Posts Tagged ‘Howard government’

Treasurer Chris Bowen believes Labor shouldn't enter into formal agreements with other parties. We think he's wrong.

Treasurer Chris Bowen believes Labor shouldn’t enter into formal agreements with other parties. We think he’s wrong.

An esoteric discussion for pointy heads and political tragics?

Yeah, maybe. But it’s an issue that fundamentally affects us all.

In recent years we have seen the dice fall in particular patterns so that even in “first past the post”  electoral systems, individual parties have not been delivered government in their own right.

It is wise to discuss how we respond to that situation, certainly.

The Conservative Party in the UK fell short of an outright majority at the last election, and formed a Coalition (“fusion”, in the USA) government with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

It would be fair to say that it has been a stable, but fractious, marriage. And whilst it has not been enormously popular, so the problems it has been dealing with are massive and deep rooted.

The Labor Party in Australia fell short of a majority and struck a deal with a few independents and the Greens. Again, it has been a relatively stable, if deeply unpopular, deal.

And it could be argued that a “non majority”  Government is something of the norm in America, where it is rare for one party to hold the Presidency and both houses of Congress at the same time.

Now a senior Labor figure in Australia is arguing, in a new book and ahead of the soon-to-be-called election, that his party should reject future deals if they find themselves in that situation again. I think he’s being foolish, and I shall explain why.

It is reported that the new Federal Treasurer, Chris Bowen, has declared Labor should never again strike a deal with another party to secure office.

Earlier this year, the Greens declared that their agreement with Labor was effectively over, citing a string of government policies including its refusal to re-design the mining tax.

Coalition government - better than no government at all?

Coalition government – better than no government at all? Or continual elections? We think so.

Mr Bowen said:

“This is not a criticism of the decision to go into alliance with the Greens.

It is a reflection of my views, having been considered, that the Labor Party – when it puts a view to the Australian people and campaigns in an election campaign for office – that we should govern alone and that we should not enter into formal deals with other political parties.

My contribution to the debate is that the Labor Party stands best by its policies and that we have a lot to offer with our policies and we shouldn’t need the policies of the Greens.”

In our view, Bowen is wrong for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the conduct of the Parliament is a matter for the people, not the political parties who coalesce there. If the people deny any one party a majority, then the parties surely have a moral and constitutional duty to seek to create a workable Government based on some formal arrangement, such as a Coalition or something very like it.

The alternative is for a party to seek to govern with a minority and no formal agreement governing how it will manage the situation.

This is almost always a cue for imminent chaos. Although it is not unheard of for the largest party to seek support on so-called “confidence” measures, and leave the rest to the whim of the Parliament, this kind of arrangement means any individual piece of legislation can be defeated willy-nilly.

Whilst this is a reflection of the make up of the house as expressed by the will of the people, it is also very bad for the uncertainty it causes in the country.

Businesses and public organisations plan their futures according to what is in a party’s manifesto. If it is entirely unclear which bits of that manifesto may or may not come to pass, then sensible planning becomes virtually impossible. For this reason alone, it is surely better for the largest party in the house to seek a stable arrangement with other parties or individuals.

The other variation on this alternative, that’s to say seeking to govern without either a coalition agreement or some working arrangement on confidence, is a nightmare scenario.

The Government can be defeated without warning, on matters ranging from the trivial to centrally important, and forced back to the country. A series of inconclusive elections arising from such a scenario can (and often has) led countries to question the wisdom of their democratic arrangements altogether.

So whilst it may be unpleasant for politicians to hold their nose and enter into Coalitions with parties that do not, of course, share every jot and tittle of their own platform, it is better than uncertainty and inertia.

Some Coalitions – and this seems to depend as much on the personalities of the people involved as it does on the policies of the parties concerned – work very well. Most European countries, as a result of using some form of proportional representation, find themselves requiring coalitions to be formed as a matter of course. As it is so common, it seems to produce much less angst than it does in First Past The Post countries or those, like Australia, who use the exhaustive but not necessarily proportional Alternative Vote system.

Countries which often operate with coalition cabinets include: the Nordic countries, the Benelux countries, Austria, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Turkey, Israel, New Zealand, Kosovo, Pakistan, Kenya, India, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand and Ukraine. Switzerland has been ruled by a coalition of the four strongest parties in parliament from 1959 to 2008, called the “Magic Formula”.

Instead of cleaving to the shibboleth of intellectual purity, Bowen would do better to consider that democratic government is nearly always government of compromise, and that steady, pragmatic and progressive change is change that is likely to stick, rather than be merely over-turned by an incoming government of the opposite persuasion, some way down the track. Bipartisanship (multi-partisanship?) isn’t a replacement for democracy – no one wants our system to be a contest of ideas that is so lacklustre as to be meaningless – but the goal of better understanding the agendas and opinions of others is a noble one, and one that would invariably result in better governance that garners wider popular support.

In Australia, at least, the public has almost entirely consistently, for example, returned a Parliament where those with a majority in the lower house (the House of Representatives) are not given a matching majority in the upper house (the Senate). When we do arrange for that to happen (as with the last Howard Government) we nearly always reverse the situation promptly.

Do you think this situation arises accidentally, Mr Bowen? Or merely because the electoral system is biased that way? Give us some credit. Any gathering of Australians will reveal a significant minority who vote one way for the lower house, and another for the upper, and do so very deliberately.

In short, we like governments to say what they mean, and to stick to their guns. We also like them to be somewhat hobbled.

Think about it.

Mr Bowen’s book, Hearts & Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor, is being launched by News Ltd boss Kim Williams today in Sydney.

Can we research the gun control issue with a minimum of opinion?

Can we look into the gun control issue with a minimum of opinion?

I am often being asked, particularly by United States residents, if I can help to elucidate the effects of the much-discussed Howard Government’s gun buy back (which removed about 650,000 weapons from Australian society, for which compensation was paid) following the Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were killed.

It is difficult to be precise, as studies are still on-going, but in a bi-partisan spirit I post the following links for people to investigate for themselves if they so wish.

Results confused

This joint Canadian-Australia research study finds a drop in gun suicide rates of 80%. Suicide rates are often the forgotten element in the gun control discussion – a 2010 study found that the gun buyback scheme cut firearm suicides 74%, thus saving 200 lives a year. The Canadian-Australian study, by Christine Neill and Andrew Leigh also found that states such as Tasmania, which withdrew guns quickly, had a bigger decline in firearm suicides than states such as New South Wales, which withdrew more slowly. The authors found no evidence of substitution of method of suicide in any state, although other studies have argued that this has happened. The study finds other violent deaths unaffected in the main, although it believes that overall gun violence diminished.

http://andrewleigh.org/pdf/GunBuyback_Panel.pdf

Effect on massacre killings

The Wikipedia page on Gun Politics in Australia is helpfully unbiased and full of data. It shows, in effect, that the effect of the gun buy back is disputed (hardly surprising with strong opinions on both sides) but that one area where it is likely there will be agreement is that guns have almost disappeared from massacre-style killings.

Hypothetically, I would argue that this is because the nature of the weapons restricted are those that typically allow considerable damage to be done in a short space of time, as in the recent school killings in the USA. This may be helpful in considering, for example, whether the USA should ban semi-automatic weapons or large magazine weapons.

Cultural change

This study into an Argentine gun buy back programme notes the effects of the buy back in Australia, and particularly emphasises that any changes that have taken place as a result of it are because it was not just about removing weapons from the community but also about a wider range of restrictions, as in a similar scheme in Brazil, and also a concomitant cultural change, brought about by a generalised revulsion at the Port Arthur massacre. Interestingly, though, despite not finding much impact on the overall problem of gun violence, this study finds a significant reduction in deaths from gun accidents in the Argentine.

Gun suicide and gun accidents

The effect on the reduction in gun suicide and accidental gun deaths in the USA needs to be considered as a part of any overall gun control discussion there.

23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States occurred during 2000. Annually, about 600 people are accidentally killed. You either consider this a lot, thinking about 600 families losing someone, or a little, compared to the overall gun population. Or you can hold both thoughts simultaneously, as I do.

Just over half of all gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, and firearms remain the most common method of suicide, accounting for 50.7% of all suicides committed in 2006with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths a year later in 2007 being decided to be suicide. It is worth noting that some of these suicides also occurred after one or more murders, such as in a family murder-suicide situation. In this respect, there would seem to be some advantage to reducing the number of households in a society with firearms.

National may work, local doesn’t

My reading seems to imply that the success or otherwise, in any sphere, of a gun buy back programme is critically determined by whether or not the activity is national, rather than state based or city based. This seems to be because if one can simply travel across a border to buy a weapon or type of weapon that is restricted in a particular community then the effect of the buy back is reduced or negated. Also, small-scale gun buy backs (such as a city within the United States) do not have a large enough impact on the overall gun population to make a serious statistical impact.

gun deaths v traffic deaths

The role of guns in death and injury in the USA would seem urgent, and not just because of the recent sad mass murders. As this graphic and article from Bloomberg reveals, gun deaths will out-number traffic deaths within a couple of years.  As we work to make driving a car safer and safer in so many ways, it surely makes sense to make the same effort for weapon ownership.

I am often criticised (in 99% of cases by ironed-on conservatives or Republicans) for being too critical about the quality of American politics, (which I freely admit fascinates me), and the performance of the right in particular. So I was pleased to see today’s report that the most popular politician (by opinion poll) in Australia appears to completely agree with my point of view.

Malcolm Turnbull says American politics is becoming 'profoundly dysfuntional'.

As reported in The Age, re-reporting an interview with The Monthly, published today, Malcolm Turnbull says American politics is becoming ‘profoundly dysfunctional’. 

He has sharply criticised the corrupting power of money in the US and described America as looking ”like a country that is barely governed”.

The former Liberal leader and member of  Tony Abbott’s shadow cabinet (note, “Liberal” in Australian political terms means the main Conservative party, and current Official Opposition, and not the “progressive” position it means in America, nor the centrist position it means in the UK), says American politics is becoming ”profoundly dysfunctional”.

He attacks the Republican idea that the budgetary situation can be improved by cutting the taxes of the wealthy as ”just bizarre”, and describes the right-wing Tea Party as extreme, reactionary and radical.

Author of the interview article Robert Manne writes: ”He thinks that American voluntary voting encourages Republican extremism and the search for ‘hot-button issues’, like abortion or guns or gay marriage or Obama as a secret Muslim.

”He is concerned about the fragmentation of opinion and collapse of the rational centre. He is profoundly concerned about the ‘self-evident’ corrupting influence of ‘the power of money’.”

Mr Turnbull is also very critical of the Iraq war – in which Australia was an enthusiastic US ally under the previous conservative Howard government.

”The argument for saying it was a mistake and misconceived is a very powerful one … There are plenty of people on both sides of politics in the US who take that view.’

I am delighted to hear a conservative politician break ranks on this, which is surely now one of the most accepted facts in international conflict studies. The Iraq war was launched on lies, conducted without adequate legal authority, with no exit strategy, managed appallingly badly by Rumsfeld and others, and has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Hardly a family in Iraq has been untouched.

Mr Turnbull, who agreed to the interview on condition he would not be asked about his leader Mr Abbott, says climate change denialism is ”contrary to the views of, I think, just about everybody in the Coalition party room”. Manne however notes Mr Abbott once described as ”absolute crap” the view that climate scientists had a consensus position.

The interesting thing for me is how much more mainstream Turnbull is than the current leadership of his party. I have little doubt that were they to dump Abbott for him, (Abbott having only defeated him by one vote in the party room, remember, after a well-organised right-wing coup), that they would be elected in the largest landslide in Australian political history, regardless of how well the Government does in the next 18 months.

Almost unthinkably by current received wisdom, as things stand, I firmly believe Abbott is on track to lose the un-loseable election.

We will see.