Australians became more satisfied with federal public services, and more trusting of them, during the first months of COVID-19, according to survey results released by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Between February and June this year, satisfaction with the public services delivered by the Commonwealth increased from 69% to 78%. In March 2019 it had been 71%. People were asked how satisfied they were overall with the Australian public services they had accessed in the last 12 months.
Trust in the federal public services rose from 57% to 65% from February to June this year, and compared with 59% in March 2019.
The results are in line with trends in trust and satisfaction in institutions and leaders that academic and other surveys have shown.
The Citizen Experience Survey, done regularly and nationally, measures public satisfaction, trust and experiences with Australian public services. It is led by the Prime Minister’s Department .
In total more than 15,000 Australians were surveyed over five waves. The first wave was in March 2019 and surveyed about 5,000 people; this was followed by four more waves, each surveying about 2,500 people.
These results dealt with services delivered at Commonwealth level, not state delivery.
The survey put a series of propositions to people who had accessed any federal services in the last year.
It found 57% agreed information from the service was easy to understand; 60% said the staff were knowledgeable; 62% said the staff did what they said they would do, 51% said the amount of time it took to reach an outcome was acceptable, and 66% said they were treated with respect. All the numbers had risen since February.
While Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie has been forced to resign over the “sports rorts” affair, the matter is far from settled. It’s likely to feature heavily in parliamentary debate in the coming days.
One of the outstanding issues is the very different findings by the Audit Office report and by the review undertaken by the head of the prime minister’s department, Phil Gaetjens. Scott Morrison has said he will not release the Gaetjens report, so we can only go on the quotes Morrison read from it in his press conference announcing McKenzie’s resignation.
Gaetjens found McKenzie had breached the ministerial standards due to her conflict of interest in failing to disclose her membership of a gun club that received funding. At the same time, he absolved the government, as he “did not find evidence” the allocation of grants was “unduly influenced by reference to marginal or targeted electorates”.
In contrast, the auditor-general concluded that the “award of grant funding was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice”, and was contrary to principles of merit.
So, what is the status of the prime minister’s department compared to the auditor-general? And how would this have played out differently with a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC)?
How was the affair handled by government?
The auditor-general is an independent officer of parliament, with the mandate to audit government finances. The position is independent from government and reports to parliament.
Alongside other integrity officers, such as the ombudsman and information commissioner, the auditor-general forms an important part of the Australian integrity framework. Their job is to hold government to account. They have significant coercive powers to compel documents and persons, which is essential to expose government wrongdoing.
The integrity officers have brought to light many examples of government maladministration. Yet they cannot compel government to change its practices – they only have the power of publicity and recommendation.
By referring the sports rorts affair to the prime minister’s department to investigate, the government is essentially conducting an internal investigation.
The department is under the full control of the prime minister. Like all senior public service executives, the department’s secretary, Gaetjens, is on a fixed-term contract without employment security.
The heyday of the mandarin is over. Departmental secretaries in the 1950s and 1960s had permanent tenure. By contrast, recent governments have been in the habit of sacking departmental secretaries and installing their allies in the positions.
This means an investigation by the auditor-general is far more independent than one by the secretary of the prime minister’s department. The auditor-general is independent of government. Unlike the Gaetjens report, his report is publicly published and tabled in parliament.
What would have happened with a federal ICAC?
A former NSW auditor-general has claimed a federal ICAC would have investigated the sports grants scandal.
So, how might this incident have played out if there was a federal ICAC?
First of all, it depends which version of a federal ICAC we are talking about. Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter has proposed a watered-down model of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC).
The threshold for investigation by Porter’s CIC model is high. It requires a reasonable suspicion of corruption amounting to a criminal offence before an investigation can even begin. It is doubtful the sports rort affair can meet this very high bar of suspected criminality.
So it is unlikely the proposed CIC will even have the power to investigate this issue.
Even if the CIC could investigate, it would not have the power to conduct public hearings or make findings of corruption.
On the other hand, if a federal ICAC “with teeth” is implemented, it is more likely to have the power to investigate this alleged maladministration of public funds.
A strong federal ICAC would have the power to hold public hearings. It could more fully ventilate all issues surrounding this matter.
There have been broader questions about the alleged involvement of the prime minister’s office in the handling of the grants that remain unanswered. The prime minister has denied any such involvement.
A strong federal ICAC would have been able to compel ministers, public servants and ministerial advisers to give evidence. This would paint a better picture of political interference in Sports Australia’s decision-making.
A strong ICAC investigation would be far more independent than that of a departmental secretary, and its final report would be public. It would also be able to make findings of corruption, which could then be prosecuted in the courts.
How can things be improved?
McKenzie has resigned, which is emblematic of ministerial responsibility. The minister has taken the hit based on her failure to declare her conflict of interest.
But the Gaetjens finding that there has been no political interference in the sports grant allocation is rather convenient for the government.
Gaetjens’ conclusion was also flawed in stating that political considerations were not “the primary determining factor”.
The question was never whether partisanship was the primary determining factor: political considerations should not have been a consideration at all in awarding the grants. As the ministerial standards say: ministers must not take into account irrelevant considerations.
It would have been better if a truly independent body, such as a strong federal ICAC, conducted the investigation to assuage all doubts.
Another major issue is the interaction between the minister and Sports Australia, an independent statutory corporation.
Some jobs have been taken out of the hands of politicians and given to government corporations such as Sports Australia. This is to avoid the partisan interference and short-termism that characterises modern politics. An example is letting the Reserve Bank set interest rates, rather than politicians.
Yet, in this situation, the minister interfered with Sports Australia’s legal decision-making.
My research has shown government corporations set up by statute, such as Sports Australia, are subject to a high level of parliamentary, financial and legal accountability. They should thus be given the freedom to operate in keeping with their statutory mandate.
We still have work to do to tighten up rules to ensure the probity of procurements and grants. We also need to clarify the roles of ministers in relation to statutory corporations like Sports Australia. Only then can we say we have resolved the issues arising from the sports rorts affair.
In the wake of comments about the Christchurch massacre, members of the public have raised the question of whether a senator can be expelled from the Senate for making offensive statements.
It is now well known that members of parliament can have their seat vacated in the parliament due to their disqualification under section 44 of the Constitution for reasons including dual citizenship, bankruptcy, holding certain government offices or being convicted of offences punishable by imprisonment for one year or longer.
But there is no ground of disqualification for behaviour that brings a House of Parliament into disrepute. This was something left to the house to deal with by way of expulsion.
Section 49 of the Commonwealth Constitution provides that until the Commonwealth parliament declares the powers, privileges and immunities of its houses, they shall be those the British House of Commons had at the time of federation (1901).
The House of Commons then had, and continues to have, the power to expel its members. The power was rarely exercised, but was most commonly used when a member was found to have committed a criminal offence or contempt of parliament. Because of the application of section 49 of the Constitution, such a power was also initially conferred upon both houses of the Australian parliament.
The House of Representatives exercised that power in 1920 when it expelled a member of the Labor opposition, Hugh Mahon. He had given a speech at a public meeting that criticised the actions of the British in Ireland and expressed support for an Australian republic.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes (whom Mahon had previously voted to expel from the Labor Party over conscription in 1916), moved to expel Mahon from the House of Representatives on November 11 – a dangerous date for dismissals. He accused Mahon of having made “seditious and disloyal utterances” that were “inconsistent with his oath of allegiance”. The opposition objected, arguing that no action should be taken unless Mahon was tried and convicted by the courts. Mahon was expelled by a vote taken on party lines.
In 2016, a private member’s motion was moved to recognise that his expulsion was unjust and a misuse of the power then invested in the house.
The power of the houses to expel members, as granted by section 49, was subject to the Commonwealth parliament declaring what the powers, privileges and immunities of the houses shall be. This occurred with the enactment of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.
It was enacted as a result of an inquiry by a parliamentary committee, which pointed out the potential for this power to be abused and that as a matter of democratic principle, it was up to voters to decide the composition of the parliament. This is reinforced by sections seven and 24 of the Constitution, which say that the houses of parliament are to be “directly chosen by the people”.
As a consequence, the power to expel was removed from the houses. Section 8 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 says:
A House does not have power to expel a member from membership of a House.
This means that currently neither house of the Commonwealth parliament has the power to expel one of its members.
Could the position be changed?
Just as the parliament had the legislative power to limit the powers and privileges of its houses, it could legislate to amend or repeal section eight so that a house could, in future, expel one of its members, either on any ground or for limited reasons.
Whether or not this is wise remains doubtful. The reasons given by the parliamentary committee for the removal of this power remain strong. The power to expel is vulnerable to misuse when one political party holds a majority in the house. Equally, there is a good democratic argument that such matters should be left to the voters at election time.
However, expulsion is still an option in other Australian parliaments, such as the NSW parliament. It’s used in circumstances where the member is judged guilty of conduct unworthy of a member of parliament and where the continuing service of the member is likely to bring the house into disrepute.
It is commonly the case, though, that a finding of illegality, dishonesty or corruption is first made by a court, a royal commission or the Independent Commission Against Corruption before action to expel is taken. The prospect of expulsion is almost always enough to cause the member to resign without expulsion formally occurring. So, actual cases of expulsion remain extremely rare.
Are there any other remedies to deal with objectionable behaviour?
The houses retain powers to suspend members for offences against the house, such as disorderly conduct. But it is doubtful that a house retains powers of suspension in relation to conduct that does not amount to a breach of standing orders or an “offence against the house”. Suspension may therefore not be available in relation to statements made outside the house that do not affect its proceedings.
Instead, the house may choose to censure such comments by way of a formal motion. Such motions are more commonly moved against ministers in relation to government failings. A censure motion is regarded as a serious form of rebuke, but it does not give rise to any further kind of punishment such as a fine or suspension.
The primary remedy for dealing with unacceptable behaviour remains at the ballot box. This is a pertinent reminder to all voters of the importance of being vigilant in the casting of their vote to ensure the people they elect to high office are worthy of fulfilling it.
This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.
For the second federal election out of three, a change of government is in prospect a long time out from voting day.
Labor has been consistently ahead in the polls, despite its leader, Bill Shorten, remaining unpopular. It’s a repeat of 2013, when the Coalition had polled strongly through the government’s term while opposition leader Tony Abbott’s ratings were low.
But campaigns can count, and upsets can come, as happened dramatically in 1993. Right up to the Saturday of that poll, the Keating Labor government had appeared doomed. But it snatched “the sweetest victory of them all”, thanks to a scare offensive against the Coalition’s radical reform program and a faltering performance by opposition leader John Hewson.
A key point about this next election is that, whichever side wins in May, the incoming government will inherit a bitter, sceptical, exhausted electorate.
Australians are over their politicians. All the stridency, the bad behaviour, the lying, the relentless campaigning, the judgment by opinion poll, and the media shrillness have taken their toll on the tolerance of the average voter.
The election will be fought in this climate of unprecedented public distrust of politics and cynicism about its practitioners.
This disillusionment has been turbo-charged by the bipartisan cannibalism that’s toppled multiple prime ministers in a remarkably short period.
If Labor wins, polling analyst John Stirton says:
… it will be the second change of government in a row that will be a negative change rather than a positive change. Negative in the sense that voters may once again elect an unpopular opposition leader, with their desire to get rid of a poorly performing incumbent government outweighing any concerns they may have about the opposition that will replace it.
The public sullenness will make the task of the next government harder, whether Labor or Coalition.
Contrast the mood in 1983, when Labor’s Bob Hawke was given power by voters who had not only wanted to embrace him personally, but felt more trust towards leaders generally than today. Though it wasn’t smooth sailing, this helped the Hawke government undertake major, difficult reforms. He was even afforded a degree of tolerance when he broke some promises.
In 2007, Australians were also in a relatively positive frame of mind when they turned to Kevin Rudd. Since then, the national mood has gone downhill.
Labor went through self-imposed hell between 2010 and 2013, set off by the ill-judged 2010 dumping of Rudd. But out of office it recovered remarkably quickly.
Labor’s bold ‘big target’ approach
As the opposition shaped up over the past two terms, it has made relatively few major mistakes (Shorten’s boast that his MPs had no problems under Section 44 of the Constitution was one).
Of course, that assumes being bold and taking big risks with policy doesn’t turn out to be the ultimate mistake.
Labor has eschewed the “small target” approach favoured by John Howard in 1996 and indeed Rudd in 2007.
Its proposed crackdowns on negative gearing and cash refunds for franking credits are designed to maximise its pot of spending money as well as fix flaws in the tax system.
Monash University’s Paul Strangio, an expert on prime ministers, suggests this “policy adventurism” may also have been motivated by Labor’s determination to obtain a positive mandate for government. After all, the rot began for the Abbott government when measures in its 2014 budget were not just harsh but unflagged in
But Labor’s controversial policies leave it exposed to scare campaigns. Each measure has a significant number of losers, and retirees, especially, are highly sensitive to anything that hits their cash flow.
Border security is one area where Labor has tried to stay as close as possible to the government. But it had little choice but to back the crossbench-initiated legislation facilitating medical transfers from Manus Island and Nauru. Despite Shorten securing “middle ground” amendments, this opened another front for Coalition scare tactics.
Shorten has kept an impressive degree of unity and discipline in his party, despite the obvious ambitions of his rival Anthony Albanese, whose gloved hand was ready to strike if the opposition leader did badly in the July 2018 Super Saturday byelections.
But many questions remain about Shorten. Strangio raises an important one:
While he has been an effective manager of a team in opposition, how will this translate into government – for example, what degree of licence will he give to senior ministers like Chris Bowen?
Coalition its own worst enemy
In contrast to Labor, the Coalition has squandered this parliamentary term – and, for that matter, the one before. Its follies have given the opposition repeated advantages.
After a bad campaign, Malcolm Turnbull had the closest of calls in 2016, being returned with a one-seat majority and a bitterly fractured Liberal Party. A vengeful Abbott led the dissent, determined to inflict revenge for the 2015 coup that had ousted him.
The Liberals have presented to the public as warring tribes who can’t agree on policy or personnel. Infighting over ideology – especially on energy policy – and leadership climaxed last August with Turnbull’s overthrow and the installation of Scott Morrison, beneficiary of a putsch instigated by Peter Dutton.
The rise of an aggressive right within the Liberals, and voters’ growing antipathy towards the main parties, have encouraged the popularity of “community” independents.
Those of particular interest in this election are pitching to progressive, right-of-centre voters in heartland conservative seats. Several are backed by strong local citizen movements and are attracting significant funding.
Eyes will focus on whether Zali Steggall can dislodge Abbott in Warringah, and Kerryn Phelps can retain Wentworth, which she won at the byelection following Turnbull’s departure. Julia Banks, the member for the Victorian seat of Chisholm who defected from the Liberals to the crossbench, is making a bid in Flinders against Health Minister Greg Hunt.
In a separate category is former independent MP Rob Oakeshott, part of the balance of power in the Gillard years, who is a threat to the Nationals in the New South Wales seat of Cowper.
While the highly visible push from independent candidates is a feature of this election, and voter angst puts wind in their sails, the House of Representatives’ electoral system will limit their success.
A clear choice of ideologies
This can be seen as a very ideological election. Labor, focusing on “fairness” and “inequality”, is proposing higher taxes. And while careful to keep its program fiscally responsible, it is fanning workers’ discontents and talking up the need to reverse cuts in penalty rates and stimulate wages growth.
The Liberals have struggled, largely because of their internal rifts, to craft a narrative about what they stand for. Nowhere has this been more evident than in energy policy. Rejecting a carbon tax was a successful political battering ram in 2013, but carbon mitigation has turned into a nightmare issue for the Coalition ever since.
An approach that plans to subsidise new power projects and threatens errant energy companies with draconian actions, even divestiture, is an extraordinary landing place for a Liberal government.
The government has doubled down on its “direct action” policy by announcing $2 billion for emission reduction projects over the coming decade from January 2020.
Instead of being accepted as a practical challenge that needs substantial bipartisanship to underpin investment, the Coalition has made energy policy and climate change perhaps the most divisive ideological battleground of contemporary Australian politics.
Business watches with despair: in the past three years, it has been willing to get behind various policies (most recently the National Energy Guarantee) only to see them fall victim to infighting. It is an open question whether the next term will bring any long-term resolution in this most crucial policy area.
We can group the dominant issues in this election under the rubric “economic”.
These range from the government’s boast about economic management and its claim the economy would weaken under Labor, through to stagnant wages growth and Bowen’s assertion that “under the Liberals, the economy is not working for working people”.
The economic umbrella also covers competing income tax cuts and the broader battle over taxation, with the government homing in on Labor’s proposed imposts.
A contest of voter interests
Ian McAllister, director of Australian National University’s long-running Australian Election Study, observes that “the new battleground on tax is people’s assets not their income” – that’s housing (owner plus investment), shares, superannuation. And this is in the context that “Australia has more money in personal assets than any other country of a similar or larger size”.
McAllister also sees this as “almost a generational election”. The millennials in particular “have a lot of pressures on them – they are having difficulties breaking into the housing market, they feel they are not economically prosperous. It affects their level of trust in the political system, in politicians and in democracy.”
Notable, and complicating the campaigning challenges for government and opposition, is the geographical divide, epitomised by Victoria versus Queensland, and requiring varied messages. One insider quips it is “doctors’ wives [progressive Liberal voters who are deserting] versus rednecks”.
After Super Saturday, all the talk in the Coalition was about Queensland, which is loaded with marginal seats. The government’s failure to wrest Longman from Labor fed into the subsequent Dutton assault on Turnbull.
But then came the November 2018 Victorian state election rout of the Liberals. Suddenly the government was looking south, fearing big losses in that state.
In Queensland, the Coalition grapples with fragmentation on the right, with the Hansonites, the Katterites and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party chipping away at its vote. The Liberals and Nationals are joined in one party in that state; if the Nationals were still separate they might be better placed to contain the problem.
The election matrix is complex. Government and opposition have their national messages, but they must also tailor their appeals to different parts of the country, as well as to each electorate. It’s not quite true that “all politics is local”, but it’s half true and may be becoming more so.
Beyond that, whether in the old-fashioned way (door-knocking) or by using modern data collection and individually tailored, targeted online communications tools, the parties pursue the individual voter.
Normally, a government behind in the polls will have some fat to absorb the first brunt of a swing. Not so this time. “The government has to win seats to survive,” says ABC election analyst Antony Green. Taking into account the redistribution, the government will go into the election with a notional 73 seats, with Labor on 72.
This election is special for the upper house, because the voting changes made by the Turnbull government will operate for the first time in a half-Senate poll. With the seats of 13 crossbenchers (including Greens) in play, Green says they’ll be lucky if half get back.
He predicts a Labor government should have a significantly easier time with the Senate than the current government has had. Indeed, so should a returned Coalition government, “because the crossbench must shrink”.
In search of stability
One of the most important imponderables about the election is this: will it produce more stability?
Remember that apart from the coups, since 2010 we’ve had two hung parliaments, the second resulting from the loss of Wentworth.
On the leadership front, things should be better. Both major parties have responded to the prime ministerial turnover with rule changes that essentially provide that the next PM, whether Shorten or Morrison, will not face an internal challenge during the term (albeit no rule is immutable).
If there is a Coalition victory, it surely could not be anything but a very close result, even a hung parliament. After the first flush of surprised exultation, the fight for the soul of the Liberal Party would likely resume.
If Labor wins with a solid majority, that probably would restore some more general stability – although the tyranny of the opinion polls suggests caution about such a prediction.
Will the mantle of office finally secure for Shorten some belated goodwill from the electorate? If not, and voters remain grudging to him and polls precipitously head south for his administration, we may be condemned to yet another period of instability and poor, reactive government.
Some electoral goodwill is necessary for effective, and certainly for reformist, government over the longer term.
But if voter disillusionment and distrust have become so heavily ingrained in the electorate’s psyche, it is hard to either prescribe or expect a cure.
The federal government has announced it will establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission. This new commission will be the peak body to detect and investigate corrupt and criminal behaviour by Commonwealth employees.
This announcement followed mounting pressure from Labor, the Greens and independent MPs, who argued that a national integrity commission was vital to rebuild trust in Australian democracy.
On November 26, independent MP Cathy McGowan introduced a private member’s bill for the introduction of a national integrity commission, further increasing the pressure on the government.
All Australian states have anti-corruption commissions, and the federal government is lagging behind in this area.
Why do we need this commission?
The case for a national integrity commission is strong.
Australia has fallen steadily in Transparency International’s global corruption index, from eighth place in 2012 to 13th this year.
More alarming is the fact that one in 20 Australian public servants said in a survey last year that they had seen a colleague acting in a corrupt manner. This figure has doubled in the past three years.
Moreover, a Griffith University survey has found strong public support for a national integrity commission, with two-thirds (67%) of Australians in favour of one.
What will the commission look like?
The commission will be an independent statutory agency led by a commissioner and two deputy commissioners. It will have two divisions: a public sector division and a law enforcement integrity division.
The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity will be reconstituted as the law enforcement integrity division with an expanded jurisdiction. But its jurisdiction will be limited to certain departments and agencies dealing with law enforcement and those that have coercive powers, such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
The public sector integrity division has a broader coverage. It includes public service departments and agencies, parliamentary departments, statutory agencies, Commonwealth companies and corporations, Commonwealth service providers and any subcontractors they engage, as well as parliamentarians and their staff.
Is the proposed model adequate?
The proposed model is a watered-down version of an anti-corruption commission, with limited powers.
The Commonwealth Integrity Commission will have the power to conduct public hearings only through its law enforcement division.
Conversely, the public sector integrity division with the broader remit will not have the power to make public findings of corruption. Instead, it will be tasked with investigating and referring potential criminal conduct to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
This is a far more limited jurisdiction compared to its equivalent state counterparts, such as the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which has the ability to conduct public hearings and make findings of corruption in the public sector.
Although it is envisaged that the Commonwealth Integrity Commission will play a role in preventing corruption, this model lacks a dedicated corruption prevention division. This is a pro-integrity function that monitors major corruption risks across all sectors.
There are also other activities that do not amount to corruption, but nevertheless show an undue influence on government. Ideally, a federal anti-corruption commission should sit alongside a broader package of reforms that impose stronger rules on lobbying and political donations, as well as a code of conduct for MPs, policed by an independent commissioner.
This would form an interlocking political integrity system that would keep politicians honest.
The government is taking submissions on the proposed model for the Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
It is commendable that the government is finally taking action on anti-corruption measures. However, it is important to get the model right. The proposed model is an improvement on the status quo of patchwork regulation, but does not go far enough to properly investigate corruption in federal government.
People distinguish between levels of government when casting their votes. Nevertheless, a state result can reverberate federally, whether it is sending a protest or for other reasons.
We only have to remember 2015 to understand that the outcome of the November 25 Queensland poll carries implications for the Turnbull government.
Queensland is notable for big swings. In 2015 the shock defeat of Campbell Newman, who had won in a landslide against Labor, delivered an enormous blow to the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, and was a factor in the first (“empty chair”) move against his leadership.
Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has announced the state election as the Turnbull government is reeling from Friday’s High Court judgment, which knocked out of parliament Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, now campaigning in a New England byelection, as well as Joyce’s deputy Fiona Nash, who has no immediate way back.
While being careful to sound respectful of the High Court – after earlier (wrongly) anticipating its decision – the Coalition is smarting from a judgment that adhered to black letter law rather than accepting the more creative interpretation of the Constitution’s Section 44 that the government urged.
Attorney-General George Brandis on Sunday described it on Sky as “almost brutal literalism”. Well, it’s the Coalition that has always railed against judicial adventurism.
One question in the judgment’s wake will be whether the ministerial decisions that Joyce and Nash took are challenged. Labor’s Tony Burke suggested on the ABC that “vested interests” could consider contesting, for example, decisions Joyce made in quarantine matters.
Surely the risk would be highest in relation to decisions taken when the pair knew the constitutional ice could break under them. That was always an argument for their standing aside, as Matt Canavan did (in the end he survived and has been restored to the cabinet).
To clean up untidy ends, Turnbull delayed until Sunday night his departure for Israel to attend the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba.
Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop is acting prime minister while he’s away, with Turnbull insisting the acting parliamentary leader of the Nationals, Nigel Scullion, was “absolutely in support of this arrangement”. That assertion followed suggestions of some tetchiness between the parties on the matter.
Just in case Bishop might get any inflated opinion of her situation, Turnbull pointed out that “when I’m overseas, I continue to discharge all of my duties as prime minister. All decisions that are taken by the prime minister are taken by me.
“The acting prime minister is a role that is really designed to cover circumstances where, for example, it was urgent for a document to be signed, with my consent, obviously, but I’m not in the country to sign it. Or, of course, in the event of some disaster occurring while I was travelling.” There will be no deputy prime minister while the New England byelection is on.
Turnbull has a busy schedule of international travel in coming weeks, including APEC and the East Asia summit. Any appearance in the Queensland campaign can be expected to be minimal. As Newman told Sky: “Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t go down well in Queensland”. Newman also noted Joyce would have been good there, but he is tied up south of the border.
No wise person would bet too heavily on the Queensland result. Insiders on both sides of politics are predicting One Nation is likely to hold the balance of power. The parliament has been hung – the ABC’s analyst Antony Green says that given Queensland is moving to fixed terms the ALP will run hard on the importance of avoiding minority government. “Stability is a big issue in Queensland,” Green says.
Queensland is a critical state for the federal Coalition and so for its fortunes at the next election. A serious rebuff to the Liberal National Party there would create deep alarm in the Coalition.
A lot of variables make the state election particularly hard to read. The parliament’s size has been increased and boundaries redrawn. Voting will be a compulsory preferential system rather than the previous optional preferential.
Green says: “Both sides of politics need to increase their vote to win … But both have lost first preferences since One Nation came back on the scene”.
One Nation is a significant player, in terms of both how many seats it could pick up and what will happen with its preferences.
This is Pauline Hanson’s stamping ground – though she got caught out by being overseas when Palaszczuk called the election, despite it having been much flagged beforehand.
Green predicts One Nation could win five or six seats but not the 11 it secured in 1998. “It can win seats off the LNP. It’s tougher for it to win them off Labor.”
Much will depend on what the LNP does with preferences, Green says. The LNP has ruled out any across-the-board preference deal. One Nation has said it will put sitting members last. Labor will preference against One Nation.
While the strength of the One Nation state vote won’t be a accurate guide to the minor party’s influence in Queensland federally, it will be a pointer to how much momentum Hanson has.
Labor has maintained a 54-46% two party lead in the Newspoll in Monday’s Australian – the 22nd consecutive Newspoll in which the Coalition has been behind.
Both leaders lost ground on their net approval, although the Prime Minister took the bigger hit. Malcolm Turnbull has gone from a net satisfaction rating of minus 24 to minus 28, while Bill Shorten’s net rating has deteriorated from minus 22 in the last poll to minus 24.
Turnbull’s lead as better prime minister is unchanged at 41-33%.
The Coalition primary vote has fallen a point to 35%; Labor is steady on 37%. Greens on 10% and One Nation on 9% were unchanged.
The poll of 1623 was taken from Thursday to Sunday, amid controversy around Employment minister Michaelia Cash, as well as Friday’s High Court decision.
There seems to be an ever present struggle for a share of the revenue government collects, not only between states but also between the different levels of government.
In each year’s budget, the federal government allocates funds for federal programs (such as defence) and for some programs operated at a state level (such as school education, public transport, and hospitals). It has this role because it also collects more revenue from taxpayers than the states.
The reason for this all relates back to (at least in part) the Australian constitution.
The division of power between the federal and state governments
The federal parliament can only legislate (that is, make laws) in certain areas, known as “heads of power”, most of which are listed in sections 51 and 52 of the Constitution. This gives the federal parliament the power to legislate with respect to matters such as defence, external affairs, immigration, invalid and old-age pensions, and marriage.
In contrast, there is no equivalent limit on the legislative power of the states. The states may legislate in any area. However, section 109 of the constitution provides that where there is an inconsistency between a federal law and a state law, the federal law will prevail. In simple terms, this means that if the federal parliament has made a law dealing with a particular matter, state governments are unable to legislate in ways that conflict with the federal law.
The federal government’s control of revenue
The state and federal governments all have the power to collect tax, subject to some exceptions. Notably, section 90 of the Constitution gives the federal government exclusive power over the lucrative revenue streams of customs and excise duties (taxes on goods, such as alcohol, tobacco and fuel).
Until the Second World War, Australians paid income tax to both state and federal governments. However since 1942, the federal government has been the sole collector of income tax.
The federal government has also collected company tax for over 100 years, and the GST since 2000. The states could still collect income tax if they wanted to, but choose not to for political reasons.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tried to explore the possibility last year of both the federal and state governments collecting income tax, but this was quickly rejected by the states. While the states generate some revenue – for example through gambling, property and payroll taxes and mining royalties – they are unable to collect anywhere near the same amount as the federal government.
This creates a “vertical fiscal imbalance” between the federal and state governments. Conversely, the federal government is in the opposite position: while the federal government collects extensive revenue, its power to spend and directly fund programs is more limited.
Testing the government’s power to spend on certain programs
Until recently, the federal government thought it could spend money more or less as it pleased. However, the High Court clarified and restricted the federal government’s power to spend money and limited its ability to fund directly some programs.
Its power to spend was tested in 2012 and 2014 in two legal challenges to the government’s funding of the national school chaplaincy program. Prior to the legal challenges, the federal government had entered into agreements with religious service organisations – such as Scripture Union Queensland – to provide chaplains in schools.
The High Court held that (with some small exceptions) the federal government’s power to spend money is limited to where the authority to spend money is expressly conferred by legislation. The legislation authorising the spending must also be supported by one of the “heads of power” granted to the federal parliament by the constitution.
In the case of the chaplaincy program, the court rejected the arguments that the legislation could be supported by the power in one section of the Constitution to make laws for the “provision of…benefits to students” or by the corporations power in another section of the Constitution. To continue the funding of the national school chaplaincy program the federal government turned to the states for assistance.
How the federal government gives money to the states
Section 96 of the Constitution provides for the federal government to provide a significant proportion of its revenue to the states:
…the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.
This distribution of revenue takes two forms – general revenue assistance (“untied funding”) and payments for a specific purpose (“tied funding”).
The untied funding that states receive from the federal government is largely made up of the money that the federal government collects from the GST. The states can spend this money as they see fit.
However, the passing on of the GST revenue is not unconditional. It’s conditional on the states giving up the collection of a number a number of states taxes.
The federal government may also provide funding to the states for a specific purpose. The states have to consent to receiving the funding (which is not usually a problem), but it does mean that the federal government cannot impose programs on the states that they vehemently oppose.
This funding is tied to a particular project, where the federal government provides the funds and the state carries out the project. Grants such as these have been used regularly to fund education and health projects in the states. These specific purpose grants may be conditional on states meeting regular reporting requirements or achieving certain milestones.
Providing funding to the states through specific purpose grants allows the federal government to have great influence on policy areas that have traditionally been within the purview of the states.
The federal system of government created by the constitution divides power between the federal and state governments. While at times this might seem inefficient, it also provides checks and balances on government spending.
The federal election is over and the Coalition is now in government. Already there is a growing dissatisfaction with the new Abbott-led government over a wide-ranging series of issues including nepotism, asylum seeker policy, the environment, a lack of governance, etc. There is also continuing debate within the various opposition parties concerning their future direction, policies, etc. Yet for the Greens, the future is questionable, with some believing the party to be in serious decline – even among those within the party.
The link below is to an article reporting on the turmoil within the Greens party.
The new hardline regime concerning asylum seekers has been implemented with the first boat arriving since the announcement of the changes by Kevin Rudd and Labor. The Coalition is supporting some of the changes, which for Labor should be an alarm bell, meaning it has gone too far to the right.
The Palmer United Party is just one of many political parties contesting the upcoming federal election. Clive Palmer, founder of the party, intends to be Prime Minister after the election – but what is he like? The link below is to an article reporting on the man behind the party.”>