Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Di Natale goes out on a limb
Will a people’s bank be popular with the people?

The attacks will rain down from all sides on the idea of setting up a new “people’s bank”, floated by Greens leader Richard Di Natale at the National Press Club today. But at least the Greens’ suggestion is a substantive response to the problems that have led to the appointment of a royal commission into the banking industry, and as such it deserves to be weighed on its merits.

The Australian cries economic lunacy [$], of course, but the same newspaper has also been hawking the retrograde agenda of a group of science-deniers on the government backbench to publicly fund construction of costly new coal-fired power stations in the face of accelerating climate and technological change. More damaging is a piece in today’s Crikey by Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer, headlined [$] “Greens’ embrace of idiot fringe economics ruins years of credibility”.

Opposing privatisation is one thing, and to my knowledge the Greens have opposed every privatisation since they entered federal parliament, back to the original sale of the Commonwealth Bank, which then WA Greens senator Dee Margetts slammed as bad economics and a “sad day for Australia”. But proposing to re-nationalise companies or industries already sold off is a much harder sell. Between those who oppose all privatisations and those who support them all, there is a middle ground that considers each proposal case-by-case. There is a strong argument that the privatisation of natural monopoly infrastructure like toll roads or Telstra or electricity grids was always against the public interest, and has failed. There is a strong argument that privatisation in human services like job search or training has failed. There is a strong argument that bottom-of-the-barrel privatisations – flogging what’s left after three decades of public asset sales – like corporate registries or land titles offices or bus routes – has gone way too far. Is there such a strong argument for setting up a government-owned home lender, rather than better-regulating the incumbent private banks?

The “people’s bank” idea has plenty of wrinkles, which the Greens may or may not have thought through, and which are worth debating. Would provision of cheap, no-frills loans for first home buyers simply encourage them to borrow more, pushing up prices and making affordability worse? Would the RBA be conflicted, between its role as a lender and its role as a rate-setter, for example, as National Press Club moderator David Speers raised today, when it is worried about an overheated housing market (one of the reasons the RBA was created out of the CBA in the first place)? Would a new state-owned, low-rate, no-frills lender actually enhance competition in banking, or simply crush smaller lenders? And those figures the Greens are using – allowing loans for up to 60 per cent of a house’s price, a minimum interest rate of 3 per cent, and a lender’s margin of half a per cent – are they prudent, or were they plucked from the air? Di Natale did not have comprehensive answers on all these points today, which leaves him open to Bill Shorten’s accusation that the people’s bank is a “thought bubble”.

Knowing a little of the Greens policy process, however, it would be fairer to say that despite (or because of) interminable factional wars over the past two years, there has been a painful, inchwise development going on, of a broader post-capitalist agenda, which is neither kneejerk nor copy-cat, but has deep roots in the party’s constant opposition to economic rationalism. Di Natale’s nod today towards introducing a universal basic income scheme has policy precedent back to at least 1996. Bob Brown and Peter Singer, in their book The Greens, wrote about the need to adopt a Guaranteed Adequate Income scheme and called for shorter working hours per person, given “new technology is constantly displacing paid human workers, and will do so at an increasing pace as robot technology develops further.” 

On his left, Di Natale is criticised for taking the party mainstream: what he originally said, when he took the leadership in 2015, was that the Greens’ progressive values were in line with those of mainstream Australia. That is to say, ordinary Australians lean further to the left on many issues than the daily politics served up by the major parties and our media would suggest. Just yesterday, in the Australian Election Survey, we saw figures that bear this argument out. Whether that means the voting public is ready for the Greens’ “big government” agenda remains to be seen. At some point, presumably, the Greens end up out on a limb. But given how Labor under Shorten has steadily co-opted a long list of Greens policies – from the banking royal commission to negative gearing to capital gains tax to super reform – there is nowhere else to go.

since this morning

A public servant turned whistleblower employed by the Australian Taxation Office has had his home raided by officers from the ATO and the Australian Federal Police. He had spoken with a major joint Four Corners and Fairfax investigation into alleged abuse of power by the tax office.

NBN Co boss Bill Morrow will leave [$] at the end of this year, after five years. The full rollout of the $50 billion National Broadband Network will still be two years away.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has welcomed [$] a bid from Alinta to buy the ageing Liddell coal-fired power plant from rival AGL.

Former NSW MP and chief of staff to Richard Di Natale, Cate Faehrmann, has won her Supreme Court case against the NSW Greens, giving her the right to contest preselection for the state parliament.

in case you missed it

An ABC investigation reports that cuts to qualified staff at the Pioneer Lodge in Bundaberg may have put elderly residents at risk, according to the family of a woman who died there just two months after the nursing home failed a government inspection.

On the new “Monash Forum” of backbenchers, now including former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, Paul Kelly writes [$] in The Australian that “the conservatives are becoming coal power socialists … they are losing the plot”, while Miranda Devine in The Daily Telegraph writes that it “all but guarantees a loss to ‘Shifty’ Shorten and his ‘class warfare’ party”.

by Adam Rivett
Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘In the Garden of the Fugitives’
Reality flexes at the edges of Dovey’s second novel

by Mungo MacCallum
It’s just not cricket
Sledging is unlikely to improve, on the field or in politics

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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