Musical chairs

In the end it was quite comical. Leadership of the Libs came down to a game of musical chairs, and when the music stopped Morrison was the new leader. He’s basically the Stephen Bradbury of Australian politics. After all the in-fighting and backstabbing, the striving, the bullying, the bellicose statements and brazen defiance, it was the man who had said least, the man who had actually stood by Turnbull when others abandoned him, who ended up being the man to replace him as Prime Minister.
One of the funniest aspects is that Peter Dutton, who contrived this ridiculous challenge and was so aggressive in promulgating it, set it up only to have someone take the prize. The Stephen Bradbury analogy is apt as everyone fell down leaving Morrison the last man standing. It was shoddily done by Dutton and his lieutenants and leaves him with egg on his face and potentially mortally wounded, but it also leaves the body politic in a much worse position.

The government itself is damaged to the point that it would take a miracle for them to be re-elected. Their credibility is shot to pieces and they’re stuck with a bumpkin as prime minister. And they’ve lost some of their best performers.

Much as he was hated within the party, and even if he was disappointing to many without it, Turnbull was one of the main things they had going for them. A poor politician, he was also clearly intelligent, articulate, and though ultimately irresolute, a decent man as well. Most with an open mind recognised that, and even as a confirmed critic of his I have to say I like him personally and am sorry to see him go out like this.

As well as him, Julie Bishop has stepped down, soured by Machiavellian machinations of the party, and the personal disrespect shown to her through this process. She and Turnbull were the two most popular members of the government and like that they’re gone, kaput! The talent has thinned further with their departure.

I seriously wonder if this will be the end of it. The conservatives of the party, having worked themselves into a fury, are left empty handed. They’re a bitter, angry lot and I’m certain they won’t let it go at this. They have only one objective in mind, getting one of theirs into the top job. Stay tuned.

The reasonable thing would be to call an early general election, but no-one expects that. Unless there’s a dramatic turnaround our next government will be Labor, though not until May next year.

A final word for Tony Abbott and Rupert Murdoch. Both of them are a scourge on Australian politics. Almost single-handedly he’s brought Australian politics to its knees. He’s a pox and in years to come will be seen as the destroyer he is. He has been aided and abetted by News Corp and their rum lot of so-called journalists, ratbags almost to a man. They’re led by Murdoch who sees power as its own reward and wants his version of the world to be represented and will do whatever he can to achieve it. Hence Donald Trump, and almost Peter Dutton. The day he dies will be a day to celebrate in many places in the world.


Huns at the gate

I’ve been following Australian politics for many years. Against my better judgement occasionally I’ve found myself drawn to the drama and conflict, the dynamic personalities and shifting narratives. There’s something Shakespearian in the play of politics, and that’s nowhere truer than in Australia.
In recent years the conflict and often bitter hostility has risen to a febrile pitch, both fascinating and terrible. It has become destructive and ugly and all-consuming. Though no-one seems to comprehend it at the time, there are no winners out of this – not the striving figures on competing sides, policy suffers, as does society, but the biggest losers out of this are the Australian public, who are entitled to expect better. It’s always been fascinating, but nowadays it’s a duel to the death.

For all those years following our politics I’ve never witnessed anything like what’s happened in the last few days. If you were not so dreadfully involved in how things play out you might see the sheer comic lunacy of some of the players and events. Certainly it’s farcical, but it’s also disgusting. Laid bare are the naked ambitions, the scoundrelish disloyalties, the petty selfishness. Few come out of this with any honour and it’s clear to anyone but the most blind that the good of the nation comes well behind individual opportunity in the eyes of those we have elected to serve us.

At some stage today or in the next few days it’s almost certain we’ll have a new prime minister. Who that is is anyone’s guess. It could be Dutton, the man who started all this, or Morrison or Bishop, or maybe even Abbott, god forbid. You never know, Turnbull may even survive by some miracle. Basically despite all the shenanigans of recent days, anything is possible, and good government has been suspended, both literally and figuratively. However it turns out a general election should be called soon after to be decent, but I don’t expect that.

What we are seeing is a war between the moderate and conservative factions of the Liberal party. Turnbull leads the moderates and had he been less compromising and more ruthless this situation might never have arisen. Like Chamberlain in 1938 he seems to have been under the delusion that he could negotiate with the devil. The problem is – as any savvy person knows – the more you give the devil, the more he wants. And the more he despises you. That’s Turnbull all over though – no political judgement.

Bishop is a moderate too, capable and articulate and relatively popular in the electorate, and hated by the conservatives. She’s a better option than Dutton or Morrison, but I don’t know if she’s up to being PM. To be honest, I don’t think she has the desire for it really, and fair enough.

Let’s discount Morrison who, even if he becomes a stand-in PM, is an incompetent buffoon. He’s a pragmatic conservative no-one trusts.

Then there’s Peter Dutton. He represents an existential threat to the Liberal party as we have come to know it. I’ve written about him before. He’s cold and calculating, a shrewd and ruthless operator beholden to a conservative ideology foreign to most Australians, but shared by the hard right rump of the Liberal party. They’re climate change sceptics, were against the same-sex marriage legislation, and in some cases promote a narrative verging on the racist. They’re in the pocket of big business and so promote old technologies such as coal fired power stations against cleaner and more efficient options – yet it aligns with their backward looking philosophies. They promote a toxic line that diminishes the people outside of that bracket – the many, if you like – concerned with getting the pay-rise long delayed while having their penalty rates cut. They are egged on at every step by News Corp, who are a pox wherever they set foot.

The first problem is this is not the government the people voted for. They’re blithely arrogant believing they know best, but a great portion of the Australian electorate are hostile to such a conservative ideology. If Dutton was to get up today or tomorrow and then govern until next year when the next election is due, then we the people will be subject to a government that few want.

The greater issue is what this means for the Liberal party. I wrote many months ago that I could see the Liberal party splitting into two. The problem, as I saw it, was the right wing ideologues are fanatics. They broach no opposition. They won’t consider an alternative view. They sneer at the moderate snowflakes. It’s their way or the highway. There’s no compromise in them, and ultimately little practicality. They are the poisonous right wing version of Keating’s basket-weavers of the left, unwilling to deal even if it means political death otherwise.

The only way the Liberal party survives as an entity is if the conservative edge of the party consumes the moderates, but no-one sensible wants that because it becomes a different party. It becomes a narrow party of the right full of hardliners; the moderate middle dies.

We don’t want that because it would be bad for democracy, but the alternative as I see it is that the two factions hive off. The conservatives go further to the right, embracing fellow travellers like One Nation and joining with Cory Bernardi’s ratbags. The moderates make for the sensible middle – the place Turnbull always wanted to sit, slightly to the right of the ALP (but just marginally these days – Labor has trended right too). That might be the best option.

What happens, I don’t know. Worst case scenario is that Dutton becomes PM and we’re stuck with him for the next 9 months. Best case scenario is a general election is called so we can sort this out sensibly. Somewhere in the middle is Bishop as PM, or even Turnbull surviving, not perfect, but better than the Huns.

Deadly depressing

As always, reluctant to comment on the circus that is Australian politics (world politics is no better), but given that Turnbull has just survived a leadership spill, feel I must.
It goes without saying that Malcolm Turnbull is pretty much the most disappointing politician in living memory. Not the worse – though he’s pretty hamfisted, and certainly not the most evil or stupid, he is just about the most cowardly.

Here is a man of great intelligence and achievement outside of politics. He’s urbane, articulate, a tad verbose, but certainly clever. He’s not without principle either – I’m certain he believes in things, and probably pretty worthy things too. His fault is basically he’s a scaredy cat with very poor judgement.

This latest leadership crisis is largely of his own making. You can certainly blame the hard right of the party, and Abbott in particular, for fostering discontent, but Turnbull might have headed them off had he shown a bit of fortitude and chosen to defy them. It’s the same old story, though. He gives in to them, seemingly unable to comprehend even after numerous opportunities to learn: the more you give, the more they want.

This is the pattern of his prime ministership. He wants to do things but is too afraid to do them, and so he obfuscates, he hesitates, he equivocates, and ultimately he gives in, compromising his principles for the sake of political unity. It’s a tough gig with such a recalcitrant bunch of hillbillies heckling from the right, but if history has shown anything kowtowing to them achieves nothing.

You wonder what might have happened had he acted with more authority. What if he chose to govern in the interests of the electorate that voted him in? By and large he was voted for on the basis of his individual talents and generally more moderate voice – a voice that aligned with the views of most people. Had he shown strong leadership and resolve his standing would be much greater in the electorate and he would likely have achieved much more than he has. He’d feel better in himself and there’s a fair chance the right would have subsided or splintered in the face of such determined defiance. As a country we would be better off, and as an individual it’s unlikely he’d have had to suffer such tribulations.

All of this is what might have beens. He did none of that, and even his wanning personal appeal is based upon what might be rather than what is. It’s pretty clear now that what might be never will.

It’s funny this leadership thing. Pretty hard to manage. I think back to Gillard – a far more successful prime minister in terms of getting things done – who went through a long period being derided for not being herself. In other words, as prime minster she seemingly ceased to be the person who had appealed as an option. The sheer pragmatic reality of doing deals makes it tough, I’m sure, and I wonder if there is a form of stage-fright. I know it happens – look over my shoulder and compare my behaviour when I’m with a woman I like, and one I’m indifferent to. Caring makes a big difference, as does – I’m willing to bet – the ultimate responsibility.

None of that justifies Turnbull’s lack of leadership. It may be impossibly complex to him, but to those of us looking from the outside the choice is much simpler – do what you believe in, or go against it. Abide by what the people want, or instead bow down to the ratbags on the right. Till now he’s given in to the right – having survived the leadership spill I wonder if he will conduct himself differently.

In any case the future looks far from rosy for him. There’s a pattern to these things. The first vote the incumbent wins then, three or four months later, a challenge comes again and this time the challenger wins. Unless he does something about it that’s the likely outcome this time too.

One of his options is to call an early election to forestall any of that. The problem is just this week support for the government dived, and this spill won’t be helping it. His best option IMO is to push on, get some wins on the board, and then call an election. Otherwise I can’t see him going full term.

The lunacy of it from the LNP is that they have no other candidates worthy of the name. Dutton ran today, but he is widely seen as a cold-blooded nazi in the general electorate, with good reason – oh so cunning, but evil. His appeal is purely with the RWNJ’s. Morrison is a bumbling fool who can’t count without using his fingers and toes. Abbott is pure idiot, done and dusted. Julie Bishop is probably the friendliest option, but she shows little appetite for the job – and I think she would be exposed in it as well.

What’s the end game in all this? Right now it’s failed ideology and ego. The hard right conservative line won’t sell in the electorate, and Dutton might delude himself he can win but likewise most can’t stomach him. Ironically, the best chance the LNP of winning the next election is keeping Turnbull and let him have his head – but that will never happen.

Politics, it’s a deadly depressing business.

Go further

Further to my post yesterday there’s a report in today’s newspaper that Labor’s policy on dividend imputation could be implemented with exemptions to anyone over 65 – pensioners – with minimal impact to the bottom line. For mine this is looking more and more like good – and just – policy.

To be clear, what we’re talking about is tax refunds being given to people who haven’t paid tax. In very simple terms the current policy allows for people with a taxable income at level where little or no tax is applied to claim the difference on their share portfolio when tax has already been paid by the business. For example, if a company has paid their 30% company tax when they issue dividends then someone on a 15% tax rate can claim a refund for the 15% differential. For those with zero taxable income – for example, superannuation payments – then they can claim the full 30% refund, even though they haven’t paid a cent of tax. Obviously this adds up to a lot – billions of dollars, in fact.

This is a ridiculously generous policy that benefits a lot of wealthy and clever Australians, and does nothing for the economy. It’s overly generous when you consider that retirees already get their super payments tax free. In terms of the world, we are an outlier in this regard – most countries have much more sensible policies, as we did ourselves until Costello changed it (as a salve for another policy initiative that ultimately wasn’t passed). It used to be that the recipients of these dividends would get a pass on tax, rather than a refund – that’s what it should return to.

All commentary about double tax is tabloid nonsense, unfortunately some of it coming from the mouths of ministers who know better, and should be more responsible. It isn’t double tax, and in any case we are taxed double whenever we pay for something inclusive of GST. It doesn’t bear scrutiny.

As I said yesterday, I think it’s time for us to get bold on policy initiative. Times have changed and we are stuck with a bureaucratic, inefficient, out of date and unfair tax system. I support initiatives on negative gearing similar to what Labor has proposed on the basis that the current policy is inflationary, and more importantly, the benefit is to the few rather than the many. I don’t see the point in giving a tax-break to those who invest in current property. That’s a circular jerk, and there is no incentive to develop new properties, which is what we need. If we restrict the benefit to those who invest in new property only then it will have a direct bearing on the market. This is what policy should be about – not hand-outs, but shaping the economic landscape for the common good, and using incentives to encourage it.

There are a couple of other areas that need to be looked at. Stamp duty is iniquitous and as Ken Henry suggested, might be better replaced by a land tax, which would be much fairer. And I am in favour of a user pays model when it comes to car registration, which is a state issue. As it stands everyone pays the same amount of registration whether they travel a 100 kilometres a year or a hundred thousand. That’s unfair, but it also has an impact on livability. Theoretically registration fees go towards the upkeep and maintenance of roads and traffic infrastructure, and it’s only fair that those who travel most should pay more. The other aspect very relevant to our times, is that a user pays system of registration will likely take drivers off the road and into public transport. That’s good for the environment, good for traffic movement, and ultimately good for the bottom line because we can’t keep building new freeways, or adding new lanes to existing.

With all these things there has to be another, smarter way. Look again, go further.

Bold and revolutionary

Unlike most people, I find economics fascinating. It’s the science of it that first got me interested, which was back in high school. The thought that there were economic mechanisms that if enacted produced reasonably predictable outcomes was a wonder to me. I remember Keating – the man who made economics sexy for a while – talking about levers and buttons and stimulus as if it was a machine. As it became clear even in his time, it is far from an exact science, but that did little to diminish my interest – just the opposite. I came to believe that economics was a science in which human nature, sentiment and the voodoo of international affairs contributed their unpredictable elements.

I’m now at an age when I’ve experienced the application of economic theory for many years, and not just in Australia, but internationally. I retain my interest in it, but have formed my own views on it.

This is apropos recent economic discussion in Australia. I always welcome the conversation, even when it’s superficial, as so often it is. We should be talking about these things. Economic policy should be a matter we all take an interest in. It’s so easy in this political climate to bury our heads and take no notice, but if anything is ever to change than these serious discussions need to be common.

Unfortunately these discussions, as they are, are heavy on polemic and light on substance. And they are always contested, regardless of whether opposition is sincere.

A few weeks ago the company tax rate became a talking point. As tax goes, this is a bit of an old chestnut. The federal government wanted to reduce the rate to 25%, claiming it would make Australian business more competitive and attractive to investment. Most contentiously they claimed it would kick-start stagnant wages growth. The opposition ridiculed that of course, trotting out the line that the government only looks after the big end of town.

One of the arguments trotted out was a variation on the old, and long discredited trickle-down theory – in this case the argument went that if you give tax cuts then business will pass on much of that windfall to employees in the form of pay-rise. This flies in the face of experience. The credo of ‘shareholder value’ (a poisonous credo, btw) means that most gets passed to shareholders, rather than reinvested in the business, or to pay rises (excepting executives). Outside of the government you had such mediocrities like Jennifer Westacott and Tony Shepherd bleat on about it, a sure sign it’s rubbish.

As it happens I support the tax cuts now as I haven’t in the past, though not in the form the government proposes. With drastic tax cuts recently in the US and other parts of the world I think we need cuts to stay competitive. At the very least I think if cuts are to be implemented they should be tied to investment, and encourage wage growth (which is in everyone’s interest), but I would favour something bolder and more comprehensive than that.

Back in 2010/11 the then head of treasury, Ken Henry, produced a massive, detailed and bold proposal to overhaul Australia’s antiquated tax system. It was too strong, and too politically unpalatable for the mealy mouthed politicians of the day, and but a fraction of it was adopted. In the years since it is often referenced, and elements of it are coming into favour, and it is just the comprehensive approach we need.

I think the time has come that we must be bold, and look at left field, revolutionary solutions, rather than evolutionary tinkering. That won’t happen of course, because there’s no appetite for anything bold.

In recent days the Labor party has come up with a controversial policy to do away with dividend imputation and franking credits. It took a little while for me to get my head around this and form an opinion, but when you look at it closely it’s actually amazing to consider that this was ever implemented as a policy. It’s ridiculously lucrative, and extremely costly – and seemingly unnecessary. It’s complex, so I’m not about to explain it here, but fair to say I think this is a bold bit of policy initiative which – with some exceptions – I agree with. The country will be better off doing away with these hand-outs, and I think it’s inevitable they’ll be closed down, whether it be by Labor or Liberal. The only thing I would change is perhaps to incorporate a means testing element, or implement a threshold, as has been rumoured.

For me this would be a part of a larger taxation change that would allow for company tax rates to be cut, potentially to something less than 25%. Why not take the opportunity to get ahead of the curve, rather than forever chasing it? Together with some targeted policies addressing productivity, innovation, investment, in combination Australia would see a net gain to the bottom line, and a more agile economy.

What the people don’t want

It’s tempting to suggest the unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn is due to the political difference he represents. His gentler political philosophies are certainly widely appealing (unlike some of his more hard-line policies). After years of austere neo-liberalism being rammed down their throats Corbyn’s emphasis on traditional labour values and focus on the small, the under-privileged, the voiceless came as a welcome relief, and that’s very real. People are sick and tired of being overlooked in favour of big business and the top end of town, and to find in Corbyn someone who sincerely and authentically spoke for them was a breath of fresh air – and it’s a truth that would apply equally here in Oz, where much the same complaints – and resentments – exist.

While the folksy Jeremy Corbyn was genuinely appealing, it was more about what he wasn’t than what he was that led him to the verge of an unlikely victory. What he wasn’t – or at least, appeared not to be – was a member of the political machine. Scorned by his own party and rejected by much of the mainstream media he epitomised an authentic political character. In the world of 2017 there’s an instinctive appeal in that.

My view is this recent run of surprising election results is less to do with voting for something than it is about voting against something. What is being rejected are incumbent orthodoxies and stale vested interests. Corbyn’s success was less an endorsement of his politics and much more a rejection of political orthodoxy (and neo-liberalism) as embodied in the fumbling Theresa May.

Likewise when Trump got up what he represented was the anti-system, and by voting for him swathes of the American public were voting against the established political class of which Hilary Clinton was a leading member. For years they’d heard the same old slogans and formulas repeated ad nauseam, and to little effect. They were weary of pollsters and slick political machines and above all class of the perpetual, and bitter about the flawed system that spawned them.

Corbyn and Trump have very little in common. Their politics are polar opposites. Their styles couldn’t be more different. What they share is an outsider’s status. Trump came from business, outspoken, boastful and larger than life. He gave voice to many of the electorate made cynical by party machinations. He was over the top, perhaps unpleasant, but he might actually make a difference because he was different.

Corbyn came from the unfashionable socialist wing of the Labour party. Guys like him are bit like political duffers, they’re idealistic to a fault and speak in unrealistic riddles. They’re cardigan wearers that lend a bit of street cred to the Labour movement, but in an era of slick new-Labour, never meant to rule. Except by an extraordinary series of events he managed to get himself elected to Labour party leadership. Somehow he managed to retain his leadership in the face of challenges and criticism. Altogether he is an unlikely character and, like Trump, represents the anti-political establishment.

I write this from Australia where this phenomenon is yet to bite deeply, but there is a lesson there for anyone who cares to heed it.

There has certainly been a drift towards the minor parties on the edge in Australia, and for the same reasons as above – voters are jaded about mainstream politics. The independent parties have waxed and waned in popularity, but are well established now and seem to be accepted as a necessary evil by both Liberal and Labor.

The Libs are the incumbents, but barely competent. Labor leads in the polls, but only because the Libs are so riven and ineffective. In Bill Shorten Labor have an uninspiring and mediocre leader who is more concerned about plying political tricks than he is in advocating for the genuine benefit of Australians. He would rather exploit a tricky political angle for political advantage than he is in allowing for bipartisan reform. It’s all about the polls, all about winning.

This is what politics has become, but it’s now a stale formula. People see through that now. They’ve heard it all before and though they may have fallen for it the first half dozen times they’re now awake to it. This is the new political reality: the electorate is angry, and they’re through with being treated like fools. The shonky backroom deals and cynical compromises have been exposed.

I seriously doubt that Shorten and polling minions are oblivious to this. They live in a bubble, and there is an inherent arrogance that has them believe they know better – which is one of the central things the people have rejected.

Stop playing games. Speak to truth. Show what you believe in. Expose your values. Be vulnerable. Risk something. This is what people want now.

I don’t know that Shorten has that in him, but it’s what the electorate are clamouring for. Shorten is of the machine. He is created by it and has the mentality of it. It was a mistake when the party powerbrokers rejected the vote of the members and installed Shorten ahead of Albanese. Albo is tough and smart, but he’s earthy too, and real. He’s an old fashioned Labor idealist too – he believes in things (and was mentored by one of my all-time favourite politicians, Tom Uren – a great man).

Labor is ahead in the polls now, but no guarantee he will be when the next election comes. Albo would be ahead of Shorten if leader, and has the credibility and authenticity to carry it to election day. One sure thing, when that day comes there will be more surprises unless someone – Turnbull or Shorten – is prepared to make a difference.

Disruptive hopes

Some time last year I had a conversation with someone comparing Bernie Sanders with Jeremy Corbyn. There were superficial similarities between them, with both being well to the left, both anti-populist, and both theoretically appealing to the great swathes of the politically disaffected. In the US, without Sanders as a candidate, most of the disaffected ended up in Trump’s court. The question was whether Corbyn, an incumbent leader, could go one step further than Sanders when the time came.

The time is now upon us with a British general election on Thursday, but my answer now is somewhat different what it was back then.

Last year I scoffed at the prospect of Corbyn ever becoming prime minister. The consensus was that he was unelectable and I had no reason to disagree with that. Sanders, by comparison, was eminently electable I thought – the pity was that he never got the chance.

The problem with Corbyn is that he appeared a narrow ideologue, passionate, idealistic and totally out of touch with practical realities – a bit like an Australian Green. If anything he was too left, too purely hardline without a skerrick of compromise in him. It didn’t help that he looked like a downtrodden history master with a bit of the bolshie in him. He was as far as you could get from the slick grove of New Labour (not altogether a bad thing).

Sanders, by comparison, was both passionate and idealistic also, but more practical. He was a better communicator, and roused large parts of America in the lead-up to the primaries with his message of change and hope. He was, like Corbyn, a different voice, someone outside of the political machine, and there was a great part of his appeal – but Trump was outside .

It appeared up to a few months ago that the critics take on Corbyn was broadly true. He had been utterly ineffectual in the campaign against Brexit, and trailed by a huge margin in the opinion polls. Now, a couple of days out from the election, he is well within striking distance. It seems a small miracle.

He has been greatly assisted in that his opponent, the Liberal Prime Minister Theresa May, is a very unappealing and largely unimpressive character. She took for granted that a big lead in the polls would translate into a big lead in the election, and campaigned accordingly. She has come off as shifty, evasive and a touch cowardly – which is pretty much your standard polly circa 2017.

Corbyn at least has been sincere. That is his virtue. There is no cant with him. He may be earnest, but what you see is what you get. And, unlike so many politicians today, he seems fully committed. He is a true conviction politician, and in an era of shifting opinions, policies and rhetoric that becomes very appealing.

May is of the old political order. It’s an order the electorate no longer trusts or really believes in. It’s the safer option, but it’s not something that anyone can really believe in.

Corbyn is of a different order. He is the disruptive candidate because he doesn’t hold with conventional wisdom, or with conventional platitudes. He is distinctly his own man and that is immensely appealing in an era of packaged messages and

Sanders is of the same order, but so too was Trump. Being different, going your own individual way, doesn’t automatically make it right.

I sit here writing this hoping that Corbyn gets up. It’s not that I agree with his policies – some I think are too extreme – but I admire his fervour, and believe strongly that the likes of him and Sanders offer an antidote to the soulless political dichotomy we have for so long been served with. That needs to be broken, and the election of a reasonable man outside of that might just be what it takes. (Trump is not a reasonable man, and unfortunately his presidency is far from an endorsement).

That’s it in a nutshell. You may not agree with Corbyn, but you have to admire him – which is the obverse of what many might feel about may, and her ilk.

I don’t expect Corbyn to win. I may be being cautious, but I tend to believe that while punters may flirt with the option of a Sanders many will end up ticking the box for the tried and worn out. But who knows, I could be wrong.