Friday, October 6, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Dry spell
The rest of this year is likely to be a policy write-off

Channel Nine

As the US gun debate rocketed off this week into its usual pointlessness, Australian politicians had their say.

On Tuesday, the prime minister seemed to hint at changes to our own gun laws, rolling out his favourite phrase, “there is no ‘set and forget’ there”, followed by “We will continue to do everything we can to keep guns of the kind that were used by this killer in Las Vegas off the streets, away from the hands of people other than those serving in the armed forces and security agencies.” But by the next day the hint had been rescinded: “theres no place for set and forget in any area of national security, but the laws are already very strict”.

Bill Shorten, as is typical, leapt to fill the void, calling for the government’s successful gun amnesty to be extended. He also called for life sentences for gun runners.

Shorten’s ideas may be fine, but they had the feel of a rote response. An issue arose, and Labor came up with a solid, if unimaginative, answer of sorts. The first is a short extension of existing government policy. The second relates to a debate, already in motion, between the government and the Opposition over smuggling sentences (Turnbull has responded by pointing out Labor is opposing mandatory minimum sentences for gun smugglers).

This is all fine, and tactically sound, but does it actually advance the debate around gun control, which Shorten acknowledges is a problem in creeping need of a solution? Not really. As David Crowe outlines today, there are various areas in the National Firearms Agreement that need serious work [$]. That is a policy opportunity for Labor, but also a political opportunity, given the Coalition can find gun control a tricky issue within Nationals-held seats.

The government’s approach to the state’s gas reserves felt very similar. Malcolm Turnbull is talking a lot about the premiers’ failure to give up their gas, and it’s true that sometimes a villain can be useful. But in the past week his ministers have begun waving around the idea of taking away some of the states’ GST as though this is a useful threat.

Unfortunately for Turnbull, it turns out the Commonwealth Grants Commission has already considered this possibility, and found that taking account of coal-seam gas bans would have an “immaterial” impact on GST. As the Financial Review reported [$], “For example it would cut $8 million from NSW GST take of $17 billion.”

Last week federal politics felt like it had been taken over by the same-sex marriage survey. That debate cooled a little this week, and in its place we got two things. The first was a slew of anti-terrorism laws that should probably worry people but don’t really seem to. Everything else had the feeling of busywork – if you’re not familiar with the word, I’m led to believe it’s the stuff teachers ask kids to do just to keep them busy.

That’s pretty much where federal politics is at right now. And of course it is. Why would either major political party do anything genuinely notable in the current political environment? The marriage debate is always there, threatening to overshadow anything you do. Next week we’ll have the dual citizenship cases in the High Court. Depending on what happens, we could well see a by-election after that. There’s also Christmas somewhere in there. So it’s natural that both sides want to keep things ticking along without actually troubling the scorers too much. This period is the equivalent of the last few overs before stumps on day three of a Test match.

A friend asked me recently if, in an odd way, the air taken up by the marriage debate could be an advantage for Turnbull, giving him the opportunity to spend time quietly developing much-needed policy announcements for use once the ballot is over. If Turnbull is using his time that way, it could be. That might depend a little on the other thing I’ve been asked about recently: what actually happens once the result is announced?

It’s a very good question. Assuming the result is a win for the Yes campaign, which seems likely, there will then be debate – and particularly in the Liberal party room – around protections for religious freedom. There is in fact already a bill drafted by Liberal Senator Dean Smith (there are actually several bills floating around), and it includes several protections. Nevertheless, there is already discussion of a separate bill being produced by conservative Liberal MPs.

Turnbull will surely want the bill passed as quickly as possible. That runs the risk of a few noses bent out of shape on the way through, but letting debate drag on over Christmas is an even worse idea. My guess is that there will be enough pragmatic-minded Liberals, such as Mathias Cormann, to help him in that task. Still, the issue of who Turnbull engages with in this process, and how much, will be closely watched. And in even the best-case scenario you’d expect a few more weeks of marriage dominating the agenda. Plus Nick Xenophon’s just-announced departure will make dealing with the Senate even less predictable than usual. 

In other words, there are three months left in this year, and the likelihood is that throughout that period both sides will be keeping their policy powder very dry indeed. 

Episode 5: Market farces
Richard Denniss examines the right's confusion over government intervention and the defunding of sexual assault support services. With guests Natalie Lang, Nina Funnell and Chris Fry.


In other news


The ghost of creativity spurned

Richard Flanagan explores a different kind of darkness in ‘First Person’

Geordie Williamson

“Flanagan’s follow-up to 2013’s Booker Prize–winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North takes as its subject the struggle of a young writer to choose between art and life. This time, however, the trade-off is warped by the power of the market – the decision is now between ordinary decency and the thrall of neoliberalism. First Person (Knopf Australia; $39.99) takes place in 1992 and is very much a story shaped by the decade just past, the period in which Hawke and Keating, Alan Bond and Christopher Skase presided over a radical revision of national priorities. It was a time when greed became its own vigorous, self-justifying good, floating free from old systems of morality, hierarchies of value or cultural mores. As Flanagan drolly puts it, ‘Something went wrong with the word mate in the 1980s, as with so many other things.’ ”read on


Let sleeping dragons lie

Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’

Helen Elliott

“In The Buried Giant Ishiguro stretches out his hand and offers to take you into this very particular mist of time. The voice is velvet. Step through, it says, sit here beside me and I’ll tell you a tale: two old people, a journey, a knight, a boy, a king, a ferryman, a princess, a dragon. (His courtesy is deferential, his kindness alluring.) The landscape I’ll take you through will not be familiar, it might be uncomfortable, it could hold terrors, but why not take my hand? Why not journey into this mystery with me?” (March 2015) READ ON

‘Artists in Conversation’

Readers in Victoria can register for free tickets to artist conversations as part of Melbourne Festival, led by the editorial team of The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

The conversations will feature Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from the festival program, to discuss their work and its place in the world. The conversations will take place at the Forum Theatre on Saturdays from 12.30 pm.

To register, simply click any of the two names below and enter your details in the form provided. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

Saturday, 14 October – Across Platforms

Hosted by Martin McKenzie-Murray, chief correspondent of The Saturday Paper, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Tree of Codes and A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol.

Saturday, 21 October – A Chronicle of Life

Hosted by Nick Feik, editor of the Monthly, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Germinal and EVER.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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