Canberra's aversion to real work

All work is honourable, as Mahatma Gandhi liked to say as he took his turn cleaning the ashram toilets. But if one accepts that noble ideal, then are our politicians really doing any ‘work’? Because there has been very little that’s ‘honourable’ over the past week in Canberra.

The current round of cynical, empty politiking began with both parties trying to quietly boost public funding of election campaigning – then running a mile when public outrage, expressed through the media, engulfed them.

Labor was criticised last year for its knee-jerk reaction to live cattle exports, with the Coalition claiming it would never make policy based on one TV documentary (in that case, the ABC’s Four Corners). But opposition leader Tony Abbott was happy to take traditional-media and social-media opprobrium as reason enough to renege on signed promise to back the plan.

Abbott broke another promise by backing away from the no-confidence motion he had pledged to put to the House. The independents rightly rejected that as a political stunt, and so the Coalition strategists moved swiftly on to other tactical assaults.

The next one was the Telstra asbestos story. The company has long known it has work to do cleaning up the pits and ducts for which the government is paying it so handsomely as part of the NBN rollout. But somehow it became NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley’s fault, and the Gillard government’s fault that a sub-contractor has handled the deadly material in an unsafe way.

That’s just plain wrong. But then Labor raised the politiking a notch by reminding Tony Abbott in parliament of his 2007 slight against Bernie Banton, the courageous campaigner for the rights of asbestos-related disease victims, who died that same year.

Abbott apologised for that thoughtless gaffe at the time, but that won’t stop it being dredged up whenever the trench warfare of parliament demands it.

Bring up Banton’s record and the just cause he fought for, by all means. But don't turn him into a political weapon of convenience.

There are bigger debates to be had – real, honourable work for our elected members to do.

But all is not lost. Even in dark political times, there are flickers of light in the House of Reps – and two stand out in the past couple of days.

Firstly, independent Rob Oakeshott moved a motion of confidence in the departments of Treasury and Finance, to give parliament the chance to “express its full confidence” in the “men and women of integrity” who work there.

Oakeshott complained that we are fast developing a culture that dismisses the work of some of the sharpest economists and public policy minds in the country. He’s right. That culture serves no-one.

As I argued last month (Why Labor’s forecasters fled away, May 16) blaming everything on Treasury would only be valid if the private sector, or state government forecasters – or Aunty Joan’s tea leaves – were providing more accurate forecasts.

Despite the Coalition’s claims that ‘everyone’ except Treasury knew commodity prices would come off as steeply as they did, even our biggest miners were caught flat-footed when they abandoned around $150 billion in projects over the past couple of months.

So well done Mr Oakeshott – even if the motion ultimately became just another chance for Labor and Coalition ranks to throw pies at each other, the toxic culture can’t be changed if nobody reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way.

The second bit of real work came from the Labor side, and was directed against the Labor side.

Sidelined Labor stalwart Simon Crean spoke out publicly against Labor’s ‘crack-down’ on 457 visa rorts, calling on the unions to produce evidence of widespread rorting.

The CFMEU, which has launched an advertising campaign to alert Australians to the dangers of the visa Labor created, says on its website: “In the 12 months to February 2013, Australian construction industry employment grew by only 1.1 per cent, but the number of 457 visa holders employers had working in the industry actually increased by 25 per cent to 14,080.  Between December 2012 and March 2013, trades apprenticeship numbers dropped from 67,500 to 53,400.”

There is no clear logic to that statement. The relationship between unfilled jobs and 457 visa holders is what is important – not how fast the sector is growing.

Billboards around Melbourne now proclaim “More apprenticeships, fewer 457 visas”.

How about ‘more apprenticeships co-funded from the income tax, and corporate taxes, generated by hardworking 457 visa holders’.  Australia needs more apprenticeships and skills brought in from abroad.

All work is honourable. But cynical policy backflips, cheap point scoring, attacks on our best policy thinkers and the demonisation of much-needed, hard-working visa holders should not be dignified with the name 'work'. 

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Rob Burgess, this would be a good article for you: Australia could benefit from a Parliamentary Public Interest Advocate to report to the people and the Parliament to help make sure that the place is run in the public interest. The "House of Review" is not up to the task as the Senate is more of a rubber stamp entity. The Speaker has some control but often the impression of the Parliament is a circus.

Grant Mason
Any one appointed to the role of a Parliamentary Public Interest Advocate would never be or remain independent. All political appointees are bound by what ever party appoints them& any one who makes decisions or criticisms would be looking to their own interest & future. Your idea is good in theory, but impossible in real life.

Our current Parliamentary processes are kind of broken as it is. So a Parliamentary Public Interest Advocate as a committee might make it work a bit better. We do have independent public servants, the RBA governor for instance.

Here are some areas kind of broken:
* Self serving massive pay increases without any performance component.
* Incredible investment gain assumptions in the defined benefit component of the defined contribution super scheme which is not subject to any tax.
* Senate, "The House of Review" not insisting on a business case review of the NBN - a project declared off budget as it was designated "commercial."
* Parliamenet designates taxes and funding for programs that do not have a detailed plan behind them - NDIS, Gonski, The NBN plan is not much better.
*Parliamentarians getting away with too much personal attacks on each other
*Parliamentarians getting away with whopper lies and distortion of facts.

It would all make a good article in business spectator to outline the "sins" of parliament.

The State versus Commonwealth funding system is also broken, and almost since the federation started, or at least since 1928, despite many proposals, the rereferendum system makes it almost impossible to fix the funding system to please everyone, and it would have to be with a lot of tears from the Commonwealth side who is more interesting in lifting the fed debt ceiling while the States are please with a loan council which is now a rubber stamp with no limits in the States borrowing ceiling.

It will be soon 0-0... or more likely neart $0.4t=$0.4t or 0.3xx~+03xx~ = 50% of GDP

Stanley, one solution is an automatic two terms sabbatical for our parliamentarians after their second term in the house, to recharge their understanding of the real world.

Francois Humbert.
The politicians will not introduce anything that isn't in their self interest,no matter how sensible the idea ,may be. The only thing that will make them listen is when enough people stop voting for any of them.Until then all that people are doing by voting is to exchange one devil for another.

Parliament should be a secret ballot on voting, the coalition wants it for union ballots. We can find out what each member has voted for post the writs and after preselection has been done. Might have a few more private member bills that actually improve the country. While we are at it can we move to fixed 4 year terms. Might also improve efficiency - that is what they all cr*p on about

In the US there are publications of the voting records of members of Congress - all so their constituents can see the voting records of their member of Congress. In the US they are a little more likely "to cross the aisle." Here in Australia they tend to vote zombie like for whatever their party leaders want. I don't think secret ballots for legislation will aid in transparency.

Good point Gandhi took his turn, our parliamentarians should take an automatic two terms sabbatical after their second term in the house, to recharge their understanding of the real world.
“Oakeshott complained that we are fast developing a culture that dismisses the work of some of the sharpest economists and public policy minds in the country.”
At least he is not using the word tax and economics in the same phrase, ...may be he is looking for a job.

Sorry Rob but I see no real work in your two examples of "work". For Treasury, real work would have been to put in place a more prudent and robust risk management process. And for jobs, real work would have been to take practical steps to align education/training with the job market, not rising billboards and talking to the media.
Any business person knows what real work is. Only politicians believe that talk is real. You seem to have fallen in the same trap.

With respect Grant, I think you need to drop this idea of another House of Review.
Do you honoestly think another layer of bureaucracy will assist or be immune from the influence of political parties?
If you think the Senate is a rubber stamp try counting the numbers.

Not a house but a small committee charged with recommending ways to improve the processes of Parliament. So you think what we got is not broken and too often appalling? What is your solution?

In terms of the Senate I am not impressed with what they do - I think they earn their pay to a lesser extent than the House.

Grant, the system is well and truly broken and you can also throw in some of their actions are appalling. But I have to agree, setting up another department of bureaucrats to look after the idiots we already have would be a costly exercise in futility. Remuneration for our politicians and bureaucrats was set some 100 years ago, and nothing has changed. We keep paying more and more out of our pocket so they can keep their lurks and perks. The issue last week was typical of their contempt, we the public are here to keep them.

This crap that politicians work 24/7 is bulls--t, no one works 24/7, not even on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I think it's time the public started demanding pay cuts for politicians etc. Their super should be removed off the defined benefits scheme. The contempt some of our pollies hold our low income earners and pensioners is undoubtedly the most outrageous. They sit in parliament, carry on like school children, calling each other names, saying it's all your fault, with the opposition saying no it yours, then go home to their mansion on the hill, put their feet up and think they have achieved something. And when their incompetence gets them into trouble, they increase taxes to cover it.

My solution, don't hire someone to do it, use people power to demand our politicians do it. They say feed us peanuts and all you will get is monkeys, well we already have them.

If one looks at the OH&S laws and regulations and subsequent consultation and checks and cross-checks and signed and witnessed forms and risk diversification and WMS's and rejections and re-submissions and tool box talks and trivial training and supervision of supervisors, perhaps the sub-contractor reckoned, "Well there's only one way to actually get this job done....", then it may well be the government's fault.

Re: Canberra's aversion to real work: Labor is fixated on policy announcements without doing any work or doing little work. A nice example was Gillards early announcement of an offshore asylum processing centre on East Timor. This sounded like she was taking control of the situation. However, we quickly learned that East Timor was not contacted about this and were not interested! Such stunts in the private sector would lead to a CEO losing their job.

Since The Greens' got their way with a Carbon Tax now costing all and sundry a whopping $29 a tonne ,over $150 Billion of proposed mining investment has been shelved.The fruit loop Christine Milne was seen cheering on Woodside's decision to shelve Browse basin on national T.V DESPITE not having one economic policy to create revenue for the country or create jobs.
Last year in may Wayne Swan was still gloating that there was over $450 Billion in proposed mining investment still in the pipeline.With the introduction of the Carbon Tax, the mining Tax and Gillard's I.R legislation the Australian people are now told there's little over $100 bilion of proposed mining investment left in the pipeline and the country now has a $20 Billion dollar deficit.
It beggar's belief ANY government can create so called economic policies that result in the loss of $350 Billion in mining investment in the space of just 12 months but Gillard and The Green's have done it.
In the meantime Wayne Swan hasn't been heard to say a word about this huge economic loss in mining investment since May last year.

Good point Andrew.
"Milne was seen cheering on Woodside's decision to shelve Browse basin on national T.V DESPITE not having one economic policy to create revenue for the country or create jobs".

..but then very few in our legalmentarians apart from Hawke Keating, Martin Ferguson and Colin Barnett and a few others understand what is "growing revenue" without new taxes, they have an eduction gap, from their university days, and from the party rooms Gobbledegook.

Pretty spot on and balanced article IMHO , Rob. Only disagree with letting Treasury "off the hook" so easily such as Rob Oakshott has. Collectively they are not all at fault, but the grossly misguided estimates and the people that head up treasury should be demoted for their incompetence. With all the resources (no pun intended) and availablity of data...not to mention well publicized projected downgrades of mining prices, I believe there is no valid excuse that they could be that far "out". It's the only sympathy I have for Wayne Swan...then again, you make your own luck...or (if you've got a big mouth) in his case bad luck...

There are many good comments made by people who really understand what is wrong with the political system. I have several times commented on that citizen initiated referendum needs to be introduced in to the political scene. I don't know how well it would work,but we are in big big trouble for many reasons. All i can suggest is that if you vote for any one who doesn't have that policy in their political speak,don't vote for them.In a very animated discuss ion i made the point to an stupid liberal voter that if one had the choice of voting for hitler,mussoliny or stalin who to vote for..My point is that one shouln't vote for any of them. This is a stupid anecdote, but it makes the point that any votes for the present day dangerously flawed politicians is just an acceptance of this corrupt & flawed political system..

What a pointless article that wasted 5 minutes of my life....