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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