No matter how tedious they seem, election campaigns matter greatly in shaping a nation’s future. All parties appeal to our hip-pocket nerve, but governments and the services they provide us are expensive, and need to be paid for.
This election mercifully has been relatively well mannered, with occasional breakouts, like that of the Treasurer Scott Morrison on 2 June attacking Mr Shorten as launching “a war on business and … a war on growth”. Labor’s “politics and ideology of envy” is a “war on capital, it’s a war on mums and dads who just want to invest in a property”. So overwrought was the Treasurer that he used the word ‘war’ 14 times in his short speech.
What we really want to hear is sensible, measured debate on issues of substance, not hysteria and misrepresentation. Not just on the economy, but also on burning issues like climate change, indigenous advancement, and the suppurating sore of refugees in detention, particularly on Manus Island and Nauru.
At elections, the parties have to provide a contest to differentiate themselves from each other. We understand that. But this does not guarantee good policy outcomes for the country. Special interest groups can distort policy formation greatly, as we have seen too often. We also dearly need good reporting and vibrant free media, including the ABC, to keep political processes transparent and honest.
The refugee mess
Many members of parliament are deeply troubled by the way previous governments have treated asylum seekers and refugees arriving by boat, especially the conditions of indefinite detention on Manus Island and Nauru which are driving people to self-harm, mental illness, and even to self-immolating in despair.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton blamed refugee advocates for giving refugees false hopes and encouraging such extreme actions. He later accused refugees both of taking jobs from Australians and of being in welfare queues. The Age editorial (19 May) was dismayed at these comments, pointing out that it cost taxpayers $400,000 a year to keep someone in offshore detention, totaling about $3.5 billion a year; yet processing an asylum seeker in the community cost $12,000 a year.
Professor Ben Saul, Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney, has appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled that indefinite detention was not justified. The Committee determined that five men who had been held for five years had incurred “serious psychological harm” before suddenly being released. These five were among 50 refugees, held for years from 2009, whom ASIO termed a security risk. In the last 18 months, ASIO has revised its assessments and quietly released all but ten.
Fr Frank Brennan urged Australians to vote for members committed to providing humane solutions for those on Manus Island and Nauru, as well as for the 30,000 people waiting in the community for their claims to be processed without adequate work or welfare rights.
In our SPC newsletter this month, we publish a number of articles from John Menadue’s site, Pearls & Irritations, on how we fell into this quagmire, and what regional countries are trying to do to manage refugee and migration flows.
Climate change: bipartisan policies needed
The power of vested interests is evident in the debate over global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, not surprisingly, since coal and natural gas are such important exports for Australia. Even Prime Minister Turnbull seems constrained by elements in his party from pursuing his earlier beliefs about the urgency to redress climate change.
Yet, as John Quiggin wrote in The Conversation on 14 April, coal is clearly a declining asset as more countries move to gas or renewables, and disinvestment from coal gathers pace. Britain will close its last coal-fired power station in 2025, and in the United States coal production has fallen sharply. South Africa and New Zealand will soon be coal free, and China has recently cancelled 250 coal-fired power plants authorised by regional governments. In India, large-scale solar plants are already cheaper than coal.
Last year was globally the hottest on record, and so far in 2016, the world is breaking last year’s records, resulting in severe droughts in various parts of the world, including India, Africa, and Australia.
To try to reduce global warming, the World Bank and IMF are pressing countries to put a price on carbon pollution. World Bank President Jim Yong Kin said in late April this “is the most powerful and efficient way to reduce emissions”. Already, some 40 countries have adopted carbon pricing.
An adviser to the Coalition government and CEO of Frontier Economics, Danny Price, said the government’s Direct Action plan could be modified to a baseline and credit scheme, overlapping with Labor’s ‘emissions intensity’ trading scheme for electricity generators. Price was recently appointed to the Climate Change Authority by the government. He had in 2009 recommended a similar scheme to then Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.
Despite the Business Council of Australia encouraging a bipartisan approach, Treasurer Morrison called Labor’s policy a “big, thumping electricity tax”. John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, said the government’s scare campaign against Labor proposals was disappointing, and some of the government’s claims “misleading” and “dishonest”. He recommended setting a carbon price, and phasing out coal-fired generators, with subsidies to encourage clean energy.
Warwick Mckibbon, former board member of the Reserve Bank insisted that “The most critical thing is to achieve clear bipartisanship” that will break the political deadlock and give business certainty about the future.
Time for a Treaty with our First Peoples
Regional forums have been held around Victoria in the last few months to decide on how to advance the process towards drawing up a Treaty between the Australian government and Indigenous Australians. The consultations culminated in a two-day conference in Melbourne in late May, to which Premier Daniel Andrews sent a video message of support and commitment to the Treaty process. Natalie Hutchins, the state minister for Aboriginal Affairs, reaffirmed the government’s commitment.
Aboriginal leaders, Stan Grant and Richard Franklin, indicate in the video clips on our SPC website why making a Treaty, in addition to constitutional recognition, is important for an historic reconciliation with Indigenous people in Australia.