disappointing performance so far:



This piece could go on and on cataloguing Turnbull’s disappointing performance, so let’s finish with his economic policy.

Nobody disagrees with his view that this nation needed to be ‘agile’, ready to grasp the abundance of opportunities here and overseas. We all agree that in the wake of the downturn in mining the economy needs to reshape itself. The renewables industry was just one such opportunity for readjustment in our economy.

Underpinning these needed adjustments is the acute need for fiscal reform. Nobody questions the need for tax reform, industrial relations reform, or welfare reform. The Turnbull government’s progress on these fronts has been slow, erratic, minimal, and flawed. It could hardly have been much worse.

The GST was the first target. Labor made its position plain from the beginning. But the Coalition procrastinated, bumbling along insisting it was still ‘on the table’, until finally a few days ago its abandonment was announced by Turnbull, followed by his treasurer. Even after that, Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash, was insisting the GST was still on the table! The disorganization and indecision was awful. No reasonable person would deny Turnbull and Morrison the right to have the effect of changing the GST modeled by Treasury, but with all the punch that Treasury has, why did it take so long for Turnbull and Co. to reach the same conclusion Labor reached months ago?

Reasonably, Turnbull rejected any change on the grounds that the net benefit would be too low, and the political cost too high. He has always emphasized that ‘fairness’ must characterize any change to the tax mix, but the lack of fairness inherent in this regressive tax was not his stated reason for rejection. Lack of fairness was Labor’s prime reason for rejection. It knew that increasing the level and scope of the GST would increase the already-high level of inequality in this country. Inequality does not feature in Turnbull’s arguments.

The removal or reduction of concessions that favour the wealthy in superannuation, negative gearing and capital gains tax has always been a fertile field for increasing revenue. But the top-end-of-town oriented Turnbull government has shied away from these obvious opportunities. Turnbull challenged Abbott on the grounds of his poor economic leadership; we are still waiting to see if Turnbull’s is any better.

Labor has outlined its policies, as have the Greens, but the Turnbull government flounders, adding indecision to uncertainty. I believe this is principally because of treasurer Morrison’s ideological obsession with reducing taxes. He sees removing concessions as tantamount to increasing taxes.



At his National Press Club address last week we saw the fiscal dithering of the Turnbull government writ large as Morrison waffled for 46 minutes telling what we already knew about the tough financial situation this country is in, that repairing it would be a long haul, taking on Test Match dimensions rather than those of a 20/20 Big Bash (no doubt he thought this was clever framing), and that any tax relief would be ‘modest’, and a long time coming. While using his copious words to berate Labor’s proposal, we did not hear one word from him about the Turnbull government’s policy on negative gearing, superannuation and capital gains, or for that matter on any other fiscal policy. The speech was vacuous and insulting to the NPC audience that gathered expecting to get at a least a morsel of information on these crucial matters.

Morrison was attacked repeatedly the next day on talk back radio over his arrogant disrespect for those seeking information about important government policy, but fobbed off his assailants with his usual torrent of words unstoppably tumbling from his loquacious mouth. Bernard Keane of Crikey in his brilliant piece: Waiting for ScoMo - in which no policy happens, twice, aptly described Morrison’s NPC speech as “…more a one-hander version of Waiting for Godot, the play in which, famously, nothing happens, twice.

But at least in his post-address talkback appearances he did introduce us to the ‘unicorn’ frame. Morrison is not much better at picking apt metaphors than he is at picking apt fiscal policies. Let me take you down a side road for a bit.

We all know what this mythical creature looks like, but why did Morrison use the unicorn as a metaphorical frame?

I looked through Renton’s Metaphors but found no reference to the unicorn. Wikipedia did not help either. In fact it said: “In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin…its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness.” Not what Morrison intended!

Another source asserts that chasing unicorns is looking for the right job. Surely not what Morrison was thinking!

In the Hebrew Bible it was often used as a metaphor representing strength…a wild, un-tamable animal of great strength and agility. Agility is what Malcolm desires; perhaps Scott does too!

I suspect though that his metaphorical meaning is that ‘chasing unicorns’ is the pursuit of something that, for all intents and purposes, is unobtainable, as unicorns don't exist.

He might have been wiser to tone down his rhetoric by choosing a more understandable metaphorical frame – perhaps ‘chasing rainbows’ would have resonated better.
That’s enough about the cascade of disappointments that have come flooding from our new PM, his treasurer and much of his ministry. To many, Malcolm is a likeable fellow. Well-educated, well-spoken, dignified, prime ministerly, he held out such promise to an electorate tired of the combative, aggressive Abbott. Turnbull heralded a new era for voters tired of the embarrassment of having Abbott as our leader, relieved that at last we had one who could make us feel secure, if not proud.

Then the disillusionment began. Day after day, as the Coalition vacuum cleaner sucked up policy opportunity after policy opportunity into the dust receptacle of abandoned prospects, disappointment grew.

Disappointment is contagious. Initial goodwill towards Turnbull is fading day after day as he and his government dither, ply us with platitudes, make faraway promises, dishonours them, does nothing, goes nowhere, marches on the spot, yet talks as if they have grand plans, sadly for a distant and receding future. Reflect on what Morrison said in his NPC address and you will see what I mean.

Some Labor supporters might want to see the Turnbull government fail, but even those must be demoralized by the reality that the awful Abbott government that did so much damage has been replaced by a torpid do-nothing outfit that seems lost in the political wilderness without a compass.

The Magic Malcolm that so many welcomed seems to have gone up in a Puff of Liberal Blue smoke.




What do you think?
This second pieces concludes this short series on Turnbull’s shortcomings and his backsliding as he fidgets under the repressive thumb of the reactionaries in his own party. If he cannot cast off the conservative curse, clamber out from under the repressive influence of the Abbott-led opponents, he may never show us the Real Malcolm Turnbull, whose values and genuine beliefs have made him so popular with the voters.

Will he be crushed into humiliating submission, crippled by forced conformity, curtailed in every move his better self tells him to make, incarcerated by those who gave him power? Even Laborites hope not. We know the Malcolm of old; we were hoping for something better this time around. But so far we have experienced only disappointment and disillusionment.

Do tell us what you think in the comments section.

Puff the Magic Malcolm



The precipitous ejection of Australia’s worst-ever prime minister last year brought such a sense of relief to the electorate that the arrival of Malcolm Turnbull in his place gave him the status of a knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. Even some who support Labor were not just relieved, but pleased. He looked like a prime minister and he spoke like one with measured eloquence. His urbanity had popular appeal, his smile was engaging and the way he handled criticism stylish. We no longer felt embarrassed by our prime minister. Most important though was his stated vision for this nation: it was upbeat, forward-looking, encouraging and exciting.

Those of us who have followed politics for many years had reservations though. We remembered how after his rather brutal takeover from Brendan Nelson to become Leader of the Opposition in 2008, he offered much promise to his party and to the electorate. Many applauded particularly his enlightened views on global warming and his collaboration with Kevin Rudd to mitigate it. But after a promising start, an ill-considered instance of over-reach brought him undone. Failing to do the due diligence required of an accomplished barrister, a disturbed Liberal mole in Treasury, Godwin Grech, led him up the garden path with a fake email. He remained there, stranded and exposed as one too obsessed with bringing down a prime minister and his treasurer. ‘Utegate’ uncovered a fatal flaw in Turnbull’s personality. He did not recover fully until he removed Abbott in September last year.

But everyone knows that to garner the votes he needed to replace the unpopular Abbott, he had to compromise many of his beliefs and principles. Just how many, and to what extent, we would soon discover.

We have watched with curiosity the turn of events since he toppled Tony Abbott in no less a brutal way than he toppled Brendan Nelson and no less brutally than Abbott toppled him in December 2009. We have been disappointed that the promise that surrounded his ascension to prime ministership, a post he had coveted for so long, has been steadily eroded. We have been dismayed about the principles he has abandoned. We kept hoping that soon he would reveal his genuine views, his cherished values and beliefs, his intentions for policy renewal. So far, there’s been precious little. Disillusionment threatens.

Ken Wolff has alluded to this in A smile is not enough. We have the Turnbull smile, day after day, but not much else to engender confidence in him and his governance. In Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers, 2353NM has drawn attention to the antediluvian attitude of the Turnbull government to climate change, one inherited from Abbott, but as yet unchanged.

Let’s dissect his period in parliament into bite-size issues, in this and subsequent pieces.

Climate change is a good place to start, because it was Turnbull’s avant-garde approach that encouraged Kevin Rudd to vigorously address global warming, which Rudd described as ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’, and to come up with an emissions trading scheme to mitigate it. Rudd and Turnbull were almost to the point of bipartisan agreement on such a scheme until Rudd lost his nerve and Turnbull lost his position as leader in early December 2009. Rudd was spoofed by falling popularity in the electorate. But it was a conservative clique in the LNP that was opposed to an ETS that turfed out Turnbull in favour of Abbott. An ETS was so close. Australia could have been a world leader in carbon pollution mitigation; now it is a laggard.

But that’s not where the story ends. Deprived of his preferred carbon trading mechanism, Turnbull described Abbott’s alternative scheme, his Direct Action Plan, as a ‘fig leaf’. On 7 December 2009, Turnbull’s website spelt out his views as a backbencher: “So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he [Abbott] won’t complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition’s policy, or lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.”

It goes on:
"First, let’s get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money. To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money. Somebody has to pay.

“So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, ‘bullshit’. Moreover he knows it.

“Second, as we are being blunt, the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion “climate change is crap” or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it’s cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left wing conspiracy to de-industrialise the world.”
That’s enough for now; you can read the lot here.

Look now at the comments Turnbull made to Tony Jones eighteen months later on Lateline, in May 2011. Suitably abbreviated, they tell us what Turnbull believed then:
"Well, Tony, honestly, I don't want to comment on the direct action policy. I'm happy to describe it to you. If you want a commentary run on it, you should ask Tony Abbott or Greg Hunt about it.

“It is what it is. It is a policy where, yes, the Government does pick winners, there's no doubt about that, where the Government does spend taxpayers' money to pay for investments to offset the emissions by industry.

“…I think there are two virtues of that from the point of view of Mr Abbott and Mr Hunt.

“One is that it can be easily terminated. If in fact climate change is proved to be not real, which some people obviously believe - I don't. If you believe climate change is going to be proved to be unreal, then a scheme like that can be brought to an end...

“Or if you believe that there is not going to be any global action and that the rest of the world will just say, ‘It's all too hard and we'll just let the planet get hotter and hotter,’ and, you know, heaven help our future generations - if you take that rather grim, fatalistic view of the future and you want to abandon all activity, a scheme like that is easier to stop.”

“…if you want to have a long-term solution to abating carbon emissions…if you want to have a long-term technique of cutting carbon emissions in a very substantial way to the levels that the scientists are telling us we need to do by mid-century to avoid dangerous climate change, then a direct action policy…where industry was able to freely pollute, if you like, and the Government was just spending more and more taxpayers' money to offset it, that would become a very expensive charge on the budget in the years ahead.”
You can see the whole interview and read the transcript here.

Speaking in August 2010 at the launch of a report demonstrating the technical feasibility of moving Australia to a 100% renewable energy nation, Turnbull said, inter alia: "We are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet. It’s the only planet we’ve got…. We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic. We know that extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency and while it is never possible to point to one drought or one storm or one flood and say that particular incident is caused by global warming, we know that these trends are entirely consistent with the climate change forecasts with the climate models that the scientists are relying on…. We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.”

Turnbull’s full speech is here.

Turnbull could not have been clearer then about his views on carbon abatement and the Direct Action Plan.

Now let’s look at what he said recently when challenged with his earlier statements. Writing in The Guardian, in Is new Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull already a climate change turncoat?, Graham Readfearn reports that in response to a question in his first QT, Turnbull said:

”[Opposition leader Bill Shorten] is highlighting one of the most reckless proposals the Labor party has made. Fancy proposing, without any idea of the cost of the abatement, the cost of proposing that 50% of energy had to come from renewables! What if that reduction in emissions you needed could come more cost-effectively from carbon storage, by planting trees, by soil carbon, by using gas, by using clean coal, by energy efficiency?”

Readfearn continues: “Turnbull [once] said that to ‘effectively combat climate change’ the nation ‘must move… to a situation where all or almost all of our energy comes from zero or very near zero emissions sources’.

“But now it seems, Turnbull wants to ridicule an idea that he enthusiastically supported five years earlier.

“Turnbull once described the government’s Direct Action climate change policy as ‘fiscal recklessness on a grand scale’ but now thinks the policy is a ‘resounding success’.”


Readfearn concludes: “In 2011, Turnbull said it was important that even within the debates between the merits of a carbon price or Direct Action, people should ‘not fall into the trap of abandoning the science.’

“But now, Turnbull is defending his government’s weak targets on climate change that, if they were replicated by other countries around the world, analysts say would likely see the planet warm by 3C or more.

“Not only is Turnbull abandoning the science, he is abandoning his previous common sense position on climate for what a former Turnbull described as a policy that was no more than a fig leaf.

“To quote Turnbull himself, building a future without a reliance on fossil fuels for energy is ‘absolutely essential if we are to leave a safe planet to our children and the generations that come after them’”.


He carried these views all the way to the Paris Conference on Climate Change Policy and Practice, and has not changed them since.

Perhaps this is Turnbull’s most disappointing abandonment of principles and policy since resuming leadership. After all he has said in the past about climate change, it defies understanding. It highlights how prepared he is to discard values, indeed morality, to gain and keep office. Hope that once in office he would revert to his previous values and beliefs about climate change has so far been dashed. His radical change of approach about this crucial issue, when he knows full well the truth about global warming, depreciates his authority and demeans him as a trustworthy leader.



There are more examples of the man so many welcomed as a fresh breath of air after the oppressive atmosphere that Abbott created, now reneging on his promise of a different government and shelving his promises of policy reform. Apart from his shameful reversal of his climate change principles and practice, his prior attitudes to same-sex marriage and the republican cause are now in doubt. He has toned down Abbott’s inflammatory rhetoric on terrorism and Muslims, but continues to embrace Abbott’s punitive immigration policy. These issues are for another piece.

Writing in The Age in February of last year before Turnbull knocked off Abbott, Julie Szego draws attention to instances of his backsliding even prior to his getting the top job. We were warned:

…having earlier affirmed the importance of the ABC, he made a conspicuously lame attempt to explain the cuts to its funding. When the changes to racial vilification laws were proposed, he similarly stammered his way through media interviews on the subject, his opposition to those changes easily discerned.

“He also backed legislation for a data retention scheme, even though he had questioned the need for such a scheme when the previous Labor government introduced its metadata plans and even though he had reportedly been left out of the deliberations about the controversial laws. Again he was forced to an unconvincing sales pitch about the measures. "I hope with clarity and precision, I am explaining what the [security] agencies are seeking," he said, drawing inevitable attention to the proposals' complete lack of clarity or precision.

“Amid such policy humiliations, Turnbull keeps the public on side with the odd self-deprecating remark, a tilt of an eyebrow, a wry grin. He exudes a knowing irony. Turnbull might be the consummate politician for the digital age. More than any other politician he seems to understand how a well-placed gesture or subtle turn of phrase on Q&A get multiplied and amplified on social media, spilling into the 24/7 cycle in a perfect feedback loop.

“In contrast to Julia Gillard, he's unlikely to try to reboot his image in the midst of an election campaign, or at all. We all know he's not "the real Malcolm", and he knows we know. Thus far, inauthenticity has worked a treat for him. The opposition hopes that should Turnbull ascend to the top job, he'll end up terminally wedged between his personal convictions and those of his party. Perhaps he will. Then again, Labor might find that if it fails to offer a substantive policy alternative it risks shrinking the political fight to a personality contest.”


Which leads to the title of this piece: Puff the Magic Malcolm, which is clearly a take on the well-known song: Puff the Magic Dragon. While some believe that song was all about puffing weed, the three songsters, Peter, Paul and Mary insist: "... it's a song about innocence lost … a loss of innocence and having to face an adult world” Has Malcolm lost his ‘innocence’ in the adult world of ruthless uncompromising party politics?

What do you think?
Following pieces in this short series will address Turnbull’s emerging shortcomings and his backsliding as he squirms under the oppressive thumb of the reactionaries in his own party. Will he fulfill the hopes of so many that he will cast off the conservative curse, crawl out from under the repressive influence of the Abbott-led opponents, and show us the Real Malcolm Turnbull, whose values and genuine beliefs have made him so popular with the voters?

Or will he be crushed into humiliating submission, crippled by enforced conformity, curtailed in every move his better self tells him to make, imprisoned by those who gave him power? Even Laborites hope not. We know the Malcolm of old; we were hoping for something better this time around.

Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers

Have a look at this link: it is a record of the number of reported gun incidents and deaths in the USA in the last 72 hours. When this article was being prepared there had been in excess of 200 incidents. Frankly it’s a little scary.

Many Australians are familiar with the work of the US Tea Party, a conservative group that claims to be a ‘grassroots’ organisation that demonstrates the values of the USA. In September 2013, The Political Sword had a quick look at the actions of the Tea Party that led to the shutdown of the US Government that year.

We have also commented on luminaries of the LNP right wing such as Cory Bernardi attending events in the US where the Tea Party is certainly represented — if not the organiser. Amongst the immutable demands of the various conservative American groups (including the Tea Party and most of the Republican Presidential hopefuls) is the need to protect ‘the 2nd amendment’. The 2nd amendment to the US Constitution reads: ‘A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ This link from Cornell University’s Law School discusses the history of the amendment and the current discussion around the relevance of the first clause of the amendment. Regardless, in general, conservative America will happily quote the second clause ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed’ but are less forthcoming on the first clause.

So conservative America, backed by self-interest groups and the National Rifle Association (as is their right) have promoted that everyone in the US has a right and obligation to carry a gun at all times. There are even claims that a number of the gun massacres the US is becoming ‘famous’ for, such as the massacre of Year 1 children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, never happened, or the entire event was apparently a ‘set up’ by the US Federal Government to drive a gun control agenda. For those who need their memory refreshed, this Wikipedia entry will give you the relevant detail.

According to Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump, mental illness is the cause for shootings in the US — not guns. Another Republican Presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, blames the media, while parts of the media are blaming violent video games. The ‘logical’ answer according to some in the US is for everyone to have a gun. Interestingly when I went to the webpage for the previous link, I was offered a chance to win a NATO-style tactical rifle if I signed up for their newsletter!

In another demonstration of nature abhorring a vacuum, in 2012 a group called Occupy Democrats was set up. They claim to be a political organization and information website that provides a new counterbalance to the Republican Tea Party. Occupy Democrats seem to have a predilection for making up Facebook memes such as the one at the top of this article. On the face of it, they should have plenty of ammunition (sorry). In another Occupy Democrats Facebook post a clip from the US television series The West Wing has one of mythical President Jeb Bartlett’s aides arguing for gun control, the comments to the meme on the Facebook post are mind blowing. One response doesn’t dispute that over 30,000 residents of the US were killed by guns in the past year but justifies it by suggesting the 20,000 or so suicides attributed to guns shouldn’t count! Another response (obviously from an Australian) details that Australia has not had a mass killing (apparently the definition is more than 5 people killed in a single incident) since 1997 when PM Howard instituted a gun buyback after the Port Arthur tragedy (follow this link for details if necessary), as well as a history and geo-economics lesson on why Australians are actually just as free and are in a better position than the residents of the US — despite not being able to carry an AK47 in our Ford Falcon ute. The attempt at rebuttal by the Australian is met by statements that can best be summed up by ‘when the UN brings in the new world order, you’ll be sorry’.

Australians just don’t understand the fixation US residents have with guns. While there may have been a need for a ‘well-regulated militia’ to be formed in 1776, in 2016, not only does the US have a well-equipped army, it also has an air force, navy, National Guard and in all probability various levels of secret services to defend the nation from attack. Will Jim Bob in his Ford F150 — replete with gun rack out the back — be able to make any difference in an attack by internal or external forces? In all probability the answer is no — regardless of our mythical Jim Bob actually knowing how to use the weapon he carries around to protect his country (which is the legal justification for having a gun in the USA).

It seems the rest of the world knows that the US has a blind spot in regard to the logic behind gun ownership leading to gun violence. So they’re all crazy and Australians wouldn’t carry on like that — right? Wrong — as a nation we apparently don’t give a damn for our environment.

The scientists will tell you that climate change is real — despite vested interests (some of whom also contribute to the US “Tea Party”). Australia was one of the first nations in the world to legislate an effective mechanism for the reduction of carbon emissions. The LNP Coalition cherry-picked some aspects of the Carbon Pollution Reductions Scheme (CPRS) and named it ‘the Carbon Tax’. The predicted $100 roast and destruction of Whyalla never eventuated.

You might remember during 2015 it came to light that Volkswagen had programmed the computer in the engine of some VW and subsidiary branded vehicles to act differently if it detected that emissions testing was being undertaken. Following the usual ‘he said, she said’ brouhaha, VW admitted there was a problem and undertook to find a solution. The Australian ACCC released this update last October regarding its investigation of a breach of consumer law (the engine didn’t perform as well as advertised) leading to a maximum penalty of slightly over $1million, while in the US, the ‘fix’ first proposed by VW was rejected and is more complicated than the Australian/European solution due to stricter environment laws. VW is also potentially liable for fines totalling over $1billion in the US because the vehicles emitted too many chemicals. See the difference?

In August last year, ‘The Political Sword’ touched on renewable energy in a discussion on then PM Abbott’s inability to understand the larger debate on climate change. The article is here and while Abbott is no longer the prime minister, the delightfully named (in the George Orwell 1984 sense) Direct Action policy has not been changed. One of the effects of the lack of any action (let alone Direct Action) is a refusal by the federal government to subsidise the purchase of electric vehicles. In 2015, Australians purchased a record breaking 1,155,408 cars, SUVs and commercial vehicles. Of note, the sales of passenger cars fell by 3.0% and the sale of SUVs (loosely described as vehicles that look like 4-wheel drive wagons, even if they don’t have the 4-wheel drive capability) increased by 15.9% of the total. As a side note, sales of ‘prestige’ vehicles increased across the board by significant amounts — which says something about the general perceptions of the economy.

Back in the good ole USA, vehicle manufacturers have been required to ensure the fuel consumption of the entire fleet of vehicles they sell in a particular year meets a certain miles per gallon threshold. This has occurred since 1978. While the requirement admittedly came in to redress to an extent the oil supply shocks of the early and mid-1970s, there is a flow on effect here to emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. What the system means is, for example, that for every vehicle with a rated fuel consumption over the threshold that is sold, one with a similar value under the threshold must be sold, or a fine paid.

It is possible to purchase a fully electric vehicle or ‘plug in hybrid’ (a vehicle that relies primarily on electric traction/recharging but has a small petrol generator to resupply the battery on the go) in Australia, although with around 1,000 sold to members of the public in the past 5 years, it’s not surprising if you didn’t know they exist. In the United Kingdom, the total number of vehicles sold was around 2.6 million (around 150% more than Australia). The UK purchased over 10,000 electric or plug in hybrid vehicles in 2015. The big difference is the UK Government, as a pollution reduction/climate change mechanism, has a subsidy for the purchase and operation of electric vehicles.
Since the Plug-in Car Grant scheme was launched with its promise of up to £5,000 off the cost of electric vehicles, 47,690 eligible cars have been registered.

Conventional hybrids enjoyed a similar strong performance last year with annual demand for petrol hybrids growing 18 per cent to 40,707 registrations and demand for diesel hybrids climbing 36 per cent to over 3,800.

Overall, the market for alternative fuelled vehicles rose 40 per cent to 72,775 units, increasing the sector’s market share from 2.1 per cent in 2014 to 2.8 per cent last year.

In contrast, demand for diesel vehicles rose just three per cent, as the fall-out from the VW scandal no doubt contributed to the technology’s market share slipping to 48.5 per cent.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Motor vehicles registered in Australia travelled an average of 13,800 kilometres per vehicle in the 12 months ended 31 October 2014’. Oddly, the average distance travelled by Victorians (one of the smallest states geographically) was higher than the average for Queensland and Western Australia (both much larger geographically). The real point is that on average each car in Australia travels an average of 55km each of the 260 weekdays in a year.

Most if not all fully electric vehicles have a range exceeding the average distance driven by an Australian car each day: and driving electric vehicles around some of our larger cities would certainly improve the quality of the air that we breath. But seemingly we prefer to purchase faux 4-wheel drives, that usually are not the most efficient users of fuel or producers of minimal emissions from the exhaust pipe! We all like the feeling that we can jump in the car and, given enough time, drive from Melbourne to Cairns whenever we want. The reality is that it rarely happens. There is also a lack of infrastructure for the ‘refilling’ of electric vehicles as well as a significantly higher sunk cost in the purchase of the vehicle.

The Renault/Nissan alliance has reportedly sold 250,000 electric vehicles around the world and has a small number of electric delivery vans on trial with Australia Post. Interestingly the company claims that there are 4,000 similar vans in service with the French postal service which travel on average 70km per day — Australia Post primarily uses diesel powered vans.

Apart from recharging infrastructure and initial cost, the only other argument against electric vehicles is the ‘green quality’ of the power that is used to charge the batteries. This is rapidly changing. The number of solar installations on domestic premises in Western Australia is increasing at 20% per annum, causing a number of problems for the WA Government, and South Australia has generated its entire electrical requirements during daylight hours using renewable technologies on at least one occasion. Storage batteries to enable domestic premises to effectively ‘go off-grid’ have been available for a while. Tesla (of the electric car fame) is launching branded domestic battery units which further promote ‘off-grid’ power by storing the solar panel output during the day and releasing it literally when the sun isn’t shining. Other suppliers also have similar technology available.

As a final vehicle example, the Queensland Government has announced it will subsidise the installation of an electric vehicle recharging station — which they have decided to place in a suburb of Townsville. By contrast, the UK Government spent an additional £37 million across the country on recharging stations.

All of this is to be expected by a government that trashed one of the first emission trading schemes in the world. Various countries with various levels of ‘green credibility’ are successfully operating similar schemes as this Parliament of Australia report discusses. As the report is dated 2013, there are some additional schemes introduced since then such as China’s recent announcement. Others should question why an Australian prime minister can suggest that ‘coal is good for humanity’ and then when he is rolled by his own political colleagues, the policy is not immediately rescinded.

There is evidence that a considerable number of Australians haven’t ‘swallowed the Kool-aid’ dispensed by Abbott and co in relation to environmental protection — but what is being done to change personal consumption habits? While Australians probably have the right to question why those that live in the US seem to look the other way when their legislators allow the fatal shooting of 30,000 of their citizens per annum without attempting to ‘fix it’; surely other nations also have the right to ask why we as Australians seem to think it is acceptable to trash the environment, not only here but around the world. Why do we let our politicians get away with it?

What do you think?
Americans may have a problem with guns but 2353NM suggests Australians have a problem with the environment. Is he right? Which set of blinkers is the more dangerous? At least, the American gun problem is restricted to America but our approach to the environment may affect millions well beyond Australia.


A smile is not enough


[The Turnbull residence at Point Piper, Sydney]

After Turnbull toppled Abbott in September the polls turned in favour of the Coalition; Turnbull’s ‘satisfaction’ rating was high; and he had a commanding lead over Shorten as preferred prime minister. The big question for Turnbull, the Coalition, and indeed Labor, is whether he can maintain those poll numbers all the way to an election.

In my view there are already signs that suggest he will not. That may not yet be showing in polling but unless he acts to meet public expectations those polls will slowly drift away from him.

When Turnbull first won the post as prime minister, he could not stop smiling. In his victory speech, in early interviews and press conferences, he was ceaselessly smiling. Between christmas and new year, when he announced the demotions of Brough and Briggs, he was no longer smiling. Perhaps it was no smiling matter but it was a hint that the pressure of the job is starting to tell.

Turnbull has a reputation as a ‘small l’ liberal with his views on gay marriage and climate change. He does represent an electorate where such views go over well and, especially after Abbott, the wider electorate also saw such views as a hopeful sign for the future. So far, however, Turnbull has done nothing to action such views: he has accepted the position that the gay marriage issue will be put to a plebiscite and not just a parliamentary vote; and, although signing up to the Paris agreement on climate change action, he will stick with Abbott’s ‘Direct Action’ policy (which most experts suggest will fail to deliver). It appears this is a result of deals done with the Right of the Liberal party to secure the top job or, at the least, bowing to the reality of the number of far Right members in his party. It is, however, creating disillusionment in the electorate. As most people accept the reality of politics, he will be given time to make changes but he will not be given forever. While he may wish to make changes, he is hamstrung by the deals he did and the numbers in his party who do not support his more liberal views. Unfortunately, he may not have the power within the party to over-rule those deals until he wins an election (when he can then claim leadership in his own right) but ironically he may not win an election unless he makes those changes first — a classic Catch 22!

Turnbull arrived as a breath of fresh air, saying the right things, and appearing as a very different politician to Abbott. But the announcement about Brough and Briggs (and the abandonment of the Gonski funding model for education which was announced at about the same time) was made during a period, between christmas and new year, when the attention of most people was on issues other than politics. To the cynical amongst us, which now includes a majority of people when it comes to politicians, it gave the appearance of deliberately trying to ‘bury’ the news. (The news about Brough and Briggs was effective in burying the Gonski announcement.) For someone who first appeared as ‘different’ to Abbott, that is a fail. It tends to suggest that he is merely another politician, not better nor worse, but just as willing to play political games. That is not a view that fits with how he first attempted to portray himself and the electorate will add that to the list when adjudicating on his prime ministership. On its own it may not change the electorate’s view but it is another straw on the camel’s back.

The Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) was initiated by Abbott but its report was delivered to and released by Turnbull. He described it as a ‘watershed moment’ for the labour movement. Making so-called union corruption an election issue, which he also promised, is a double-edged sword. Union bashing (and by association Labor and Shorten bashing) goes over well with some but unions can be effective in fighting back as they proved with WorkChoices. Turnbull is trying to frame it (following Ad Astra’s explanation of ‘framing’) as in the interest of ordinary union members but much will depend on the frame the unions use in fighting back. The Guardian has already pointed to the number of powerful women in the union movement and suggested:
A rise in female leadership and the diversity of social backgrounds from which they come has delivered to the union movement a face that looks far more like Australia’s than the Coalition’s own cabinet.
The public are also aware that the ATO released information that almost 600 of Australia’s biggest companies paid no tax in 2013‒14. While there are many reasons for that, the bald facts suggest that companies can avoid tax with impunity which reflects poorly on the government. Senator Xenophon has raised questions about the company that bought the Dick Smith electronics chain and floated the business in December 2013 making a profit of $400 million only to see the company now in voluntary administration. Echoing the TURC terms of reference, Xenophon said: ‘There are some real questions to be asked here about our level of corporate governance …’ [emphasis added]

When all that is put together, I doubt that TURC will really have the impact that some in the Coalition believe. Many in the electorate will be asking questions about why the unions are being pursued but big business isn’t. It’s a fair question. Politicians lose their positions when caught out but just losing their position is apparently not enough for union leaders. A politician who rorts the benefits he or she is entitled to is allowed to pay the money back but a union leader faces fraud charges. Some in the electorate already recognise the inconsistency and see it continuing under Turnbull.

Turnbull also appears happy to reduce penalty rates but lower wages not only affect workers but mean lower tax revenue for government. Bosses have argued since time immemorial that lower wages allow them to employ more people but it has never happened: during the Great Depression the then Arbitration Commission reduced wages in Australia by 10% with businesses promising they would then be able to employ more people but unemployment continued to rise, from 20% to 30%. Turnbull, however, side-stepped the issue by saying it was a matter for the Fair Work Commission. That is not what people expect of their government: government representatives will most likely make representations to the Fair Work Commission when the case comes up and people expect to know whether the government will support or oppose a reduction in penalty rates. Simply pretending that it is nothing to do with him, is not what people expect of a prime minister.

When it comes to economic policy? — no change there. The Turnbull government is still attacking those lower on the pecking order and leaving business and the well-off alone to get on with the job of making money — sorry, according to Turnbull that should be getting on with creating jobs. Despite Turnbull telling us that his approach will be ‘fair’, he should be conscious of the reaction to the 2014 budget when it was commonly and widely believed that the burden of cuts fell disproportionately on the less well-off. If people perceive that is still happening, or happening again, Turnbull’s claims of fairness will be seen as meaningless and just political ‘clap trap’ — not good for a politician’s future as Abbott and Hockey discovered. Of course, the idea of an increase in the GST is still alive, although opposed by a majority of voters.

The lack of activity by the government is reflected in the real economy. In December construction activity declined and there was also a downturn in new orders going into 2016; and a business survey found companies had lower expectations for sales, profits and employment in 2016. Around 70% of voters consistently rate the economy as an important issue and these indicators do not bode well for the government in 2016.

The approach to TURC and economic policy suggest that Turnbull is, at heart, still a businessman and will support big business. He may have small ‘l’ liberal social views but displays neo-liberal economic views and that will become more apparent to the electorate as time passes, and will be exacerbated if he fails to implement some of his social views.

To date, Turnbull has made only one significant new policy announcement — the science and innovation policy. There are a lot of words about a ‘cultural’ shift but little on where the money comes from: it appears that some funding is still dependent on the Senate passing previous cuts proposed by Abbott and Hockey. There have been a series of lesser announcements by his ministers, some of which seem to have had little attention in the media, but which together add up to more cuts to health and welfare spending, such as changes to paid parental leave, to Medicare benefits and to the eligibility of former public servants (both state and federal) for a part-pension. While not all of these measures have attracted wide attention, the people affected are certainly well aware of them and as the number of these groups is added to, that is a growing number of voters who are becoming more disillusioned, more convinced that the Abbott approach is continuing.

The Turnbull government is still pursuing the Abbott government policy of a transfer of powers to the states. Morrison has floated the idea that the states should receive a guaranteed share of income tax. The underlying idea is that the states become solely responsible for schools and hospitals and the commonwealth covers Medicare, the PBS and universities. Given that education and health are issues which the electorate sees Labor as better able to manage, the cynic in me suggests that this is also a political strategy to take away one of Labor’s strengths at the federal level. I do not expect everyone to see this, but people will see the commonwealth withdrawing from hospital and school funding. For many years now, commonwealth financial support has been central to health and education and it will be difficult to change that public perception. That leaves some room for Labor to continue pursuing commonwealth involvement in health and education because, at least for now, that is what the electorate expects.

Decisiveness is lacking or, at least, there is no sign of it yet. It is all well and good to make promises about consultation and proper consideration of issues but people often expect their leaders to be decisive, even with less popular decisions. Four months into his prime ministership and Turnbull has not made any major decisions — he has simply continued the Abbott policies. People expected there would be changes in the policy approach but are not seeing that. Turnbull may have provided a fresh approach in his words and demeanour but not in policy and that will soon wear thin with the electorate.

Some of these issues suggest there may be a temptation to go to an early election before the gloss of the Turnbull leadership wears off and more expectations are left unmet. At an election, however, he would be required to put policies before the electorate and if they remain the Abbott policies, the electorate will not be well pleased. Also if he goes before he has even presented his first budget, it will suggest signs of panic. The budget is often seen as a key indicator of the direction of a prime ministership and to go to an election without presenting one is not a good look. Turnbull, however, is trying to frame an opportunity to go early by using the TURC recommendations and associated legislation as a potential trigger for a double dissolution. Most commentators doubt that a double dissolution will be called because of the likelihood that it would give rise to an increase in minor parties in the Senate (owing to the smaller quota required to win a seat). There may not be a double dissolution but Turnbull may still be tempted to go early — how early is the question, as that also depends on a number of legal requirements regarding the timing of House and Senate elections. Legally he could hold just a House election but it would be electorally unpopular to again separate House and Senate elections. So his options for an early election appear limited, giving the electorate more time to see his true colours.

On 29 January, however, he did indicate that an election would not be called until August, September or October, thus acknowledging the difficulties of going early, but only a few days later, on the first sitting day of parliament, he said a double dissolution was still a ‘live option’ — although that may have been intended to pressure current cross-bench senators to support his legislation rather than a genuine intention. The fact that he can express those contradictory positions within a few days does not present the image of a decisive prime minister.

Basically, Turnbull created a persona before he became prime minister that is not being matched by his actions as prime minister and the electorate will grow increasingly disillusioned with this. So I think there is reason for optimism that the Coalition can be defeated in the election this year. The big question is whether Labor will be able to take advantage of this — but I will save those speculations for another time.

What do you think?
Is Ken’s optimism justified? Will people see through Turnbull’s glossy veneer before the election or will awakening come too late? Can Labor be effective in highlighting Turnbull’s ineffectiveness?

We hope you noticed that this piece was posted on Sunday morning rather than our previous regular time of Sunday evening. This will become our new standard posting time (9.00am on a Sunday) allowing you time to catch up after breakfast or brunch (depending on your time of rising).

Next week, at 9.00am on Sunday, 2353NM discusses a link between guns and electric cars in ‘Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers’.