Six major issues that dominate public life today and require resolution

By JOHN MENADUE | 19 June 2018

There are six major issues that dominate public life today and require resolution. Those issues are: the dire consequences following the Iraq invasion, tax cuts during the mining boom that result in continuing budget deficits and debt increases, the threat of climate change and increased carbon pollution, the NBN debacle, hostility to refugees and asylum seekers, and problems with foreign influence and political donations which are producing an anti-Chinese sentiment.

Iraq invasion

This invasion in 2003 that the Coalition strongly supported has brought death to hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions from their homes and countries. The invasion has destabilised Iraq and adjoining countries. It triggered the civil war in Syria. The invasion  has promoted widespread political, religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts across the Middle East. Our involvement in Iraq has brought terrorism to our shores. Terrorists are here because the Coalition sent  our troops  over there.

No Australian person bears greater responsibility for this ongoing tragedy than John Howard who enthusiastically took us into the Iraq War.

Yet the Coalition postures that it alone can be trusted with our national security and to protect us from terrorism which it exaggerates for political advantage.

The budget deficit and government debt

In the 2013 election, Tony Abbott campaigned stridently about deficits and debt as a result of the Gillard and Rudd governments.

Yet the seeds of continuing government deficits and government debt were planted by the Coalition when Peter Costello was Treasurer during the mining boom. For short-term political benefit, he substantially reduced taxes and we are now bearing the long-term consequences. Superannuation pensions were made tax free. There were concessions for negative gearing and capital gains. These concessions have left us with an enduring budget deficit and debt problem.

The ALP cannot be excused entirely. After its successful response to the global financial crisis it failed to reform the tax base as proposed by Ken Henry.

But the real culprit was the Coalition and particularly John Howard and Peter Costello for our continuing budget deficits and government debt. As the Parliamentary Budget Office put it: “Over two thirds of the five percentage points of GDP decline in structural (budget) receipts over the period 2002/3 to 2011/12 was due to the cumulative effects of the successive personal income tax cuts granted between 2003/4 and 2008/9.”

The IMF came to the same conclusion. It identified two periods of Australian ‘fiscal profligacy’ in recent years, both during the Howard government period – at the start of the mining boom in 2003 and during its final years in office between 2005 and 2007.

Yet the Coalition portrays itself and the public seems to agree that Conservatives are better economic managers. The evidence from the Howard-Costello years does not support this.

Climate change and carbon pollution

In 2008 the Coalition continued to deny climate change. It therefore opposed and defeated the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme proposed by the Rudd Government which would have laid the basis for carbon reduction through a market mechanism. It would have promoted renewable energy and lowered energy costs. This was a major setback in addressing climate change and carbon pollution.

The Coalition added to its unfortunate record on climate change and carbon pollution by repealing the carbon tax of the Gillard government, which was showing clear signs of curbing carbon pollution.

The ensuing climate change confusion discouraged investment in new technology. Energy costs rose as a direct result of Coalition opportunism. Encouraged by its right wing base, the Coalition has continually scare-mongered about renewable energy. We saw that disgracefully in SA. Looking to the past the Coalition brought a lump of coal into Parliament. Perhaps unwittingly it was mocking itself.

Renewable energy is the energy of the future, not coal .But the extreme right in the Coalition is tied to the past and Malcolm Turnbull dare not confront them.

The Coalition has been the major obstacle to reduced carbon pollution and a sensible energy policy that will enable us to meet our Paris climate change agreement obligations.

The NBN

Tony Abbott called the NBN a ‘white elephant’.  Taking that cue from his Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications in effect sabotaged a possible world-class NBN by refusing to support fibre-to-the-premises. We got a second-rate system as a result.

But the problem goes back to the Coalition and John Howard, with the privatisation of Telstra in three stages in 1997, 1999 and 2006.  If at least the wholesale arm of Telstra had remained in public hands, a separate and new NBN company would not have been necessary.  Without John Howard’s privatisation the publicly owned wholesale arm of Telstra would have rolled out an NBN as part of its normal business operations.  That is what happened in New Zealand and why New Zealand has a far better telecommunications system than we have.

The Coalition, with John Howard as Prime Minister, through the privatisation of Telstra, has left us with an appalling legacy, a second-rate NBN. Malcolm Turnbull compounded the mess. This Coalition legacy that has to be fixed.

Stopping the boats

The Coalition postures that it stopped the boats, and that it alone can be trusted to keep our borders secure. Once again, the evidence does not bear this out.

I have previously argued that Tony Abbott did not stop the boats. By the time Operation Sovereign Borders came into effect in December 2013, boat arrivals had been dramatically reduced from 48 in July 2013 to 7 in December 2013. The boat ‘crisis’ was very largely over by the time the Abbott government policies came into effect. OSB was really engaged in a minor clean up when the main game was over.

Further, the Coalition was responsible for the surge in boat arrivals after September 2011, when it opposed and defeated in parliament, amendments to the Migration Act which would have enabled the government to implement the Malaysian Arrangement. Before those amendments were defeated in the parliament, boat arrivals were running at about four to five a month. When the people smugglers saw that the government’s attempt to curb them had failed as a result of Coalition action in the parliament, they stepped up their activities once more. Boat arrivals steadily increased from the four to five per month, to 30 to 40 per month in the middle of 2013. Tony Abbott and the Coalition gave the green light to people smugglers by striking down the Malaysian Arrangement.

Yet the Coalition postures that it stopped the boats and only it can be trusted to keep our borders secure. The evidence does not support this proposition. Unfortunately the media yet again failed to examine what really happened.

Foreign influence and political donations

The anti-Chinese narrative at the present time is being led by our intelligence and security agencies. The Coalition is being dragged along behind. We now have proposed legislation from the Coalition to address some of the problems of foreign influence.

Former ALP Defence Minister, Senator John Faulkner canvassed a suite of measures to promote ‘Integrity in Government’. It included a National Anti-corruption Plan, Public Interest Disclosure, including protection of whistle-blowers, a Code of Conduct for MPs, an Independent Parliamentary Budget Office, an Open Government Partnership and Electoral Funding reform.

Only some of this was implemented. Unfortunately the critical electoral funding reforms which included prohibition of anonymous and foreign donations was rejected by the Coalition in the Senate in 2009. If only we had nipped the problem of foreign influence and donations in the bud in 2009, the present anti-Chinese narrative and xenophobia could have been avoided or at least lessened.

The Coalition is responsible for the debilitating legacy we bear on each of these six major issues. The media also has a convenient memory in ignoring and forgetting a lot of this legacy. Many were complicit in failing to properly examine these major policy mistakes for which we now bear a heavy burden.

(John Menadue AO worked for Gough Whitlam, followed by a distinguished career in the public and private sectors. He headed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was Ambassador to Japan, and later CEO of Qantas. Now retired, John is a patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre in Sydney. This article originally appeared in John’s own blog, “Pearls and Irritations“.)