Labor moves in on the Barnaby Joyce affair


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Labor Party, which started with a hands-off approach to the Barnaby Joyce affair, has now segued into making it a political issue, while trying to still argue that its “personal” aspect should be private.

The opposition is eyeing possible openings to exploit in the liaison between Joyce and his former staffer Vikki Campion – who is expecting his child – by pursuing questions about processes and taxpayers’ money, as well as harbouring the hope of dragging Malcolm Turnbull into the matter.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek walked the fine line on Sunday.

“I don’t think [Joyce] needs to account for his personal behaviour, his relationships, to the public,” she told the ABC.

“The only area in which there is a genuine public interest is in the area of the expenditure of taxpayers’ funds, and there have been questions over the last couple of days about jobs that have been created for Vikki Campion, the expenditure of taxpayer funds on travel.

“I think those are areas where the prime minister and the deputy prime minister ought to be fully transparent,” she said.

Turnbull last week tried to keep away from the Joyce matter by saying it was private.

“These private matters are always very distressing for those involved, I don’t want to add to the public discussion about it. I’m very conscious of the distress this causes to others, in particular Natalie Joyce and her and Barnaby’s daughters. So it’s a private matter, a tough matter. I don’t have any more to say about it,” he said on Friday.

Pressed later, he said he was “not aware of any inappropriate expenditure of public funds”. But the issue of “public funds” is becoming murkier.

When the Joyce-Campion affair was creating problems in Joyce’s office, she was moved to the office of Resources Minister Matt Canavan. Later a place was found for her with Nationals then whip Damian Drum.

Questions are now being asked about the pay and arrangements in relation to these positions. On Friday, Turnbull was being quizzed about whether he’d counselled Joyce to remove Campion.

One can only imagine the Turnbull anger about the situation. He comes at it from a personal position of being very family-oriented and his sympathy is clearly with Natalie Joyce and the daughters. Also, with the government starting the year looking better, the last thing Turnbull wants is to have this becoming another distraction, let alone have any suggestion of a role in it.

Joyce by Saturday had publicly taken sole ownership, with a statement “that he had not discussed Ms Campion’s employment with the prime minister or his office.

“He confirmed that the Nationals were responsible for decisions relating to staffing in the offices of Nationals’ members. The Prime Minister’s Office has an administrative role in informing the Department of Finance.” Labor no doubt will be probing this “administrative role”.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, appearing on Sky on Sunday, was clearly uncomfortable. He maintained that “all of my advice is that everything was absolutely above board”, while also saying: “I am not aware of the specific staffing circumstances of every single one of my colleagues”.

The next few days will reveal whether there is anything to see, in terms of untoward arrangements or costs. Nationals sources point to the obvious implications for Joyce if there were any such revelation.

The big question – assuming there is no public money time bomb – is what this will do to Joyce’s leadership. There are mixed opinions.

He can point to the fact that in terms of retail politics, he has been highly popular, and led the party to a very good result at the election, in contrast to Turnbull’s below-par performance.

His position is protected (even more than Turnbull’s, in the Liberal Party, is protected) by the absence of an alternative leader. But the Nationals are at present an unhappy bunch.

There’s criticism of Joyce’s recent performance, including his handling of the Nationals’ part of the pre-Christmas reshuffle, which saw Victorian MP Darren Chester dumped from cabinet and assistant minister Keith Pitt ending up on the backbench.

There’s ruminating about how his new circumstances will play out in the wider Nationals’ constituency, which tends to be conservative and family-oriented. Will people have long memories or will they just move on when the fuss dies down?

Perhaps most relevant is whether Joyce will lose his political energy as he deals with new personal circumstances and some loss of respect.

With a bitter separation behind him, it won’t be easy.

Tony Windsor, Joyce’s old enemy in the seat of New England, is turning the knife, predicting in a tweet: “The Eagles are circling, don’t be surprised if Joyce resigns “for personal reasons” before the main story claims him … he will know it’s getting close to a one-way street to a job with Gina”.

The ConversationWith unfortunate if exquisite timing, Turnbull held a family fun day for Coalition MPs at the Lodge on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of his deputy prime minister.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/6jqa7-8776fa?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Closing the Gap results still lag, as Shorten pledges compensation fund for Stolen Generations


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The tenth Closing the Gap report, to be tabled in parliament by Malcolm Turnbull on Monday, shows only three of the seven targets are on track to be met.

The targets for early childhood education and Year 12 attainment are on track, and the target to halve child mortality is back on track. But the remaining targets are not on track – for school attendance, mortality, employment, and reading and numeracy.

The government will hail this year’s outcome as the most promising result since 2011. Last year, only one target was being met – on improved Year 12 attainment.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will mark a decade on from then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology by announcing Labor would set up a compensation scheme for survivors of the Stolen Generations in Commonwealth jurisdictions.

The scheme would give ex-gratia payments of A$75,000 to living survivors. There would also be a funeral assistance fund with one-off payments of $7,000 to Stolen Generations members to assist with their funerals.

The compensation scheme would be accessible to about 150 surviving members of the Stolen Generations in the Northern Territory and any members in the ACT and Jervis Bay.

Labor would also establish a $10 million national healing fund “to support healing for the Stolen Generations and their families – in recognition of the inter-generational effects of forced removals”.

Shorten will say that recently the number of children removed from their families has rapidly increased.

“In 2017, more than 17,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living in out-of-home care, compared with about 9,000 a decade ago,” he says in a statement with the shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs, Patrick Dodson. In response, Labor would convene a national summit on First Nations Children in its first 100 days in office.

Shorten’s announcements would cost $17.1 million over the forward estimates.

With four of the existing Closing the Gap targets expiring this year – child mortality, school attendance, reading and numeracy, and employment – the Council of Australian Governments is working with Indigenous people to refresh the agenda.

The government will point to progress on a range of health indicators:

  • Child mortality dropped by one-third between 1998 and 2015.

  • Overall mortality fell 15% from 1998 to 2015.

  • Fewer Indigenous people are dying from chronic conditions. Deaths from circulatory diseases declined by 45% between 1998 and 2016; respiratory disease deaths fell by 24% between 1998 and 2015; kidney disease death rates decreased by 47% from 2006 to 2015.

  • The proportion of Indigenous adults who smoke fell from 55% in 1994 to 45% in 2014-15.

  • Efforts are on track to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem by 2020. The prevalence of active trachoma in Indigenous children aged between five and nine in at-risk communities declined from 14% in 2009 to 4.7% in 2016.

  • The gap in blindness and vision impairment halved between 2008 and 2016. Indigenous people have three times the rate of blindness and vision impairment compared to the non-Indigenous population. In 2008 the figure was six times.

  • Drinking during pregnancy halved between 2008 and 2014-15, and there was an 8% drop in binge drinking among Indigenous people from 2008 and 2015.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the results demonstrated “the power of a collaborative approach between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Even where we may not be on track, we have achieved solid progress in other target areas compared with a decade ago.”

The ConversationThe government will highlight the success of the Indigenous Procurement Policy. Its target was achieved three years ahead of schedule and it has now passed $1 billion in contracts to Indigenous businesses. Scullion flagged Turnbull would be announcing “new measures to turbo-charge the Indigenous business sector”.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/6jqa7-8776fa?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why the Commonwealth should resist meddling in schools


Julie Sonnemann, Grattan Institute and Peter Goss, Grattan Institute

Australia’s education debate is shifting at last, from how much money governments should spend on schools to how best to spend the money for the benefit of students.

After winning parliamentary approval for the Gonski 2.0 schools funding deal (the “how much”), the Turnbull Government has commissioned the “Gonski 2.0 Review” to advise on how to spend the money wisely (the “how best”).

But the extra Commonwealth money going to schools (A$23 billion over the next 10 years compared to previous Coalition policy) is only 3% of all government spending on schools over the decade. It should not be used as an excuse for the Commonwealth to intervene more heavily in school education policy.

The Grattan Institute’s new report, The Commonwealth’s role in improving schools, examines what the Commonwealth should do if it really wants to boost student outcomes.

And the answer is: not very much.




Read more:
The passage of Gonski 2.0 is a victory for children over politics


States are better placed to drive reforms

The states run schools, as well as providing most of the funding. Heavy-handed Commonwealth intervention is likely to be counterproductive, costly and confusing.

Most of the big reforms needed are within the responsibilities of state governments. For example, all the evidence shows effective teaching has the largest impact on student achievement. The biggest advances will be made when teachers know what works in the classroom, and how they can adapt their methods to better target their teaching to the particular needs of their students.

For this to happen, teachers need better support from the “system”: for example, better teacher development and greater standardisation of classroom materials so individual teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

In school education, the states and territories are the “system” managers. Driving reforms such as these from Canberra would be difficult.

Federal funding conditions aren’t the way to go

Australia must learn from its history. Our report shows imposing prescriptive funding conditions on states and territories has been tried before, with little benefit.

Commonwealth interference can destroy policy coherence and simply increase red tape. The Commonwealth has few ways to independently verify if change is actually happening in the classroom, so adding an extra layer of government policies that chop and change only disrupts schools and teachers.

For example, the 2008-2013 National Partnership agreements for school education included a number of prescriptive and input-based conditions. These increased the administrative and compliance burden of states, and created instability in schools when the funding and initiatives stopped abruptly five years later.

Before looking to new reforms, the Commonwealth government should first deliver its existing responsibilities more effectively. These include initial teacher training, the national curriculum and national student testing. All require constant attention, and some require urgent reform.




Read more:
Changes to school funding – your questions answered


Prioritise a few national reforms only

If determined to act, we suggest the Commonwealth focus strategically on a small number of national reforms only. It is far better to focus on a few actions with a high chance of success.

We suggest the Commonwealth only pursue reforms that meet all of three criteria: the evidence shows it’s a good idea, the government can make it happen, and Commonwealth intervention will help. While many Commonwealth ideas are good in theory, many fall down on whether they can be readily implemented by state governments and actually lead to change in practice.

For example, in 2016 the Commonwealth signalled an intention to require all schools to use explicit teaching. While backed by evidence, this type of Commonwealth policy requirement is unlikely to lead to change without a raft of complementary state government policies. These include the right training and school support for teachers to switch to explicit teaching. It would be difficult for the Commonwealth to independently verify, and it also creates confusion by coming in over the top of state policies on effective teaching methods.

Commonwealth intervention must satisfy three criteria


Author provided/Grattan Institute

Four suggestions for new national reforms

We have four suggestions for new national reform areas where there are benefits of scale and coordination. These only to be pursued if state government’s have strong “buy in” and there is close collaboration in design and delivery:

1. Create a new national school education research organisation to investigate what works to drive school improvement and to spread the word across schools, states and sectors. The new body should be charged with lifting the standard of education research in Australia, establishing a long-term research agenda for school education, and promoting key findings across the country. It could link up all research on education for people from birth through to age 18, so policy makers and the community better understand the continuum of learning, from early childhood to school and vocational education.

2. Invest more in measuring new, non-cognitive skills such as teamwork and resilience, in the classroom. At present, Australia focuses much more on old, foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy, which are only one element of what we expect from 21st century schooling.

3. Develop better ways to measure student progress, for national bench-marking and for use in the classroom. NAPLAN seeks to measure students’ learning progress in core literacy and numeracy skills at the national level, but NAPLAN gain scores are not easy to interpret when comparing the progress of different student groups.

4. Invest in high-quality digital assessment tools for the classroom, so teachers know what their students know and how much progress their students have made.




Read more:
Gaps in education data: there are many questions for which we don’t have accurate answers


Resist over-reach

The extra Commonwealth money for schools under Gonski 2.0 is welcome. The shift in the education debate towards how best to use the extra money is still more welcome.

The ConversationBut for Australian students to get the most benefit, the Commonwealth must resist the temptation to over-reach by intervening heavily in school education policy.

Julie Sonnemann, Research Fellow, Grattan Institute and Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Is Barnaby’s baby a matter of ‘public interest’ or just of interest to the public?


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A few decades ago, then deputy prime minister Jim Cairns’ affair with staffer Junie Morosi rocked an already embattled Whitlam government.

Debate occurred about the reporting of that relationship – which Cairns at the time refused to admit was sexual – but the case for airing was pretty clear given Morosi’s role. She was a political player, through her enormous influence on her boss.

Now we have a controversy over whether it’s been in the public interest for the Daily Telegraph this week to out deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s liaison with his now-former staffer, Vikki Campion, who is expecting his child in April.

There’s one very significant difference between the Joyce-Campion and Cairns-Morosi affairs. No-one suggests Campion, who was deliberately transferred out of Joyce’s office nearly a year ago, was a political mover-and-shaker.

Has the upheaval in his personal life affected Joyce’s performance? No doubt to some extent. He’s reportedly been more distracted and difficult, though his citizenship imbroglio was a factor too.

Government and Labor MPs have backed Joyce’s claim that his personal life should be private. They’re driven partly by collective self-interest. Other MPs have had, or are having, affairs. But many MPs also feel, with some reason, that they have enough intrusion into their lives.

Those defending the publication advance a range of arguments, including that public figures must expect public lives. They say that if Joyce’s circumstances had been exposed earlier, voters in the New England byelection might have been harsher in their judgement. They accuse him of hypocrisy, on the grounds that his personal circumstances were at odds with his stand against same-sex marriage.

They also make the point that in time Joyce’s situation would have been obvious. Or as Daily Telegraph editor Chris Dore colourfully put it, “What would [journalists] have done when he started pushing a pram around Lake Burley Griffin or Parliament House?”

Personally, I think media publicity about the affair wouldn’t have made much difference in New England, which Joyce retained handsomely. His critics ensured the gossip was widely circulated locally, and most votes are driven by more directly political factors.

On the hypocrisy charge: Joyce acknowledged in his same sex-marriage speech that his marriage had collapsed. And in terms of logic, what you say about marriage equality is separate from what you do in your own heterosexual marriage. While Joyce has been a promoter of family values, it’s not been as a hardline crusader.

As for the story inevitably emerging in the fullness of time – that’s rather different from how it did emerge, with a front-page picture of the pregnant Campion.

The Joyce affair comes against a background of the public hating politicians and deeply distrusting the media, and as increasing scrutiny is on the personal behaviour of those, particularly men, in senior positions – in business, politics and, most dramatically, the entertainment world.

The story taps into a resentment among some in the community towards Canberra “insiders”, including journalists, who are thought to be keeping things from the “outsiders” – that is, the public.

The reality is exaggerated, in this age of blanket communications. The bones of the Joyce story were on the internet well before it hit the mainstream media.

Rob Stott, managing editor of Junkee, said on Crikey this week: “As news spreads more and more on social media, the time has long passed since the press gallery was able to hold back information that was being widely circulated in the community.”

But being taken up by the mainstream media gives a story much more impact and cache.

In this context, some journalists have felt the need to justify why they did not write the Joyce story, which had been swirling around Canberra for months. They’ve said it was a rumour that couldn’t readily be stood up in face of an unco-operative Joyce office – although that sounds like an excuse rather than an explanation.

But excuses are not required if you don’t believe the public interest demanded the front page expose.

Consider precisely what we are looking at here. A re-partnering, after an affair that started in a ministerial office, that has involved a painful family breakdown. This week’s coverage has made things even more difficult for Joyce’s wife and four daughters. The family’s anguish has been obvious in Natalie Joyce’s bitter public comments.

Gay Alcorn in Guardian Australia points out that Malcolm Turnbull could never have got away with the privacy Joyce sought to claim. Of course that’s true. But lines are drawn all the time. If it had been Joyce’s predecessor, the dour Warren Truss, in similar circumstances, would the treatment have been the same?

It should be stressed that although the 33-year-old Campion is much younger than the 50-year-old Joyce, there is no suggestion she’s a victim of a powerful boss. And they are now a couple – she won’t be a single mother.

The start of the affair while Campion was on Joyce’s staff has raised the question of whether there should be some prohibition on relationships between politicians and staffers.

This week the United States House of Representatives passed legislation banning sexual relationships between members of the house and staff who report to them. The measure has yet to go to the Senate.

The congressional action follows a raft of scandals in the US involving harassment, and the #MeToo movement.

In Canberra, crossbencher Cathy McGowan has seized on the Joyce affair to call for a conversation within the parliament “about a process to address personal relationships within the workplace”.

“There is a belief the parliament is behind community expectations and corporate practices,” said McGowan, known for her ear to the local ground. “The parliament is a place of work and good workplace practice includes clear expectations about behaviour.”

She pointed to the Congress example and what’s happened in the Australian corporate sector, including the AFL. McGowan said she was happy to begin a conversation ahead of potentially tabling a motion in parliament.

This is not a conversation the major parties want to have. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, asked about the US move, said: “Government has no business interfering in people’s personal lives and we wouldn’t want to cross the line so that the moral police were able to dictate what happens between consenting adults.”

The ConversationBut McGowan says the Joyce matter has highlighted “the need to talk about MPs as employers, our responsibilities to our staffs and how, if you make a mistake in the public arena, it can be managed in a respectful and effective way. There’s clearly an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/6jqa7-8776fa?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

George Brandis warns Liberals against rise of populist right


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Former attorney-general George Brandis has warned of the challenge that right-wing populism poses to the Liberal Party, in his valedictory speech to the Senate ahead of taking up the post of high commissioner in London.

Brandis, a Liberal moderate, also strongly cautioned the Coalition against listening to those who said it should use national security as a political weapon against Labor, and criticised attacks on the judiciary from his own side.

With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looking on, Brandis told the Senate that classical liberal values were under “greater challenge than at any time in my memory”.

“Increasingly, in recent years, powerful elements of right-wing politics have abandoned both liberalism’s concern for the rights of the individual and conservatism’s respect for institutions, in favour of a belligerent, intolerant populism which shows no respect for either the rights of individual citizens or the traditional institutions which protect them.”

Brandis was attorney-general throughout the Abbott and Turnbull governments, leaving the ministry in the December reshuffle.

He became increasingly outspoken as a voice of the moderate strand of the Liberal Party toward the end of his time in parliament. Within the government, he was critical of the hardline conservative Peter Dutton, now the home affairs minister.

In his speech Brandis targeted “right-wing postmodernism”. “A set of attitudes which had its origin in the authoritarian mind of the left has been translated right across the political spectrum,” he said.

“This presents a threat both to liberalism and conservatism, and a profound challenge to the Liberal Party as the custodian of these philosophic traditions.”

Brandis – who once set off a political storm by declaring that people had the right to be bigots – said being a liberal wasn’t easy.

“It means respecting the right of people to make choices which we ourselves would not make and of which may disapprove.

“It means respecting the right of people to express their opinions, even though others may find those opinions offensive.

“It means respecting the right of people to practice their religion, even though others may find the tenets of that religion irrational.

“It means, in a nation of many cultures, respecting the right of people to live according to their culture, even though, to others, that culture may seem alien.

“It means respecting the right of everyone to marry the person they love, even though others may find their understanding of marriage confronting.”

Brandis was a prominent figure pushing for same-sex marriage, which was legislated late last year.

In a pointed reference including some (unnamed) ministers who have criticised the judiciary, Brandis said he had not disguised his concerns at attacks on the institutions of the law – the courts and those who practised in them.

“To attack those institutions is to attack the rule of law itself. And it is for the attorney-general always to defend the rule of law – sometimes from political colleagues who fail to understand it, or are impatient of the limitations it may impose upon executive power – because although the attorney-general is a political official, as the first law officer he has a higher duty – a duty to the law itself.

“It is a duty which, as my cabinet colleagues know, on several robust occasions, I have always placed above political advantage.”

Brandis also was blunt in his rejection of those who want to see the government seek to inject more partisanship into national security.

He observed that eight tranches of national security legislation he had overseen were passed with opposition support after parliamentary committee scrutiny.

“It was a fine example of government and parliament working hand-in-hand to protect the national interest.

“I have heard some powerful voices argue that the Coalition should open a political front against the Labor Party on the issue of domestic national security.

“I could not disagree more strongly.

“One of the main reasons why the government has earned the confidence of the public on national security policy is that there has never been a credible suggestion that political motives have intruded.

“Were it to do so, confidence not just in the government’s handling of national security, but in the agencies themselves, would be damaged and their capacity to do their work compromised.

The Conversation“Nothing could be more irresponsible than to hazard the safety of the public by creating a confected dispute for political advantage. To his credit, the prime minister has always resisted such entreaties.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/99z29-862eb3?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump and Turnbull have little cause for satisfaction over progress in Afghanistan



File 20180205 19948 ghodqc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
What to do about Afghanistan will likely be on the agenda when Malcolm Turnbull meets with Donald Trump later this month.
Reuters/Omar Sobhani

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

When Malcolm Turnbull sits down in the White House later this month for the Australian prime minister’s first substantive discussion with Donald Trump on American soil, Afghanistan will almost certainly be part of the conversation.

Whatever is said – and agreed – about that conflict, neither the Americans nor the Australians have much cause for satisfaction over progress in efforts to stabilise that country.

As 2017 gave way to a new year, the news from Afghanistan for the NATO-led effort to counter the Taliban, and other militant groups, was mostly bad.

Terrorist attacks in Kabul and other cities, which killed more than 100 people and wounded dozens in the first weeks of 2018, underscored the lack of progress in establishing a stable environment. Afghanis are losing confidence in the ability of US-backed Afghan security forces to hold insurgents at bay.

This lessening certainty in an Afghan administration, propped up by America and its allies, including Australia, has serious implications for the future of the country and the conduct of what is now America’s longest war.




Read more:
Where will the global political hotspots be in 2018? (Spoiler alert: it’s not all about Donald Trump)


The Afghan conflict has cost the American taxpayer getting on for a trillion dollars – or a lot more, according to some estimates – with no end in sight. More than 2,000 Americans have been killed.

Australia has spent an estimated A$8 billion on its Afghan engagement, including civil and military assistance. Forty-one service personnel have been killed, and 261 wounded.

All this makes it notable that Trump, in his State of the Union address, devoted just 40 words to the Afghan conflict, in contrast to other foreign and security policy preoccupations, inclduing America’s campaign against Islamic State (IS).

This is what he said about a war that has outstripped by half a decade America’s previous longest war, in Vietnam:

As of a few months ago, our warriors in Afghanistan have their new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.

That was it. It was as if Washington had resolved not to talk about a war that shows no sign of an endpoint, although it could be observed Taliban advances are creating what might prove to be an inflection moment.

Whether this will lead to a more concerted push to engage the Taliban in a regional settlement remains moot. However, it is hard to envisage an end to the Afghan nightmare without some sort of Taliban involvement, unpalatable though that may seem.

Robert Malley, newly appointed head of the International Crisis Group, sharply criticised US Afghanistan strategy in an assessment of 2018 trouble spots. He wrote:

The strategy faces serious obstacles. While hitting the Taliban harder might bring tactical gains, it is unlikely to change the war’s course or the incentives of a locally rooted and potent insurgency … Battlefield losses in the past have not impacted Taliban leaders’ willingness to negotiate.

And then this:

As the battlefield tempo increases, the Trump administration should keep lines of communication to the insurgency open and explore the contours of a settlement with Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers, however slim prospects currently appear. US allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the US strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation. Afghan civilians will pay the price.

All this has been further complicated by growing IS and al-Qaeda involvement in the conflict, with those entities seeking alternative battlefields to Iraq and Syria.

Suspicions Iran and Russia are providing some level of support to the Taliban are adding to concerns. America’s estrangement from Pakistan – Trump has taken Islamabad to task for not doing more to combat the Taliban – is compounding an already fraught environment.

To say that Afghanistan in 2018 is a witch’s brew would be an understatement.

What seems clear is that the Trump administration and its allies are conducting something of a holding operation in the hope that a protracted war plays itself out. This strategy might be placed in the faint hope category, given Afghanistan’s history of resisting foreign involvement going back to the armies of Alexander the Great.

Trump might have escalated the conflict by freeing up local American commanders to fight more aggressively, but it is not clear this is paying dividends, given the level of violence that is manifesting itself.

Under this administration, America dropped three times the number of bombs – 4,361 – on insurgent targets in 2017 compared with the previous year.

American sensitivity about progress – or lack thereof – in the war was exposed recently when the its own ombudsman, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), reported it had been ordered not to report details of how much territory was under the control of the Afghan government or insurgents.

Information released to CNN by US forces in Afghanistan indicates that 56% of districts were under government control or influence in October. A further 30% is contested, with the balance under the influence of militant groups, including the Taliban.

These figures indicate a significant slippage since 2015, when the government controlled about 72% of the country, and insurgents 7%.

On top of territory yielded to the insurgency, more than 7,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed last year. This is an attrition rate that would be demoralising in any circumstances.

In an assessment for Foreign Affairs, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, observed that Taliban “presence and influence are likely at their highest levels since the group lost power in 2001”.

Last August, Trump announced a revamped strategy in Afghanistan, which included a commitment of additional forces. Numbers were not specified at the time, but are in the order of 4,000, taking the American involvement to 16,000.

This compares with 100,000 at the time of Barack Obama’s “surge” in 2009, which was intended to deal a killer blow to the Taliban. This has not materialised. As noted, the Afghan government has been losing ground since the US wound back its commitment in 2011.




Read more:
Trump changes his mind on Afghanistan, but will upping the ante win the war?


In his August address, Trump said this about American strategy:

From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.

This prompted the following observation from analyst Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations:

The Trump administration has concluded that it can live with a situation that even US generals describe as a ‘stalemate’, because the cost of victory – sending hundreds of thousands of additional troops – is too high for the United States to pay and might be impossible to achieve in any case, given that the Taliban continue to enjoy outside support, not only from Pakistan but also from Iran and Russia. In short, a war that started 16 years ago will continue indefinitely with no victory in sight, because from Washington’s perspective there is simply no viable alternative.

In response to the Trump speech, including the president’s unwillingness to set a timeline for an end to America’s involvement, Malcolm Turnbull observed the “coalition commitment to Afghanistan … would be very long-term”.

The ConversationThis might be regarded as an understatement on the eve of Turnbull’s visit to Washington, where the subject of Australian troop levels in a training capacity in Afghanistan will almost certainly arise.

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Government unmoved by Labor MP Susan Lamb’s emotional story


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Embattled Labor MP Susan Lamb has hit back at government pressure for her to quit parliament over her dual citizenship, in an emotional speech laying the blame for her failure to produce a vital document on an estrangement from her mother.

But the government was unmoved by Lamb’s tearful explanation, saying it changed nothing – although there was no sign of imminent action to refer her to the High Court.

Lamb, who holds the marginal Queensland seat of Longman, took steps to renounce her British citizenship but the UK authorities required her parents’ marriage certificate, which she did not produce.

The government has threatened to refer her to the court, despite Labor’s opposition.

Some in the government had hoped that if Lamb could be forced to quit quickly without a court case, a byelection could be held in Longman on the same day as the Batman byelection, thus putting maximum heat on Bill Shorten.

But with Wednesday’s announcement of March 17 as the date for the Batman contest and Lamb refusing to resign, that is not going to happen.

Lamb told parliament she had been advised she did not have a legal right to access the marriage document.

Recounting how her mother had abandoned her as a young child, she said: “One day when I was around six years old my mum dropped me off at school, and she never came back to pick me up.

“I don’t remember every detail of what happened afterwards. I remember lots of tears. I remember lots of confusion. I remember my dad trying to explain. I remember sometime later, dad taking me to the train station, late one evening, to collect my mother.

“I thought she was going to come home. The train came, the train went, no sign of her, so we went home. Then one day, I remember going outside the front of the mill gates. We lived on the mill grounds in Mackay in north Queensland …

“A car turned up … my mother got out, words were exchanged and then my mother drove away. My dad was now a single parent – an amazing man whose example I try to live up to every day of my life.”

Her father died nearly 20 years ago.

Lamb said many years ago she and her mother attempted to build a relationship, but that failed.

“The fact is, my mum is not around to grant me access to her marriage certificate.”

Lamb said she was not telling the story to gain sympathy, but to explain that she did not have the legal entitlement to obtain the document. “So I would simply ask those opposite, take a moment and think about the circumstances.”

But government sources said that in her situation she could have applied to the registrar of births, deaths and marriages, or have got a lawyer to be an intermediary.

The sources said Lamb’s circumstances were similar to those of former senator Fiona Nash, also British through her father, who sought referral to the High Court and was declared ineligible to sit. Nash’s parents, now both dead, had divorced, and she had had little contact with her father.

Previously The Australian quoted Lamb’s mother saying she would have “definitely helped her if she had been contacted”.

The ConversationThe ABC’s Jane Norman tweeted “Re. Susan Lamb: QLD’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages says requests are considered on a case-by-case basis where parental consent isn’t obtainable”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lambie’s Senate replacement Steve Martin flags that he won’t stand aside


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The High Court has ruled that Steve Martin, from the Jacqui Lambie Network (JLN), is eligible to enter the Senate, dismissing the argument that his mayoral position disqualified him under the Constitution’s Section 44.

After the decision Martin quickly rejected any suggestion he might stand aside to allow Lambie to return to the Senate, despite her clear wish that he do so.

Lambie resigned from parliament last year because she had dual citizenship, inherited via a Scottish father.

Martin said he was excited at the case’s outcome and the prospect of taking up the opportunity to work for Tasmania in the Senate.

Asked whether he might defect to become an independent, as did a One Nation replacement senator, Fraser Anning, Martin said he was entering the Senate as a JLN candidate and there were still a few steps to be gone through. He would not be drawn on anything “hypothetical”.

The issue in the case of Martin, who was number two on the JLN ticket at the election, was whether, as mayor of Devonport, he held an office of profit under the crown.

Former One Nation candidate Kate McCulloch maintained that he did. The full bench decision, which was unanimous, has now clarified the constitutional position in relation to local councillors generally.

Lambie said at the weekend: “My heart is set on coming back to the Senate”.

Martin was “entitled to that second seat. If he wants to run through with it, well he’s entitled to do that. Unfortunately I broke the rules, whether it was intentional or not, and I have to sit on the sidelines and pay the price for that,” she told Sky.

“I’ll be brutally honest, if it was me in his position I would be extremely loyal and I would step down. That’s what I would do, but that is not up to me – that is up to him.”

Next week the court will hear the case concerning the successor to former Nick Xenophon Team senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore, who also resigned in the dual citizenship crisis.

Kakoschke-Moore is arguing the vacancy should not go to the next candidate on the ticket, Tim Storer, who, after a falling out with the party, is no longer a member of it. She maintains the seat should go back to her; she has now freed herself of her British citizenship.

The court also has before it the status of ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher, who did not receive confirmation of her renunciation of British citizenship until after her nomination.

Meanwhile, the Coalition is awaiting the court’s judgment in the case of David Gillespie, an assistant minister.

At issue there is another part of Section 44, which prohibits anyone being chosen for, or sitting in, parliament if they hold a pecuniary interest in an agreement with the Commonwealth.

The ConversationA tenant in a Port Macquarie shopping centre owned by Gillespie’s family company has an Australia Post franchise. Australia Post is a government business.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/99z29-862eb3?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turnbull and the Coalition begin the year on a positive polling note – but it’s still all about the economy



File 20180206 14078 q69fzo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Malcolm Turnbull makes a point in Question Time.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

The first Newspoll of 2018, conducted February 1-4 from a sample of 1,616, gave Labor a 52-48 lead, a one-point gain for the Coalition since the final Newspoll of 2017 in mid-December. Primary votes were 38% Coalition (up two), 37% Labor (steady), 10% Greens (steady) and 5% One Nation (down two).

While this Newspoll is Malcolm Turnbull’s 26th consecutive loss (four short of Tony Abbott’s streak), it is the Coalition’s best position since April 2017. This is the Coalition’s highest primary vote, and One Nation’s lowest Newspoll vote, since December 2016, before Newspoll started asking for One Nation as part of the party read-out.

As the Coalition’s primary vote gains have come at the expense of another right-wing party, the overall left/right balance is unchanged at 47-43. The two-party vote changes are exaggerated by Newspoll’s assumption, based on the 2016 election, that the Coalition will win only half of One Nation’s preferences.




Read more:
With Feeney gone, Greens sniff a chance in Batman, and has Xenophon’s bubble burst in South Australia?


At the recent Queensland election, about 65% of One Nation preferences flowed to the LNP. It is likely that previous Newspolls, which had high One Nation votes, overstated Labor’s lead after preferences.

Turnbull’s approval rating bumped up to 37% (up five), and 50% were dissatisfied (down seven), for a net approval of -13, up 12 points. Bill Shorten’s net approval also improved six points to -18, and both leaders are at their highest net approval since August. Turnbull led Shorten by 45-31 as better prime minister (41-34 in December); this is Turnbull’s biggest margin since September.

Voters were given four options for best Liberal leader: Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Abbott and Peter Dutton. Turnbull had 30% support (up five since early December), Bishop 26% (down four), Abbott 13% (down three) and Dutton 7% (steady). Among Coalition voters, Turnbull had 48%, Bishop 19%, Abbott 16% and Dutton 6%. Abbott and Dutton performed best with One Nation voters.

Voters were given three choices for best Labor leader: Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese. Plibersek had 25% support, Albanese 24% and Shorten 22%. Among Labor voters, Shorten had 37%, Plibersek 27% and Albanese 23%. Plibersek was the clear favourite among Greens voters (43%).

Both leaders appear to have benefited from the lack of any major controversies over the summer holidays. Turnbull has done better, perhaps due to the absence of hard-right Coalition backbenchers from the media environment.

Shorten’s ratings as preferred Labor leader are so low because conservatives detest him for strongly opposing much that the Coalition is proposing or has done, while many on the left do not regard him as a genuine leftie. Turnbull is helped as best Liberal leader by Abbott and Dutton being more right-wing.




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: For Bill Shorten, it will be a matter of eyes left and centre


The most important factor regarding the next federal election, due by early 2019, is likely to be the performance of the economy. Greg Jericho wrote in The Guardian recently that the strong employment growth in 2017 was consistent with the government being re-elected.

The government is inhibited by the continued low wages growth. If wages growth lifts this year, the Coalition would be far more likely to be re-elected. The strong US economy has benefited Donald Trump.

65% supported leaving Australia Day as it is, while just 29% supported referendums on Indigenous recognition and the republic proposed by Albanese.

The ConversationEssential will now appear fortnightly rather than weekly, so there was no Essential poll this week. You can read about last week’s Essential here.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

ASX and Wall Street fall: investors should start to worry when volatility seems low


Lee Smales, Curtin University

Rewind to last week and the volatility index, or VIX, actually predicted low levels of volatility in the share market over the coming 30 days. But the subsequent falls in the Australian and United States share markets should serve as a reminder of the risk of being complacent.

Prolonged periods of low volatility provide ample opportunity for investors to become complacent about risk, and increase the prospect of sharp market corrections. This is certainly what my research has discovered. I found buying stocks when investor fear is highest, and selling when it is lowest, can be a profitable trading strategy.




Read more:
Explainer: why stock market panic can signal a good time to buy


Now the US S&P 500 index has fallen by over 6% since Thursday (wiping over US$1 trillion from stock values), the VIX index has more than doubled and now sits at 37.32. While this is the highest level since August 2015, it’s still well below the high of 80.06 we saw during the global financial crisis.

The trigger for this surge in investor fear in the US was Friday’s release of employment data there. Typically, this stronger than expected data would be good for stocks. However, this news follows indications from the Federal Reserve that further rate hikes are likely.

The market has taken strong wage growth as a signal of inflationary pressure, which may lead to more dramatic policy tightening. This is consistent with prior research that suggests the market response to economic news depends on the business cycle.

Unfortunately, owing to reliance on exports to fuel its economy, the Australian market is not immune to what happens in the US. The All-Ordinaries has fallen by 4% (equivalent to nearly A$90 billion of value) and the A-XVI (an Australian fear gauge) has jumped by 60% in two sessions.

Due for a correction

As of the end of January, the US S&P 500 were 320% higher than at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, having increased 25% in the past year. While the Australian market has lagged, following the end of the commodity boom, the All-Ordinaries is still 98% higher than in 2008 and 8% higher than at this time last year.

Over the same time, the VIX index has been able to shrug off the affects of a rising geopolitical risk – such as President Trump’s tiff with North Korea.

Over the past year, VIX has averaged just 11.06. This indicates that in the next 30 days the market expects prices to rise or fall by 6.3% (on approximately 95 days out of 100). This is lower than the average of 14.9 for the prior year, and 18.8 over the past 15 years.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/qsGbk/1/

While the VIX has continued to predict low levels of volatility in the near-term (it ended Thursday at 13.47), researchers at the New York Federal Reserve pointed out that the term structure of implied volatility suggested volatility will not remain low forever. The term structure shows how implied volatility varies for different time periods, and prior to Thursday this was upward sloping – indicating volatility would rise over time.

It’s difficult to predict when the current market sell-off will end, and after the large increase in values over the past few years it could be said that the market is due a correction. While the futures market is predicting further falls in stock prices (and VIX increases) in the near-term, the term structure (which is now downward sloping) is not predicting a lengthy period of volatility.

One risk could be that ongoing gridlock within US Congress leads to another US government shutdown, and associated geopolitical risk finally starts to feed into investor fear.

The ConversationThe lesson remains: investors should be wary when investor fear is low.

Lee Smales, Associate Professor, Finance, Curtin Graduate School of Business, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.