Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Shooting Through

You can never rely on someone in politics.

I'm sure Barry O'Farrell knew that before the last few days came to pass, but he has certainly been reminded of it now.

To understand why, it necessary to take a few steps back.

During the lead-up to the election, the Coalition released a policy entitled Graffiti Crackdown:

The full Policy can be found here
The policy detailed the following objectives:

A few initial thoughts.

1) To require the vandals to appear before the courts is silly.  To be clear - at the moment, police have a discretion as to whether a person should appear before a court or rather be dealt with by way of a fine.

Is there any evidence that police are going soft on offenders?  Or is the public dissatisfied with the approach taken by police? I've seen no such evidence, and I doubt that it is the case.

It's normal to read complaints about the discretionary decisions made by magistrates and judges.  It's odd to see police implicitly criticised in the same way.

2) The third policy point is, in fact, entirely along these lines.  It removes the court's discretion in relation to Community Service Orders and forces the court to impose such an order.

Was the court not imposing enough orders?  Were there examples of youths reoffending and not being forced to clean up the mess?  Who knows!  But this is a nice headline and a strong sounding bullet point, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

3) The changes in relation to driver's licences do not make any sense.  It is ridiculous.

Let's think about the average graffiti vandal.  In using the word vandal, I am intentionally excluding those persons who graffiti in a legal and responsible manner and focus only on those who create eyesores and damage property not belonging to them.

If this person has their licence taken away or limited, is it more likely to change their behaviour, or is more likely to cause resentment, increase bitterness towards "the system" and hammer home the message that you are an outsider, that society has no place for you?

Moreover, once you start suspending licences, you start setting up people to fail, because there is a good chance that the (even more resentful and angry) young person will drive anyway, be convicted of Drive While Suspended, and start down a road that ends in being disqualified til 2050 and in prison.

Having seen many people head down that path and come out the other side in pretty poor condition, it is my view that we shouldn't be taking licences off people unless they are actually a danger to other people while driving.

Moreover, is there any good reason to be taking away their licences?  Is there any evidence that it will actually deter them from offending?  I doubt there is, and if the research was done I doubt that it would show this result.

It's illogical.  Why don't we also confiscate their IPods? Or, better yet, spray-paint their hands with acrylic paint every day for a month? ACTUALLY, what we should do is name them and shame them.  Yeah, that'll work, right?

People who tag walls and graffiti trains do it for complicated reasons.  To simply pluck solutions out of the air because it tests well or, even worse, because it sounds like a good idea to someone with no experience in the criminal law, is stupid, and deserving of ridicule.

The worst part of the whole debacle is this: in November 2010 a detailed inquiry presented its findings on the way graffiti is dealt with.

The Full report can see read here
The report spends some time looking at the way councils and the community deal with graffiti, and in fact made a recommendation that the Coalition has all but directly lifted and pasted into the policy:

On criminal penalties, the report spent some considerable time reviewing submissions made on penalties.

Several councils made submissions on this point.  Some criticised the maximum penalties available, whilst others looked at the willingness of the courts to apply heavy penalties where appropriate. Certain councils complained about the level of police resourcing devoted to graffiti, which the submission from the AG department detailed the difficulty police have catching and prosecuting the offenders.

No one who the writers saw fit to quote thought that we needed to branch out into these new forms of punishment.  Why?  In my view, it is because the changes make some political sense and no policy sense whatsoever.

The only recommendation made by the report on the issue of penalties was this:

In any event, the legislation was introduced to the Legislative Assembly on 1 June 2011. The objectives of the Act read as follows:

Greg Smith (LIB and Attorney General) spoke on the bill, explaining its provisions and the reasons for the bills introduction.

The debate continued on 2 August, with Paul Lynch (ALP) saying the following:

He goes on the criticise the part of the bill that will force magistrates to impose Community Service Orders, and makes these comments about the drivers licence changes:

The final comment I want to pick out from his speech is this, on the removal of the police discretion:

Finally he indicates that at an appropriate time he will move an amendment to the bill.

Over the rest of the week numerous Liberal members spoke in favour of the bill and just as many ALP members spoke in support of the bill with the amendments hinted at.

Jamie Parker (GRN) also spoke on the bill.  Rather than supporting an amended version of the bill, he indicated that he would oppose it. He said the following:

On 3 August Clover Moore (IND) spoke briefly on the bill, opposing it because she believes it will not act to reduce graffiti. On the same day Greg Piper (IND) gave what he called "qualified support" - the qualification appearing to be that "a concerted effort to engage with offenders and potential offenders must be maintained." Richard Torbay also spoke in support of the bill.

On 5 August the bill was passed by acclamation.  

An amendment was immediately moved by Paul Lynch (ALP).  The proposal was neatly summed up by Greg Smith:

The amendment failed and the bill was promptly sent off to the Legislative Council.

The Second Reading Speech before the Legislative Council was delivered by Michael Gallagher on 10 August, before Adam Searle (ALP) spoke of the ALP's intention to propose and amendment to the bill.

After some speeches for the bill (every second speech being in favour of some sort of amendment) Paul Green (CDP) spoke strongly in favour of the bill, including the parts that the ALP had to this time indicated an intention to amend.

The next day David Shoebridge (GRN) came out hard against the bill, opening with:

There followed further speeches from LIB and ALP members parroting the same positions.

On 25 August, the bill was read for a second time. Adam Searle then proposed amendments which would, if I am reading them correctly, allow police to caution offenders who have committed a first offence, and further restore a magistrate's discretion regarding the making of Community Service Orders.

Jane Barham (GRN) and David Shoebridge (GRN) both spoke in support of the amendments, whilst Scott MacDonald (LIB) spoke against. The House divided as follows:

The important part, and the part that would get O'Farrell so upset in the days to follow, is this: Mr Borsak (SF) and Mr Brown (SF) can both be seen in the Ayes section. The Shooters and Fishers had not said a word against the bill during the debate but voted for the amendments.

The bill as amended was put to a vote and, with only the Greens opposing it, was passed and returned to the Legislative Assembly.

O'Farrell's fury practically screams off the pages of Hansard for 26 August:

The bill was sent back to the Legislative Assembly with the following message:

Not content to have his say in parliament, O'Farrell immediately started speaking to the media about the issue using what can only be described inflammatory language:

From SMH - full article here
Whilst O'Farrell was out talking about the act however, the Greens were far more interested in talking about the fact that the Shooters and Fishers had sided with the ALP and the Greens:

From SMH - full article here
By Saturday O'Farrell was ripping into the Shooters for voting for the amendments in the manner in which they did:
From SMH - full article here
Typically, the Tele went over the top with this headline:

Full article here
Herald reports suggest that since the vote the Shooters members have been avoiding the media.

It is difficult to imagine why the Shooters would create this issue.  Do they really care that much about the Graffiti legislation?  They are more than a single issue party, but they also usually pick their battles. Why this?  Why now?

The cynic in me wants to suggest that they have been put up to this by O'Farrell as a chance to prove their independence on a comparatively minor bill - but the drama seems to have hurt the two parties, despite the fact that it has somewhat lessened the impression of being in the Coalition's pocket.

The Greens have been busy saying that this issue a big falling out between the Coalition and the Shooters:

As for me - I don't know what to think.  Perhaps the Shooters are sticking it to the Coalition by voting down a bill that had been a part of their campaign - but how does voting with the Greens and the ALP help the Shooters?

And is it possible that O'Farrell really didn't expect that to happen?  No matter what it is that the Shooters want - why would they do this without giving O'Farrell any warning whatsoever.

I don't know.  The more I think about it, the more I think that there is more to this than meets the eye.  Maybe the Shooters are feeling taken for granted.  Maybe they will relent and let the bill pass through the Legislative Council once they get a commitment on something they want from the Coalition.

Or maybe this has all happened with a wink and a nudge from both sides, just to prove to everyone that they are not the great mates everyone seems to think they are. I certainly find it hard to believe that this is all about the merits of the bill.

Either way, I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more about this bill, no matter what happens when it reappears in the Legislative Council later this week.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Is someone Stoned?

This Andrew Stoner thing has gotten a little ridiculous.

If you missed it, I blogged earlier this week about the Andrew Stoner "scandal".

In short, whilst Labor was still in power, there was an inquiry into the solar panel rebate.  For about two months there was speculation that once the inquiry was completed the rate would be reduced, but that those that had already signed up would retain the higher rate.

In due course, on 27 October 2010 Keneally announced that, as of midnight that night, the rate for all new signups would be reduced.

Labor got their knickers in a knot earlier this week about the fact that, later that same day, Stoner got a pair, shot out and signed up for the scheme.

Full release can be seen here
For some reason this only came to light earlier this week.

Accusations of hypocrisy was bandied about, and my view remains that they are ridiculous.

The Coalition's position has been that the scheme is a waste of money, but for me there is no reason that he, being a taxpayer himself, should miss out.


Earlier this morning Kristina Keneally continued her efforts to revitalise her twitter profile - linking articles, retweeting mentions, and generally getting involved.

Among all those tweets, I spotted this:

The article linked was this one:

Full article here
Now, I can understand Keneally's glee at this.  She was unfairly criticised for signing up for the scheme just a few weeks before Stoner did, whilst the government was considering reducing the rate.

But, nonetheless, the fact that the matter has been referred to ICAC looks, to me, like a blatant attempt at mud-throwing.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption does what it sounds like - investigate corruption.

What exactly is Stoner meant to have done that can be described, in ANY way, shape or form, as corruption?

The Tele article makes this new and rather odd allegation:

The only other mention of this $100 allegation is this article, also on the Tele website:

Full article here
It is odd that in the above article, published yesterday, says that the installer admitted that the $100 was paid after the deadline, whilst the article published today says that he has refused to confirm that it was paid late.

It's also odd that it is only the Tele that is making the $100 allegation - Sean Nicholls wrote a piece today about the scandals plaguing the Coalition at the moment, and makes no mention of it.

I don't know whether Stoner was required to pay the deposit before midnight or not.  Even if he was, I still don't see how what he did is "corruption".

The ICAC website defines corruption as follows:

Even assuming that Stoner really did pay the $100 after midnight, and assuming that a deposit was required before midnight, there is zero evidence that anything he did fits in the above categories.

To refer the matter to ICAC in the absence of any such evidence (and if there was any, you can bet we'd have heard about it) is nothing more than mudslinging.

And Labor should be ashamed for engaging in it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let the Sun Shine In

I am often puzzled at the things that politicians pretend to care about.

There are times when parliament seems to be in a constant state of manufactured outrage - ranting and raving about things that we all know they as politicians don't care about, but things they hope will get the public upset.

Such is the political paradigm in Australia today.

The fuss over Andrew Stoner and the solar feed-in tariff is exactly that.

Image from here
I covered the solar issue a few month ago during O'Farrell's aborted attempt to slash the feed-in rate from apparently unsustainable levels.

In short. the Labor government had introduced a tariff of 60c per kilowatt hour for power gathered by solar panels and "fed back" into the network.

The scheme was incredibly generous and, unsurprisingly, massively oversubscribed.

As a result, the Labor government reduced the rate to 20c, but allowed all people who signed up at the 60c to retain that tariff.

The change was announced on 27 October 2010. A Google News Search brought up this article on news.com.au, purported to have been published at 11:40 on that day, saying:

Hansard shows that sometime around about 17:30 that day a bill was introduced to the Legislative Assembly:

There was a short debate on the bill between 20:00 and 21:20 and the bill was passed with support from both sides of the chamber.

It is interesting to note that, during her speech in support of the bill, Catherine Cusack (Lib) said the following:

There was outrage from the Coalition a few days later when it was revealed that Keneally had signed up to the scheme before the rate was reduced. She was revealed to have signed up 5 days after the government flagged an intention to review the sceme and less than 2 months before the changes were announced.

Keneally was asked this question by Donald Page (Nat):

In any event, Keneally managed to arrange things such that she missed out on the 60c rate regardless.

The issue sprang to life again today when the ALP released this statement:

Now, I'm as enthusiastic as the next person when it comes to highlighting hypocrisy. In fact, few things give me more joy than seeing a hypocrite being revealed for who he or she really is.

But I'm not sure that the mud here sticks.

Firstly - i've had a cursory search of the internet and I cannot find any statement made by Stoner directly in support of the changes. 

That said, when the tariff was reduced he, along with his party, supported the change.

I've also posted the question above asked by one of his Coalition colleagues.

I've searched Hansard for 27 October for any mention of Stoner, and there is none.  In his press release John Robertson says that he was granted a pair for a portion of that day - presumably the parties keep some record of these things, so I've no reason to doubt that he did indeed pop out of parliament to get the application in. 

A search for his name and the word solar brings up three entries:

  • A question on 28 October (the day after the change) where he asks the then Minister for Energy Paul Lynch, when he was first advised about the blow-out in cost of the scheme
  • A dixer from Leslie Williams (Nat) to Stoner on 24 May 2011 (after O'Farrell announced the change in the tariff but before the backdown) about the effect of Labor's Solar Bonus Scheme, and 
  • A question from Linda Burney (ALP) on 24 May 2011 challenging Stoner in relation to a written guarantee he gave to a constituent that the bonus scheme would not be amended retrospectively.
At the end of the day, the criticism from Labor appears to be that he signed up to the scheme that his party (at the very least, if not Stoner himself) has called a massive waste of government money.

The fact that he signed up for the program on the last possible day is thrown in, almost as if to suggest he had some sort of insider knowledge.

I have a little trouble getting outraged about that.

He didn't break any laws.  He didn't lie, cheat or steal.  He took advantage of a scheme put in place by Labor that was about to be brought to an end.

True, his party did then and has since coming into power criticised Labor's decision to set the tariff at 60c.

That said, there are some taxes that I think are too low - but I'm not going to pay extra in (even if I could) because there are other taxes that I think are too high, and I don't expect that excuse to carry much weight with the State Debt Recovery Office.

I thought the "metro" train systems proposed by the Labor government were a terrible idea - but had they been built I would see no hypocrisy in using them, given that I as a taxpayer would have funded their construction.

I agree that the 60c tariff was far too high - but if I owned a house rather than an apartment you can bet every dollar you have that I would have jumped all over that 60c tariff, and been pretty pleased about the result.

Being opposed to a policy doesn't mean you have to be self-righteous about it and refuse the benefit accrued.

Look, Stoner was pretty stupid in the way he went about it.  Everyone in parliament surely must have known that the amendment was coming, and to wait til the last day and then go about it in the way he did was asking for trouble,

But he has taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by a particularly stupid Labor policy, as did thousands and thousands of of NSW residents.

And that doesn't make him a hypocrite.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Train of Thought

Arguably the Coalition's biggest election promise (and certainly the biggest infrastructure promise) was to build the North West Rail link.

It is an enormous project with an massive price tag for any State Government.  That said, it is one of those projects that just has to happen if Sydney is going to handle its population growth in a sustainable, sensible way.

The problem is less obvious when you view the Sydney train map as we usually see it:

Of course, the train map looks nothing like that in real life:

Picture from Wikipedia
The most important map, though, is this one:

That map is taken from Labor's Metropolitan Transport Plan. The most important things to note are the North West and South West Growth Centres.

The government has asked all local councils to accept additional residents by rezoning.  Those that cannot be fit into present developed areas will have to go somewhere.

Of course, whether Sydney should be allowed to grow in this way is another discussion that should be had, but lies somewhere beyond the scope of this post.

It is pretty obvious that the South West Rail link will be needed to service the South West Growth Area.  The route can be seen on this map, marked in black on the bottom left, and it is expected to be completed in 2016:

The North West Rail link is not only needed to service the North West Growth Area, but also to give people in the North West an option for getting to the city other than the M7, M2, and Lane Cove Tunnel.

Driving to the city from these areas is very expensive, which would not be a problem if there was a reliable, frequent, late-running train service, which of course there is not.

The other obvious gap in the map is the train line to the northern beaches, but that appears to be off everyone's radar at the moment.

I had planned to write here about the long history of rail lines promised for the North West, but franly the history is too sordid and confusing.  Suffice to say that if you would like to be walked through the Labor Government's inablity to accomplish anything substantive in this area then the Wikipedia will explain it all.

Of course, Labor did deliver the Chatswood-Epping connection. That said, this was originally meant to be the Parramatta-Chatswood connection, and was completed at a cost way above the original budgeted cost for the Parramatta-Chatswood plan.

The problem is not of O'Farrell's making. In fact, the Labor government that preceded his is not entirely to blame either.  Bradfield laid the plans for Sydney's train system.  The plans were visionary - the problem is that over 100 years later Sydney has outgrown those plans.  

Sydney's train lines in the late 1800's
For years we have desperately needed a government that was able to make a plan, commit to it, provide funding and ensure that Sydney had room to grow.

Of course, as history shows, the Labor government's fixation on roads meant we now have a pretty good road system.  Admittedly it costs a bit to use it, but we got roads that the government could never afford to have build (or so they say). I, for one, have no trouble with a portion of user pays on our roads.

By contrast, train lines will inevitably need to be subsidised by the government as commuters will usually not pay enough to cover costs. 

But train lines offer a potential for growth that roads do not. One only need to look at cities like Los Angeles to see the consequences of failing to provide good, efficient and affordable public transport.

Buses, especially in the North West and the Northern beaches have partially filled the void.  But buses have a limited capacity - many people avoid them because they are irregular, unreliable, and often stop running an inconvenient times.

This story published today in the SMH that the planners are reconsidering the location of the stations.

This is appropriate - whilst I have no doubt that many people have been complaining about the time it is taking to "turn the first sod", it is essential that a little time be taken to get things right the first time.

A well planned, efficient train system is vital to a thriving city - and this process is part of planning things out in a sensible fashion.

As someone who works in the Sydney CBD and catches the train every day, I shudder to imagine what Sydney would look like if we did not have the train system that we do.

But train systems require constant re-investment if it is to cope with the inevitably uneven population growth.

For decades now Sydney has not had the benefit of decisive planning and investment in the train system. If O'Farrell really does achieve his stated objective of being the infrastructure premier, then Sydney will have the benefit of his political courage for decades to come.

If not, then he will join a long list of premiers who promised big and failed to deliver.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A hair-brained idea?

Ex-Premier is a pretty tough gig. It's even tougher when you don't retire but rather remain as a humble back-bencher.  Moreover, a back-bencher for a party reduced to only 20 seats after one of the most inevitable and yet humiliating defeats in Australian electoral history.

Whilst I had plenty of criticism for Keneally in her time at the helm, at the end of the day the defeat she presided over was unavoidable. There was nothing she could do to prevent it besides hope that O'Farrell implode in spectacular fashion.

Upon being defeated she had the good sense to step aside and allow the rebuilding to commence, although whether her choice of replacement is any better suited to the task is another question entirely.

Photo from here
It seemed fait accompli that Keneally would step aside after the election, and speculation was rife as to what her plans were.

She committed to serve out her term to quell speculation that she was planning to pursue a career in Canberra.

In any event, that seemed to me to be an unlikely course - how much success could she really have with this defeat hanging round her neck?  Keneally wasn't solely to blame for the loss, but she was still part of the Labor caucus in the years leading up to the defeat.

Assuming she obtained preselection for a NSW federal seat, it is not difficult to imagine the tactics an effective Coalition campaigner would adopt.

In the event, Keneally really has gone to ground since the election.  She stopped tweeting, and she was either not offered or was refused a cabinet position. Presumably she has been doing some work behind the scenes, but her profile has been pretty much zero.

In fact, according to this piece she is the only Labor MLA to not have given a speech this term.

Photo from here
On 2 August, however, Keneally burst back onto the political radar.  And she did it with a haircut.

Personally, I couldn't care less how Keneally wears her hair.  On the day the new haircut debuted , there was a frenzy on Twitter as journalists frantically reported the rampant gossip.  I found it all rather unedifying.

The Tele published this rather breathless piece about the new 'do, including reporting that Keneally's "preferred hairdresser" refused to comment.

Nick O'Malley gave us this drivel (which I still can't believe the Herald published):

As if that wasn't enough:
Now, that's all by the by.  The point I want to make is that Keneally knew this would be the reaction.  Whether this reaction is justified or not, she must have expected a fuss.

That's not to say she shouldn't have cut her hair.  If she wants to shave her head and get a dozen piercings it's no concern of mine.

But her actions start to seem a little more calculated when you look at what has happened in the fortnight since.

Predictably, everyone was aflutter about the new haircut for a few days, The next day this piece was published in the Daily Telegraph dredging up all those old questions about what Keneally's plans were.

The journo took the opportunity to quote a "senior Labor source" saying "I think she's sticking with the line that she's going to stay but you wouldn't be wrong to say it's possible she'll go earlier."

Keneally would have known that she didn't need to do anything to keep her name in the headlines for the next few days - bored journos would keep filing stories about the hair for a few days.

According to this piece in the Southern Courier published on 8 August, "The Southern Courier was the only media Kristina Keneally agreed to speak with last week after her new hair-do quickly became the hottest political ticket item on returning to parliament."

She also "insisted there was no basis to any of the rumours that she was considering resigning" although the quote provided immediately following seemed a lot more ambiguous that the conclusion drawn:

In this piece published in the SMH she revealed that she had been appointed to the board of South Cares, the South Sydney Rabbitohs' charitable arm.

Today there was a puff piece in the Tele talking about Keneally and a concert next week.

What's important to note, besides the fact that both of these stories would no doubt be heavily based on a press release issued by her office, is that both carried posed photos.  The length of her hair in the photos proves that they are not convenient recycled stock photos, but rather the result of a photo shoot.

Most surprisingly of all, Keneally has also reappeared on twitter.  As Premier, she posted over 2500 tweets, but had not posted since the election.

Suddenly, on 9 August, she resurfaced with this:

SInce then, she has been responding to tweets, retweeting colleagues, having a dig at Fred Nile, and generally using twitter most effectively.

So, does this mean anything?  I think it does.  I just wish I knew what.

It can't be a leadership tilt.  Not even NSW Labor could be that stupid, and I doubt Keneally thinks they are.

Nor do I think a move into the Federal parliament is likely.  It just doesn't make any political sense.

It is possible that she is looking to retire from parliament, and is presently increasing her profile to try and score a job, either in the private sector or perhaps some important government position.  This would seem like an odd way to do it though.

Maybe this is all just part of her trying to take a more active role and perform well as a local member. But again, she doesn't need profile to make that happen.

Of course, only Keneally and her staff will know for sure what is going on.

But it seems to me that she is trying something.  Hopefully we won't have to wait long to find out what.