Posts Tagged government

Public official makes precedented announcement

A senior public official today announced that over the coming months a large government department will be following more or less the same policy that it has been following for as long as anyone can remember.

“We are proud of our department’s record, and see no reason to change anytime soon,” said the official in the press statement accompanying the department’s quarterly report. “Over the next few months, the people of this country can expect more of the same mediocre services at the same almost-but-not-quite exorbitant prices.”

No party seems to be proposing any real changes to the current policy, however the announcement has sparked the storm of controversy in the political chattersphere that regularly follows these reports.

In response to the announcement, the Opposition’s spokesperson for the portfolio lashed-out at the government, saying that this was yet another example of the “brazen mismanagement” that we have come to expect, and warning that if something does not change soon, the fabric of our society might collapse.

The Minister responsible for the department backed the announcement and refuted the attack from the Opposition. The Minister said that the government has a “commendable record” in this area, and that the Opposition’s complaints were “nothing more than a self-serving political exercise”.

“If they don’t like it, they can come up with a better idea!” the Minister declared. “This is just empty posturing from an Opposition with no real ideas and nothing to do except attack the government.”

The department’s field has seen very little change over the past few decades, yet it has consistently been the subject of much debate amongst public figures. That debate is alive and kicking, as seen when the media’s go-to expert in the field expressed ambivalence about the recent announcement when interviewed on the evening news.

According to the expert, it is positive that the government has not gotten rid of any of the good work that the department is doing, but it is disappointing that the government has not taken the opportunity to take on board the changes that the expert has been recommending for the better part of the last decade.

“I’ve been telling them for years: listen to me,” the expert told Major Karnage, going on to lament that “my last three reports on this issue have been completely ignored, even though the government gave me million of dollars to conduct them.”

That expert’s regular sparring partners took their usual stance against the proposed changes.

“Those reports were rubbish!” said a renowned newspaper columnist, insisting that the “so-called expert” had no idea what the policy was even about.

Many other public officials made such comments as “why are we still talking about this?” and “seriously? That again? Don’t we have better things to look at?”

While no tangible change in policy is likely to eventuate, the issue is expected to fill many a newspaper column-inch over the coming days, as journalists find more and more public figures to give quotes that sound a little controversial when taken out of context.

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On the carbon tax: doing the PM’s job for her

The best argument that Julia Gillard seems to have come up with in defence of her carbon tax is that Abbott won’t be able to repeal it because Labor will block his attempt, as well as spruiking the pre-emptive bailouts her government has decided to give to everyone.

Right.

Well, there are also points like this:

Sensible Australians will see carbon pricing as a change for the better | The Australian.

Did you know the Chinese company Suntech, whose chief executive Zhengrong Shi was educated at the University of NSW, became the world’s largest producer of silicon solar modules in 2010? Or that in 2010 global investment in generating renewable energy such as solar and wind power overtook investment in generating energy from fossil fuels?

Well, fortunately for the Chinese government, it doesn’t have to spend much money developing companies like Suntech because it allows workers to be kept in on-site barracks and work 48-hours straight for less money than Gillard probably spends on breakfast. That makes Suntech a lot more viable than it would be in a country where joining a trade union wasn’t a good way to disappear of the face of the planet. But then, people my age don’t care about democracy anyway, so maybe the Chinese model is a good idea.

Let’s throw another company into the mix: Solyndra. Here’s a good piece from Juliet Eilperin in Wired a little while ago that describes that whole kerfuffle:

Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust | Wired Magazine | Wired.com.

In 2005, VC investment in clean tech measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The following year, it ballooned to $1.75 billion, according to the National Venture Capital Association. By 2008, the year after Doerr’s speech, it had leaped to $4.1 billion. And the federal government followed. Through a mix of loans, subsidies, and tax breaks, it directed roughly $44.5 billion into the sector between late 2009 and late 2011. Avarice, altruism, and policy had aligned to fuel a spectacular boom.

Anyone who has heard the name Solyndra knows how this all panned out. Due to a confluence of factors—including fluctuating silicon prices, newly cheap natural gas, the 2008 financial crisis, China’s ascendant solar industry, and certain technological realities—the clean-tech bubble has burst, leaving us with a traditional energy infrastructure still overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels. The fallout has hit almost every niche in the clean-tech sector—wind, biofuels, electric cars, and fuel cells—but none more dramatically than solar.

That, right there, was what happens when the government artificially props-up an unviable industry. The government was committed to Solyndra, so had to keep pumping money into it, even when it started to become obvious that they were just never going to be as competitive as they had hoped. A few billion taxpayer dollars later and the now gigantic Solyndra imploded, leaving hundreds of people without jobs and an entire industry in ruin.

Now to pick-up on a point in today’s Australian editorial:

Carbon debate is taxing but falls short of targets | The Australian.

Given that Mr Abbott has subscribed to the same carbon reduction target as the government — cutting Australia’s emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 — the framing of the debate in this fashion pushes the onus on to him to produce more substance. His “direct action” policy relies on the government picking winners rather than the market seeking out least-cost abatement, so it is bound to be less efficient than a trading scheme, and therefore more costly on the economy. Mr Abbott should not escape by simply pledging to repeal the carbon tax. He must show how he can meet his target without creating a large burden on the budget. Scepticism about his ability to do this abounds, especially given he promises to provide tax cuts for families and business, while scrapping the carbon and mining taxes.

See, the Coalition’s “direct action policy” is not dissimilar from the policy the US was following when the whole Solyndra thing broke out. Tony Abbott is essentially arguing that the government should be funding carbon-saving ideas in order to reach the emissions target that he agrees we should have. The carbon tax is a prima facie tax, but the direct action scheme is an indirect tax. After all, someone has to foot the bill for the hundreds of millions of dollars that would actually be required to implement it, and no prizes for guessing who that is (hint: me and you).

Why the government hasn’t been using this as an argument is beyond me. Whatever flaws its policy may have, it’s vastly superior to the Coalition’s (and ironically, more in-line with the Coalition’s general ideology than the Coalition’s policy is).

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This may (or may not) be how the recent ACTU conference went down

I’m seeing a lot of comments like this one from Labor Senator Doug Cameron:

Good jobs for Aussies is not a miner matter | thetelegraph.com.au.

We must have a clear and unequivocal position on this: If Australian workers are being denied employment on mine construction sites then companies should not have a licence to engage overseas workers. …

Since when was it unreasonable to expect that highly profitable mining companies should provide Australian workers with the skill upgrading, training, travel support and accommodation to ensure they have genuine access to employment opportunities?

And this one:

Robust’ Labor caucus meeting expected.

Victorian Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson has also issued a sharp critique of the government’s Rinehart deal, telling reporters in Canberra that does not support the enterprise migration agreement policy, which allows “mega” resource projects to negotiate temporary migration needs up-front.

“We will end up with a situation where we have foreign companies using foreign workforces to send our resources in foreign ships to foreign countries for the use and enjoyment of foreign customers,” he said this morning.  

God forbid.

Sinclair Davidson from Catallaxy Files pointed to economist Brian Caplan explaining that it’s easy to play on peoples’ fears like this and make them scared of “foreigners”.

The real irony is that the ALP has been trying to paint itself as the party that’s more “compassionate” to asylum seekers. Apparently that only applies to people who are not actually going to contribute to the workforce — otherwise tehy are just “stealing our jobs”.

Meanwhile, you’re probably wondering what that headline was about. Well, does the whole situation make anyone else think of this?

Or this?

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I think I’ll start cutting myself

I keep seeing things like this:

Cuts to foreign aid hurt those who need our help.

I was shocked on budget night when nearly $3 billion was stripped from foreign aid spending (”Foreign aid vow broken”, May 9). Not only has a bipartisan promise been broken, but the government has chosen to save fewer lives and to help fewer children receive basic education in the name of a wafer-thin budget surplus.

That itty-bitty surplus could have waited another year. But instead, the child who has no access to clean water will wait. The community that is afflicted by hunger, or the mother who can’t immunise her children will wait.

The government may have achieved its surplus, but there will be deficit nevertheless: the 250,000 people whose lives will be lost because of it.

Rachel Achterstraat Manly

Which is why I was happy to see this, albeit in a publication with far less views:

The politics behind the ‘cuts’ to foreign aid.

The aid program has only been “cut” to the extent that the government has not delivered on promises to ramp up aid spending so that it reaches 0.5% of GNI by 2015-16. The government has maintained its commitment to increase aid to 0.5% of GNI but pushed back the target date to 2016-2017. Sticking to the 2015-16 target would have meant aid spending in 2012-13 of around 0.38%of GNI.

I looked up the word “cut”, here is the definition that I think would apply most here:

Remove (something) from something larger by using a sharp implement

  • – I cut his photograph out of the paper
  • – some prisoners had their right hands cut off

People seem to be following EU thinking, which is not really congruent with — you know — reality. Increasing spending less than you would otherwise have done does not equal “cutting” spending, it’s still an increase.

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A thought on Union mentality and Australia

Paul Howes on the HSU debacle:

How HSU betrayed all workers | thetelegraph.com.au.

IT hasn’t been a great week to be a union official. Once again the ongoing stories of alleged corruption and unethical behaviour at the Health Services Union (HSU) have dominated the headlines.

The actions of a few in a union of 77,000 members have tarnished the reputation of the entire union movement which represents two million Australians.

… Unfortunately, with a small minority in our movement giving our enemies free kicks things have become that much harder for the rest of our members. But at the end of the day what we seek to achieve for working people is the right thing.

Providing strength and unity for workers is still necessary in our society. That’s why taking action against the enemy within was the right thing to do for the labour movement — and will be the right thing to do in the times to come.

What strikes me about the two million workers he speaks of: that is less than 10% of Australians. By most accounts, it’s around 18% of working Australians. So even assuming that the Unions all do their best to represent their membership (which they don’t – say what you want about HSU, but I can’t believe that there is no uncovered corruption going on elsewhere in the movement), that means that the Unions are an interest group representing less than one in every five workers and fighting for what those workers want.

Yet this group has 50% of the internal votes in Australia’s only real social democratic party and numerous other ties, which means that leaders like Kevin Rudd who are not especially pro-Union can never be allowed to last long. It also seems to mean that the Labor party can never get passed its anachronistic dogma about what’s “good for workers”, in spite of very clear evidence to the contrary. It also makes Wayne Swan’s bizarre conspiracies about “vested interests” look even worse.

The sad thing is that unionised labour is actually a great idea in theory and once worked very well. There is a lot to be said for people who work uniting democratically in order to achieve better conditions for themselves. Unfortunately, the Union movement in Australia has long ago ceased to be anything resembling this.

Also, will someone please point me to the Union leader in Australia who spoke out against worker conditions in China when the whole world recently focussed its eyes on Apple and conditions in its manufacturing plants at Foxconn? I would really love to see the person who pointed out that Foxconn really has better working conditions than most Chinese factories and we are letting an even bigger evil go completely unscrutinised. Thing is, that wasn’t a Union leader, it was an anti-Union leader. The Unions were too busy trying to distance themselves from HSU to notice.

For shame.

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On the Finkelstein report: HAS ANYONE ELSE ACTUALLY READ THIS THING???

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Inquiry into the news media by Justice Raymond Finkelstein that is making waves in Australia. In the time that I have been reading it, everyone in the media has come out against it. And I mean everyone — from Andrew Bolt to the Green Left Weekly.

Many of these criticisms (including both Bolt and the GLW) stem from the claim that Finkelstein advocates imposing regulation on any blog with more than 15,000 hits per year. For some perspective, this blog received about 19,000 unique views in the last year (most of which would represent multiple “hits”) and that includes a good four-month period in which I was barely posting.

Other people to raise this as an issue include Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, Institute for Public Affairs researcher Chris Berg, Sydney Institute head Gerard Henderson, influential political blogger Andrew Landeryou of VexNews and ABC’s Media Watch. Some even quoted the actual line in context, which I find absolutely baffling. Take a look here, pay attention to the sentence that comes after the one with the number “15,000” — which I have conveniently bolded for you:

If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site has a minimum of 15 000 hits per annum it should be subject to the jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. These numbers are arbitrary, but a line must be drawn somewhere.

I feel like I may need to draw your attention a little more, given how many people seem to have missed this, so here goes:

“THESE NUMBERS ARE ARBITRARY”

That means he is not recommending the number of 15,000 hits per day. 15,000 was just a random number that he made up.

There is no possible explanation for this except that one person skimming the report noticed the number and then everyone else in the media saw that somewhere and decided to make a huge deal about it without actually bothering to read the report. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of low journalistic standards that Finkelstein identifies as a problem in a report that  has been — unsurprisingly — blown completely out of proportion. I guess the press don’t have the attention-span to read through 334 pages anymore.

What is particularly ironic is that Media Watch also made the same error — aren’t they supposed to be the ones picking things like this up?

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And the Greens call themselves “progressives”…

There has been a lot of what looks like sensationalism/paranoia surrounding the Finkelstein report on the media in Australia, so I have decided to read it myself. I will write on this when I have seen more, but I did want to highlight something early on.

Firstly, Bob Brown’s call for a media inquiry (my bold):

…but the leader of the Greens, Senator Brown, called for a general inquiry into the newspaper industry. He suggested that the inquiry should canvass whether:

· publishers should be licensed
· a ‘fit and proper person’ test should be applied
· there should be limits on foreign ownership of the press
· the newspaper industry is too concentrated
· there is a need for independent regulation of the press

A few pages later, Finkelstein summarises how the idea of a free press came to the British Common Law (and therefore Australian Law) (my bold):

The newly-invented printing press came to England in 1476. It brought about a sweeping change in communication possibilities. There was now a means, which could be employed by many, of carrying speech far and wide. It did not take long for the state to exercise strict control ‘over the printing, publication and importation of books’ in the interests of the state’s ‘peace and security. As early as 1484, monopolies were granted to publishers to print particular books. Then, in 1534, it became an offence to purchase a book published abroad. This was followed by proclamations against seditious and heretical books

2.9 In 1586 the Star Chamber issued a decree prohibiting all printing other than by licensed stationers. …

2.10  …The 1662 Printing Act was the last attempt to regulate printing by statute. The Act established a licensing system. The licensor was required to certify that his work was not ‘contrary to the Christian faith … or against the state or government’.

2.11 By the early 1690s advances in technology had significantly reduced the cost of printing and it was no longer practicable for the state to keep printing under control.

2.12 The 1662 Act was allowed to lapse in 1694.

As a small point, Australia still bans the importation of foreign books to a large extent (or at least, this was reintroduced somewhere down the line).

More importantly, Bob Brown is trying to bring back the idea of licensing press outlets in order to quell criticism of the Government – an idea that our legal tradition got rid of more than 300 years ago. This is supposed to be progressive? I can’t think of many things more regressive.

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Labor MP’s doublethink on Fair Work Act

The term “Orwellian” seems to be attached to anything vaguely misleading these days, but I genuinely believe that it can be applied to Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite’s defence of the Fair Work Act (FWA) – Labor’s industrial relations legislation that was introduced to replace the Howard government’s Work Choices policy and came into full effect in mid-2010.

When extolling the virtues of the FWA, Thistlethwaite uses what I can only call “doublethink“, Orwell’s idea of telling “deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them”. Just look at the “facts” that he was using:

Just the facts on Labor’s workplace reforms | Article | The Punch.

A simple measure of unsuccessful bargaining in workplaces is the number of days lost due to industrial disputes. Since 1991 the number of days lost to industrial disputes has been falling. In 1991 the average days lost during the year was 239.4 days per 1000 employees.

To compare, last year the figure was 15.9 days lost per 1000 employees. This is a significant drop. There has been an average reduction in days lost to industrial disputes almost every year for the past two decades.

For a few reasons I am no fan of the FWA, but I am also able to change my mind in the face of solid evidence. I was curious about what he was saying and decided to investigate a little further. I did not need to go very far; Thistlethwaite’s own figures came from the ABS Industrial Disputes, Australia report on industrial disputes up to September 2011. Looking at the report, there was a dramatic spike in disputes that began in the quarter ending September 2010 – exactly when the FWA came into full effect.

Also note: the major industries where most working days were lost were construction, mining and education/healthcare and NOT in transport – nothing to do with Qantas.

Another point I noticed: remember how he was lauding the fact that the number of days lost per 1000 employees had dropped from 239.4 to 15.9 since 1991? Well a couple of paragraphs later:

… The Howard Government had more than 105 days lost to industrial action per 1000 employees in 1999-2000. This figure represents the first four years of the Howard Government’s initial industrial regime, a policy that turned the screws on working people.

There seems to be more to it than he is telling, but the ABS did not have a graph showing the trend in the data going back decades. Luckily, I could do this myself:

The red line is a moving average over the previous four quarters.

Strange, to me that looks like the 1999-2000 period happens to have been an anomalous spike in what was otherwise a consistent decline in industrial disputes during Howard’s term. Meanwhile, he conveniently did not mention the 1985-1991 period under the Hawke Labor government where industrial disputes were actually increasing (albeit not significantly).

After Keating took over, there was a drop, but then disputes started rising again until Howard started “turning the screws on working people” in 1996, when they began to drop again and did so more or less consistently, aside from the spikes in 1999-2000 and 2003-2004. Note in particular that the number of hours lost dropped under Work Choices (2005-07) and then have been slowly rising since Labor took over in 2007 and have risen sharply since the FWA came into full effect.

I was a little disturbed by this, but I did give Thistlethwaite the benefit of the doubt at first. After all, no one looking at this data with any remote mathematical competence would arrive at the conclusions that he did without very carefully and deliberately choosing only the parts that prove their argument and ignoring everything else.

Well, lo and behold, this Thursday was another Thistlethwaite piece in The Punch on the FWA:

In Australia work is fair and it’s getting better | Article | The Punch.

The recently negotiated Holden Enterprise Agreement shows that the Fair Work Act equips employers and employees with the tools to produce high quality, mutually satisfactory agreements.

The link that he points to says this:

Today’s stories about Holden signing a new EBA are premature.

The EBAs covering engineering and manufacturing employees have not been signed and the coverage today is misleading and takes a very one-sided view of negotiations.

Now I kind of feel like he’s doing this on purpose. This must be an Easter Egg. There is no possible way that someone would actually try to argue that their industrial relations scheme is working because of a protracted negotiation over salaries by a company that’s about to get a $300mln bailout and then back that up by linking to a press statement from that company saying that no agreement has actually been reached. I mean, that just seems silly.

Since 1991, wages have increased from $929 to $1287 per week in real terms. That means even once cost of living increases over the past two decades are taken into account, Australians are now $358 better off per week. Over this 20-year period, combined real wage growth was 33 per cent, an average increase real in wages of 1.7 per cent per year.

Since the introduction of the Fair Work Act, real wages have increased by 2.8 per cent, an average of 1.4 per cent per year. This is consistent with real wage growth trends seen over the last 20 years and shows that real claims about wages breakouts are grossly exaggerated.

Hold on a second, did he just  argue that the FWA has maintained real wage growth using figures showing that, under the FWA, growth has been 18% lower than average? I had to make sure, because it definitely looks like he did that.

It does make sense that the FWA would lower wage growth and cause more industrial disputes, seeing as it effectively takes Australian IR policy back to the pre-Keating era, when this was the norm:

Abbott’s fault line.

The labour market regression started with the FWA’s repudiation of Keating’s concept of enterprise bargaining. But it went a lot further; it abolished individual contracts and non-union collective agreements, made bargaining more difficult, bolstered the centralised system, returned to and reinforced the concept of arbitration, put agreement-making back into the tribunal thereby undercutting the involvement of employers and employees, brought the unions back into virtually every agreement, expanded the right to strike and reinvigorated the awards system. It widened union access to business through right of entry provisions; it broadened unfair dismissal provisions, changed anti-discrimination rights and gave the tribunal more jurisdiction.

… Under the FWA, all agreements are, in practice, union agreements because if, in any business, regardless of its size, there is even only one union member then the union with coverage becomes the default bargaining representative. The employer is not allowed to know the identity of that member. And the union member is not consulted.

That last point is particularly sore for me. Less than 20% of Australian workers are members of Unions. Note that I capitalise the “U” – this is because the Union movement in Australia today is not the trade union movement of the past. These are no longer grassroots organisations formed by uniting workers to demand better conditions; they are now large, opaque and corrupt institutions, which, as their membership numbers show, are becoming increasingly irrelevant with every passing year.

It is an absolute disgrace that there would be legislation forcing Unions into negotiations between employers and employees who are not Union members. Who is the Government to tell Australian workers who should be representing them? Especially when they have made a clear choice that they do not want to be a part of the Union!

But then I guess this is apparently a Government who can only defend the policy with proof that it isn’t working. That, right there, is straight out of Orwell.

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