The Canberra Quarterly presented by Inside Canberra’s Michael Keating

Industry_INsideCan_1347

It was a mixed week for the government in Parliament the week of the 23rd of June. It clinched the Gonski 2.0 deal and passed the bank levy into law despite a very loud campaign by the victims of the bank legislation. On the other hand it appeared as though the media laws were not going to pass in this session.

There was considerable debate about the citizenship laws which Labor decided to oppose even though it had earlier indicated that it might support them. The grounds for rejection seemed to be spurious: Labor complained that the English test was too demanding and that the waiting period was too long. The English test has been set at level six on the international English language testing scale. The opposition claimed that this amounted to university level English which even most Australians couldnt pass (Anthony Albanese used Barnaby Joyce as an example). However it transpired that level six was the competence level, the standard necessary to go shopping or undertake basic training for employment.

The extension of the waiting period from one year to four was rejected by Labor on the grounds that applicants were already permanent residents and so should be presumed to have assimilated into Australian society.

The bill remains contentious when it comes to the waiting period. It contains an arbitrary start date of April 20 this year for the new measures to apply to new citizens. The longer the debate over the bill goes on, the more likely it becomes that this date will be changed. This means that some applicants in the four year queue will actually become citizens much more quickly.

An important Senate report was released on the operation of the Centrelink robo-debt scheme which revealed that the Ombudsman investigated the scheme and established that the vast majority of debts were actually legitimately owed to the Commonwealth. This didnt stop the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) from demanding that these debts be forgiven.

Late June

The Liberal Party had been holding its federal council meeting on the weekend. In a changing of the guard, Nick Greiner had been elected President of the council and Andrew Hirst had been appointed the federal Director. From that time they had approximately 18 months to prepare for the next election. As Nick Greiner has pointed out, they start their election campaign as the underdog. The former acting Director Andrew Bragg had prepared a report which shows that the left of centre side of politics will have $200 million more in resources with which to fight the election than the Coalition and its supporters. Moreover the Coalition had at that point trailed Labor in 14 Newspolls (now even more), the last three at that time by 53 to 47 on two party preferred basis, and history shows that no party has won an election with this sort of record.

Malcolm Turnbull is a leader who has proven to be reasonably good at government. Hes managed to get a substantial amount of policy through the Senate but hes looking increasingly to have difficulty with politics. He is constantly outmanoeuvred inside and outside the parliament by Bill Shorten. He also appears to have irreparably fractured the alliance between conservative and liberal supporters of his party, initially by imposing taxes on the superannuation savings of self-funded retirees and, more recently, by reducing the growth in funding of Catholic schools. Having lost older conservative voters to Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi when it comes to Senate elections, party operators associated with Malcolm Turnbull were trying to force conservative Members of Parliament out in favour of liberals. If this is successful the danger is that the displaced members will stand for the lower house as members of the Australian Conservatives. This will bleed votes from the government and make it harder for it to get re-elected.

MPs are getting restless and there are concerns that, if the Prime Minister thinks he is going to lose the next election and decides to quit before polling day, there is no readily identifiable replacement to save the furniture. This has led to some manoeuvring over that period. Scott Morrison delivered a keynote speech in which he said that the Liberal Party had to change if it was to win the next election.

“We will not get a leave pass from the Australian people for failing to constantly connect with them and their concerns, just because we have been a competent government with a good record of achievement, he said. In his address the Treasurer argued that electors are looking for politicians who are authentic and to some extent disruptors.

He said a surprising number of British voters backed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn despite the May government and much of the press providing a brutal assessment of him. Yet voters didnt care and turned out in larger numbers and voted for him, Mr Morrison said. Like Trump across the Atlantic, Corbyn took on the role of the authentic outsider; the one to challenge a system that voters did not think was serving them.”

Mr Morrison said the Liberal Party needed to learn from those results. We need to show how we are pragmatically acting to change government, turn over the tables, reset the rules, he said. We need to demonstrate how we are breaking the mould and siding with Australians on the issues that are seen to be working against them.

At the moment, the government seems to be bereft of ideas to get it back in front in the polls. Simultaneously, the public has stopped listening to Bill Shorten. The only chance for Malcolm Turnbull appears to be an upturn in the economy but this doesnt look like happening anytime soon. However, if there is a change in circumstances, the unpopular Shorten will be left stranded.

Senior conservative ministers told the Prime Minister that he had the next six weeks of the winter break to resolve the problems within the Liberal Party or they would take matters into their own hands.

The ministers were prepared to back Malcolm Turnbull in any moves against him, including by Tony Abbott, but they wanted him to make substantial changes.

Those included a cabinet reshuffle and the removal of Christopher Pyne from the leadership group. Mr Turnbull appeared disinclined to make any changes and is remaining loyal to his supporters within the cabinet.

During that week Bill Shortens union allies appeared to put paid to anything Labor might do for them after the election. The CFMEU had conducted a vicious campaign against Nick Xenophon over his support for the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. After the next election its likely that the Senate will be controlled by the Coalition, One Nation, the Australian Conservatives and the Xenophons. As a consequence, Labor will find it near impossible to get any of its big spending items through the Senate and will have to give up the prospects of any industrial relations reform.

Mid-July

Theres no doubt that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has had a very good week on the international stage.

He stood out at the G20 as the only leader prepared to address the Korean problem with any vehemence. Hewas also able to get the leaders to agree that the online space needs to be regulated. He had good meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May and was able to give the UK cabinet a lesson on how to govern with a one seat majority. He also received promises of free trade agreements from both the European Union and the May government.

The media moment of the week was the PMs speech to the Policy Exchange think tank which awarded him the Disraeli Prize. The speech was unexceptional: its theme attempted to place the Turnbull government firmly in the Menzies tradition. As such it recognised both the liberal and conservative strands of the Party and described the synthesis of the two as the ‘sensible centre. However the media chose to interpret it as an attack on Tony Abbott, something that seems to be belied by the absence of a rejoinder from the former Prime Minister.

The media hyperventilated over the fact that Menzies described himself in his forgotten people speech as a progressive. This term seemed to be contradicted with the modern form of progressive which is a nebulous term applied without restraint to the latest political fad. A review of Inside Canberras 1949 editions shows what the first Menzies Liberal government saw as priorities. It favoured social welfare measures such as theold age pension but, unlike Labor, it wanted them means tested. He was also opposed to bank nationalisation and trenchantly opposed to communist domination of the union movement. The last of these was shared by the Labor Party. Menzies was also opposed to the introduction of a national health service which he fought off with the support of the Australian Medical Association. Interestingly the AMA also offered to lend their advice to the American Medical Association as President Truman contemplated introducing an earlier form of Obamacare.

insidecanberraheader-April2017-300dpi

Mid-August

The political atmosphere was dominated by three issues: same sex marriage; the threat from North Korea; and the renewed calls for a royal commission into the banks.

Once the Coalition Party room had decided to maintain its policy of a plebiscite, the issue of same-sex marriage was a cause of confusion. The first move was the reintroduction of the plebiscite bill into the Senate where, since the vote was tied, the bill was rejected. As a consequence the government moved to its fall-back position, a postal plebiscite. This posed a quandary for Labor: would it simply bag the idea of a postal plebiscite or would it encourage a vote and prosecute the case for same sex marriage? In the first instance the reaction was to attack the notion of a postal plebiscite which seemed misguided because the indications are that there will be a reasonable turnout and the support for marriage equality is likely to be overwhelming.

The threat from North Korea has revealed the weakness of Australias foreign policy. Its obvious that, within the bureaucracy and the universities, knowledge of the policies and attitudes in North Korea is non-existent.

In the circumstances the policy makers are flying blind. Other than North Korea itself the country with the bestintelligence on the thinking in Pyongyang is China. However in recent times the government and its agencies have done their best to alienate Chinese authorities through claims that Chinas conducting espionage in Australia. At the moment Australia and its regional allies are acting like rabbits caught in the headlights.

Once the Commonwealth Bank scandals emerged it was inevitable that the opposition would renew the call for a royal commission into financial institutions. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen and his Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh pushed the argument on Thursday. The case for protection of the banks is disappearing fast: theyre enveloped in a swathe of regulation and it seems unlikely that they could suffer any further reputational damage. In the event that Labor forms government, its problem will be trying to control the royal commission process. If they can, it would enable them to impose a cleaner regulatory regime and induce a better culture in the banks.

In the past week despite the preoccupation with citizenship in Parliament this week, the government proceeded with a crowded programme of legislation. Making their way into and through the Parliament were bills on media reforms, the increase in the Medicare levy to pay for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the bill to extend the cashless welfare card and amendments to the national security and terrorism legislation.

The media law was expected to pass the Senate but in the end that didnt happen. There was a predisposition on the part of the cross-bench to pass the changes to the media laws and allow media organisations to own television, radio and newspapers in the same market however, to quote Wayne Swan, theres also a concern that media organisations have a tendency to merge and purge. Nick Xenophon wants to end this problem by having tax concessions for small media companies to enable them to hire more journalists and photographers. At the same time hes opposed to Pauline Hansons proposal that the ABC and SBS should be obliged to operate in an environment of competitive neutrality — vis the commercial media organisations.

The crossbench also appears to be disposed to accept the increase in the Medicare levy starting lower than the $87,000 proposed by Labor but how much lower is not yet clear. Since the levy doesnt have to be in place until 2020 there is plenty of time to negotiate a compromise. The Greens are opposed to the cashless welfare card but the Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge said that it was supported by the aboriginal communities where it is being introduced. It appears to have the support of opposition Human Services spokesperson Jenny Macklin. There also appears to be bipartisan support for the National Security changes.

However the opposition is unlikely to allow easy passage of any legislation, preferring to make the government look chaotic.

Stay up-to-date with what’s happening in Canberra by subscribing to Inside Canberra:

www.InsideCanberra.com