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We can afford $25 million for a Royal Commission, but not $9 million for Indigenous legal aid


“THE Abbott government will strip funding from the peak Aboriginal legal aid organisation and policy positions in its state affiliates, but has moderated the extent of cuts to at-the-coalface services following an outcry from the indigenous community.

The Coalition today will announce the defunding of the peak National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and all law reform and policy officer positions within each state and territory affiliate, saving $9 million over three years.”

The Australian, Dec 17, 2013

“FORMER Labor government ministers, including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, will be compelled to give evidence as part of a $25 million Royal Commission into the botched roof insulation program.

The Abbott Government will announce the scope of the judicial inquiry, which will be led by prominent Brisbane lawyer Ian Hanger and will be asked to report by mid-2014.

In a move designed to expose the role played by former Labor ministers, the Royal Commission will examine what “advice, warning or recommendations” were sought or given to the former Rudd Government.”, November 25th, 2013

It does seem odd that we can afford $25 million for a Royal Commission, when so many other things are being cut. I’m sure you can all make a case for the hypocrisy of the Abbott Government. In fact, there’s a compelling case that hypocrisy is one of their core values.

But what seems most odd to me is the political strategy behind the decision. What do they hope to achieve?

As Sir Humphrey Appleby (“Yes, Prime Minister”) put it:

“In the world of government there are two principal rules:

  • One, never look into something you don’t have to, and
  • Two, never start an inquiry unless you know in advance what the results will be.”

Yes, I know that the general expectation is – because of the terms of reference – that the results of the Royal Commission will condemn Rudd and Garrett and give the government a stick with which they can beat the Labor Party. That may well be the result. However, there seem to me no scenarios in which Abbott will come out of this a clear winner.

Let’s take the best case for the Coalition: The Royal Commission finds that Rudd and/or Garrett were negligent and condemns them for their rush and lack of proper regulation. As this is already the belief of most of the population (thanks to the current government and the Murdoch media), there’ll be an element of “Did we really need to spend $25 million to find out this?” And as both Rudd and Garrett are no longer MPs, then it’s harder to blame the current Labor Party.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that Royal Commission have a tendency to make recommendations. Potentially, these could be inconsistent with a government hell-bent on removing “red tape” and “speeding up” processes for employers. Even if they’d appointed Peter Reith to head the investigation, it’d be hard to come up with a conclusion that there needs to be more regulation to prevent deaths, but only in schemes that Labor introduce, because under a Liberal Government, employers can be trusted to ensure adequate safety training. And again, $25 million is a lot of money if Abbott is just going to say that they don’t see any need to implement the Commission’s findings.

Of course, that’s the best scenario. What if the Royal Commission were to find that neither Rudd nor Garrett were in any way responsible? Or even, while they failed to ensure adequate safety training, in fact, it was the employers who were principally to blame for the deaths and housefires? Anything which reduces the blame for Labor in the public mind will diminish the Liberal’s capacity to use the Home Insulation Scheme as a political football.

And, of course, it becomes harder for the Coalition to bring up the topic of the Home Insulation Scheme while it’s the subject of a Royal Commission – it could be perceived as trying to exert undue influence. Although, given the way they’ve tried to browbeat the ABC, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

Whatever, in a time of cutbacks, it’s a lot of money to spend when I doubt that it’ll achieve its aims – which, I’m sure Abbott would argue is to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated. More cynically, I’d suggest that it won’t achieve his actual aim – to change the way people vote at the next election. Those who blame Rudd or Garrett will continue to do so, as will those who wish to exonerate them. But, for most, it’ll be old news. As John Howard said about the WMDs, the public have “moved on”.

Ever since 1975, the Liberals seem to have adopted a fairly standard modus operandi. In Opposition, they say that Labor is the “worst government in the history of the world” and “sending the state/country broke”. In government, they say that things are worse than expected, and it’ll take them a long time to fix things but it’s all Labor’s fault. After a few years, people get sick of hearing whose fault it is and just want things fixed – and the Liberals by that time have usually made such a mess of Health and Education, that Labor only have to have a half-way decent policy to be voted in.

Unfortunately for Abbott, many people seem to have reached the “We don’t care whose fault it is, fix it” stage much more quickly than normal. I don’t see harking back to something that happened under a Prime Minister and Minister that are no longer in Parliament, makes it sound like Abbott has a clear plan for the future. It starts to sound like an argument where someone brings up a time several years earlier when you were in the wrong – you sense that they may just feel that they’re losing the current discussion. “I know I didn’t I ring to tell you that I wouldn’t be home for dinner and you’ve been waiting to eat and when I didn’t answer my phone you got worried, but let’s not forget that in 1996 you forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, so I don’t see why you think you have any right to complain!”

When Labor left office, the debt was $284 billion, and while it would be impossible to turn that around immediately, to argue that we need to scrap the debt limit because there’s no way we can stop it getting to twice that in the next three years, doesn’t sound like the mob who promised us a surplus in every Budget once they were elected. I’m not arguing that the debt needs to turned around that quickly, just that it seems strange that they could attack Labor for incorrectly promising a surplus, but ask us to simply ignore their own guarantees.

Yes, I know that most of you will want to argue that Labor didn’t, in fact, “leave a mess”. And I certainly don’t agree that the Government was “dysfunctional” as so many in the media like to write. I think I agree with sentiments expressed by Tanya Plibersek:

“I would give us nine out of ten for governing the country, I’d give us zero out of ten for governing ourselves. I think it’s pretty plain we had too many people playing their own games and not playing for the team.”

I think the mistake the Liberals are making and will continue to make is that they want to keep contesting the 2010 election. My best advice for Labor is not to make the same mistake.

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