Polls say Labor and Coalition in a 50-50 tie, Trump set to be acquitted by US Senate


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

The first Newspoll of 2021 has the major parties tied at 50-50 on two-party preferred, a one-point gain for Labor since the final 2020 Newspoll in late November. The poll was conducted January 27-30 from a sample of 1,512 people.

Primary votes were 42% Coalition (down one point), 36% Labor (steady), 10% Greens (down one) and 3% One Nation (up one).

63% were satisfied with PM Scott Morrison’s performance (down three) and 33% were dissatisfied (up three), for a net approval of +30 points. While this is still very high, analyst Kevin Bonham says it is Morrison’s lowest net approval since April.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese had a net approval of -2, down five points. Morrison led Albanese by 57-29 as better prime minister (60-28 in November).

While much commentary has written off Labor for the next election, a source of hope for the opposition is that while the Coalition has usually been ahead since the COVID crisis began, the two-party-preferred margin has been close.




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Morrison’s great approval ratings have not translated into big leads for the Coalition. It is plausible that by the middle of this year COVID will not be a major threat owing to a global vaccination program.

A return to a focus on normal issues could assist Labor in undermining Morrison’s ratings and the Coalition’s slender lead on voting intentions.

Albanese has come under attack from the left owing to Thursday’s reshuffle in which Chris Bowen took the climate change portfolio from Mark Butler.

But the Greens lost a point in Newspoll rather than gaining. With the focus on COVID, climate change appears to have lost salience.

On Australia Day and climate change

In an Ipsos poll for Nine newspapers, taken before January 25 from a sample of 1,220 people, 48% disagreed with changing Australia Day from January 26, while 28% agreed.

But by 49-41 voters thought it likely Australia Day would be changed within the next ten years.

In a Morgan SMS poll, conducted January 25 from a sample of 1,236 people, 59% thought January 26 should be known as Australia Day, while 41% thought it should be known as Invasion Day.

In an Essential poll conducted in mid-January, 42% (down 20 since January 2020) thought Australia was not doing enough to address climate change, 35% (up 16) thought we were doing enough and 10% (up two) thought we were doing too much.




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But there was a slight increase in those thinking climate change was caused by human activity (58%, up two since January 2020), while 32% (steady) thought we are just witnessing a normal fluctuation in the earth’s climate.

Trump set to be acquitted in impeachment trial

I related on January 20 that Donald Trump was impeached by the US House of Representatives over his role in inciting the January 6 riots with his baseless claims of election fraud.

Donald Trump boarding a helicopter as he leaves the White House.
Donald Trump departs the White House.
Alex Brandon/AP/AAP

The Senate is tied at 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the majority with her casting vote. But it requires a two-thirds majority to convict a president, so 17 Republicans would need to join the Democrats for conviction.

On January 26, a vote was called on whether it was constitutional to try a former president. The Senate ruled it constitutional by 55-45, but just five Republicans joined all Democrats.

That is far short of the 17 required to convict, so Trump is set to be acquitted at the Senate trial that begins February 8.

Only ten of over 200 House Republicans supported impeachment. It is clear the vast majority of Congressional Republicans consider it more important to keep the Trump supporters happy than to hold Trump accountable for the rioters that attacked Congress.

In a late January Monmouth University poll, 56% approved of the House impeaching Trump while 42% disapproved. When asked whether the Senate should convict, support dropped to 52-44.




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FiveThirtyEight has started an aggregate of polls to track new President Joe Biden’s ratings. His current ratings are 54.3% approve and 34.6% disapprove for a net approval of +19.7 points.

While Biden’s ratings are better than Trump’s at any stage of his presidency, they are worse on net approval than all presidents prior to Trump this early in their terms.

Prior to Trump, presidents were given a honeymoon even by opposition party supporters, but it is unlikely the 30% or so who believe Biden’s win illegitimate will ever approve of him.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.

Biden’s Senate majority doesn’t just super-charge US climate action, it blazes a trail for Australia



Shutterstock

Jim Orchard, Monash University

Last week, somewhat overshadowed by the events in Washington, the Democrats took control of the US Senate. The Democrats now hold a small majority in both the House and the Senate until 2022, giving President-elect Joe Biden a better chance of getting climate actions through Congress.

Biden’s key nominees to environment and climate positions in his administration must be approved by the Senate, and the Democrat majority provides a clearer path for this.

Now we have a better picture of the climate-engaged Biden administration, the question for Australia is how the changes will affect our domestic climate politics.

An aggressive US climate policy rollout could provide a much needed dose of reality to the climate discourse in Canberra. It may also prompt Australia’s major parties to acknowledge the inevitability of a transition to a zero carbon economy.

Protesters outside the White House calling for climate action
The Biden presidential win has big implications for Australia’s domestic climate policies.
Susan Walsh/AP

Biden’s climate-fighting team

The nominees for Biden’s climate team are both well qualified and set new benchmarks for diversity. The initial response to the picks has been positive, both from the US climate activist community and more mainstream Democrats.

Congressional representative Deb Haaland will become the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Michael Regan, currently head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be the first African American to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).




Read more:
How Biden and Kerry could rebuild America’s global climate leadership


Biden also tapped several Obama alumni for key climate roles. The most notable is perhaps former EPA head Gina McCarthy, who will fill a newly created role as White House national climate advisor.

Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm is nominated as Secretary of Energy, and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg will lead the Department of Transport. Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s appointment as US Presidential Special Envoy on Climate was announced in late November.

The team will be charged with delivering Biden’s ambitious climate platform, which includes:

Native American congresswoman Deb Haaland
Native American congresswoman Deb Haaland is among Biden’s diverse, well qualified nominees to key roles.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

What this means for Australia

Beyond simply rejoining Paris, one suspects Biden will want Kerry to reclaim the US’ leadership role in the global quest for zero carbon. This will create a challenge for Australia.

Our Paris targets are modest at best. However in recent years, Trump’s antagonistic position on climate action meant the US absorbed the bulk of international criticism. The Biden win means Australia’s perceived lack of climate ambition will come under greater international scrutiny.

One suspects Morrison and other Liberal leaders understand key parts of their base object to Australia being viewed as a climate laggard. That much was made clear by the ousting of Liberal MP Tony Abbott in the blue-ribbon seat of Warringah at the last election. It follows that these Liberals privately recognise their net-zero timetable needs greater precision than the current “sometime in the second half of the century” approach.




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Not all in the Coalition, especially in the National Party, share this view. Some will point to electorates most vulnerable to economic harm from reduced fossil fuel extraction, reformed land-use practices and lower agriculture emissions.

But politicians need to be adaptable. For Morrison to succeed in a post-Trump world, he must shift policies in a way that satisfies wealthy Liberal voters without driving regional voters to One Nation.

The Australian Labor Party will no doubt welcome the Coalition’s international climate discomfort. But should they regain power at the next election, they will face broadly similar issues. And the Greens will push Labor for aggressive targets hard to sell in key regional electorates.

Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal in Parliament
Here’s hoping the Biden win prompts Australia’s major parties to realise the net-zero transition is inevitable.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Learning from the US experience

Australia’s journey to decarbonisation has more in common with the US than most other developed nations, such as those in Europe. Challenges and opportunities we share with the US include:

  • the need to deal with emissions from land-use (such as tree clearing) and agriculture emissions

  • an historic reliance on coal and coal mining

  • domestic natural gas extraction

  • high quality wind and solar resources (and hence possible future hydrogen production)

  • good potential to capture and store carbon dioxide underground

  • pumped hydro options

  • disproportionate political power among regional populations. `

So a credible Biden pathway for both carbon-free electricity by 2035, and a net carbon-free society by 2050, will translate reasonably well into an Australian context. Once the US shows how decarbonisation can be done, Australia’s major parties will hopefully admit the transition is unavoidable.

One hopes this acknowledgement would be reflected in domestic policies to phase out domestic coal use – perhaps adopting US systems that financially reward storage and provision of backup power. Australia must also follow Biden’s lead and plan for electric vehicles with greater urgency.

More detail and less rhetoric on climate policy would be a welcome change across Australia’s political spectrum, including specifics on how affected communities will be helped through the transition.

A coal plant in the US state of New Hampshire
Both Australia and the US historically relied on coal-burning for energy.
Jim Cole/AP

Keeping a close eye

The Biden win is good news for climate action globally. But it will bring into sharper focus the breadth of change needed to achieve zero-carbon. And a more honest and open discussion about decarbonisation will deliver inconvenient truths for all players.

This, of course, assumes Biden delivers a credible and coherent climate plan. With Republicans in a weakened congressional position for the next two years, the biggest obstacle to progress will be internal fights between moderate and progressive Democrats, particularly in the Senate.

Political leaders in Australia, and elsewhere, will be watching closely to see how Biden’s team rises to the challenge, and what their path to success looks like.




Read more:
Under Biden, the US would no longer be a climate pariah – and that leaves Scott Morrison exposed


The Conversation


Jim Orchard, Adjunct Lecturer, Monash University

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

Biden’s job gets easier after Senate wins in Georgia – but don’t expect a progressive revolution


Jared Mondschein, University of Sydney

History took place in the United States today.

Two Democrats were announced the winners of the run-off elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats, allowing the Democrats to take back control of the chamber from the Republicans.

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were the first Democrats to win a Georgia Senate race in a quarter of a century. It also marked the first time since Herbert Hoover’s loss in 1932 that a president lost a re-election campaign and both chambers of Congress in a single term.

Ossoff, Warnock and Biden at a pre-election rally in Georgia
(From left) Ossoff, Warnock and Biden at a pre-election rally in Georgia.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Also today, a number of Republicans in Congress launched their last-ditch effort to contest the outcome of a presidential election — just the third such formal objection in US history.

And thousands more people died from COVID-19, as the US continues to notch some of its highest single day death tolls since the pandemic began.

But today will be most remembered for something else entirely: the first attack on the US Capitol since the War of 1812 against the British.




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‘Delighting in causing complete chaos’: what’s behind Trump supporters’ brazen storming of the Capitol


Many warned that President Donald Trump’s violent and divisive rhetoric was inevitably going to lead to violence, though few would have predicted the Capitol itself would be overrun.

Today’s violence will remain a shocking moment for generations of Americans. Trump’s own former defence secretary, James Mattis, invoked the language of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to say that the political leaders who enabled the violence will “will live in infamy”.

Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol
Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol during the certification of the election results.
zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx/AP

No massive mandate for the Democrats

As Democrats prepare to take control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, their attention must be focused on how to address the divisiveness and extreme partisanship that has become rooted in the US, allowing such a dramatic assault on democracy to take place.

Hoover’s landslide election loss to Roosevelt in 1932 similarly gave the Democrats control of the White House and Congress. The Democrats used this opportunity to launch the New Deal — a series of government programs and initiatives intended to lift the US out of the Great Depression. It was unprecedented in its size and ambition.

Many of these programs — ranging from Social Security (a government safety net for elderly Americans) to government regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — were later expanded upon and continue through to today.




Read more:
Even if Biden has a likely win, leading a deeply divided nation will be difficult


Unlike Roosevelt and his fellow Democrats in 1932, however, Joe Biden and his Democratic colleagues did not win landslide elections in 2020.

In fact, while Biden’s 306 Electoral College votes matched the total won by Trump in 2016, his pathway to victory was smaller.

Trump’s 2016 victory came from a combined 77,000 votes in the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden’s 2020 win came as a result of a combined 45,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.

In other words, if merely 45,000 votes in those three states went for Trump, there would have been a tie in the Electoral College, likely resulting in a Trump win.

Similarly, the Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia did not win in landslides, either. And with the Senate now evenly divided by the parties, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will spend a lot of time breaking 50-50 ties of her former colleagues in the chamber.

And beyond the White House and Senate, the Democrats actually lost, on balance, a total of 10 seats to the Republicans in the House of Representatives, thereby slimming their majority to only four seats.

Democrats celebrated their two wins in Georgia.
Democrats celebrated their two wins in Georgia, their first in a US Senate race in the state since the 1990s.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

How Biden will navigate the new Congress

But there are still clear advantages for the Democrats taking control of the Senate.

With Republicans no longer controlling when, or even if, votes occur in the Senate, everything from Supreme Court justices and Cabinet appointments to major pieces of legislation will no longer be contingent on Republican Mitch McConnell, the outgoing Senate majority leader.

In such a narrowly divided chamber, though, the onus will be on the Biden administration not to lose a single Democrat.

In many ways, the most powerful position in the Senate switches from McConnell to Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the two most conservative Democratic senators. They will likely prove to be the limits as to just how progressive a Biden agenda will be.

Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin
Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin could become a crucial swing vote in the Senate.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

The Biden administration will need to get approval from a “large tent” of Democrats, including Manchin and Sinema, as well as progressives like Elizabeth Warren and the independent Bernie Sanders.

Ultimately, this slim hold on power will remain a hallmark of at least the first two years of the Biden administration.

That doesn’t, however, mean it will necessarily be divisive. In coming to the White House with more Washington experience than probably any other president in US history, Biden will need to prove that decades of experience as a “Washington insider” actually helps.

What will change for Biden — and what we can expect

Even before the Georgia races were called in the Democrats’ favour,
Merrick Garland was tipped to be Biden’s choice for attorney general. Following four years of Trump’s blatant attempts to politicise the Department of Justice, no attorney general selection has been as consequential in decades.

This is particularly pertinent because Biden has vowed to restore the Justice Department’s independence, which would prove crucial if it faces public pressure to investigate the actions of the prior administration.

Garland’s choice as attorney general is expected to restore independence to the Justice Department.
Shawn Thew/EPA

Garland is not only President Barack Obama’s former Supreme Court nominee, whom McConnell famously refused to allow a vote on. He’s also a circuit judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one of the most consequential courts in the country.

It was the fact Biden can now replace Garland’s seat on this powerful bench with another Democrat — thanks to Democratic control of the Senate – that gave him the opportunity to make the selection.




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Third time’s the charm for Joe Biden: now he has an election to win and a country to save


Derisively labelled by some a political “weather vane”, Biden is not known to be a particularly ideological politician. Unlike most other presidents, he was not elected with a well-known ideological or political slogans focused on the future (for example, “Build the wall”, “Yes, we can” or “It’s the economy, stupid”).

Instead, Biden’s most well-known 2020 slogan, “Restoring the soul of America”, seemed to herald a return to prior years.

While many Americans may be pining for more normalcy, Biden has already seemed to acknowledge that doing so would not address the root causes of the sort of mayhem that occurred on Capitol Hill.

The most pressing priorities, as defined by the Biden administration, are COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.

Taking control of the Senate, as well as the unprecedented unrest in Washington, will both widen the scope and redouble the urgency of the Biden team’s plans for addressing these issues.

But we shouldn’t expect a progressive revolution: the president-elect’s moderate tendencies are unwavering and unlikely to leave him simply because of Democrats eked out wins in Georgia. With that said, when the political spectrum has become stretched beyond conventional recognition, such moderation can often appear to be radical.The Conversation

Jared Mondschein, Senior Advisor, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

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

What’s behind Trump’s refusal to concede? For Republicans, the end game is Georgia and control of the Senate



BRANDEN CAMP/EPA

Markus Wagner, University of Wollongong

The world may have expected the chaos and uncertainty of the US presidential election to end when Joe Biden was declared the winner last weekend. But these are not normal times and Donald Trump is not a conventional president.

Concessions that used to be a part of the political process have been replaced by baseless allegations of voter fraud and election stealing, loud, all-caps shouting on Twitter and plans for a “Million MAGA March” on Washington.

The courts are the proper venue for candidates to challenge the results of elections. But a legal process requires evidence of illegality — and as of yet, the Trump campaign has produced very little.

So, then, how long can Trump string things out — and, more importantly, what’s the end game?

More lawsuits are filed, with little chance of success

Lawsuits can be filed for a number of reasons after an election: violations of state law by local election officials, discrimination against voters, political manipulation of the outcome or irregularities in the ballot counting process.

The Trump campaign has filed numerous lawsuits in both state and federal courts. Some challenges in Georgia and Michigan were quickly dismissed.




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In one case filed in Pennsylvania, Republicans sought to stop the vote count in Philadelphia on the grounds Trump campaign officials were not allowed to be close enough to the ballot-counting process.

Under questioning from the judge, the Trump campaign lawyers were forced to admit a “non-zero number” of Republican observers were present. The judge, clearly exasperated, responded by asking, “I’m sorry, then what’s your problem?”

Trump supporters demonstrate near the Pennsylvania state Capitol last weekend.
Julio Cortez/AP

In another filing before a federal court in Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign alleges voting by mail runs afoul of the Constitution’s equal protection clause, a claim bound to fail.

The most interesting – and perhaps most viable – case concerns whether a state court can extend the time limit for mail-in ballots to arrive.

In this case, the Trump campaign challenged a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to allow mail-in votes received up to three days after election day to be counted.




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The US Supreme Court twice declined to halt the counting of these votes, but did order the ballots to be segregated, leaving the door open to a challenge after the election.

A group of Republican attorneys-general filed a brief at the US Supreme Court this week urging it to take up the case.

Amy Coney Barrett, the newly appointed Supreme Court justice, did not participate in the earlier decisions, and it remains to be seen if her vote would change the outcome should the case reach the court.

Hoever, this may all be a moot point, as there are likely not enough late-arriving ballots for Trump to make up the sizeable gap to Biden in the state.

Even with a conservative majority, the US Supreme Court is unlikely to play a role in the election outcome.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Attorney-general steps into the fray

Attorney-General William Barr has also inserted the Department of Justice into the post-election drama, authorising investigations by US attorneys into alleged voter fraud across the country. The move outraged the top official in charge of voter fraud investigations, prompting him to resign.

The Department of Justice has historically stayed out of elections, a policy Barr criticised in his memo, saying

such a passive and delayed enforcement approach can result in situations in which election misconduct cannot realistically be rectified.

The department’s about-face is important for several reasons. It changes long-standing practice, as Barr himself admits. The general practice, he wrote, had been to counsel that

overt investigative steps ordinarily should not be taken until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded.

Of course, Barr has ingratiated himself with Trump before, most notably in his 2018 memo to the Justice Department expressing concerns over the Mueller investigation.

Many had wondered why Barr had remained unusually quiet for so long on the election. It appears he is back, and willing to support Trump and the Republican cause.

The end game: Georgia and the US Senate

Given Trump and Republicans have very little chance of overturning the result through these tactics, the question remains: what is the goal?

Yes, this all could be explained simply as Trump not liking to lose. But setting such indulgences aside, the reason for this obstruction appears to be two upcoming US Senate runoff elections scheduled for January 5.

Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones speaks at a Trump rally in Atlanta this week.
Mike Stewart/AP

Under Georgia law, a runoff is required between the two candidates that came out on top if neither wins 50% of the vote in the state election.

The Republicans currently hold a 50-to-48-seat edge in the Senate, meaning control of the chamber now comes down to who wins the two Georgia runoffs.

The positions taken by Republican senators in recent days are telling — they have stood firmly behind Trump’s challenges and gone out of their way not to congratulate Biden on his victory. Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota put it bluntly,

We need [Trump’s] voters […] we want him helping in Georgia.

The Senate plays a crucial role for the Biden presidency. If it remains in Republican hands, this could leave Biden with few avenues to implement his favoured policies on the economy, climate change or health care and would deny Democrats the ability to expand the Supreme Court.

Already, it’s clear the focus of the GOP is shifting toward Georgia. The two Republican Senate candidates this week called for the resignation of the secretary of state, a fellow Republican, repeating Trump’s baseless claims over voter fraud in Georgia.




Read more:
Winning the presidency won’t be enough: Biden needs the Senate too


According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this was done to appease Trump

lest he tweet a negative word about them and risk divorcing them from his base ahead of the consequential runoff.

Is democracy at stake?

It appears all these efforts are aimed at one goal: energising the Trumpian base for the Georgia run-off elections by delegitimising not only Biden, but the election process itself.

The long-term implications are momentous. The US is already bitterly divided, as demonstrated by the large voter turnout on both sides in the election. This division will only deepen the more Trump presses his claims and signals he won’t go away silently.

This continued fracturing of the US would prevent Biden from achieving one of the main goals he set out in his victory speech: bringing Republicans and Democrats together.

If half the country buys into his claims of a stolen election, the real danger is the erosion of democracy in the US as we know it.The Conversation

Markus Wagner, Associate Professor of Law, University of Wollongong

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

Simon Birmingham to become finance minister and Senate leader as Australia nominates Cormann for OECD


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, a leader of the Liberal moderates, will become Senate leader and finance minister following the imminent retirement of Mathias Cormann.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia will nominate Cormann as its candidate for secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).




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Cormann indicated in July he planned to leave parliament late this year. He has been Finance Minister throughout the Coalition government and a central figure in the preparation of its seven budgets.

Morrison said Birmingham would be sworn in as finance minister at the end of the month when Cormann retired. He would continue as minister for trade, tourism and investment.

“I am not planning on making other ministerial changes at that time,” Morrison said.

But there will be a reshuffle at the end of the year. With the current COVID-19 restrictions on international travel, Birmingham will be able to juggle his trade and extra responsibilities for a time, and he has trade negotiations in train.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash will become deputy Senate leader, a position Birmingham has held since 2018.

Birmingham has served in the Senate since 2007 and was education minister between 2015 and 2018.

Cormann, who came to Australia from Belgium in the 1990s, demonstrated his multilingual skills at a Thursday news conference with Morrison, giving short speeches in French and German.

His election to the OECD job is not certain, but Australia will campaign hard for him.

Morrison said this was “the most important Australian nomination for a major international body in decades”.

“Senator Cormann has already been an influential contributor in regional and global institutions, having attended every G20 Leaders’ meeting since 2014 and numerous G20 finance ministers, IMF and World Bank meetings over the period,” Morrison said.

“Over the last seven years, Senator Cormann has worked with many OECD leaders, and dozens of treasury, finance, and trade minister counterparts from developed and developing countries.”

Cormann will step down from the ministry and the Senate on October 30, before he is formally nominated for the OECD role. Nominations close at the end of October, with interviews and consultations beginning after that and an outcome expected in the first part of next year.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.

Winning the presidency won’t be enough: Biden needs the Senate too


Dennis Altman, La Trobe University

On November 3, Americans will vote not only for president, but for all members of the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and a long list of state and local positions.

While the names of Donald Trump, Joe Biden and presumably others appear on the ballot paper, voters actually vote for a list of electors in each state, known as the Electoral College. Their composition is based on the total number of members of Congress from each state: so, California has 55 votes, and seven states plus the District of Columbia have three.

Hillary Clinton’s problem in 2016 was that she won huge majorities in several large states but lost most of the smaller states, which the system slightly favours.




Read more:
Trump can’t delay the election, but he can try to delegitimise it


The electors meet in each state capital and their votes are tallied and reported to a joint sitting of Congress. Members of the college are expected to vote for the candidate on whose list they appear. The Supreme Court has recently ruled to make this mandatory.

Australia borrowed the names of our two parliamentary chambers from the United States. But the crucial difference is that government here is determined by control of the House of Representatives. In the United States, with a separately elected president, Congress is less powerful, and within Congress the Senate is the more significant.

While the representatives are apportioned according to population, each state has two senators who serve for six years. With the power to block legislation and senior executive and judicial appointments, a hostile Senate can make a president impotent in many areas of domestic policy.

In the 1994 mid-term elections, two years into the presidency of Bill Clinton, the Republicans captured both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. In the past three decades, there have only been eight years in which the same party has held the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives.




Read more:
Trump is struggling against two invisible enemies: the coronavirus and Joe Biden


This is not an usual pattern in American politics and, as long as the two parties straddled a wide range of positions, it did not prevent effective government. Members of Congress were expected to vote according to the demands of their constituency, not the party. On crucial issues, such as civil rights legislation or the impeachment of Richard Nixon, they were willing to cross the floor.

However, over the past 30 years, party allegiances have hardened as the centre of gravity in the two parties has polarised. The once-solid Democratic South has become Republican heartland, strengthening an ever-growing right-wing base. Meanwhile, a reaction against the centrist policies of Clinton and Obama has led to a shift to the left by Democrats, causing problems for Democrats from conservative states, such as Senator Doug Jones from Alabama.

Jones is likely to lose a seat he won in a special election because his opponent was an alleged serial sex offender, so the Democrats need to gain five Senate seats to reverse the Republican majority. If the two parties tie, the vice president has a casting vote, which was the case when George W. Bush was elected in 2000. That election marked the start of the “red” versus “blue” state terminology, which in American fashion reversed the usual assumption that blue was the colour of conservatives, red of radicals.

No other Democrat up for re-election looks vulnerable, but there are a number of states where the Republican candidate could lose. The tightest contests are in states that are not solidly red nor blue: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina.

Donald Trump at the Republican convention.
The stakes are high in North Carolina, which is why the Republicans held their convention there.
Evan Vucci/AP/AAP

The stakes are high: in North Carolina almost US$50 million (A$70 million) has been raised so far for the two candidates from the main parties. North Carolina is also a key state for the presidency, which is why the truncated Republican Convention was based there. Like Arizona, it has largely voted Republican over the past 30 years, but rapid population growth is changing party allegiances. It might join Virginia as a former Confederate state now moving back to the Democrats.

The Republicans would need to win 18 seats in the house to regain a majority, which seems unlikely. Individual candidates matter a great deal, but few observers expect more than a handful of seats to change after the Democrats’ mid-term success in 2018.

The greatest problem facing Democrats in November is the systematic way in which Republican state governments have made it more difficult for their opponents to vote. Republican state legislatures have limited the availability of polling stations, made registration more difficult and tightened ID restrictions: in Texas a gun licence is acceptable, but student ID is not. The president is constantly casting doubt over the election, aiming at postal votes in particular.

Few democratic societies have as low a turnout to vote as the United States. The Republicans believe this works in their favour and will do all it takes to keep the figures low.

The Conversation

Dennis Altman, Professorial Fellow in Human Security, La Trobe University

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

Speaker and Senate president agree to chair working group on pandemic-safe parliament


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Federal parliament’s Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan have agreed to chair a proposed bipartisan working group on how parliament can meet safely during the pandemic.

Labor put forward the working group plan after Scott Morrison cancelled the two-week sitting that was due to start August 4.

The group would comprise the leader of the house and manager of opposition business and their Senate counterparts. The ALP suggested including the chief federal and ACT medical officers but Smith and Ryan said they should be called on as needed.

The group would not decide whether the next sitting, scheduled to begin August 24, goes ahead. The government determines the House sittings, and the Senate (where the government is in a minority) is in charge of its own meetings.

Smith and Ryan said in a letter to Labor: “At the outset, we believe the six parliamentarians should receive a joint briefing from the Commonwealth and ACT Chief Medical Officers regarding the discussions to date, and risks that need to be mitigated.

“Following this briefing, we will be in possession of all relevant facts, and in a position to discuss specific options.

“We will call upon the resources of the chamber departments and the Department of Parliamentary Services as necessary to address issues raised.”

The presiding officers pointed out they had previously engaged with the opposition about the operation of parliament during COVID.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.

View from The Hill: Senate committees are one of the few bright spots in the battle to hold government to account


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

It mightn’t sound much, but it had big consequences. Fifty years ago this week, the Senate voted to set up a system of committees to scrutinise government legislation, activity and spending.

As it has evolved, this network has given teeth to a parliament that in many other ways has declined, even atrophied over the decades.

Question time in the House of Representatives has become a charade (at least, thanks to COVID-19, MPs are now behaving somewhat better during it).

It rarely extracts information. Occasionally – but less often than in earlier years – an opposition can apply the heat to the feet of a minister in trouble. We saw this with the pressure on energy minister Angus Taylor over his use of an apparently doctored document, though he stonewalled and has avoided telling the full story.

The idea that misleading parliament matters has gone out the window long ago.

Outside parliament itself, holding government to account has become more difficult. Freedom of information legislation is of only limited help, with officials and ministers often obstructing rather than fulfilling its spirit. The government has an army of “spinners”, paid for by the taxpayers to manage messages and act as “gatekeepers”. They have bred prolifically.

Public servants, who once were much more accessible to assist journalists on a “background”, non-attributable basis to understand complicated policy, have been locked away from the media by governments anxious to centralise control.

The media itself says more but arguably informs less, despite the 24-hour news cycle. And with the ever-squeezed business models of news organisations as well as around-the-clock filing, journalistic specialisation in particular policy areas has declined while overall work has increased.

While there are significant committees with representation from both houses – the joint committee on intelligence and security is the most important example – in the main it’s the Senate committees that are the real parliamentary watchdogs.

They are where the bureaucrats are regularly grilled, with officials sometimes finding themselves asked to account for what they told their Senate inquisitors previously.

Treasury has just had a particularly searing experience of this. A day after it informed the committee looking at the government’s COVID response that more than six million people were on JobKeeper, it and the Tax Office publicly confessed to a huge error. The latest estimates indicated JobKeeper would only have some 3.5 million recipients and its cost would be $70 billion not $130 billion.

The existence of the COVID committee meant Treasury could be quickly called back for a please explain.

This committee is ranging widely and seeking to interview the main players across the health and economic responses. Predictably, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declined its invitation – following the convention for lower house ministers – but Finance Minister Mathias Cormann fronted.

The COVID committee has questioned government officials on topics such as fraud being perpetrated on people’s superannuation accounts through the early access to super scheme, the working of the COVIDSafe App, the Ruby Princess debacle, the future of JobKeeper, and much else.

Its presence was especially useful given that at one stage, the parliament was sitting only for the odd single day.

The Senate committees vary in type: permanent or set up to investigate a specific matter, focused on legislation or dealing with more general references in a broad policy area, “estimates” hearings to look at spending.

Estimates hearings, held three times a year, give an opportunity to probe public servants about budgetary items and numbers. A great deal of information, trivial or important, some of it embarrassing to the government of the day, is extracted.

The effectiveness of the estimates committees is reflected in the “estimates test” some public servants are said to apply to their actions: “if we do this, how will it play out at estimates?”

But it’s a two-way game. The government and officials are, according to Labor, pushing back, with public servants increasingly asking to take questions on notice, to be answered later. This gains, at the least, breathing space.

Many public servants look a little jelly-like as they face their senator questioners, but a few mandarins enjoy the challenge. The appearances of the secretary of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, who seems to relish matching wits with the senators, are always keenly anticipated.

Some hearings can be fiery, clashes among senators at times spectacular and unseemly, and reports from inquiries simply statements of partisan positions. But other times, the work can be constructive and cooperative, especially behind the scenes, and the outcomes influential in highlighting wrongs and leading to policy change.

Senate president Scott Ryan this week said Senate committees had produced some 120 reports in the 69 years before the new system and more than 5500 in the 50 years since. Public hearings increased from 500 before the change to more than 7000 since.

Good interrogators make reputations at Senate committees that are remembered long after they leave the parliament. Former Labor senators John Faulkner and Robert Ray operated as a tag team that put the fear of god into witnesses from the public service.

Occasionally a senator can effect more lasting reform through committee work than many of their ministerial colleagues do. Former Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams pursued malfeasance by the banks and other financial institutions with unrelenting tenacity, and was a major player in having these institutions brought to account.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.

View from The Hill: Senate decides Pyne and Bishop have a few more parliamentary questions to answer


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, has cleared Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop of breaching the government’s code of ministerial standards with their post-politics jobs. But it’s doubtful the average voter would take such a literal or generous view of their conduct.

Scott Morrison had flicked to Parkinson the row over the part-time positions the two high flyers have taken that clearly overlap their previous portfolios, when the rules provide for a longer separation period.

Pyne, former defence minister, is advising EY, which operates in the defence area. Bishop, former foreign minister, is joining the board of Palladium, a global group working in aid and development.

The code says:

Ministers are required to undertake that, for an eighteen month period after ceasing to be a Minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as Minister in their last eighteen months in office.

Ministers are also required to undertake that, on leaving office, they will not take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a Minister, where that information is not generally available to the public.

The government on Monday was quick to gag an embarrassing opposition move in the lower House calling for Parkinson to probe further into the circumstances of Bishop, who told him she didn’t have any contact with Palladium while foreign minister. A video had been posted by the company, labelled “Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, commends Shared Value and Palladium’s Business Partnership Platform”. (Government sources said later that the video – in which Bishop did not use Palladium’s name – was a congratulatory one about a Foreign Affairs initiative.)

In the Senate, the government lacked the numbers to prevent the conduct of Pyne and Bishop being referred to a committee. The motion from Centre Alliance’s Rex Patrick won support from Labor, Greens and non-Greens crossbenchers, passing 35 to 29. The committee has three opposition members, two government senators and a One Nation representative. Pyne and Bishop will be invited to appear and could be required to do so.

The greyest area of the post-ministerial employment provision is the stipulation not to take advantage of private information acquired as a minister.

Parkinson says in his report to Morrison: “a distinction should be drawn between experience gained through being a minister and specific knowledge they acquire through performing the role. It is the latter which is pertinent to the Standards”.




Read more:
Why Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop fail the ‘pub test’ with their new jobs


In practice, however, this can fade into a distinction without a difference. As Parkinson also says: “It is not reasonable to think that former Ministers can or will ‘forget’ all information or knowledge gained by them in the course of their ministerial roles”.

Pyne initially said he would be “providing strategic advice to EY, as the firm looks to expand its footprint in the Defence Industry”. EY initially talked up his role but then quickly qualified it in the face of the controversy.

Parkinson spoke to both Pyne (who had already issued a long public written explanation) and Bishop.

In Parkinson’s account, Pyne seems to have done a lot of talking with EY about what he can’t do. EY is paying, of course, for what he can do.

Parkinson says he considers Pyne “has put in place mechanisms to ensure that, whilst his engagement with EY will appropriately draw on his 26 year experience as a parliamentarian, he will not impart direct or specific knowledge known to him only by virtue of his ministerial position”.

Bishop, who will have been out of the ministry for a year next month, has said little publicly about her non-executive directorship. She told Parkinson she had yet to attend a board meeting and that “Palladium does not expect her to engage on any Australian based projects”.

Patrick suggested the terms of reference given to Parkinson were limited – designed to fix a “political problem”.




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: A kinder, gentler Senate – at least for now


This is not new ground. Former trade minister Andrew Robb took up employment (annual remuneration of $880,000) with the Chinese Landbridge Group soon after he was trade minister. He has strongly rejected criticism of his action (and since left the group).

Two former ministers with responsibility for resources, the Liberals’ Ian Macfarlane and Labor’s Martin Ferguson quickly accepted positions with the sector. Stephen Conroy, a former communications minister overseeing online gambling laws, came under fire on becoming a lobbyist for the gambling industry – he points out this was three years after he was a minister.

Going back further (when the ministerial code of conduct did not include a post-separation provision) Peter Reith segued from the defence portfolio into advising defence contractor Tenix.

The Senate inquiry, reporting by September 10, will look at “action taken by the Prime Minister and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to ensure full compliance by former Ministers” with the relevant section of the ministerial standards.

At the end of his letter to Morrison, Parkinson highlights the impotence of a PM once members of his team are out in the wide world.

“While there are certain actions available to you when considering the conduct of a current serving Minister, and a possible breach of the Standards, there are no specific actions that can be taken by you in relation to former Ministers once they have left the Parliament”.

Either some way should be found to make the code enforceable or, if that is too hard, let’s skip the hypocrisy and admit it is no more than an exhortation to departees to act properly – complying with not just its letter but its spirit.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Grattan on Friday: A kinder, gentler Senate – at least for now


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

This first week of the new parliament has been bitter sweet for Senate leader Mathias Cormann.

With journalist Niki Savva’s book Plots and Prayers out on Monday, Cormann that morning faced yet another barrage of questioning over his role in last year’s coup against Malcolm Turnbull.

His spectacular desertion of the then prime minister has much tarnished Cormann, and it is certainly not pleasant to be asked in a radio interview about being seen as a “political Judas”.

But while Cormann’s personal reputation has taken a big knock from the events of August, his reputation as a Senate wrangler has been retrieved with the Thursday passage of the government’s $158 billion three stage tax plan. Cormann had failed last year to get the then crossbench to pass the tax cuts for big business, which he persuaded Turnbull to hang onto for far too long, costing the government votes in the Longman byelection of Super-Saturday.

Despite Cormann’s insistence there would be “no deals” to secure the income tax package, agreements there were, although there’s some lack of clarity around the edges. Centre Alliance extracted undertakings on gas policy. Jackie Lambie, the last crucial vote, has been promised help for Tasmania on the housing front. There may be debate about what constitutes a “deal” but the government would fail to live up to its word at its peril.




Read more:
Morrison’s $158 billion tax plan set to sail through Senate after deals with crossbenchers


There will also probably be plenty of such deals ahead, even if Cormann declines to acknowledge them as such.

This initial parliamentary week has vindicated the observation that the Senate non-Green crossbench, smaller than the last, is set to be easier for the government to cope with.

Notably, the two Centre Alliance (formerly called the Nick Xenophon Team) senators have a consultative arrangement with Lambie (back in parliament after her time out because of her citizenship problem). This is not an alliance, and they and she are very different politically. (Centre Alliance has shades of the old Australian Democrats, with which the Howard government struck important agreements over legislation, especially on tax and industrial relations.)

But the Centre Alliance-Lambie arrangement to talk on issues should work to the government’s advantage, not least because it will mean the very volatile Lambie won’t be so isolated, and thus angry and alienated, as often in the past. The Centre Alliance senators, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick, showed her respect by going to Devonport after the election – and Lambie craves respect.

Whenever the government can work with Centre Alliance and Lambie, it won’t require One Nation’s two votes, something that will infuriate Pauline Hanson, who needs relevance.

The government was desperate to get the tax cuts through this week, despite time being tight due to the ceremonial commitments with the opening of parliament and the tributes to the late Bob Hawke. It wanted the first stage to be available for payment as quickly as possible after the due date of July 1. The money will be flowing in a week or so.

Labor was always going to be placed in a difficult position over the tax package. It felt it could not drop its argument of the election campaign that the third stage, paid from 2024-25 and costing $95 billion, was irresponsible given economic circumstances can’t be known so far ahead.

But to be voting against tax relief on which the re-elected government could be considered to have a clear mandate (if campaign promises mean anything) would leave Labor open to continued attacks.

The opposition’s contortions have been understandable but awkward, making the early days of new leader Anthony Albanese messy.

Inevitably, Labor’s final position, announced shortly before the Senate vote, was that if it couldn’t get its way with amendments it would not oppose the package.

But it also said it would “review” the third stage closer to the election, due in 2022. This sounds unrealistic – would a Labor government be able to roll back legislated cuts anyway? And it is politically counter-productive, keeping the argument alive.




Read more:
Stages 1 and 2 of the tax cuts should pass. But Stage 3 would return us to the 1950s


There are some hints of changed dynamics in this parliament compared with the last. While Scott Morrison pours out the harsh rhetoric at his opponent (“this is a Labor Party which has more in common with Jeremy Corbyn than Paul Keating” he told parliament), the Prime Minister invited Albanese to his office on Wednesday to canvass areas of potential bipartisanship, especially Indigenous reconciliation and recognition.

Talk of bipartisanship is an easy gesture at the start of a term and mightn’t last. There have been such suggestions in previous parliaments. But equally it might be another pointer to Morrison’s pragmatic style. He may want to carve out some battle-free areas.

The new parliament’s first question time, which was on Thursday. also gave a hint of the Albanese approach. The opposition questions were framed tightly, without waffly preambles, designed to stop answers being just a rant. It’s a tactic that forces ministers, and the Prime Minister, into greater relevance.

It is to be hoped the opposition and the Speaker Tony Smith can hold the government to the point in answers this term. It has got away with far too much.

The cloud over the government’s political success this week was the delivery of yet another worrying message about the economy, with the Reserve Bank cutting interest rates for the second consecutive month and a fresh exhortation from Bank Governor Philip Lowe for further government action, beyond the tax cuts.

The bank wants unemployment and underemployment down and the spare capacity in the economy taken up. Australia is exposed to the risks in the international economy. Historically-low interest rates could be pushed down further. Lowe pointed to the need for more infrastructure spending and structural reforms that “support firms expanding, investing, innovating and employing people”.




Read more:
Back-to-back Reserve Bank cuts take interest rates to new low of 1%


The only certainty about the Australian economy in the months and years ahead is uncertainty.

Presumably the government sooner or later will have to respond to Lowe’s high-end hectoring, which will require some challenging decisions that can’t be delivered by deals, however characterised.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.