The government was defeated on the ‘medevac’ bill, but that does not mean the end of the government



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Cross-benchers Kerryn Phelps, Julia Banks and Rebekah Sharkie celebrate the passing of the Medevac bill.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

The Morrison government has been defeated in the House of Representatives by the passage of a government bill containing amendments made against its wishes that allow for the medical evacuation of asylum-seekers from Manus Island and Nauru.

At the last minute, the Speaker tabled, against the wishes of the government, advice from the Solicitor-General raising a constitutional problem with the Senate amendments. In short, those amendments provided for an “independent health advice panel”, of which six members would have to be paid. Their remuneration would come automatically under an existing appropriation in the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973 for the payment of persons who hold public offices. The effect of the amendments in the bill would therefore have increased the amount payable under that existing appropriation.

This is important, because section 53 of the Constitution says that the “Senate may not amend any proposed law so as to increase any proposed charge or burden on the people”. The argument was that even though the Senate amendments to the bill did not contain an appropriation, they would increase a burden on the people by increasing the amount automatically appropriated under the Remuneration Tribunal Act.




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Whether this is enough to trigger section 53 is a matter of dispute between the houses. Understandably, the House of Representatives has long considered that Senate amendments of that kind do breach section 53, while the Senate takes a different view.

The issue cannot be decided by a court, because the courts have held that section 53 is an internal matter for the houses, and not one to be determined judicially. This was made clear in the recent case on the same-sex marriage postal survey. So even if the houses chose to ignore section 53 and pass a bill that breached its terms, and the validity of the law was challenged, a court would not find it to be invalid.

The consequence was that this was a battlefield for the two houses. In the absence of any judicial precedents, all we have to guide us is parliamentary practice and the competing views of parliamentary committees. These do not provide clear answers. While the houses are under a moral and political obligation to obey the Constitution, this is difficult when the Constitution itself is unclear and its interpretation is disputed.

The government’s action in seeking to declare the bill to be a money bill also raised the political stakes. In order to govern, a government must retain control over government finance. Defeat on a money bill in the House of Representatives is regarded as a loss of confidence, which by convention requires the government to resign or seek an election. For example, the Fadden Government resigned in 1941 when its budget was reduced by the nominal sum of £1. So if the bill was treated as a money bill by the government, its passage against the wishes of the government would have raised a serious issue of whether it could continue governing.

However, the Labor Party moved an amendment to remove any right to payment of officers of the panel. This should mean that it is not a money bill, with the consequence that the constitutional issues about s53 should go away (although there would still be a precedent of the House of Representatives dealing with the Senate amendments, rather than rejecting their validity outright).

The bill still has to pass the Senate. If it does so, it will then be presented to the governor-general for royal assent. I have previously discussed why it would not be wise for the government to advise the governor-general to refuse royal assent. Assuming that royal assent is given, then the medevac amendments will take effect the day after the bill receives royal assent.




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Why a government would be mad to advise the refusal of royal assent to a bill passed against its will


Can the Morrison government continue to govern after its defeat on this bill? Yes. As the bill is no longer a money bill and is not one that the government has declared to be a matter of confidence, the government can continue to govern.

If the House of Representatives has truly lost confidence in the government, it can always move a vote of no confidence to make this clear. Unless that happens, the Morrison government can continue governing until the election is held.The Conversation

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

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

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Morrison government defeated on medical bill, despite constitution play


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has suffered a historic defeat in the House of Representatives, with Labor and crossbenchers passing the legislation facilitating medical transfers from Manus and Nauru by 75-74.

This came after a dramatic last-minute government ploy to try to head off the bill by declaring it was unconstitutional and so should not be considered by the House.

But Labor and the crossbench pressed on, with six of the seven crossbenchers backing the ALP amendment to the bill that had come from the Senate.

They were Kerryn Phelps, on whose proposal the legislation is based, Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan, Rebekha Sharkie, Julia Banks and the Greens Adam Bandt. The other crossbencher Bob Katter voted with the government.

The last times governments were defeated on major substantive votes were the Fadden government in 1941 (on a budget vote) and the Bruce government on legislation in 1929.

Before the bill was considered Speaker Tony Smith tabled correspondence from Attorney-General Christian Porter saying the bill, passed by the Senate last year, contravened the constitution’s Section 53.

This provides that the Senate “may not amend any proposed law so as to increase any proposed charge or burden on the people”.

The Solicitor-General, Stephen Donaghue, said in an opinion that the bill breached Section 53 because the medical panel it would set up would be paid.

But the opinion also said it was “ultimately for the House of Representatives to decide whether it considers the Senate amendments to be consistent” with Section 53, and the matter was not justiciable.

In his letter to Smith, Porter asked the Speaker to keep the Solicitor-General’s opinion confidential but Smith said the House should have it and tabled it with Porter’s letter.

The vote culminated a day of drama as Labor negotiated its amendments to the bill as passed by the Senate with its support.




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These widen the grounds on which a minister could refuse a transfer to cover those with a substantial criminal record, allow the minister up to 72 hours (instead of 24) for making a decision on transfers, and confine the application of the legislation to the present cohort of refugees and asylum seekers.

Labor moved to circumvent the Section 53 issue by adding a further amendment providing that members of the medical panel not be paid.

Leader of the House Christopher Pyne declared Labor and the crossbenchers “don’t care about the Australian constitution”.
“The English fought a civil war over this matter,” he said.

Bill Shorten said: “This bill and our amendments are about Australia’s character.
It’s about how we treat sick people in our care.”




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Scott Morrison said Labor was “failing the test of mettle … failing the test of duty to the Australian people. This is now on your head, Leader of the Opposition.”

The final vote came after the government lost procedural votes by the same margin.

The bill has to go back to the Senate to approve the amendments passed in the House.

Morrison told a Tuesday night news conference that the vote had not been unexpected and the government had already been working on contingency plans.

He would have “more announcements to make about the actions and decisions the government will be taking to address now the risk and the threat that Labor and Bill Shorten have created”.

He indicated the government would not frustrate the bill getting royal assent once it passed the Senate. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told the ABC the government would abide by the law.

Morrison dismissed any suggestion that the defeat amounted to a no confidence motion in the government, referring back to what Phelps had said. Phelps has consistently emphasised the bill should not be viewed as a confidence matter.

The Prime Minister also played down the historic nature of the defeat, pointing to the Labor government losing a vote on superannuation in 2013.

The government will use the Labor success to ramp up its attack on the opposition. In the run up to the vote Morrison has turned up the rhetoric, accusing Labor of undermining offshore processing.

At his press conference Morrison said that Shorten would also be weak on turning back boats. Shorten “can’t be trusted to do that either,” he said.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Why a government would be mad to advise the refusal of royal assent to a bill passed against its will


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With the Morrison government now in minority, it is possible a bill for the transfer of asylum seekers from Nauru could pass against the government’s wishes.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

In both the United Kingdom and Australia there is speculation that controversial bills may be passed against the will of the government. If so, could the government advise that the bill be refused royal assent – the last formal step in turning a bill into a law?

This raises questions about whose advice the Queen or governor-general acts upon when giving royal assent, and whether it is constitutionally permissible or wise for ministers to advise that assent not be given to a bill that has validly passed both houses of parliament.

Could it happen with Brexit and Nauru?

In the UK, internal parliamentary dissent about the management of Brexit has led some cross-party parliamentarians to suggest they might support a bill that would require the deferral of Brexit, rather than allow Britain to crash out of the European Union without an agreement.

This has given rise to speculation in both the British popular press and academic blogs about whether the Queen could refuse assent to such a bill, acting on the advice of government ministers.




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In Australia, the issue has arisen because the Morrison government has slipped into a parliamentary minority. This creates the potential for a bill, such as one concerning the transfer of asylum seekers from Nauru to Australia for medical care, to pass the House of Representatives and the Senate without government support.

In both the UK and Australia, the standing orders of the relevant houses of parliament impose impediments to the passage of bills without government support. This is done by giving the government effective control over parliamentary business. Other parliamentary tactics, such as filibustering, may also be used to prevent the passage of such bills.

But if such impediments are overcome and a bill passes both houses against the wishes of the government, can it advise the Queen or the governor-general (described here collectively as the “head of state”) to refuse royal assent, and what should the head of state do if so advised?

Royal assent

In both the UK and Australia, parliament is defined as having three constituent parts – the lower house, the upper house and the Queen. A bill does not become a law until it has been passed by both houses (subject to special procedures for certain bills that may not need to be passed by the upper house) and has received royal assent. Royal assent is therefore a critical part of the legislative process. It has not been refused in the United Kingdom since 1707.

Royal assent is a critical part of the legislative process.
AAP/EPA/Neil Hall

In practice, in neither country is the head of state given ministerial advice to assent to bills. While there is a common belief that assent is advised in meetings of the Privy Council or the Federal Executive Council as the case may be, this is not so. It is done separately by the head of state as part of his or her normal paperwork, once the houses have passed the bills.

Indeed, in the UK, the formal words of enactment of a bill state that it is:

enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same.

In Australia the more succinct phrase is: “The Parliament of Australia enacts”.

The position is nicely illustrated by the controversy concerning Britain’s entry in 1972 into what later became the European Union. A British subject, Alan McWhirter, argued that the Queen should refuse assent to the European Communities Bill as it would fetter the powers of parliament.

The first draft reply prepared by the British government explained it was a constitutional convention that the Queen cannot refuse assent to bills passed by both houses, and which ministers advise should receive assent.

After legal advice from the Lord Chancellor’s Office that ministerial advice is not tendered in relation to royal assent, the draft letter was corrected to say that it is an established constitutional convention that:

the Royal Assent is not withheld from Bills which have been passed by both Houses of Parliament.

The relevant principles

If ministers were to advise the head of state to refuse assent to a bill that both houses had validly passed, it would potentially raise a clash between the principles of representative and responsible government. The principle of representative government requires the head of state to act in accordance with the will of the democratically elected parliament by giving assent to bills the houses have validly passed.

The principle of responsible government ordinarily requires the head of state to act on the advice of ministers who are responsible to parliament because they hold the confidence of the lower house. The corollary of this principle is that the head of state is not obliged to act on the advice of ministers who have ceased to hold the confidence of the house.

The principle of responsible government serves that of representative government by ensuring that the executive government is responsible to, and derived from, the representatives of the people in parliament. Both principles require that parliament prevails over the executive, and the executive can only function as long as it holds the support of the lower (representative) house.

As Nick Barber has argued, it would therefore be inappropriate to rely on the principle of responsible government to undermine parliamentary representative government by allowing ministers to defeat the will of the houses of parliament.

The consequences of advising refusal of assent

The defeat of a government on a bill, whether it be defeat of a bill proposed by the government or the passage of a bill opposed by the government, will not necessarily indicate a loss of confidence and require the government to resign or seek an election. But it will do so when the bill is one of major importance to the government.

There is therefore a strong argument that if a government regards a bill to be of such critical importance that it is prepared to advise the head of state to refuse assent to it, then the government’s defeat indicated by the passage of that bill amounts to a loss of confidence in the government.




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This is why it would be madness for a government to advise the head of state to refuse assent to a bill that has been passed against its wishes. Such action would not only raise a serious question about whether it can continue governing, but it would place the head of state in an invidious position by forcing him or her to reject either the advice of the houses of parliament or of ministers.

Added to this would be enormous public controversy about the constitutional propriety of the government’s action. This would undoubtedly be damaging for a government in a subsequent election.

There is a reason why there is no precedent of a government in the UK or Australia advising the refusal of assent in such circumstances. It would not only be a constitutionally dubious thing to do, but would also be politically stupid.The Conversation

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

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

Morrison’s Vanuatu trip shows the government’s continued focus on militarising the Pacific


Michael O’Keefe, La Trobe University

The foreign policy community met with relief the announcement Morrison’s first overseas trip for 2019 would be to Vanuatu and Fiji. The trip is a long overdue symbol of a priority outlined in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper: “stepping up our engagement in the Pacific”.

There had been much criticism of the PM’s failure to attend last year’s Pacific Islands Forum given the white paper’s stated aims to

engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition, deliver more integrated and innovative policy and make further, substantial long-term investments in the region’s development.

Although Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai, visited Australia last year, Morrison’s trip to Port Vila on Wednesday is the first by an Australian PM since Bob Hawke in 1990.

The trip had a strong defence focus, with Morrison saying Australia’s contribution to Vanuatu’s police and security will ensure “the stability of our region”. He is also reportedly negotiating a bilateral security agreement. This represents a deeper militarisation of Australia’s Pacific foreign policy.

Morrison’s aims to formalise security relations are an attempt to gain influence in the face of China’s rising competition. Australia’s undiplomatic and somewhat hysterical response to rumours of a Chinese military base being built in Vanuatu in 2018 highlights Canberra’s sensitivity to “foreign” intervention in the South Pacific.

Although Vanuatu was quick to deny the rumours, debate in Australia raged over the geopolitical implications, with some commentators saying a strike could be launched from the base to Australia.




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The government’s recent pattern of providing support for PNG’s Manus Island naval base, Fiji’s Black Rock Base, or new Patrol Boats to 12 Pacific Island nations, is part of a tectonic shift that has occurred in foreign policy toward the Pacific.

Australia’s focus is security, concentrating on external threats and the possibility of internal instability. The Pacific’s concern, however, is sustainable development and climate change, which Australia seems to ignore.

The question is whether Canberra will simply continue framing the Pacific through the lens of Australian policy priorities or focus on what the Pacific wants.

Australia’s relationship with Vanuatu

Australia already has significant defence relations with the other Pacific Island military nations – PNG and Fiji. Canberra has a longstanding defence cooperation relationship with PNG and this trip will likely lead to greater defence cooperation with Fiji – especially as Australia beat China in the bid to build the Black Rock Base.

And in 2017, under then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Australia negotiated a bilateral security treaty with the Solomon Islands security cooperation agreement. This agreement allows Australian police personnel to deploy rapidly to Solomon Islands (with the consent of both countries) if there is a threat, which includes natural disasters.

With regards to Vanuatu, Australia is already its main development assistance partner. And Australia’s trading and investment relationship with Vanuatu is as significant as is possible with a small island nation of 285,000 people. And out of the Pacific nations and Timor Leste, Vanuatu has the larger number of workers in Australia and New Zealand as part of the Seasonal Worker Program.




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In the 1980s Australia gave Vanuatu a patrol boat to police its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and will give a modern advanced vessel as part of the Pacific Maritime Security Program. This program, detailed in the 2016 Defence White Paper, is a A$2 billion commitment to the region over 30 years, and seeks to support regional countries in defending their maritime boundaries from transnational crime and illegal fishing.

The Australian Federal Police also has a longstanding training relationship with the Vanuatu Police through DFAT’s Policing and Justice Support Program. In 2018 it was announced that Australia would train 300 new recruits.

Despite all of this, the Morrison Government is reportedly placing increased security cooperation with Vanuatu high on the agenda. So, why now? Perhaps because Canberra’s Pacific “step up” has not all been plain sailing and relations with Vanuatu have been strained recently.

Australia at odds with the Pacific

In the past, Australia’s relations with the Pacific had been characterised by aid and development rather than security. Canberra remains the region’s number one aid donor. However, under successive Liberal governments, the aid budget has declined.

This has continued under the Morrison government and there is concern militarisation will draw funds away from development projects that more closely meet the interests of Pacific Island nations.

The other key plank in the government’s Pacific “step up” was the announcement of a infrastructure development bank. This multi-billion dollar initiative is short on detail but plans to provide loans for “high priority” infrastructure projects including telecommunications, energy, transport and water.




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The loans will be provided at concessional rates and the bank is aimed at countering Chinese influence. Australia has criticised China’s debt book diplomacy, so increasing the debt pool of Pacific countries seems at odds with these concerns.

Morrison’s Pacific pivot is in full swing. So far, the Infrastructure Bank raises more questions than it answers. The security focus of Morrison’s trip is likely to lead to more speculation about what Australia wants to give. If we want to build sustainable relationships, we should be listening closely to what Vanuatu wants to get from any security agreement.The Conversation

Michael O’Keefe, Head of Department, Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

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

Government hopes Jerusalem compromise will smooth Indonesian trade deal


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has announced a compromise position that recognises West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but does not move Australia’s embassy there until a peace settlement determines Jerusalem’s final status.

Instead Australia will simply establish a Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem.

The government briefed Indonesia before the Prime Minister outlined the new Australian policy in a speech in Sydney on Saturday.

Morrison’s announcement in the run up to the Wentworth by-election that Australia would consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem caused Indonesia – a Muslim country that is hostile to Israel – to put on ice the conclusion of the free trade agreement between the two countries. It also led to criticism from Malaysia. The government is hoping the compromise will mollify the Indonesians, and enable the finalisation of the trade deal.

In a speech strongly sympathetic towards Israel and condemning the “rancid stalemate” that had emerged in the negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Morrison outlined Australia’s position.

“Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel.

“And we look forward to moving our embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of and after final status determination”.

Morrison said Australia would start work now to find a suitable site for an embassy in West Jerusalem.

“Out of respect for the clearly communicated preference of the Israeli government for countries to not establish consulates or honorary consular offices in West Jerusalem, the Australian government will establish a Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem.”

Morrison said the defence aspect of this office would be concerned with defence industry, not diplomatic activity, because the Israeli defence ministry was in Tel Aviv.

He also said that “recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem”.

Bill Shorten described the Morrison announcement as “a humiliating backdown”.

Shorten said the government had “walked away from their initial rush of blood to the head”.

Asked whether a Labor government would reverse the decision, Shorten said the ALP believed “Jerusalem should be recognised as the capital of both Israel and Palestine as part of the final stages of a negotiated two-state peace deal”.

Labor would do this “at the final stage and we’re not at the final stage of a two-state peace deal”.

Shorten said he hoped the trade deal with Indonesia would go ahead.

There was no immediate reaction from Israel because of the Jewish Sabbath. At the time when Morrison announced that Australia was considering moving its embassy, this was warmly welcomed by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, so the Israelis might be disappointed with the Morrison halfway house.

The official Indonesian reaction gave no indication about whether the Morrison announcement would be enough to move along the trade agreement. An Indonesian statement called “on Australia and all member states of the UN to promptly recognise the state of Palestine and to cooperate towards the attainment of sustainable peace and agreement between the state of Palestine and Israel”, based on a two-state solution.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported a member of the main Indonesian opposition coalition, Dian Islamiati Fatwa, a candidate for next year’s election, was critical of the announcement and said the free trade deal should be put on hold.
The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network denounced the Morrison announcement saying that it “was appeasing extremist elements of the party while further slamming closed the door to peace”

“As Israel claims exclusive sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and refuses to abide by United Nations resolutions calling it to withdraw from occupied East Jerusalem, we cannot give them a free kick,” said Bishop George Browning, President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.

SUNDAY UPDATE: Malaysia slams Morrison Jerusalem decision

Malaysia has issued a strong statement opposing the Australian decision to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

As statement from the Malaysian government said: “Malaysia firmly believes that this announcement, made before the settlement of a two-state solution, is premature and a humiliation to the Palestinians and their struggle for the right to self-determination”

“Malaysia reiterates its long standing position that a two-State solution, in which the Palestinians and the Israelis live side by side in peace, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine is the only viable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

ABC and SBS are not distorting media market, government inquiry finds


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are competing
fairly with the private sector’s media operators has given a tick to
the public broadcasters.

The report concluded: “Given their market shares, and other factors, this inquiry considers the National Broadcasters are not causing significant competitive distortions beyond the public interest”. But it did see the need for greater transparency from them.

The review arose from a 2017 deal between the government and Pauline
Hanson to get One Nation support for media law changes which
liberalised ownership rules. It has been chaired by Robert Kerr,
formerly from the Productivity Commission. The report was released by
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield on Wednesday.

The outcome will be disappointing to News Corp in particular which has
been highly critical of the ABC’s expansion in online publishing. The
former Fairfax organisation, now taken over by Nine, also complained
about the competition eating into the market of commercial media
groups.

The report said: “Competitive neutrality seeks to ensure that
competition is not distorted by public entities taking inappropriate
advantage of government ownership.

“It is not intended to prevent public entities from competing, nor to
relieve discomfort from competitive processes which are bringing
benefits to consumers as they rapidly adopt and enjoy new services”.

The inquiry found the broadcasters’ business activities in order; they
were “abiding by a best endeavours approach to competitive
neutrality.” It suggested there should be some improvements in
transparency and internal procedures.

Beyond that, “the question arises as to how competitive neutrality
principles about competing fairly without distortion might apply to
the free services delivered by the ABC and SBS.

“Free ABC and SBS services are having some competitive impact.
Submissions included complaints about the ABC’s online news service
and SBS’ multi-channel and streaming services. But the National
Broadcasters are established and funded to provide free services. So
long as they operate within their statutory Charters they are
operating in the public interest”.

The report said submissions questioned whether the broadcasters were
operating within their charters. But, it said, these charters were
very broad, and reporting against them “is not detailed or robust
enough to settle doubts”.

“Accountability is difficult, especially as there is no opportunity
for Charter complaints to be addressed”.

The broadcasters should improve their reporting of charter performance
in the context of competitive neutrality. “If this enhanced reporting
does not occur, the government should consider a way of managing
complaints about Charter performance in this area,” the report said.

“While the National Broadcasters are not prohibited from competing,
some improvements in the way they interact with markets should be
contemplated”.

The report also said the government should consider options for a
longer term funding framework for the national broadcasters,
accompanied by increased transparency and accountability.

Fifield said he recognised the broadcasters’ charters were broad and
allowed flexibility in how their boards implemented them.
“It is now up to the national broadcasters to act on these
recommendations,” he said.

Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the
government’s “fishing expedition” had spent half a million dollars to
establish what the public broadcasters had said all along – that they
“are operating in a manner consistent with the general principles of
competitive neutrality.

“Australians trust and value the ABC and SBS and should not have to
foot the bill for Mitch Fifield and Pauline Hanson’s vendetta against
public broadcasting,” she said.

Also in return for Hanson’s support the government agreed to bring in
legislation to require the ABC to be “fair” and “balanced” in its
coverage.

Under the legislation, the board would be required “to ensure that the
gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information
is fair, balanced, accurate and impartial according to the recognised
standards of objective journalism.”

But the legislation is bogged down, with no chance of being passed
before the election.

The government has yet to appoint a new ABC chair, after the implosion
within the organisation involving the board sacking managing
director Michelle Guthrie and the resignation of Justin Milne as chair
amid a row over editorial interference.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Grattan on Friday: 2018, the year of governing badly


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Looking back on the federal politics of 2018, voters can conclude
they’ve been given a rough trot.

What’s been dubbed “the permanent election campaign” to which we are
subjected these days is a curse. Too often it encourages expedient
rather than sound decisions and ugly behaviour dominated by noise and
stunts.

Added to that, we’ve had from the Coalition this year an extraordinary
series of leadership, policy and individual meltdowns. A government
that started 2018 with a one-seat majority ends it in a minority,
after the loss of a byelection and a defection to the crossbench.

This has indeed been the year of governing badly.

As the Coalition struggles towards Christmas it has been buffeted this
week by a sex scandal involving an obscure Nationals MP and an attack
from its own side over its energy policy.

The cavorting of Andrew Broad in “sugar baby” land has left the
Nationals looking for a candidate for the Victorian seat of Mallee,
safe in normal circumstances, but not to be taken for granted in these
days of community independents and when the incumbent has been
disgraced. (Broad will be around until the election –
there is no byelection.)

Senior Nationals want a woman to run. The party’s deputy leader,
Senator Bridget McKenzie, is not ruling out seeking preselection but
has no connection with the area. One government source says “it would
be pretty late for her to be carpetbagging” into the seat. A strong
local would seem better.

Whether the Liberals will make it a three-cornered contest is an open
question (though they probably wouldn’t field a candidate if McKenzie
ran).

In 2016 the Nationals contested Murray after a Liberal retired, and won the seat; the Liberals might think they could
benefit in this contest from any backlash against the Nationals over
Broad’s conduct. On the other hand, would they want to spend money on this seat in an election when dollars will be tight?

The Nationals have often been a steady and stabilising force within
the Coalition. Coming out of this year they look like a chaotic rump,
unable to manage their personal and political lives.

Barnaby Joyce destroyed his leadership with an affair and has been
undermining his party as he attempts to get it back. McCormack is a trier
facing a job that often looks beyond him. He’ll last to the election
(well, presumably) but probably not after that.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the ultimate trier, believing the
only possible salvation for the government is constant activity. For a
very short time, he looked reasonably effective. But then all the
freneticism started to appear contrived and fake.

One big challenge Morrison has not been able to handle is the
Coalition’s “woman problem”. Minimal female representation in both
Coalition parties, claims of bullying in the Liberals, and the
defection to the crossbench of Liberal MP Julia Banks will inevitably
put off female voters. The Broad scandal feeds into the negative
narrative.

Morrison himself has a “blokey” image that might turn away some female
voters although Liberal sources dispute this.

It’s ironic that neither Coalition party will embrace quotas but
Morrison wanted a female candidate in Wentworth (only to be rebuffed
by the preselectors) and now Nationals president Larry Anthony urges a woman for Mallee.

Women are thought to be useful in desperate circumstances, it seems.

Amid all the year’s bedlam in conservative politics, one major policy
issue remains a complete muddle – or more precisely it is the intersection of
two issues, energy and climate.

The bitter battle within the Liberals over energy didn’t just bring
down Malcolm Turnbull – it stopped the formulation of the sort of
viable policy business pleads for, to give certainty to investors.

This week the Berejiklian government called out its federal
counterpart; state energy minister Don Harwin declared it “out of
touch” on energy and climate policy, saying “it’s time for them to
change course”. But at a testy meeting of the COAG energy council
federal minister Angus Taylor was defiantly unmoved.

Also this week came criticism from the Energy Security Board, which
says in its 2018 Health of the Electricity Market report that when
investment is needed “it is not helpful for the Commonwealth
government to be threatening powers of divestment, price setting and
discretionary asset write-downs.”

Energy policy both symbolises the deep ideological divide in the
Liberal party and is at the core of it. The party won’t be credible on
policy until it can formulate a broad position that is acceptable to
stakeholders and the community. If it goes into opposition next year,
doing so should be a top policy priority.

Its plan for a National Energy Guarantee was scuttled by the
government itself during those crazy coup days in August. But this was
not before devising the scheme had given then energy minister Josh
Frydenberg a chance to show his credentials, as a policy formulator
and a negotiator.

Frydenberg lost the NEG but won his colleagues’ respect. He received
an overwhelming vote for Liberal deputy; as things stand, he’s well
placed to lead his party at some future point.

Now treasurer, Frydenberg is one of the few senior Liberals who has
looked half way impressive this year. His next test will be the April
2 budget, although naturally ownership of that will lie as much or
more with Morrison.

The timetable for a May election is now set. The government wants to
maximise the period it has to try to regroup.

When parliament rose there was speculation the government might not
want it to return in February because the Coalition faced a House
defeat on a amendment to facilitate medical transfers from Manus and
Nauru. This might make a March election more attractive, so the
argument went.

But the government doesn’t seem so concerned about that vote now,
believing some of the crossbenchers will drop off the amendment or
want to weaken it.

Looking to 2019: the betting is firmly on an ALP victory, in the
absence of a surprising turn of events. A win by either side would at
least bring an end to the revolving prime ministerships, thanks to
rule changes.

Assuming Labor won a solid majority, hopefully the voters might also
get a little respite before the continuous campaigning started up
again.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Voters are crying out for better government but have mixed views on how to achieve it



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When government policy turns out to be a dud and goes off the rails, no one is happy.
Shutterstock

Nicholas Biddle, Australian National University and Matthew Gray, Australian National University

Support for democracy and trust in politicians is falling. We hear a lot about evidence-based policy as a way to stem this decline, but less about how that evidence should be generated.

One idea that may generate the type of evidence that will help make more informed decisions appears, paradoxically, fairly unpopular with the punters.

Perhaps the problem is that not enough has been done to explain to the public what this idea – carefully testing new policies on small groups first – might mean in practice.

In a new paper just released, we show that we may still be a long way off adopting this practice.

The rollout of the National Broadband Network has been plagued by delays, changes of plan and consumers unhappy with the end result.
Mark Esposito/AAP

There is an emerging view that there should be much greater use of evaluations of public policies, including randomised controlled trials (RCTs), to test the effectiveness of new policies before they are rolled out. This applies particularly to policies or programs for which there is limited or no evidence about their likely impact.

RCTs have been around for years in medicine and other sciences, and are increasingly being used by small and large companies to test products and services. Conceptually they are simple, although implementing one can be complex. A RCT involves selecting a sample from a population of interest and randomly dividing them into two groups (using the equivalent of a coin toss). One group is given an intervention (that is, a program or policy) and the other is not. If the RCT has been done properly, the differences in the outcomes of the two groups tells us the impact of the intervention being trialled.




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There are other ways to try to measure causation, and some are necessary when an RCT isn’t possible. However, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh argues in his new book Randomistas that:

Researchers have spent years thinking about how best to come up with credible comparison groups, but the benchmark to which they keep returning is the randomised controlled trial. There’s simply no better way to determine the counterfactual than to randomly allocate participants into two groups: one that gets the treatment, and another that does not.

Our study

While there is strong support within the policy and research community on the important role of trials and evaluations, we know far less about what the general public thinks about how policies should be implemented and to what extent they should be trialled before widespread introduction.




Read more:
From ‘trust us, we’re doctors’ to the rise of evidence-based medicine


In a survey undertaken as part of the ANUPoll series, we ran an online survey experiment that measured the level of support for trials in general and RCTs in particular. We also looked at the factors that influence that support, and whether there is a causal relationship between expert opinion, party identification and support for an RCT.

That is, we ran an RCT on RCTs.

As part of the survey, we asked respondents to “consider a hypothetical proposal to reform” in one of five policy areas (school education; early childhood education; health; policing; support for those seeking employment). We then asked “which of the following approaches do you think the government should take?”:

  • Introduce the policy for everyone in Australia at the same time
  • Introduce the policy to everyone, but do it in stages
  • Trial on a small segment of the population who need it most, or
  • Trial on a small segment of the population chosen randomly,

We found that more people want new government policies rolled out without testing – except for jobless support.

Some key findings emerge:

  • There is a roughly even split between those who think a new policy should be introduced to everyone at once and those who think it should be trialled on a small segment of the population.

  • Respondents support trials for employment policies the most strongly but are most likely to support an RCT for a policy related to school education. They are least likely to support it for health service delivery and employment support.

  • Those who live in disadvantaged areas and those with low levels of education are the least supportive of RCTs.

What influence do experts’ views have?

The type of policy that is being proposed clearly matters for whether the general public thinks it should be trialled as part of an RCT. However, the views of those outside the political system also matter. We tested this potential effect by randomly varying the wording of the question across respondents.

One “treatment” that we applied to the question was to vary what respondents were told on whether experts generally support the policy, are generally opposed to the policy, or are divided on the policy (with one-third of respondents given each of the options).

Randomised controlled trials are commonplace in the area of medical products – after all, we all feel better knowing a new product has been thoroughly tested.
AAP

The greatest support for a trial in general or an RCT in particular occurs when experts are generally opposed to the policy. Conversely, the least support for a trial or an RCT comes when experts are generally in support of the policy, implying respondents believe sufficient evidence must already exist. Support is somewhere in between when there is variation in support.

This has implications, we think, for researchers engaged in policy debates. One potential effect of arguing publicly for a different point of view to policymakers or other researchers is to increase the level of support for trials among the general population. We should make a case for uncertainty when it does exist, as that would appear to increase support for future gathering of evidence.

Indeed, this advocacy for uncertainty has underpinned the push for greater trials and evaluations in policy (and the social sciences).

Building support

It is clear that RCTs are likely to be increasingly used by policymakers to test the effect of policy interventions. However, to be truly effective and to avoid a backlash, RCTs need to be supported not only by researchers and policymakers but also by the general public. At first glance, this buy-in is a long way off.The Conversation

Nicholas Biddle, Associate Professor, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University and Matthew Gray, Director, ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University

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

Newsflash. The government doesn’t need to break up power companies in order to tame prices. The ACCC says so



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Victoria’s Loy Yang brown coal power station at night. Breaking up generation companies might do little to bring prices down.
Shutterstock

Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Who wouldn’t want cheaper power?

And who wouldn’t enjoy a bit of a stoush between the big bad generators and the government, trying to break them up on our behalf?

Even if it was largely tangential to keeping prices low.

The “big stick” of forced divestiture, where the government through a court could order an energy company to sell off bits of itself, never made it to a vote in the final chaotic fortnight of parliament just finished.

It will be the subject of a Senate inquiry that will report on March 18. After that, parliament is set to sit for only seven days before the election, so its possible it’ll never happen, under this government.

The government’s bill is good in parts

Parts of its Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill are uncontroversial.

The main trigger was the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission’s June report, Restoring Electricity Affordability and Australia’s Competitive Advantage.

It found against forced divestiture, but thought along similar lines to the government in some respects.

The legislation presented to parliament this month bans three types of misconduct:

  • electricity retailers’ failing to pass on cost savings
  • energy companies’ refusing to enter into hedge contracts (agreements to buy and sell at a particular price) with smaller competitors
  • generators’ manipulating the spot (short term) market, for example by withholding supply.

It imposes civil penalties for the first, forces companies to offer contracts for the second, and provides for divestiture orders for the third, after they have been recommended by the government and approved by the Federal Court.




Read more:
Consumers let down badly by electricity market: ACCC report


There are good reasons for the government to act on the three behaviours, although each of the its proposed solutions raises concerns.

The ACCC wants something similar but different

Firstly, the ACCC did not identify the legislation’s first target as a major cause of high prices. They did observe that it is complicated to shop around and the offers are confusing, and sometime next year Australian governments will force retailers in some states to offer fairer default offers at an affordable price.

But it not clear why the energy sector has been singled out as an industry whose retailers have to pass on cost savings, and not supermarkets or banks or airlines or petrol stations, or any other kind of industry.

Secondly, the ACCC most certainly did raise concerns about dominant generator-retailers preferring not to enter into hedge contracts with competitors, particularly in South Australia.




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FactCheck Q&A: are South Australia’s high electricity prices ‘the consequence’ of renewable energy policy?


It recommended that the Australian Energy Market Commission impose a “market making obligation” forcing large, so-called gentailers to buy and sell hedge contracts.

Its recommendation has the same intent as the one proposed by the government, although it has the advantage of being administered by a regulator that already exists.

Thirdly, the ACCC also concluded that concentration in the wholesale market means higher prices. Its report focused on the bidding activity of the Queensland government owned generator Stanwell Corporation.

Manipulation isn’t a major price driver

The Grattan Institute identified market manipulation by generators as a contributor to higher prices in our July 2018 report Mostly working: Australia’s wholesale electricity market.

But we found it made a much smaller contribution than high gas and coal prices and the closure of ageing coal generators.

We recommended a rule change to constrain generators’ bidding practices in specific circumstances.




Read more:
Why the free market hasn’t slashed power prices (and what to do about it)


The ACCC recommended giving powers to the Australian Energy Regulator to investigate and fix such problems.

It considered a divestiture mechanism of the kind in the government’s leglislation, but rejected it as extreme.

Its own less extreme recommendations would “if implemented, be a better means to restore competition to a level which serves consumers well”.

Breaking up corporations is a broader question

There may well be a case for breaking up corporations whose size prevents or substantially lessens competition. It happens overseas.

The government cites the example of the United States Sherman anti-trust legislation. It has been in place since 1890 and has been famously used to break up Standard Oil and AT&T. The ACCC does not have this power.

There is debate about whether it would work in the much smaller market of Australia.




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Allan Fels, a former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission a believes it would.

But quite sensibly he argues it should apply across the board, including sectors such as banking in light of the findings of the royal commission.

Ian Harper, who led the government’s 2015 competition review, is less convinced. However, he says if a divestment power is introduced, it should be introduced broadly.




Read more:
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It’s worth considering divestment powers broadly, rather than rushing to introduce them in one sector of the economy in what was to have been the leadup to Christmas because of a concern that its prices were too high.

The ACCC has already delivered a comprehensive report on the means to bring them down.

The government would be better served acting comprehensively on its recommendations.The Conversation

Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

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

Grattan on Friday: Hokey-pokey politics as the government is shaken all about


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

In the topsy turvy Liberal universe, just when the right is trying to
tighten its grip on the throat of the party, the government is haring
off to the left, with this week’s legislation to allow it to break up
recalcitrant energy companies.

As former deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop – who as a backbencher
has become very forthright – said in the Coalition party room on
Tuesday, “this is not orthodox Liberal policy”. Bishop canvassed the
danger of sovereign risk.

To find a rationale for a frolic into what in other circumstances the
Liberals would no doubt denounce as “socialism”, one might see it as
driven by the veto of the so-called conservatives.

Those on the right (led by Tony Abbott and his band) have long stopped
the government putting forward a sound energy policy, despite the
strong pleas from stakeholders across the board.

Instead, trying to respond to the pressing electoral issue of high
electricity prices, the government has reached for its “big stick”
including the threat of divestiture – a policy that’s being attacked
by Labor as well as business.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen was correct on Thursday when he said:
“this is what we see when a government’s policy agenda falls apart”.

Having to defend this draconian policy, first from critical Coalition
backbenchers (who won some changes) and then in parliament, the
government found itself tied in knots.

Given this is such a radical proposal, it was also in an enormous rush with the legislation, introducing it on Wednesday and wanting the House of Representatives to pass it by Thursday.

But that timetable was stymied by Labor. Passage through the House
will have to wait until February.

Meanwhile there will be a Senate inquiry, reporting in March. This
puts off a Senate vote until budget week in April – ensuring a lot
of noise about this controversial measure just when the government
will want all the attention on a budget crafted to appeal to voters
for a May election.

Even if the divestiture legislation gets through the Senate next year,
a likely Labor election victory would mean we’ll probably never see
this particular “big stick” wielded. It’s highly doubtful the threat
will have been worth the angst, or the trashing of Liberal principles.

The final parliamentary fortnight of 2018 coincided with the first
fortnight of the hung parliament.

For Scott Morrison, it has been an excruciating two weeks, with the
backlash from the Liberals’ trouncing in Victoria, Julia Banks’
defection to the crossbench, Malcolm Turnbull’s provocative
interventions, and an impasse with Labor over the plan to protect LGBT
students.

The government’s stress culminated in Thursday’s extraordinary battle
to prevent a defeat on the floor of the House.

This test of strength was over amendments, based on a proposal
originally coming from new Wentworth member Kerryn Phelps, that would
make it easier to transfer people needing medical treatment from Nauru
and Manus to Australia.

As both sides played the tactics, a remarkable thing happened in the
House of Representatives. Behaviour improved one hundred percent, with
none of the usual screaming and exchanges of insults. This pleasing
development was, unsurprisingly, driven by self-interest – neither
government nor opposition could afford to have anyone thrown out ahead
of the possible crucial vote.

Earlier, Morrison had shown anything but restraint when at his news
conference he described Bill Shorten as “a clear and present threat to
Australia’s safety”. Once that would have been taken as a serious
claim, which a prime minister would have been called on to justify. In
these days, it’s seen as a passing comment.

In what was a highly aggressive performance, Morrison gave us another
foretaste of what he’ll be like on the hustings.

In the end, by its delaying tactics in the Senate, the government
prevented the amendments reaching the House before it adjourned, and
so avoided a test of the numbers.

Defeat in the House would not have equalled a no confidence vote, but
it would have been a serious blow for Morrison. Looking for a
precedent, the House of Representatives’ clerks office went back to
votes lost in 1929 (which led to an election) and on the 1941 budget
(which brought down the Fadden government).

But the government may have just put off, rather than prevented, the
reckoning. Phelps said on Sky, “I am sad that we didn’t get this
through today … because I believe it would have gone through on the numbers … But you know if we have to wait until February, at least I believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Dodging this vote meant that legislation to give authorities better
access to encrypted messages to help in the fight against terrorism
looked like it would be delayed. Once the House had adjourned, any
Labor amendments the Senate might pass couldn’t go back there until
February.

The government had declared the encryption measure was urgent, and the
blame game started in anticipation of a hold up. Then, mid-debate in
the Senate, Labor abandoned its attempt to amend the bill, which
glided through. In an agreement which may mean something or nothing,
the government undertook to consider the ALP amendments in the new
year.

Shorten didn’t want to be open to the government’s accusations of impeding legislation the security agencies said would help prevent terrorist
acts. “I couldn’t go home and leave Australians over Christmas without
some of the protections which we all agree are necessary,” he said.

The events of this week show why the government decided to have
the minimum of sitting days before the election next year.

The new parliamentary session will open with a deadlock on the
protection of gay students, the divestiture plan up in the air, and
the Nauru-Manus vote hanging over the government.

And by that time Scott Morrison will have had his first and probably
his last Christmas at Kirribilli.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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