Thursday, March 19, 2015

Today by Russell Marks


Fantasy land
Budget 2015 is shaping up to be Tony Abbott’s latest book of nonsense

Illustration from Edward Lear’s “A Book of Nonsense” (1846)

Tony Abbott came to office declaring that Rudd-Gillard Labor had left the nation with a “budget emergency”. He promised that he would return the budget to surplus without raising taxes and without cutting spending on health, education, pensions, superannuation or public broadcasting. He also promised there would be “no surprises” and “no excuses”. His first budget, which was full of surprises, proposed cuts to health, education, pensions and public broadcasting. Partly because many of its more contentious savings measures have failed to pass the Senate, and partly because the national terms of trade are in rapid decline, the national public debt blew out by 35% during 2014.

Then yesterday, Abbott declared the budget emergency over, because the Coalition had “got the budget situation from out of control to manageable” since coming to power. If “Labor were the fire,” he said, “we are the fire brigade.” Because all the heavy lifting had been done last year, this year’s budget will be “pretty dull”: the status quo is now acceptable. Senior bureaucrats are worried that not much is being done in advance of the 2015 budget, which is now two months away. Abbott also promised a surplus within five years.

It’s difficult to believe that Abbott expects to be taken seriously. There was never a budget emergency – certainly not of the “Mediterranean proportions” of Abbott’s scare campaign. In any case the government has since increased, not decreased, the debt and the deficit. Abbott cannot deliver a surplus in five years, and nor should he attempt to, given the weak economic conditions and the low cost of borrowing. His attempts to present a politically useful economic story – through the Commission of Audit and the Intergenerational Report – have been roundly dismissed as partisan, and Treasury disowned the latter yesterday. As if to confirm a new strategy of systematic nonsense, government ministers this week began talking up the prospects of a double dissolution election – which it would almost certainly lose and which would only make the Senate even more “feral”, as Abbott put it in a party room meeting.

The Roundup

International relations

Calla Wahlquist reports at Guardian Australia: “Tony Abbott has defended his government’s decision to cut Australia’s foreign aid budget by $11 billion at a joint press conference with the Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.”

Metadata

Daniel Hurst reports at Guardian Australia: “Tony Abbott has signalled he is unlikely to agree to allow journalists to contest applications to access their call logs and other metadata.”

Louise Yaxley reports at ABC News: “Parliament’s Human Rights Committee has expressed concerns over the federal government’s data retention bill and recommended it be changed so authorities have to obtain a warrant.”

Malcolm Farr at News.com.au poses six questions the government must answer on its proposed metadata laws.

Bernard Keane’s analysis at Crikey: “We’ve expanded this Q&A we prepared last year to take into account recent developments and give you a one-stop document for what will be Australia’s biggest ever mass surveillance regime.”

Environment

Peter Hannam and Lisa Cox report in Fairfax: “AGL has emerged as Australia’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter after its purchase of NSW assets added to its fleet of brown coal-fired power stations in Victoria.”

Clover Moore (Sydney’s lord mayor) comments at Guardian Australia: “A partnership between business and government has reduced Sydney’s carbon emissions by 35% and is saving $30m a year. Who said climate change action is bad for business?”

Nick Whigham reports at News.com.au: “Tony Abbott is simply not interested in solar energy — even if it is gifted to him by a group of nuns. Because that is precisely what happened yesterday.”

Pensions

Judith Ireland reports in Fairfax: “Another landmark policy loss is looming for the Abbott government, as Senate crossbenchers firm in their resolve to sink a $22 billion cut to pensions.”

Alan Kohler comments at The Drum: “Rather than cutting pensions, the government should look at where super funds are investing our billions. An overhaul in this area could help both retirees and the budget.”

Health politics

The Grattan Institute’s Stephen Duckett’s analysis at The Conversation: “The government’s failed GP co-payment policy betrayed a simplistic belief that all patients are basically the same. A new report from the National Health Performance Authority shows that all patients are not equal. As well as being responsible for a large share of total costs, people who visit the GP more often are more likely to live in the most disadvantaged areas, and to report being in poor health.”

And here’s the link to the National Health Performance Authority’s report (in pdf format): Healthy Communities: Frequent GP attenders and their use of health services in 2012-13.

ABC News reports: “The first comprehensive evaluation of Australia’s ground-breaking plain packaging tobacco laws shows they are working, the Victorian Cancer Council says.”

Education

Matthew Knott reports in Fairfax: “In a letter to Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, sent on Tuesday, Christopher Pyne proposed reducing Commonwealth grants for universities if a proportion of their graduates do not repay their debts.”

Seeking refuge

Ben Doherty reports at Guardian Australia: “A detention centre guard on Manus Island has been sacked for reportedly assaulting asylum seekers while they were handcuffed.”

Ben Doherty reports at Guardian Australia: “Fifteen of Australia’s peak health professional organisations have jointly called for the government to release all children and their families from immigration detention, and for an independent panel of doctors to oversee the healthcare of children detained.”

Deregulation

Esther Han reports in Fairfax: “Food-related deaths and disease outbreaks will no longer have to be reported to the ACCC by product makers and sellers under new federal laws, ‘appalling’ public health experts.”

Gareth Hutchens reports in Fairfax: “The Abbott government says it has delivered a $570 million reduction in ‘regulatory burden’ in 2014, but a huge proportion of those savings have yet to pass the Senate.”

Transnational crime

An AAP report in Fairfax: “Australia is one of the world’s major money laundering countries and home to terrorist cells involved in fundraising, according to a US government report.”

States of the nation

NSW – Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “The result of the upper house election in New South Wales could be contested after 19,000 early voters cast their votes on electronic ballot papers that left off the names of two of the parties above the line.”

VIC – Josh Gordon comments in Fairfax: “It’s time to abandon the rhetoric from the Liberals that they are the better economic managers, certainly in Victoria, where the handling of the East West Link shows they exposed taxpayers to greater financial risk than they needed to, ostensibly for political reasons.”

Ebony Bowden reports at The New Daily: “After ceremoniously outing the Coalition governments in both Queensland and Victoria, the new state Labor governments are having mixed fortunes in the polls.”

Indigenous affairs

Shalailah Medhora reports at Guardian Australia: “Members of the prime minister’s hand-picked Indigenous Advisory Council have expressed frustration at the slow pace of change in Indigenous affairs, saying their advice is ‘falling on deaf ears’.”

ABC News reports: “The chairman of the Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, says he has delivered a blunt personal message to Tony Abbott about his comments on remote communities.”

Amy McQuire reports at New Matilda: “Protestors are expected to mobilise around the country tomorrow as a national day of action calls on the Barnett government to halt its controversial plan to close up to 150 remote communities in Western Australia.”

Indonesian executions

Fairfax is running Nick Xenophon’s open letter, written in Bahasa Indonesia, calling on the Indonesian president to consider clemency for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Marriage equality

Judith Ireland reports in Fairfax: “Federal parliament will again debate same-sex marriage, with libertarian senator David Leyonhjelm announcing he will make a second-reading speech on his ‘freedom to marry’ bill next week.”

Politics

Lindy Kerin reports at ABC News: “Margie Abbott is usually media shy, but this week she has given her first sit-down interview with the Australian Women's Weekly magazine and spoke openly about her struggles with being Australia’s first lady.”

Michael Owen reports at The Australian: “The Liberal Party in South Australia has held an emergency meeting of its state executive to discuss dire financial matters that could lead to a review of its banking operations and interest-bearing loans.”

Jonathan Green comments at The Drum: “Australia’s next great reforms will be of this stagnant polity itself, hopefully delivering politics that frees ideas from the camouflage of endless deflecting rhetoric. But who do we have to lead this change?”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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