Influence in Australian politics needs an urgent overhaul – here’s how to do it



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Transparency isn’t a silver bullet, but increasing it would go some way to changing the secrecy around who has access – and how much – to the government of the day.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Kate Griffiths, Grattan Institute; Carmela Chivers, Grattan Institute, and Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute

Public policy should be made for all Australians – not just those with the resources or connections to lobby and influence politicians. And mostly it is. But sometimes bad policy is made or good policy is dropped because powerful groups have more say and sway than they should.

Australia’s political institutions are generally robust, but many of the “risk factors” for policy capture by special interests are present in our system. Political parties are heavily reliant on major donors, money can buy access, relationships and political connections, and there’s a lack of transparency in dealings between policymakers and special interests.

A new Grattan Institute report, Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics, reveals that access and influence are heavily skewed towards the businesses and unions that have the most to gain (and lose) from public policy.



Grattan Institute, CC BY-ND

Many examples of special-interest influence over policy look contrary to the public interest: special deals for insiders (for example, James Packer’s Sydney casino), interest groups with a seat at the table in deciding how their own industry is regulated (such as pharmaceuticals pricing), and lobby groups blocking reforms that have broad support (such as climate change policy and pokies reforms).




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Better checks and balances are needed. But the question of what to do about undue influence is tricky. Interests should be able to advocate for themselves, and donate money to support causes they believe in. Lobbying helps to introduce new ideas and reduce the likelihood of uninformed or damaging decisions by those in office. We propose a suite of reforms to reduce the risks of policy capture while still protecting the rights of all individuals and groups to contribute to policy discussions.


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Start with transparency

Transparency isn’t a silver bullet, but it can play an important role in reducing the sway of special interests. Greater transparency means more opportunity for the public, media and the parliament itself to scrutinise the policy-making process and call out undue influence or give voice to under-represented views.

We recommend three key reforms to improve transparency.

  1. Improve the “visibility” of major donors to political parties

  2. Publish ministerial diaries so people know who ministers meet with

  3. Create a public register of lobbyists who have unescorted access to federal Parliament House. These reforms would substantially reduce the secrecy around money and access.

Transparency is not enough on its own – strong voices are still needed to call out problems, and voters still need to hold elected officials to account. But transparency gives them better information to do so.

Boost public trust in politicians

Trust in government is in decline: in a 2018 survey, 85% of Australians thought at least some federal MPs were corrupt. We recommend setting clear standards for all parliamentarians to avoid conflicts of interest – particularly around hospitality, gifts and secondary employment.

Codes of conduct for parliamentarians and lobbyists should be independently administered, to build public confidence that the high standards of public office are respected and adhered to. A separate ethics adviser could also encourage public officials to seek advice when they’re in doubt.

And a federal integrity or anti-corruption body should be established to deal with tips and complaints of serious misconduct. It should be empowered to investigate corruption risks, publish findings, and refer any corrupt activity to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

The best defence against policy capture is healthy public debate

Greater transparency and accountability would help reduce the risk of policy capture by special interests. But ultimately Australia’s best defence is countervailing voices in policy debates. Who’s in the room matters – but who’s not in the room can matter even more.

Consumers, community groups and those less privileged are consistently under-represented in public debate. Our analysis of ministerial diaries in Queensland and NSW shows well-resourced special interests account for the bulk of senior ministers’ external meetings.

People who lack the resources or organisational capacity to band together can struggle to be heard – even when they represent a large chunk of Australian society – taxpayers, consumers, small business and young people, for example. Special interests are particularly likely to win out in technical, niche or complex policy areas because they are more difficult for other groups, voters and the media to engage with.

We suggest two reforms to reduce the influence of well-resourced special interests and promote broader participation in public debate:

First, a cap on political advertising expenditure during election campaigns would reduce the imbalance between groups with very different means to broadcast political views. It would reduce the reliance of political parties on major donors and might redirect communication to less-superficial channels that are conducive to deeper discussion, such as political debates and interviews.




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Second, government can boost countervailing voices through more inclusive policy review processes and advocacy for under-represented groups. This would give politicians better information with which to adjudicate the public interest.

The reforms proposed here are in line with OECD recommended practice. They would strengthen Australian democracy by enabling voters to better hold government to account and could boost the public’s confidence that the system is working for them.The Conversation

Kate Griffiths, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute; Carmela Chivers, Associate, Grattan Institute, and Danielle Wood, Program Director, Budget Policy and Institutional Reform, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Labor leads 54-46% in Newspoll that shows slight improvement for government


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government would be trounced at an election held now, although the Coalition has clawed back slightly in the past fortnight and Scott Morrison has improved his lead as better prime minister, according to the latest Newspoll.

The Coalition trails 46-54% in the poll, published in Monday’s Australian, compared with 44-56% in the first two Newspolls after the change of leader. This is the government’s 41st Newspoll loss in a row.

The Coalition’s primary vote is up 2 points to 36%, while the ALP primary vote has fallen 3 points to 39%.

Morrison leads Bill Shorten as better PM 45-32%, compared with 42-36% two weeks ago.

Morrison’s net satisfaction was plus 5; Shorten’s net rating is minus 22. In the previous Newspoll, Morrison’s net satisfaction was plus 2, while Shorten was on minus 14.

The poll comes after Morrison’s burst of intense activity to get on the front foot, including last week announcing a royal commission into aged care, and a multi-billion dollar deal aimed at placating the Catholic education sector, as well as passing tough legislation through parliament in response to the strawberry contamination.




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But the Newspoll two party vote remains much worse than the last days of Malcolm Turnbull, and the controversy over his ousting continues.

In an interview on Nine on Sunday night former foreign minister Julie Bishop said she had had many calls from foreign ministers “asking why I’m no longer the foreign minister and what happened to the prime minister?

“They have been some rather unkind comments about Australia being the Italy of the South Pacific and the coup capital of the world,” she said.

Bishop said the change was perplexing “because Malcolm Turnbull was way ahead as preferred prime minister. We were coming back in the polls. It was quite close and there were no deep policy issues that divided the party”, because Turnbull had given way on a number of issues.

Bishop renewed her criticism of parliament’s Question Time, saying it “probably does more damage to the reputation of the political class than any other issue.”

“Question Time is only 70, 80 minutes a day, yet it’s what is televised. So people are concerned that that is what their well paid representatives are doing all day, every day in the parliament.

“They don’t see the thoughtful contributions and the more intelligent speeches that can be given in the Parliament because they’re not televised,” Bishop said.

“I’m afraid that not withstanding the best efforts of the Speaker and the standing orders, there’s far too much throwing of insults, and vicious behavior, name calling, and the like. And the public see that as no better than school children. In fact, not as well behaved as school children,” she said.

On the policy front, Labor at the weekend announced that if elected it would require Australian companies with more than 1000 employees to reveal how much they paid women compared with men.

“The gender gap is stubbornly high. On average, women working full time still get paid almost 15% less than men working full time. It is unacceptable that this has barely changed over the last two decades,” the opposition said.

“Companies already report their gender pay data to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Labor will make it public”.

In response, Morrison warned of “setting up conflict in the workplace”, while saying he was not ruling out such an idea.

“We’re open to all suggestions but these things are already reported at a sector-wide level and at an economy-wide level.” he said.

Meanwhile Kerryn Phelps, high profile independent candidate in Wentworth, has sought to make the government’s push for religious freedom protections an issue in the byelection.

She challenged the Liberals to say whether the government would release the Ruddock report on the issue before the October 20 vote, pointing out it had been sitting on it for months.

Morrison has flagged he plans to strengthen the law but it is thought the government wants to keep the detail under wraps until after Wentworth. Phelps said she was strongly opposed to any watering down of the anti-discrimination legal provisions.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Just a regular Joe (or Bill or ScoMo): how our leaders work hard at being ‘ordinary’



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Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

Is it sufficiently dignified to call a prime minister, as distinct from an immigration minister or treasurer, ScoMo? Is this part of Scott Morrison’s “ordinary bloke” persona? It does sound a bit like Joe Shmoe, which Wikipedia tells me means “no one in particular” and “is one of the most commonly used fictional names in American English”. But it also sounds a bit Hollywood, evoking JLo.

So it may well be the kind of game that virtually every politician with serious leadership aspirations has to play. They need to convince us that they are not so far above us that they are out of touch. (“How much is a litre of milk, Prime Minister?”) Yet when they do present themselves as just like us, we can’t really take them seriously. We do, in the end, expect our leaders to be different.

Each leader plays the game differently. William Shorten is, of course, Bill – who tweeted about doing the shopping with his young daughter on Father’s Day.

Minus the shopping trolley, Robert Menzies and Robert Hawke were both Bob, and William Hughes and William McMahon were Billy. Curtin was Jack to his mates but John to the public. Chifley was Ben to all, and the unassuming Lyons was happy enough with Joe. It was hard to do much with Gough or Paul, and Malcolm Fraser only became Mal when he was being ridiculed. Everyone knew he was no Mal, and nor was Turnbull. “Johnny Howard” was almost never complimentary, especially when preceded by “Little”, and Kevin might have been from Queensland and here to help, but he never became Kev – not even when worrying over the shaking of sauce bottles – any more than Julia became Jules.

Politicians have long fretted over these matters. When Stanley Melbourne Bruce became prime minister in 1923, he issued a note to the press:

Mr Bruce would be very glad if the newspapers would not refer to him by his Christian name, as Mr Stanley Bruce, but always as Mr S.M. Bruce.

Today’s journalists, cartoonists and comedians – to say nothing of one’s political opponents – would be in raptures if a newly minted prime minister issued such a notice. And it was clearly unthinkable that the golf-playing, spats-wearing Bruce would be just plain Stan.

Here is a reminder that there is more than one way of performing the role of Australian prime minister. The late political psychologist Graham Little used to give a set-piece lecture on political leadership at Melbourne University, whose major details I can still recall 30 years later – so it must have been good.

Little thought there were broadly three types. Margaret Thatcher was a “strong leader” – the children’s TV program that demonstrated the style was Romper Room. Boys wore boys’ clothes and looked like boys. Girls wore girls’ clothes and looked like girls. Miss Helena dressed conservatively and had a mirror through which she could keep an eye on us at home. Moral codes were strictly defined, with the help of Mr Do Bee (“Do be an asker. Don’t be a help yourself”). Good conduct included being able to walk around with a basket balanced on your head.

“Inspiring leadership” was exemplified by Gough Whitlam – and Play School. Each, in turn, went out of their way to demonstrate good, inclusive citizenship, and creative, inclusive play, yet without pretending to become an ordinary citizen, or an ordinary child.

Like Miss Helena, Play School leaders were grownups. But unlike her – and like Whitlam – they spoke to their audience of children as intelligent equals, dressed a bit like kids (possibly in overalls, not skirts, for women) and played along with them rather than laying down the law. Big Ted was a more gentle soul than Mr Do Bee – who presumably had a sting. Gender differences are more frankly acknowledged, but explored rather than taken for granted.




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And then there were “group leaders”, like Bob Hawke – and Humphrey B. Bear. Humphrey, seemingly male yet somewhat ambiguously defined, runs around without trousers (any resemblance here to an Australian prime minister, living or dead, being purely coincidental). He is also a child, not an adult, and to this extent he shares a common identity with his audience. But they are not entirely deceived: Humphrey’s not really the same as the kids watching at home. In short, he’s rather like Hawke, who at his best convinced us that he was one of us even while being unmistakably “special”.

Not all have even attempted this balancing act. Neither Bruce nor Menzies ever pretended to be everyman, although Menzies occasionally pointed to his humble origins as the son of a country storekeeper. Keating barely made the effort; his adoption of Collingwood Football Club when he became prime minister was widely ridiculed for its cynicism, coming as it did from a man whose interests ran more to classical music and French clocks.

Malcolm Turnbull’s leather jacket, never entirely convincing, did not survive his elevation to prime minister. His persona in the job more resembled a Renaissance Florentine merchant-statesman – albeit without the art or culture, which may well have been Turnbull’s major concession to the common folk.

Like Keating, the very Sydney-ish Morrison is looking south for an AFL club, and he has cultivated what journalist Phillip Coorey calls a “daggy ordinariness”. But his everyman act is already running up against his evangelical Christianity. The classic Australian plain man is not an evangelical.

Russel Ward sketched the “the typical Australian” most influentially in The Australian Legend 60 years ago. He is, Ward writes, “sceptical about the value of religion and of intellectual and cultural pursuits generally”. The latter certainly fits Morrison, but not the former.




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That said, he leads Shorten as preferred prime minister in Newspoll. It is worth pausing to ask why Shorten, former Australian Workers’ Union leader, has never been able to break through as a personally popular figure. He has clearly modelled aspects of his career on Hawke, but no one would ever accuse him of possessing Hawke’s charisma. He will never approach his stratospheric approval ratings. Perhaps there are too many stories around of his cosy relations with filthy rich businessmen.

He became a national figure on the back of his media profile during the Beaconsfield mine disaster and rescue in Tasmania in 2006, and he campaigned most effectively in the 2016 election. Yet he often seems wooden in front of a camera, as distinct from when talking with ordinary voters. On the couple of occasions I’ve witnessed him deliver prepared speeches, he was engaging if not magnetic, and improved as he warmed to the message he was delivering.

Hawke moved in similar business circles to Shorten, and had his deficiencies as both a public speaker and parliamentary performer. But he was brilliant if unpredictable in a TV interview, before he cut the drinking and learned better to control his temper. His media image in the 1970s, while ACTU president, overwhelmed any popular suspicion that he was in the pockets of the top end of town, although there was a growing chorus of complaints about rich mates during his prime ministership.

Shorten, much more than Hawke, has been damaged by the perception of backroom dealing; with bosses, while a union leader, and over the internecine warfare within the Labor Party. Voters might have a sneaking respect for his doggedness – think John Howard – but they don’t love him and probably never will. Nonetheless, they may well elect him.The Conversation

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: the GFC and me. Ten years on, what have we learned?



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Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd spent big and spent bold, and it almost certainly kept us out of recession.

Richard Holden, UNSW

A little more than a decade on from the the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the largest bankruptcy in history, many of the world’s advanced economies are only now beginning to recover fully.

I was on the faculty at the University of Chicago at the time and, like many, followed the events of the 2008 US summer with a combination of interest and outright fear.

It is hard to describe how scary the two months around the Lehman bankruptcy were. Two anecdotes convey some of that fear, however.

The first was when I spoke to an economics official in the Obama administration who said: “Go get cash and bottled water. Automatic teller machines might not be working two days from now.”




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The second reflects just how severely money markets froze up. Goldman Sachs – Wall Street’s most venerable firm – was largely on the good side of trades on credit default swaps, the instruments behind much of the crisis. Yet its stock price was utterly hammered. It wasn’t until legendary investor Warren Buffett sank US$5 billion into Goldman that confidence was restored.

On one day Goldman stock was down by a staggering nearly 50% in intra-day trading. It very nearly went the way of Lehman – all because of what amounted to a modern-day bank run.


Golden Sachs stock price: YahooFinanceChart.


The Obama administration responded with spending (including on tax rebates for households and firms), big interest rate cuts and measures to ensure banks had access to funds. Combined, these helped avoid a repeat of the Great Depression.

When Australia splashed cash

Australia, too, spent big: A$10 billion in October 2008 and a further A$42 billion in February 2009. More than half of the second sum, $A26 billion, went on infrastructure. Another $12.7 billion was spent on cash bonuses, including $900 for every Australian on less than $80,000.

And we cut interest rates, massively, and guaranteed bank deposits.

The International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and most good economists think what we did was essential to ensure Australia avoided a severe downturn.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, deserve a lot of credit.

Yet there are those on the conservative side of politics who claim the stimulus spending was wasteful, not that helpful, and locked in an era of higher government spending.

Wasteful? Not really

As prime minister in 2016, Malcolm Turnbull encapsulated the view that the spending was a waste when he told the ABC’s Leigh Sales: “I think what shepherded Australia through the GFC successfully was the Chinese stimulus and the large amount of cash that John Howard left in the bank.”

Here’s what I think.

The Chinese stimulus helped, but China didn’t do it to help Australia. It did it to help itself, with a happy byproduct being continued demand for Australian resources.

Does Mr Turnbull really think the Chinese government was either mistaken (because stimulus spending doesn’t help) or benevolent (because it wanted to help Australia)? These are not terms normally associated with Beijing.

The “large amount of cash” left by the Howard government was indeed very important. It allowed the Rudd government to spend big without running up huge government debt. As the noted UC Berkeley economists Christina and David Romer have pointed out, using evidence from 24 advanced economies, fiscal and monetary policy “space” is important in ensuring the stimulus programs work.




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So, yes, Howard’s debt-free budget was important, but only because it gave the government room to spend.

There is an important point here. Namely, that prudent fiscal management through ordinary times is essential in order to build up the firepower to respond in extraordinary times.

Australia still enjoys government debt to GDP that is low by OECD standards, but its growth has been very rapid even in post-crisis years because of the structural gap between government revenues and expenditures. Both sides of politics say they are committed to narrowing it. We shall see.

Space matters

“Space” to act with monetary policy (official interest rates) is also important.

It’s the basis for much of the talk about a “new monetary policy framework” that would lift interest rates from their present lows in Australia and overseas to around 5%. It’s a goal articulately and forcefully argued for by former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Getting there would give central banks the firepower they might need.

These lessons have been learned to varying degrees, but are now thankfully at least part of the mainstream debate.

And regulation

One thing that everyone should have learned from the financial crisis in general, and Lehman in particular, is the need for effective regulation of financial institutions.

The combination of massive leverage, opaque financial instruments and radical interconnectedness of financial firms in the US was a disaster waiting to happen.

In many ways it still could be.

Republicans in the US want to dramatically roll back the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act introduced by President Obama in response to the financial crisis.

Although far from perfect, it helped de-risk the US financial system.

In Australia the failings of financial regulators play out every day at the Hayne Royal Commission, in excruciating detail.




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It entitles us to ask if Australian regulators can’t prevent outright theft by financial institutions, how equipped are they to prevent more complicated transactions that might put the financial system at risk?

The answer is: not very.

We’ve learned some things

A decade after Lehman it’s fair to say we have learned lessons.

We know how to use big and bold fiscal (spending) policy and monetary (interest rate) policy to create a virtuous circle of beliefs that can pull us out of a downturn.

And we know that we need to reload both fiscal and monetary policy in the good times so we are ready for the bad times.

But on financial regulation the US might be about to go backwards, and we never really went forwards.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Quotas are not pretty but they work – Liberal women should insist on them


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Liberal women such as those in the Morrison ministry, pictured here, should organise to achieve structural change – the only kind that ever sticks.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Chris Wallace, Australian National University

It is an historic moment for Liberal Party women. Individual complaints of sexist bullying invariably end with the lone complainant being isolated and getting crunched.

But since the Liberal leadership spill, several women have spoken out and two MPs, Julia Banks and Ann Sudmalis, have foreshadowed their exit from parliamentary politics over it. This post-#LibSpill moment holds immense promise – but only if the collective momentum is seized and built upon.

From Prime Minister Scott Morrison down, Liberal Party men are pushing back against women pressing for cultural change within the party. They don’t want to share power for ideological reasons: conservative men like women to know their place, and that place is not in the House of Representatives or the Senate. This ethos is intensifying as fringe and evangelical Christians make ever deeper inroads into Liberal Party branches and preselection processes.

Respected Liberal women like former Liberal Party vice-president Tricia Worth and former Liberal senator Sue Boyce have poured scorn on the internal party mechanisms proposed so far to deal with the problem. They point out the implausibility, for example, of making a bullying complaint to Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger who denies such bullying exists.




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Liberal Party women face an immediate choice. They can be cowed by the “quota girl” sledge of hostile male colleagues, and other unsupportive comments by these men’s female enablers such as NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

Alternatively, Liberal women can organise to achieve structural change – the only kind that ever sticks – arguing that if it’s good enough for “quota boys” like Senator Abetz and Michael McCormack, quotas are all right by them too.

Practical politics runs on quotas. They are the tool of last resort when dominant powers refuse to share power fairly or could refuse to in the future. They work.

The most striking example of a quota in Australian politics is that underpinning Federation. The Australian colonies would not agree to federate without agreement to an upper house in which each state, even the smallest, was represented by the same number of senators as the biggest.

That’s why NSW, with a population of 7.9 million, and Tasmania, with a population of 524,000, both send 12 senators to Canberra every election. This makes the ranking Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz arguably the biggest beneficiary of quotas currently in the federal parliament.

There are 76 senators. Would anyone seriously suggest that on merit Eric Abetz would make the list of the top 76 Australians elected as senators in Australia’s upper house if they were elected in a single nationwide ballot? The state-based quota system established at Federation ensures he gets there.

The next most striking example is the quota agreement that enables Australia’s two main conservative parties to form government in coalition, since each usually returns too few MPs at federal elections to govern in its own right.

The National Party’s price for supporting the Liberals in forming government is a quota of ministerial positions reserved for National Party MPs, along with the deputy prime ministership. This quota arrangement today underpins the cabinet position and deputy prime ministership of National Party leader Michael McCormack. Does anyone really believe that without this quota McCormack would have naturally risen to become Australia’s second most senior politician? Of course not.

The third most striking example of quotas in Australian politics is their use by the Australian Labor Party to normalise the presence of women in progressive parliamentary politics. Attempts to establish quotas in the early 1980s, backed by then Labor opposition leader Bill Hayden, foundered when ALP conference delegates, including many women, voted them down on factional lines. It was not until 1994 that an enforceable formula guaranteeing women preselection in one-third of winnable seats was established.


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In her memoir Catching the Waves, Hawke Government cabinet minister Susan Ryan wrote:

These rules are bitterly resented by many men in the Party, and when they favour a woman from the wrong faction they upset some women as well.

Quotas are “a blunt tool”, Ryan readily conceded, but she supported them after experience showed nothing else could “change the gender balance among Labor members of parliament”. It worked. Labor now has a critical mass of women in caucus making a big contribution, their presence normalised and unremarked on except by misogynistic conservatives across the aisle.

People don’t have to like quotas. But no reasonable person can fail to accept that they are a regular part of political life, not the intrusive tool of progressive pinot noir drinkers pushing their own political barrows. Hundreds of examples beyond Australia’s shores could be cited, but here are just a few.

The United States has a quota of two senators from every state in its upper house, the inspiration for Australia’s state senate quotas. Conservative German chancellor Angela Merkel legislated board quotas for women when German business proved intractable in voluntarily improving board diversity. Singapore set racial quotas in public housing, reflecting the ethnic makeup of the country’s population, in the interests of racial harmony.


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Quotas, in short, are management tools to ensure power-sharing where it would not otherwise occur in the interests of a greater good – and they’re used by progressives and conservatives alike. No-one could accuse Angela Merkel or the Singaporean government of being subversive left-wing entities. It has been estimated that half the countries in the world use some kind of gender quota in their electoral system and there is extensive evidence that they work.




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There is high level support from Labor for Liberal women to tackle the problem and succeed in the interests of improving Australia’s political culture overall. Labor Senate leader, Penny Wong, told parliament this week that the under-representation of women in the Liberal party room is “not only bad for women, and bad for the Liberal Party, it is bad for democracy”. She urged Liberals to walk the same difficult road to establishing quotas that so successfully fixed what had also been a chronic problem for Labor.

Failure to push on to embrace and establish quotas will see the current burst of bravery by Liberal women dissipate, and the male oligopoly in the Coalition party room become even more entrenched.

Advocates could impress on internal opponents that the only winner from the current extreme and worsening masculinist culture in the Liberal Party will be Labor, whose caucus since quotas for women in winnable seats were adopted has increasingly reflected the communities it represents – something voters very much like and ultimately reward.The Conversation

Chris Wallace, ARC DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media power: why the full story of Murdoch, Stokes and the Liberal leadership spill needs to be told



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Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is notorious for meddling in politics.
AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

The first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, said there were two sights the public should not see: the making of laws and the making of sausages. To this list of enduringly nauseating spectacles we should add one more: the political machinations of media moguls.

ABC political editor Andrew Probyn has skilfully violated this standard of public taste by laying out what look like very plausible entrails of the evident involvement of Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes in the recent Liberal Party leadership spill.




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It is impossible to independently verify Probyn’s account because he has been careful to mask his sources. But it is plausible partly because some elements are corroborated by separate reports in the Australian Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald, partly because Probyn worked for both Murdoch and Stokes for lengthy periods and may be assumed to have good contacts in those places, and partly because there is circumstantial evidence to support some of what he says.

The Australian reports that Stokes has denied having communicated with Murdoch over Turnbull’s leadership. Interestingly, however, the newspaper does not quote its own proprietor on the matter, which is the obvious way to corroborate Stokes’s claim.

Murdoch, of course, is notorious for meddling in politics. In Australia, it can be traced back to his endorsement of Gough Whitlam at the 1972 election, his campaign against Whitlam in 1975, which was so virulent even his own journalists held a strike in protest, his support for John Howard in 1996, his somewhat ambivalent support for Kevin Rudd in 2007 and his full-frontal support for Tony Abbott in 2013.

Front page of the The Sun newspaper, April 11 1992.
Wikicommons

These campaigns were all in support of the winning side, and much the same has been true of his equivalent campaigns in the UK and the US. After John Major led the British Conservative Party to victory in 1992, Murdoch’s London Sun newspaper proclaimed in a front-page banner headline: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.

All this has created a perception of Murdoch as political kingmaker, a perception that frightens the life out of politicians and thus confers great power on Murdoch.

But as two Australian scholars, Rodney Tiffen and David McKnight, have persuasively argued in their separate studies of Murdoch, while his media outlets routinely shred and humiliate their political targets, the evidence is that Murdoch observes which way the wind is blowing and then finds a rationale for endorsing the likely winner.

The Economist’s Bagehot column was on to this 15 years ago, as Tiffen records. Referring to the London Sun’s boasting of its political power, the column observed:

[T]hat probably says more about Mr Murdoch’s readiness to jump ship at the right time than about the Sun’s ability to influence the votes of its readers.

Even so, perceptions can swiftly harden into political reality.

According to Probyn, when Murdoch was seen to turn against Turnbull over the past couple of months, the alarm went off in the prime minister’s office.

This is where Stokes, chairman of Seven West Media, is said to have entered the picture.

He is a friend of Turnbull’s and they are said to have discussed the apparent campaign by the Murdoch media to oust the prime minister.

Stokes and Murdoch have a chequered history, to put it mildly. They have fought long, bitter and costly legal battles, but as Margaret Simons says in her biography of Stokes:

In the cosy club of media, neither love nor hate lasts forever. The only constants are power, money and self-interest.

So, according to accounts by Probyn and the Financial Review, Stokes rang Murdoch to ask what was going on and Murdoch is said to have told him: “Malcolm has got to go.”

But on the question of who should replace him, the moguls were all over the shop.

Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph was touting Peter Dutton. Three days later, when Turnbull spilled the leadership positions, Dutton nominated, lost, but lit the fuse for the ultimate detonation of the Turnbull prime ministership.

Stokes was opposed to Dutton for complex reasons, but didn’t seem to know who to go for instead. On the day before the leadership spill, his newspaper, The West Australian, was promoting Scott Morrison. The next day it was promoting Julie Bishop, a West Australian.

This shambolic confusion among the moguls is comforting in a perverse kind of way, because in the end neither of them was able to dictate the outcome.

Murdoch achieved one objective – the ousting of Turnbull – but Dutton, his preferred pick to replace him, is now clinging to political life by a single vote in the House of Representatives thanks to the hovering spectre of the Constitution’s section 44 (v), not to mention trouble with au pairs.

Stokes? Well, he is new to this kingmaking caper. He clearly did not want his friend Turnbull out, but when that became inevitable, he didn’t know where to turn. As my old editor at The Age, Creighton Burns, was fond of saying, he was caught between a shit and a shiver.

The net effect of their efforts has been to bring the Liberal-National government to the brink of disintegration within months of a general election.

This time, Murdoch may have indeed created a winner – Labor leader Bill Shorten – not by the traditional means of showering support on him, but by destroying his opponents, even though they happen to be Murdoch’s own ideological allies.

It is the latest chapter in a long and discreditable history of media proprietors using their power to advance their political ends, usually for commercial rather than ideological purposes.

Sir Frank and Kerry Packer did it; so did successive generations of Fairfaxes. In 1961 the Fairfaxes went so far as to virtually run Arthur Calwell’s campaign out of the company’s executive offices on the 14th floor of its newspaper mausoleum in Sydney’s Broadway. The Sydney Morning Herald’s journalists renamed it the Labor ward in honour of the exercise.

In Britain, the mould for the politically meddling modern newspaper proprietor was set by Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) in the early 20th century.

He and the other mighty British press baron of the time, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), were the inspiration, if that is the word, for Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated condemnation:

[The press exercises] power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.

So Probyn has done Australian democracy a service by exposing the entrails of what looks like another abuse of media power, even if it makes for a nauseating public spectacle.

It also raises serious questions about media accountability.

Australia has never had a publicly trusted or effective system of media accountability. All attempts to create one have been howled down, the loudest and crudest voices belonging to Murdoch’s lieutenants.




Read more:
Australian media are playing a dangerous game using racism as currency


There is already a crisis in people’s faith in democratic institutions. A new report by the Australian Museum of Democracy and the University of Canberra shows only 41% of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy is working. That is a dramatic plunge from the 86% recorded in 2007.

In this climate of disenchantment, it is not surprising there are now calls for a public inquiry into the way Murdoch and Stokes have evidently played a manipulative role in changing the prime minister.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Morrison aims to make agility his prime ministerial trademark


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Strawberries and hay have provided unlikely lenses for an insight into how Scott Morrison will conduct his prime ministership from now to the election.

The needles-in-the-berries contamination has been alarming for consumers and devastating for the industry. Anyone involved deserves the full force of the quite heavy penalties available, and the public should be encouraged to eat (with due care) this delicious fruit.

But when the government rolls out the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General, the Home Affairs Minister, the Australian Federal Police chief and the Border Force Commissioner, and then rushes new legislation through parliament in a single day – well, you know a political point is being made.

A serious crime was turned into a national crisis. MPs donned aprons, grabbed knives and started slicing.

The legislation naturally received bipartisan support, with little discussion of whether the changes are actually needed. Its extremely hasty passage was despite the fact it won’t apply retrospectively to this criminal action.

As the strawberry crisis gripped the parliament, we’re reminded how rapidly a government can escalate an issue. In this case, the worst that could be said is that it’s an over-reaction with a political vibe. But you don’t need much imagination to think how a similar drama could be concocted with darker motives.

As for the hay: this was an announcement of liberalised rules for carting fodder so more could be sent faster to drought-affected farmers. Normally you’d expect a ministerial press release. Morrison turned it into a prime ministerial occasion, on Thursday being photographed climbing into a truck somewhere outside Canberra.

Earlier in the week, he’d called a “drought summit” for next month. Dealing with the drought has been one of his central themes, from his first news conference, followed by his interview on Australia All Over, and his visit to see things on the ground in Queensland.

These examples – and the very important one of the weekend announcement of a royal commission into aged care – show Morrison’s style. He will pick up and run with whatever is around – issues he sees as resonating with ordinary people.

“Scott likes to move quickly”, says a colleague. He’s not – if he can help it – going to get caught having to respond to others’ agendas. The royal commission was announced a day before the ABC’s aged care expose.

Morrison is also clearing away irritants as rapidly as possible. Thursday’s $4.6 billion decade-long package for private schools drew a line under the damaging row between the government and the vociferous Catholic sector. Negotiations have been underway for some time, but the deal’s now landed.




Read more:
Government unfurls $4.6 billion private schools package, calming Catholic critics


Morrison won’t get bogged down in process. When he recently dumped the commitment to increasing the pension age to 70, he acted before the full cabinet had ratified what was a significant policy shift.

The new PM is tactically quicker than Malcolm Turnbull, just as in his messaging he can cut through with greater sharpness. He’s more attuned to the emotional and knee-jerk drivers of today’s politics, in the age of the continuous news cycle and social media. Malcolm liked to mull over moves.

He is also freer to act than his predecessor, who was hemmed in by enemies as well as allies of convenience, like Peter Dutton, who turned into enemies.

For the Liberals, Morrison is the end of the pre-election leadership line, and that gives him a good deal of latitude to set his own course. He might be displeasing the hard right Liberals by not exiting the Paris climate agreement, but he’s able to stare them down or fob them off. They know he’s in the seat until the election.

Defining your opponent can be critical in our semi-presidential contests. “The Prime Minister is a blank canvass”, says one Labor man. “Both sides are trying to fill in the colours”.

Morrison’s brush strokes on his own portrait are designed to create the image of a leader tuned to the voters’ concerns, rather than the “Canberra bubble”. If sometimes this makes him look more like the mayor of Albury than the prime minister of Australia – well, he just hopes it works. Like the latecomer desperately working the room, he knows he has practically no time.

In his one departure from pragmatism during these first prime ministerial weeks, Morrison has flagged he’s willing to stir the hornets’ nest of religious freedom. Although unclear about the problem, he told Sky on Monday “there’s nothing wrong with a bit of preventative regulation and legislation”. Especially given the time constraints, it’s hard to see that battle is worth the likely costs.

To highlight Morrison’s agility and hyper-activity is not to overlook the government’s parlous situation, with a sour electorate, a still-shocked backbench, divisions in the ranks, all sorts of trouble over the “women problem”, and the uncertainty of the Wentworth byelection.




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View from The Hill: Morrison’s challenge with women goes beyond simple numbers


It’s rather to say, the way the game’s being played has changed. Labor is alert to this, wondering, for instance, whether Morrison will appeal to some of its male “battler” type voters.

The PM said in question time on Thursday that Bill Shorten “isn’t looking as certain as he was two weeks ago.” Despite the political bonuses being handed almost daily to Labor, this is probably true. The opposition is still seeking to get its fix on its new opponent.

However Morrison goes over coming months, this week should give the Liberals cause to reflect that they had a lucky escape when Dutton failed to get the numbers in the coup he started.

The Senate inquiry into the au pair affair, which reported on Wednesday, was dominated by Labor and the Greens, so it was always set to produce a majority report very critical of Dutton. Even allowing for that, a couple of things are clear from the facts of the two cases the inquiry examined.

In assisting these women, Dutton did go above and beyond what would normally have been expected – all stops were pulled out. And he did mislead parliament when he denied any personal connections.

In the case of the woman who landed in Brisbane, he had a past acquaintanceship (via their mutual police service) with her prospective employer.




Read more:
Dutton back in spotlight after split Senate report on au pair affair


But misleading parliament is no longer taken seriously. Morrison’s certainly not going to worry that his Home Affairs Minister – who has oversight of the independent agencies of the Australian Federal Police and ASIO – did not tell parliament the truth. Canberra bubble and all that.

Anyway, Morrison has a lot to thank Dutton for. After all, Dutton delivered him the prime ministership.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reforming our political system is not a quick fix. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how to do it


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Regaining public trust in government starts with steps like capping political donations and establishing a federal anti-corruption body.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Mark Triffitt, University of Melbourne

With public trust in government already in serious decline over the last ten years, the downfall of yet another prime minister between elections underlines both the importance and urgency of making serious changes to our political system.

The key to renewing Australia’s democratic system is to view it as our next major reform challenge, just as economic renewal was prioritised in the 1980s and ’90s.

So far, however, the changes proposed by political commentators, academics and think tanks are largely single reforms, such as citizens’ juries to seek more public input into policy, or fixed four-year terms for federal parliament to allow more time to tackle big problems and implement complex policy.

These fall short of matching the scope of the challenge: democratic renewal requires multi-level and multi-step change addressing interconnected issues. In short, we need a comprehensive roadmap for political reform.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/zqYaz/4/


Charting a roadmap for renewal

We first need to recognise that two distinct crises are contributing to declining public trust in government.

The first is a “crisis of representation”. This results from a fragmented, highly diverse electorate that increasingly fails to connect with major parties. The major parties are left with shrinking, less diverse memberships.

The second is a “crisis of functionality”. Our democratic system is increasingly unable to deliver good public policy in a consistent or coherent way, and to convince the public to support it.




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This “crisis of functionality” is partly due to the decline of the public service and its ability to deliver independent, quality policy advice to ministers. Also to blame is an increasingly myopic approach to policymaking by parties obsessed with short-term polling and point-scoring.

But it is also linked to the “crisis of representation”. As an increasingly disconnected public turns its back on politicians, it also loses trust in their ability to deliver sound policy programs and decisions.

A two-stage approach

The dual nature of these problems underlines a critical issue. The roadmap not only needs to link up separate reforms, it also needs to be rolled out in stages to persuade a highly distrustful public that democratic renewal is in the interests of everyone – not just those in power.

The first stage is what I would call “creative governance”. The aim here is to start restoring public trust in government by making immediate and tangible improvements to the political system.

These reforms would have clear precedents or strong levels of public support. For example, national uniform caps on campaign spending, like those recently introduced in New Zealand, would reduce money in politics. This in turn would put the onus on politicians to explain their policies with more fact-based detail instead of expensive, slogan-based advertising campaigns.




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Australia trails way behind other nations in regulating political donations


Other possible reforms include real-time disclosure of all political donations, which is already in effect in Queensland, and the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission, also already in existence at the state level.

Recent surveys show that a majority of Australians support both moves and believe these would improve transparency in the political system.

Setting the scene for deeper reform

The more difficult second stage of political reform is what I call “systemic renewal”. The goal here is to realign our democracy with the fundamentally changed dynamics and expectations of how it should work in the 21st century.

For instance, a major overhaul of our federal-state constitution is needed to update a framework originally written in the 1890s. It’s replete with outdated rules, processes and responsibilities.

However, this has largely failed to capture the public’s imagination because of the arcane way experts talk about the problem and potential solutions. Reframing it as part of a broader democratic renewal to usher in a more nimble and representative political system is much more likely to gain public traction.




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Ideas for Australia: Voters have a good choice of politicians, but need to overcome their mistrust of them


Major reforms are also needed to make federal parliament more effective and less dysfunctional. These might include eliminating Question Time and mandating a strict code of ethics for MPs aimed at addressing toxic behaviours like the bullying crisis rocking the Coalition government.

Reforms like these would raise the level of decorum in parliament and set a new standard for parliamentary behaviour. This would increase public confidence that politicians both reflect and are accountable to modern values.

Lastly, a “Citizens’ Assembly” could be formed of randomly selected citizens to act as a non-partisan check and balance on parliament. Such an assembly could be modelled after the citizens’ juries that have been trialled successfully around the world, including Ireland, Canada and South Australia. The assembly would be given the responsibility to chart out long-term, national policy blueprints in areas like health, tax and education.

With this kind of direct voice on a national level, the public would be much more involved in policymaking and thus more vested in the success of their government.

Thinking like reformers

What’s clear is we must do the hard strategic thinking of reformers if we are serious about fixing our political system.

Like every credible plan to reform a major institution showing multiple dysfunctions, we need more than one reform idea. We also need to test these ideas against the root causes of the institution’s malaise. And we need to organise them into a strategic and practical sequence.

The alternative is to believe Australian democracy will magically right itself. Which is no alternative at all.The Conversation

Mark Triffitt, Lecturer, Public Policy and Political Communications, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Digital government isn’t working in the developing world. Here’s why



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Digital government is primarily a social and political phenomenon driven by human behaviour.
Shutterstock

Rania Fakhoury, Université Libanaise

The digital transformation of society has brought many immediate benefits: it’s created new jobs and services, boosted efficiency and promoted innovation. But when it comes to improving the way we govern, the story is not that simple.

It seems reasonable to imagine introducing digital information and communication technologies into public sector organisations – known as “digital government” or “e-government” – would have a beneficial impact on the way public services are delivered. For instance, by enabling people to claim rebates for medical bills via a government website.

When implemented well, e-government can reduce the cost of delivering government and public services, and ensure better contact with citizens – especially in remote or less densely populated areas. It can also contribute to greater transparency and accountability in public decisions, stimulate the emergence of local e-cultures, and strengthen democracy.




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But implementing e-government is difficult and uptake among citizens can be slow. While Denmark – the number one ranked country in online service delivery in 2018 – sees 89% of its citizens using e-services, many other countries are struggling. In Egypt, for example, uptake of e-services is just 2%.

E-Government Development Index (EGDI) of global regions in 2018.
United Nations E-Government Survey 2018

I argue the implementation of digital government is a intractable problem for developing countries. But there are small steps we can take right now to make the issues more manageable.

Few digital government projects succeed

The nature of government is complex and deeply rooted in the interactions among social, political, economic, organisational and global systems. At the same time, technology is itself a source of complexity – its impacts, benefits and limitations are not yet widely understood by stakeholders.

Given this complexity, it’s not uncommon for many digital government projects to fail, and not just in the developing world. In fact, 30% of projects are total failures. Another 50-60% are partial failures, due to budget overruns and missed timing targets. Fewer than 20% are considered a success.

In 2016, government spending on technology worldwide was around US$430 billion, with a forecast of US$476 billion by 2020. Failure rates for these kinds of projects are therefore a major concern.

What’s gone wrong in developing countries?

A major factor contributing to the failure of most digital government efforts in developing countries has been the “project management” approach. For too long, government and donors saw the introduction of digital services as a stand-alone “technical engineering” problem, separate from government policy and internal government processes.

But while digital government has important technical aspects, it’s primarily a social and political phenomenon driven by human behaviour – and it’s specific to the local political and the country context.

Change therefore depends mainly upon “culture change” – a long and difficult process that requires public servants to engage with new technologies. They must also change the way they regard their jobs, their mission, their activities and their interaction with citizens.




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In developing countries, demand for e-services is lacking, both inside and outside the government. External demand from citizens is often silenced by popular cynicism about the public sector, and by inadequate channels for communicating demand. As a result, public sector leaders feel too little pressure from citizens for change.

For example, Vietnam’s attempt in 2004 to introduce an Education Management Information System (EMIS) to track school attendance, among other things, was cancelled due to lack of buy-in from political leaders and senior officials.

Designing and managing a digital government program also requires a high level of administrative capacity. But developing countries most in need of digital government are also the ones with the least capacity to manage the process thus creating a risk of “administrative overload”.

How can we start to solve this problem?

Approaches to digital government in developing countries should emphasise the following elements.

Local leadership and ownership

In developing countries, most donor driven e-government projects attempt to transplant what was successful elsewhere, without adapting to the local culture, and without adequate support from those who might benefit from the service.

Of the roughly 530 information technology projects funded by the World Bank from 1995 to 2015, 27% were evaluated as moderately unsatisfactory or worse.

The swiftest solution for change is to ensure projects have buy-in from locals – both governments and citizens alike.

Public sector reform

Government policy, reflected in legislation, regulations and social programs, must be reformulated to adapt to new digital tools.

The success of digital government in Nordic countries results from extensive public sector reforms. In the United States, investments in information technology by police departments, which lowered crime rates, were powered by significant organisational changes.

In developing countries, little progress has been made in the last two decades in reforming the public sector.

Accept that change will be slow

Perhaps the most easily overlooked lesson about digital government is that it takes a long time to achieve the fundamental digitisation of a public sector. Many developing countries are attempting to achieve in the space of a few decades what took centuries in what is now the developed world. The Canadian International Development Agency found:

In Great Britain, for example, it was only in 1854 that a series of reforms
was launched aimed at constructing a merit-based public service shaped by rule of law. It took a further 30 years to eliminate patronage as the modus operandi of public sector staffing.




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Looking to the future

Effective strategies for addressing the problem of e-government in developing countries should combine technical infrastructure with social, organisational and policy change.

The best way forward is to acknowledge the complexities inherent in digital government and to break them into more manageable components. At the same time, we must engage citizens and leaders alike to define social and economic values.

Local leaders in developing countries, and their donor partners, require a long-term perspective. Fundamental digital government reform demands sustained effort, commitment and leadership over many generations. Taking the long view is therefore an essential part of a global socio-economic plan.The Conversation

Rania Fakhoury, Chercheur associé à LaRIFA, Université Libanaise

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Twenty-five years after the Oslo Accords, the prospect of peace in the Middle East remains bleak


File 20180917 96155 1jfhqz3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sign the historic Oslo accord at the White House in September 1993.
Wikicommons/Vince Musi

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Looking back on events 25 years ago, when the Oslo Accords were struck on the White House lawn, it is hard to avoid a painful memory.

I was watching from a sickbed in Jerusalem when Bill Clinton stood between Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for that famous handshake on the White House lawn.

At that moment, I was recovering from plastic surgery carried out by a skilled Israeli surgeon and necessitated by a bullet wound inflicted by the Israeli Defence Forces. (I had been caught in crossfire while covering a demonstration in the West Bank by stone-throwing Palestinian youths.)

That scar – like a tattoo – is a reminder of a time when it seemed just possible Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians could bring themselves to reach an historic compromise.

All these years later, prospects of real progress towards peace, or as American president Donald Trump puts it, the “deal of the century”, seems further away than ever.




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As a correspondent in the Middle East for a decade (1984-1993) and as co-author of a biography of Arafat, I had an understandable interest in the outcome of the Oslo process.

In hours of conversations with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s historical leadership, I had tracked the PLO’s faltering progression from outright rejection of Israel’s right to exist to acceptance implicit in the Oslo Accords.

Throughout that process of interviewing and cross-referencing with Israeli sources, I had hoped an honourable divorce could be achieved between decades-long adversaries. Like many, I was disappointed.

In 1993, the so-called Oslo Accords, negotiated in secret outside the Norwegian capital, resulted in mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. This enabled the beginning of face-to-face peace negotiations.

A devastating event

Two years after the historic events at the White House, and by then correspondent in Beijing, I witnessed another episode of lasting and, as it turned out, tragic consequences for the Middle East.

On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated while attending a political rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish fanatic opposed to compromise with the Palestinians.

That devastating moment brought to power for the first time the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has distinguished himself by his unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the Palestinians through four US administrations: those of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump.

Some argue the Palestinians and their enfeebled leadership bear significant responsibility for peace process paralysis. That viewpoint is valid, up to a point. But it is also the case that Netanyahu’s replacement of Rabin stifled momentum.

Under Trump, Netanyahu finds himself under no pressure to concede ground in negotiations, or even negotiate at all. Indeed, the administration seems intent on further marginalising a Palestinian national movement, even as settlement construction in the occupied areas continues apace.

US President Donald Trump, here with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised the ‘deal of the century’ in the Middle East, but the details have not yet been made clear.
AAP/ Olivier Douliery/pool

On the eve of the accords, there were 110,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That number has grown to 430,000 today. In 2017, those numbers grew by 20% more than the average for previous years.

The Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem without making a distinction between Jewish West or Arab East Jerusalem could hardly have been more antagonistic.

By taking this action, and not making it clear that East Jerusalem as a future capital of a putative Palestinian state would not be compromised, the administration has thumbed its nose at legitimate Palestinian aspirations.

The administration’s follow-up moves to strip funding for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) and assistance to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem have further soured the atmosphere.

UNWRA is responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. These are the ongoing casualties of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence against the Arabs.

In this context, it is interesting to note that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, has urged that refugee status be denied Palestinians and their offspring displaced by the war of 1948.

In that year, two-thirds, or about 750,000 residents of what had been Palestine under a British mandate became refugees.

Against this background and years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, including two major wars – the Six-Day War of 1967 and Yom Kippur War of 1973 – the two sides had in 1993 reached what was then described as an historic compromise.

Hopes dashed

What needs to be understood about Oslo is that its two documents, signed by Rabin and Arafat, did not go further than mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO in the first, and, in the second, a declaration of principles laying down an agenda for the negotiation of Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories.

What Oslo did not do was provide a detailed road-map for final status negotiations, which were to be completed within five years. This would deal with the vexed issues of refugees, Jerusalem, demilitarisation of the Palestinian areas in the event of a two-state settlement, and anything but an implied acknowledgement of territorial compromise, including land swaps, that would be needed to bring about a lasting agreement.

Writing in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1994, Oxford professor Avi Shlaim described the White House handshake as:

one of the most momentous events in the 20th-century history of the Middle East. In one stunning move, the two leaders redrew the geopolitical map of the entire region.

Now emeritus professor, Shlaim’s own hopes, along with those of many others, that genuine compromise was possible, have been dashed.

Referring to the recent passage through the Knesset of a “basic law” that declares Israel to be “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, Shlaim recently observed:

This law stands in complete contradiction to the 1948 declaration of independence, which recognizes the full equality of all the state’s citizens ‘without distinction of religion, race or sex’… Netanyahu has radically reconfigured Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, rather than a Jewish and a democratic state. As long as the government that introduced this law stays in power, any voluntary agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will remain largely a pipe dream.

Martin Indyk, now en route to the Council on Foreign Relations from the Brookings Institution, shared Shlaim’s hopes of an “historic turning point’’ in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As Clinton’s National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, Indyk was responsible for the 1993 arrangements on the White House South Lawn. He writes:

The handshake was meant to signify the moment when Israeli and Palestinian leaders decided to begin the process of ending their bloody conflict and resolving their differences at the negotiating table.

Two decades later, in 2014, the funeral rites were pronounced on the Oslo Process after then Secretary of State John Kerry had done all he could to revive it against Netanyahu’s obduracy. Oslo had, in any case, been on life support since Rabin’s assassination.




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“Then,” in Indyk’s words, “along came Trump with “the Deal of the Century”. Indyk writes:

His plan has yet to be revealed but its purpose appears clear – to legitimize the status quo and call it peace. Trump has already attempted to arbitrate every one of the final status issues in Israel’s favor: no capital in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians; no ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees; no evacuation of outlying settlements; no ’67 lines; no end of occupation; and no Palestinian state…
Over 25 years, in shifting roles from witness to midwife, to arbiter, the United States has sadly failed to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace, leaving them for the time being in what has essentially been a frozen conflict.

However, as history shows, “frozen conflicts” don’t remain frozen forever. They tend to erupt when least expected.

Twenty-five years ago, I shared a bloody hospital casualty station – not unlike a scene from M.A.S.H. – with more than a dozen wounded Palestinians. Some of them would not recover from terrible wounds inflicted by live ammunition.

I asked myself then, as I do now: what’s the point of it all?The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.