Emerging election issues

The Coalition’s wobbly security credentials

There is plenty of media coverage of the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China. Most of it skirts around the delicate question of the extent to which a rich “developed” country like Australia can boss around small Pacific countries, and most of it is from a partisan perspective.

One who could hardly be accused of pro-Labor partisanship is Malcolm Turnbull. His 11-minute segment on the ABC’s Breakfast program – Pacific relations a ‘hose you have to hold’ – is a clear exposition of the Morrison government’s past failure to engage with the region, and of the ham-fisted way the government is now handling the issue. “Peter Dutton’s rhetoric is becoming more and more bombastic and belligerent. It’s just a pity that he doesn’t match it with actual preparation and work.”

Tony Walker of La Trobe University, writing in The Conversation, provides a short history of occasions when the Coalition has successfully wedged Labor on national security, particularly during the Vietnam War, and in later incidents such as our involvement in Afghanistan: Morrison, Dutton go hard on national security –  but will it have any effect on the election? (Why is it that the wedges work when the Coalition’s military adventures fail? Do we not learn?)

Walker believes Morrison and Dutton will keep on trying hard this time, but the Solomon Islands situation has not turned out well for the Coalition, and the electorate is strongly focussed on domestic issues.

An integrity commission is a good first step, but there’s much more

It is so easy to dismiss Morrison’s pathetically inadequate model for an integrity commission that anything Labor proposes would inevitably be better.

And that’s just the trouble, according to the University of Canberra’s Chris Aulich, writing in the Canberra Times: Developing a culture of integrity in government goes beyond an integrity commission. The Coalition, through its contempt for integrity, has set a very low bar for Labor to clear.

Aulich’s main point is that while an integrity commission is an important institute of democratic accountability, there is much more to political integrity. “An effective integrity system involves a mix of institutions, laws, regulations, codes, policies and procedures and, importantly, attitudes and behaviours”.

He draws attention to our sliding rank on the Transparency International index of corruption (see the January 29 Roundup for our Transparency International ranking), and to the way funding for our integrity agencies, including the Australian National Audit Office and the Human Rights Commission, remains at the whim of government.

The Coalition’s “carbon tax” scare campaign

In one of the uglier episodes in the campaign 2GB shockjock Ray Hadley confronted Albanese with a half-hour of aggressive questioning. Hadley repeatedly made Albanese state that “there will be no carbon tax ever” under a Labor government (around 14 minutes into the 2GB interview).

The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy explains the politics and semantics around the Coalition’s carbon tax scare campaign: Scott Morrison is setting up another fake fight on a carbon “tax”. Albanese truthfully says that Labor has never implemented a carbon tax, and has no intention of implementing one now. Their method of pricing carbon is to use the Coalition’s established mechanisms to set financial incentives for firms to reduce their own carbon emissions or to buy offsets.

Murphy sums up the issue:

This excruciating abrogation of the national interest at taxpayer expense is accompanied by Morrison attacking Labor for harbouring secret carbon taxes to accomplish what are, on paper, near-identical policy goals [as the Coalition’s] to be pursued by the same mechanisms – a cynical bit of political brinkmanship, amplified fecklessly by boofheads like Hadley who are content as long as their ego is gratified and the outrage cycle is fed.

Labor’s Climate Change and Energy shadow minister Chris Bowen explains Labor’s approach to carbon pricing in the ABC’s Breakfast show: Coalition can't be trusted on climate action. And on the same program on Friday one can hear Sussan Ley and Tanya Plibersek debate climate policy and electricity prices. Unlike most Coalition ministers, Ley is normally straightforward and articulate, but the task of defending the Coalition’s policy, if it has one, is just too hard for her. (12 minutes)

Murphy, Bowen and Albanese spare us from the explanation of why a carbon price, even if it is collected by the government, is not a tax. By the conventions of economics a “tax” is a transfer to the government treasury’s consolidated revenue account, is not linked to any specific purpose, and usually involves some form of compulsion. Carbon pricing is about bringing the full price of negative externalities – mainly costly climate change – to account in market transactions that parties are free to enter into.

Morrison has made snide remarks about Albanese easing off while he recovers from coronavirus. Anyone who believes Albanese is out of form or slacking off would do well to listen to the interview. Hadley seems to have drawn on the old East Germany’s STASI as a model for his questioning style, but Albanese acquits himself well. What would be the reaction if the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas or Linda Mottram were so aggressive and disrespectful to Morrison or to any politician?

How Morrison got transgender rights on to the agenda

Spare a thought for Dave Kerrigan, the Labor candidate for Maranoa, a seat stretching from Kingaroy to Birdsville. It’s the Coalition’s safest seat, held by David Littleproud with a 25 percent margin. Apart from the occasional article in the local press, Kerrigan is not likely to get much media attention.

Yet the media has been obsessed with another candidate with a similarly poor prospect for election. That is the Liberal’s pick (or more correctly Morrison’s pick) for Warringah, Katherine Deves. Warringah, covering Mosman, Manly and other prosperous northern suburbs in Sydney was once Liberal Party heartland, but having won the seat from Tony Abbott in 2019 Zali Steggall will be hard to dislodge.

Deves has achieved notoriety because of her statements on transgender children and adults – statements that may charitably be seen as ill-considered, but which have come across as “hateful comments that seem to be designed to whip up animosity and hatred against some of the most vulnerable people in our community” to quote Malcolm Turnbull.

She has generally eschewed media appearances, but has given an 11-minute interview with Janice Petersen of the SBS. Anyone who expects to hear a firebrand Old Testament preacher evoking references to Sodom and Gomorrah will be disappointed; she presents herself softly and hesitantly, putting forward two related concerns – fairness and free speech.

Her fairness concern is about the advantage transgender women may gain against other women in sport competitions – an issue in women’s rights.

She states that her underlying concern is about fundamental freedoms – freedom of association, and freedom of expression. “We are in a time where it is dangerous to speak your mind”. At the beginning of the interview she refers to threats of rape and death, and the fact that she has moved out of home to a secret location in response to these threats.

It is hard to take seriously her concern about women facing competition from people who have changed their gender. The 2016 Census found that 1260 Australians identified themselves as “sex/gender other than male or female”. Dianna Kenny of the University of Sydney in her article on transgender hysteria notes that of these, 100 people identified themselves as “trans female”. Some of them may participate in sport, but how many are involved in highly competitive sport, and would be so proficient in their sport that they could displace other women for team selection? In any event sporting codes have protocols for dealing with this, and with the far more common issue of drugs and supplements that may enhance performance. If Deves were seriously concerned about fairness to women in sport, there are many unresolved issues – around pay for example.

The issue of free speech is where the real politics lie, and it has been elevated by her claims of death threats. As The Guardian’s Michael McGowan writes – Why some conservatives see Katherine Deves’ candidacy as a ‘godsend’ – wittingly or unwittingly she has provided Morrison with a “cancel culture” issue. When Petersen asks “do you have any concern that you’re being played at the highest level just to win seats in other areas?” she carefully evades the question.

In a separate article McGowan points out that the New South Wales police are not aware of any threats against Deves. But even if there have been threats, it’s politically outrageous for Morrison or his supporters to cite them as evidence of a “cancel culture”, or even to suggest that they have anything to do with her intemperate statements. There is no shortage of deranged people, without any political affiliation, who threaten public figures with assault or death on the slightest pretext. Nor should one rule out the possibility of a right-wing political zealot mounting a political false-flag operation, as a favour to Morrison. While no one within the Liberal Party establishment would be silly enough to mount a false-flag death threat, Morrison has plenty of supporters on the lunatic far right. Ever since the big anti-vax demonstrations last year, Morrison has been careful to keep the far right on side.

There was a time when the right saw polite and respectful discourse as a conservative virtue. That concern has given way to accusations of “cancel culture” being used to justify ill-mannered, hateful, derogatory, and offensive outbursts by the champions of the right. In a liberal democracy no issue should be off limits, but we should all be bound to raise those issues in a civilized manner.

As Stan Grant writes, this is about an attempt to turn the election campaign into a round in the culture wars, adding another nail in the coffin of democracy. A culture war “fills column inches, emboldens the combatants, fuels political identity and comes at a cost to us all”.

Labor’s policy to the Pacific: low-cost and effective

On the ABC’s The Money program Richard Aedy interviews Stephen Howes of ANU’s Crawford School, with particular reference to foreign aid for Pacific countries. Howes takes us through a history of our foreign aid in general, pointing out that we have slipped in ranking from a middle-level aid donor, to the bottom of all prosperous countries. He also describes the way the Coalition has diverted our already meagre aid expenditure towards the Pacific and away from the rest of the world.

He notes that Labor’s proposal to boost aid to the Pacific is modest in terms of increased expenditure (only about 7 percent), but the most important, and largely cost-free aspect of Labor’s policy, has to do with encouraging easier labour mobility for Pacific island people, both for seasonal work and permanent immigration. This is particularly helpful for Pacific countries, for which established development models are unsuited, and is a form of assistance that the Chinese cannot match.

In the case of the Solomon Islands, a break that makes it easier for people to earn a decent livelihood is surely more effective than re-furbishing the high commission building in Honiara for Australian public servants and financing it from the foreign aid budget.

The segment runs from 10:30 minutes to 19.30 minutes on the program titled Inflation and the RBA, foreign aid and the PRRT.

The media’s performance: trivia and bias

“The Australian voter deserves better than a demeaning and trivialising gotcha campaign, driven mostly by the agendas and biases of the media and ignoring the principal policy issues that will confront and dominate the next government”.

That’s the introduction of John Hewson’s article Economical with the truth in the Saturday Paper. He’s highly critical of the way the media is covering the election campaign. Media companies have sent junior journalists on the campaign trail, who have let themselves be manipulated by Morrison, a master at spin and media management.

He notes how Morrison “wants to divert attention from his own failures in economic management, which seems to include data manipulation for his political ends”. He notes particularly Morrison’s handling of voters’ demand for an integrity commission, and pulls apart his pathetic claim that an integrity commission based on the New South Wales model would be a “star chamber”.

We get some insight into the media’s handling of the campaign from the ABC’s Sunday Roundtable: Beyond the gaffes and gotcha moments, are policies being explained?, where Julian Morrow interviews three seasoned journalists – Barrie Cassidy, Niki Savva and Greg Sheridan.

They cover some of the same ground as Hewson, particularly the way doorstop media events, in which journalists’ questions are carefully rationed without any opportunity for follow-up, are ideally suited to a government that does not want to be held to account. Sheridan identifies how Morrison is so comfortable with making “performative announcements”, without any commitment to action, knowing that’s enough to generate a headline.

Savva brings us back to reality from the media’s world, when she reminds us that our vote should be based not on the theatrical features of the campaign with its distractions into trivia, but on an assessment of how well or badly the government has performed over the last three years, and whether it has a credible plan for the next term.

Missing from their half-hour session is any mention of the strong anti-Labor bias among the commercial media. They touch on specific instances of bias, but not on systemic bias. Savva mentions how, in relation to developments in the Solomon Islands, the media didn’t cover Morrison’s refusal to answer any questions on national security, but chose instead to focus on Richard Marles’ slightly awkward media manner. Cassidy mentions a poll in which voters consider Labor to be much better at handling the economy than the Coalition, but which attracted little media cover. (William Bowe mentions it in his Poll Bludger site.)

Yet they fail to specifically mention media bias as a factor in the campaign.

Michael West, however, in his regular West Report, does not hold back on media bias. He asks us to imagine the outrage, particularly from the Murdoch media, if it had been a Labor government that had neglected our relationship with the Pacific, leaving an opening for China to fill.

He reminds us of the Coalition’s cuts to foreign aid, and the fact that most of the aid committed to the Solomon Islands is for an upgrade to the Australian high commission buildings. He reminds us of the way the Morrison government has disregarded and even ridiculed the effect of climate change on Pacific countries, how it has made it hard for Solomon Islanders to get visas to work in Australia, and how, in the current crisis about the country’s agreement with China, foreign minister Marise Payne didn’t bother to travel to Honiara because she was too busy fundraising for the Liberal Party.

Yet, in spite of this clear mismanagement and neglect, with help from government propagandists, The Australian has managed to frame the problem as if it is all Labor’s fault. (7 minutes)