Sunday, July 29, 2012

Insuring Political Success

The NDIS was always going to be a tricky political challenge for O'Farrell.

First of all, what is an NDIS exactly? This, from the very fancy NDIS website:
In principle, it's pretty tough to argue that it is not a good idea. The idea for the scheme comes out of a Productivity Commission report released in 2011 entitled Disability Care and Support. Some extracts from the Executive Summary:
Of course, the immediate problem is that it the scheme was always going to require a significant increase in funding levels. Given the Federal government's "need" to return to surplus this financial year, not to mention other pressures on revenue and expenditure, $6.5 billion was always going to be difficult to come by.

Moreover, the Federal Government's financial relationship with the States is a fraught one, not least of all because of GST distributions.

When the GST was introduced, part of the deal was that it would replace a large number of State consumption taxes. In return, all GST revenue is (unevenly) distributed to the States, through process that (I like to imagine) must all but lead to fisticuffs between the Premiers at the COAG (Council of Australian Governments) meetings.

Despite the Productivity Commissions recommendation that the NDIS be funded out of Consolidated Revenue, the Federal Government went to COAG looking for the States to contribute.

Party politics at COAG is often a tricky thing. Premiers from the same side of politics as the Federal Government often find themselves boxed into supporting a Prime Minister when, in truth, the deal offered is not be best for their state.

By contrast, the Premiers who are not aligned with the Prime Minister can almost always emerge from COAG, have a whine to the press about how their state is getting a raw deal and how the PM is out of touch, and then head back having accomplished their ultimate goal of scoring a few cheap points.

This COAG was a little different. Gillard knew, as I indicated earlier, that it would be very easy to paint the Liberal Premiers as the "bad guys" if they didn't agree to fund the NDIS. And, indeed, when a deal was not immediately struck, that was exactly what happened.

I'm going to try and "track the story" for you guys as it happened, so we can get a sense for how the political tussle unfolded.  All stories are posted in the order the appeared (at least according to Google News).

The NDIS had already been all over the news for some time in the lead-up to COAG. For example:
SBS, 22 July
Gillard had been careful to ensure that the public knew that the Federal Government was ready to fund the scheme:
SMH. 23 July
She would have been unsurprised to encounter opposition from the Queensland government. Premier Campbell Newman is not just a LNP Premier - he is a LNP Premier with an enormous majority, an emaciated opposition and a willingness to do whatever he wants no matter who complains about it.
From Business Spectator, 24 July
Gillard would also have been unsurprised to see that the two Labor states and the ACT were the first to clamber on board. She was quick to start piling the political pressure on NSW and Victoria:
Sky News,  25 July
This piece in The Age really summed up the inevitable political fall-out for the Liberal/LNP Premiers:
The Age, 26 July
The most important fact Gillard was able to deploy was the comparatively small amount of money she was asking them to contribute:
Sky News, 26 July
The States did try to fight by (anonymously) leaking that they had made an offer that they knew Gillard would never, ever accept:
The Australian, 27 July
But that was never going to give them any real political cover.

Neither was O'Farrell's rather odd complaint about the fact that only the trial was discussed at COAG, not the full roll-out:, 27 July
In the end, as was surely inevitable, the Liberal Premiers in NSW and Victoria caved and agreed to fund the trial.
Financial Review, 28 July
So, was it handled well by O'Farrell? It's hard to say.

On one hand, he had to show that he was "leading" on this, not being pulled along by the snout. The last thing he wants is to be tarred if the trial is shown to be a failure, or a waste of money.

As well as that, he is a Liberal Premier, and the NDIS is going to be a huge victory for a Labor Prime Minister. I'd love to listen in to the call Abbott made to O'Farrell after the funding was announced.

Having said all that, it's pretty bloody tough to look good (or even just to hold your nerve) when you're opposing funding for disability services.

Given that it was surely inevitable that O'Farrell was going to be forced to cave and provide funding, it would have been far better for him if he had rather tried to portray a bickering over structure rather than the scheme as a whole. That way he could still be "fighting for NSW" and making sure the state got the best deal.

That may well have been the original intention - but what the media communicated was a mindless, partisan blocking of a scheme that was always going to have overwhelming support.

Not his best week.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

One Stop to Efficiency?

I was struck yesterday by this announcement on the SMH website:
Full story here
At first blush, this is a great idea. I know I've spent more time than I care to count in the past running around to various departments and offices trying to get things sorted. out. It would be great if all those services were gathered in one place.

This announcement is an expanded version of what was announced at the CeBit conference last year:
Full story here
An integrated web portal is a great idea, and a pretty practical one. Why should every government website be separately designed and maintained? There is no obvious reason why the different departments should not enjoy an economy of scale and share the same website design and general functionality.

The idea of all of the departments sharing one "service counter', however, is an entirely different prospect.

Consider for a moment the practical implications. The most obvious departments that people have interactions with are :

  • Roads and Maritime Services
  • Police
  • The Courts (a least 10, in total)
  • Land Titles
  • Office of State Revenue
  • Planning
  • Health
  • Education
  • And countless others
The article promises that some 210 departments will share the same service desk.

Each of these departments has different functions, different forms, different information, and different equipment. I've not been able to locate any further information about the centres other than this SMH article, so I'm not aware of precisely which departments will be included in the list.

We have probably all experienced the problem of approaching a customer service counter and finding someone who wasn't able to answer their question or assist in one transactions or other.

Are we really expected to believe that the information about the varying functions of 210 government departments will miraculously be available to the staff at these centres?

Is every single one of these one-stop-shops going to be able to print me a new drivers licence, stamp my land-documents, accept an application for enrolment in a public school and provide advice about a public hospital?

That is without even considering the number of forms and documents that these centres would have to be able to provide, assist with and then process.

I cannot possible imagine that could be the case.  And, if I am right, and that is not going to be accomplished, what exactly are these one-stop shops meant to do?

To me, it seems like Mr O'Farrell may have either announced something he has no intention of delivering, or otherwise allowed a journalist to grossly misunderstand what the true purpose of these centres is to be. Because surely it cannot be what this article promises.

Not that I wouldn't love to be wrong. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Drunk and Cross

The alcohol lobby has had a disproportionate influence on policy in New South Wales for a long, long time.

The Australian Hotels Association and Clubs NSW are often accused of running this state. And given the concessions they continue to receive, it is difficult to disagree.

I work as a criminal defence lawyer, and just I've lost count of the number of clients I have represented after a night of violence in the Rocks or in Kings Cross. It's a constant theme in the Local Courts - people brawling with each other, security guards or even just random passers by.

This why, tragic as the death of Thomas Kelly was, the only remarkable thing was the tragic result:
Full Story here
The various places around Sydney where bars proliferate are, put simply, dangerous places.

When I was at school, I distinctly remember a teacher telling us that there are three kinds of drunks - Happy drunks, sleep drunks and angry drunks. Sadly, it seems like a lot of people drinking in Sydney at that third group - and angry drunks are going to hit people.

The death of Thomas Kelly lead to this forum earlier this week:
Full Story here
There are all sorts of theories as to what the solution is, with every vested interest having their say. The only problem is that most the vested interest have skin in the game because they are responsible for the service and sale of alcohol.

The obvious problem is one that no politician has the courage to face up to - as long as we gather all the drunk people in one place, the angry drunks are going to hit people.

Australians like to drink, and a lot of those Australians like to drink a lot. And the people that sell that alcohol rather like making a lot of money from it.

And I'm not sure that there are any politicians who are actually interested in fixing that.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Speaking to the Choir

As most of you would know, NSW Labor held their NSW State conference at the Sydney Town Hall over the weekend.

These conferences are important - not just because they are a time to for delegates to come together and vote on policy, but also because they are a time for a party to refocus. There are big speeches from leaders, and maybe a change in an important policy - but most importantly the media's attention is on that particular party for a weekend.

Leaders have the chance to give over-arching, wide reaching speeches about what the party believes and stands for. Inevitably, when deserved, the media may be distracted by a particular vote (as it was after the Queensland LNP conference), but if managed well conferences can almost hit a "reset button".

In those circumstances, I thought it would be instructive to have a look at Robertson's speech to the NSW conference to see what we could glean about what he sees as being the big issues.

The full speech can be seen here on the NSW Labor website. It's a long speech, so I'm not going to extract the whole thing here - please have a read of the full version if you get the chance.
In fairness, I should acknowledge that this is a speech to the party faithful, not a televised address.  Some level of "positive reinforcement" should therefore be tolerated in a way that might not otherwise if the audience was more general.

That said, BS is BS wherever it is said. [It has been drawn to my attention that it sounds like I am suggesting that Robertson's acknowledgement of the traditional owners is BS. I should clarify that the   BS comment refers to some of what comes later on - not the acknowledgement. I included the first paragraph just because it was necessary so that you can see his whole photo, and as an intro to what follows.] But more about that later.
I've written about the up-coming by-election here - Keneally has already stepped down, so we can expect that it will be soon. As I have said, the Labor candidate shouldn't be to troubled by the opposition.
It is interesting that Robertson would talk about a mandate. A lot of the talk since the last election (including on this blog) has been about what kind of mandate O'Farrell has. He has done a lot of things that he "neglected to mention" during the campaign - but many of those things were no less than you would expect from a Coalition government.

Unless we are talking about outright deception, I'd don't have too much of a problem with that. Election are all about accentuate the positive, and Labor can't pretend they didn't do the same thing.

But the reason the word "mandate" caught my eye was because so much has been said about O'Farrell's "blank cheque" and about precisely what kind of mandate the election win gave him.  The recognition of this mandate in Robertson's speech is, in that context, a little confusing.

Sadly for Robertson, however, his assertion about the public caring about what O'Farrell does isn't really borne out. The polls have barely moved an inch since the election.

I've speculated about why that might be here. True it is that there have been protests and petitions - but it seems that the vast majority of the people upset by O'Farrell's action were always in the ALP/Greens column. Either that or, despite everything what has happened, they still see O'Farrell as being better than the alternative.
Of course that's all 100% true. The problem is that O'Farrell was never boxed into making that a promise. Labor's ineptitude in the months and years leading up to the election meant that O'Farrell could get away with vague, non-specific statements such as the one quoted above.

Not that he has shown any reluctance to break actual promises when needed - but Robertson should perhaps have a look at his own party and wonder why performed so poorly that the voters were willing to elect someone who so obviously dodged actually promising to do anything.

Speaking of broken promises:
Now, in fairness, the gaol isn't "closing' per se - but what has happened (a massive reduction in inmate and staffing numbers) is certainly outside the "spirit" of the promise.

The issue was not helped, in my view, by the clumsy way that the matter was handled by the local member, Chris Gulaptis.

The only thing I would like to say is that I always find it a little distasteful when politicians go on site and sympathise with people - standing on a picket-line and purporting to be "worried about what would become of their town" - but maybe I'm just letting my cynicism show.
Tough to argue with any of that - except to say that he hasn't actually broken a promise yet, and selling the retailers was Labor's idea first.
Promises about the cost of living have always been, and remain, pretty stupid promises to make. In the first place, there is not as great deal that politicians (especially state politicians) can do to reduce the cost of living.

Second of all, Australians have a truly remarkable to whine about how expensive everything has gotten when in fact no such thing has occurred. You're on a hiding to nothing if you promise to keep cost of living low, as Kevin Rudd learned when he was Prime Minister.
There is a long (and slightly over-dramatic) bit here about what has happened with the National Parks (as I have written about here), but suffice to say it is a fair criticism and one we will, I am sure, be hearing a lot more about in the years to come.
Naturally Robertson is right to recognize that Labor has a pretty poor record of late when it comes to the honesty and trustworthiness of the people Labor has entrusted with power. It is strange to see him bring it up, however, until he continues:
This is a good idea - it's such a good idea it is a little baffling that this wasn't the policy in the first place.

Two things I want to say about it. Firstly, it is naive to think that all undesirable candidates will be excluded because of this process. Dishonest people don't wear a sign around their neck, and this "Committee of Party Elders" will, I am sure, not be immune to the temptation to approve candidates because they can win, rather than because they are the kind of people Labor want going forward.

Second of all, this sits at odds with the direct election of the party leader that has been bandied about of late. Either Labor trusts its members to choose the right person, or it does not - I don't really care either way, but to pretend you can have both at once is a little silly.
This is a good policy, although precisely what it is that announcing a policy two and a half years out from an election (and six and a half years out from a winnable election) proves is a little beyond me. But I can't fault the policy, even if it is just for show.
This is something we had better get used to - because we are going to be hearing a lot more of it.

The biggest political problem for O'Farrell with his changes to the Worker's Comp laws is that it is just so darn easy for Labor to hit the emotions of the electorate.

Between now and the next election there will no doubt be thousands of people whose treatment at the hands of the Worker's Comp laws will, at least intuitively, seem unfair. Whether it is or isn't of course is not the point - injured workers will be paraded before the electorate to demonstrate what O'Farrell's changes mean for the worker. It is easy, it is effective, and it's going to go on and on.

It may be a few years until we have an election, but it looks like Robertson has already started campaigning. Whether he is still there for the actual campaign remains to be seen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Training for Success

In my school career I only ever attended full-uniform schools.

Some of those schools were more enthusiastic about what constituted necessary adherence to the prescribed standard, but nonetheless there was always a uniform, and there were always consequences for breaching them.

The question of whether we should wear uniforms was always a favourite for lazy English teachers trying to pick debate topics. If you were on the side arguing in favour of uniforms you always blathered on about how being dressed appropriately makes a difference to your mindset and, consequently, the quality of your work.

These days, when I no longer wear a uniform but rather have to keep to no less oppressive standards of dress (being able to choose the colour of your suit, shirt and tie doesn't change the fact that you are forced to wear a suit, shirt and tie). I believe that it's not so much that the standard of work rises when one is dressed - what happens is that ones attitude to the workplace is different when it is a workplace that imposes some standards on how one is presented.

There are workplaces where it is important to instill some sort of respect for the workplace itself - if the employer couldn't care less about how I present myself to my colleagues and the customers, why should I care about the quality of my work?

I'm sure there is research on this, but it's late, I've been at work all day, I've just spent half an hour reading about organisational management in preparation for writing this blog (the sacrifices I make for you people!) and I still need to make and eat dinner before the Tour de France starts, so I'm going to let you do your own reading.

Suffice to say that workplaces enforcing dress codes can be an important step.

It's all got to do with the Bureaucratic Organisation. In short, there is a management theory that prescribes, amongst other things:

- Clear jurisdiction of roles
- Heirarchial management
- Strict rules and procedures for employees
Max Weber, bureaucratic enthusiast. From here
As I stretch my memory back to second year accounting, a bureaucratic structure is well used in organisations that benefit from tight control of the responsibilities and roles that employees have. It is great for large government bodies and the like, and awful for any organisation that needs to respond quickly to change. It stifles creativity and innovation, but it provides predictability and reliability.

Obviously a poor fit for most organisations.  But for CityRail, it seems about right.

My theory is that this is the context that this announcement from CityRail should be viewed in:
Full story here
As should be expected, twitter had it's fun with the topic:
But joking aside, this focus on neatness may well be part of a move towards a more bureaucratic structure at CityRail.

It's hard to imagine a structure more suited to bureaucracy. Everyone below management (so, the people who actually get stuff done) have pretty clearly defined roles and rigidly enforced rules for performing those roles. The last thing I want my train driver doing is using his bloody initiative, that's for sure.

And if you want to instill a culture of following the rules, abiding by procedure and doing things by the book, what better place to start with than appearance?

Sure, it seems petty, and in fairness it probably is. But what it does is start instilling a culture of doing things by the book. It doesn't make sense to have tightly controlled boundaries in one area, but then have a slovenly attitude (pun intended) to another.

No one really cares about how the train driver dresses. But I, for one, care very much about his attitude to the rules - and if making him wear his cap properly or not at all is the best way to make it happen, then I'm all for it.

Having said that, the people telling us about how great this organisational structure is are the same people who make you fill out those blasted personality tests so that you know that the reason you can't stand that person you work with is because you have fundamentally different ways of approaching conflict in the workplace when really you know that it is just because they are a twat.

So maybe it's all rubbish and you just wasted 5 minutes of your life. But maybe not.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Party Prison

Party loyalty is a funny thing.

I've always been frustrated by the level of control exerted by party leadership in Australia.

One of the reasons is it makes things pretty predictable. The party that has the majority in the lower house (whether we are talking state or federal) is inevitably able to force through just about anything it wants, meaning there isn't exactly much of a contest about it.

Crossing the floor is not unheard of, but certainly something that can have enormous ramifications for the member in question.

I've explained previously why I've enjoyed the federal minority government (as a wonk, if not as a citizen) for this very reason. 

Of course, there is always the upper house, and the fact that senators/MLCs serve a longer term as well as the fact that it is extremely difficult to win more than half of those seats at any election (let alone control more than half at any one time) usually means that it is remarkable to have a majority in both houses (as Howard did towards the end of his tenure).

Of course, our Queensland siblings don't even have an upper house, which makes the LNP's demolition of Labor earlier this year all the more significant.

In the US, by contrast, there is a real contest about much of the legislation that comes before the congress. I don't know if it is because of the incredible loyalty Americans have to their State (I think it is safe to say that the US would dissolve the union before they got rid of the states) or because of the enormous size of their congress (their lower house has 435 members) but either way the votes actually matter - the passage of a lot of legislation through the lower house is far from guaranteed.

Now, inevitably there is horse-trading, and holders of valuable votes are able to win disproportionate spending in their districts - but to me this is better that than aniron-fist controlling the members.

What this inevitably means for NSW is that members are forced to support bills that they either have a personal objection to, or even bills that are awful for the voters in their seat.

Chris Gulaptis (the MLA for Clarence) is a great example of this.
Photo from here
Grafton gaol is being downsized - the capacity of the gaol is being reduced from 275 to 60, and 92 people will lose their jobs. Inevitably, Gulaptis is copping some stick - he fronted a rally of over 500 people protesting the closure last week.

Now,  think we can assume that Gulaptis must have had something to say internally about the plans to downsize the gaol. The decision arose out of a report earlier this year that said there was culture of bullying and harassment at the gaol, although why this means that the gaol must be downsized is unclear to me.

Self-preservation suggests that he must have had something to say. Gulaptis won the seat of Clarence in a by-election in November last year with a margin of 16% - but he must be anticipating a swing back to Labor at the next election, and if he becomes an unpopular local member then he may find himself in some trouble.

The problem is that he was forced to go out and publicly support the plans.  It is not hard to imagine how his local electorate reacted.

The result was these slightly ridiculous comments at the rally I mentioned earlier - he has apologised for stuffing up in trying to sell the plan to his electorate.
Photo from the ABC
I don't have the full text of his speech, but I think we can assume he didn't apologise for being part of a government that made the decision in the first place, not did he suggest that he fought hard against the changes.

My point is this - what would be the harm if he was let off the leash and able to "fight" the changes?

There is no danger of him actually doing any significant damage - the Coalition controls the lower house by an enormous margin. He wants to be re-elected in 2015, and the Coalition wants the same thing.

This change won't actually require a vote, but if it did - why shouldn't he be allowed to waltz across the floor and make a big fuss about going against what his party wants for the good of the people in his seat?

Instead, we have the slightly ridiculous situation of him trying to "sell" the plan to the people who are going to (he hopes) be voting for him in 3 years time.

It's not even like he is a member of the cabinet and therefore has to support the decision it has made (which is a bloody good reason to not have the executive drawn from the legislature, but that's another discussion).

A little recognition of the fact that these people are not only individuals but that they should have some loyalty to the people that voted for them would not only make the lower house more interesting - it would give politicians an opportunity to stand for something, rather than being a warm body, to be shuffled to the appropriate side of the chamber when told.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fuelling dissent

So. Free fuel today.
Can't believe I can't find a pic of the board showing "0.00" This pic from here
A Woolowrth servo in Burwood gave away E10 fuel (90% petrol, 10% ethanol) for an hour this morning. Unsurprisingly, the promotion proved more than a little popular, and apparently caused major congestion on Parramatta Rd.
First this...
...and then this

The interesting part is that the fuel was apparently being given away by Woolworths AND the NSW government - which can only mean that the government was eating some of the cost.

Now, fuel ain't cheap, of course. And there can be no doubt that in an hour a HUGE amount can be pumped - especially if the customers don't have to go in and pay for the stuff.

Luckily for all of you, I used to work at a service station (spent 3 years riding a till one day a week while studying) so I know a bit about the topic.

Service stations keep their fuel in huge tanks under the ground - almost all have several tanks, and these tanks are usually into the tens of thousands of litres.

Most places get their fuel delivery a few times a week - this means that the station must be able to store enough fuel to get through a few days.  That can include a "cheap day" when fuel sales can be several times the amount sold on a "normal" day.

The point is that these tanks can hold a LOT of fuel - and that station would have gone through an eye-watering amount.

This Daily Terror tells us why:
It seems most likely that Woolworths/Caltex has been talking to the government about the trouble they are having meeting the 6% requirement, and a deal was worked out that seemed mutually beneficial.

The fact that the NSW government patrt funded this caper is not the only point of note - the Terror story reads as if vast tracts of it were simply copied and pasted from a press release:
You tell me that most of that section wasn't copied and pasted straight from a media release.

The shoddy work from those journalists shows just what a carefully thought out (some might say calculated) move this was by the government.

The free fuel got enormous amounts of coverage - I retweeted something about it, and there were countlesss tweets spreading the news.
The problem the government has is that large portions of the community have a pretty fixed idea about E10 fuel. I broke my "Never Read the Comments" rule to see what people had to see, and there wasn't one favourable comment about E10
Now, I would suggest that most of those comments suffer from confirmation bias (or just a selective ear). Ethanol produces 34% less energy than Petrol - so a tank with 10% Ethanol should burn with 3.4% less efficiency.

It would be as simple as seeing if the price is therefore 3.4% cheaper - but of course that figure must surely vary depending upon the car, the type of driving and any number of factors.

Moreover, the stations make it hard to compare by not having another fuel with a comparable octane reading, so it's almost impossible to run a fair test in your car.

At the end of the day, the government is pushing E10 fuel pretty hard. Maybe it is because Manildra is a major donor, or maybe it is because it is the most environmentally sound solution.

But if attitudes like those in the comments persist - well, it's going to be a pretty tough sell.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Just a short BlogPost today - it's been a big week for me and there hasn't been a huge amount going on that I consider blogworthy.

I spotted this tweet from the Premier's media guy late this week:
It's a great idea. It's such a good idea it is difficult to understand why it has taken so long to make it happen.

There has been a recurring discussion over the years about how to reward drivers who keep a clean record. One of the dumber suggestions I remember hearing was that the good drivers get rewarded by having their points limit increased. Exactly why a safe, responsible driver would benefit in any way from such an increase was never made clear.

A licence renewal is not cheap, and there is no doubt that people are going to notice the difference:
Moreover, cars and drivers licences seem to have a never ending list of costs - besides the day to day running, there are services, repairs, Green Slips, Pink Slips, car registration and heaven knows what else.

The licence renewal is often one of those fees we pay with some resentment, because there doesn't seem any good reason why we should be paying $150 for a new card with a dodgy photo on it. This dispension will make a lot of people feel very different about getting their licence renewed.

Often it seems that politicians get so distracted bickering over all manner of things that they never have time for good, sensible policy. And that is exactly what this is.