Postscript on the Federal Election

Well, what just happened there? In a Federal election that was Labor’s to lose (based on all the published opinion polls), the opposition ended up conceding defeat within just a few hours of the ballot closing. Despite the negative national swing away from the Coalition, Labor suffered an even greater negative swing.

Although populist parties gained votes at the expense of the two major parties, they failed to pick up any seats – rather, Labor lost too many seats. The Greens held on to their one seat, while the balance held by other minor parties also remained the same. All of which enabled the Coalition to form majority government. Sure, there were some significant variations in each State (and the Coalition will have to rely on minority parties in the Senate), but overall Labor was the biggest loser.

Yet it was still a pretty close outcome, and as I expected, the deciding factor was Queensland (and Adani).

A key problem for Labor was that rather than beating up “the big end of town”, and advocating a form of class war (thru the implied politics of envy), it should have found a way to help the working population adapt to the reality of a changing economy. Plus, instead of just imposing a carbon tax, it should have offered more incentives to decarbonise.

Equally, during the campaign there was no discussion by either major party on the need for structural economic reforms around competition, productivity and the tangible outcomes of public services.

Labor has since pretty much abandoned key fiscal policies it took to the electorate, with its new leader claiming that the party must appeal to “aspirational Australians” (whatever that means). For me, this implies that people need to feel incentivised to contribute more, while also feeling they are able to keep more of what they earn, through their additional efforts. In fact, the new shadow finance minister has commented on the lack of productivity gains (reflected in large part by wage stagnation?). Whereas, the previous Labor leadership talked endlessly about “ordinary Australians” (whatever that means).

The re-elected Prime Minister, meanwhile, credited “quiet Australians” (whatever that means) for the Coalition’s success.

Somewhat worryingly, the Prime Minister described his win as a “miracle”, and has made a significant personal statement through his own churchgoing habits, while a former Labor Prime Minister said his party needed to “reconnect with people of faith”. The sacking of a leading sportsman for making bigoted comments on social media (because his religion wanted him to say those things) has led to a prominent Coalition senator to seek an administrative review of the decision, on the grounds that expressing religious views cannot be cause for dismissal. The consequence of such a position is that “religious freedoms” effectively protect hate speech. And there was I thinking that we lived in a secular country…

Both major parties have to overcome continuing and significant internal divisions in the wake of their respective election results. Labor’s factionalism has already been on display again with the way its uncontested leadership contest was stitched up in more murky back room deals. And the Coalition’s more conservative members from Queensland will be expecting huge rewards for having delivered the party a surprise win.

Whether or not Australia’s Federal poll result was another example of the populist trend that was started by the Brexit referendum, confirmed with Trump’s success, and now extended following the EU elections, is open to debate. But it’s clear that traditional assumptions concerning the western democratic process have been subverted, in large part by the arrogance and complacency of the very same political parties that have hitherto underpinned them, that were also forged by them, but which now appear willing to undermine them.

Next week: The Finnies

 

 

Pre-election Musings

At the time of publication, Australia is four days out from a General Election. At the time of writing, I have submitted my postal vote, as I will be overseas on polling day (May 18). I am certainly not going to call the result or predict the outcome, except to say it will probably be far closer than most people would have expected, maybe even a hung Parliament, with an even more fractious Senate. But I have to say that this has probably been the most difficult ballot I have had to complete.

Image sourced from The Donkey Vote

For one thing, I can’t see why either of the major parties deserve my vote. Plus, in my own constituency for the lower house, the ALP candidate has been disendorsed, so as a result, I have been denied the option of voting for the official opposition. (More on this disendorsement later.) (Meanwhile the only Green Party MP who sits in the lower house and who represents my constituency, labelled himself an “independent voice”. Does that mean he no longer represents the views of the Green Party?)

Why do I feel this way about the two major parties?

First, neither party leader inspires me – they are purely products of their political organisations and their respective factions, and display very few leadership qualities other than they probably know how to stitch together half-baked policy deals in their party meeting back rooms. I doubt they have ever had an original idea, and certainly not since they became the leaders of their particular factions, let alone leaders of their parties.

Second, both parties have simply been sloshing around tax payers’ cash – funding here, pork barrels there, sleights of hand all over the place. I agree that most areas of public services and infrastructure demand a rethink on their current funding models, and some deserve more money. But from what I have been able to glean so far, most of these funding commitments and/or budget re-allocations are mostly about headline amounts, and not measurable outcomes, assuming they have been properly costed in the first place.

Third, despite all the money on offer, there have been few, if any, announcements on more fundamental issues of economic and structural reform such as competition policy, productivity measures, innovation, startups, etc. Yes, there have been some financial and tax incentives thrown out to small businesses who take on more staff, or who invest in new equipment, but these are just the usual tweaks. And there has been very little debate about the need to review the design, delivery, quality and accountability of public sector services.

Fourth, and the one main thing that the major parties have in common, is that the only policy levers they seem willing to push/pull are continued fiddling about with tax rates, superannuation and industrial relations. All of which is counterproductive, as it just means the focus is on winners and losers, and the resulting class-war based “politics of envy” and crass take-downs of the “big end of town”.

So let’s talk about jobs.

Much of the money ear-marked for particular industries or service sectors is intended to support job creation. Where are most people employed in Australia? By industry category, the top sectors are: Health Care; Retail; Construction; Professional, Scientific and Technical Services; and Education. Most of which are destined to be the recipients of tax payer-funded largesse after the election. And while I agree that Health, Education and Public Infrastructure need to be adequately and properly resourced, innovation and the high-tech jobs of the future will more likely come from the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services sector. (And $3m for a “Blockchain Academy” is woefully inadequate for long-term thinking and vision.)

But as should be obvious to anyone, industries don’t create jobs, companies do. And most people in Australia (70% of the working population) are employed by small to medium-sized businesses. Of the nearly 2.2m registered businesses, 60% have zero employees (mostly they are owner-operated sole traders, including self-employed tradespeople), more than a quarter of businesses employ fewer than 5 people, nearly 10% of businesses employ between 5 and 20 people, 2.4% employ between 20 and 200 people, and only 0.2% of businesses (c. 3,800 companies) employ more than 200 people. In addition, only 100,000 businesses have an annual turnover of $2m or more. Welcome to the long tail of the Australian economy.

As for the election outcome itself, it will largely be determined by swing voters in marginal seats. Five of the 10 most marginal seats are in Queensland. And with the Adani mine project being such a divisive topic, this one item could determine who takes government. And even if Labor wins a majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate will be even more split between minor parties, and whoever wins government will find it difficult to navigate the upper chamber. In my own state of Victoria, there are something like 30 party groupings and around 80 individual candidates standing for just 6 seats. Trying to research the minor parties and their candidates or their labyrinthine preference deals is virtually impossible, which cannot be healthy for the democratic process under the proportional representation system of the single transferable vote model.

The real issue, though, is that with 3-year Federal Parliaments, parties are in perpetual campaigning mode. There is very little long-term thinking or vision, while short-term compromises are the order of the day. All of which results in either total inertia when it comes to making any real structural change, or constant policy tweaking to keep ahead in the polls. All hot air and no momentum.

Finally, coming back to the disendorsed Labor candidate for the lower house in my constituency of Melbourne. The party was forced to act (albeit somewhat reluctantly and almost equivocally) when the candidate’s social media past caught up with him. At first, the party and its Leadership suggested that the 29-year old candidate should be forgiven his indiscretions because he was “only” 22 at the time said offensive remarks were posted. I think that argument is total hogwash. If you are not going to be held responsible or accountable for the consequences of your actions at the age of 22, then you should not have the right to vote, get married, have children, stand for election, serve on a jury, sign a contract or take out a mortgage because clearly you have not fully developed as a mature adult, and your capacity to think and make important decisions is obviously impaired, such that you cannot be relied upon to exercise reasonable judgement.

Next week: Trends in LegalTech

 

 

Why don’t we feel well off?

The past month has seen a number of reports on the current state of the Australian economy and global financial systems, 10 years after the GFC. The main thesis appears to be: if another crash is coming, can local markets cope, as an extended period of cheap credit and low inflation inevitably comes to an end. Combined with US-Sino trade wars, a softening housing market, and a sense of economic inertia, there is a feeling that Australians see themselves as worse off, despite some very strong economic data in recent weeks.*

Picture Source: Max Pixel

First, the positive news:

The unemployment rate continues to remain comparatively low, and overall job participation is high. This is reflected in higher tax receipts from both corporate profits and personal income. The RBA has kept interest rates low, and inflation remains relatively benign.

Recent data from Roy Morgan Research suggests that personal assets are growing faster than personal debt. Significantly, “average per capita net wealth, adjusted for inflation, is 30.5% higher than it was before the onset of the global financial crisis”.

So, if more people are in work, credit is still cheap, our assets have grown, and prices are stable, we should feel well off compared to the GFC, when interest rates and unemployment rates initially both went up.

Even higher energy bills (a major bone of contention with consumers) need to be assessed against lower costs of clothing, communications and many grocery items.

Second, the less positive news:

A combination of higher US interest rates, more expensive wholesale credit, and more stringent lending rules means that Australian borrowers are already being squeezed by higher mortgage rates and tougher loan to value thresholds. This could only get worse if there is a full-scale credit crunch.

Wage growth has stagnated, despite lower unemployment and higher participation rates. There is also a sense that we are working longer hours, although this is not as clear cut as there is also evidence we are also working fewer hours.

Regardless, Australian productivity output is considered to be sluggish, adding to the overall downward pressure on wages. (More on the productivity debate next week.)

More significantly, Roy Morgan Research has identified a growing wealth disparity based on asset distribution – but this may be a combination of changing earning, saving, investing and spending patterns. For example, if younger, would-be first-time home buyers feel priced out of the housing market, they may choose to invest in other assets, which may take longer to appreciate in value, but may not require as much upfront borrowing.

Third, preparing for a fall….

If a new market crash or a credit crunch comes along, how resilient is the economy, and how will people cope? Worryingly, fewer people are able to cope with unexpected expenses due to lower saving rates and maxed out credit cards. Over-leveraged companies and individuals will be hard pressed to meet their repayments or refinance their loans if interest rates rise steeply or lending standards tighten further.

Then there is the ageing population transitioning into retirement – baby-boomers who are “asset rich, but cash poor”. If they expected the equity in their homes and/or the balance in their superannuation accounts to fund their old age, they may be in for a shock if the housing bubble bursts and stock markets decline, especially if they are expected to live longer.

Finally, the RBA may have few options left in terms of interest rate settings, and a future government may be less wiling to spend its way out of a crisis (more Pink Batts and LCD TVs, anyone?). And while Australian companies may have strengthened their balance sheets since the GFC, overall levels of debt (here and overseas) could trigger increased rates of default.

*Postscript: if there was any further evidence required of the disconnect between the value of household assets (net worth) and a lack of feeling wealthy, this recently published Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2018 makes for some interesting analysis.

Next week: The Ongoing Productivity Debate

 

 

 

The party’s over

The aftershocks from the recent Liberal Party leadership spill continue to dominate current political punditry. While the focus is on plots and personalities, less is being said about the current state of our political parties (as opposed to party politics…), which any rational calculation would indicate are on the endangered species list.

Image: Daniel Mohr; Source: Flickr; Some Rights Reserved

The parliamentary party system may have served us well for the first 100 years of Federation, but the past 10 years of political farce would suggest political parties are either increasingly irrelevant to modern democracy, or they are distorting the electoral process.

First, let’s look at some numbers:

1. Rarely over the past 20 years has either of the two major parties commanded more than 50% of the primary vote, as expressed in the regular polls.

2. Even on the two-party preferred basis, neither party can command more than 55% in the polls (although that may have changed in recent weeks as the Labor opposition has probably benefited from the disarray of the Coalition government).

3. Perversely, even though Labor is well ahead of the Coalition in the party polls, the Labor leader continues to lag both as preferred Prime Minister, and on net satisfaction rating. To me, this suggests that voters want to hedge their bets as to the outcome of the next election – or they are confused about what each major party and/or their respective leaders stand for.

4. The number of people who are members of political parties is minuscule, so how can parties claim to be representative of the population at large? At best, the lack of active party participation could be put down to public apathy; at worst, people place little value in party membership, or are disengaged with the whole party process.

Second, because of the emphasis placed on the party system (and the voters’ dissatisfaction with the choice they are being forced to make), federal elections are increasingly determined by swing voters in a handful of marginal seats – with a disproportionate number of those seats in Queensland. How can that be truly representative of voter intention?

Third, listening to the binary arguments between any government and opposition politicians duking it out on TV and radio each morning, I can’t help thinking that we need a new approach to policy debates – one that does not rely on towing the party line. Politics should not only be about who wins, but how specific policy outcomes are decided and implemented. With such poor standings in the primary vote, both major parties risk losing what remaining legitimacy they have unless they are willing to collaborate on policy – out with the hide-bound ideologies, and in with creative solutions, regardless of the tired party pedagogy.

The last Federal election further revealed deep-seated sociopolitical fault lines that do not fall nicely within the “traditional” demographics of either major party – so, we have inner urban progressives vs the outer suburban marginalised; mining communities vs regional agriculture; organised labour in the construction, manufacturing and public sectors vs flexible, self-directed digital nomads and freelancers working in the gig economy; outward-facing free traders vs inward-looking protectionists.

The traditional party structures are increasingly irrelevant and only support factionalism and horse-trading of the worst kind (and as exploited in the Senate preferences for the last Parliament). I previously did the ABC Vote Compass, and it indicated I was equally aligned to the ALP, LNP and the Greens, based on their stated policies and my personal values. (It also suggested that none of them deserved my primary vote outright!) Which is why, whoever forms the next Government, Parliament has to adopt a much more collaborative approach to policy making, not continue the entrenched party divisions.

Next week: Banks under the spotlight (again)