Saturday, August 08, 2015

AUSTRALIAN POLITICS: Peter Andren we need you more than ever to keep our MPs honest

It's often said that the major problem with our Parliaments is they are inundated with lawyers. As a lawyer myself, I admit that we are excellent at splitting hairs. Our plain English skills also leave a lot to be desired. Little wonder one of our most complex pieces of legislation – the Social Security Act – is barely understood by most lawyers let alone Centrelink clients. Yet anyone falling foul of Centrelink rules, even accidentally, can expect all the resources of the Department of Human Services to come down on them hard.

One advantage of having so many lawyers in Parliament is that they all understand financial trust. They are trained in how to honestly handle other people's money through trust accounts. Law graduates can only become lawyers if they pass an exam on trust accounting. Once they start practising on their own account, solicitors can expect regular visits from the trust account inspector. 

Which explains why our MPs are so scrupulously honest about their parliamentary entitlements. They know they are handling money provided on trust by taxpayers. They know that if they do the wrong thing, all hell could break loose. 

In theory, at least. Once out of law practice, our ex-lawyer law-makers have gained a reputation for ignoring, bending, stretching if not flouting the rules regarding spending other people's money.

The few MPs who speak out against the rorts tend to be those elected as independents, as opposed to career party hacks. One of these, a former Federal Member for Calare in central NSW, is sadly no longer with us. But we do have Peter Andren's 2003 memoir, The Andren Report: an independent way in Australian politics.

After being elected to Parliament in 1996, Mr Andren increased his majority in 1998. Despite attacking the government's position on asylum seekers, he won again in 2001 with a primary vote of over 50 per cent and a two-candidate-preferred vote of 75 per cent. Many in his electorate would have despised some of his political positions, but they appreciated his honesty and preferred not being represented by a party hack. Maybe it helped that Mr Andren was not a lawyer but rather a local and prominent broadcast journalist.

One of Mr Andren's chapters is titled "Lurks, Perks, and Rorts". As a new MP, he was shocked by
... just how deep the publicly funded well from which members of Parliament drank. I was immediately shocked at the generosity and virtual accountability of the members of Parliament's travel allowance scheme … MPs had for many years used travel allowances to pay off mortgages for property in Canberra.

Mr Andren was for some time at the centre of the 1997 scandal surrounding former ALP Senator and deputy president of the Senate Mal Colston. When Mr Colston wasn't supported for the plum job by the ALP, he resigned and sat on the cross benches before the incoming Howard government offered him the job with its $16,000-plus pay rise. Eventually Mr Howard had to refer
... a series of allegations involving misuse of entitlements, Commonwealth cars and postal and travel allowances … to the Commonwealth police.

At the time, Mr Andren was visiting a young offenders' prison farm in his electorate. One inmate asked him a rather logical question:
How come that bloke Colston can't be charged, when I'm in here for 16 months for stealing a car and possessin' dope?

Eventually charged, Mr Coston's charges were later dropped.

Following questions from Mr Andren, a number of Coalition MPs and Ministers were forced to amend their records. One minister was forced to pay back $8740 to the Department of Administrative Services. One senior cabinet minister, a minister and an MP who admitted to repaying false travel claims of around $9000 resigned or were sacked. Two of Mr Howard's staffers were also made to resign for covering up the secret repayments. In September 1997, Mr Andren questioned Mr Howard about
... members given the opportunity to correct and amend their signed-off travel claims prior to enforced scrutiny … and before their tabling and publication in this house.

He also asked when MPs would acknowledge that
... the TA [travel allowance) and overseas travel system had been systematically abused and rorted over many years.

Mr Howard's response was to accuse Mr Andren of making
... a cheap shot

and engaging in
... generalised smears.

Mr Andren was then ejected out of the House and into the arms of an adoring media and public. Mr Andren found neither side wanted to engage in reform, but were happy to accuse each other of rorts. After a vicious attack from Peter Costello, a Labor Senator from Tasmania was found in his Canberra flat with slashed wrists. But Mr Andren knew the system was rotten and pursued the matter.
I realised I was not the flavour of the month among government and Labor members of the house … who had been part of a system that regarded the lurks and perks of office as something of a right than a privilege.

Peter Andren died in 2007, his quest to end the rorts unsuccessful. Since then, Australians have had to put up with the Peter Slipper affair, Choppergate and numerous other examples of MPs taking advantage of a rotten system. Meanwhile, we are constantly being lectured about the end of the age of entitlement. Essential services such as legal aid are slashed.

Voters deserve better than this cartel of rorts. If only we had more Peter Andrens to clean up the mess.

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 6 August 2015.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

POLITICS: Team Amer ... woops ... Australia

Staya - f*ck yeah!

According to the erudite Bernard Keane, writing in Crikey on 23 June 2015, the phrase "Team Australia" used by Prime Minister Tony Abbott so frequently that it virtually became his trademark, is now virtually dead.

This rhetorical child was killed off after only a year. Born during a Prime Ministerial Address to the Boao Forum for Asia in April last year, the term was used to describe a large delegation visiting China.

On this trip to China, I am accompanied by the foreign minister, the trade minister, five state premiers, one chief minister, and 30 of my country’s most senior chairmen and CEOs. 
It’s one of the most important delegations ever to leave Australia. 
What better way could there be to demonstrate that Australia is open for business: than to visit all three of our largest export partners on the one trip, culminating with the biggest one? ... 
Australia’s preference is always to look forwards rather than backwards; to win friends rather than to find fault; to be helpful, not difficult. Team Australia is here in China to help build the Asian Century.

Gosh. What a positive message. We are here. We have political and business leaders here. We wish to make friends. We value our relationship with you. We are not here to judge or find fault or condescend. We are forward-looking people. We don't wish to be difficult. We are here to help.

So let's compare this positive message to Asian leaders to the message Mr Abbott had for Australian citizens concerned about the security of their country. During a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney General Senator George Brandis on 5 August 2004, hardly four months after the China address, Abbott's tone has completely changed.

Remember, this time he is not talking to foreign leaders. He is talking to his own citizens.

We need new legislation to make it easier to identify, to charge and to prosecute people who have been engaged in terrorist activities overseas such as, for instance, by making it an offence to travel to a designated area without a valid reason. We also need legislation which I have commissioned the Attorney to prepare, which the National Security Committee of the Cabinet has commissioned the Attorney to prepare to ensure that we are best able to monitor potential terrorist activity in this country. Obviously with the usual range of safeguards and warrants but that will include discussions with the telecommunications providers about the retention of metadata. We are also determined to engage in ever closer consultation with communities including the Australian Muslim community. 
When it comes to counter-terrorism everyone needs to be part of ‘Team Australia’ and I have to say that the Government’s proposals to change 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect. I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time and so those proposals are now off the table. This is a call that I have made. It is, if you like, a leadership call that I have made after discussion with the Cabinet today. In the end leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision.
There is a sense that the government wishes to consult, to protect, to even compromise so as to maintain solidarity within the team. Though I'm not sure what abandoning changes to the RDA had to do with the solidarity sought.

The term was catching on. At the Sir John Downer Oration on 21 August 2015, Abbott mentioned a Muslim leader using the term.

Multiculturalism has turned out to mean people becoming Australian – joining our team if you like – in their own way and at their own pace. 
One of the participants in my Muslim leaders’ round tables this week rather exuberantly declared: “we are all part of Team Australia team and you are our captain” – suggesting that he had yet to assimilate Australians’ habitual scepticism towards politicians! 
In our own way, Australia has long sought to showcase this easy-going approach to cultural and religious differences.
Abbott did not show the same scepticism toward multiculturalism as John Howard. Team Australia was still inclusive, even if only at a leader-to-leader level. Abbott's appreciation for this was expressed during a speech to the South Australian Liberal Party on 23 August 2015:

As many of you would know, I’ve spent much of the last week talking to the leaders of the Muslim community here in Australia. They are decent people, they are proud of our country and like every one of their fellow Australians, they are appalled at the things now being done in different parts of the world in the name of religion. One of them said to me on Tuesday in Melbourne, in a booming voice, full of exuberance, he said, “You know, we are all part of Team Australia”, and he looked at me and he smiled, “And you are our captain”. I have never been more proud and I have never been more exhilarated than to hear that statement.

Again, the discussons are with "the leaders of the Muslim community here in Australia". The leaders seem to be part of Team Australia, at least to the extent that they recognise Abbott as the captain.

The Opposition, of course, weren't part of Team Australia, at least to the extent that they did not like his approach to tax and superannuation matters. The overuse of the term turned it into a farce. As Bernard Keane notes:

After a remarkable debut month in August when the term was mentioned over 8000 times across the media, over 3000 times in September, nearly 4000 times in October and 2-3000 each in the last two months of 2014, media mentions fell away — first below 1000 in January, to just over 300 in March, and just 136 in April. Abbott’s off-hand mention in May garnered 765 mentions.

The luvvy-duvvy talk came to an end when Abbott turned on the same foot soldiers when announcing changes to citizenship laws that would revoke or suspend citizenship of those involved in terrorism or terror-related acts. The Guardian Australia reported it as follows:

In a national security speech on Monday, the prime minister also called on Muslim leaders to proclaim Islam as a religion of peace “more often, and mean it”.

Since then, Team Australia appears to have been dumped. The last word belongs to Keane:
Farewell, Team Australia — may you enjoy your rest in whatever paradise abandoned focus-group phrases go to.