Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bearish Behaviour

It is sometimes difficult to know what NSW politicians are trying to achieve when in the Bearpit.

The Bearpit.  Photo from here
Federal Politicians have a well deserved reputation for behaving like idiots in the House of Representatives.  Question time when viewed on TV or (as I have been lucky enough to do) in person is a lesson in petulence and immaturity.

Constant heckling, name calling and worse is, in my opinion, unbecoming of the office.

I suppose there are a few reasons why such behaviour is appealing to the perpetrators.  

Many of them no doubt enjoy letting off a little steam at the other side.  Others no doubt find their comments witty and clever, despite the fact that, for the most part, they clearly are not.

I suppose others feel that they are achieving some political purpose, although what that could possibly be is difficult to imagine

At least with the Federal Parliament, proceedings are broadcast live, and we frequently see excerpts on the evening news. There is therefore at least some audience for the shenanigans.

State Question time is not, to my knowledge, broadcast in any way.  The only people hearing the words would therefore be those in the gallery, which would no doubt number in the dozens, at best.

Not withstanding that, it appears from the Hansard that the interjections, heckling and constant noise is continuous and oppressive. Given that surely I must be one of a very, very small group not directly involved in politics who takes the time to peruse the Hansard, I doubt any votes are won or lost on that basis.

Respect lost, however, is another matter entirely.

There is another question there on the point of parliamentary speech-making and question-asking, given that just about no one outside of the system (except for wonks like myself) is aware of what is going on.

Except when the action excites the media (for example, when a six hour speech is given) the public get very little insight into the proceedings.

Which forces us to ask: "If a politician gives a speech to an empty room and no one listens, what was the bloody point?"

This is all a roundabout way of getting us to Shelley Hancock and this article by Andrew Clennell, a News journalist.

The Speaker.  Photo from here
What Clennell says, in short, is that Hancock is seeming to be just as partisan as John Aquilina was when he sat in the Speaker's Chair, thereby risking an unflattering legacy.

Clennell's main criticism appears to be that Hancock is not even-handed in her decisions and on several occasions spent "the entire session putting Opposition members on calls to order (after three and subsequent misbehaviour a member is ejected) while not censuring misbehaving government MPs."

That may well be true, although the criticism is perhaps a little harsh.

Most (but by no means all) of the shouting and other nonsense in the Bearpit occurs during Question Time, as one might expect.  

Further, as questions must be directed at Ministers, most of Question Time is taken up by Ministers having their say, and opposition members misbehaving.

That's not to say that the Government members are not just as awfully behaved.  It is just perhaps that the opposition has the larger opportunity to do so.

The result, however, is a speaker who will almost inevitably appear biased.

This could all be avoided if the Speaker was in fact independant and, while we're on the topic, empowed and encouraged to restore some order to the Bearpit.

I imagine a constitutional amendement would be required, and it would no doubt go against tradition, but if a Speaker was (say) a retired judge, it would seem that the State would be well served.

If the Speaker was then given rules that would permit the immediate suspension of a member for an apporpriate period, we might finally see some adult behaviour.

But while a Speaker is simply a member of the Government, it seems that we will continue to be subjected to members far more intrested in letting off steam than engaging in sensible debate.

Which, I think we can all agree, is to the detriment of governance in this state.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Total Recall

*There are no pictures in this post - just a whole lot of text.  Blogger has decided that today I am not allowed to post pictures, most likely to punish me for some perceived slight.  I apologise if it makes the post hard going*

Recall elections are back on the agenda in NSW.

The issue was first highlighted by the then Coalition Opposition in 2009, in what was no doubt an attempt to capitalise on the anger the NSW public felt about the Labor government.

Shortly after Kristina Keneally ascended to the Premier's seat, having disposed of Nathan Rees, Barry O'Farrell wrote the following on the NSW Liberal website:

Earlier this year I announced that a NSW Liberals & Nationals Government would examine the option of 'recall' elections for NSW… It increases accountability, offer a safeguard against political abuse by government and can help restore confidence back into the political system… The idea of being forced to an election by the community would provide Government - even this NSW Labor Government - with the incentive to perform throughout the entire four-year term and not just in the months leading up to an election.

He also promised, if elected, to put together a panel of "experts" to advise on how a recall election might work in NSW.

That panel was announced on Monday (20 June 2011).  Barry O'Farrell answered a dixer on Monday, selling the changers as being a "safety valve to rid voters of corrupt, incompetent governments".

Broadly speaking, a recall election is an election to decide whether a government or an elected official should be recalled.  Most jurisdictions that have recall elections require that a petition be presented with a particular number of signatures.

If this is accomplished, a special election is then held where a majority can "recall'" the government or official.  In some cases, a new election is run in conjunction with the recall election, where voters first vote whether to recall, and then also vote who the successor should be.

The call for recall elections gained further traction in late 2009 after the Herald launched a campaign to have a referendum alongside the 2011 election to introduce recall elections in conjunction with the 2011 election.

Naturally O'Farrell backed the petition, and whilst Kristina Keneally "supported a debate", the campaign never really got anywhere.

The issue has been brought back to the forefront with the Coalition announcement this week that a panel has been appointed to discuss the possibility of a change.  

According to this posting on the Liberal website, the panel will be chaired by David Jackson QC, and will include Professor George Williams and Dr Elaine Thompson.

It is worth noting, to the Coalition's credit, that not only has Professor Williams written previously that he is "sceptical about its merits" of recall election, but he has also unsuccessfully stood for Labor preselection for the federal ACT seat of Fraser.

There can be no suggestion that O'Farrell is stacking the deck in his favour.

Of course, another reading might be that he is hoping that the panel suggests that recall elections are not such a good idea after all, meaning he can shelve the idea.

It is right that very careful attention be given to the question of recall elections. The issue is not a simple one.

There is a major difference between the American states and jurisdictions that have recall elections and NSW.  Most of those jurisdictions have something quite different from the Westminster system that operates in NSW.

In the US, the President/Governor is not a member of the lower house.  As was clearly demonstrated at the Federal level last year, in Australia the Prime Minister/Premier is a member of the lower house, chosen by a majority of the members of that house.

In the US, the President/Governor is elected in what essentially amounts to an election held in parallel with the lower house.

In a federal election, a US voter therefore would usually vote for a local lower house representative, a statewide senate representative and a Presidential candidate.

The result is that the President may have a "hostile" lower house - where the opposition party commands a majority in the lower house. As of the 2010 mid-term elections, the US President is Democrat Barack Obama, the lower house was a Republican Majority (242 seats to 193) and the Upper House was a Democrat Majority (53 seats to 47).

It's messy, but for the most part it's effective.

Coming back to recall elections - as best I am able to tell, most if not all of the US jurisdictions that allow recall elections (and it should be noted that this does not include the federal jurisdiction) allow only for the recall of the head of the executive (for example, the Governor or Mayor) - not of the entire legislature.

This would clearly make no sense in NSW - we would need to be able to recall the government as a whole. According to Wikipedia, several Swiss cantons provide for the recall of the legislature, but I'm not aware of any other jurisdiction that have a similar provision.

In O'Farrell's response to the dixer on Monday, he said that the recall provisions he has in mind "could, and would, trigger an early general State election" suggesting that he has a full government recall in mind.

Of course these details are precisely what the panel will be tasked with investigating, and it will be interesting to see what their conclusions are, and especially whether it will be an election for both houses, and what effect this will have on the fixed terms system we have in place.

In NSW we have had 4 year fixed terms for governments since a referendum in 1995.  This change was made, at least in part, due to the frequency of elections in the years preceding.

This change made sense.  It does not seem equitable that a government can call an election at the time that suits them best - the timing of an election should not rest in the hands of one party.

The benefit of a fixed term is that the ruling party has time to implement an agenda.  A long-standing criticism of governance in NSW has been the short-term vision - few things that do not have a payoff within the election cycle were getting done.

Often there are changes a newly elected party wants to make that they know will take some time to "bed in". Further, a government deserves the opportunity to get stuff done for a while without the ever-present threat of an election hanging over its head.

If a party knows that if they make any change that is politically sensitive then they may be subject to a recall, it seems likely that we will see even more middle of the road, hum-drum, focus group pleasing policy, and none of the decisive, aggressive decision making that we really need in NSW.

This is why the suggestion by George Williams that a minimum term of incumbency be required before a recall makes sense.  He suggests three years, although what he doesn't address is the other side of that argument - if an election is due within a year anyway, would there be much point in the expense of a recall?

The number of electors required to sign a petition would also need to be carefully considered.  Many other electorates mandate a percentage of people who voted in the last election, although any NSW change would have to consider compulsory voting in NSW and the resulting increase in people who vote but would have zero interest in any petition to recall a government.

Finally, consideration would need to be given to whether the legislation should specify the circumstances in which a recall is appropriate.  There are several jurisdictions in the US that specify circumstances in which a recall would be allowable.

These issues are not insurmountable, but nonetheless my view is that recall elections would not benefit NSW as whole.

I am concerned about the prospect of a recall paralysing a government - nothing risky, nothing that might upset too many people, nothing showing real vision for the state.

Now, more than ever, we need bold, forward looking leaders.  Leaders willing to look beyond a 4 year election cycle and look at what is good for NSW in the long term.

They need the freedom to introduce things that may not be immediately popular if they believe that the electorate will see the benefit over time.

Without that freedom, we risk a legislature even more focussed on holding onto power at all costs, to the detriment of everyone.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Driven to Drink

It is difficult to know what to do with Burt Bassett.

He was charged last week with Driving with the Low Range Prescribed Concentration of Alcohol.

There are a few things that are beyond doubt, assuming that he pleads guilty (as the overwhelming majority of people charged with drink driving do).

Firstly, he has committed a criminal offence, and not an insignificant one.  Whilst the offence does not carry the possibility of gaol, conviction will result in a criminal record and a mandatory loss of drivers licence.

That said, he only just sneaked into the low range (having blown 0.053, the legal maximum being 0.049).
Burt Bassett.  Photo from the Daily Telegraph

I have no idea what his traffic record (or, for that matter, his criminal record) is, but the statistics show that 40% of people charged with low range escape conviction - so all is not lost.

Further, the Constitution Act 1902 does not require that he be removed.  According to section 13A of the Act: 

(1) If a Member of either House of Parliament:
(a) to (d) not relevant
(e) is convicted of an infamous crime, or of an offence punishable by imprisonment for life or for a term of 5 years or more...
his seat as a Member of that House shall thereby become vacant.

As the offence does not carry gaol, the second part of subsection 13A(e) is not activated.

However, it is disturbingly unclear exactly what an "infamous crime" is.  According to this article, apparently written by ICAC,  in the case of Re Trautwein (1940) SR (NSW) 371 infamous crimes were defined as crimes that were "contrary to the faith, credit and trust of mankind".

In that article, it is suggested that the words "infamous crime" be deleted from the NSW constitution. Clearly this has not occurred.

In any event, it would hardly seem likely that a low range drink drive could be regarded as being an offence that brings section 13A into play. Bassett will not have to be removed under the constitution.

Rather the issue becomes what is to be done with him.

The Labor government that we were relieved of earlier this year were infamous for their inability to stay out of trouble,

As expected, this was a major issue in the election, and upon assuming office O'Farrell prudently warned his party-room to ensure that they behaved.

Clearly Mr Bassett is the first to come a cropper in this area.

But should he be sacked?  No one has called for this at this stage, but O'Farrell would be right to come down hard on him for this indiscretion.

The comparison to the previous government is sharpened by the fact that the Coalition hammered Labor MP Cherie Burton when she was charged with "Refuse/Fail Breath Test" in 2010.

Cherie Burton.  Photo from here

After being heckled by Ms Burton last week with "You've got a standard, you uphold it!" O'Farrell responded with "I do not take drink driving lightly, and if my member had done what you did, which is avoid a blood test, he'd be out of this place on his ear."

O'Farrell is playing a dangerous game if he thinks he can start comparing the gravity of offences and criticising Labor for being worse.

Whilst Labor's corruption and ineptitude can be avoided if O'Farrell governs well, at the end of the day some MLA's and MLC's are going to get into some sort of trouble.  Hopefully for O'Farrell's sake the trouble will not be significant.

However, once O'Farrell starts holding offences up to a fixed, set in stone standard, he sets himself up awkwardly should those offences ever be committed a Coalition member.

That is not to say that there is no objective standard - merely that O'Farrell would be wise to avoid stapling his colours to the mast before he has to.

In the interim, it will be interesting to follow the Bassett story and see what eventuates.

Will it be a drama to rival that of Matthew Chesher (wife of Verity Firth and then chief of staff to David Borger who was caught with ecstacy)?

Or will it disappear without a trace, as the tone in the various articles published today suggest it might?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

None so Blind...

There are none so blind as those that will not see.

Pauline Hanson's legal challenge for a seat on the Legislative Council crashed and burned in dramatic fashion in the NSW Supreme Court late yesterday afternoon.

Her star witness was revealed to be a not only a liar, but a vicious prankster who deceived everyone for reasons that we may never know.

Sean Castle.  Photo from SMH
Hanson withdrew her case after Sean Castle revealed that he had sent the email purporting to be from "Michael Rattner". He further revealed that he did not know anyone who worked at the Electoral Commission and that the emails suggesting that the count was incorrect were utter fabrications.

One issue I wanted to discuss first - contrary to just about every article I have read and the chat on twitter yesterday (with the exception of an excellent analysis by Matthew Knott over at Crikey), I don't think that Castle received immunity from prosecution in return for his evidence.

No one in that courtroom had the power to grant that immunity.

Rather, the "immunity" spoken about related to protection from his evidence being used against him at a later date, as per section 128 of the Evidence Act.

There is a general protection before Australian courts against giving evidence where that evidence might be used against you at a later date.

On that basis, if there is a possibility of the answer you give to a question being used against you at a later date, you can refuse to answer a question.

It's similar to the way that, if you are accused of a crime, you have no obligation to give evidence, and the crown cannot force you to get on the stand.

Judging from the live tweeting that @tobiasziegler was kind enough to provide, we can see that Castle first refused to answer questions:
and then was granted a "certificate" meaning that the evidence could not be used against him at a later date.

He can still be prosecuted for a offence in relation to the emails - it just means that his evidence before the court yesterday cannot be used against him.

The hard part, having said that, is to find an appropriate offence. It seems unlikely that he has committed fraud, as there was no obvious "benefit" received by him or anyone else.

He hasn't committed perjury - in fact, when finally under oath, he appears to have told the truth for the first time.

I haven't looked into it closely enough, but he may have committed some sort of forgery type offence. 

I don't propose to recreate the wheel by listing all the reasons that Hanson perhaps should have cottoned onto what was going on before everything collapsed so spectacularly - Matthew Knott lists 5 very good reasons in his article.

I do, however, want to pick up on the one oddity that was plainly obvious without the benefit of hindsight.

The email that we now know to be fake says "I have heard through the chain that there could be as many as 1200 that are in with the blanks."

This is information that Hanson had from day one - as you can see from the email, it was part of the original document that Rattner/Castle sent to Hanson.

Part of the email sent to Hanson's team.  From Crikey

There are a multitude of reasons why the issue should have died right then and there.

Firstly, the person who (according to the document) wrote the email said that he has heard it "through the chain" which to me means "unsubstantiated gossip".

Moreover, that number of votes would have required some sort of conspiracy - it is difficult to imagine how anything less than a team of saboteurs could have achieved something of that scale.

Who are they?  What are they trying to achieve? How could they manage such a deception?  

How did Rattner/Castle get hold of this email? Surely the people having this discussion would have been sensitive to the consequences if it was to be leaked?

Then there was the fact that neither Hanson or anyone in her legal team had ever actually met with this whistleblower.  Surely the fact that he refused to sit down with them and swear and affidavit should have been a clue that things were not as they seemed.

But the biggest issue, the one that should have stopped her before she launched any legal action, is this - she lost by more than 1200 votes.

The email suggests that "as many as 1200 votes" went missing.  As I wrote about here, on the last count Pauline was 1306 behind Sarah Johnson and was eliminated.

Even if the email was true, even if the unsubstantiated allegation was true, even if Rattner was a real person, she was still over 100 votes off the pace.

I have no idea what advice her lawyers did or didn't give her - I don't know them personally.  But surely we have to assume they explained to her very clearly that she was on shaky ground and that there didn't appear to be a huge amount to work with.

I wrote about the unanswered questions when the perceived irregularity first came to light, and asked a bunch of questions, most of which Hanson's team were clearly not able to answer until yesterday.

But, as I think we can all attest to, sometimes there is just no telling some people.

Clearly Hanson was distraught about her loss, which I think we can all identify with on some level. However, there does also have to be a time when we accept that things are the way they are and move on gracefully.

The very first day the email came it, her team should have gotten Castle/Rattner to front up with evidence, or simply ignored him.  It was Hanson and her team that fuelled this story, and it is Hanson who is left looking like a fool.

She launched a massive legal action, knowing that if it all blew up she would leave herself horribly exposed, on the basis of an email sent to her by someone she had never met.

Sometimes, however, common sense has no chance against the genuine belief that you have been cheated.  Her lawyers may very well have told her that the case was doomed from the very start.

Heck, they may have pleaded with her not to proceed because they were able to see this coming.

They no doubt warned her about the potential for a 6 figure costs order against her from the defendants.

But, sometimes, there are none so blind as those that will not see.  And they may just have been her undoing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Minor Influence?

As many of you will be aware, the Christian Democratic Party and the Shooters and Fishers Party hold the balance of power in the NSW Upper House.

The Upper house has 42 seats.  At present (assuming that Pauline Hanson's challenge does eventually fail) the make-up of the Upper House will be as follows:

Coalition: 19
Labor: 14
Greens: 5
CDP: 2
S&F: 2

Put simply, the Coalition needs the support of either Labor, the left minority (the Greens) or the right minority (CDP and S&F) to pass legislation through.

It doesn't take a Masters in Politics to foresee the Coalition getting support mostly from the right minority.  This was reflected in the Coalition getting their IR reforms through the Upper house thanks to support from the CDP and S&F (once a few cosmetic changes were sought and granted).

In those circumstances, I thought it a good idea to have a look at the websites of these two parties. Not only is it instructive in considering where the Coalition is likely to find support from those parties, but is also interesting to consider what promises may being made in return for the support.

Christian Democrats

Fred Nile. Photo from SMH.
The CDP's policies can be seen on their website here.

Family Issues: No surprises here.  No gay marriage, no adoptions for gay couples.  

Health: Decentralised control and more funding for nurses to reduce the ratios.  The first is no surprise (being from the right, practically compulsory) but the second is a little out of the blue (and, given the broad motherhood statements contained in most of their policies, perhaps a little more detail focussed than you might have expected).

Education: This section is pretty straightforward.  School vouchers (right wing gospel, especially in the US), a limit on teaching about other cultures (protect "Australian values") and retain religious education (they are a Christian party, after all).

As well as that, they appeal to the voters harking for a "simpler time" - they call for a focus on the 3 "R's" and Australian history, perhaps sensing that people are looking for a party who will bring back the "good ol' days" and who think that this is the way to do it.

Law and Order: Textbook conservative stuff: closing hotels earlier, close the injecting room, and increase police presence whilst facing out "enforcement cameras" - it is not clear whether they mean speed cameras, CCTV cameras, or both.

Pro-life: No euthanasia, no abortions.

Social Justice, Economy and Environment: I won't try and paraphrase this section:

The 2010-2011 budget projected revenue of $57.7 billion.  Of that revenue, payroll tax was $6.2 billion and land tax was $2.4 billion.  I don't know what percent of the $5.5 billion stamp duty total the policy would knock out, but it must be a significant proportion.  That's more or less 20% of the NSW government income the CDP want to knock out.

When taken in conjunction with an increase in social services and an improvement in public transport - well, it's difficult to see how they propose to balance the books.

Islamisation of Australia:

It is interesting to motorcycle helmets lumped in this section.  Either there are a disproportionate number of Muslims riding motor cycles, or otherwise the complaint about face coverings has nothing to with law and order (where any such policy, if genuine, belongs) but is actually all about burqas, with the motor cycle helmets thrown in to try and not look racist.

So, what is there to say about the CDP? Certainly there is little there that we would not expect to see from a right-wing Christian conservative party.

I will be very interested to see what, if any, moves are made in relation to the taxation issues.  I mentioned earlier that the CDP supported the Coalitions IR changes, which should help restrain the workforce spending $24.7 billion (42% of total spending for 2010-2011) but there would need to be devastating cutbacks to fund their taxation cuts.

Shooters and Fishers

Leader of the S&F, Robert Brown.  Photo from here.
Despite coming from the same side of politics, the S&F policies have a markedly different focus, perhaps reflecting the entirely different market that the party is catering towards.

It is worth recognising that the S&F policies go into a great deal of detail - to their credit they have clearly not only put a great of careful and considered thought into their policies, but also have very detailed policy documents on their website that bear further reading.

Natural Resources: The S&F want to "expand the agriculture, mining and forestry industries" but do so in a "sustainable way".

Included is a call for a "state wide water security plan", a focus on rural and regional development and support for recreational fishing.

Essentially, their position is that "natural resource utilisation and biodiversity conservation are not incompatible." Of course, these matters are all a matter of degree - one man's "natural resource utilisation" is another man's "vicious destruction of the environment".

Safeguarding the Environment: This policy includes seeking "Volunteer Conservation Hunting", a moratorium on further marine parks and greater access to national parks.

The policies seem to be focussed on protecting the environment, but not at the expense of access to the said environment for recreational purposes.

It is also interesting to see little mention whatsoever of "pollution".  Under the Natural Resources policy, they support cheap power and suggest that renewable power will not replace coal and gas in the "near term".

Society and Service Delivery: This is a complex policy.  It includes the following:

  • Provision of "cheap power"
  • Supporting the "cultural beliefs" of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians
  • A Bob Katter-style breakdown of the market-power in the fuel and grocery industry
  • "truth in sentencing and mandatory minimum sentencing subject to adequate parole rules and policing."

Further, they suggest that government is "overly-centralised" and that rural communities suffer as a result.

Fair Recreation Access: More fishing, more hunting, more four-wheel driving. Boating, bushwalking and swimming is good too.

The S&F are difficult to pigeonhole.  On one level, they appear to be a single issue party, but anyone elected of course has to vote on every issue that arises.

Their core policies appear to centre on support of rural areas, disparaging the Sydney-centric politicking, and making sure the government don't interfere with their "right" to use the land.

Having said all that, their voting on most issues will be with the Coalition.  Despite their focus on particular issues, it is clear that they are a right wing party. Individual liberty and minimising government interference run deep. The slogan on their website sums it up neatly:

So, where does that leave the Upper House?

The Coalition shouldn't have a great deal of trouble getting support for their policies.  Whilst the CDP and the S&F have their own policies and agendas, their DNA is not that different to the Coalition.

It would be surprising, though, if we did not see CDP and S&F policies creeping into the Coalition agenda.  The most obvious example has been the decision to scrap marine safety zones.

It may end up being a difficult relationship for both parties.  The Coalition need their support, but favouring the minor parties will damage their brand with all the voters who changed their vote to the Coalition at the last election.

At the same time, the minor parties need to maintain their independence if they are keep their base, but it goes without saying that without backing from the Coalition they really can't get much of any value.

The Coalition's ability to manage the relationship to their advantage will be essential if they are to hold onto all the first time Coalition voters.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Teething Issues

I saw an interesting exchange on twitter recently.

This conversation came in the wake of Barry O'Farrell rescinding the decision I wrote about here to reduce the feed-in tariff for some solar power systems from 60c to 40c.

The move put to bed what would otherwise have been a lingering discontent amongst those people financially hurt by the move.

It is difficult to gauge the effect amongst the vast majority of voters who are not receiving 60c per kilowatt hour for solar energy. Apparently we will all now pay approximately $7 extra per bill, so there is potential for some anger as a result.

That said, and as I argued in my previous blogpost, this is a problem of Labor's making.  It would have been easy for the Coalition to simply blame Labor for screwing up the implementation of the original scheme, and, in all likelihood, cop very little flack for it.

Anyway, the exchange I saw on twitter was between @SeanNic and @awelder.  

It started with:
Almost immediately after, @awelder responded 

What I was interested to discuss is to what extent a new government is entitled to a few teething problems, and how far that excuse (explicitly argued or otherwise) will get them with an electorate.

It is true that electorates can be very stupid sometimes.  Some people who are barely qualified to run a cake stand end up running countries.  

We constantly see politicians pandering to particular interest groups, and particular groups eagerly accepting what they are told because it is what they want to believe.

That said, I think the public has very little patience for errors arising out of stupidity, rather than genuine implementation difficulties. Moreover, I think the public usually can tell the difference.  

This is perhaps a good example of the where the public is not going to be fooled.  Putting aside the question of whether O'Farrell's move to cut the scheme was good policy or not, it certainly was, in my view, dumb politics.

But to suggest that it can be put down to "teething problems" is, I think, incorrect.

To cut the feed-in rate was always going to enrage a lot of people. It looked sneaky and tricky, and the Coalition used one of lawmaking's dirtiest words: "retrospective".

O'Farrell's poor decision had nothing to do with teething, but rather poor sense for what the public (and, crucially, the industry in question) would tolerate without a damaging kerfuffle.

That's not to say that there are not clearly are some issues that could be put down to teething problems.

A number of positions in the administration are going to need to be filled.  If that process took too long, or if someone of the people initially appointed turned out to have a secret life of some sort, then you can write that off to the vetting process needing to be improved, or perhaps the inevitable chaos of assuming power after 16 years without it.

By the same token, the government is no doubt going to have to replace Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act at some point.  As I have said previously, there are some projects that are too significant to be left under the control of one small council, and there needs to be a procedure for that.

It may well be that the first attempt is a dismal failure.  

As a final example, it may be that a new MLA or MLC does something outrageously inappropriate.  Not everyone who is preselected can possibly be the reliable, upstanding person that the relevant parts of the Coalition machine believed them to be, and there may need to be a small weeding out as a member or two is shown to be wholly unsuitable for the task at hand.

But as far as major policy announcements go - areas where the political implications of the move should be plainly obvious - I don't believe that "teething problems" qualifies as an excuse.

O'Farrell has been around the block enough times that he should have known better. 

No doubt his image has been at least slightly soured by the whole experience, and rightly so. To his credit, he was smart enough to admit his mistake and fix the mess once the implications became obvious.

It remains to be seen whether his government will soon be dismissed by a cynical NSW voting public as simply "more of the same." A few repeats of this kind of silliness will have the Coalition well on the road to a well deserved demise.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Looking for a Mandate

What does it take for a party to have a mandate? For that matter - what exactly qualifies as a mandate?  Is winning power enough to have a mandate to make the changes you want?

Do you need to specify every change you want to make?  Or just the ones that will piss some people off?

One thing is for sure - it doesn't make a bit of difference. The party that has the votes will get their way, mandate or not.

If a policy has the votes behind it, then it will be passed.  It's democracy. If the voters don't like it, then the party in question will be answerable at the next election.

There was a great deal of discussion in the various debates over the new IR laws about "mandates". Over the weekend, the Coalition "guillotined" the debate and got the bill through the upper house.

It was a little disappointing to see the Greens bleating over the Coalition's guillotine - the Greens took advantage of the rules in the upper house to filibuster for days on end - the Coalition used the rules to end the filibuster and have a vote.

For the Greens to suggest that the move was anti-democratic - well, it certainly wasn't any more anti-democratic than giving a 6 hour speech to prevent a vote taking place.

The Greens and Labor went on at length during the filibuster about the perceived lack of a mandate, although interestingly David Shoebridge managed avoid the topic almost entirely.

Sen Fazio (ALP): The Government does not have a mandate to introduce this legislation, nor does it have a mandate to implement this policy change.

Sen Cotsis (ALP): The Liberals do not have a mandate. A mandate is gained after taking a policy platform to the people, to the electorate. 

Sen Primrose (ALP): No government should take the decision lightly to interfere in such a dedicated organisation without justification, without consultation and, most critically, without a mandate.

And, my personal favourite:

Sen Kaye (GRN):  The deeper theoretical question is: What does it mean in a bicameral Parliament, a two-House Parliament with an upper House, to have a mandate? There is a small matter of the Constitution. The Constitution states loudly and clearly that for legislation to be passed it has to go through the lower House and the upper House. There is no mandate unless it gets through the upper House. The mandate exists only inasmuch as one can get a majority in the upper House. In a bicameral Parliament supported by the Constitution it must be understood that there is no mandate - no theoretical pinning behind a mandate unless and until that legislation is passed through the upper House.

John Kaye.  Picture from NineMSN
(All quotes from the Hansard)

On which logic, the Coalition now has a mandate.

But did the Coalition in fact have a "mandate" to make these changes?

We've heard endless (and, sometimes, mindless) complaints about Gillard not having a "mandate" to introduce a carbon tax.  She certainly had a mandate to introduce a ETS - it is really only her stupid move in guaranteeing no carbon tax that has gotten her in trouble.

But the move is broadly in line with her policy in seeking to put a price on Carbon.

It is true that the Coalition never said before the election that they would eviscerate the Industrial Relations Commission.  It is probably also true that the Coalition did not advertise the move as it would hurt them at the ballot box.

Such is the good politics/good policy divide.

But can Joe Citizen realy claim to have been unfairly surprised by the move?

First of all, this legislation is straight from the Right playbook.  Reduce the power of unions.  Increase wage control to reduce expenditure.  Require productivity increases to justify wage increases.

This is what Liberal governments do when they are in power.  Last time round Peter Debnam lost, in part, because he promised to slash public service numbers. And who could forget Workchoices?  Or, more to point, will the public ever be allowed to, even for a second?

Picture from here
Secondly, Labor complained incessently about the blank cheque that the Liberal was going to be given because of their failure to "be honest" about their policies.  I wrote about that before the election here.

This was pretty much the theme of Labor's advertising in the final few weeks - O'Farrell is not being upfront, he is being secretive, what will he do when he was in power?

A Labor Leaflet.  From electionleaflets.org.au
The difficulty for Labor is that the response from the electorate was a big "Who cares?  Can't be worse than the other lot."  That may or may not be fair, but Labor have only themselves for that.  Perhaps if the governance under Labor had been a little more competent and a little less scandal ridden people might have paused to think about the consequences of their vote.

But, finally, my biggest gripe with this argument is the fact Labor and the Greens expended a significant amount of energy telling people that the Coalition would attack the public service.

Look at this from davidshoebridge.org.au:

From over here
Now, there was no incontrovertible evidence that O'Farrell would cut public service wages.  But that didn't stop Labor going on about it almost incessantly.  Can Labor really claim that people will now be shocked by this move?  

Who could forget this ad, a contender for the worst election ad ever made:

Everyone knew, or should have known, that the Coalition make changes that would weaken the union movement, and do something to reduce the state's wage bill.

No mandate?  Perhaps.  But an unfair surprise? No way.