Here We Go Again…

At the time of writing, Melbourne is once again under a COVID19-related lock down. Currently, we are three-quarters of the way through a 14-day “snap” lock down or “circuit breaker”. Variously known as #lockdown4, v4.0 (now v4.1 with the added week), or simply “The South Australian One”. Along with a prevailing sense of déja vu, much of the political, media and social coverage has a very familiar ring to it – like, here we go again!

Overall, I would much rather be in Australia at the moment, compared to many other places in the world that are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. But there is no doubt that this latest lock down is once again revealing some political and structural weaknesses in the Australian Federal and State system – and the people of Victoria (and especially Melbourne) are paying a heavy price for these combined failings.

The blame game between Federal and State politicians is becoming a farce – most of us would rather see some effective leadership and practical solutions, as well as a bit more owning up and taking responsibility for where and when things have gone wrong. After all, the first known case of COVID19 was reported in Australia in late January 2020, so our elected representatives at levels and of all persuasions have had nearly 18 months to sort this out. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister is generally regarded as being absent whenever there is a crisis – on the other hand, does it help to have him turn up in hi-vis and hard hat for another photo opportunity? And sometimes when he does bother to make it, he’s often made to feel unwelcome.

Here are just a few of the disconnects between Federal and State roles and responsibilities when it comes to managing COVID19:

First, the Federal government is responsible for external border control (i.e., immigration and quarantine). It’s generally argued that the Feds have failed to deliver a workable quarantine solution for anyone coming to or returning to Australia. For whatever reason (and we’ll probably have to wait 20 years before the relevant papers are released), National Cabinet in March 2020 agreed to delegate the management of hotel quarantine (HQ) to the individual States and Territories. The big question is: why did the States agree? Where there incentives on offer, or did they do so because they could see no solution coming from the Federal government? At the same time, the States have applied inconsistent border controls as between each other, and at times, Victoria has been able to suspend in-bound international flights, putting more demand on the other States’ HQ programmes.

On the other hand, Melbourne still managed to host an international Grand Slam tennis event in the summer (notwithstanding some COVID scares and cases), and our nation’s softball players have already been vaccinated prior to heading off to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games (which many locals want to cancel for obvious reasons). Plus, AFL teams were somehow able to travel interstate from Melbourne immediately prior to the lock down (did they get a tip-off?). Yet, at least one AFL club has breached COVID regulations, when travelling on a domestic passenger flight. I’m so glad we have got our priorities right when it comes to professional sport!

Second, health services (along with education, aged care and social services) are a strange mix of Federal and State responsibilities, services and delivery. As a result, there is bound to be some overlap and double handling, as well as some obvious gaps. The Federal government is being blamed for failing to secure and distribute adequate vaccine supplies when and where they are needed, and for failing to meet their own aspirational targets in terms of vaccine roll-out. Yet, as with so many public services, there is a (confusing) dual delivery system. Victoria set up a number of vaccination hubs – only it still hasn’t deployed an online booking system: only phone bookings (or walk-ins) are available. But the Federal delivery is via health clinics and GPs, with each service provider offering different booking systems.

Third, the vaccination roll-out (by age and priority categories) has seen the criteria move around, somewhat arbitrarily. There is anecdotal evidence that due to low take-up rates in March and April, some people within one of the priority age categories (initially 60, it was suddenly moved to 50 in May) could access a jab at a clinic or hub at short notice, as otherwise those stocks were going to waste. It doesn’t help that there was/is confusion over the vaccine requirement for certain front line workers (e.g., in aged care) and who is responsible for administering those vaccinations. Of course, since the latest lock down in Victoria, demand is outstripping supply, and it is difficult to verify data on whether anyone who was in a priority category was initially unable to access a vaccine (or was denied access) at the time they became eligible and wanted a jab.

Fourth, hotel quarantine continues to be the key weak point in the transmission chain. I’m not going to dwell on the systemic failure that led to Victoria’s second (and lengthy) lock down last winter/spring – from which we were only just starting to recover when #lockdown4 was imposed. The fact that the latest lock down was triggered by an apparent breach in South Austalia’s HQ is of some significance, as it re-introduced the Kappa “Variant of Interest” into Victoria. More worrying is the presence of the Delta “Variant of Concern”, whose precise source in Victoria is still unknown, but likely to have come from our own troubled HQ system.

Fifth, the calls for the Federal government to pay for dedicated and purpose-built quarantine facilities in each State are understandable – but I’m not sure why Victoria in particular didn’t just go ahead and build their own (and then later stick the Feds with the bill). It’s not as if there is a shortage of construction work going on at the moment in Victoria (much of it State-funded), so it would have been quite easy to pull that project together without waiting for the Feds to come to the party. After all, construction was one of the few industries to continue relatively unscathed during last winter’s lock down – and with the Federal job keeper and job maker subsidies available at the time, Victoria could easily have completed the task by now, especially with the support of a key developer such as the union-backed Cbus.

Sixth, Victoria has only just mandated a universal QR code system for checking visitors in at all business, commercial, retail and hospitality premises. Why it took so long, and why it allowed a mish-mash of third party apps and pen and paper systems is yet another example of poor IT implementation by government. (The Feds appear to be no better with their own COVID tracing app.)

Seventh, the Federal Government, via last week’s National Cabinet, appears to have established a common definition for a COVID19 “hot spot”. Again, it’s only taken the best part of 18 months, and we still don’t have consistent and national terms for defining “red zone”, “complex case”, “cluster”, “mystery case”, “complex case”, “unknown case”, “fleeting transmission”, “stranger to stranger transmission”, “primary contact”, “close contact” or “exposure site” tiers. Nor do we have a consistent framework for responding to a “hot spot”, especially when comparing Victoria to other States.

Finally, the latest lock down again reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Australia’s manufacturing capabilities and supply chains (in terms of producing and distributing sufficient vaccines). It’s also shown up economic fragility with many people living pay cheque to pay cheque, and many small businesses, especially in retail, tourism and hospitality, will not manage to bounce back from a fourth shut down.

Next week: How about that AAA rating?

Is the Party over?

In the wake of allegations and revelations concerning election shenanigans, branch stacking, dodgy donations, and other improper behaviour by MPs, our trust in the democratic process is being severely challenged.

At the heart of the democratic process are the core principles of universal suffrage, and the open nomination and free election of individual candidates. However, in reality, it’s the party system that gets people elected, even though political parties are not mentioned in the Australian Constitution.

Thanks to factional disputes, evidence of corruption and general party machinations, I don’t believe voters are being well-served by their elected representatives. The highly partisan nature of party politics is making it increasingly difficult to build consensus or build inclusive, progressive and sustainable policy outcomes – even within the same party!

At the risk of making a huge generalisation, the problem I have with most politicians is that they have to play the party game in order to get selected, elected and re-elected. Thus they are overly beholden to the party that “backs” them (factional elements and all) rather than the electorates they purport to represent.

Look what happened to both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull during their (brief) terms as Prime Minister: neither had a sufficient power base in their respective parties that they could rely on for support. (Both essentially came unstuck on energy and climate policies. And interesting to note that despite their differences whilst in office, they seem to have found a modicum of mutuality around media ownership – and I’m sure they agree on a whole lot more, they just aren’t allowed to admit it in public.)

Also, it’s a paradox that once elected (especially to leadership roles) most politicians seem to lose the power of natural speech. Instead, they feel compelled to use tortuous and convoluted verbiage to avoid saying what they actually think, because the internal logic and policy constraints of party-think over-rules common sense.

Over the years, I’ve heard various politicians speaking at first hand at non-party and non-Parliamentary events, including Keating, Hockey, Tanner, Turnbull, and Morrison. As a general observation, they are far more engaging, authentic and sincere when they are away from the hustings, pressers or dispatch boxes. It seems as if they all appear to lose a huge part of their humanity as a result of elected office, and the strictures of the party machine.

So has the political party had its day? Increasingly, that feels to be the case. Which is a dangerous thought, given the fundamental requirement to build policy platforms to take to the electorate, and the essential nature of Parliamentary democracy to have a functioning opposition to hold the Government accountable. Plus, we need a healthy democracy to ensure a pluralistic, inclusive, secular and liberal (small ‘L’) society. Dictatorships thrive in one party states, theocracies and autocracies alike.

Unfortunately, the media finds itself having to pander to the increasingly shrill, strident and destructive discourse of party politics. The press has to play along with “gallery briefings” and “doorstops” (i.e., selected disclosure at best, selected leaking at worst). I also hate the whole process of policy testing via party focus group soundbites rather than considered debate in Parliament.

I have seen some recent suggestions that political parties should be banned (dangerous precedents there…) or that election candidates shouldn’t reveal in advance their party affiliation. Whilst the latter idea has some appeal, how would we know where their backing comes from if they don’t disclose their party membership? Perhaps we should also ban all political donations, campaign funding and paid-for ads (and/or introduce stringent “truth in advertising” laws). Or, what if every candidate can only spend an equal amount, whose budget is drawn from Government funds, and only once they have secured the minimum amount of voter support to stand for election in the first place?

I don’t have the answers, and even with “non-party affiliation”, candidates would self-identify or be tagged as belonging to a particular vested interest. But the party system looks increasingly broken, and the nature of binary politics is not helping us to address or solve the enduring problems of our age.

Next week: Coming out of our shells

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