Brexit Blues

Reading the latest coverage of the Brexit farce combined with the inter-related Conservative leadership contest, I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s description of fox hunting:

“The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”

Whichever candidate wins the Tory leadership race and, as a consequence, becomes the next UK Prime Minister, they will inevitably fail to deliver a satisfactory Brexit solution, simply because there is no consensus position.

But the underlying cause for this impasse is a series of flawed processes:

First, the promise made by previous Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on EU membership was flawed, if not highly disingenuous – because from the start, there were no terms of reference. Cameron chose to make it part of his manifesto pledge ahead of the 2015 general election campaign. Even at the time it felt like a desperate ploy to appease the mainly right-wing and Eurosceptic faction of the Conservative party. Despite being generally in favour of the UK remaining within the EU (but with “looser ties”), Cameron probably never expected that he would have to deliver on his referendum promise let alone lead the Brexit negotiations. Behind in the polls, the Tories were expected to lose the election. Instead, they won, but with a much reduced majority – which should have been the first warning sign that all was not going to be plain sailing with Cameron’s EU referendum pledge.

Second, the referendum question put to the electorate in 2016 was itself flawed. Cameron had originally talked about renegotiating the UK’s terms of EU membership, much like Margaret Thatcher had done with some considerable success in the 1980s. There was certainly no mention at all in Cameron’s January 2013 speech of a “No-deal Brexit”. However, the referendum question put to the voters was a stark, binary choice between “Remain” or “Leave”. As some have argued, the design of the referendum should have been enough to render it invalid: both because the voters were not given enough reliable data upon which to make an informed decision; and because there was no explanation or guidance as to what type of “Leave” (or “Remain”) outcome the government and Parliament would be obliged or expected to negotiate and implement. Simply put, the people did not and could not know what they were actually voting for (or against). I am not suggesting that the voters were ignorant, rather they were largely ill- or under-informed (although some would argue they were actually misinformed).

Third, the respective Leave and Remain campaigns in the 2016 referendum were both equally flawed. The Leave campaign was totally silent on their proposed terms of withdrawal (I certainly don’t recall the terms “Hard Brexit” or “No-deal Brexit” being used), and their “policy” was predicated on the magic number of “£350m a week“. And the Remain campaign failed to galvanize bipartisan support, and was totally hindered by the Labour leadership’s equivocation and ambivalence towards the EU (which has only deepened as Jeremy Corbyn refuses to confirm what his policy actually is).

Finally, the Parliamentary process to implement Brexit was flawed from the start. Cameron jumped ship and ending up passing the poisoned chalice to Theresa May. The latter had supported Remain, but now had to lead the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. However, rather than trying to build consensus and broker a truly bipartisan solution (this is not, after all, a simple, one-dimensional party political issue), May proved to be a stubborn, inflexible and thick-skinned operator. Now, there are threats to prorogue Parliament in the event that MPs vote against a No-Deal or Hard Brexit, if a negotiated agreement cannot be achieved by the October 31 deadline. May’s negotiation tactics have only resulted in deeply entrenched and highly polarised positions, while she ended up painting herself into a corner. Good luck to her successor, because if nothing else, Brexit is casting division and national malaise across the UK.

Next week: Pitch X’s Winter Solstice

 

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

 

 

Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

With its 3-year Federal parliamentary cycle and fixed 4-year terms in each State and Territory*, Australia is never too far away from an election. South Australia and Tasmania are both currently in full election mode. Victoria doesn’t go to the polls until later this year, but the informal campaigning (rather like a phony war?) is already underway. And although the next Federal election is not due until 2019, the stump speeches are already being wheeled out.

Fiction imitates (or even predicts) fact in ABC TV’s “Utopia” (hard hats obligatory)

With so much focus on “infrastructure”, it’s going to be a bumper year for hard hats, hi-viz vests and photo opportunities in front of big “stuff”. It’s just such a shame that even with the real life Utopia, Infrastructure Australia (and respective statutory and quasi-independent bodies in each State), so much of the decision-making is left to politicians. Because this “stuff” is far too important to be left to the short-term priorities, self-serving tactics and party preservation shenanigans that most of our elected representatives are forced to succumb to.

Hot infrastructure topics this time around are energy (especially in South Australia), water (Murray Darling Basin), resources (what do we do after the mining boom?), and the call for “jobs” linked to putting up or digging up “stuff”.

I understand that we need employment opportunities both sparked by, and as a driver for, economic stimulus. But there has to be more than simply creating short-term jobs on unsustainable projects (Adani, anyone?). Of course, one could argue that the powerful construction and mining unions (and their infrastructure owning superannuation funds) have a vested interest in maintaining this trajectory.

But if these projects need to take on long-term debt, with the 3 or 4 year election cycles, you can see how difficult it becomes to manage budget priorities. Worse, incoming governments may strive to cancel, overturn or curtail projects of their predecessors, which won’t endear them to the private sector companies (and their banks) who have successfully bid on the contracts.

Roads represent a large chunk of the infrastructure “stuff” in my own State of Victoria, and are already shaping up to be a key election issue (at least in the minds of the parties). For a major city that still doesn’t have a dedicated train service connecting the CBD to its ever-growing international airport, Melbourne probably needs fewer roads, and more planning (especially as we move to ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles). Besides, while we are in an urban and population growth cycle, given the rate at which some of the current new roads are being built, they will be under-capacity before they are even finished.

I would argue that there is just as much demand to upgrade and refurbish existing infrastructure, (which will probably generate just as many employment opportunities) rather than feeding the insatiable demand for shiny new toys. Or revisiting (and even restoring) some “old” ideas that might actually make sense again today, such as the orbital railway concept connecting Melbourne’s suburban hubs. Sure, we have the new Metro Tunnel project under the CBD, and this may lead to extensions to existing suburban services, and even the airport itself. But future projects have not been scoped, and are subject to prevailing party ideologies (not to mention the NIMBY brigades…) – rather than serving  the interests or greater good of the population (and environment) as a whole.

Finally, some sobering news came out of the UK recently, where London is actually experiencing a decline in passenger numbers on public transport. There have been a variety of explanations for this drop (the first in more than 20 years) – from the threat of terrorism, to new work patterns (more people working from home); from changing lifestyles (more Netflix, less Multiplex), to the “on-demand” economy (more Deliveroo, less dining out).  With fewer people likely to commute to the CBD (40% of the population will have self-directed careers), governments, their infrastructure boffins and their policy wonks will need to think about what this does actually mean for roads and rail…. and how much longer must I wait for the NBN in my suburb of Richmond (and will it already be obsolete by the time I have access)?

* For the breakdown see here.

Next week: Blockchain, or Schmockchain?