Bring out your debt


After a year of saying that he could get the Federal Budget back into surplus, seemingly by just cutting support to the less well off in our society, Treasurer Scott Morrison finally realised something any school child who has started business studies classes would be well aware of — a balance sheet comprises debits and credits.

Morrison was speaking to the Bloomberg Economic Summit in Sydney last week. Apart from the usual claims of deliberate obstruction from the Opposition, there was an acknowledgement that ‘Deficits have proven difficult to shift in recent years, despite applying significant expenditure controls’. Taxing more, which is apparently different from ‘protect[ing] the revenue base from structural weakness’, has been ruled out. That still allows measures such as enforcing GST payments on low value imports (such as the shopping you and I do over the internet), attempting (apparently again) to ensure that multi-nationals pay tax before shipping profits overseas and looking at ‘the way generous tax concessions are provided in the superannuation system’.

We even got a new (sort of) three-word slogan to illustrate how serious Morrison is: the ‘taxed and the taxed-nots’. Morrison correctly makes the claim that a lot of Australians have not experienced a recession in their adult lives or unemployment rates of over 10%. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the ‘taxed and taxed-nots’. Probably the gold standard here is now Ambassador Joe Hockey’s ‘lifters and leaners’: while it was an effective slogan as people remember it, Hockey’s period as treasurer was noted only for an increase in the government’s debt and the infamous 2014 budget which still hasn’t passed parliament in its entirety.

Hockey and Morrison point the finger at the ALP for holding up savings measures in the Parliament. Most of the measures held up in the Parliament are spending measures because as Peter Martin reported:
As he [Morrison] puts it, "you don't encourage growth by taxing it more". Of course, withdrawing spending doesn't help much either, but to him it's a lesser evil.

Of the $40 billion in budget measures yet to be passed, more than 60 per cent constrain spending. Only a third, $15 billion, boost revenue.
The two big claims are that more Australians receive more in government benefits than they pay in tax and Australia (the government) will owe $1trillion to others in the near term should action not be taken immediately. Let’s look at the claims.

It’s probably a fair statement to suggest that about half of the population pay no nett tax. At least it was a couple of years ago. The architect of the current taxation and welfare systems, Howard era treasurer Peter Costello wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph a year or so ago which to an extent justifies his reasons:
Sometimes tax reforms involved lower income earners paying more — like the introduction of the GST — but we were always clear that the welfare system could be used to compensate for that. The welfare system is the way to redistribute income. That is not the role of the tax system. The tax system is there to raise revenue at the lowest cost in the most efficient way doing the least damage to the economy.

If you try to use both the tax and the welfare system to redistribute income you get punishing rates of income withdrawal as a person’s income rises. This is called the effective marginal tax rate (EMTR). As people lose benefits and pay higher taxes they can lose 60, 70 per cent, sometimes 100 per cent of every extra dollar they earn. This creates a huge disincentive to work. It creates poverty traps. And, it heightens the incentive to “hide” additional income.
And Costello has a point — the tax system is there to raise revenue at the lowest cost and do the least damage to the economy. If there is a need to return funds to a section of the community due to adverse circumstances, it is far easier to do so using targeted welfare, rather than arranging for exemptions and conditions in the taxation system. We could discuss the inequity in Costello’s targeting until next week if we wanted to but the professionals, such as The Australia Institute might have a better understanding.

According to The Australia Institute, Peter Costello’s actions during the ‘once in a lifetime’ mining boom was to:
… cut taxes so far and so fast that they forced the Reserve Bank of Australia to rapidly increase interest rates.

While countries like Norway took the benefits of resource price booms and banked them in their sovereign wealth fund, Peter Costello chose to cut taxes for the wealthy instead. He knew at the time that his populist generosity to the highest income earners would force future treasurers to choose between budget deficits or cutting spending on the sick, the poor and elderly. No prizes for guessing which our former treasurer prefers.

The only thing Peter Costello hates more than budget deficits is collecting the revenue needed to fix them. Just as his government did nothing about the long term challenge of climate change, his government did nothing to set up Australia's long term public finances.
If you want to, you can wade through the IMF’s report of government waste and profligacy released in January 2013 here or you can just take The Saturday Paper’s word for it that generally Australia was judged well except for four periods — the two largest under the stewardship of Howard as prime minister and Costello as treasurer (partial paywall). Howard and Costello were buying votes. It’s an easy sell to suggest that if you support my re-election campaign, I’ll give you money back in additional benefits or reduced taxes. As The Australia Institute suggests:
For the record, here are 5 of Treasurer Peter Costello’s most ‘profligate’ and inequitable decisions, which created the structural deficit inherited by his successors;

1. Income tax cuts, primarily for the rich, during the boom. Worth $37.6 billion or $26.4 billion if you exclude bracket creep in 2011-12

2. Capital gains tax discount. Worth $5.8 billion in 2014-15

3. Got rid of fuel excise indexation. Worth $5.5 billion in 2013-14

4. Superannuation tax cuts. Worth $2.5 billion in 2009-10

5. The decision to convert 'franking credits' into cash refunds for shareholders
They have given an explanation why each of the cuts has been incredibly bad value to the economy — go to the article to see them.

In some ways it is a delightful irony that the Coalition treasurers of the ‘twenty teens’ are having difficulty in politically justifying the spending cuts they believe are necessary to achieve their economic aim. Which leads us on to ‘message two’ as recently promoted by Morrison — Australia’s debt will hit a $1 trillion if nothing is done.

news.com.au breathlessly reported last week that Morrison’s statement to the Bloomberg Economic Summit would blow out to $1 trillion within the next 10 years if the government doesn’t get its budget savings through the parliament. Of course, according to Morrison anyway, this is the ALP’s fault and, while it is admitted that the figure is the ‘worst case scenario’, the implication is that Keating’s ‘Banana Republic’ would have nothing on the resulting recession.

Apparently, a trillion looks like this; 1,000,000,000,000. Australia’s annual GDP (our income before expenses) is currently around $893billion (or $893,000,000,000) according to the Parliament of Australia’s website. While all debt does have to be repaid at some point there is bad debt and good debt — a nuance that seems to be lacking in the current political debate.

Bad debt in the case of the government is where they are borrowing money to pay for recurrent items such as wages, the cost of stationery or similar items. To bring it back to a domestic level, if you were to go to the supermarket and petrol station each week and get your groceries and fuel on the credit card while only repaying the minimum amount due, two things would eventually happen: the first is that you would hit the credit limit of the card and the retailers would not accept any further charges; and two, the cost of the groceries and fuel you had already consumed would rise exorbitantly as the usually high interest on the purchases made on a credit card would continue until the debt was repaid in full (together with the interest).

Good debt is something else again. Governments borrow money for capital works and long term investments. Again bringing it down to a domestic level, if you borrow money to purchase a home to live in, depending where you live in Australia you are entering a contract with a financial institution for them to loan you considerably more than you can possibly earn in a year. Here’s an example using Westpac’s ‘How much can I borrow’ calculator for a couple with two dependent children.

Borrower 1 earns around $60,000 per annum and Borrower 2 earns around $45,000 per annum and they have some expenses. If you assume that they have a 20% deposit they would probably be in the market for a property priced around $800,000 to $900,000. To save time, we’ll leave the discussion on what they can/should buy and where to the property websites and TV shows. The point here is that between our two borrowers, their joint income is around $100,000 per annum. The Westpac borrowing calculation is really saying that to purchase a home, they can borrow about seven times their annual income and in parts of Australia, they will need every cent of it.

If our mythical borrowers were contemplating borrowing up to seven times their annual income no one would blink an eyelid, as buying a home is ‘good debt’ and the ratio of around 7 to 1 hasn’t changed for decades.

What we have yet to establish is if the potential government $1 trillion debt is good debt or bad debt. Last Sunday on our website we observed that of the $37 billion in additional debt Australia had placed in the 2016 budget, $36 billion of it was for capital works. Generally capital works are an improvement to a particular site that generates income in some way — either directly (say the construction of a new factory to house a production process) or indirectly (improving people’s quality of life by putting a roof over their head for the long term). Just like buying a home, capital works is generally good debt for government, provided we can meet the repayments, as it improves the amenity of our society through more efficient transport connections, better communications or increased services to the community.

Morrison’s recent speeches on debt and disaster therefore are duplicitous on two levels: while the ALP certainly didn’t clean up the overly generous welfare system, neither did they create it (if anything the ALP and the Greens are trying to inject some fairness into the changes blocked in the 2014 and subsequent budgets so the better off ‘feel the pain’ as well); and if a bank will lend our hypothetical ‘borrower 1’ and ‘borrower 2’ nearly seven times their annual income to purchase a capital item (a home to live in), why is there so much concern about Australia’s borrowings potentially getting to a value slightly over one year’s income or GDP (prior to deductions) in around 10 years’ time?

The problem with all this is that Morrison is claiming a debt of $1 trillion will send this country into a recession like we have never seen before. Who knows, it may — but the chances are pretty remote. The more probable alternative is that our society shares the output from the borrowing by our government and the resultant economic benefits. The economic benefits of the better road, rail line or telecommunications infrastructure makes money for the businesses and individuals who use it, who then earn more and pay more tax giving the government the resources to repay the original debt.

Morrison is half way on his ‘road to Damascus’ in that it recently seems to have ‘clicked’ that alterations to the revenue side of the Australian budget are just as necessary as his and his immediate predecessor’s fixation with the expense side of the ledger to the detriment to those on lower incomes. Now he just needs to understand that there are different types of debt; and some of them are actually good for our society.

What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.

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Some believe that those who purchase Lotto entries, play pokies or Keno or participate in other forms of gambling are effectively paying an idiot tax. On a purely rational level, they may be right as there is a significant chance that the few dollars you give to the Lotto machine operator or similar is wasted money — albeit a small proportion goes to the government in some form of wagering tax.

There are of course, many that disagree and happily put their money down to have a chance of winning considerably more than they started with. It doesn’t matter if it is pure luck or there is some skill involved in the wagering process; each time the money is gambled there is a small hope that the gamblers world will get much better financially very soon. Gambling companies have to publicise the chances of ‘winning big’ these days, and it’s on their website (albeit right down the bottom of a menu).

Despite the miniscule chances of winning a life changing amount, we all at some point have wondered what it would be like to be able to afford anything we wanted to do. Well, Steve Colquhoun probably couldn’t afford it but he hasn’t had to wonder either. You see Colquhoun up until recently was a writer for Executive Style on the Fairfax Media websites and the list of what he has done to file his stories is awesome. Despite seemingly having it all (with the added bonus of not having to pay for it), he’s giving it up to spend valuable time with his ‘long suffering’ family. Maybe you can’t have it all.

Sadly, most of us will never win a substantial amount of money gambling or have a job reviewing ‘experiences’ for Executive Style. That’s why financial institutions were invented — to lend money.

Provided you meet some criteria, there are any number of financial institutions that will lend you money for all sorts of things. Running a bit short until next payday — there are organisations that will lend to ‘tide you over’. Is your TV too small? — there is a lender for that as well. It’s the same if you want to buy furniture, cars, holidays, houses or pretty well anything else that takes your fancy; ‘come in and talk to our friendly and helpful staff and you can walk out with the item of your dreams’. Lenders are there to sell money. Interest on the money they sell is the cost to the purchaser of buying the money now rather than waiting until the consumer can walk in and ‘write the cheque’ (which these days is usually ‘do a bank transfer’ — which is a completely separate can of worms to talk about another day). The lenders take a risk in lending for periods of up to 30 years (for a house) based on the financial affordability that you can demonstrate today and they price the risk in, making the loan according to the facts they have at their disposal. Financial institutions like to get their money back. If the loan is secured (you pledge that they can get something of equal or higher value if you choose not to pay the lender’s money back), the lender will price the money accordingly.

So, for example if you are looking for a few hundred to tide you over until payday, the facts a lender would consider include why you only need money for such a short term and the chances of you not being able to be found when it’s time to repay the debt; and charge you a high cost (interest rate) for the use of their money. Traditionally, people borrow money for a home, assets that appreciate in value or a tool of trade (a machine of some sort that generates more income than it consumes). Without trying to be flippant, it is the bread and butter business of the financial industry. Assuming you have the income and can demonstrate you fit the criteria for security and repayment capability, there are hundreds of lenders around Australia that will lend you the money now to fund your purchase if you promise to repay the debt over a specified period. Generally, houses increase in value, which means that while you are paying a fee to use someone’s money, the increase in value of the house will over time probably exceed the interest you pay. Tools of trade generate more income than they cost — a plumber would find it difficult to get to their next job with all their tools if they relied on public transport and a machine that can double the output of a product will generate cash for the business that buys it. You could say everyone’s a winner.

Some loans don’t make as much sense. If you borrow money to purchase a personal use car or consumer goods, you are paying a higher interest rate and generally the item you are purchasing doesn’t appreciate in value as a house does. A ten-year-old car is worth far less than a new one, while a house that you have lived in for ten years will probably be worth more than what you paid a decade ago. The car or other consumer item you are purchasing is also transportable, you can drive a car across the country; you can hide an expensive watch in your pocket and so on. Accordingly, the lender will charge you a higher fee for the privilege of using their money.

Borrowing to purchase a home, an asset that should appreciate in value or a tool used to produce income is an accepted part of Australian lifestyle, so much so that when the Commonwealth Bank recently announced a $9.45 billion profit claiming the bank's flagship retail business underpinned the profit growth, the media reports suggested:
Investors were underwhelmed by the result from a bank that trades at a premium to peers, with CBA shares falling 1.3 per cent to $77.40.
In fact, one of the points of difference between the two major political parties at the last federal election was the future treatment of ‘income losses’ produced by taxpayers negatively gearing investment borrowings. Neither party was suggesting that borrowing money to fund the purchase of income producing assets was a bad idea: the ALP claimed they were attempting to reduce the heat in the property market in some of Australia’s large cities (and gain revenue) while the Coalition wanted to keep the status quo.

Yet at the same time as the Coalition is suggesting to you and I that if we can demonstrate to a financial institution that we can afford the repayments we should be able to purchase all the houses we like (and the subsequent increase in prices pushing first home buyers out to areas where services such as shopping, transport and so on are either not provided or far more expensive), we have former Treasurer Peter Costello on ABC’s Four Corners claiming:
PETER COSTELLO: Superannuation changes aren't going to balance the budget; that's obvious. The only way you'll balance this budget is if you get spending below 25 percent of GDP, right? We're at about 25.8 percent now. Um you cannot balance a budget on that. Until such time as you get your expenditures below 25, and preferably well below 25, you won't balance a budget. Super won't do it.
Yes, this is the same Peter Costello who introduced a number of expenditure measures (tax relief to companies and subsidies to average and higher income earners) while Treasurer during the period that Australia was in the fortunate position of higher than traditional revenue due to the mining boom. His ‘profligacy’ has been a problem for all the governments that followed him. As The Saturday Paper observed in December 2014:
Profligate is not our word. It was the word used by the International Monetary Fund in a major report it released early last year, that examined 200 years of government financial records across 55 major economies, identifying periods of government prudence and profligacy in spending.

Overall, Australia was judged very favourably. For most of the country’s history, governments of both persuasions had been prudent economic managers. The IMF identified only four periods of profligacy. The two biggest were during the Howard–Costello years. They were in 2003 and then between 2005 and 2007, and they accompanied the mining boom.

On its face, the IMF assessment might seem harsh. After all, before they were voted out in 2007, Howard and Costello had delivered six budget surpluses in a row.

But they also seriously undermined the structural integrity of the budget by making big spending commitments and giving huge tax cuts, on the basis of a flood of revenue that would inevitably dry up.

“You can sum it up in four words,” says Chris Richardson of Deloitte Access Economics. “Temporary boom, permanent promises.”
Whether Costello or Treasury were responsible for the permanent spending caused by a temporary boom is not the issue. The issue is the consistent bashing over the head we receive with the claim that the budget must balance and government debt is bad. At the same time, the government of the day and Treasury are encouraging the Australian population to assume debt in the form of home loans, through processes such as the ‘First Home Owners Grants’, the ability to claim losses from investment properties as a deduction on tax returns, as well as the capital gain being halved prior to the tax calculation if the appreciating asset is held for a period in excess of one year, they are telling us that all government debt is bad. On a logical basis, it just doesn’t make sense.

While most Australians would prefer not to incur debt on recurrent expenditure, such as fuel for their vehicle or the weekly trip to the supermarket of their choice, it is probably fair to assume that governments would prefer not to pay for wages and subsidies from debt funding as the costs are recurrent in both cases. But, just as it makes sense for Australians to incur debt to purchase appreciating assets or tools of trade it is probably just as valid for the governments around Australia to incur debt for infrastructure that will either appreciate in value or produce income in excess of the costs of the debts (especially when interest costs are so low at the moment). After all, if there is benefit in a concept that benefit should accrue regardless of the corporate status (individual, company or government) of the ‘person’ that will benefit. When someone spends money, the whole economy benefits, through people receiving wages and then creating demand in the economy. Governments are the financial industry’s ultimate safe borrower — there is almost no chance that the government will renege on the agreement and they almost invariably repay their debts to the cent at the required time. Ross Gittens recently wrote in Fairfax media:
Treasury wants little old ladies to feel as guilty about borrowing to improve the Pacific Highway as they do about borrowing for "routine government expenses".

So, let's worry about getting the recurrent budget back to surplus (as most state governments did long ago), but not about borrowing for infrastructure. Agreed?

Except that when you read the budget papers carefully enough to find the info Treasury has hidden on page 6-17, you discover that the expected underlying cash deficit for this financial year of $37 billion includes capital spending of $36 billion.

Get it? We're already back to a balanced recurrent budget. So why so much hand-wringing? And why aren't we getting on with planning the infrastructure pipeline we could expedite "in the event that we were to need a big demand stimulus"?
So much for the debt and deficit disaster that Australia will inevitably face. It seems most of the debt that Australia is going to incur this year is for capital expenditure such as upgrading the Pacific Highway. Whatever happened to the country that completed the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the water pipeline from Perth to Kalgoorlie and the building of thousands of kilometres of railway lines, then roads, all paid for at least in part with borrowings?

Australia as a nation can’t wait until we get ‘lucky 7’ on the roulette wheel, the winner in the third at Moonie Valley or win the lotto to justify spending on improvements to our infrastructure that will improve our way of life well into the future.

And to prove you can’t have it all, it seems that winning the lotto is not all it is cracked up to be.

What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.

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The meaning of life

As you sit on your comfortable chair after a satisfying meal with a glass of your favourite drink in hand and view current affairs programmes on TV, do you reflect on the plethora of distressing images that assail viewers day after day? Do you ponder how you might feel if you were part of those images?



How did you feel when you saw the stunned, blackened, bloodied face of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting in an ambulance after being dragged from the rubble after another air attack on Aleppo? Did it bring back memories of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish background drowned on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum in September last year during his parents’ attempt to escape Syria for the Greek island of Kos. This image shocked the world, yet here we are a year later shocked again by the same conflict and the same awful outcomes for children. Now we hear that Omran’s ten-year-old brother Ali died in the same attack.



These images reminded us of a photo of a small, naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as 'Napalm Girl' running away from a napalm raid on her village. The photograph is one of the most memorable of the 20th century. It may have changed attitudes to the Vietnam conflict, highlighting as it did the tragic legacy of war, but here we are again reliving the tragedies all over again, tragedies that afflict little children, innocents who suffer because of where they live, whose lives are forever scarred. These children have known nothing but war.


When you wake in the morning, do you ever ask: ‘What am I going to do today?” For older folk, now in retirement, this may be a regular question. Can you imagine what the answer might be if you were living in the rubble of Aleppo or any of hundreds of places ravished by war day after day? Can you picture what your answer might be if you were living in an overcrowded refugee camp in Turkey just over the border from Syria. The most likely answer might be simply ‘survival’, survival for another day – finding enough food, water and shelter for yourself and your family to keep body and soul together. What might your answer be if you were confined to Manus Island or Nauru, with virtually no prospect of ever settling where normal family life might be resumed?

As we enjoy our comfortable lives, how can we imagine what it must be like to suffer the torment, the danger, the uncertainty, the boredom and the endless weariness of living in limbo?

We struggle to contemplate these never-ending agonies, and feel helpless as we reflect on whether we can ever make a difference for those who live with this daily suffering. It is distressing even to think about it.

For these unfortunate people, what is the meaning of life?

When survival is their prime endeavour, how can they anticipate a secure life, a rewarding existence, and a healthy future?


Most who read this piece will have had a satisfying life. Not perfect, not lavish, not entirely free of stress, worry and ill health, but agreeable enough in this land of ours so gifted with natural resources and opportunity. Most will feel fulfilled, will feel that they have made a contribution to our multicultural society. Not all – there are always the disadvantaged, the sick, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, those who have been dealt a poor hand in the game of life. Our society recognizes these inequities and makes provision for some of them.

Most who live in this richly endowed country are likely to feel that they have been able to make a contribution to society and, to use a hackneyed phrase, will ‘leave it in better shape’. For some this has been relatively easy. Teachers, doctors, health care workers, neighbourhood workers, firefighters and police officers go to work each day feeling that what they do is valuable, indeed essential for the wellbeing of the community. Likewise, mothers know that giving life to children is crucial to the vitality of our community. Raising and nurturing a family gives meaning to life for parents around the world. Some find meaning in life by adherence to religion, or through support for charitable organizations. Some join movements protesting against injustice.

There are of course many other ways that we contribute, whether through manufacturing, commerce, industry, public service, the armed forces, or the myriad of services the community wants and needs. Some may feel that their occupation is humdrum and their contribution insignificant, but most can enjoy the satisfaction of doing something for others. For most in this lucky country, although sadly not all, there is meaning to life, and satisfaction with a life well lived.

But this does not relieve us from being concerned about those less well off, about the inequality that afflicts our Australian society, about those whom we as a nation treat poorly, or inhospitably, or cruelly, or indifferently.

How can we watch the images of war: destruction, displacement, despair and death, even of precious children, and not want to do something? All except those who have built a wall of indifference around them feel the anguish of conflict, dislocation, poverty, injustice, unfairness and inequality. Yet we so often feel powerless to effect any change. Too often, we lack the means. While life might be meaningful for us, we know it is not for so many others. How can we make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate? How can we help them to find meaning where there is so little?

The answer seems to rest largely with those whom we elect to represent us. Individually, we are unable to stop conflict, eliminate war, remedy the displacement of many millions around the world, and relieve the poverty, the injustice and the inequalities that afflict so many. But we do have our politicians and the public service that supports them.

Of all our citizens, politicians have more power than any of us to effect change. Politicians are able to assess the state of our world and our nation, to identify our problems, to evaluate our advantages, to take stock of our resources, to arrive at equitable solutions, and to put them into place. We elect them to do this. We want them to enact laws that give meaning to people’s lives, laws that give a helping hand to those who need it, that smooth out social inequities, that increase the prosperity of our nation and all who live in it, that enable all of us to make the most of our lives, to enjoy meaningful lives that enrich not just ourselves, but all those with whom we have contact.

Moreover, we want our politicians to reach out to those outside our country, to use their influence to lessen tensions, conflict and war. We want them to bring peace to our troubled world. And while they are doing so, we want them to give succour to the displaced, to the families and the children ravaged by conflict, destruction and death, to give them the opportunity of a meaningful life.

I know it reads like an impossible dream. Sadly we not only seem to be far from realizing the dream; we seem to be making the nightmare worse.

I could write reams about the inadequacies, the indifference and sheer incompetence of our federal government, but I need go no further than ask why our offshore detention arrangements continue to persecute the innocent – the men, women and children that languish without hope on Nauru and Manus Island. How in earth has it come to this?

We know the history pretty well. Look behind it though and we see the real reasons. John Howard saw a political advantage in opposing asylum seekers coming by boat. The ‘Tampa affair’, the ‘children overboard’ saga, and his words, indelibly written into our history; “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, all reinforced a view that these people were unwelcome intruders. Tony Abbott, never to miss a chance to wedge his opponents, ramped up the anti-asylum seeker rhetoric, demonized boat people, stirred up enmity, even hatred among some in marginal electorates, and used the slogan ‘Stop the Boats’ to successfully wedge his opponents. His hyper-partisan approach to boat arrivals set a pattern that exists to this day.

Labor became caught up in an unseemly race to the bottom; inhumanity, cruelty and hopelessness became the norm for boat people. It persists still. Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton became loyal foot soldiers for Abbott and his conservative admirers, and now for Turnbull, who despite his own feelings, has been dragooned into taking the same punitive, unyielding, unsympathetic, mean approach of his predecessor, all in pursuit of the spurious objective of ‘protecting our borders’ from what is represented as some sort of invasion. The truth is that he is protecting his back from the knives of Abbott’s conservatives.

Our federal government seems hell-bent on depriving those on Manus and Nauru of any real meaning in their lives. Every morning, as they ask what they are going to do today, the answer is the same – survive another day. They dare not hope for any improvement in their situation. And in addition to their overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair, they now suffer assaults, sexual abuse, rape, child abuse, and discrimination, about which reports Dutton is skeptical and indifferent.

What has our country come to? Our reputation as a decent people is tarnished daily. We are held up to the world community as cruel, indifferent to the norms of international behaviour towards asylum seekers, and thoroughly mean spirited. Is that the image we want?

So what is the answer? What can we do to change the state of the world, or closer to home the plight of asylum seekers in indefinite detention? How can we make life more meaningful for these almost-forgotten people? How can we enhance the meaning of life for ourselves?

The ballot box is one answer. But with both major parties using asylum seeker issues as a wedge, would a change of government make any difference, so entrenched in the electorate is the anti-asylum seeker feeling, now accentuated by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party?

There are protest movements: GetUp and 350.org are just two, but they are having little effect on the Turnbull government and its hardnosed Immigration Minister, the odious Dutton.

Blog sites and social media have a role to play; even writing something like this piece, and commenting on it, give a feeling of doing something, no matter how small.

We all seek meaning in our lives, but sadly many have few avenues of enriching it. Maybe contributing our small voices in this way is the best we can do to encourage, indeed pressure those whom we depend upon to speak out and act for us in this troubled world, to challenge, repudiate and defeat the alien forces we see operating around us everywhere, every day. But that would take fortitude and selflessness, rare attributes in today’s politicians, for whom self-interest prevails.

Oh for politicians of the calibre of William Wilberforce and Emmeline Pankhurst, whose courage, tenacity and unyielding persistence gave meaning to the lives of so many of the oppressed, so many of the disadvantaged!

Where have they gone?


What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.

What do you feel about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East?

What do you feel about the way the government is managing offshore processing at Manus Island and Narau?

How would you prefer them to be managed?

Should those detained there be brought to Australia for assimilation?



Recent Posts
The election in numbers 2: minor parties and independents
Ken Wolff, 14 August 2016
A number of commentators made the point after the election that almost a quarter of voters did not vote for the major parties in the House of Representatives. But that is misleading on two counts. It ignores the 5% informal vote and the 10% vote for the Greens who I think are now entitled to be considered a major party — they do contest every seat after all. That leaves about a 10% …
More...
Rudd and Abbott: saviour of their parties
2353NM, 17 August 2016
Two of the three ex-prime ministers who were deposed by their own political party have been in the news in recent weeks. Kevin Rudd requested backing from the Coalition government to bid for the Secretary-General position at the United Nations and Tony Abbott claimed there are factional divisions in the NSW Liberal Party. On face value, both men are using the media to further their own ends. …
More...
A once and future Senate
Ken Wolff, 21 August 2016
We now know that the Senate elected at the July election comprises 30 Coalition members, 26 from the ALP, 9 Greens, 4 from One Nation, 3 from the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and one each from Family First, the Liberal Democrats, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and the Jacqui Lambie Network. Thirty-nine votes are required in the Senate to pass legislation, so the government will require either ALP or Green support, or otherwise support from nine of the eleven minor party members.
More...

A once and future Senate


We now know that the Senate elected at the July election comprises 30 Coalition members, 26 from the ALP, 9 Greens, 4 from One Nation, 3 from the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and one each from Family First, the Liberal Democrats, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and the Jacqui Lambie Network. Thirty-nine votes are required in the Senate to pass legislation, so the government will require either ALP or Green support, or otherwise support from nine of the eleven minor party members. Given that NXT has three Senators and One Nation has four, their support for every Bill opposed by the ALP and the Greens becomes essential. It will be a difficult situation for the government but there is another issue I wish to discuss.

Before the election, the Coalition and the Greens combined to introduce a new voting system for the Senate, the aim being to reduce the number of minor parties or people being elected despite starting with only a handful of first preference votes. It did not work this time, largely due to the election being a double dissolution, but will it achieve its aim in the future when we resume the cycle of half-Senate elections?

Senators are elected for six years but on a rotational basis so that half the Senate faces the electorate every three years. After a double dissolution a decision has to be made as to which of the newly elected Senators will serve a full six-year term and which will serve only three before facing an election. There are two ways of doing this.

The common approach has been to use the order in which Senators from each state are elected and give the first six the six-year term, with those elected from seventh to twelfth to serve three years. In a Senate election those with smaller votes are progressively ‘excluded’ and their preferences distributed and preferences from those who have an ‘excess’ quota are also distributed on a proportional basis: as that process unfolds a clear order of election emerges.

The other way, put in legislation by the Hawke government in 1984, allows the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to do a recount of the election as if it was a half-Senate election and those ‘elected’ under that count would be given the six-year term. The underlying idea supporting that approach was that using the ‘first six elected’ may have been fair when we had ‘first past the post’ voting but not when we have a proportional representation system: despite that, even after the 1987 double dissolution this method was not used.

Although those two methods are available, the Constitution states only that the Senate itself can decide who will serve six years and who three.

Derryn Hinch had suggested that if he did not get a six-year term he would challenge the decision in the High Court. I am not a lawyer but I don’t like his chances if he carries out that threat. When the Constitution states the Senate can decide, it would seem that it is not even bound to use either of the methods I have described.

It was reported on 12 August that the Coalition and Labor had agreed they would use the ‘traditional’ method of the ‘first six elected’ to determine the six-year Senators. That means the Coalition will have 16 six-year Senators, the ALP 13, the Greens 3 (Di Natale, Ludlam and Whish-Wilson), NXT 2 (Xenophon and Griff) and One Nation (Pauline Hanson) and Jacqui Lambie Network (Jacqui Lambie) one each. So that will be the starting point for a new Senate from 1 July 2019.

At a state level that translates as 3 each from the Coalition and the ALP in NSW; in Queensland, 3 Coalition, 2 ALP and Pauline Hanson; in SA, 2 each from the Coalition, ALP and NXT; in Tasmania, 2 each from the Coalition and ALP, and 1 Green and Jacqui Lambie; and in both Victoria and WA, 3 Coalition, 2 ALP and 1 Green.

I will basically ignore the Senators from the NT and ACT, except in discussing total numbers, because they face election every three years and the territories invariably return one Coalition and one ALP Senator, meaning that we just add two to each major party.

What becomes more important is who will face re-election in three years: 12 Coalition Senators, 11 from the ALP, 6 Greens, 3 One Nation, 1 NXT and Derryn Hinch (Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party), Bob Day (Family First) and David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats). From that list you can see why the Coalition and the ALP agreed to the ‘first six elected’ method: their numbers for re-election are close and 13 of the 20 cross-benchers have to face re-election. In that regard, the government may be relatively content with the outcome from the new voting procedure and see the next half-Senate election as an opportunity to reduce the size of the cross-bench.

To be elected a Senator has to achieve a ‘quota’ which is determined by dividing the total number of votes in a state by the number of Senators facing election plus one. In the recent double dissolution that meant the vote was divided by 13, or in percentage terms a quota was about 7.69% of the vote. In a half-Senate election, the number is divided by 7 and so a quota becomes 14.29% of the vote. While preferences are important in determining who is elected, the quota achieved after first preference votes gives a reasonable indication of who will be elected, with those achieving at least 0.4 of a quota having a higher probability of achieving a full quota after preferences.

Given the results in the 2016 election who is likely to win re-election at a half-Senate election and what will that mean for the Senate from 2019?

Firstly, neither David Leyonhjelm, NSW, (Liberal Democrats) nor Bob Day, SA, (Family First), appear likely to be re-elected: their 2016 vote becomes only 0.2 of a quota at a half-Senate election. They would each require something close to a doubling of their vote and that is highly unlikely.

In Victoria, Derryn Hinch may be in with a chance of being re-elected if he can maintain his vote: his half-Senate quota would start at 0.42 rather than the 0.79 at the 2016 election. My guess is that at a half-Senate election Hinch, if he runs again, may even achieve a slightly higher vote, but even with a starting point of 0.4 of a quota I expect that he could be returned.

Jacqui Lambie was elected in Tasmania at the recent election but will not face re-election at the half-Senate election. The 2016 vote translates to 0.58 of a quota at a half-Senate election but because that vote was for Jacqui Lambie herself, it is unlikely to be repeated when she is not running. So even if she runs a Jacqui Lambie Network candidate, I would expect a very reduced vote and it is unlikely a second Network member would join her in the Senate.

Three One Nation Senators will face re-election with the NSW and WA Senators appearing unlikely to win as their starting quota would drop below 0.3. A Queensland win is possible based on the 2016 vote as it would become 0.64 of a quota at the half-Senate election. Hanson herself will not be running so that could reduce the One Nation vote but it may still be enough to secure a second One Nation member in the new Senate (unless there is a large drop in the vote, which is possible based on the past history of One Nation).

Based on the 2016 vote, NXT could pick up two more Senators in SA at a half-Senate election as it would have 1.52 quotas. As with Lambie and Hanson, however, Xenophon himself won’t be running and that may reduce NXT’s vote. Even so, it seems likely that at least one NXT member will be returned and two can’t be entirely ruled out. So NXT will maintain at least three Senators, and possibly increase that to four, in the new Senate from 2019.

One Green Senator from every state will face re-election. They are likely to have at least four and probably five returned. SA is most problematic for them largely because of the magnitude of the NXT vote. If the NXT vote drops, it may become a battle between the Greens and a second NXT candidate for the final Senate position. So that will not change the number on the cross-bench, just the composition.

So, on my estimation, it is possible that 9 of the 13 cross-benchers facing a half-Senate election could be returned, meaning there would still be 16 rather than the current 20. Counting the six-year Senators, the new cross-bench could comprise 8 (possibly 9) Greens, 4 (possibly 3) NXT, 2 One Nation, Jacqui Lambie and Derryn Hinch.

How the Coalition and the ALP fare at a half-Senate election depends very much on who wins government in the HoR because, obviously, the winning party would probably see an increased vote compared to the 2016 election. An increased vote for either party may also have some influence on the results for the minor parties, with Hinch in Victoria, the One Nation candidate in Queensland and possibly the second NXT candidate in SA being most at risk.

At best, the Coalition could win three seats in each state, although if NXT continues its success in SA it may only be two there. Even with an increased vote, and irrespective of the NXT vote, I suggest that 17 Senators is its very best outcome, for a total of 35 Senators (including the two Territory Senators) in the Senate from 2019, still four short of a majority.

The ALP’s best result, with an increased vote, appears to be 16 Senators for a new total of 31 (also including its two Territory Senators) so, as in the past, it would be reliant on the support of the Greens to pass legislation.

Those ‘best’ results for the Coalition and the ALP include the scenario that Hinch, One Nation and NXT do not win the extra seats I mentioned. If they do win, then the Coalition could expect to win 14 seats and the ALP 13, in which case the 2019 Senate would be 32 Coalition Senators, 28 from the ALP, 8 Greens, 4 NXT, 2 One Nation and Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie.

In that scenario the Coalition would require ALP or Green support, or all but one of the minor party Senators to pass legislation, and the ALP would require the Greens and at least three of the other Senators, which most likely would mean gaining the support of NXT.

There are of course many permutations. Will there be a stronger vote for the Coalition or the ALP in 2019 and, if so, will it be strong enough to reduce the vote for minor parties? Will there be a resurgence in the Greens’ vote? Will the One Nation vote collapse as it has done in the past? Can NXT maintain the very high vote it achieved in SA in 2016? The answer to those questions can change what happens at the next half-Senate election and perhaps re-write my scenarios.

But unless the answer to those questions is ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then it appears likely that the government’s Senate voting changes will not achieve its intention of significantly reducing the size of the Senate cross bench. It may have to wait until 2022, even 2025, and try, try again.

What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.


Recent Posts
The standard you walk past . . .
2353NM, 13 August 2016
Lieutenant General David Morrison AO gave the speech above in 2013 when it came to light that members of the Australian Army were alleged to be guilty of inappropriate behaviour to those of lesser rank and/or female. There are a couple of clear messages in the speech – firstly, his message to those that believe that his lack of tolerance of inappropriate behaviour is wrong; if it does not suit you - get out. …
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The election in numbers 2: minor parties and independents
Ken Wolff, 14 August 2016
A number of commentators made the point after the election that almost a quarter of voters did not vote for the major parties in the House of Representatives. But that is misleading on two counts. It ignores the 5% informal vote and the 10% vote for the Greens who I think are now entitled to be considered a major party — they do contest every seat after all. That leaves about a 10% …
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Rudd and Abbott: saviour of their parties
2353NM, 17 August 2016
Two of the three ex-prime ministers who were deposed by their own political party have been in the news in recent weeks. Kevin Rudd requested backing from the Coalition government to bid for the Secretary-General position at the United Nations and Tony Abbott claimed there are factional divisions in the NSW Liberal Party. On face value, both men are using the media to further their own ends. …
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Rudd and Abbott: saviour of their parties


Two of the three ex-prime ministers who were deposed by their own political party have been in the news in recent weeks. Kevin Rudd requested backing from the Coalition government to bid for the Secretary-General position at the United Nations and Tony Abbott claimed there are factional divisions in the NSW Liberal Party. On face value, both men are using the media to further their own ends. To observers of Australian politics, this really shouldn’t be a surprise.

While Rudd’s campaign was probably always going to be unsuccessful according to others, on the face of it he does offer the UN some demonstrated leadership ability in trying circumstances — such as the GFC when Australia was the only developed economy that continued to expand during the late 2000’s. Certainly he also has some less redeeming character traits as well — some of which were aired in public when the ALP deposed him as prime minister.

Abbott made a number of claims about factions and backroom lobbying in the NSW Liberal Party, despite Prime Minister Turnbull’s claim to the contrary.


In spite of Abbott probably airing the ‘dirty linen’ in public for his own perceived advantage, he is correct. In any organisation there is usually a difference of opinions on a host of issues, with some being convinced that policy and practice should change to reflect current society/meet differing expectations and so on, while others will suggest that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sometimes the discussion on a combined position is amicable; mostly it isn’t. It also stands to reason that if you can influence parliamentarians — a benefit of being a member of a political party — you could have a better chance of ensuring a particular law of the land reflects some advantage to your business or personal position — so the stakes can be pretty high. Abbott, to his credit, did ban lobbyists from holding organisational positions in the Liberal Party (suggesting there could be a conflict of interest) early in his prime ministership:
One of Mr Abbott's first acts as prime minister was to rule that party officials could not lobby his government, a move mirrored by then-NSW premier Barry O'Farrell.
Rudd too changed the rules of the ALP after he was brought back to the prime ministership in 2013. Effectively he ensured that there was only a small number of opportunities to change the leadership; the Daily Telegraph claimed at the time that it was an attempt to shore up Rudd’s leadership; probably a pretty good assumption.

In a similar way, Fairfax Media claims Abbott’s statement:
… comes as Mr Abbott's conservative-right faction struggles with increasing irrelevance in NSW, where the moderate faction has become dominant, led by key figures such as party president Trent Zimmerman and lobbyist Michael Photios.
So the rule changes orchestrated by both men could also be construed as attempts to maintain or increase their personal longevity and power within their respective political parties. On the face of it, there is nothing new to see here. However, lets dig a little deeper, there are almost certainly unintended consequences in play here. Rudd and Abbott really are pretty similar. Both men were ruthless as opposition leaders. Rudd was seen as being in touch with the majority of the population and an example of generational change from the days of John Howard and his long term government. ‘I’m Kevin from Queensland and I’m here to help’ went down in folklore and contrasted sharply with Prime Minister Howard’s last term where his ideological position on workplace rights lost him a lot of support.

Abbott became opposition leader during the initial debate around a mechanism for the pricing of carbon emissions. While later demonstrated to be completely false, visions of $100 lamb roasts and entire cities being shut down due to the impacts of the ‘carbon tax’ that Abbott would rescind on day one certainly grabbed the mind of the public.

On top of that, both men were ‘stop gap’ leaders. Rudd was ‘unaligned’ according to the ALP’s system of factions and took over from Kim Beasley who is often cited as the best prime minister Australia never had. Beasley accepted the position of ambassador to the United States when offered the positon by Rudd and survived the transition to an Abbott government seemingly unscathed. As he was ‘unaligned’, Rudd really didn’t have the support of any of the established factions of the ALP, having arrived in federal parliament via the Diplomatic Corps and some time as Queensland ALP premier Wayne Goss’ Chief of Staff. (Goss was the person who led the ALP to victory after a number of decades of predominately National Party rule by Bjelke-Petersen and others). Rudd’s time as prime minister commenced late in 2007; his popularity ratings sank to a position where the ALP decided to remove him from power in June 2010. Some of the reasons for his drop in popularity were supposed to be because of his management style, the actions he took during the Global Financial Crisis, refugee processing and the lack of progress on emissions trading legislation. The ALP reinstated Rudd into the prime ministerial role in 2013 and he lost the subsequent election to Abbott.

Abbott won a party room leadership showdown in 2009 by one vote over his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull. The leadership contest was opened due to differences over climate change policy — Turnbull was prepared to support the Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme; Abbott wasn’t.

The Coalition under Abbott and the ALP under Gillard obtained 72 seats each in the 2010 election. According to contemporary media reports, Abbott begged the three independent cross-benchers to allow him to become prime minister – even his opposition to emissions trading was negotiable according to Tony Windsor, one of the independent MP’s involved in the discussions:
"But ... Tony Abbott on a number of occasions said that he would do absolutely anything to gain government - anything," Mr Windsor told Sky News.

"One could draw a conclusion from that that if we pulled a tight rein and said 'Well, you've got government if you put a carbon price on' he would agree with it - that was the inference from his statements."

Mr Windsor said he had made a "character judgment" about Mr Abbott after the discussions.

"He actually begged for the job ... (he said) 'I will do anything to get this job'," Mr Windsor said.
It seems both Rudd and Abbott are the personalities who will do anything to reach a goal or shore up a position. Now let’s look at why this is relevant in August 2016. When Rudd achieved victory over Howard and Abbott achieved victory over Rudd, they were in the pantheon of glory within their respective political parties. As the opinion polls went south (and the other side was suddenly looking like a winner), there was a reassessment of their capabilities; the respective party rooms came to the conclusion that their leadership was untenable in the long term.

Potentially a believer in the axiom to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, Rudd was kept in the Cabinet by his successor Julia Gillard. History suggests that Gillard didn’t keep Rudd close enough, leading to a challenge in 2013 where Rudd was re-installed as prime minister. One of the things Rudd did to the ALP rules subsequent to his re-installation was to institute a requirement that the parliamentary leader of the ALP be elected by polls of not only those in parliament, but the broader ALP membership. Rudd claimed he decided to: ‘
“. . .democratise the party for the future.

''Each of our members now gets to have a say, a real say in the future leadership of our party. Decisions can no longer simply be made by a factional few," he told reporters in Balmain.
While the statement is true enough — all ALP members now have a vote on the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Party — subsequent to the 2013 election Anthony Albanese won the ‘ALP members’ vote and Bill Shorten won the ‘parliament’ vote which was held due to an election defeat. Obviously, while all ALP members are equal, Caucus has more say.

As we all know, Abbott was rolled by his party room in 2015 (it couldn’t be because it seemed to work so well when the ALP did it, could it?) and for a while Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition’s approval figures, according to the opinion polls, were stratospheric. Accordingly, Shorten and the ALP’s polling figures went down by a similar level.

The benefit Shorten inherited from Rudd was that it would have taken his resignation, an election loss or a 75% vote of no confidence by the ALP Caucus to topple Shorten. If there were any ALP ‘bedwetters’ (to coin a phrase) in late 2015, they probably realised the hurdles required to change the opposition leader were almost insurmountable and decided (publicly anyway) to grin and bear it. It’s now also history that Shorten went on to lead the ALP to the 2016 election, suffering a narrow loss which was a better than expected result.

Abbott’s recent disclosure regarding factions in the Liberal Party probably didn’t surprise anyone. Turnbull’s claim last October that the Liberal Party in NSW was one big happy family was treated with the ridicule it probably deserved by those that should have some idea of the reality (the video above was published widely when it occurred). In the words of The Guardian:
“Tony Abbott has warned that lobbyists holding positions as power brokers in the Liberal party creates the potential for corruption.”
and
“Some of these factional warlords have a commercial interest in dealing with politicians whose preselections they can influence,” Abbott said.

He said this created a “potentially corrupt position”. “The best way to see off the factionalists is to open up the party — the more members we’ve got, the harder it is for the factional warlords to control.

“There are people not on the state executive who caucus regularly on the phone and face-to-face with people who are on the executive to try and get pre-cooked outcomes.”

Abbott said he wanted to empower the membership by letting them choose Liberal candidates for parliament. The call for more democratic preselection is likely to re-open a debate between moderates and conservatives over how candidates are chosen.
Abbott’s opinion seems to be that if the process of preselection within the Liberal Party is opened up, and dare we say made more ‘democratic’, the party will preselect those whose opinions are shared by the majority of the Liberal Party members in the electorate. He may believe that more ‘conservative’ people would be elected but there is no guarantee that outcome would occur, just as Rudd’s changes to the ALP rules didn’t save his leadership.

Rudd was probably trying to cement himself as the parliamentary leader of the ALP in 2013. Abbott is probably trying to ensure that more ‘conservative’ Liberal Party members are given a chance to enter parliament ensuring that he has a greater number of like-minded people around him, improving the chances of a second ‘Abbott era’.

Both interventions, however, have the effect of opening up both major political parties in areas where they have been accused of pandering to sectional interests. While Abbott obviously thinks he can influence ‘conservative’ Liberals to a greater extent than the more numerous ‘moderate’ faction, it is not a fait accompli that the ‘moderate’ majority would send more ‘conservatives’ to Canberra.

Rudd’s ‘reforms’ to the ALP leadership have made it more democratic (all members have some say) and made it easier for a new leader to develop and implement a strategy designed to improve the position of the ALP at the next election. As the leader is not judged on instant results (because the bar for changing leaders is set at a high level of discontent), a new leader and the party organisation have a reasonable expectation that the strategy will, if somewhere in the ballpark, be implemented in full. Shorten and the ALP’s opinion poll popularity certainly played a part in the demise of Abbott, who went from hero to zero in about two years. The election results also demonstrate the success of the ALP sticking to one leader and strategy for a considerable period of time.

Wouldn’t it be a delicious irony if Rudd and Abbott’s seemingly self-serving interventions into the operation of their respective political parties make the two major parties more democratic and ensure rank and file party members have a genuine say in their respective party’s destiny?

What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.

Recent Posts
Why are Abbott’s conservatives destroying our PM?
Ad astra, 10 August 2016
To those of you who dispute the assertion embedded in the title, let me provide you with supporting evidence.

First some questions for you to answer:

Is Malcolm Turnbull the man you thought he was when he rolled Tony Abbott almost a year ago?

Has he fulfilled your …
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The standard you walk past . . .
2353NM, 13 August 2016
Lieutenant General David Morrison AO gave the speech above in 2013 when it came to light that members of the Australian Army were alleged to be guilty of inappropriate behaviour to those of lesser rank and/or female. There are a couple of clear messages in the speech – firstly, his message to those that believe that his lack of tolerance of inappropriate behaviour is wrong; if it does not suit you - get out. …
More...
The election in numbers 2: minor parties and independents
Ken Wolff, 14 August 2016
A number of commentators made the point after the election that almost a quarter of voters did not vote for the major parties in the House of Representatives. But that is misleading on two counts. It ignores the 5% informal vote and the 10% vote for the Greens who I think are now entitled to be considered a major party — they do contest every seat after all. That leaves about a 10% …
More...

The election in numbers 2: minor parties and independents


A number of commentators made the point after the election that almost a quarter of voters did not vote for the major parties in the House of Representatives. But that is misleading on two counts. It ignores the 5% informal vote and the 10% vote for the Greens who I think are now entitled to be considered a major party — they do contest every seat after all. That leaves about a 10% first preference vote for other than major parties and, given that there were almost 150 smaller parties and independents, that is not a significant vote — an average of about 0.07% for each of them. Many of them garner only a few hundred votes: it is the sheer number of smaller parties and independents that contributes to the overall magnitude of their vote and that was not unique to this election.

We have heard most about the success of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and One Nation but they contested only a limited number of seats. Two parties that contested more seats were Family First and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, which contested 65 and 55 seats respectively. Family First gained 1.5% of the vote nationally (just over 201,000 votes) and Fred Nile’s group 1.3% of the vote (about 178,000 votes). If we consider their vote against the number of seats they contested, then Family First averaged about 3,100 votes per seat and the Christian Democratic Party about 3,240. By way of comparison, the ALP averaged 31,350 votes per seat and the Liberal Party 36,300 in the 107 seats it contested (that is the Liberal Party only, not the full range of Coalition parties). And there are about 100,000 voters per seat, give or take 10%, except in Tasmania.

Nationally, NXT achieved 1.85% of the vote, or 250,400 votes, but it contested only 18 seats (11 in SA) giving it an average vote of 13,900 per seat. But NXT was not as successful outside of SA: for example, in Queensland in Moreton, it achieved 4.8% of the vote (4,072 first preference votes) and 7.6% in Groom (6,960 votes). While those Queensland results are reasonably good for an independent or minor party, they are not extraordinary. In the 11 SA seats, however, NXT averaged 21.3% of the vote or 20,120 votes. Xenophon has been an independent Senator for SA since 2007 and his high profile and popularity translated into votes for his Team but that did not extend to success beyond SA.

One Nation contested only 15 seats, of which 12 were in Queensland, to obtain 1.3% of the vote or 175,000 votes nationally, slightly less than Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party and significantly fewer than NXT, at an average of about 11,700 per seat. One Nation did marginally better in Queensland, averaging about 12,300 votes (13.9%) but this varied from 6,775 (7.6%) in Leichhardt (Warren Entsch’s seat) to 18,461 (20.9%) in Wright (a conservative seat that stretches west from the edge of the Gold Coast). Ironically one of the seats in which One Nation fell below its Queensland average was Pauline Hanson’s old seat of Oxley: it obtained just over 7,000 votes or 8.4% (admittedly the boundaries have changed since Hanson first won it).

So for NXT and One Nation, their ‘success’ largely came from targeting only a small number of seats, of which the majority were in their leader’s home state. At a seat level, they actually averaged more than the Greens who, in contesting all 150 seats, averaged 9,200 votes per seat.

There was also Bob Katter, who has his own party (Katter’s Australia Party) but is perhaps more like an independent. His party contested 12 seats in Queensland but obtained only 72,900 first preference votes of which Katter himself, in the seat of Kennedy, obtained 34,300. Katter is a sitting member with a high profile but his party did not fare so well averaging only 3,500 votes (a similar average to other minor parties) in the other 11 seats.

Also at a national level, over 100 independents, not linked to any party, achieved a total of 2.8% of the vote (about 381,000 votes), more than both NXT and One Nation but at an average of about 3,400 votes per independent candidate. Even that figure is inflated by high profile and successful independents like Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan, and even the unsuccessful like Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Those four alone accounted for about 116,000 (or 30%) of the votes that went to independents: if they are removed, the vote for other independents was about 2,500 per candidate which does not suggest a major shift to independent candidates.

They are still independents I hear you say and that is true. But the more successful ones had a high profile in the seats they were contesting and two, of course, were sitting members (or three if we count Katter as an independent). A vote for Wilkie or McGowan was not a genuine shift away from major parties to independents but simply support for a sitting member (a rejection of the major parties could be said to have occurred in the year they first won their seat). And Windsor and Oakeshott, although not sitting members, were previous independent members in the regions they contested. The key to successful independents seems to be their public profile and/or a grass roots movement within an electorate, such as when McGowan won Indi from Sophie Mirabella in 2013 — she was drafted to run against Mirabella by a community organisation that felt Mirabella was not paying sufficient attention to the electorate. Once they do win a seat, as a sitting member they retain that advantage in subsequent elections. Another successful independent ploy is to move from a major party as Windsor, Oakeshott, Katter and Pauline Hanson the first time around, have done, often after having first been elected as a party candidate, so their profile has already been enhanced by party support (noting, however, that Hanson was selected as a candidate but lost party endorsement prior to the election).

In the Senate there are now 20 Senators (26%) not from ALP or L/NP: 9 Greens and 11 others from minor parties — and they are each minor parties although a few of them, like Katter in the HoR, are more like independents. That number would superficially seem to justify the argument that a quarter of voters did support non-major parties but, as I said in relation to the HoR vote, whether the Greens can still be considered a minor party is debatable. In the Senate the Greens secured 8.7% of the national first preference vote (almost 1.2 million votes) behind only the L/NP and ALP and double the vote of the next highest of the other parties — One Nation with 4.3% or 593,000 votes. The Senate, however, is determined at a state level and by a complicated preference distribution process, not by national first preference votes but the national figures give an indication of the actual support across the nation for the minor parties. In that regard, at the national level, NXT secured 456,000 first preference votes (3.3%), the Liberal Democrats (Leyonhjelm’s party) 299,000 votes (2.2%), and Family First and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party each secured just over 190,000 votes (1.4%). I would describe most, but not all, of the minor parties as ‘niche’ parties because they focus on only one or two key issues and so can attract a small percentage of voters who feel strongly about those particular issues — they are often issues not picked up in the broader agenda of the major parties.

But we do need to consider how the minor parties fared at the state level and achieved the outcomes they did.

NXT won three Senate seats all in SA. A first preference vote in SA of 21.7% matched its SA vote in the HoR and gave it 2.8 quotas, so it did not require a high level of preferences to achieve its three seats. NXT did contest every other state but did no better than 2.2% of the first preference vote (0.28 of a quota) in WA. So despite the high profile of NXT, it is a profile and success limited to Nick Xenophon’s home state.

Similarly, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party contested all states but had no success outside Hinch’s home state of Victoria — 6.1% of the vote and a starting quota of 0.79. Otherwise his party did no better than 0.7% of the vote in WA and was as low as 0.2% in SA.

The Jacqui Lambie Network ran candidates in four states but like Xenophon and Hinch had no success outside her home state of Tasmania, securing a highest vote of only 0.4% in Victoria.

So it is clear that some successful ‘independents’ and their associated parties do not have national appeal but rely solely on the profile and local popularity of their principal candidate in their home state. It would appear that they formed ‘parties’ only to secure the option of an ‘above the line’ vote.

Family First won one Senate seat in SA, for its sitting Senator Bob Day, but from a 2.9% first preference vote (0.37 of a quota). Its results in other states were significantly lower, ranging from 0.64% of first preference votes (0.08 of a quota) in WA to 1.97% (0.25 of a quota) in Tasmania.

One Nation is the party that is a little different to the other minor parties because it appears, on the surface, to have had success across the country, with two Senators from Queensland, one from NSW and one from WA. Because One Nation contested all states it was able to increase its national vote to 4.3% from the 1.3% it achieved in the HoR (where it contested only a small number of seats) but again it did best in Hanson’s home state of Queensland, securing 9.2% of votes (250,000 votes) and a quota on first preference votes alone. It gained a second Queensland seat although its provisional quota (from first preference votes) was only 1.2 — so somehow it managed to make up 0.8 of a quota from preferences. By comparison the ALP went from 3.4 quotas to four elected Senators and the Greens from 0.9 to achieve only one Senator. Beginning with 0.4 of a quota is often considered the lower base from which a full quota can be gained, so a second One Nation Senator from Queensland is not really an indication of the strength of the One Nation vote but arises from the lengthy and complicated preference distribution process. Similarly, its successful candidates in NSW and WA both came from an initial position of 0.5 of a quota to win their seats (4.1% and 4.0% of the vote respectively) — although they were the highest starting quotas among the non-major parties. In NSW, however, the ALP had almost eight times One Nation’s first preference vote and in WA was seven times higher but the seat ratio became only four to one. In the other states, One Nation received only 1.8% of the vote in Victoria, only marginally more than the Animal Justice Party; in SA it achieved 3.0% of the vote, only 0.1% more than Family First; and in Tasmania 2.6% — so, for whatever reason, it performed little or no better than other minor parties in those states.

David Leyonhjelm (of the Liberal Democrats) was also re-elected to the Senate from NSW and he came from a lower starting position than the One Nation candidate in that state, with only 0.4 of a quota (139,000 votes or 3.1%) after first preference votes.

The number of Senators from the minor parties is largely a result of Turnbull calling a double dissolution election. For example, if it had been a half-Senate election, the votes received by the parties in Victoria suggest that the outcome would have been 3 L/NP, 2 ALP and 1 Green — no Derryn Hinch. And in NSW, there would also likely have been 3 L/NP, 2 ALP and 1 Green (although there could have been a battle for two spots between the third L/NP candidate, the Greens and One Nation) — so no Leyonhjelm and possibly no One Nation. For the mess the Senate seems to have become Turnbull has no-one to blame but himself. Some of the new Senators appear as if they will be more difficult to negotiate with than the likes of Glen Lazarus and Ricky Muir as they have stronger personal agendas.

In the HoR, I expect that independents like Wilkie, McGowan and Katter will continue to have success as sitting members. Whether more independents are elected in future appears to depend very much on the quality of the candidates of the major parties: the example of the reaction against Mirabella when voters perceived she was not paying sufficient attention to her electorate is instructive in that regard, as is the fact that when she recontested at this election she suffered the biggest swing against the L/NP of any seat in the country. So major parties cannot ignore independents but neither can they ignore the response of the electorate to their own candidates or they will see more independents elected.

The ALP almost shot itself in the foot in Tasmania when it moved sitting Senator Lisa Singh to the almost ‘unwinnable’ sixth position on the ballot paper but Tasmanian voters chose to vote ‘below the line’ and gave her 20,741 first preference votes in her own right: she became the fourth ALP Senator to be elected with the candidate in the fifth position being earlier excluded and the other candidate above her, in fourth position on the ballot, winning the fifth Senate place for the ALP. Although not an independent, I give that as another example of the electorate’s response to individual candidates. If she had run as an independent, after being moved down the ballot the way she was by the ALP power brokers, there is a strong possibility that she would still have won a place. That is often how successful independents are ‘born’ and if the major parties wish to keep the number of independents and minor parties as low as possible they need to heed such examples of electoral responses to their candidates.

Although minor parties and independents had some success, in both the HoR and the Senate, the overall ‘best’ average seems to remain around a 3‒4% vote for minor parties except in the home states of the key principal candidates (Xenophon, Hanson, Hinch, Lambie) and for sitting members. So it seems to come down to the local public profiles of individuals and can also be influenced by the quality of individual candidates put forward by the major parties, not simply a reaction against the major parties.

What do you think?
Is Ken right in suggesting that it is the public profile of ‘independents’ that has most influence?

Is the Senate system ‘fair’, if people can win a seat starting with only 3‒4% of the vote?

Let us know in comments below.


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Why are Abbott’s conservatives destroying our PM?



To those of you who dispute the assertion embedded in the title, let me provide you with supporting evidence.

First some questions for you to answer:

Is Malcolm Turnbull the man you thought he was when he rolled Tony Abbott almost a year ago?

Has he fulfilled your initial expectations?

Is he as secure in his position as PM as he was initially?

Has he been limply acting as a proxy for Abbott and his policies?

Has he disappointed you?

Has he disappointed many voters, even LNP supporters?

Has he disappointed many in his party?

Has he disappointed/angered politicians in other parties?

If you answered ‘No’ for the first three and ‘Yes’ for the others, you will be in tune with the thinking in this piece.

But the crucial question is a Julius Sumner Miller favourite: ‘Why is it so?’

This piece addresses this central question.

It is apparent to all that elements within the LNP distrust, dislike and even despise our PM. This dates back to when he was Leader of the Opposition at the time Kevin Rudd was PM. Many in his party, particularly the conservative clique, believe he is more suited to be in a progressive party – several have suggested he would be more comfortable with Labor.

For some, it was the last straw when he sided with Rudd in proposing an Emissions Trading Scheme to ameliorate global warming, a move that led to a party revolt and his removal, by just one vote, in favour of Tony Abbott. That a majority of the party regarded Abbott as preferable to him shows how deeply the antipathy towards him ran within the Liberal Party!

Initially, after he returned the compliment by toppling Abbott in 2015, Turnbull’s personal popularity soared, and the awful two-party preferred polling under Abbott that had persisted month after agonizing month (the LNP had lost 30 Newspolls in a row) reversed into positive territory. The LNP was then able temporarily to put aside its doubts and outright antagonism to Turnbull. If Turnbull could win the upcoming election that Abbott looked certain to lose, the conservatives would be able to swallow their enmity. There was nothing sweeter than the anticipation of victory to make the bitter Turnbull pill go down. The doubts persisted, but were pushed underground – an uneasy rapprochement was achieved. But it was not long though before the doubts resurfaced.

Everyone realized that Turnbull had sacrificed several of his strongly held principles to obtain the endorsement of the conservative clique that gave him the leadership.

The man who said he would not lead a government that did not take climate change seriously, folded when the conservatives insisted he stick to the highly suspect Abbott/Hunt ‘Direct Action Plan’, which he then defended as if it was Holy Writ. During the election campaign there was no mention of the Coalition’s cut of $1.3 billion from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency or the disgraceful censorship of the UNESCO report on climate impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, even as recent reports highlighted the frightening damage already caused to the reef.

Turnbull said he had paid a ‘high price’ for his previous stand on climate change; clearly he was unprepared to pay it again!

The man who insisted that the marriage equality matter ought to be settled by a parliamentary vote gave in to the conservatives’ demand that it be settled via Abbott’s plebiscite, despite the government's $66 million price tag (and Price Waterhouse Coopers calculated ultimate cost of $525 million), and the risk of community discord arising from the toxic debate that the ACL and their ilk would initiate.

The man who promoted the concept of a republic so vigorously in his earlier years, quietly put it on the back burner.

The tech-savvy man who was prominent in initiating one of the early email services – OzEmail – was dragooned by Abbott into scrapping Labor’s superior fibre-to-the-premises model, and inserting the inferior, slower, multi-technology, fibre-to-the-node model with boxes on the street corner and ageing copper wire connections to the premises. Despite all his talk about innovation and competitiveness he was prepared to give us a lesser service so as to meet the demands of the conservatives. Innovation, competitiveness, nimbleness and agility took a back seat.

With every passing week, we see a diminished Turnbull pandering to the conservatives, looking weaker by the day.

Just when he wanted to look decisive and show leadership after the Four Corners exposé on youth justice in the NT, he jumped quickly, but with little consultation with indigenous leaders, and appointed a ‘law and order’ judge to be the Royal Commissioner into juvenile justice in the Northern Territory. Having been involved in judgments as Chief Justice there, it was not surprising that a protest eventuated that saw the Royal Commissioner as potentially biased. Judge Brian Martin, showing better judgement than Turnbull and Attorney General Brandis, decided to step down on the grounds of ‘apprehended bias’, which ought to have been obvious from the outset.

This, and the pressure from indigenous groups who wanted a co-commissioner with an indigenous background, caused Turnbull and Brandis to turn turtle and appoint high-profile Indigenous figure Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and former Queensland Supreme Court judge Margaret White as co-commissioners.

How much pressure came from his cabinet we will likely never know.

On the issue of supporting Kevin Rudd’s bid to be Secretary General of the United Nations, how much influence the conservatives had in the cabinet discussion is a matter of conjecture. We do know that Julie Bishop supported Rudd and that more spoke for Rudd than against. But conservatives Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton were strongly opposed to nominating Rudd, and the meeting ended with Turnbull and Joyce being left to make a decision.

Clearly, Turnbull, more concerned with propping up his leadership among the conservatives than doing what many, even from a Liberal background, thought was correct protocol – supporting a previous prime minister on the international stage – squibbed making this decision, told Rudd he was unsuitable, leaving him fuming, and in the process attracted strong criticism from many quarters for not supporting an Australian for this post.

And most recently we see Turnbull ‘slapping the banks on the wrist with a feather’ with his threat to force their CEOs before the Coalition-dominated House Economics Committee to explain their reasons for not passing on RBA interest rate cuts. It is his way of avoiding a Royal Commission into Banking, which his conservative colleagues are intent on avoiding.

There are enough examples of Turnbull making decisions that bewilder, enough to ask: ‘Why is it so?’ Enough to evoke the suggestion that it is to placate Abbott’s conservative forces in the LNP that threaten to upend him if he does not comply. We see ‘the three As’: Abbott, Abetz and Andrews poking their heads above the parapet in their own subtle way expressing their dissatisfaction with Turnbull, as we witnessed in this week's episode of Four Corners. And we have seen George Christensen threatening to cross the floor unless the superannuation legislation is altered to his satisfaction!

With the balance of power so delicately balanced with a majority of just one in the House, and a polyglot and quite unpredictable Senate, one might have expected tight unity within the LNP to hold onto its tenuous grip on power. Instead we see actions that threaten that unity. Why is it so?

I can’t explain why some LNP members feel as they do, but it looks as if some would sooner see the leader turfed out if he does not support the party line on climate change, on marriage equality, on the NBN, and on proposed Royal Commissions. They seem hell-bent on tightly controlling their leader, and if they can’t, destroying him. They are well on the way already.

It seems more logical to do what’s necessary to retain power, even if at times uncomfortable, than to destroy the leader and the party with it. Have they got another more acceptable leader lined up? Do they want Abbott back as leader? Do they think that is possible? Insider Gerard Henderson doesn’t think so.

I can’t explain such aberrant behaviour except to offer the suggestion that sometimes, entrenched ideology, the desire for personal power, and feelings of hurt and rejection, are more powerful than the desire for self-preservation and political power. John Howard was easily able to decide which principles ‘he would die for in a ditch’, and for which he wouldn’t. Abbott’s conservatives seem to not have that gift.

Expect therefore that some will continue to say and do things that threaten their leader, and that in the end they may unexpectedly upend him.

Can you offer any other explanation for the Abbott conservatives’ anti-Turnbull behaviour? Has Turnbull the strength to counter them? What will happen when parliament resumes?


What do you think?
Can any of you give a plausible explanation of the behaviour of Abbott's conservatives, especially with just a one seat majority in the House and a likely hostile Senate?

Please comment below.


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The democratisation of opinion


With the rise of the internet and social media almost anyone can express their opinion to an audience in the thousands, even hundreds of thousands, no longer just to a circle of people who are physically present to hear the opinion. While that provides the democratisation of opinion, it also has a more sinister side. It has led to a widespread view that in this new democratic world all opinions are equally valid.

There is no doubt that all opinions are valid but only as personal opinions. It does not make an opinion true (that is, matching the evidence) nor does it mean that the opinion has any validity beyond its expression as a personal point of view. And yet in this democratisation of opinion, we see people maintaining that not only do they have a right to their opinion but they have a right for their opinion to be considered valid in all circumstances, even when a range of evidence refutes it. It is much like saying my opinion that 2 + 2 = 3 is as valid as the alternative that 2 + 2 = 4. No-one would argue that proposition would they? — these days the answer to that question is not so clear.

What is the opposite of opinion? — probably truth or facts. Without getting into a philosophical argument about what is ‘truth’, it is possible to employ scientific method to arrive at conclusions that are true, or most likely true. That is because scientific method is based on observations and drawing conclusions that explain the observations and that has been done for hundreds of years. It is possible to say that science still forms opinions, or what are called theories or hypotheses, based on those observations but science will change its theories when observed facts do not match the current theory.

For a long time people thought that the sun went around the earth — and why not? After all, even though we are spinning at 1670km/h (at the equator), travelling around the sun at 107,000km/h and spiralling with the sun around the Milky Way at 792,000km/h, we feel nothing but we do see the sun rise in the east every day and set in the west. Based on that latter observation alone, it is logical to assume that it is the sun that is moving not the earth. But astronomers watching the stars and planets saw something which that model could not explain: at certain times the other planets appeared to go backwards in the heavens. Eventually that, and other observations, made it clear that it was the earth moving about the sun that explained what the astronomers were observing. And so we have advanced our knowledge using that model. It is not as though science plucks its theories out of the air. They explain what has already been observed until a new observation suggests it is time for a new explanation.

And it is not just scientists who use this method. There are many anecdotal stories of farmers knowing more than scientists in particular situations and proving scientists wrong. But that is not based on some random opinion of the farmers but their own observations over many years of local weather, soil, and crop and livestock results in varying situations. Their opinion is often proved right because their set of observations is over a much longer period than those of experts who arrive for a field trip that may last no longer than a few weeks. Even though the experts are trained in their discipline they do not have the range of observations that the farmers have that are relevant to the local circumstances. The farmers’ observations may not be recorded but retained in memory, or even family tradition for observations over longer periods, but their opinions are based on long term observations. Scientists are acknowledging that history of observation and drawing it into the scientific process, just as they are now recognising Aboriginal knowledge in the management of fire, flora and fauna is based on thousands of years of observation, even if that knowledge is expressed in a different way. These days the scientists are trained so that they can apply their knowledge over a range of circumstances, whereas the farmers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have more detailed knowledge and opinions based on decades or millennia of observation but it has most relevance only to their local conditions.

Opinions have some commonality with the scientific use of observation. Almost all opinions are based on some level of observation but the real difference between the quality of opinions is probably the extent of observations drawn upon to form the opinion. In the recent Brexit campaign in the UK, some experts were warning of the economic consequences of the UK leaving the European Union but Michael Gove, campaigning for the ‘leave’ side, suggested that people were tired of experts and, by implication, would ignore such advice. The observation that led many people to that conclusion concerned the rules coming from the EU technocrats in Brussels which many Britains saw as undermining their traditions and control of their own country. Based on that observation alone, they could validly form an opinion that questioned the experts but it should only have been the experts issuing those rules. Instead, one observation can become a wider dismissal of expert opinion.

Thus we have the questioning of the science underpinning anthropogenic climate change or even questioning climate change itself. People are perfectly entitled to have an opinion rejecting climate change but that does not make their opinion true. For their opinion to be true it would also have to be based on a set of factual observations and some of the observations used by the deniers have been shown to be false or, at best, built on a foundation of quick-sand. When by far the majority of observations support the occurrence of climate change and the probability of it being ‘man-made’ is 90% or more, then some very strong alternative observations would be required to change the current scientific consensus. The deniers have not presented such observations but still insist their opinions are not only valid but true.

I worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for many years and so I often came across people who held negative stereotypes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I would be asked why should they have houses when they only break them down for firewood. I knew there had been such instances, although rare, so I would not deny their opinion based on that observation but answer with a broader and more positive range of observations: all of the people who did not burn their houses but lived normal lives in them; the range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses; or even that many problems in housing arose not from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander misuse of the dwelling but from shoddy workmanship by the original construction contractors. I don’t know how many opinions I managed to change but at least I had presented a new range of observations for them to consider.

Politicians hoping to run the country shouldn’t operate from a limited range of observations but many do. They play up to their audience or constituency by presenting views based on a limited range of observations and ignoring those observations that run counter to that opinion — just as the church rejected Copernicus’s observations that the earth went around the sun. The Trumps and Hansons of the world are masters of this approach. While it may have some electoral appeal, it is not a basis on which to run a country. A government, almost by definition, must take account of a wide range of opinions (and the observations on which they are based) and either determine which are true or balance the conflicting views to come to a policy decision in the best interest of the country.

Governments often express an intention to follow ‘evidence-based’ policy, but we also have lobbying which is an attempt to convince policy makers to pay more heed to one set of opinions or observations rather than another. The big and unanswered question is whether members of government are well-placed to assess the varying observations supporting different opinions or whether they are also personally influenced by a limited range of observations. It is perhaps a belief that the latter is true that leads to public opinion that politicians are ’out of touch’ or, in other words, are not considering a broad range of observations but are overly influenced by lobbyists, a small number of interest groups, or personal opinions — each of which is focused on a limited range of observations.

Yes, we all have personal opinions that are valid as personal opinions no matter how few the number of observations on which they are based. If, however, I am willing to listen to, consider and perhaps accept a wider range of observations, then we can have a rational discussion, debate the observations (evidence) and perhaps reach a conclusion that changes my opinion or that of my interlocutor. Or we may mutually agree a different opinion that is new for both of us. If that was the way of the world, then opinions would be in their rightful place and open to change based on a wider range of observations.

Of course, there are some whose opinion will not change, who see all other observations through the prism of their own opinion or believe that the observations supporting their opinion are ‘true’ and therefore all other observations must be ‘false’. That has always been the case but with this so-called democratisation of opinion many more people now feel that their opinion must be valued as it stands. When all opinions are considered valued and valid, people defend them with vehemence as we see on blog sites and social media and do not open their minds to a broader range of observations. Instead of taking the new observations as something to be considered, they take them as a personal attack on their ‘valued’ opinion and attack in return. If this is democratic, it is a negative form of democracy — to use an old cliché it is ‘playing the man, not the ball’ and that is not truly democratic for it fails to recognise the democratic rights of your fellow citizen. Yes, all opinions are valid but only if our minds are open to consider a broader range of possibilities that may change our opinion.

And yes, this entire piece is my opinion. So now over to you for your opinion and revelation of broader observations for my consideration.

What do you think?
Do people form opinions based on only one or two observations because that is easier than considering the implications of a broader range of observations?

Or do we have different opinions because people draw different conclusions from the same set of observations?

And if so, how can all opinions be valid?

Let us know in comments below.


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A couple of weeks ago, our esteemed blogmaster Ad Astra published a piece asking ‘Why is there so much anger?’ It’s a good question.

Sociologists will tell us that whatever position a person takes on a particular subject, there will be some who agree, some who disagree and some who don’t have a strong opinion either way; they’re ‘sitting on the fence’. Some of those who disagree would listen to an argument designed to change their mind; for others, successfully changing their viewpoint would be impossible.

This played out for all to see in the recent federal election. Out of the 150 House of Representative seats, by the end of the election night there were only a dozen or so that were still in play. The (never-ending) election campaign wasn’t to convince the voters in the 130 odd seats that were almost certain to fall to the red or blue teams, the millions of electrons and litres of advertising ink were all expended to convince a handful of voters to change their votes. Out of the 90,000 people in these marginal (or swinging) electorates, the advertising was designed to convince a small number of voters to support the red, blue, green, orange or other party on 2 July rather than their previous allegiance.

How about we look at this another way. Uncle Toby’s Oats products are available all year round on the shelves of most supermarkets so there is clearly a year round demand. As it is winter in Australia, the sales of this and similar products would currently be higher as people choose to have something warm for breakfast instead of their normal cereal with cold milk. Some people will always purchase Uncle Toby’s Oats regardless of the price or difficulty in sourcing them because of some perceived benefit of the product over other similar products. Others would purchase oats in winter based on the cost or some other criteria without caring about the brand. There are also some who would never buy oats in general or Uncle Toby’s Oats in particular due to any number of reasons from they just don’t like oats through to some perceived shortfall in the Uncle Toby’s product.

In a similar way, some people will always purchase a Ford vehicle, some will buy a vehicle regardless of the brand due to the perceived needs of the consumer being matched as closely as possible by the vehicle they are considering and others would never buy a Ford due to past poor experience, they have a tribal loyalty to another brand or some other reason.

Advertising is designed to move people from the ‘undecided’ column to the ‘always purchase’ column. The belief is that if you convince someone to consider your product, the obvious benefits of your product once they have tried it will convert the consumer to an ‘always’ purchaser of that brand. There are a lot of ways to do this: Uncle Toby’s may hand out free samples at little athletics carnivals or major transport interchanges; Ford might display a car at or sponsor a pop culture festival or perhaps loan vehicles from their range of light commercials to the Gympie Music Muster in South East Queensland; a luxury consumer goods supplier might choose to associate themselves with the Australian Ballet or a series of performances at the Sydney Opera House.

At the same time, other manufacturers of similar products such as Kelloggs and Toyota are attempting to convince the undecided consumer that their products are better for each individual consumer than Uncle Toby’s or Ford. You need something to make your advertising memorable. Comedy seems to be frequently used, such as in this Specsavers advertisement.

PJ O’Rourke is an American political satirist and journalist. He is, by his own account, a conservative Republican who is in Australia for the next month or so on a speaking tour that includes the Byron Bay Writers Festival and a number of ‘think tank’ events in the southern capitals. O’Rourke’s writing skills can be demonstrated by his ‘fawning’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential Race - ‘She is the second-worst thing that could happen to America’. O’Rourke was interviewed by Matt Wordsworth on ABCTV’s Lateline. (Slightly off topic, the interview is worth reading solely for O’Rourke’s opinion of Trump.) O’Rourke and Wordsworth discussed the crossover between comedy and commentating:
MATT WORDSWORTH: You and your colleagues at Lampoon — you're editor of Lampoon, obviously — now, comedians are the go-to commentators.
P.J. O'ROURKE: Isn't that stupid?
MATT WORDSWORTH: Did you see that coming?
P.J. O'ROURKE: No, no. Who could possibly have seen that coming? I mean, it's absolutely ridiculous. The role in — if humour has any positive role in covering politics, it's simply to keep people's attention for long enough that they will actually look at the serious issues that are ...
MATT WORDSWORTH: But they're increasingly becoming the primary source of news for some people — your Colberts and your John Stewarts and whatnot.
P.J. O'ROURKE: (Laughs) Yes, yes. And I object. That's not where one is supposed to be getting one's news. We are and should remain a sideshow. If we can get some more people to go to the big top, great.
The reality is that comedy has been used as a ‘cover’ for making pointed comments since the middle ages. Former Liberal Party Senator Chris Puplick was talking about court jesters in an ’Ockham’s Razor’ interview on ABC’s RN radio network in 2003:
Their job was to give what used to be called 'frank and fearless' advice to the monarch. They were the reality check to the absolute rulers of their day. They were the utter reverse of today's spin doctors. They told the governors what the people needed them to hear, they took the views of the masses to the masters rather than being employed to tell the masses the lies the rulers think they ought to be fed.
It wasn’t just a mediaeval thing, the UK has a long and proud history of comedic comment on ‘sacred cows” such as this Dave Allen clip on his first experience of religion.



Australia also has a rich history of using comedy to comment on the news, from The Mavis Bramston Show, through The Gillies Report in the 1980’s (worth watching the whole 9 minutes for the very young John Clarke at the start and the ‘cover’ of the song ‘Shout’ at the end)



to today where Waleed Aly who presents The Project on Network 10



and Charlie Pickering who presents ABC’s The Weekly



both offer razor sharp commentary on current events.

So why are some people always angry? Some people are always going to find something to be angry about. Regardless of what argument you present on a particular issue, some people are going to absolutely disagree with you. In today’s winner take all society, some of those who will never be convinced to change their mind on their ideas will actively attack you (in an attempt to either change your opinion or challenge your right to have a different opinion) rather than just agree to disagree.

Others will be open to having their opinions changed by discussion. Currently the discussion on a number of issues around the world is being led by those who preach anger, hate and isolation, such as Trump, Christensen, Bernardi, Hanson and so on. While they claim that their argument is sound and consistent, don’t forget that Hanson’s initial speeches referred to the Chinese who were going to take over Australia 20 years ago, showing similar consistency to those who were around in the 60’s and 70’s suggesting that the Greeks and Italians were going to take all our jobs while claiming unemployment benefits (and other farcical stretches of logic). The problem is that if there is no other argument that sticks in people’s minds to reinforce positive attitudes over the carefully calculated scare campaign, the hate preachers gain more converts.

Mark Twain is alleged to have said “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. Advertisers use comedy to attract attention and ensure that the sponsored product is kept top of mind. Perhaps the Colbert’s, John Stewart’s, Waleed Aly’s and Charlie Pickering’s have worked out how to produce discussion in respect to sensitive issues, keeping them top of people’s minds (hopefully turning a number of ‘undecideds’ into people with positive opinions on the way), by appealing to those who are looking for relevant information and using comedy as a tool to deliver the message.

Fairfax recently ran an article in The Brisbane Times that demonstrated how the Islamic Council of Queensland is managing trolls who contact them by social media. Instead of getting upset, they use humour to disarm the situation. It’s an example we could all follow.

A little way up the screen is a Dave Allen clip relating to religion. While he was probably best known for his religious jokes, he also frequently told stories about other issues — such as how he lost the top of one of his fingers. If only we could all tell stories like this the ‘hate’ preachers would have nowhere to go.



Dave Allen, Waleed Aly, Max Gillies, PJ O’Rourke and Charlie Pickering are all good story tellers and frequently discuss subjects where others are too afraid to go. While there is the need for decorum and consideration of others feelings, those who wish to provide positive arguments to people who are undecided about a whole range of subjects including religion, drug use, responsible behaviour and so on need to use tools that those looking for information will relate to. Unfortunately, the argument for positive behaviour is usually more nuanced than the alternative, so the message can’t be communicated in a 10 second soundbite that you watch while scrolling through your Facebook feed. Rather than using ‘fire and brimstone’, perhaps a little humour during the explanation of the positive view will delay scrolling long enough to discuss some facts, helping to disarm the hate and anger. It’s fine to disagree — anger and hate is another matter entirely.

What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.

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