Malcolm Turnbull has asked the Australian Federal Police commissioner, the attorney-general and the justice minister for advice about the revelation that Pauline Hanson’s key adviser, James Ashby, floated the idea of One Nation scamming public funds.
Ashby suggested at a meeting last year that a way One Nation could make money at taxpayer expense in the coming Queensland election was to inflate receipts presented to electoral authorities.
The party did not pursue the idea, but its surfacing – via a recording of the meeting – is causing serious fallout for Ashby and for Hanson, who was present at the meeting.
Labor has written to the Queensland electoral commissioner and the Queensland police commissioner asking them to investigate.
In the recording, Ashby said: “There is an opportunity for us to make some money out of this, if we play it smart. Now I know they say you can’t make money out of state elections, but you can.”
Outlining the idea at the meeting, Ashby said: “I’ll deny I ever said this but what stops us from getting a middle man or gracing – I’m happy to grace in cash and double the price of whatever it is.”
The party would say to candidates that it would fund 50% of a package, he said. The package might be A$5,000, with the candidate told they were going to pay $2,500 and party would pay the other $2,500.
“The other $2,500 is profit. It’s the fat,” Ashby told the meeting. “When you lodge the receipt at the full price with the Electoral Commission of Queensland you get back the full amount that’s been issued to you as an invoice.”
At an extraordinary joint news conference with Hanson on Monday, Ashby said the revelation was “embarrassing”, adding that it was a “poor choice of words on my behalf”.
He complained that “these were secretly recorded conversations in what we thought was an environment where we could safely put any idea on the table and it wouldn’t go any further”.
“We’ve never implemented this idea that was put forward and it’s regretful that obviously a poor choice of words on my behalf had to be aired in such a public manner,” he said.
Hanson told the news conference: “Don’t forget I was at the meeting as well. You do not have the full recording of that meeting, so you have no idea what was said at the rest of the meeting. We knocked it on the head at the meeting. It didn’t go ahead – that’s why. It was an issue that was raised and it was knocked on the head there and then.”
In comments later, Ashby said he had felt it necessary to come forward to deal with the story – he cast Hanson as being at the news conference to support him. “At times I’m going to have to come forward and defend myself”, he said.
He said political parties were run like businesses, but formerly One Nation had been run in a dismal fashion.
His proposal had been a silly idea, he said. Amid suggestions there was more of the tape to come out, he said could not remember what else he had said at the meeting.
Crossbench senator Derryn Hinch said Ashby had committed a sackable offence but Hanson “won’t sack him”.
In parliament, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus quizzed Turnbull about the allegations One Nation had conspired to defraud Queensland electoral authorities.
Dreyfus asked whether Turnbull had referred this and previous allegations about One Nation to the Australian Federal Police to investigate whether any Commonwealth laws had been broken, including whether any similar fraud had been perpetrated against the Commonwealth.
He also asked whether the government would be reviewing payments made to Coastal Signs and Printing – Ashby’s Sunshine Coast-based business – to make sure there hadn’t been inflated receipts.
Turnbull said the question raised “some serious matters” and he would be getting advice.
The government is somewhat conflicted over Ashby. It needs One Nation’s Senate votes for legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens – Ashby is Hanson’s right-hand man and arguably the party would be less stable without him. But anything that discredits Ashby and One Nation is useful ahead of the Queensland election.
Ashby is a divisive figure within One Nation, and bitterly attacked by some ex-members.
He has been the centre of controversy over the contested funding for a plane used to ferry Hanson around. He says he purchased the aircraft and it was owned by his business.
A former Queensland One Nation candidate, Diane Happ, who had a row with the party over the cost of campaign material, told the ABC on Monday that Ashby was “a viper, he’s a snake, he’s nasty stuff”.
After the release of the Federal budget on Tuesday night, much of the political commentariat thought that the budget would be popular, and predicted a lift for the Coalition in the post-budget polls. Graham Richardson in The Australian said the government would “no doubt get a sugar hit from the budget”.
All the regular post-budget polls are instead at least 53-47 to Labor, with little change apparent from the pre-budget situation. In Newspoll Labor gained a point, while in Ipsos the Coalition gained two points, leading to different commentary from Fairfax, which sponsors Ipsos, than The Australian, which sponsors Newspoll.
The last Ipsos was 55-45 to Labor in late March; this seemed an outlier at the time. The last Newspoll was 52-48 to Labor three weeks ago, and was probably influenced by the announcements on the citizenship test and 457 visas.
Here is the post-budget poll table. Two separate ReachTEL polls were conducted on 11 May, one for Sky News and one for Channel 7. They are the first public ReachTEL Federal polls since before the 2016 election. Only half of the Essential sample is post-budget, though this week’s additional questions are based on the post-budget sample.
The Sky News ReachTEL was reported as 53-47 to Labor, and the Channel 7 ReachTEL as 54-46. However, both these results were based on respondent allocated preferences. To match polls that only give the previous election preferences, I am using Kevin Bonham’s calculated two party vote from the decimal primaries of both ReachTELs. Since the rise of One Nation, ReachTEL’s state polls have leaned to the Coalition, and this lean appears to be happening federally.
While individual budget measures, such as the bank levy and additional Medicare levy, are popular, the budget as a whole gets only a middling rating on a range of measures. Commentary suggesting that the overall budget would be very popular has been shown to be wrong.
While the budget allocated much spending to health and education, voters trust Labor more on these issues. A government that has tried to cut spending for three years, but suddenly has a poll-driven about-face strains credibility. Labor’s fairness criticisms of the termination of the 2% deficit levy for high-income earners, and the now $65 billion for company tax cuts, are likely to be accepted by a large portion of the population.
After each budget, Newspoll asks three questions: whether the budget was good or bad for the economy, good or bad for the voter personally, and whether the opposition would have delivered a better budget.
45% thought they would be worse off and 19% better off, for a net of -26. 36% thought the economy would be better with this budget, and 27% worse, for a net of +9. Compared with previous budgets, neither of these scores are very bad nor very good.
Coalition governments do better than Labor ones on whether the opposition would have delivered a better budget. In this Newspoll, by a 47-33 margin, voters thought Labor would not have delivered a better budget. This 14-point margin is about the same as the last two budgets, but better for Labor than any budget in the Howard era, except the 2007 13-point margin, which came shortly before Rudd ousted Howard at the November 2007 election.
In other Newspoll questions, 45% said they would be prepared to see a reduction in taxpayer funded entitlements to pay down debt, while 41% thought otherwise. By 39-36, voters thought this budget was fairer than others under this government. As one of those budgets was the widely hated 2014 budget, this is not saying much. By 71-19, voters thought the banks would not be justified in passing on costs from the bank levy.
In Ipsos, by 45-44 voters approved of the budget, and by 42-39 they thought it was fair; these measure are much better for the government than following the 2014 budget. 50% thought they would be worse off with the budget, while 20% expected to benefit. By 58-37, voters supported increasing national debt to build infrastructure.
The Sky News ReachTEL found that 52% thought their family would be worse off with this budget, with just 11% for better off. 36% thought the government had done a good or very good job explaining its budget, 37% an average job and 27% poor or very poor. 34% of non-home owners thought the budget made it harder to buy a home, 13% easier, and the rest said there was no change.
The Channel 7 ReachTEL found that the budget was rated average by 38%, poor or very poor by 33% and good or very good by 29%.
In Essential, voters approved of the budget by 41-33, though 29% said it made them less confident in the government’s handling of the economy, with 27% for more confident. On both questions, the strongest disagreement with the budget came from Other voters, not Labor and Greens voters.
Explaining why Shorten did not mention punitive measures against the unemployed in his budget reply speech, a crushing 76-14 supported payment reductions for jobseekers who fail to attend appointments, and 69-22 supported a drug trial for jobseekers. The second airport in Sydney was supported by 54-18.
By 51-27, voters agreed with the statement that the budget was more about improving the government’s popularity than the economy. 56% thought higher income earners should bear a greater share of the cost of funding the National Disability Insurance Scheme, while 27% thought applying the Medicare levy for all taxpayers is the right approach. Scott Morrison was favoured over Chris Bowen as preferred Treasurer by 26-22 with 52% undecided.
There was strong support for the bank levy (68-21 in Newspoll, 62-16 in the Sky News ReachTEL, 60-18 in the Channel 7 ReachTEL, 68-29 in Ipsos and 66-19 in Essential). The additional Medicare levy was also well supported (54-36 in Newspoll, 48-34 in the Sky News ReachTEL, 51-28 in the Channel 7 ReachTEL and 49-39 in Essential).
Primary votes, leaders’ ratings and other polling
Primary votes in Newspoll were 36% Coalition (steady), 36% Labor (up 1), 10% Greens (up 1) and 9% One Nation (down 1). 33% (up 1) were satisfied with Turnbull’s performance and 53% (down 4) were dissatisfied, for a net rating of -20, up five points. Shorten’s net rating was -22, down two points.
In Ipsos, primary votes were 37% Coalition (up 4), 35% Labor (up 1) and 13% Greens (downs 3 from an unrealistic 16%). 45% approved of Turnbull’s performance (up 5) and 44% disapproved (down 4), for a net rating of +1, up nine points. Shorten’s net approval increased a sizable 13 points to -5. Turnbull’s ratings in Ipsos have been much better than in other polls. Ipsos skews to the Greens, but less this time than in their first two polls of the new parliamentary term.
The Sky News ReachTEL had primary votes of 37.8% Coalition, 34.2% Labor, 10.3% Greens and 10.2% One Nation. In the Channel 7 ReachTEL, assuming the 9.2% undecided are excluded, primary votes are 37.1% Coalition, 35.0% Labor and 10.8% for both the Greens and One Nation.
Primary votes in Essential were unchanged on last week at 38% Labor, 37% Coalition, 10% Greens, 6% One Nation and 3% Nick Xenophon Team.
In the Channel 7 ReachTEL, both leaders’ ratings tanked from the final survey prior to the 2016 election. Turnbull’s (total good) minus (total poor) score fell 18 points to -24, his record lowest, just ahead of Tony Abbott’s ratings before Abbott was replaced. Shorten’s rating was down 17 points to -21, his lowest since March 2016.
38% preferred Turnbull as Coalition leader, followed by 29% for Julie Bishop, 17% for Abbott, 11% for Peter Dutton and 6% for Scott Morrison. Among Coalition voters, it was 61% Turnbull, 18% Bishop and 14% Abbott.
For preferred Labor leader, Tanya Plibersek had 31% with Shorten and Anthony Albanese tied on 26%. Labor voters had Shorten leading with 40%, Plibersek on 33% and Albanese on 20%. Plibersek was strongly favoured by the Greens, with 51% support from them.
Turnbull led Shorten as better PM by 47-35 in Ipsos and 44-31 in Newspoll, but only 52-48 in the Channel 7 ReachTEL. ReachTEL uses a forced choice question, and this method usually benefits opposition leaders.
ReachTEL’s respondent allocation problem
As noted at the beginning of this article, ReachTEL’s respondent allocated preferences are over a point more favourable to Labor than using the previous election method. It appears that some of this difference is explained by ReachTEL asking National voters which of Labor or Liberal they prefer.
This is a mistake, as in most cases the Nationals are not opposed by a Liberal, and so their preferences are not distributed. In the few cases where National votes were distributed, 22% leaked to Labor at the 2016 election. Applying this rate to the 3.5% National vote in the Sky News ReachTEL would mean that Coalition leakage would increase Labor’s two party vote by 0.8 points; the actual Coalition leakage is worth only about 0.1 points to Labor.
Ipsos also asked for respondent allocated preferences, and had Labor ahead by 53-47 on this measure, the same as when using the previous election method.
The Coalition has slipped further behind in Newspoll, trailing Labor 47-53% in two-party terms, despite a pragmatic budget that moved the government onto ALP ground in a bid to win back voters.
Labor slightly widened the gap compared with three weeks ago when it led 52-48%. This makes a dozen Newspolls in a row that have seen the government behind the opposition.
The post-budget Fairfax-Ipsos poll also has Labor ahead 53-47%.
The previous Ipsos poll was in late March, when the ALP led 55-45%.
Both polls show majority support for the budget’s tax increases – the new bank tax and the proposed hike in the Medicare levy. The bank tax was backed by 68% in each poll; the Medicare levy rise was supported by 54% in Newspoll and 61% in Ipsos.
In the Ipsos poll, one in two people said they would be worse off from the budget; only one in five believed they would be better off. In Newspoll 45% thought they would be worse off and 19% said they would be better off. In both polls, Coalition voters were more likely than Labor voters to think they would be better off.
In Ipsos people were evenly split on whether they were satisfied with the budget – 44% were and 43% were not, a net plus one. This is better than the response to last year’s budget (minus seven) but not as good as the reception for the 2015 Hockey budget (plus 17).
Ipsos found 42% thought the budget fair, compared with 39% who did not, a net plus three. Last year’s budget rated a net minus six on fairness. Coalition voters were more likely than Labor voters to rate the budget as fair – 63% to 25%.
Newspoll asked whether it was fairer than previous budgets delivered by this government: 39% thought it was, while 36% did not.
Labor’s primary vote in Newspoll, published in The Australian, is up a point to 36%; the Coalition is static on 36%. The Greens rose a point to 10% and One Nation fell a point to 9%. The poll was taken from Thursday to Sunday.
When budgets do not normally bring a bounce for a government – ministers will argue it will take time for positives to show up in the polls – the result will be a disappointment for Malcolm Turnbull, although his personal ratings have improved.
In Newspoll, his net satisfaction went from minus 25 points to minus 20 points in three weeks, while satisfaction with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten declined from minus 20 to minus 22. Turnbull has also widened his lead as better prime minister from nine to 13 points – he is now ahead 44-31%.
In the Ipsos poll, taken Wednesday to Saturday, Labor’s primary vote is 35%, and the Coalition’s is 37%. The Greens are on 13%. Turnbull’s net approval is plus one, up nine points since March; Bill Shorten’s net approval is minus five, up 13 points since March. Turnbull leads Shorten as preferred prime minister 47-35%
The Ipsos poll found the government’s promised A$18.6 billion boost to spending on schools was supported overwhelmingly – by 86%. Some 58% backed increasing national debt to build infrastructure, but 37% opposed.
Treasurer Scott Morrison on Sunday continued his tough language on the big banks, which are furious about the new tax imposed on them.
When it was put to him that he could not stop them hitting customers with it he said: “In the same way that banks have put up interest rates even when there hasn’t been a move in the Reserve Bank cash rate. I mean, banks will find any way they can to charge their customers more.”
He reiterated that the government would pressure the banks through the regulator not to pass on the tax to customers. “But the best thing you can do is if you are unhappy with how a bank is seeking to fleece you – that’s what they would be doing if they pass this on – go to another bank.”
The tax was just six basis points, he said on the ABC. “Reserve Bank cash rates move by 25 basis points at a time and to suggest that this is the end of financial civilisation as we know it is one of the biggest overreaches in a whinge about a tax I’ve ever seen.”
One of the primary objectives of the 2017-18 budget is likely to be to put some distance – politically and in terms of economic policy – between the Turnbull government and its predecessor, that of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The Abbott government came to office with a view that any and all public debt was “bad”, and that returning the budget to surplus as quickly as possible was a political and economic imperative. Hence, its first budget emphasised cuts in government spending, including in areas where it had previously promised there would be no cuts.
And it increased taxes, despite having previously promised there would be no tax increases under a Coalition government. The political legacy of those broken promises – and the widespread (and largely justified) perception that those measures were manifestly unfair – contributed to Malcolm Turnbull’s near-death experience at last July’s federal election.
The first budget of the returned Turnbull government will be largely about burying the legacy of its predecessor.
Treasurer Scott Morrison will pronounce the death rites for the so-called “zombie” spending cuts left over from the 2014 budget, which the Senate has refused to pass. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, these are still contributing almost A$8.5 billion to the improvement in the budget bottom line over the four years to 2019-20 (forecast in last year’s MYEFO). It’s also contributing almost A$43 billion of projected savings over the ten years to 2026-27.
The government will of course be seeking savings from the same areas as were to be affected by these zombie measures. But, as we have seen with the announcements last week regarding universities and schools, the savings sought will be smaller.
In addition, greater attention will be paid to perceptions of “fairness” than was the case with the “zombie” measures. The same is likely to be the case with regard to the health measures to be announced in the budget itself.
The budget will also confirm that the so-called “temporary deficit repair levy” will lapse on 1 July. This was the 2% surcharge on the top marginal personal income tax rate which was the only significant taxation measure actually implemented by the Abbott government.
The foreshadowed distinction between “good” and “bad” debt is another element of the budget’s effort to distance the Turnbull government from its predecessor. For all of Tony Abbott’s efforts to portray himself as the infrastructure prime minister, public infrastructure spending actually declined on his watch.
That partly reflected the Abbott government’s unwillingness to accept the advice of then RBA governor Glenn Stevens, the IMF, the OECD and others, that government borrowing, especially at record low interest rates, to fund well-targeted infrastructure investment was a good thing.
In this year’s budget, the government will foreshadow additional borrowing in order to finance additional infrastructure spending. Some of this will be on projects that would clearly meet Glenn Stevens’ criteria of “appropriate governance” and “appropriate pricing” – such as a second Sydney Airport. Some of it will be on projects which, more likely than not, would not pass those tests.
But the government will seek to quarantine this “good” debt from detracting from its policy and political goal of returning the budget to surplus. It will do this by focusing attention on the net operating balance or difference between revenues and operating expenses – as state and territory governments and the New Zealand government have done in their budgets for decades.
Indeed, by focusing on this measure, the budget might be able to proclaim a return to surplus in 2019-20, a year earlier than projected for the underlying cash balance.
Such an achievement would perhaps allow the government to gloss over the fact that the budget will do far less to address the on-going deterioration in housing affordability, than it had foreshadowed earlier this year.
The proposed bond aggregator will provide a vehicle for community and not-for-profit providers of affordable rental housing to borrow larger sums, for longer terms and at lower interest rates, from the bond markets. This is a welcome initiative for a sector of the housing market that has for too long received too little attention from governments.
But the government is clearly unwilling to contemplate any measures that might reduce the competition which low-income renters increasingly face from middle-income households who are no longer able to afford to become home-owners. That’s in no small part because of the competition which they in turn face from investors who enjoy tax concessions more favourable than in almost any other “advanced” economy.
This competition has seen the share of housing loans going to investors rise from less than 20% twenty-five years ago to almost 50% in recent years.
The only measure which the budget is likely to include as a form of purported assistance to would-be home-buyers – a mooted plan to allow prospective first-time buyers to make pre-tax contributions to a dedicated savings account from which they could later withdraw in order to fund a deposit. It’s only marginally less worse than the idea of allowing would-be home-buyers to draw down their superannuation savings in order to enhance their deposits.
This was a proposal which Prime Minister Turnbull rightly described as “thoroughly bad”. But as a piece of product differentiation from the Abbott government, which did absolutely nothing in the housing arena, it fits with what is likely to be the most important theme of this week’s budget.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has taken a swipe at Malcolm Turnbull’s schools plan, pointing out it did not go to the Coalition party oom and predicting it will be “pretty vigorously debated” there when parliament resumes next week.
In provocative comments on the government’s major attempt to neutralise Labor’s advantage on education, Abbott said it was a “a very big change of policy that the prime minister announced”.
The government on Tuesday committed to an extra A$18.6 billion in funding to Australian schools over the next decade, including more than $2.2 billion in this budget for the first four years.
“I note that at this stage it’s hard to see that any of this extra funding is specifically tied to better academic outcomes and better student performance,” Abbott said.
“I’ve always thought that the problem with our school system is not so much lack of funding, because there’s been very big increases in education funding over the last decade without a commensurate increase in outcomes.
“The problem is that we need better teachers not just more teachers.
“We need much more academic rigour in the curriculum, we need much more principal autonomy and we need much more parental involvement. That’s what we need in schools,” he said on 2GB.
Abbott did not mention the inquiry to be done by David Gonski – who prepared the 2011 report on which the funding commitments are based – into how the money can be invested to get better student outcomes. This review was announced as part of Tuesday’s plan. It is to report in December, and the government wants the recommended reforms tied to the states’ funding.
Under the government’s plan, a handful of wealthy non-government schools stand to lose some money. Asked whether he would be speaking up for two schools in his electorate that would go backwards, Abbott said he would not flag what may or may not be said in the partyroom.
“I just know that it’s been almost an article of faith in our party since the time of Menzies that we were the party that promoted parental choice in education, we were the party that promoted choice in health care, and I think it’s very important that we maintain our traditional position as the party which respects freedom of choice in both education and health,” he said.
The Greens on Wednesday signalled they are open to negotiations to pass the government’s schools package through the Senate.
As Labor, the states, and Catholic schools authorities attacked the plan, Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that while it was “early days”, the government’s announcement “puts the issue of needs-based funding firmly on the national agenda” and “we are open to a conversation about it”.
If the government got support from the Greens it would require just one additional vote in the Senate.
Nick Xenophon, who commands three Senate votes, said his team needed to get a full briefing. He said that in getting Gonski to give his imprimatur, the government had “pulled a rabbit out of the hat”.
The announcement was certainly an improvement on the government’s earlier position, Xenophon said. Gonski’s statements would carry “a fair degree of weight, but that’s not the only consideration”. “We will sit down constructively with the government and engage with other stakeholders,” he said.
Here’s some advice for Malcolm Turnbull as he prepares for his first face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump: reflect on how his predecessors as prime minister have performed in their interactions with a great and powerful friend.
Turnbull can choose from various examples that have reflected well – or poorly, as the case may be – on Australia’s sovereignty and independence of thought and action.
There are too many examples of poor judgement to ignore. They are born, unfortunately, from the sort of clichéd definitions of the relationship that inevitably surface at times like these.
In that regard, Turnbull’s speechwriters might give the first world war’s Battle of Hamel – in which Australian troops under the command of Sir John Monash prevailed with the help of a small number of Americans – a rest.
The Hamel connection – American involvement was scaled back by its commander – is exaggerated for reasons that have less to do with its importance in the scheme of things than it does with an Australian desire to remind the US of its ongoing security obligations.
Let’s go back to John Curtin in 1942, when he requested American assistance in waters to Australia’s immediate north in defence of what is now Papua New Guinea. This came after Winston Churchill – under enormous pressure at home – could not answer the call. Bear in mind the might of the British Navy in the Pacific had been decimated when, on December 10, 1941 – three days after Pearl Harbour – the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk in a few short hours.
The US responded without delay to Curtin’s pleas, and joined the Battle of the Coral Sea. Australian and US naval forces combined to defeat a Japanese naval armada. Australia’s security policy was redefined in the process.
From that moment, Australia would look not to Britain – which no longer ruled the waves – but across the Pacific to the US as its principal security guarantor. The ANZUS Treaty giving effect to that alliance was signed in 1951.
The Battle of the Coral Sea between May 4 and May 8, 1942 – whose 75th anniversary will be marked on board the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in New York this week – is an event in Australian diplomatic and security history whose importance cannot be overstated.
Curtin died in office prematurely. His Labor successor, Ben Chifley, presided over a continued strengthening of security ties as the allies pushed the Japanese from their Pacific strongholds until the war ended in 1945.
Robert Menzies built on these security foundations during his long reign as prime minister from 1949 to 1966 – even though his heart remained in Westminster.
Here begin the teaching moments for Turnbull.
Menzies mistakenly aligned Australian policy with the US on recognition of the reality in China after the Nationalists were expelled to Taiwan in 1949. Here he might have been better off following the UK’s example. Britain under a Clement Attlee-led Labour government was one of the first to recognise the People’s Republic of China.
Australia would not do so until the Whitlam government of 1972, 23 years after Mao Zedong prevailed.
Australia persisted in the fiction that the Nationalists on Taiwan were China’s legitimate government, and thus entitled to its seat on the Security Council – even as US President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were reaching out secretly to the communists in Beijing.
But back to Menzies as an example of risk and reward in the US relationship. This has relevance today, as pressures on Australia will surely ebb and flow to support US initiatives that will have a military component.
In 1965, Menzies committed Australian troops to Vietnam against Labor opposition. Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s speech in the House of Representatives opposing the commitment was almost certainly his finest hour. Seven years later, 500 Australian troops had been killed, as had many thousands more Americans. Saigon was subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Argument will persist as to whether US engagement in Indochina gave nascent states in a post-colonial era in Asia breathing space to resist China’s attempts to spread its revolution. But proponents of this point of view are hard put to justify material losses and the Vietnam debacle’s impact on US self-confidence.
From an Australian perspective, Vietnam produced some of the more dispiriting moments in our diplomatic history – from Harold Holt’s “all the way with LBJ” to describe Australia’s fealty to the alliance, to John Gorton’s “we’ll go a Waltzing Matilda with you”.
Then came Whitlam. His relations with Nixon were so bad that speculation has persisted to this day – without credible evidence, it must be said – that the CIA played a role in his downfall.
Prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating maintained what might be regarded as fairly conventional relationships with the US during the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies. This included Australia’s naval support for the US in the first Gulf War.
Then came John Howard, and the fateful events of September 11, 2001. But even before 9/11 Howard had reverted – if we can put it that way – to some of the clichés that had bedevilled ties with the US in earlier years.
His description of Australia’s relations with the US as that of a “deputy sheriff” in Asia was unfortunate. And it was compounded, it might be said, by him joining George W. Bush’s other amigos – Britain’s Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar – building the case for the rush to war in Iraq.
If there is a recent indelible teaching moment for Turnbull it is the rushed invasion of Iraq, which has cost the US in excess of US$2 trillion and counting, and helped destabilise the Middle East. Turnbull would be wise to resist pressure to commit Australian ground troops to combat in the Middle East under present circumstances.
Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard avoided, for the most part, mistakes of some of their predecessors – although Gillard’s cloying speech to the US Congress in 2011 might have been avoided. This ended with a lachrymose prime minister talking about her belief the US could “do anything” after viewing the moon landing.
Rudd should be given credit for his efforts in pushing for the establishment of the G20, and then its important role in combating a global financial crisis in 2007-08.
Tony Abbott made no secret of his belief that a Barack Obama presidency was not sufficiently forward-leaning in its efforts to contain Islamic State, and its reluctance to exercise a more muscular approach to its security obligations more generally.
This brings us back to Turnbull and his meeting with Trump.
Turnbull has not been short of advice from former ambassadors, commentators and virtually anyone else with access to a media megaphone. But he should disregard the sort of advice that suggests he might seek to pander to a US president like no other in recent memory.
What Turnbull needs to do in his private meetings with Trump and his advisers is assert Australia’s belief in the need for a continued – possibly expanded – US presence in the Indo-Pacific, and the absolute requirement for the administration to manage its relationship with China effectively.
Concerns about North Korean adventurism might be an immediate preoccupation. But, in the longer term, nothing is more important from an Australian perspective than continued US engagement in Asia, and thus its ability to manage a relationship with a rising power.
History confers on Turnbull an obligation to get the balance right between Australia’s economic and security interests.
He should also be mindful of a shift in Australian domestic opinion regarding the US relationship, and take it upon himself to acknowledge it is better if alliance policy rests on a bipartisan consensus.
Calls by prominent Labor figures, including former prime minister Paul Keating and former foreign minister Gareth Evans, for Australia to be less “reflexive” in its dealings with the US – as Evans put it – represent significant viewpoints in the centre and on the left of Australian politics. But Turnbull should resist the temptation of his predecessors – notably Howard in particular – to deploy differences that might exist in Australia about the alliance as a wedge issue.
Most of all, Turnbull needs to define Australia’s relationship with the US as partner not supplicant.
Whatever judgements might be made about Trump – good, bad and indifferent – what is clear is he is above all else a transactional player. In other words, what value might he place on the US relationship with Australia and his own personal relations with Turnbull?
Turnbull might look to Canada’s Justin Trudeau for guidance in getting the tone right – not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too mushy.
The Turnbull government is seeking to seize the political initiative on schools, with a substantial funding injection and the appointment of David Gonski – who delivered the 2011 landmark schools report – to chair a “Gonski 2.0” review on how to improve the results of Australian students.
A day after announcing university students will pay more for their education, Turnbull unveiled an extra A$18.6 billion in funding to Australian schools over the next decade, including more than $2.2 billion in this budget for the first four years.
Turnbull said that, under the government’s plan, “every school will receive Commonwealth funding on a genuine needs basis”.
At a joint news conference with Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham, Gonski – who is a personal friend of Turnbull’s – said he was very pleased the government accepted the fundamental recommendations of the 2011 report, particularly the needs basis. The proposed injection of money was “substantial”, he said.
Turnbull and Birmingham said the plan would ensure all schools and states moved to an equal Commonwealth share of the Gonski-recommended Schooling Resource Standard in a decade. The federal government would meet a 20% share of the standard for government schools, up from 17% this year, and 80% for non-government schools (currently 77%).
Birmingham said 24 non-government schools stood to lose money (there would be some transition money for a couple of these schools with a large number of students with special needs). They are among some 353 presently over-funded schools which will be worse-off under the plan than they would otherwise have been. Australia has more than 9,000 schools in total across the government, Catholic and independent sectors.
Pete Goss, the school education program director at the Grattan Institute, said: “We still need to understand all the details but the overall shape of the package is very encouraging.
“The minister has set a clear 10-year goal of getting every school funded consistently by the Commonwealth. The additional funding will help ease that transition.
“Some schools that have been on a great wicket for a long time will lose out – and so they should. This is a gutsy call and it is the right call.”
Goss said he understood there had been “an internal debate” in the government to arrive at this plan.
The announcement is a substantial turnaround for the government, which had previously planned more modest funding, and refused to embrace the final two years of Gonski.
But Turnbull was in full Gonski mode on Tuesday: “This reform will finally deliver on David Gonski’s vision, six years ago, after his landmark review of Australian school education,” he said.
Turnbull is trying to take some of the shine off Labor’s political advantage on education which, with health, was at the heart of its 2016 election campaign. Next week’s budget will attempt to neutralise some of the Coalition’s problems on health, which saw Labor run its “Mediscare” at the election.
Birmingham said that over the next four years there would be growth in Commonwealth funding of some 4.2% per student across Australia – “importantly, most of it geared into the government sector where need is greater and the gap to close in terms of Commonwealth share is larger”.
He said the government would legislate the decade-long program, and impose conditions to ensure states did not lower their funding. “We will be expecting states to at least maintain their real funding,” he said. “This is about real extra money to help Australian schools and students.”
What Turnbull dubbed the “Gonski 2.0” review will recommend on “the most effective teaching and learning strategies to reverse declining results, and seek to raise the performance of schools and students”.
It will advise on how the extra Commonwealth funding “should be used by Australian schools to improve student achievement and school performance”, Turnbull and Birmingham said in a statement.
Another member of the original Gonski panel, Ken Boston, will also be on the review, which will report to Turnbull in December.
The government says its new arrangements will replace the patchwork of agreements left by Labor.
But Labor’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said this was “a smoke and mirrors, pea and thimble effort to hide the fact that instead of cutting $30 billion from schools over the decade, this government will cut $22 billion from schools over the decade”.
“The big picture here is that in the 2014 budget, Tony Abbott promised a $30 billion cut to our schools and in the 2017 budget, Malcolm Turnbull wants a big pat on the back for changing that cut to a $22 billion cut,” she said.
“A week out from the federal budget this is taking out the trash,” she said. “They want clear air on budget night.”
Malcolm Turnbull has flagged he expects to meet US President Donald Trump in New York next week, although late Tuesday his office said the government was still waiting for the formal invitation.
The occasion is the 75th anniversary of the Coral Sea battle.
Speaking at the Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates during an Anzac commemoration trip that included Iraq and Afghanistan, Turnbull said he looked forward to discussions with Trump “at an early opportunity”. “We’ll be making announcements very shortly about that,” he said.
Turnbull would only make the visit for the Coral Sea anniversary if it provided an opportunity for his first face-to-face meeting with Trump. Even though it would be brief, the timing is awkward – he would be overseas only days before the crucial May 9 budget.
Turnbull, who has had talks with senior administration figures in the past few days, is anxious to get a first-hand feel for Trump.
During his visit to Australia at the weekend, US Vice-President Mike Pence briefed Turnbull on the new administration’s defence and foreign policy assessments, as tensions ramp up with North Korea.
Pence also reaffirmed the US would honour the deal to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, while again making clear Trump’s dislike of the agreement the Australian government forged with the Obama administration. Trump expressed this displeasure forcefully in his now-notorious phone conversation with Turnbull earlier this year.
While in Kabul, Turnbull had the opportunity for talks with US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Asked at his news conference whether Australia needed to do more in the Middle East region, Turnbull said that in both the Afghan and Iraq theatres “there is going to need to be a long-term commitment”.
“But it is one of supporting, above all of training, the Afghan and Iraqi security forces, both military and police, to ensure that they have the ability to defend their own country, to push back the terrorists where they’ve made gains, and to secure the territory that the government is holding.”
He said that as the situation evolved “we’ll consider requests for further support”.
The government on Tuesday announced humanitarian and stabilisation help for Iraq worth an extra A$110 million over three years. This brings to more than $530 million Australia’s humanitarian help for Iraq and Syria since 2014.
During his trip Turnbull met both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Whatever the arguments for the changes governing foreign skilled workers announced by Malcolm Turnbull, make no mistake – this is about an embattled government wanting to send a strong political message.
One clue was Turnbull’s reference to placing first not just Australian jobs, but “Australian values”. He made mention of “Australian values” both in his Facebook video and his news conference, when announcing the replacement of the 457 visa.
In this context, “Australian values” is itself a value-laden term.
For Turnbull, it was something of a rhetorical juggle, as he acknowledged Australia as an “immigration nation” and noted the many workers “from war-shattered Europe” who helped build the Snowy scheme, while declaring Australian jobs must be filled by Australians wherever possible.
The government has been under pressure over foreign workers from left and right – from Labor (Bill Shorten introduced a private member’s bill to tighten the 457 scheme), as well as from One Nation.
Pauline Hanson was – of course – quick to claim credit for Turnbull’s move.
A few years ago another federal government on the defensive went to a like place. In 2013, Julia Gillard pledged to “stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.
Labor sources at the time said she was tapping into what they described as the “economic patriotism” embedded in the “battler” view of the world; Labor research had found a strong view among voters that there were available jobs Australians couldn’t get. Attitudes are unlikely to have changed, and the Turnbull government knows it.
For the record, in response to Gillard then-opposition leader Tony Abbott defended the 457 entrants and accused her of “trying to divide Australians”.
It’s unclear precisely how much difference the Turnbull government’s change – cast to sound dramatic but seen by some as mainly a rebadging – will make.
It is scrapping the 457 visa, under which foreign workers are brought in on four-year visas. It will be replaced by a new Temporary Skill Shortage Visa program with two streams. One will provide a two-year visa; the other, a visa for up to four years.
The list of requirements will include applicants having at least two years work experience in their skilled occupation; mandatory criminal history checks; and the capacity for just one on-shore renewal under the short-term stream. The short-term stream won’t provide a path to permanent residency. There will be tightened English language requirements for the medium-term stream.
The government has given no estimate of the expected outcome of the change.
Turnbull said that at present there were about 95,000 457 visa holders. But he could not quantify the likely impact of the new system beyond saying: “Because we are narrowing significantly the number of occupations and we are increasing the qualifications that visa applicants need to have, it is our expectation that all other things being equal you will see a material reduction over time of people working on these temporary visas.”
But “it depends upon all other things being equal … which they are not. It depends on the demands of the economy, emerging skill gaps, changes in the economy.”
It’s worth remembering that 457 visa workers are less than 1% of the workforce.
The present list of 651 eligible occupations has been cut by 216, to 435. Some 268 occupations will be available under the new two-year visa, and only 167 will be eligible for the four-year visa.
The occupations chopped range widely, including jobs as diverse as deer farmer, project builder, betting agency manager, chemical engineer, horse trainer, singer, antique dealer, and bed and breakfast operator.
It’s not clear precisely how judgements were made on some of them, such as commissioned police officer, policy analyst, television presenter, and archivist.
Some of the deletions – such as “historian” and “archaeologist” – are hardly jobs to which an “Australians first” rule should apply. Nor will their exclusion from the list have much impact on the Aussie labour market.
Then again, much of this is definitional. Quite a lot of the deleted occupations could be re-classified to come within the revised lists.
Indeed, Jenny Lambert, from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, pointed out that the 457s were “rarely if ever” applied to many of the deleted occupations. She suggested that the problem with 457s has been one of public perception rather than the scheme’s operation. “The perception of the program is the biggest issue and we need to reset it,” she told Sky.
The Australian Industry Group’s Innes Willox said that “the 457 visa system was a highly valued program but misunderstandings of its use and exaggerations of its misuse led it to become a lightning rod for anti-migration sentiments”.
Supporting the reforms, Willox said: “The temporary skilled visa program should now be considered as settled without the need for further reviews and disruptive policy change”.
In other words, business’ main preoccupation is that the importation of foreign skilled workers should be taken off the political football field.
That may be wishful thinking. Meanwhile, eyes will be on whether the government puts any squeeze in the budget on the general immigration program, which has been coming under attack from some critics in a housing affordability debate that’s run increasingly out of the government’s control.
This week’s Newspoll, conducted 16-19 March from a sample of 1820, has Labor leading 52-48, but this is a 3 point gain for the Coalition since the previous Newspoll, three weeks ago. Primary votes are 37% for the Coalition (up 3), 35% for Labor (down 2), 10% for One Nation (steady) and 9% for the Greens (down 1).
Despite the relatively strong result for the Coalition, Turnbull’s ratings only improved slightly: 30% (up 1) were satisfied, and 57% (down 2) were dissatisfied, for a net approval of -27. Shorten’s net approval was -28, down two points.
On Thursday, the first day of Newspoll’s fieldwork, Turnbull announced an extension of the Snowy River hydro-electric plan, and it appears that this announcement has given the Coalition at least a temporary boost. The public likes infrastructure policies that appear to offer solutions to Australia’s energy crisis.
Labor may also have been damaged by the furore over new ACTU secretary Sally McManus’ comments that workers could break “unjust” laws.
An additional Newspoll question found 47% in favour of a proposed change to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, while 39% were opposed. Kevin Bonham thinks the long preamble to this question is skewed towards supporting the proposed change.
Essential at 55-45 to Labor
This week’s Essential, conducted over the last two weeks from a sample of 1800, had Labor gaining two points to lead 55-45. Primary votes were Labor 37%, Coalition 34%, One Nation 10%, Greens 9% and Nick Xenophon Team 3%.
Newspoll and Essential disagree markedly this week, but Newspoll has performed well when measured against election results, so I trust it more than Essential.
Additional Essential questions are based on one week’s sample. On attributes of the political parties, Labor was up since June 2016 on positive attributes and down on negative ones, with the exception of being too close to the big corporate and financial interests (up 5). For the Liberals, the perception that they are divided was up 16 points, and “has a good team of leaders” down 9 points. Labor led on all positive attributes and trailed on all negative ones, with some differences of well over 10 points.
77% thought their gas and electricity costs had increased over the last few years, with only 2% thinking prices had decreased. 75% would approve of a reservation policy where a percentage of gas is reserved for domestic use, and only 6% would disapprove. 68% approved of the SA government’s energy plan, and only 11% disapproved. 31% thought coal seam gas mining on farming land should be restricted, 25% thought it should be banned altogether, and only 14% thought there was already sufficient regulation of coal seam gas mining.
In last week’s Essential, Turnbull’s net approval was -17, down two points since February. Shorten’s net approval was -19, also down two points.
Proposed tax increases that were aimed at the wealthy and multinational corporations polled strongly, but removing GST exemptions or increasing the GST rate did not have much support. 46% disapproved of the $50 billion in tax cuts for medium and large businesses, while 24% approved. 43% thought the company tax cuts would deliver business bigger profits, and that this money should be used for schools, hospitals, etc. 25% thought the company tax cuts would bring our tax into line with other countries, and deliver more jobs through greater business investment.
Trust in various media has taken an across the board hit since February 2016, but the ABC and SBS are the most trusted media.
Essential’s polling on penalty rates from two weeks ago found 56% disapproving of the Fair Work Commission’s decision to reduce Sunday penalty rates, with 32% approving. 34% strongly disapproved with just 9% strongly approving. 57% thought the penalty rate reduction would result in business making bigger profits, while 24% thought business would employ more workers. 51% thought the government should legislate to protect penalty rates, while 31% thought the government should accept the decision.
WA election late counting: Labor wins 41 of 59 lower house seats
At the WA election held 11 March, Labor won a massive landslide in the lower house, winning 41 of the 59 seats (up 20 since the 2013 election), to 13 for the Liberals (down 18) and 5 for the Nationals (down 2). According to Antony Green, Labor’s percentage of lower house seats (69.5%) is the highest it has ever won at WA lower house elections.
In the upper house, Labor and the Greens are likely to win a combined 18 of the 36 seats. Below the line votes have not yet been added to the count. The Greens and micro parties tend to perform well on below the line votes at the expense of the major parties. The Greens will be hoping that a below the line surge allows them to defeat the Liberals for the final seat in South Metro region. Below the line votes in that region may also give the Daylight Saving party a seat at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.
If Labor and the Greens combined win 18 of the 36 upper house seats, Labor could attempt to persuade a non-Labor/Greens member to be the upper house President. The President of the WA upper house can only vote when the votes are tied, so such a manoeuvre would give Labor and the Greens 18 of the 35 floor votes.
Dutch election: far right flops again
The Dutch election was held last Wednesday. The 150 members of the Dutch Parliament are elected by proportional representation. Geert Wilders’ far right Party of Freedom had a large lead in the polls in December, but that lead fell as the election approached, and they ended the campaign predicted to win a few seats less than the conservative/liberal VVD.
In the event, the VVD won 33 seats, to 20 for the Party of Freedom. It is likely that the VVD will head the new Dutch government, after negotiations with other parties are completed.
The WA and Dutch elections have both featured far right parties slumping as election day approached. Many supporters of such parties are against established parties, but not in favour of the far right’s policies. As these policies receive more exposure closer to the election, these supporters can desert.
The main reason Donald Trump won the US Presidency is that he won the Republican party’s nomination. Had Trump run a third party campaign, he would not have come close to winning. The US Republican party is already very right wing, and most Republicans utterly detest the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. Many Republicans probably had reservations about voting for Trump, but hated the alternative more.
French Presidential election: 23 April and 7 May
The French Presidential election will be held in two rounds, with the top two vote winners from the first round on 23 April proceeding to a runoff on 7 May, barring a very unlikely majority vote victory for one candidate in the first round.
Current polls have the far right Marine Le Pen leading the first round with 26%, followed by centrist Emmanuel Macron on 25%, conservative Francois Fillon on 18%, Socialist Benoit Hamon on 13% and the hard left Jean-Luc Melenchon on 12%. Other candidates have negligible vote shares.
While Le Pen is narrowly ahead in the first round, second round polling has Macron trouncing her by over 60-40, while Fillon defeats Le Pen by about 56-44.
With the Socialists discredited by Francois Hollande’s ineffectual Presidency (he did not run for re-election), a conservative was the clear favourite to win this election. However, Fillon has been dogged by allegations that he paid his wife and children government money for fake jobs, causing his poll ratings to slide. Last Tuesday, Fillon was placed under formal investigation over these allegations, the closest French equivalent to being charged.
Despite the allegations, Fillon has refused to quit. He won his party’s US style primary in November 2016, and his party has had no legal means to replace him. Nominations closed on Friday, so it is now too late to replace a candidate.