Liberal democracy

State of the Union: Why it’s not an Australian thing


This time yesterday, President Barack Obama made the annual journey down Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver his eighth State of the Union address.

American political aficionados will be familiar with this constitutionally required tradition, but as the President gave what will be his final SOTU address, I found myself wondering why it still exists.

The speech was fairly standard. It had the usual calls for civility, a less divisive politics, and for politicians of both parties to work together on areas of common ground. It had a list of accomplishments—some of which are commendable. The president even spoke about his commitment to close the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, a campaign promise he has been trying and failing to fulfill since his second day in office.

But in no way did this deserve the pomp and ceremony it received, nor the dozen-odd standing ovations.

This highlights a significant difference between Australia and the United States. Despite our cultural similarity, and the fact that parts of our political system bear an unmistakable resemblance to that of our Anglosphere friends, Australians just don’t treat our political leaders with the same level of reverence that the US President receives.

By and large, Australians don’t think much of their politicians. They are viewed as functionaries, whose reputations rely on their performance. This is perhaps why we accept them being swiftly overthrown by their own parties (Rudd was an exception, because the opinion of his colleagues wasn’t representative of the public mood).

We certainly don’t consider them the moral leaders of the nation.

Yes, there are the rare Whitlam’s and Menzies’, who are remembered fondly enough. But even relatively divisive US presidents—like President Obama—are treated with a level of respect approaching that of the British monarch.

Thankfully, Australians are less sycophantic to our politicians than that.


Trump and Corbyn: Two of a kind

trump_corbynDonald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, who respectively hope to become US President and British Prime Minister, this week demonstrated even more explicitly than usual that they are profound and worrying enemies of freedom.

Trump’s comments about keeping Muslims out of the United States reflected a collectivist view of humanity that has no place in a liberal, democratic society. The fact that a small element of Islam is committed to radical extremism in no way justifies collectively punishing the law-abiding majority of followers of the faith.

Corbyn has a similar collectivist view of humanity, but in his case regularly taking the side of militant Islam against the West. Then this week, Corbyn reverted to more traditional hard-Left form by quoting approvingly the former Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha.

Describing Hoxha as a “tough ruler”, Corbyn quoted his phrase that “this year will be tougher than last year”. Hoxha is believed to have killed, tortured or imprisoned at least 100,000 Albanians during his reign from 1944 to 1985. Corbyn’s remarks were too much even for the left-wing New Statesman.

While recent Australian political history may have been uninspiring, we can at least take some solace from the fact that we have not had such extreme enemies of liberty as Trump or Corbyn reach such prominence.


Why Sir John Kerr got it right 40 years ago


While 11 November should be the day that we all remember the end of World War I and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom, today also marks 40 years since the Whitlam government was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. An event, like Woodstock and Watergate, which is cited ad infinitum by baby boomers determined to re-live their childhood to the fatigue of the rest of us.

The Whitlam government was Australia’s most erratic and incompetent. The 1975 budget was blocked by the opposition in the Senate – a tactic Labor used 169 times in opposition between 1949 and 1972 (the only difference was that they weren’t successful). After months of political wrangling, with the prime minister refusing to call an election, the opposition refusing to compromise and the people stuck in the middle, the Governor-General commissioned Malcolm Fraser to form a government on the condition that:

(a) his MPs pass the 1975 budget;

(b) he not introduce any major policies while he was only the caretaker prime minister;

(c) the dissolution proclamation include 21 blocked Whitlam government bills so that if Whitlam won the election he could pass them in a joint sitting of parliament; and that

(d) he immediately call a general election so that the people could decide the government.

There was no coup – there was an election. Gough Whitlam lost the 1975 election by the biggest landslide in Australian history, and lost heavily again in 1977.

For this, Sir John has been treated abysmally by history, with his memory and actions subject to bizarre allegations questioning his sobriety, the alleged impropriety of seeking legal advice (are people suggesting he should have spoken with nobody?), and even the involvement of America’s CIA.

Sir John Kerr did the best he could to navigate the massive egos of Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, while also respecting the Constitution, finding a way for the budget to the passed and ensuring that the final decision was made by the Australian people.

His memory deserves a lot more respect.


Email: Senator Eric Abetz the 14th senator to support freedom of speech

Parliamentary support for free speech continues to grow.

Liberal senator Eric Abetz (Tasmania) has encouraged his party to throw their support behind amendments to remove the words “offend” and “insult” from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

See the full list of current senators who are on the record in support of changes to section 18C here.

The damage to science from global warming


On Thursday, an important essay by Matt Ridley was published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, categorically detailing the distortion of scientific debate, and the damage to science itself, brought about by global warming alarmists.

He says:

At the heart of the debate about climate change is a simple scientific question: can a doubling of the concentration of a normally harmless, indeed moderately beneficial, gas, from 0.03% of the atmosphere to 0.06% of the atmosphere over the course of a century change the global climate sufficiently to require drastic and painful political action today? In the end, that’s what this is all about. Most scientists close enough to the topic say: possibly. Some say: definitely. Some say: highly unlikely. The ‘consensus’ answer is that the warming could be anything from mildly beneficial to dangerously harmful: that’s what the IPCC means when it quotes a range of plausible outcomes from 1.5 to 4 degrees of warming.

On the basis of this unsettled scientific question, politicians and most of the pressure groups that surround them are furiously insistent that any answer to the question other than ‘definitely’ is vile heresy motivated by self-interest, and is so disgraceful as to require stamping out, prosecution as a crime against humanity, investigation under laws designed to catch racketeering by organized crime syndicates, or possibly the suspension of democracy.

You can find this must-read essay here. Matt Ridley also delivered the 2013 CD Kemp Lecture for the IPA, ‘Freedom and Optimism: Humanity’s Triumph.’ You can watch the video of the lecture here and his Q&A session with Bjørn Lomborg here.

Continue Reading →


Be ideological, Hockey advises Turnbull

Yesterday, on the 21st of October, Joe Hockey farewelled public life.

As a nation whose political system has long been defined by a rigid party structure—which encourages conformity and punishes dissent—Australia was offered a rare insight into the values and motivations of one of our most senior political figures.

Readers of FreedomWatch will find much to like, and much to dislike, in Hockey’s valedictory speech.

He argued in favour of lower and simpler taxes, for a more flexible employment system (an end to penalty rates), and for an end to the age of entitlement—the topic his brilliant 2012 speech to the IEA. Less pleasing was his praise of Labor’s NBN, his celebration of imposing GST on imported goods, and his hostility towards international tax competition (in the guise of tackling so-called “profit shifting by multinationals”).

But it was his defense of ideology that was most important. After restating his commitment to liberalism, Hockey declared that:

It’s true but it must be said, if you don’t have core beliefs then you have no core. When you’re asked to make very difficult decisions that have a huge impact on people’s lives, without a guiding philosophy, you’ll inevitably be indecisive, or worse, inconsistent.

If the Turnbull government takes anything from Hockey’s speech, it should be this.

As I argued in The Spectator last year, and as Chris Berg argued in The Drum last month, the Abbott government’s problem was not that it was too ideological, it’s problem was that it wasn’t ideological enough.

Without ideology—or, as Hockey put it: a set of core beliefs—politicians are left with mere populism. What results is an inconsistent, short-sighted, and ad-hoc approach to government. In an age of global competition, Australia must enact substantive reform or risk being left behind.

Malcolm Turnbull began his premiership by declaring that he would lead “a thoroughly liberal government, committed to freedom, the individual, and the market.” So far, these are just words. Time will tell if this guides his policies.

Watch Joe Hockey’s full valedictory speech, here.


Longer terms don’t mean better governments

Andrew Forrest, Chairman, Fortescue Metals

Andrew Forrest, chairman, Fortescue Metals

In the past couple of weeks, the perennially flawed arguments for longer parliamentary terms have been rolled out again.

First, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced her support for moving from three to four year terms in her jurisdiction. As Queensland is the one remaining state with three year terms, it is perhaps not surprising that its politicians are keen to get job security to match their interstate counterparts. The opposition was quick to say it had always supported the idea. The local Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesperson offered support for the move claiming that “a three-year term is not a sufficient term to allow the government to facilitate good economic planning for private and public sectors”.

Then there was business leader Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest who suggested that Australia should adopt five year fixed terms for the federal parliament. His argument was that short terms were one of the reasons why Australian politics has been dysfunctional in recent years. (FreedomWatch readers in the UK can watch Forrest’s full interview here.)

However, you do not have to go back too far in Australian political history to see that length of political term has little to do with whether a government governs well or not. When Hawke and Keating were reforming the Australian economy in the 1980s they not only had three year terms, but Hawke kept dashing off to early elections. Conversely, it is hard to see what benefit accrued to anyone in Victoria in 1991-92, or New South Wales in 2010-11, by getting the fourth years of long-discredited and dysfunctional state Labor governments.

In 1998, John Howard went to an early poll to secure a mandate for major tax reform. Under Forrest’s five year fixed term idea, Howard would have had to wait another three years before he could secure such a mandate, which he clearly needed as it was reversing his previous position.

People arguing for longer terms always seem to suffer from a surfeit of optimism. They imagine four or five years of a good government using all that time implementing the sort of reforms which particularly appeal to them. However, the rules around governance should not be developed with the best case scenario in mind. What is much more important is having in place a system where citizens can remove a bad government when the need arises.

Forrest’s address, where he raised the idea of five year terms was delivered in Britain, and cited its fixed five year terms as an example for Australia to follow. This seems slightly ironic, given that one major party in Britain has just elected the hard leftist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. While the conventional wisdom is that Corbyn is unlikely ever to become prime minister, even the remote possibility that he might does serve to illustrate the point that business people such as the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and ‘Twiggy’ Forrest need to be careful what they wish for.

When designing political systems, it is always best to imagine your political opponents in power rather than your allies.


Size of government on the increase


The Turnbull government

Last Wednesday FreedomWatch ran a post on the number of federal ministries which also posed the question: ‘Why do we need a federal environment minister?’

We highlighted Prime Minister Abbott’s 42 executive officeholders (ministers, assistant ministers and parliamentary secretaries), contrasted this with the first Barton ministry and the first post-war Menzies ministry then opined about what was to come given the current shadow ministry.

Well – it turns out we didn’t have to wait until the next change of government for something worse, with Sunday’s announcement of the new Turnbull cabinet.

There are still 42 executive officeholders but now a whopping 55 portfolios, compared to 51 under PM Abbott.

There are now 11 positions in the prime minister’s department including the PM, minister for women, cabinet secretary, assistant cabinet secretary, assistant minister for productivity and minister assisting the prime minister for digital government.

Australia now has a treasurer, assistant treasurer and assistant minister to the treasurer, with the assistant treasurer also now doubling up as the minister for small business.

We have a new position of minister for international development and the Pacific, which appears to have been carved out from the foreign affairs portfolio.

Proving that squeaky wheels get the oil, we now have a new assistant minister for science and an assistant minister for innovation as well as a designated minister for industry, innovation and science. FreedomWatch readers may recall that under the Abbott government there was one minister for industry and science with one parliamentary secretary but that stakeholders had complained for two years about there being no standalone minister for science or for innovation.

Similarly, the tourism industry has been complaining about there being no designated minister for tourism (though it was part of the responsibilities of trade and investment minister Andrew Robb who had been telling people for the last two years that he had it under control), but we now have a standalone minister for tourism and international education who doubles as the standalone minister assisting the minister for trade and investment. Yes, you guessed it, in both of these capacities new Minister Richard Colbeck reports to…Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb.

To prove that bigger government ideas don’t die – they just go to sleep, we ominously also have a new minister for cities and the built environment. In 2013 former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised that if re-elected he would appoint a minister for cities, an idea he also promoted back in 2009 declaring that what Australia really needed was for the federal government to get involved in planning. Unsurprisingly Fran Kelly noted on ABC’s Radio National this morning that the concept of the federal government getting involved in urban design was originally a Whitlam government idea.

Anybody who has spent time trying to get around Melbourne’s Docklands precinct would likely offer an opinion on the success of big government plans for urban areas.

Time will tell if the new ministry is more or less interventionist than its predecessors but given human nature, the desire of people to impress in a new job by doing something and the demand by stakeholders for government to prove it cares by doling out taxpayer dollars and running more programs, we shouldn’t hold our breath.


Why do we need a federal environment minister?


The bloated size of the federal ministry following the 2013 election


News in this morning’s papers that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has excised federal water policy responsibilities from the environment portfolio raises an important question.

Why do we actually need a federal environment minister?

Australia survived for most of its life without one, with the first appointed in 1971 under the short-lived McMahon government. Like most bureaucracies though the concept quickly took root and has spread its tentacles as widely as possible.

However, a casual look at the Abbott government’s Administrative Arrangements Order (which assigned Acts of Parliament to ministers following the 2013 election) reveals that the environment minister’s responsibilities could easily be divided up between industry, science and energy portfolios or repatriated back to the states.

Environmental policy is largely about land management, which is actually one of the few policy areas that is still exclusively a state government responsibility. Australia’s diverse array of national and state parks are the result of state government management over the decades, which they have successfully managed to do alongside the development of cities, farms, dams and light and heavy industry.

While some sort of “approval process” is reasonable for major projects, including resources projects, these can and should be done at a state level and as quickly and efficiently as possible. No approval process should take five years and the bouncing between the various federal and state entities is part of this problem. The quality of government output should always be more important that the length of time it takes.

The existence of a separate, federal environment ministry is symbolic of the growth in the size and influence of the national government and bureaucracy since Federation, to the detriment of the private sector, economic development, and individual freedom. The current plethora of federal government ministers, assistant ministers, parliamentary secretaries and their bureaucracies encourages rent seeking and the relevant minister or bureaucracy to play to its stakeholders.

Why does there need to be a federal education minister and parliamentary secretary when the federal government doesn’t run a single school and traditionally has no role in the curriculum? Doesn’t the very existence of assistant ministers and parliamentary secretaries prove that the federal government has too much power for too few people? Why do we need a Minister for Social Services and an Assistant Minister for Social Services and a Minister for Human Services and a Parliamentary Secretary for Social Services? Why do we need a federal Attorney-General and a Minister for Justice and a Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General?

Check out the difference between the breadth of the current ministry and the first Barton Ministry in 1901, or even the first post-war Menzies Ministry. To see something even worse, and a potential harbinger of things to come, check out the current shadow ministry!

Transparency and accountability in government is important. The more positions there are, the more bureaucracies there are, and the confusing split of responsibilities between the three levels of government makes it too easy for the public sector to shift blame when something goes wrong.

Smaller, more accountable government will always lead to better government.


Using “Royal Commission like powers” to attack your political enemies


The Queensland Labor government is launching an inquiry into political donations and the awarding of contracts – clearly and explicitly targeting the previous LNP government, which increased the donation declaration limit when it was in government.

This inquiry will be conducted by the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission with “Royal Commission like powers”.

In other words, the sort of powers which would normally only be available to courts. In the Drum last year I argued that Royal Commissions were extraordinarily powerful, risked legal rights and eliminated traditional common law protections.

The Palaszczuk government’s use of the Crime and Corruption Commission to go after the previous government’s affairs is nakedly political. It’s also a sign that the precedent being set at the Commonwealth level – which has seen two Labor prime ministers and a serving opposition leader made to appear in front of Royal Commissions in the last two years – is leading us down a tit-for-tat path.

Royal Commissions – and Royal Commission like powers – should be used sparingly. They should only be used where the normal law enforcement systems have obviously failed, and no possible policy or enforcement solution is possible.

Royal Commissions are declarations that our institutions have failed. They should never, ever be used for party politics.


What Australian unions could learn from Nine Inch Nails


“Hurt” was a 1994 song released by American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails and later covered to great acclaim by singer Johnny Cash not long before his death in 2003.

The song, also known as “What Have I Become,” may be an appropriate replacement for “Solidarity Forever” as the unofficial anthem for the modern trade union movement.

It is a genuine tragedy that the trade union movement, which boasts of giving the world the 8 hour working day (as well as a longer, less credible list of achievements, including claiming credit for the invention of Saturdays and Sundays) has now been reduced to arguing against the identification of corrupt elements in its own ranks.

The unions and Labor have fought the current Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption every step along the way. Not surprising, given their consistent history of opposition to similar inquiries in the past.

An article in The Australian today also reminded us that the CFMEU attempted to have Terence Cole resign as Royal Commissioner over alleged bias way back in 2002, proving that they tread a well-worn path.

Organised trade unionism is clearly at the cross-roads, with membership falling from 46 per cent of the Australian workforce in 1986 to only 17 per cent of the workforce in 2013. The percentage of private sector employees who are members of a union was only 12 per cent.

In fact, there are more Australians that are a member of an Australian rules football club (836,136 as of July 2015) than there are private sector full-time employees who are members of a trade union (759,000 as of June 2013).

Instead of trying to tear the Commission down and pretending that the problems it has identified don’t exist, the union movement should be asking itself “How Did Things Get to This Point,” “What Is it About Our Structures or Business that Attracts Corruption” and of course “What Have We Become?”

You can’t blame Tony Abbott or Dyson Heydon for the practices uncovered at the Royal Commission, which has already seen more than 25 union officials referred to law enforcement agencies and regulators for further action.

Rather than trying to shut the Commission down, unions should be co-operating with it so that they can identify and weed out the people that are bringing their movement into disrepute. That the unions would rather turn a blind eye to illegal activity suggests that problems in the union movement are far deeper than already identified.

However, the initial response to Commissioner Heydon’s decision to remain at the helm has not been positive. The unions and opposition have continued to assert the Commissioner’s bias, and used their own allegation to justify further action, which proves again Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote that The Left has never been slow to exploit the problems it creates.

Is this really what trade unions have become?


Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes