Monday, April 30, 2012

How and WHY!!!

It's hard to know where to start. Where to trace the threads back to. How it all happened.

To say nothing of why. Why why why why WHY (shrieking) WHYYY!!! WHHHYY!!! WHHHHYYYY!!!!!!

In fact yes, best say nothing whatever of 'why,' for that's clearly too painful. Besides which, my girlfriend's asleep and she has a cold and I don't want to wake her up. And 'why' may be unknowable in any case.

Come to think of it, I don't feel much like focussing on 'how' either. That's really not much better than 'why,' and with 'how' you're just going back over painful details that were bad enough the first time around. So yeah, let's forget that one too.

Which leaves us with what, exactly? Oh right... 'what,' exactly.

'What' at least has the advantage of simplicity.

The Federal Labor Party appears to be in ruins at this time.

The signs are everywhere.

Our Prime Minister, the fiestiness she has shown since she saw off Kevin Rudd's leadership challenge nowhere in sight, anxiously ringing her hands as she made yet another public backflip to the press yesterday. The tired, miserable expression on the faces of her senior ministers as they then tried to defend what she had just announced. The leery headlines in the Murdoch and, yes, even the more sensible outlets among the media as they called for Gillard's resignation and wondered just who the ALP might throw up as their next leader. The obligatory K.Rudd story, where unnamed sources (with the initials K.Rudd) confirmed that the little fella would be willing to step into the leadership breach, if asked (or, more realistically, if the palace guards haven't lifted the drawbridge and barricaded the doors by the time he arrives).

And, perhaps most chilling of all, the tone of voice of my Labor inclined work colleagues, as they huddled around the water cooler and tried to comprehend the reality of Tony Abbott, PM:

'We're fucked aren't we?'

Which seems as good a summation of the ALP's current state as any.

If an election were held now, the Labor Party would be obliterated by a holocaust so total, that the one in 'T2' would seem like a sunny day at the park in comparison:

Terminator 2 - nuclear attack from cpucomplexx on Vimeo.

Only the very safest Labor seats would be safe, if the current state of the polls is to be believed, and after what happened in the recent election in Queensland, where Labor candidates on margins of 15% lost their spots, not even all of those. The Libs, you would think, would probably fancy their chances in any seat in the nation right now.

So, while I already stated that I wouldn't get into the how and the why of this parlous state of events in this piece, in the spirit of the Gillard Prime Ministership, let me do exactly that.

Yesterday, our PM went to the press to announce that she had asked federal Labor back bencher Craig Thompson to stand down from the the ALP and sit in Parliament as in independent. Thompson, the parliamentarian currently under investigation for fraud and misconduct from his time as head of the Health Services Union, had been toughing it out, denying the allegations while waiting for the investigation into his affairs to be concluded. In doing so, he had had pretty staunch support from his Prime Minister, who had made numerous public comments about the 'presumption of innocence' and 'not commenting on an ongoing police investigation' and who had given every indication that nothing short of Thompson being charged with something criminal would get her to withdraw that support. As mentioned, this had been her very solid, very unchangeable, very public position, repeated on the record any number of times...

...until yesterday, when her new public position was that Thomson no longer deserved his place in Labor caucus and would be removed from it until the investigation was over. He would not be asked to resign from parliament, or forced to do so, and he could still sit in Parliament and vote for the ALP if he felt like it but, and this was crucial, he would have to sit in a different spot to the rest of them. A new chair, you see. And... a new desk! Access to his old chair and desk would be withheld, until it was known whether or not he would have to go to prison.

Gillard said she had asked Thomson to do this to 'uphold the dignity of the Parliament.'

And this brings us back to where we started; with outrage from the Opposition, mockery from the press and numb shock from Labor's dwindling band of supporters. 

While the removal of Thomson is the right idea, the PM has gone about it in such a way that she has come out of the affair with her reputation severely tarnished. Under normal circumstances, Thomson would have been forced to resign a long time ago. While the police investigation is still ongoing, based on the information already in the public domain Thomson is, at the very least, hopelessly incompetent. At worst, he is a petty criminal and will be professionally ruined, as well as having to serve some jail time. Either way, he's not the sort of person that a large political party can afford to count among it's number. But because of Labor's perilous numbers in parliament, they sit on a majority of one even with Thomson, Gillard felt she had to defend him, tying his fate to hers. Once she stood by him, and stated she would not act until the police had done, it was really too late for her to change her mind. 

If Gillard had wanted Thomson out of the party, even temporarily, then the time to act was early, so as to underline her authority and allow some claim to the high moral ground. Since she didn't do this, then she really needed to wait until there was some evidence of wrongdoing before having Thompson removed. By procrastinating, defending Thomson and then abandoning him, and then lurching to a sort of half way punishment, Gillard has managed to create the impression, once again, that she has no idea what she is doing. Worse, what she has underlined instead of her authority is the impression in the minds of the public that she makes decisions day to day, or even minute to minute, based on whatever she thinks is politically expedient and doesn't believe anything that comes out of her own mouth.

There's more than a hint of the 'Real Julia' debacle from the last election campaign about all of this. 

There, Gillard sort-of called a halt to her faltering campaign about halfway through and attempted to reset the whole thing, claiming she had thrown off the shackles of her evil spin doctors and media staff. We were set to see 'The Real Julia' from that point onwards. Sadly, while her election campaign didn't change that much, this has actually proved to be the case, as there are echoes of the The Real Julia approach in many of her decisions since, a lot of them conforming to a fairly obvious pattern.
  • Make a decision.
  • Defend it aggressively.
  • Abandon it suddenly, for no obvious reason.
  • Do the opposite of what you originally stated.
  • Never mention any of it again.
Craig Thomson is merely the latest example of this process.

But there are plenty of others - carbon tax, mining tax, people's forum, green loans, refugee processing in East Timor, cash for clunkers, Peter Slipper... sweet jesus, I haven't even mentioned him! - enough, you would think, to bring Gillard down as leader. Her credibility is at an end, her popularity is non existant and it's difficult to see how Labor can keep going, with things as they are, without doing something.

Whether that is replacing Gillard with another leader, or merely outing her as Tony Abbott's long term secret friend and double agent, only time will tell.... But not that much time, you wouldn't think.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Das KAP-ital

They love a populist politician in Queensland.

My own experience observing Australian politics is long enough that I caught the greatest of them all, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, right at the end of his thousand year reign of terror (actually 19 years, but I'm sure it felt like a thousand for a good number of people who lived there), somewhere between that moment of corrupting absolute power and the police powers of the anti corruption commission. Sir Joh distilled politics down to a very simple business; offer inane gibberish to the public while your acolytes pillage the state Treasury and an expanded police force gives a hardline interpretation of the word 'order.' He didn't really need policies, as his police and security agencies meant there was no opposition, so his connection with populism is looser than it might have been, largely down to his folksy manner and his deluded 'Joh for Canberra' campaign of 1987 (which effectively derailed John Howard's election chances that year, so it's impossible to hate the bloke). Said Joh, when his campaign for Prime Minister had petered out, 'I never wanted it anyway.'

More exciting than Joh, and nearly as resiliant, was his populist suiccessor, the exciting Queensland soap melodrama that was Pauline Hanson.

From this distance, where Hanson only shows up occasionally on telly, and usually in something like 'Dancing with the Stars,' it's hard to remember exactly what a big deal she once was. Elected to Federal Parliament in 1996 on the back of an anti-Labor swing of 19%, this being the election where Keating lead Labor over a cliff, Hanson immediately made a name for herself in her maiden parliamentary speech, where she denounced multiculturalism, immigration, tolerance, dogs, buses, vegetables, schools, immunisation, Medicare, television and most of the other things that modern Australia is founded on. This proved so popular, initially, that at the Queensland State election of 1998 she lead the 'One Nation' party she had formed around herself to 10 seats and the balance of power. But this triumph was short lived. Shortly after this, people suddenly remembered that they liked dogs and television and, most importantly, their foreign born neighbours and that the person telling them to hate all of those things was, actually, nothing more than a petty tyrant in a fright wig. Hanson soon lost her seat, then her party, and even spent some time in jail for electoral fraud, before retiring to a life as a grade D celebrity, where she was infinitely more suited.

Now Queensland has produced a new populist political leader for us to enjoy.

Although 'new' may not be the most accurate way of describing the gent in question; a silver haired veteran of 38 years in State and Federal politics by the name of Bob 'The Mad' Katter. Also known as the bloke in the hat.

Katter came into State politics, as a National Party member of Sir John's government, in 1974 and moved to Canberra in 1993, winning the far north Queensland seat of Kennedy (formerly held by his father). In 2001 he left the National Party behind, annoyed at the government's removal of sugar subisidies for his constituents and tired of Federal National leader Warren Truss' gormless face.

He subsequently won  his seat as an independant, and has now been re-elected as such three times (2004, 07 and 10). Despite the Nationals throwing gobs of money and effort at it to try and wrest the seat back, Katter won nearly 70% of the two party preferred vote in 2010 and now has one of the safest seats in the country. Sitting on such a buffer, it's no wonder the man's confidence is up.

Which brings us to Katter's latest venture: Katter's Australia Party (or KAP):

Apart from the video, the newest player on the Australian political landscape has quite a smart website, from which we can discern a few key points:

1) The man's name is in the title for a reason. This is very much KATTER'S Australia Party. On my visit to the site today, I counted five pictures of The Mad just on the home page; walking, yelling, scowling and, caution advised, even grinning. An ad to the right of these offered the chance to buy a book telling the  'passionate' history of Australia. The author of this was... Bob Katter. A separate section within the site itself is called 'Where's Bob?' and is dedicated to recording people's encounters with the great man; photos, anecdotes, hat sightings (no caution here, this is freakin' hilarious!).

2) Unlike Sir Joh, The Mad has got plenty of policies, on everything from food production in Queensland, to selling Queensland's public assets, to rebuilding Queensland's infrastructure. Hmmm... there's something about this that I can't quite put my finger on. And this is where populism really kicks in. KAP's policies are a mix of pre 60s Labor, Menzies era social conservatism and a straight out demand for pork barrel cash for the bush. It's very us against them, although the enemy shifts around a bit, and sometimes isn't defined at all.

3) Apart from policies, the site also has a separate section about the party's principals. Which I liked, as it seems to reflect the very nature of politics; Principals: What we'd like to do if we lived in a fantasy world where the usual rules of politics didn't apply; Policies: What we will try and do in this world where they do.

4) KAP is short of a few bob. They're not short of Bob, but they are short of money, at least based on the number of 'DONATE NOW' links that dot the website.

Of course, it's easy for me to sit here and make fun of a squeeky voiced old codger on a bit of a power trip. The Mad will always attract detraction,such is the nature of his political persona. But he is to be underestimated at his opponents peril.

No one really expected him to keep his seat as an independent against a well entrenched and well financed operation like The Nats, but he did, much to their annoyance. And his new political party, which has been derided by pundits considerably more serious than myself, has already had some small measure of success. In the Queensland state election of a few weeks ago they captured two seats (one to The Mad's son, Rob), a small number to be sure, but only five less than the Labor Party managed. If they keep their focus as tight as it is now - local candidates and issues - they could certainly do some damage in far north Queensland at the next Federal election. This forthcoming election, likely to feature two widely disliked leaders in Abbott and Gillard, throws open a number of opportunities for a small time populist on the make. Very much in the Queensland tradition.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


If you paid $654 for something, you'd be expecting something pretty nifty in return.

An iPad 3, for example. Or maybe a weekend away somewhere sunny, with dinner at a nice restaurant and a few drinks.

Conversely, if you paid $654 for something and got... nothing for it, not a sausage, you'd be pretty fucking ropable. That iPod spaced hole on your coffee table would remain just a hole and you'd be ready to break something.

But then, let's imagine, having endured this dud transaction, you were then told that this wasn't a one off, but that you'd actually signed up for an annual payment of $654. A once yearly sting for which you would receive... nothing. Not a bean. Not a skerrig. Not even a free magnet calendar for your fridge. Well, if this happened, then 'ropable' and 'break something' probably wouldn't cut it. If you had a temperament like mine, you'd probably just burst into flames on the spot.

And so here's the bad news.

If you live in Victoria, then this is precisely the deal that your last two Governments have stuck you with.

Only it's not $654 that we'll be paying each year for... nothing. It's $654 million. For this is the amount that the 'AquaSure' consortium, builders of Victoria's new desalination plant, will receive from us taxpayers in the 2012-13 financial year, in return for which they will need to deliver us with... nothing.

And by nothing, I mean NOTHING. Nothing as in the way Seinfeld was about nothing:

GEORGE: I think I can sum up the payments for you with one word; Nothing.


GEORGE: (Smiling) Nothing.

RUSSELL: (Unimpressed) What does that mean?

GEORGE: The payments are for nothing.

RUSSELL: All right, tell me, tell me about the water. How much water?

GEORGE: Oh, no. No water.

RUSSELL: No water? Well, what are we paying for?

Good question Russell, what indeed?

The $654 million is not for the plant, which we have already paid $5.7 billion dollars for and which may even be finished at some point in the future (as of this writing it is more than a year overdue and no revised date of completion has been announced). And it's not for any actual water. As reported by 'The Age' earlier this week, the state Government has placed an order for 'Zero litres' of recalibrated drinking water for the next financial year. Meaning that our very high tech, $5.7 billion water plant is going to be sitting unused for the next twelve months, the only noise coming from it the sounds of some high priced tradesmen trying to finish building it.

So if it's not for the plant and it's not for any actual water, what exactly have we bought with our $654 mill?

In reality, there can be no better answer given than this $654 million annual payment is stipulated in the contract signed by the Government and AquaSure. The consortium demanded it as part of their terms for building the facility and the Government signed off on it. The spectacularly dreary project summary on the Government's Public-Private partnership website - for the good of your health I don't recommend clicking that link and reading it - simply states that the Government will pay for any water used and;

...a security element that is paid to the extent the Project delivers water that is ordered, or is capable of delivering 150 GL per annum of desalinated water at the required quality.'

In other words, it's just a fat wad of our cash that goes straight into the consortium's pocket. And all they have to do to earn this, based on the above, is have the plant ready to produce water, whether we actually end up buying any or not.

So, a better question than what are we getting for our $654 million is probably, how on earth did we get stuck with such a crapulent contract? In these difficult financial times, when Government's from both sides tell us repeatedly and very loudly that they have no money for anything, how is it that we're lumbered with paying $654 million dollars annually, for twenty years, for nothing.

It seems almost too incredible to be true.

The Labor Government that produced this outcome for the state is, of course, little more than a fast fading memory. Although a few of the players behind the deal are still on the scene. Former Water Minister Tim Holding, who signed the Aquasure contract on behalf of the Government, was asked about it this week and he said that he thought Melbournians would be 'thankful' for the desalination plant in future years, despite the costs.

You can now see why he's an ex Minister.

But this is not to say that the current, Liberal, Government is free from blame for this debacle. After all, it was their scare campaign over water in 2006, with Big Ted Baillieu himself first proposing a desalination plant, that triggered this mess in the first place. Labor were initially firmly opposed to the idea - quite apart from the cost, desalination is environmentally unfriendly in a number of ways - but they waivered in the face of a concerted media campaign. A nationwide drought had a grip on the public imagination, water catchment levels were hovering around 25% and as Opposition Leader, Big Ted was happy to tell the press that Victoria would soon look the surface of the moon.

Labor's panicked response to the Liberal's effective campaign directly lead to them rushing into the poorly thought out Aquasure deal. They were keen to get in bed with someone, anyone, who could deliver a desalination plant as quickly as possible, and they were willing to spend large amounts of our money to do it.

Now, of course, the drought has broken, catchment levels are in the sixties and panic about water security seems like a mass delusion brought on by too much exposure to the Herald Sun and Neil Mitchell (sadly, a common occurrence in this state) For his part, Premier Ted is happy to shrug his shoulders and say, in his bored, listless fashion, that Labor fucked things up, just like they always do. And just be thankful that he was able to step in and... (yawns)... something something.

A more energetic Premier might think about doing something to fix a massive problem, and drain on the state's resources, that they were partly responsible for creating. But this is unlikely. Energetic is not Big Ted's style. And, in any case, the Liberal Party will be quite happy to pay $654 million a year to have such a big stick to whack the Labor Party with. For political party's at least, opportunities like this are truly priceless.

But there are options if anyone wants to follow them up. With all the problems that Aquasure have had building the blasted thing, the consortium has already lost a billion dollars over the construction of the plant, you'd think they could be tempted out of their contract, for the right offer. The state could buy them out, pack them off and then sit on what has already been built, in the off chance that we may get some use out of it in the future.

A one off chunk to save $654 million dollars a year? It's worth considering. And would probably be a vote winner. It's something for the ALP, held out of Government by only one seat and facing a Premier who has a hard time staying awake, to seriously think about.

Monday, April 2, 2012

27 Percent

'There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everyone else in the neighbourhood was dead. So it goes.'

- Slaughterhouse 5

I wonder if this is how members of the Queensland ALP felt like, the survivors, as they emerged from wherever they hid during the recent state election. A handful of them had miraculously made it, while the flames of an angry electorate consumed the majority. Like Billy Pilgrim, they must have been stunned by the ferocity of the death storm that had been suddenly sprung on them. Unlike him, they probably weren't wearing silver combat boots and a stage curtain (at least, not publicly).

Now they have to face up to a similar question as the one Pilgrim faced after the city he was a POW in was burnt to the ground: What next?

For the Queensland ALP, answering this will not be easy.

It's easy to forget, but the Australian Labor Party is a Queensland invention, like XXXX and Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen. It was founded in 1891 in Barcaldine, QLD, by striking shearers who decided they'd had enough of sitting around on strike without pay and that, if they were going to sit around doing nothing, they may as well do that in Parliament and get handsomely paid for it. This was such a logical idea, that the Party grew rapidly, to the extent that Andrew Dawson was able to form a Labor Government in Queensland only 8 years later. It was the first Labor party government of any sort, anywhere in the world.

Flash forward a hundred odd years, and this proud and deep rooted institution has been reduced to such a state that calling their elected representatives a 'rump' is probably too kind. Their numbers are so few, only seven Labor parliamentarians will sit in the state legislature, that they will need a considerable improvement at the next election to even get to a position of being a 'rump.' Rump-hood is about the best that their new leader, whichever hapless sucker inherits that position, can look to the future and hope for.

Seven seats.

Out of a parliament of 89. The rest went; Liberal-National 78, Independent 2, and the Mad Katter's new 'Loopy Fru-Fru Party' 2. But more on the Mad Katter later.

It is nothing less than the greatest landslide obliteration in Australian political history.

The sheer one sidedness of it makes it hard to absorb all at once; Labor lost more than 40 seats, on the back of a 15.6% statewide swing against it, with ten senior, high profile ministers shown the door. The former Premier, Anna Bligh, suffered a 10 point swing against her, but her margin was such that she still held her seat by 5 percent... and then promptly announced that she was leaving politics immediately, giving the voters one last chance to give her party a booting at a subsequent by election. Which they probably will (Bligh's primary vote was only 0.5% ahead of the LNP candidate, making this seat ripe to switch sides as well).

As results go, the above catalogue of horrors is the sort of thing that makes the anti-Keating 'waiting with baseball bats' Federal landslide of 1996 look like a solidly credible effort. After all, the Keating lead ALP managed a primary vote of 37% in that one, considered an unmitigated disaster at the time, but which is some TEN POINTS higher than what Bligh and co just managed.

And there lies the rub for Federal Labor.

After Bligh, looking stunned and ill, shuffled away from the media pack for the last time to go on a ninety hour bender, senior Labor figures in Canberra stepped in to try and staunch the wound.

'It's a disappointing result, but we congratulate the new Liberal-National government and look forward to working with them.'

'Today is a tough day but the voters have spoken and you have to respect that.'

'Despite what happened in Queensland, Federal Labor will continue to do what it does every day; work hard to enact our agenda in support of workers and families.'

'This was an election fought on state issues, which are not really for the Federal Government to comment on.'

None of the above quotes need attribution; firstly because they're not real quotes, but, more importantly, because any number of Federal Labor figures made public comment offering variants on these themes. The result was bad, it was grim, but it was a state result based on state issues and it was nothing to do with Canberra. The Prime Minister even lead off her response by saying that 'Anna Bligh had lead a good government,' which made you wonder if she hadn't finally developed a sense of humour. She'd be hard pressed to find too many Queenslanders who shared that viewpoint currently.

But whatever the tough/calm/mildly deluded comments that members of the Federal Government offered up, you wouldn't want to put too much stock in them. Secretly they all must be terrified. For even before this tidal wave of anti-Labor feeling, they were in trouble in Queensland.

There are more marginal seats in Queensland than in any other state, enough so that the next Federal election could be won and lost in that state, alone. And then there's K.Rudd, the nation's most prominent Queensland politician, who'd just been sent to the back bench after his supposed colleagues had aggressively stomped on him. And Queensland's booming mining industries and economy make it a focal point of discontent over the carbon tax.

But, perhaps most worrying of all for the Federal ALP, is that two digit figure; 27 percent.

This is the primary vote number that Queensland Labor polled the day before the electorate buried them in a landfill with the other garbage. It turned out to be an accurate prediction. The figure that produced that stunning swing and the loss of all those seats and the end of numerous careers and the consignment of the state party to oblivion for a decade or more, if not forever...

... this is also the same primary vote figure that Federal Labor polled nationally yesterday.