So the government gave sports grants to marginal seats. What happens now?


Maria O’Sullivan, Monash University

When Australians pay their income tax, they assume the money is going to areas of the community that need it, rather than being used by the government to shore up votes for the next election.

This is why the findings of the Australian National Audit Office into the awarding of community sporting grants by cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie are serious. Not merely for the grant funding process, but also for trust in our system of government.

What did the report find?

The Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program was established in 2018 to ensure more Australians have access to quality sporting facilities, encouraging greater community participation in sport and physical activity.

The Audit Office was asked to examine this grant program to assess whether the award of funding “was informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice”. The focus was therefore on whether proper procedures were followed.

The report was extremely critical of the way in which the A$100 million in sporting grants were awarded by Minister McKenzie ahead of last year’s election campaign.

It found successful applications were “not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious” and that there was “distributional bias” in the way projects were approved. The problem is many of the grants were awarded to bodies within marginal seats or seats the Coalition wanted to win.

This is a serious matter because it represents a politicisation of a grant system which is supposed to be undertaken on merit.

What does this mean for the government?

The fact the Audit Office has made this finding is important. But what happens now and what will the consequences be? Will there be an investigation? If so, by whom?

Importantly, the Audit Office is an independent body. In the absence of a federal integrity commission, it has a significant role to play in ensuring government funds are spent for proper purposes. A central part of the role of the Audit Office is to uncover and report on fraud and corruption in government decisions. But it does not have coercive powers and its report does not have any direct legal effect on Senator McKenzie.

If there is to be a further investigation of this matter, it’s likely to be taken up by a parliamentary forum such as Senate Estimates. What is more significant are the consequences of the Audit report.

Legal consequences

The first point to understand is that the direct legal consequences of the Audit Office finding are minimal. The report made four recommendations for future reform of the sporting grant procedure. While the Audit Office is very well-regarded by decision makers and commands respect, it is not a court. Therefore its recommendations are not binding and can be ignored by government.

What is more significant are the legal implications of the Audit report.

Here the problem is the Audit Office found the minister did not have legal authority to approve the grants in the first place. This is because the legal power to approve the sporting grants is actually given to Sport Australia (under the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989).

That legislation says the minister can give written directions to Sport Australia in relation to the exercise of its powers. But Senator McKenzie actually made the decisions on the grants (rather than merely give written directions to Sport Australia).

This is, however, somewhat of a theoretical argument as it is unlikely anyone will be able to bring this matter to court to invalidate the grant decisions made. Given community sporting groups who were disadvantaged by the improper grant process are community groups in need of funding, it’s unlikely they will be in a position to bring an expensive legal action.

Political consequences

It’s therefore likely the consequences of this report will be political rather than legal.

Here the political convention of “ministerial responsibility” should, ideally, come into play. This gives effect to the broader principle that the Australian people give authority and power to elected politicians and those politicians must be accountable for their actions.

This means McKenzie could be asked to resign. However, the Senator has indicated she will not resign, saying “no rules were broken” and she was given discretionary powers “for a purpose” in the program’s guidelines.

And this is one of the problems with ministerial responsibility today: it largely depends on whether the relevant party feel it’s politically necessary to pressure the relevant minister to stand down.

The current strength of this principle in modern Australia has been questioned, with many saying it’s no longer effective. For instance, journalist Tony Wright wrote in 2019:

Ministerial responsibility in Canberra appears to have all but decayed to no responsibility.

So, there may be no political consequences in this matter at all.

Implications for Australian democracy

The Audit Office of Australia is a respected, independent institution and its findings this week should have consequences.

Trust in government, which should be central to a healthy democracy, is at an historical low in Australia. Governments need to make decisions which are transparent and fair. A government that bends the rules is a danger to the rule of law and to democracy.The Conversation

Maria O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, and Deputy Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University

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

Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face



When polling resumes after the summer, Scott Morrison may be surprised by the public’s assessment of his government’s handling of the bushfires.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Chris Wallace, Australian National University

The hope of many people enduring this summer’s firestorms is that better climate policy will arise phoenix-like from the ashes.

It is expressed loudly, fervently, sometimes abusively by people directly affected and those feeling solidarity with them.

It is also expressed secretly, whispered to like-minded confidants, by others who are part of or allied with the Liberal-National (LNP) coalition government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

On Sunday, Morrison indicated that he would take a proposal to establish a royal commission into the bushfires to his Cabinet.

But when it comes to climate policy, there are three possible scenarios in the aftermath of the crisis: everything magically changes for the better, everything stays the same or something different happens.

What these three scenarios look like

Everything magically changes for the better would look like this: Morrison announces the crisis has transformed his previous token admission of a link between bushfires and climate change into a revelation of the reality of global warming, with consequential policy change.

As logical and desirable as this seems, it is unlikely, not least because of Morrison’s character and personal beliefs.

Everything stays the same has a powerful impetus behind it. Morrison does not want policy change any more than his likely successor in the event of leadership change, Peter Dutton.




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Government-friendly journalists and commentators at News Corp and 2GB show no sign of changing tack either, so even if the government wanted to shift its policy, the media environment makes it difficult to do so. The forces of inertia are powerful.

Then there is the slim hope that something different happens. This scenario relies on all three of Australia’s main political groupings – the LNP, Labor and the Greens – realising they each face their own distinct climate policy challenge and rising to it.

As Australian burns, its politicians squabble over who’s to blame and how to prevent future disasters.
David Mariuz/AAP

Avoiding the appearance of a backflip

Opinion polls are not done over the summer holiday period, meaning the LNP has yet to see the impact of the bushfires on their public standing.

When polling resumes, Liberal and National MPs will understand the impact, and they won’t like it. Morrison and others will likely urge party members to hold their course since the next election is years away and a dozen other issues could distract attention from climate policy between now and then.

This tactic can prevail for some time but is not strategically sustainable: firestorms like those in the summer of 2020 will not be the last.




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The emerging LNP argument that inadequate hazard reduction burns are to blame for the current crisis is risible. The Australian who has emerged with the most credibility from the bushfires – NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons – rejects it out of hand.

The LNP’s challenge, then, is to realise its current position won’t hold strategically and to transition to better policy ahead of that becoming obvious, managing the optics to avoid the appearance of a backflip.

The challenge for Labor and the Greens

Labor is benefiting from leader Anthony Albanese’s call for “an adult conversation” in Australia about climate policy. He is astutely citing British Tories like the late Margaret Thatcher and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who long ago accepted and acted upon the climate science the Morrison government viscerally rejects.

Labor’s homework now is to reconcile the views and interests of members and supporters prioritising climate policy over mining jobs, and vice versa.

This can and must be done if Labor is to build a coalition of support big enough to win office and then enact the climate and other policies the current firestorms make so urgent.




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The Greens, meanwhile, need to have an internal conversation about whether they want to continue making perfect policy the enemy of the good – leaving Australia with no emissions trading system (ETS) at all, for example, because they would not vote for one that did not meet their every demand – or join in efforts to begin on the path to better policy.

Central to that conversation must be a realisation their current strategy isn’t working – the LNP keeps returning to power.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale has said the bushfires should be a
David Crosling/AAP

A possible way forward

There is an obvious point the LNP, Labor and Greens might momentarily agree upon to move policy forward. It is the ETS proposed by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2007.

Howard saw climate change coming. In late 2006, he established a prime ministerial task group on emissions trading chaired by the secretary of his Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold.

The Shergold Report, released in May 2007, said “emissions trading should be preferred to a carbon tax” and among the various kinds possible, a national “cap and trade” ETS was best.

In an address to the Liberal Party Federal Council in October 2007, Howard promised to establish a national ETS starting no later than 2012.

This will be a world-class emissions trading system more comprehensive, more rigorously grounded in economics and with better governance than anything in Europe.

Implementing an emissions trading scheme and setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions will be the most momentous economic decisions Australia will take in the next decade.

This emissions trading system must be built to last. It needs to last not five or 10 years, it needs to last the whole of the 21st century if Australia is to meet our global responsibilities and further build our economic prosperity.

Howard positioned the LNP as the party Australians could trust to implement an ETS in a way that gives “firms and families” the ability to “plan for the future with confidence”.

His authorship – and his framing of his ETS as an act of economic responsibility –provides a fig leaf Morrison can now use to move the LNP to a credible, sustainable and politically viable climate policy position.

“Something different” has to start somewhere. If Morrison can deploy the cunning he showed winning the 2019 election by drawing on Howard’s deep well of credibility within the LNP to implement the plan himself and then inviting – daring – Labor and the Greens to back him, it would be a signal political achievement.

And if Morrison doesn’t want to, Labor, the Greens, independent MPs and conscientious LNP MPs should vote together to turn Howard’s ETS into law right away. With political will, “something different” can start now.


Updates to add that the latest Newspoll, released late Sunday, shows Morrison’s standing has taken a massive hit over the bushfires, dropping nine percentage points as preferred prime minister from 48% to 39% since the last poll in early December. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese stood at 43% – a massive reversal of Morrison’s 14 percentage point lead over the Labor leader in early December.The Conversation

Chris Wallace, ARC DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

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

Morrison’s approval ratings crash over bushfires in first 2020 Newspoll; Sanders has narrow Iowa lead



Anthony Albanese led Scott Morrison 43-39 as preferred prime minister in the first Newspoll of the new year.
Marc Tewksbury/AAP

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

In the first Newspoll of the new year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ratings have tanked as a result of his handling of the bushfire crisis.

The Newspoll, conducted January 8-11 from a sample of 1,500 people, gave Labor a 51-49 lead on a two-party preferred basis, a three point gain for Labor since the last Newspoll in early December.

Primary votes were 40% Coalition (down two points), 36% Labor (up three), 12% Greens (up one) and 4% One Nation (down one).

Morrison also suffered a drop in his job performance rating, with 37% saying they were satisfied, down eight points from early December, and 59% saying they were dissatisfied, up 11 points.

His net approval was -22, down 19 points since December. Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s net approval, meanwhile, improved ten points to +9.

Albanese also led Morrison 43-39 as preferred PM, a reversal of Morrison’s 48-34 lead in December. Apart from Morrison’s first Newspoll as PM following the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018, this is the first time an opposition leader has led the incumbent PM on this measure since Tony Abbott was in office.

The bushfire crisis almost certainly explains the crash in Morrison’s ratings, but will this be sustained? As memories of a key event fade, people tend to move back to their previous positions.

US Democratic primary polls: Sanders has narrow Iowa lead

As the US Democratic primaries and caucuses are about to begin, here are the latest polls from the US.

Three weeks before the February 3 Iowa caucus, the highly regarded Selzer Iowa poll, conducted for CNN and the Des Moines Register, has shown Bernie Sanders with a slight lead in the state.

Sanders was at 20% in the poll (up five points from November), Elizabeth Warren 17% (up one), Pete Buttigieg 16% (down nine), Joe Biden 15% (steady), Amy Klobuchar 6% (steady) and Andrew Yang 5% (up two).

No other candidate had more than 3%. The poll was conducted January 2-8 from 701 likely caucus attendees.




Read more:
Buttigieg surges to clear lead in Iowa poll, as Democrats win four of five US state elections


The last Selzer Iowa poll had Buttigieg ahead at 25%, but he is down to third place in the new poll. After the last poll, there was much media attention on the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, but he failed to catch on nationally. This failure has probably contributed to loss of enthusiasm in Iowa.

There are four early state primary contests: Iowa, New Hampshire (February 11), Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29). Fifteen states and territories then vote on March 3, otherwise known as Super Tuesday, when 36% of the total delegates will be awarded. This date could be decisive to determining who will be the nominee.

As I have written previously, the two states at the top of the calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire, are largely comprised of white voters. As such, they do not represent the diversity of the Democratic electorate.

Biden is doing far better with black voters, who made up 61% of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate in 2016.

A recent poll of black voters nationally gave a Biden a huge lead with 48%, with Sanders on 20% and nobody else in double digits.

Sanders and Warren, the two most left-wing candidates, are leading in the latest Iowa poll. One explanation is that Iowa is a caucus, not a primary. Caucuses are conducted by the parties and are time-consuming affairs that require voters to attend meetings where supporters make their case for candidates.




Read more:
US Democratic presidential primaries: Biden leading, followed by Sanders, Warren, Harris; and will Trump be beaten?


Primaries, meanwhile, are managed by the state’s electoral authority and operate like normal elections. As a result, caucuses have far lower turnout rates than primaries, and are more likely to be influenced by party activists.

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Sanders performed far better than Hillary Clinton in caucus states, while Clinton performed better in most primary states.

The bad news for Sanders and Warren is that Democrats strongly encouraged states to use primaries this year. After Iowa and Nevada (February 22), only one state uses a true caucus, while four others have a party-run primary.

According to New York Times analyst Nate Cohn, 14% of pledged delegates were awarded by caucuses in 2016; this year only 3% will be. Left-wing candidates are most likely to be hurt by this change.

National Democratic polls and polls of other early states

The most recent RealClearPolitics national Democratic poll average has Biden leading with 29.3%, with Sanders at 20.3%, Warren 14.8%, Buttigieg 7.5%, Michael Bloomberg 5.8% and Yang 3.5%.

In New Hampshire, the RCP polling average has Sanders leading with 21.5%, followed by Biden at 18.8%, Buttigieg 18.3% and Warren 14.8%.

In Nevada, the only poll conducted in January has Biden at 23%, Sanders 17% and Warren and Tom Steyer both at 12%. And in South Carolina, the only January poll conducted had Biden in the lead at 36%, with Steyer in a surprise second at 15%.

The last Democratic presidential debate before voting begins will be held on Tuesday night at Drake University in Iowa. Six candidates have qualified. There will be three more debates in February.

US jobs still good, but wage growth down

In December, the US economy added 145,000 jobs. While this is down from 256,000 in November, it is still a good performance.

However, hourly wages grew only by three cents in December, and the annual hourly wage growth increased by just 2.9% – the first time it has been below 3% since July 2018.

We do not yet have the inflation report for December, but inflation increased 0.7% in October and November. Higher inflation undermines wage growth.

The US uses two surveys for its jobs reports. The number of jobs gained and wage growth are based on an establishment survey, while other statistics are based on a household survey. In December, the household survey was steady for the three most important indicators: unemployment at 3.5%, labour participation rate at 63.2% and employment population ratio at 61.0%.

The strong jobs reports and the fact the Dow Jones surged to near 29,000 are good news for President Donald Trump. The economy represents Trump’s best chance of re-election in November.

Trump’s ratings and head-to-head polls

With all polls, the FiveThirtyEight aggregate has Trump’s ratings at 41.8% approve, 53.5% disapprove, for a net approval of -11.7%. With polls of likely or registered voters, Trump’s ratings are 42.9% approve, 53.0% disapprove (net -10.1%).

In mid-December, Trump’s ratings rose to their highest since the very early days of his presidency. His ratings have since fallen by two to three net points since then, perhaps owing to the conflict with Iran.

In the most recent national head-to-head election polls, Biden led Trump by 4.5% in the RealClearPolitics average, Sanders led Trump by 2.6%, Trump led Warren by 0.2% and Trump led Buttigieg by 1.2%.

These polls were taken in early to mid-December, when Trump’s ratings were at their peak.The Conversation

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

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

Australia: Bushfire Crisis Update


Watching our politicians fumble through the bushfire crisis, I’m overwhelmed by déjà vu



Scott Morrison’s much-parodied trip to Hawaii in the midst of the bushfire crisis is just one example of a leader not being where he should be.
Scott Marsh/AAP

Marc Hudson, Keele University

As someone who has studied Australian climate policy and politics closely, this summer’s bushfire crisis have been both heartbreaking and bewildering. The grave warnings politicians ignored for so long have now come to pass.

The fires may be without precedent, but these dark weeks have also brought an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It’s hard to believe, but the Morrison government’s fumbling response to the fires and the broader climate crisis is in many ways history repeating.

From the disastrous optics of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s trip to Hawaii to blaming conservationists for the fires, our politicians keep making the same blunders and rolling out the same failed strategies.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was savaged by critics for refusing to meet former fire chiefs.
AAP

Here are five recurring themes in Australian politics when it comes to climate change and bushfires:

1. Blaming ‘greenies’

As the fire season ramped up in November last year, New South Wales Nationals leader John Barilaro accused the Greens of preventing governments from conducting hazard reduction burning, implying the party should shoulder blame for the fires.

“We’ve got to do better and I know that we don’t do enough hazard reduction […] because of the ideological position from the Greens,” he said.




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Such sentiment, which has been thoroughly debunked, regularly surfaces when bushfires rage.

Following the 2003 Canberra fires and 2009 Victorian fires, the forest industry said conservationists were preventing state governments from conducting hazard reduction burns.

After Victoria’s fires, former West Australian MP Wilson Tuckey also blamed the Greens, and parties seeking their preferences, for preventing controlled burns and causing the crisis.

Wrongly blaming green groups for preventing controlled burns is a recurring political theme.
Jason Edwards/AAP

2. Stoking a city-versus-country divide

In November last year, Nationals leader Michael McCormack sneered that those who made the link between climate change and bushfires were “raving inner-city lunatics” and “woke capital-city greenies”.

McCormack continues a long tradition of those opposed to strong climate action claiming only inner-city dwellers care about the issue.




Read more:
Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season


It began in the late 1980s, when the the “greenhouse effect” first became a public issue. Some politicians derided it as just another greenies scare campaign, including frontbencher in the Hawke Labor government, Peter Walsh.

Walsh, contemptuous of the Greens movement, continued to rail against climate action after leaving politics. He reportedly described the science around global warming as “highly speculative” and as late as 2008 claimed action on climate “would land us in Middle Ages.”.

Nationals leader Michael McCormack, pictured in Question Time, has ridiculed those making a link between climate change and bushfires.
Lukas Coch/AAP

3. Experts ignored by politicians

Since April last year, former fire chiefs have implored the Morrison government to act on climate change and better prepare the nation for extreme fire seasons ahead. The government would not meet the experts to hear the advice, let alone implement it.

Successive governments have form when it comes to ignoring experts on climate matters. In September 1994 the CSIRO’s then top climate scientist, Graeme Pearman, briefed the Labor government’s cabinet about the likely impacts of climate change, as a debate over whether to institute a carbon tax heated up. Despite the warning, no tax was implemented.

Pearman retired a decade later under the Coalition government, reportedly having been asked by his superiors to resign for expressing views on climate change at odds with government policy.

A group of esteemed former fire chiefs were denied a hearing with the Morrison government.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

4. Leaders not fronting up

Morrison’s decision to take a family holiday in Hawaii as the bushfire crisis grew lost him serious political skin.

Some argue, rightly, that symbolism is less important than substance, and so Morrison’s trip is itself irrelevant. But symbolism creates or destroys both morale, and the possibility of stronger political action.

In 1992 newly minted Labor prime minister Paul Keating sent environment minister Ros Kelly to the Rio Earth Summit, prompting one journalist to observe he was “preoccupied with winning the upcoming election (and) said he wasn’t going all the way to Rio to give a six-minute speech”.

It made Australia the only OECD nation not represented by its head of state, and sent the message that Australia was not taking a serious approach to the discussions.

A cartoon by The Conversation’s Wes Mountain depicting the reaction of Nationals leader Michael McCormack (left) and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (right) to Scott Morrison’s Hawaii trip.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation

5. ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’ mantra

The Bureau of Meteorology this week confirmed this season’s horror bushfire crisis is linked to climate change. Planetary warming is clearly a threat to the nation’s economic well-being.

However Australian governments have routinely created a false dichotomy between environmental protection and jobs. Most recently, we’ve seen it in the Coalition government’s support for the Adani coal mine in central Queensland, and its repeated mantra of “jobs jobs jobs”.

The strategy has been used before. After the Franklin Dam fight in 1983, concern over environmental issues entered the political mainstream. But as former Labor science minister Barry Jones said later, that changed in 1991 when economic recession hit.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs became the priority and in some quarters there was a cynical reaction suggesting that environmental issues were luxuries which characterised affluent times […] This is a criminally short-sighted view,” he said.

Franklin Dam protesters in southwest Tasmania in 1982. The debate thrust environmental concern onto the political agenda. Sadly, it was short-lived.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF AUSTRALIA

What to do?

Only sustained citizen pressure will prevent a repeat of the past 30 years of political failures on climate change. The public must stay informed and demand better from our elected representatives.

Politicians can, when pressed, make better decisions. In April last year, the New Zealand government banned offshore oil and gas exploration after years of public pressure. And the following month, the UK Parliament declared a climate emergency after months of protests by activist group Extinction Rebellion.

It’s often said those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But the world must act radically in the next decade to avoid catastrophic global warming. We cannot afford another 30 years of the same old mistakes.




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The Conversation


Marc Hudson, Researcher on sociomaterial transformations, social movements, Keele University

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

The water crisis has plunged the Nats into a world of pain. But they reap what they sow



Angry farmers are pressuring the Nationals to tear up the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Daniel Connell, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

When farmers descended on Parliament House in Canberra this month to demand the Murray Darling Basin Plan be dumped, they reserved sharp words for Nationals leader Michael McCormack.

“The National Party is not going to exist after the next election unless you grow some spine,” one angry irrigator warned him.

“Get up there and say ‘this is not f—ing good enough’. Get angry!”




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By the end of the week, federal Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud, a Nationals MP, had announced a review of water sharing arrangements under the basin plan, claiming it would “take the politics out” of the issue.

But that hope will be in vain. If irrigators in New South Wales get more water, that means less for the environment and other water users downstream including irrigators in South Australia.

The Nationals are wedged between NSW irrigation communities and its coalition with the Liberals. But this crisis is largely of the party’s own making, and it will not go away any time soon.

Farmers say water shortages are threatening their livelihoods and communities.
AAP

A political bind

The Murray Darling Basin Plan became law in 2012. It’s meant to determine how much water can be drawn from the river system by users, mostly irrigators who use about 95% of extracted water. The plan aims to return some water to rivers, wetlands and flood plains by buying it from willing sellers on the water market, and improving infrastructure to prevent water loss.

The National Party has long blamed the basin plan for a raft of problems facing rural communities. This attitude might have served the Nationals’ short-term political interests. But it created a monster: stoking dissatisfaction from rural voters it is now unable to manage.




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The Murray-Darling Basin scandal: economists have seen it coming for decades


The beneficiaries are right-wing minor parties such as One Nation, to which rural voters in NSW and southern Queensland are now turning.

The Nationals’ base might be rural, but it is in coalition with the Liberals who must appease both capital city voters concerned about the environment, and constituents in downstream South Australia where voters of all persuasions think their state does not receive a fair share of water.

The Nationals are wedged between their rural base and Liberal voters.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A history of white-anting

It is ironic farmers now accuse the Nationals of not doing enough to oppose the basin plan, given the party’s record on water policy at a state and federal level.

As far back as the 1980s, it became clear water salinity and over-extraction by irrigators was degrading river environments in the Murray Darling Basin.

Over ensuing decades the Nationals could have helped affected communities accept the need to take a basin-wide approach to water extraction. Instead they fuelled resentment by demanding more water for irrigators, implicitly dismissing the legitimate needs of the environment and downstream water users.




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In the early 1990s, for example, when a cap on further extractions was being planned, the NSW government (whose water policy was controlled by the Nationals) insisted water licenses not yet activated should be accepted within the cap. This substantially increased the volume of water extracted.

But even after securing the the changes, the Nationals campaigned against the policy.

Later as part of the Howard government, the Nationals reluctantly helped prepare the Water Act 2007 which underpins the basin plan. When it finally went before Parliament in 2012, McCormack, then a backbencher, opposed it. Such opposition has been a hallmark of Nationals policy ever since.

Receding waters in the NSW Menindee Lakes which is under pressure from low water flows.
Dean Lewins/AAP

In NSW, Nationals water ministers have undermined the plan in many ways, including by failing to ensure the timely delivery of “water resource plans”. These plans are supposed to outline how water will be shared between irrigators and the environment at a regional level, and are essential to the success of the broader basin policy.




Read more:
It’s time to restore public trust in the governing of the Murray Darling Basin


Meanwhile federally, Nationals MPs have insisted water for the environment be acquired by improving water infrastructure rather than taking water from irrigators. The building of this infrastructure has led to additional costs for taxpayers for little environmental benefit.

Farmers at a rally outside Parliament House. They want the basin plan scrapped.
Lukas Coch/AAP

So what next?

The basin plan now appears on the brink of collapse. The NSW government is threatening to pull out if changes are not made and Littleproud’s decision to review water-sharing arrangements is hardly a ringing endorsement of the plan.

Meanwhile the Greens and other critics say the plan was never adequate anyway,
given the low volumes of water redirected to the environment and its failure to properly recognise climate change.

If irrigators succeed in having the plan scrapped, their victory is likely to be short-lived. Public anger at ongoing environmental degradation will only grow. And depending on the party in government when a new Murray Darling policy is drafted, irrigators may be treated with far less sympathy.The Conversation

Daniel Connell, Research Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

Morrison cuts a swathe through the public service, with five departmental heads gone


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has announced a dramatic overhaul of the federal public service, cutting the number of departments and creating several new mega ones, while removing five secretaries.

The departments will be reduced from 18 to 14.

But Morrison said there were no changes to his ministry or to portfolio arrangements.

“I’m very pleased, very pleased, with the performance of all of my ministers and the work they’ve been doing,” he told a news conference.

He also said the public service shake up was not a savings measure.

This has been done as a structural issue to better align and bring together functions within the public service so they can all do their jobs more effectively and help more Australians

The new departments are

  • Education, skills and employment, created from the present department of education and department of employment, skills, small and family business

  • Agriculture, water and the environment, which consolidates the department of agriculture, and the environment functions from the current department of the environment and energy

  • Industry, science, energy and resources, which will bring together the present department of industry, innovation and science, the energy functions of the current department of the environment and energy, and the small business functions from the current department of employment, skills, small and family Business.

  • The department of infrastructure, transport, regional development and communications, consolidating the current department of infrastructure, transport, cities and regional development, and the department of communications and the arts.

Services Australia announced by Morrison after the election, will be established as a new executive agency within the social services department.




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Ten departments are unchanged, Morrison said.

The secretaries who have been dispensed with are: Kerri Hartland (employment); Renée Leon (human services); Mike Mrdak (communications); Daryl Quinlivan (agriculture) and Heather Smith (industry).

It is not known which, if any, were voluntary departures.

Morrison immediately after the election installed his own man, Phil Gaetjens as head of the prime minister’s department, and flagged more changes later.

Morrison is bringing back to the public service Andrew Metcalfe who will head the new agriculture department. Metcalfe was sacked by prime minister Tony Abbott from agriculture.

Morrison said Metcalfe would “bring considerable public policy leadership experience” to the job.

David Fredericks, presently secretary of the environment and energy department becomes secretary of the new industry department.

Morrison said the shrinking of the number of departments was “to ensure the services that Australians rely on are delivered more efficiently and effectively”.

“Australians should be able to access simple and reliable services, designed around their needs. Having fewer departments will allow us to bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision-making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people,” Morrison said.

“The new structure will drive greater collaboration on important policy challenges. For example, better integrating the government’s education and skills agenda and ensuring Australians living in regional areas can access the infrastructure and services they need.”

Andrew Podger, a former public service commissioner who headed several departments, said he was “particularly pleased” to see the department of human services disappear as a department and become an executive agency (Services Australia) in the social services portfolio, although it would have been better if Morrison had gone further and made it a statutory authority.

“But at least we will no longer have the administration of social security payments in a separate portfolio from social security policy,” he said.

“The other mergers make some sense, recreating the ‘mega-dapartment’ structures from the 1987 Hawke years, particularly the combination of education, employment and training, ” Podger said.

“But the main potential benefit of fewer and larger departments is to make cabinet work better, with a smaller cabinet, and with portfolio ministers given more latitude to make decisions (and allocate resources) drawing on their junior ministers.

“If this does not happen, and more departments have two cabinet ministers, that will cause more problems, not fewer ones, particularly for the secretaries giving advice.”




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Morrison can learn a lot from the public servants, but will he listen?


Morrison, asked who would be the senior minister in the new environment and agriculture department, defended having multiple ministers.

“The portfolio minister for the environment Sussan Ley is responsible for the environment and Bridget McKenzie, who is the minister for agriculture, will be responsible for agriculture policy, and David Littleproud is responsible for water policy, Morrison said.

It is not uncommon for departments to have multiple ministers. They have multiple ministers now. And so the officials that work in these departments respond to the minister that is responsible for those portfolio issues. So who’s the senior minister on environment? Well, it’s the minister for the environment. Who’s the senior minister on agriculture? It’s the minister for agriculture. It should be very plain.

Morrison flagged he would next week provide the government’s response to the still-unreleased Thodey review of the public service.

Mrdak said in a frank memo to staff: “I was told of the government’s decision to abolish the department late yesterday afternoon. We were not permitted any opportunity to provide advice on the machinery of government changes, nor were our views ever sought on any proposal to abolish the department or to changes to our structure and operations.”

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said the changes were about “centralising power”.


Departments and secretaries from February 1, 2020

  • Department of agriculture, water and the environment – Andrew Metcalfe

  • Attorney-general’s department – Chris Moraitis

  • Department of defence – Greg Moriarty

  • Department of education, skills and employment – Michelle Bruniges

  • Department of finance – Rosemary Huxtable

  • Department of foreign affairs and trade – Frances Adamson

  • Department of health – Glenys Beauchamp

  • Department of home affairs – Michael Pezzullo

  • Department of industry, science, energy and resources – David Fredericks

  • Department of infrastructure, transport, regional development and communications – Simon Atkinson

  • Department of the prime minister and cabinet – Philip Gaetjens

  • Department of social services – Kathryn Campbell

  • Department of the treasury – Steven Kennedy

  • Department of veterans’ affairs – Liz CossonThe Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

View from The Hill: Scott Morrison returns, with regret



Scott Morrison doesn’t seem to grasp that while he likes to emphasise his relationship with the ordinary Australian, as prime minister he is not an ordinary Australian.
AAP/Paul Braven

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

We don’t often hear an apology from Scott Morrison – indeed, it is hard to think of an earlier occasion – but he finally swallowed his stubbornness and issued a sort of one early Friday.

“I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time,” he said in a statement. It came after the deaths of two fire fighters and the injury of others, and Morrison’s decision to cut short his Hawaiian holiday.

But the prime minister still remained quite focused on why he’d taken leave just now, telling 2GB how he’d had to bring his holiday forward because of his commitments to visit India and Japan in January, missing a break at the coast. So he’d wanted to give his girls a surprise with this family trip to Hawaii. Etc. Etc.

He didn’t seem to grasp that while he likes to emphasise his relationship with the ordinary Australian, as prime minister he is not an ordinary Australian.

There’s been a lot of talk about how people don’t, or shouldn’t, begrudge Morrison a holiday. But, with the exception of family illness, a prime minister’s priorities should be the needs of his position ahead of personal matters, especially holidays. It sounds harsh, but that’s the nature of the job. And many firefighters are sacrificing holidays (and much more) this summer.

A national leader has, at the very least, a duty to provide the support of his or her presence at such times, including, indeed, as a gesture to state colleagues who are shouldering so much of the administrative burden.

Also, Morrison missed the point that it was inappropriate for a prime minister to disappear from sight – literally – without a public explanation or an adequate reason (such as a visit to Australian troops abroad, when news organisations rightfully respect a blackout).

This applies any time, but especially when the country is burning. All week his office would not say where he was. While there had been talk of both privacy and security concerns for this extraordinary refusal, Morrison admitted on 2GB “it’s more about privacy at the end of the day”.

Even if he’d made an initial misjudgement and flown off on his holiday, Morrison should have quickly realised his mistake, left Jenny and the kids at their destination, and got on a plane back home.

It was a classic case of a tin ear, which was rather surprising from a man who has proved pretty astute at reading the electoral mood. “This had been arranged some time ago and that’s just how it was,” he said lamely on Friday.

“[Australians] know that … I don’t hold a hose … and I don’t sit in a control room. …

“But I know that Australians would want me back at this time out of these fatalities. So I’ll happily come back.”

The public make judgements about a PM’s leadership qualities from their behaviour during crises.

Gough Whitlam was criticised when he only briefly broke a long and indulgent (official) overseas trip to return to see the devastation Cyclone Tracy had wrought on Darwin.

In a 2016 article, “I Had to Come to See for Myself: Prime Ministers, Natural Disasters and the People”, academic Rosemary Williamson presented a historical rundown of prime ministerial responses to disasters.

She noted “growing emphasis in parliament and press on the prime minister ‘being there’ for Australians – physically and emotionally – when disaster strikes”.

“Disaster can quickly shift attention to the qualities of the prime minister at a time when Australians are most vulnerable,” she wrote.

Presciently, she added, “Experts tell us to expect more, and more intense, sudden natural disasters. Australians will have expectations of prime ministerial leadership at these times. Apart from promises of federal aid and co-operation with state governments, Australians no doubt will expect prime ministers to come and see for themselves , to demonstrate empathy and to instill confidence in recovery.”

The trouble for Morrison after he returns on Saturday is that having been absent, whatever he does to reinforce his presence will likely trigger some cynicism. One report predicted he would “hit the ground running”. Doing too much would invite comparisons with when he wasn’t doing anything (except receiving briefings at a distance).

The most extraordinary part of this saga is how Morrison and his office thought they could keep the holiday story, and in particular the destination, under wraps.

When the PM leaves the country, there is an acting prime minister, and that is a matter of public record. And as Morrison is normally out and about all the time, it was beyond belief he could be quietly absent for days without questions being asked and those questions mounting as the fires became worse.

Finally, there was the danger of the almost certain random spotting. Once Morrison was reportedly seen boarding an aircraft for Hawaii, the genie was out.

Some journalists are adamant the media office told direct lies, a point contested by the PMO. Regardless, this affair reflects badly on the media team, as it does on the prime minister.

Journalists will be surprised at the naivety involved, but not so much at the attempted media manipulation by the PMO.

All prime ministers try to manage the media but Morrison is an extreme example. He is shameless about his use of favourites, whether individuals or outlets. The government regards The Australian as its bulletin board for announcements.

When it comes to dealing with the media, the prime minister’s office tries to exert maximum control, through a combination of privileged treatment and occasional threats.

This background perhaps partly explains Morrison’s delusion that his holiday frolic could be kept in house.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.

5 things MYEFO tells us about the economy and the nation’s finances


Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute and Kate Griffiths, Grattan Institute

As we come to the end of 2019, you’d be forgiven for being confused about the health of the economy.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg regularly points out that jobs growth is strong, the budget is heading back to surplus, and Australia’s GDP growth is high by international standards.

The opposition points to sluggish wages growth, weak consumer spending and weak business investment.

Monday’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) provides an opportunity for a pre-Christmas stock-take of treasury’s thinking.

1. Low wage growth is the new normal

Rightly grabbing the headlines is yet another downgrade to wage growth.

In the April budget, wages were forecast to grow this financial year by 2.75%. In MYEFO, the figure has been cut to 2.5%.

Three years ago, when Scott Morrison was treasurer, the forecast for this year was 3.5%.



Each time wages forecasts missed, treasury assumed future growth would be even higher, to restore the long-term trend.

Today’s MYEFO is a long-overdue admission from treasury that labour market dynamics have shifted – in other words, lower wage growth is the “new normal”.

Even by 2022-23, wages are projected to grow at only 3% (and even that would still be a substantial turnaround compared to today).




Read more:
Surplus before spending. Frydenberg’s risky MYEFO strategy


Of course, wages are still rising in real terms (that is, faster than inflation), a fact Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is keen to emphasise.

But Australians will have to adjust to a world of only modest growth in their living standards for the next few years.

2. Economic growth is underwhelming, especially per person

Economic growth forecasts have received a pre-Christmas trim.

Treasury now expects the economy to grow by 2.25% this financial year, down from the 2.75% it expected in April.

Particularly striking is the sluggishness of the private economy, with consumer spending expected to grow by just 1.75%, despite interest rate and tax cuts, and business investment idling at growth of 1.5%, down from the 5% forecast in April.




Read more:
Lower growth, tiny surplus in MYEFO budget update


The longer term picture looks somewhat better, with growth forecast to rise to 2.75% in 2020-21 and 3% in 2021-22, although treasury acknowledges there are significant downside risks, particularly from the global economy.

The government has made much of the fact our economy is strong compared to many other developed nations. But much more relevant to people’s living standards is per-person growth. Australia’s international podium finish looks less impressive once you account for the fact Australia’s population is growing at 1.7%.

As one perceptive commentator has noted, while Australia is forecast to be the fastest growing of the 12 largest advanced economies next year, it is expected to be the slowest in per-person terms.

3. The government is at odds with the Reserve Bank

You can imagine the government’s collective sigh of relief that it is still on track to deliver a surplus in 2019-20, albeit a skinny A$5 billion instead of the the $7 billion previously forecast.

Given the treasurer declared victory early by announcing the budget was “back in the black” in April, missing would have been awkward, to say the least.

And another three years of slim surpluses are forecast ($6 billion, $8 billion and $4 billion respectively).

The real issue for the treasurer is how to deal with the growing calls for more economic stimulus, including from the Reserve Bank.




Read more:
We asked 13 economists how to fix things. All back the RBA governor over the treasurer


Depending on what happens to growth and unemployment in the first half of 2020, he will come under increased pressure to jettison the future surpluses to support jobs and living standards.

4. High commodity prices are a gift for the bottom line

High commodity prices are the gift that keeps on giving for the Australian budget.

Iron ore prices in excess of US$85 per tonne, well above the US$55 per tonne budgeted for, have helped to keep company tax receipts buoyant.

Treasury is maintaining the conservative approach it has taken in recent years by continuing to assume US$55 per tonne.

This provides some potential upside should prices stay high – Treasury estimates a US$10 per tonne increase would boost the underlying cash balance by about A$1.2 billion in 2019-20 and about A$3.7 billion in 2020-21.




Read more:
Vital Signs: Australia’s wafer-thin surplus rests on a mine disaster in Brazil


The budget bottom line remains tied to the whims of international commodity markets for the near future.

5. The surplus depends on running a (very) tight ship

The forecast surpluses over the next four years are premised on an extraordinary degree of spending restraint.

This government is expecting to do something no government has done since the late-1980s: cut spending in real per-person terms over four consecutive years.



The budget dynamics are helping. Budget surpluses and low interest rates reduce debt payments, and low inflation and wage growth reduce the costs of payments such as the pension and Newstart.

But the government is also expecting to keep growth low in other areas of spending, in almost every area other than defence and the expanding national disability insurance scheme.

As the Parliamentary Budget Office points out, it is hard to keep holding down spending as the budget improves.

It is even more true while long term spending squeezes on things such as Newstart and aged care are hurting vulnerable Australians.

Where does it leave us?

The real lesson from MYEFO is that Australians are right to be confused: there is a disconnect between the health of the budget and the health of the economy.

MYEFO suggests both that the government is on track to deliver a good-news budget surplus underpinned by high commodity prices and jobs growth, and that the economy is in the doldrums with low wage growth in place for a long time.

Top of Frydenberg’s 2020 to do list: how to reconcile the two.The Conversation

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

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