Recently someone on the radio described politics in Western democracies as typically becoming banal popularity contests and sloganeering exercises. The last days of parliament for the Turnbull government were not edifying. If Turnbull had not succeeded in passing his ABCC legislation, the reason for his double-dissolution election, his leadership would have been in ruins. The legislation passed, but we have an ABCC in name only, effectively a rebranding of the current regulator, the Fair Work Building and Construction.
While that was going on the government spectacularly failed to pass the backpacker tax legislation until rescued by the Greens. Ben Eltham is right in suggesting that a badly wounded government is limping to the long summer break.
- For the government, 2016 has been a story of missed opportunities, political bungles and dangerous ideological division.
There’s no getting around it: 2016 has been a horrible year for Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull. He began 2016 politically ascendant, as the most popular prime minister since Kevin Rudd in 2008. He ends it as the battle-scarred survivor of a near-death political experience. The Coalition is well behind in the polls. Turnbull’s approval ratings have slid to even-stevens. And the Liberal Party he leads remains bitterly divided.
Turnbull started the year with a clear ascendancy over Shorten’s Labor. In the end he had five losing Newspolls in a row and just about anyone in the senate could get an amendment up if the government really wanted the legislation to pass. Labor got an amendment to the ABCC legislation that construction employers could only use overseas labour if no-one in Australia was capable of doing the job, according to Bernard Keane.
At David Leyonhjelm’s insistence Government policy is now that “at least half of the ABC and SBS board meetings held each year will be followed by open community board forums, and at least two of these will be held in regional areas” – something the Government does not control.
The backpacker legislation
This is the way I think it happened.
In the 2015 budget the Government with Joe Hockey as treasurer imposed a 32.5% tax on backpackers without consulting the stakeholders, as a pure revenue grab. When it was clear this wouldn’t fly, they kicked the can down the road until after the election.
Barnaby Joyce then came up with 19%, which had no rationale except that the National Farmers Federation found it acceptable, as did Scott Morrison the treasurer, who was nevertheless telling us that there was no revenue problem, only a spending problem.
Because they could not get the numbers in the senate to support this the government approached Labor, asking them not to bring on a vote, and indicating that they wanted to discuss a compromise.
The next Labor heard was Joyce, Turnbull and company shouting at them in the media, blaming them for being wreckers, and demanding that they support 19%.
Jacqui Lambie convinced Labor that the rate should be 10.5%, the same as New Zealand. It was actually a well thought-out proposal, and might have had a chance if the farmers had backed it.
The Government then announced it had the numbers for 15%, which had the rationale of being the same as Pacific Island Workers are paid. Labor could take a flying leap, said ScoMo. However, Derryn Hinch wrote at Crikey that the Government never did have the numbers, they were always two short. His own position was, shall we say, fluid, and no-one had asked Rodd Culleton.
Labor did have the numbers for 10.5%, which passed the Senate 35-32, but offered Turnbull a 13% compromise to get it through the HoR, albeit mocking him mercilessly in Question Time for always pathetically caving in.
It seems that Turnbull was ready to let the tax default to 32.5% rather than accept Labor’s offer, selling the farmers down the river.
Enter Richard di Natale, with an offer for 15%, but an offset of an extra $100 million to landcare.
A couple of things should be noted. First, landcare had been cut by the Government by over $200 million, so the Government was putting back less than half what it had cut. This morning we learn that the $100 million is not new money, it will come from cutting Abbott’s Green Army.
Secondly, there was a fiddle going on with the backpackers super payments. The original cash grab had the government taking 95% of it. The Greens had that reduced to 65%, at a cost to the budget of $55 million.
In the end there was a significant loss of respect for both major parties, though how much the broader public is paying attention is not clear. The LNP as the governing party, set up the context for the mess, and should bear the major portion of the blame for the mexican stand-off. Labor, however, I think over-reached and forgot the propensity of the Greens to do deals.
The only explainer I’ve found is this one linked above.
Bernard Keane, pay-walled at Crikey, has a lot of detail about the anti-free trade provisions, mainly designed to advantage Australian steel. Keane finds himself in agreement with Judith Sloan, the bill will make building considerably more expensive. Also:
- Under the ABCC, the Employment Minister now has the power to impose a building code on government contractors, which may then spread to all major building employers.
The Government will us its procurement function “as a builder of infrastructure, rather than Parliament’s legislative power, to strike down enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs).”
Except, because of an amendment introduced by Derryn Hinch, existing agreements will persist until 2018. It seems the Government will force major builders to stop dealing with unions, but along the way builders will have to “a massive wage premium”.
So it is said.
So all the spruiking about productivity gains was hot air, sacrificed in the need to do a deal for political reasons.
The Law Council is now happier because ABCC officers will not be empowered to enter the homes of workers without a judicial warrant, and decisions made by the regulator will be subject to review in the courts.
What will go out with the garbage at Christmas?
Some think George Brandis, who appears to be a liability, will resign and given a post in London. Moreover, he is Government leader of the senate, but Matthias Cormann seems to be doing the deals. No-one much talks to Brandis. There was a long explanation on Late Night Live of the latest Bell Group matter, I think here. The truth is he’s been stuffing up for ten years, and it must have been a “very, very mediocre” field when the Liberal Party selected him. Lawrence Springborg, three times leader in Qld, but never premier, is quitting state politics at the age of 47. There is talk of him replacing Brandis.
Another who should be tipped out is Barnaby Joyce. Max Chalmers in a lacerating piece at New Matilda says Joyce is the self-serving face of everything wrong with politics.
Moving the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) – a statutory body that regulates chemicals used by vets, farmers, and pest controllers – to Armidale was a boondoggle offered voters under the challenge of Tony Windsor last election and was to be the subject of a cost-benefit analysis.
- It was a brazen act of political self-interest that actually harmed the constituency Joyce claims to speak for.
The cost-benefit analysis by Ernst and Young which made its way into the press found the plan an unmitigated disaster. But Joyce still went ahead.
Part of Turnbull’s problem is that Barnaby Joyce is out of control, and everything Turnbull wants to pass through the senate has to be supported by both Xenophon and One Nation, unless he turns to the Greens or Labor.
Leadership under these circumstances amount to vacuous speeches about the government pursuing its agenda. The teacher is there, pretending he can’t hear the racket, but the class is out of control.
Next year when serious matters of budget strategy will be on the table, under the threat of a credit downgrade, the fun will really begin.