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Tag Archives: legislation

A plea to the Pups: Do not repeal the Clean Energy Act

Original image by The Telegraph.uk

Original image by The Telegraph.uk

After reading a few similar posts I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and try something in the open-letter style, in the vain hope that it might make its way to its intended recipients via the magic of the interwebs. Since I don’t have time to provide statistical analysis what follows is very much a matter of opinion. You can either take my conclusions on trust, or do your own research.

Dear Senators Lambie, Lazarus, and Wang,

Congratulations to you all on your appointments.

I write to express my concern about the repeal of the Clean Energy Act which is currently before the Senate. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of this legislation, and the importance of the task before you. As an Australian who plans on living at least until 70, I feel I have a vested interest in this debate, and so I would like to be sure that you are fully apprised of the facts and consequences before you vote to repeal carbon pricing.

Abolishing the carbon tax will not save families $550 a year. In the last 10 years we have seen energy prices double, but only about 3-4% of this increase is due to the carbon tax. The rest is due to over-investment in poles and wires subsidised by taxpayers and paid for by consumers. Demand for electricity has actually fallen by about 13% over the last 5 years. This may be in part due to an increase in rooftop solar PV, in part due to rising prices. My point is that carbon pricing has not been the driving force behind high energy prices. Overall the impact of carbon pricing has contributed an estimated 0.7% increase to cost of living. Compared to a 2.5% hike for the GST, this is negligible.

No doubt you have become accustomed to our Prime Minister’s underhanded tactics, allowing interest groups to dictate policy and appointing climate sceptics to key advisory positions. As much as Abbott would deny it, the time for arguing the point is over. The science has been around since the 1970s. If CO2 levels rise to 450 particles per million then the planet can be expected to warm by two degrees, posing significant risk to life on earth. CO2 levels are already at 400 ppm and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as typhoons, floods, droughts and bush fires has increased more rapidly in the last five years than at any time in recorded history. Only those with their heads in the sand have not seen this coming.

It would be foolish to think that our shared desire for the survival of the species would somehow be enough to shake the global economy from its dependence on fossil fuels. On the other hand, a sudden rise in input cost might do just the trick. With crude oil now soaring above $100 a barrel and the Middle East in the grip of war, it looks like we may be seeing the end of an era. As long as demand for energy remains high and shale gas cheap the US may ride out the prospect of a double dip recession for a decade or so, but new sources of energy are desperately needed to drive a new economy. You need only look toward Beijing and Washington to see the reality of this. The fossil fuel industry’s days are numbered, and in what has already been dubbed the Third Industrial Revolution, most significant new investment is in renewables.

What does this mean for Australia? We can only continue to burn coal for as long as it is cost effective to produce it. Once global accords on climate change are reached, coal will face resistance in the market and we will start to see diminishing returns. The future is already looking bleak for the industry, and any amount of foresight would have us steer clear of stranded assets, not to mention the opportunity cost of not investing in renewables sooner.

In spite of Abbott’s best attempts to thwart it, Australia already has a mechanism in place to reduce emissions and provide significant investment capital for renewables. With attendant compensations to taxpayers such as raising the tax free threshold, family tax benefits and other measures, many poorer Australians, including pensioners, are actually better off under the current scheme. In spite of what Abbott would have us believe, the Clean Energy Act is not a toxic tax. Rather it is a well crafted package of reforms which has already lowered emissions by 7% and provides a means to steer our economy out of the cul-de-sac of the resource boom and onto the autobahn of technology and innovation. Who can tell how many new jobs will be created along the way?

With all respect to environmentalists, the legislation currently in place was not designed by a bunch of climate scientists who all got together and decided that preserving things like clean air and water for future generations was a really cool idea, but by shrewd economists who foresaw the need to future proof our economy against global trends. Dismantling this legislation without thinking through the consequences would amount to an act of economic vandalism, or deliberate sabotage, take your pick.

While preserving the planet for future generations is undoubtedly a noble cause, there is a far more cynical truth to consider. Our economic future very much depends on making the transition to clean energy as quickly and smoothly as possible. So while I admire the spirit of the amendments proposed by the Palmer United Party, I would suggest that in the best interest of all Australians the Clean Energy Act should be preserved in its current form. I urge you all to consider this carefully before casting your votes.

Kind Regards

Sean Stinson

Winner takes all

Bronwyn Bishop (image by canberratimes.com.au)

Bronwyn Bishop (image by canberratimes.com.au)

With the commencement of the 44th Australian parliament, and the installation of Bronwyn Bishop to the Speaker’s chair, it is appropriate timing to look at the way that democracy in Australia has been subverted over the past two terms of government, how this subversion is likely to continue, and what may be done to address it.

The subversion to which I refer may most readily be summed up as the phenomenon of “mandate”, but in more practical terms is described as the disempowerment of individual politicians, and by extension of the people that they represent.

In 2013, there are two independent members in the House of Representatives. There are one representative each from the Greens, Country Liberal Party, Palmer United Party and Katter’s Australian Party. The rest of the 150 seats in Parliament are occupied either by Labor or the Coalition.

The 2010 Parliament was famously “hung” – Labor had sufficient votes on the floor to support it in forming a government and to guarantee supply, but every piece of legislation needed to be hard-fought and negotiated in order to reach approval. It is a testament to the goodwill of Labor and the negotiating skills of Julia Gillard and her frontbench that the 2010-2013 term of government was one of Australia’s most productive, passing bills at an unprecedented rate of one every two days of being in power, all despite being in a minority government. Every member of that Parliament had a voice that counted. It would take a single member from the Coalition crossing the floor to guarantee success in any piece of legislation; similarly, a single member of Labor voting with the Opposition would be sufficient to scuttle it.

In addition to this, a defining factor of Australian parliamentary democracy was thrown into stark highlight: any party, or even any member, could bring a piece of legislation to the floor with some hope of success.

The party in government during any term enjoys a number of privileges, in terms of resources, support of government departments, and direct hands on the reins. There are any number of areas in which a government has real power, and whereby a member of the government can make real change without immediate opposition. The current government intends to capitalise on these powers to establish its Direct Action environmental plan without needing to bring legislation to the contention of the parliament.

However, the bread and butter of government is legislation – the to-and-fro of debate on the floor, of proposals and amendments and eventual acceptance of new law. It is this law that shapes society and by which governments can seek to implement their vision for the country. There are limitations to the power of politicians without recourse to legislation through the parliament, and for good reason. A hallmark of the 2010-2013 Parliament was that the Coalition had about as much chance of defining legislation and getting it approved as did Labor, the party ostensibly in government. The opposition could have brought its own vision, in the form of legislative proposals, to the floor any time during that term of government.

But they did not.

Unless you count motions to suspend standing orders, as far as I can tell the Coalition brought a grand total of zero proposals to the parliament. If you do count those motions, the total rises to one. Seventy-two times.

This article is not specifically intended to criticise the Coalition, because there is fault on all sides, and it is supported – encouraged – by the design of the system. As long as Australia lives under a two-party political system, then politics will be about politicing, not governing. That said, the current Australian government, the Liberal-National Coalition, has made a virtue of the necessity that the government rules and the opposition is powerless.

The Coalition in 2013 has been accused of purveying a “right to rule” mentality. This is propped up by continual discussion of the “mandate” that Tony Abbott claims to implement his program of legislation. Indirectly, this is in complete agreement to the Coalition’s approach during the last term. Despite having the opportunity to be productive, to work with the government of the day on finding agreement on the big issues and bringing forward, arguing and winning the contest of ideas with proposals of their own, the Coalition approached opposition with the intent of being as obstructive as possible. Instead of acting in a bipartisan manner for the benefit of the people, the Coalition talked everything down, sought to block every proposal, and belittled every intent of the government. They came in like a wrecking ball.

The eye of the Coalition was not on governing during 2010-2013. Their eye was on government for 2013-2016.

Abbott himself said as much. “Oppositions oppose. That’s what they do.” This was the justification given for not coming up with their own policy platform, for not having a suite of nation-building proposals of their own. The argument was bandied about that revealing policies simply gives the government ammunition, allowing them to take your own un-implemented policies and absorb them into their own platform. Indeed, recent history has seen this happen. But 2010-2013 was special. Before the election period, there was plenty of time for the Coalition to place its stamp on the legislative agenda of the country. Arguably, doing so would have given them an electoral fillip as they could argue they were already governing by default. As it happened, this was not necessary – the alternative approach was effective in winning government. But the Coalition had almost an unprecedented opportunity to use the term of government for the Coalition’s vision of the good of the country – if the good of the country had been their primary aim.

So why do political parties want, so strongly, to gain the reins of power? If the Coalition is not driven by the chance to implement a legislative agenda, what is the primary driver? Why buy into the winner-takes-all mentality that says that only Government can propose the agenda? Why deliberately take your own chance at power off the table?

I suspect that a big part of the reason is that it’s so much more personally profitable to be in government.

The disparity between government and opposition in terms of pay and benefits is a strong motivator to do whatever is needed to move from opposition into government. With this motivation in mind, it’s a short step from working for the benefit of the people to working for your own interests. In opposition, the priority is to win at all costs. In government, the main game is to attack the opposition. Maintaining a stranglehold on power is a corrupting influence par excellence and we can see the effects in policies that debase democracy, that result in government by stealth, that reduce the influence of the opposition and minor parties. As an example, destroying unions is not, per se, an attack by the conservatives on the working man; it is a direct assault on the Labor party. While the government should be concentrating on serving the people of the country, it instead focuses on perpetuating its own rule through any means possible.

So what solutions can we propose?

The first and best thing we could do to improve our polity is to establish equality of pay. If it makes no difference to your personal reward whether you are an MP or a shadow MP, then the political contest can be personal and local. Winning your seat becomes the ultimate aim; whether your party wins government or not, the personal rewards for victory in your seat are the same. If this simple change were to be accomplished, every member elected to Parliament could truly have the same power to serve their constituency. A shadow MP might not have the apparatus of a Department behind them, but if we were to additionally put the some of the resources of government departments at their disposal , we might be a step closer to a real democracy.

Many have also pointed to the concept of “party politics” being at the root of democracy’s malaise. Perhaps best exemplified by Tony Abbott’s defense of Jaymes “Six point plan” Diaz (incidentally, Google search for ‘six point plan’ – people pay good money to have the top spot on Google!): “He might not understand the policy, but he will vote for it. He will vote for it.” Party politics mean that individual candidates are not able to faithfully represent their constituents. At best, a vote for a major party is a vote in support of a bunch of policies you agree with, a selection of policies you have no opinion on, and probably at least a few policies you vehemently disagree with. Labor’s policies on refugees arriving by boat would seem a case in point for many people who nevertheless brought themselves to vote Labor in 2013.

The problems with party politics are legion and deserving of a post in themselves. If voting as a bloc was banned, I suspect we would have a political conversation much more nuanced, much more open and potentially much more informative. The opinions of every senator would count – whether they were in government or not, whether they were in opposition or not, even if they were an independent. If every vote on the floor was effectively a conscience vote, we might possibly get closer to an overall representation of the country rather than pandering to the desires of a few swing electorates. It would be important – nay, necessary – for every member, and every senator, to have understanding of what was being proposed in legislation. If we could somehow ensure that votes were not held unless every senator could sign a form saying they understood the legislation to their own satisfaction, it would require proposed legislation to be well examined and well explained.

This is not the world we live in. We live in a black and white world, a two-party world, where the Greens fight to retain a 10% share of the vote and count themselves lucky, where independent members are courted for their vote and loathed and derided in private, and where legislation is decided by leaders and party rooms rather than by the majority rule of the people. We must work within the paradigm of government and opposition. The 2013-2016 term of government will provide less opportunities for the opposition of the day and the independent members to have a constructive voice. But more importantly than opportunity is vision, and so long as Labor operates on the Coalition’s preferred terms – that the government proposes the legislation, and the opposition opposes – and so long as reaching government is required not only to do good, but to personally profit, there can be no drive for change. So it is up to the Australian people to consider how we may resolve these conflicts of interest – because occasionally, eventually, the wishes of the people can have an influence on the policies of our leaders. But this will be a long fight, and possibly futile. The sad facts are that no government is ever likely to vote for an increase in the pay of the opposition.

The government that doesn’t want to govern

this-school-closed

On 1 October, the Affordable Health Care Act comes into force in the United States. It has split the US down the middle – by some polls, over half of the population hates the Act. Detractors call it “Obamacare” as if to identify it with a single person is to devalue the raft of policy and the nation-changing effects it will have. Republicans, quite simply, hate it outright.

I recently requested clarification from a right-wing, evangelical Christian blog as to why, if the Act is of so much benefit to the poor and downtrodden of America, the right oppose it.

I received in response a bullet list of seven reasons “Obamacare” is a disaster for America. Of these seven objections, one is a moral statement: the argument that some aspects of the law don’t suit all people, but will apply to all people. The argument was made that funding for abortions may be made available through the Act. This is highly arguable, at least in the law as enacted, but fair enough; this seems like a valid objection.

It is entirely legitimate to oppose legislation on the basis of disagreement with the moral outcomes. Two of the objections question the effectiveness of the legislation. Similar to the Australian Coalition flatly stating that Labor, even when in possession of a good idea, cannot turn it into effective action, opponents of the AHCA point to other countries with national healthcare systems and claim that they’re not perfect.

They argue that such systems will be open to abuse, rorting and fraud. You could argue that all systems are open to abuse, rorting and fraud and that this is a good reason to refine the legislation to progressively remove these opportunities; however, it’s not an entirely invalid objection.

And three of the objections boil down to the basic assertion: “We can’t afford it”. The policy will cost the US government, and thus the taxpayer. The US is already debt-ridden. The government ought to concentrate on paying down debt before engaging in further expenditure. Fair enough. That does seem a valid, and eerily familiar, objection. Except…

“We can’t afford it” has become a catch-cry of conservatives the world over. The Affordable Healthcare Act? Can’t afford it. National Broadband Network? Can’t afford it. Public servants? Can’t afford them. Social support and welfare? Can’t afford them.

Government is a case of competing priorities. All governments work within limitations of resources, in terms of finance and political goodwill and legislative time and personnel; every potential advance in society which government needs to enact comes at the expense of other needs. To evaluate whether “can’t afford it” is ever a valid objection to policy advances, let us take a step back and examine what it is that we have a government for.

The human species is gregarious by nature. Since the formation of the first agrarian communities, we have instituted some kind of authority structure. All governments throughout history have entailed a personage, or group of personages, to which the people voluntarily surrender power and authority. The people sacrifice their autonomy, their time, and their taxes, for the sake of the benefit of the whole.

For many centuries, the fundamental purpose of government was law and order, and peace/protection from invasion. In other words, government’s areas of responsibility went no further than setting the legislature and maintaining a standing army which, in addition to its function of protecting the people against hostility from outside, also enforced the law.

Some empires also dabbled in infrastructure. The ancient empire of Rome is famous for its network of roads; after the fall of the Roman empire, significant expenditure on roads would not be seen again in Europe until the 1800s. Rome also built aqueducts to service its wealthy citizens. The Roman empire was centuries ahead of its time, but in modern society, we expect governments to spend some resources on infrastructure. Roads, water, sewerage, power, telecommunications – these things that modern society relies upon are part of the bread and butter of modern government.

Governments of old, however progressive in their approach to infrastructure and law and defense, had no interest in some of the areas we currently consider to be expected parts of civilisation. Rome implemented a “corn dole” for citizens too poor to buy food; the Song dynasty in China (circa 1000 AD) managed a range of progressive welfare programs. Apart from a few stand-out examples such as these, however, social support was nonexistent.

Modern-day welfare came into being in the 19th and 20th centuries. We now consider a certain level of unemployment benefit, disability benefit, aged care benefit, etc. to be a reasonable imposition on society. Before the 1900s, the unemployed and the aged (and unmarried women) were the responsibility of their families, not of society as a whole.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that history saw the first public, secular hospitals being created. Prior to this, health care would have been taken care of by organisations other than government; primarily, in Europe, by the Church and the monasteries. Education is a similar story. Before the emergence of universal education for the populace – as early as the 1700s in some parts of Europe, but not widespread until the 19th century AD – education was reserved for the elite and provided by the churches.

It is important to note that for all of this time, the churches and other bodies responsible for providing these services – education, health care, welfare – were accepted and fundamental parts of society, and society contributed to them regularly and generously. Everybody gave alms to the churches. The monasteries were at the center of landholdings in their own rights and levied taxes upon their surrounds. In a way, these organisations were analogous to government – they received support from society as a whole, and in return, they provided certain necessary services.

In the modern world, the social bodies that would have been responsible for education and healthcare are declining or have died. Catholic schools and hospitals still exist, but not to the extent required to support our population. For the past 200 years governments have taken on these responsibilities, as the world gave way to secular sympathies, and governments took on these responsibilities as key determinants of national progress and success. A healthy, educated populace was the key to national prosperity.

Which brings us to the present. In 2013 we have conservative groups and political parties wanting the government to get out of the way while the market takes care of these things. On infrastructure – for example, the NBN – let it be driven by market forces. Environmental action, likewise: rather than a carbon tax operated by the government, a “direct action” policy will find the emissions abatements efforts that already exist and support them, rather than mandating change from the outside.

We have Republicans and Liberals wanting the government to get out of the business of mandating healthcare because it ought to be driven by market forces. We have governments of all persuasions pursuing privatisation and outsourcing of previously fundamental responsibilities in the name of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. And we have governments preferring to return the community its taxes in the form of tax cuts (to individuals; to business) and infrastructure spending. All of this comes with a wave of the hand and a “we can’t afford [whatever]”.

But can the government really abrogate its responsibilities in these areas? Without other bodies or structures to take on these responsibilities, it’s not ethical to stop providing them. So can the free market be relied upon to do this?

Money to pay for education, fire services, health, broadband, has to come from somewhere. The social structures – primarily church – which previously might have supported these things no longer have the resources or the popular support to be able to take up the slack. Charities around the country are crying out for support and berating the government for not providing enough basic resources/support; something has to give. In this environment, the idea of “small government” doesn’t make sense.

The government has to be big enough to do the things that the monasteries aren’t around to do anymore.

The Republican right in the US and the Lib-Nats in Australia run on a platform of “individual empowerment”. With the exception of a few big-ticket items, where they have specific, active policies – policies towards boat people come to mind – the Coalition’s ideology is to get out of the way, reduce government’s interference in society, reduce the tax burden on individuals and corporations, and let the free market have its way. It believes that everyone will benefit if there are lower taxes and more money moving.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Even in some fictional world where successful humans were altruistic enough to plough their profits back into providing more employment and more productivity, rather than squirreling away the proceeds as profit, we still need these other functions to happen.

And these other functions – hospitals, schools, heavy rail, telecommunications infrastructure – don’t happen at the behest of successful capitalists. They happen because the community needs them and the community as a whole will pay for them.

Individualism is what you have when you don’t have strong governments. Individual empowerment is what you get when the strong ride roughshod over the weak.

Now we seem to be on the verge of voting in a Coalition government which will be forced to cut back on all sorts of areas of service provision and expenditure if it is to meet its overriding goal of bringing the budget back to surplus.

A government whose budget figures and estimates we’ve not been allowed to see, which is promising to repeal several sources of revenue and increase expenditure in several areas, whilst not increasing taxes. Something has to give. It seems certain that “We can’t afford it” will come into force after the election in a big way.

“We can’t afford that” is never a valid excuse. That’s what government is for: to find a way to be able to afford the basic things we need our government for. If that involves raising taxes in an equitable manner, then that’s what you do – it’s exactly why we pay taxes in the first place.

If it involves an imposition on businesses to achieve an end that the community desires – for example, a carbon tax – then that is why we have a government. The whole purpose of government is to place impositions on the strong to benefit the weak and to regulate the individual to offer benefits to the whole.

A government that doesn’t want to do these things is not governing.

A government that doesn’t want to provide these things is a government that doesn’t want to govern.

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