Six Prime Ministers and a potato class action

Prime-Ministers
Prime Ministers- ScoMo feeds the fire (meme by twitter.com@GeorgeBludger)

As the dry winter fades away, ushering in a hot and bushfire-prone spring and summer, here’s some sober reflections on ‘Single-use Prime Ministers’.

I borrowed the single-use mention from a clever meme doing the rounds on social media, where, I might say in defence of the humble Kipfler, Sebago and Desiree, potatoes continue to be openly defamed. It might not be long before we see headlines where Tryhard & Associates, no win-no fee, mount a class action on behalf of Mr and Mrs Sebago and 15 other tuber families.

As we now see from former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s attempted coup, while it worked in principle, the betrayal left Mr Dutton out on a limb, with a centre-right politician seizing the leadership.

At the outset, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, decided the people needed to know that “we’re on your side”.

“That’s what matters. We are on your side. And we are on your side because we share beliefs and values in common, as you go about everything you do each day.”

Keep playing that one, Scott. Stay away from the line that brings down Westminster democracies; when a leader (be it Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull), have all been caught referring to ‘my government’.

I had a couple of messages from FOMM stalwarts last week in aggregate saying “Get a grip, Bob. The nation’s imploding and you’re talking about stamp collecting?”

I defend last week’s meandering missive as making the case that Australian governments have been lurching hard-right for a very long time now, arguably since John Howard’s 1988 stance on multiculturalism and refusing to make a treaty with the Aborigines. Hence my writing about the stamp-collecting Philip Ruddock, a hard-line Immigration minister in control of our border policies from 1996-2003.

Now here’s the thing – party factions, backroom machinations and political knifings are not what does in a sitting PM – it is narcissism.

As economist and author George Megalogenis wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times: “The prime minister is not even mentioned in the Australian Constitution, yet the office has evolved into a paradoxical position of supreme authority and permanent vulnerability.”

Megalogenis also wrote: “They have borrowed the worst of United States presidential politics, with its obsessive focus on the leader, and grafted it onto a Westminster system of parliamentary government that was designed for collaboration and compromise.”

Australia has had six Prime Ministers since 2008, the number arguably including a bit of double counting when first Julia Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd, then Rudd came back and promptly lost the next election in a landslide. Then there was Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison. This era was characterised by frantic passing of new legislation in the incumbent’s first year. Fairfax Media research tallied new acts of Parliament passed in the first year for Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd (133), Julia Gillard (132), Tony Abbott (116) and Malcolm Turnbull (104). These are mediocre numbers compared to Paul Keating (212) and Gough Whitlam (161). Surprisingly (well, I was surprised), John Howard’s first year numbers (86), are only marginally better than Ben Chifley (74).

What appears to have brought undone Prime Ministers of the past 10 years is the polarisation caused by climate change policy. It seems nigh on impossible to achieve political consensus on this most serious of issues, even if over 97% of climate scientists active in that field of research say it is a reality, aggravated and accelerated by human activities. (There are, of course, nay-sayers. Just Google ‘what percentage of scientists believe in global warming, if you have a few hours to spare.)

All six of our Prime Ministers thus far have failed or been thwarted in terms of seriously countering climate change. Some even challenging the notion that fossil fuels have had their day. I refer of course to (a) Tony Abbott’s infamous ‘coal is good for humanity’ quote, and incumbent PM Scott Morrison’s stunt, brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament.

But let’s go back 117 years, to an era when coal really did rule – when steam trains, for example, burned through eighty pounds of coal for every mile travelled (a useful factoid from Michael Portillo’s fascinating series, Great British Railway Journeys).

Australia’s leadership changed seven times in the first ten years of Federation (and 11 times between 1901 and 1922). Again, leadership changes involved ambitious men having a second (and even a third) attempt. Andrew Fisher (1909-1909, 1910-1913 and 1914-1915) proved the most persistent, governing during the early years of WWI. Fisher, I’d like to point out, introduced Australia’s first postage stamp. On January 2, 1913, the Fisher-led government issued the Commonwealth penny stamp.

It featured a controversial design – a kangaroo on a white map of Australia. Although later stamps reintroduced the King’s head, the kangaroo design remained in use for some forty years. An example of this rare stamp sold at auction in 2012 for $142,563.

But we were talking about men (and women- Ed.) and their egos and how the Prime Ministership has evolved as the Office of Omniscience. Towards the last days of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, there were reports of policy on the run, along with statements made with no consultation, and there have been similar reports about other short-term Prime Ministers. To be fair, in the first year of the Whitlam administration, the late Gough Whitlam rammed through a colossal amount of social reform legislation in a fortnight with the help of a two-man Cabinet (the duumvirate) – just Gough and his deputy, Lance Barnard.

Megalogenis observed that post-Rudd, the Labor party has made it harder to remove future Prime Ministers. Changes to internal rules now require the party leader be elected by a combined vote of the parliamentary party and grass-roots members. From this side of the fence, it is hard to see the Liberals coming up with a similar safeguard.

In no time at all, it seems, Australians will be thrust into another Federal election, with a new Prime Minister who will not have had enough time to show his mettle. On the other side, we have Labor leader Bill Shorten, and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek. Mr Shorten’s tactics thus far, apart from keeping his head down and letting the Liberal Party stew in its own juices, has been to divide and conquer, emphasising the class gulf between the left and right.

Tucked away behind the cannot-be-seen hedge, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, passed over for the Opposition leadership in 2013, declared his colours in June, in the Whitlam Oration.

Mr Albanese called upon his party to emulate the Hawke and Keating approach and “collaborate with unions, the business sector and civil society to achieve positive outcomes in the national interest”.

The Labor frontbencher also delivered a warning about the need to find common ground with voters outside the union movement.

“This is not 1950, when most Australians were members of trade unions,” Mr Albanese said. “Indeed many people from working class backgrounds are not members of unions because they were beneficiaries of Gough Whitlam’s education reforms. We cannot afford to ignore this demographic.”

Sigh, it makes my brain burn, like the feeling I got when I saw that clever meme (above) with Scott Morrison feeding a lump of coal into a (red and orange) map of Australia.

Good for humanity my arse.

Simple as ABC – a public radio/TV licence

 

ABC-Budget-Cuts
Chart: ABC annual report 2016-2017

At first glance, Treasurer Scott Morrison’s plan to slash $83.7 million from the ABC operating budget seems mean-spirited. At second glance, when he tells reporters ‘everyone has to live within their means’, it still seems mean-spirited.

The Budget proposal comes at a critical time for the ABC, which has been dealing with cumulative cuts of $254 million since 2014.

The Federal Treasurer, having painted the picture large, sent a hospital pass to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to handle the outrage. Mr Cormann defended the decision to freeze indexation for three years (which amounts to $83.7 million), saying that all taxpayer-funded organisations have to find efficiencies.

The national broadcaster has been tightening its belt so much there is no room left for another notch. Managing director Michelle Guthrie sent an email to all staff saying as much, which she amplified in a press release. Ms Guthrie said the impact of the decision could not be absorbed by efficiency measures alone, as the ABC had already achieved significant productivity gains in response to past budget cuts.

She referred to Budget measures starting in 2014 with a 20% cut to the operating budget. The ABC was told to slash $254 million from its operating budget within five years. The broadcaster began to make cuts which were expected to save $207 million in 2015.

Jobs were lost, through natural attrition or redundancy, and the ABC also started reviewing its property portfolio and transmission network. As I have written previously, there was a general hubbub of protestation about this, circa November 2014.

“Petitioners were petitioning, GetUp was getting up, the ABC Friends group was lobbying and raising funds. They should have seen it coming,” I wrote.

A graph in the ABC’s latest annual report (above) shows how its operational budget has waxed and waned, dropping 28% from 1985-1986 to 2017-2018. As the graph indicates, the ABC has weathered some very lean years, particularly 1997-1998, under John Howard and Peter Costello.

The ABC annual report says 2017–18 was the third year to reflect previously announced Government-funding reductions. As part of the ABC/SBS Additional Efficiency Savings measure, there was a year on year increase of $7.7 million in the cut to the ABC’s base funding, bringing the total decrease in base funding to $55.2 million per annum.

This week Ms Guthrie said the ABC was continuing to implement various savings initiatives to address funding cuts, comprising efficiency savings in support functions and transmission (to cover the previously budgeted reduction of $12.5 million required in 2018–19).

Back to the drawing board, then.

Ms Guthrie said the decision came at a critical time for the ABC, as it starts triennial funding negotiations with the Government.

“The ABC is now more important than ever, given the impact of overseas players in the local media industry and the critical role the ABC plays as Australia’s most trusted source of news, analysis and investigative journalism.”

There is also a risk that the Enhanced Newsgathering initiative will not be renewed (at a cost of $43 million). The ABC acknowledges a decision on this funding is yet to be made by the Government. Considering the hullabaloo that followed economic reporter Emma Alberici’s analysis of the government’s plan to cut corporate tax rates, these financial constraints must be seen as ideological and punitive.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the ABC was “one of the pet hates of the Liberal Party”, and it’s hard to disagree.

“Because the ABC occasionally asks questions of the government they’re going to wind back $83 million,” he told the ABC.

But Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says the ABC will still receive $3.2 billion over those three years.

“This is effectively equivalent to the efficiency dividend that applies to nearly all other government taxpayer-funded organisations,” he added.

One of the early victims of successive budget cuts was the ABC Fact Check Unit, which was closed down in May 2016. ABC news director Gaven Morris said at the time “Unfortunately, having a standalone unit is no longer viable in the current climate.”

In March 2017, however, the unit was revived as a joint venture between RMIT University and the ABC. The unit’s brief, as it was before, is to ‘test and adjudicate on the accuracy of claims made by politicians, public figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in public debate’.

Which governments taxed us the most?

You may have seen an infographic on social media which the Fact Check Unit verified. It shows which governments taxed us the most, spanning the years between Whitlam and Turnbull. Tax as a percentage of GDP peaked in the Howard years at 23.5%. The Whitlam years averaged 19.4%. The Abbott/Turnbull years thus far average 21.7%. Interestingly, the turbulent years of Rudd/Gillard/Rudd averaged 20.9%.

So isn’t it satisfying to publish information like that and know it has been fact-checked and found to be factual? In this era where fake news and what I’d call ‘sponsored news’ leaves us with a skewed perspective, it is refreshing to see the ABC has found a new way to maintain standards.

There were some moments in the Federal Budget one could choose to laud; tax cuts, better reverse mortgage opportunities for pensioners and more funding for the homeless, albeit dependent on State contributions. But there was no respite for people on NewStart and no real plan to address housing affordability.

And, as the Climate Council pointed out, there was nothing at all in the Budget to address climate change – the words were not even mentioned.

For perspective, take a moment to think about the Federal Treasurer’s $50 million plan to redevelop the Meeting Place Precinct in Botany Bay (including a $3 million statue of Captain James Cook). Yes, it’s in Mr Morrison’s electorate, but surely that’s a side issue, Leigh?

If I may revisit an idea from Simple as ABC in 2014, the budgetary travails of the ABC and the ideology motivating it could simply be avoided. All it would take is an annual public radio/TV licence; $35 per household per year would (now) raise about $300 million. If the government of the day would guarantee indexed funding of $1 billion a year, the ABC could plan, rebuild and restore quality for the long-term.

Let’s be reminded that we all paid a radio licence from 1920 and continued doing so until colour TV was introduced in the early 1970s. Not every household in Australia would be happy about paying this licence fee. Some would see it as subsidising those dangerous lefties and bleeding hearts at the ABC and SBS.

But something radical needs to happen, to arrest the decline in quality (e.g. ABC online), restore transmission to remote areas (try getting an ABC station on your car radio when travelling in country areas-Ed.) and ensure money can be found for important investigations.

Every week since 1961 the award-winning Four Corners has continued to unearth important stories. Investigative journalism is an expensive business which requires reliable funding and a relatively free hand.

If we want more important stories like the live sheep export scandal, the solution is simple as ABC: We need to consistently fund the national broadcaster and guarantee its editorial independence.

Further reading: Mr Denmore thinks the media should boycott the Budget Lockup:

http://bobwords.com.au/simple-abc/

http://bobwords.com.au/simple-abc-part-2/