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.

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)

 

 

Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over

 

Revolving Doors At The Lodge

Since his unceremonious dumping as leader by his colleagues in the Parliamentary Liberal Party, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must be wondering why the party that spat him out twice (despite benefiting from his personal donations) accepted his membership in the first place. So adamant were his conservative enemies that Turnbull was “not one of us”, they were willing to sacrifice not only Turnbull’s status as preferred Prime Minister, but also his popular deputy, Julie Bishop, and their own preferred leadership candidate, Peter Dutton.

Turnbull’s farewell speech – image sourced from The Australian

All of which suggests Australian democracy (or at least, the version played out by our political parties) is seriously damaged, if not actually broken.

Turnbull is the fourth sitting Prime Minister to be dumped by his or her own party in less than 10 years (and let’s not forget he himself ousted his predecessor). This latest incident suggests that the problem is not with the electoral system, but with the party system that controls the management and exercise of political power – and with scant regard for the voters who directly elect their constituency representatives.

Here’s why I think party politics are the root cause of Australia’s current leadership malaise:

1. No legal or constitutional basis

Quite simply, political parties are neither mentioned in the Constitution, nor formally defined in any Act of Parliament. Their role in our democracy is entirely by custom and convention – in a way, we tolerate them as a “necessary evil”, because we are led to believe that Parliament cannot function without them. At best, Parliamentary parties operate under a license, one which should not be seen as a right, but as a privilege. And like all such licenses, this privilege should be subject to being revoked at the will of those who granted it – the electorate.

2. If our political parties were treated like corporations….

…. they would likely be hauled before the ACCC every time they broke an electoral promise, for misleading, unconscionable or deceptive conduct. Sure, circumstances can change once governments are elected – but should it be a requirement for governments to re-establish their political mandate before they make a significant u-turn? In fact, political parties are exempt from a number of legal provisions that apply to companies. Political parties may have a paying membership that determines policy, candidate selection and other procedural matters – but they are not directly answerable to the customers they purport to serve: the general electorate.

3. Our elected representatives are not even accountable to their electorates….

…. except at election time. The notion that voters elect parties into power needs to change. Voters elect individual candidates who stand for office. Even if a candidate aligns with a specific political party, there is no binding obligation on them to sit as a member of that party once they are elected. By switching party allegiance, elected representatives who cross the floor are being disrespectful of the same (flawed) party system that saw them selected to stand for election. But they are also disregarding the wishes of their electorate, who may have been convinced or persuaded to vote for them on the basis of their stated party allegiance.

4. Voters are increasingly excluded from choosing their Prime Ministers (and their governments)

Of course, we do not directly elect our Prime Ministers. The parliamentary convention is that the elected member who commands a majority in the house of representatives is invited by the Governor General to form government. The parliamentary custom and practice is that the leader of the parliamentary party that holds most seats becomes the de facto leader of the government, and hence Prime Minister. Increasingly, the largest party bloc may not command a majority. So formal and informal coalitions have to be formed, often between competing political parties, to enable minority government to function. Such alliances may be politically expedient, but they cannot be said to represent the will of the people, if we assume that the electorate is expected to vote along formal party lines. Besides, if the party system is to retain any credibility, shouldn’t voters be entitled to expect that the leaders of the parliamentary parties, which they have (indirectly) elected to lead that party, should continue to lead unless and until they have been voted out by that same electorate?

5. Voters are not even consulted when Prime Ministers are rolled mid-term

Since Prime Ministers are not directly elected, voters have also been excluded from the process when political parties choose to roll their own Prime Minister (and effectively change the government without having to call a general election). Do the party factions who seek a leadership change bother to directly consult their paid-up local party members, or their own party voters, or the local constituents they purport to represent (regardless of which way they voted at the previous election)? To me, this represents a huge fraud on the population – and the party system is at the heart of this “madness”.

6. The failure of (party) political leadership

During the 2013 general election I commented on the lack of public support for the then leaders of both major political parties – part of what I saw as a broader failure of leadership across multiple public institutions that claim to represent our interests. Regardless of their party allegiances, the electorate seems increasingly disillusioned, if not repelled, by the party back-stabbing, treachery and disloyalty. The result is, we are poorly served by our elected representatives and the governments they form along supposed party lines.

7. Politics is not binary….

…. but the party system forces us to think this way. On most party-driven policy questions, the answer cannot be reduced to “for” and “against” – there are just too many shades of grey. This is especially true of the key policy area that seems to have brought down the last four Prime Ministers – climate change, energy and the environment.

First, Kevin Rudd abandoned the ETS, a decision which he later regretted. He claimed that the main actors in his own demise were the ones who agitated for this policy u-turn.

Second, Julia Gillard avowed that she would not introduce a carbon tax – and the electorate never forgave her for her later u-turn, resulting in her being dumped by Rudd.

Third, Malcolm Turnbull was unhappy at the direction Tony Abbot was taking the Liberal Party on climate change.

Fourth, Turnbull came a cropper on energy policy (linked to climate change), even though he had decided to capitulate to the right-wing views in his own government and Party.

You have to think that something as important as climate change demands a bipartisan solution – but the party system just keeps getting in the way.

8. “Power, corruption & lies”

Finally, in recent years we have seen a litany of corruption and other cases involving our major (and some minor) parties, and the factions within – a further cause of the lack of public trust and respect for parties, politicians and power-brokers. Add to this mix the relatively small numbers of directly paid-up members of political parties, issues of party funding and campaign donations, the party stuff-ups on disqualification due to dual citizenship, and the ongoing saga of MP’s expenses, a key conclusion is that the political party system is not conducive to modern democracy or the electoral, parliamentary and government processes. And while it is sometimes said that we get the type of governments we deserve, I don’t think any member of the general electorate would say they voted for the current situation.

Next week: Separating the Truth from the Facts