Is Federation still working?

As three of the six Australian States (and one of the two Territories) grapple with fresh COVID outbreaks, their respective lock-down measures reveal quite different responses to what should be considered a common problem. It’s not just the differences within their own borders, but also how they react in relation to each other in terms of classifying “hot spots” and imposing travel restrictions. It’s a fresh example that despite defining itself as a single nation, the Commonwealth of Australia remains a patchwork quilt, hurriedly stitched together from the remains of colonialism, under the pretext of “Federation”.

Federation feels even more of an artificial construct than the former British colonies themselves. In my view, the inconsistencies between each State and Territory in dealing with COVID, and their fractious collective and individual relationships with the Commonwealth, can be linked to questions of national identity, the legacy of imperialism, a lack of consensus on a Treaty with our First Nations people, and the failure of Republicanism to pave a way forward.

For a start, Australia tries to maintain four different codes of professional football – yet not every State or Territory is represented in the national competitions. Of these codes, one is essentially a Victorian competition, with a couple of other States brought in on merit, and a couple of the others only included after some fabricated interstate franchises. (And how long before a Victorian club has to relocate to Tasmania?)

Another football code runs an interstate competition, but only two States compete – and sometimes they compete in another State (just for the hell of it, or to try and instill “national” relevance?)

Cricket may rightfully claim to be a national sport at a professional level, but even the major Sheffield Shield competition excludes the two Territories.

These observations may appear flippant, but in a sport-loving nation, such examples might help explain why we don’t feel a very cohesive place – not all of us even get to barrack for our own State or Territory on the playing field!

There are many other examples of arbitrary differences between the States – e.g., unicameral or bicameral Parliaments; recognition of Public Holidays; the calculation of State election dates; the width of railway tracks; connectivity with energy grids; the minimum legal age for driving a car; the size of beer glasses in pubs; and the term for a “corner shop”.

Back in 1901, Federation must have felt like part of a grand scheme towards a modern era, designed to galvanize a bunch of colonies into a cohesive whole, and forge a new nation. But we don’t formally celebrate its existence with a public holiday. Rather, each State prefers to mark the Queen’s Birthday (albeit on different dates…) instead of recognizing the Act of Federation, which was supposed to confirm Australia’s independence from the UK. Not only that, but the “National Day” we do observe is Australia Day, which is highly contentious and increasingly overshadowed by its association with foreign invasion, imperial expansion and colonial oppression.

Back to COVID: recent events have shown that the “social contract” between the Commonwealth of Australia on the one hand, and the States and Territories on the other, is purely transactional. In respect to the pandemic, the Federal government has had two primary responsibilities: 1) international border control and quarantine; 2) vaccine acquisition and distribution. Although they have maintained closed borders, the Commonwealth has “delegated” quarantine arrangements to the States, with all the resulting inconsistencies and glaring mistakes. The Commonwealth has also fudged the vaccination roll-out (too many reasons and causes to go into here).

On the need for dedicated quarantine centres: while the States have taken on (or been lumped with) an unenviable task, after 18 months of the pandemic, I don’t understand why the States haven’t taken it upon themselves to build their own facilities, and then stick the Federal Government with the bill. If landlords won’t undertake essential property repairs when brought to their attention, I think most of us would agree that their tenants would have a valid case for getting the work done themselves and deducting the cost from the rent.

Except that the States don’t have that sort of leverage over the Federal Government (despite what Queensland and Western Australia might say and think).

In short, Federation is merely a way to distribute taxes levied by the Commonwealth – even then, this distribution is mired in political horse-trading and pork-barreling. The States, unable to raise their own revenue (other than via payroll tax, stamp duty, land tax and fees from providing certain services, issuing permits and granting licenses), are heavily reliant on Federal handouts. While this allocation is often dressed up in the guise of achieving minimum targets and standards, in reality funding is tied to political objectives.

I suppose even after 120 years, Federation can still be called a work in progress. Whatever the future debate on Australia Day and an indigenous Treaty (plus constitutional recognition and parliamentary representation), and whatever the prospect of a Republic, we may need to consider that the States, as currently constituted, have had their time and are increasingly redundant. Part of me thinks we might be better off by dissolving them (along with our local authorities) and re-constituting regional government and administration around the lands of the original settlers to this island. Just a thought.

Next week: Startup Vic FinTech Pitch Night

How about that AAA rating?

As the State of Victoria weighs up the costs of yet another lock down, you could be forgiven for thinking that the local economy has taken a further beating after the horrendous events of the past 15 months. Across Australia, thousands of companies and individuals accessed various government-sponsored financial aid packages to keep afloat, causing the federal government to borrow more money, at something like 8x the equivalent rate pre-COVID. National public debt is now expected to grow to more than 40% of GDP by the 2024-25 fiscal year – effectively double what it was in 2018-19.

So what has Australia done to retain its coveted AAA sovereign rating from Standard & Poor’s, and have the rating outlook upgraded from negative to stable? According to the ratings agency, and economists such as Westpac’s Bill Evans, there are probably three or four key factors that have warranted this optimistic economic reckoning.

First, while government borrowing (Quantitative Easing) has blown out as a proportion of GDP, the current low interest rates mean that the cost of servicing that debt is manageable.

Second, while the pursuit of QE has destroyed any hope of returning to an overall budget surplus, the deficit will return to similar levels last seen after the GFC, and the current account will continue to return a modest surplus over the coming quarters.

Third, despite the significant economic risks that were identified at the start of the COVID pandemic, the actual impact on the budget has been less than feared, and the economy is recovering faster than expected (as evidenced by latest employment data and consumer sentiment).

Fourth, Australian banks have seen an increase in customer deposits, meaning they are less reliant on more expensive overseas borrowing for their own funding.

Overall, just as with the GFC, Australia has managed to dodge a bullet (the shock to the system was less than anticipated) – in large part thanks to a resurgence in iron ore prices (again).

But weaknesses and disparities remain:

The over-reliance on commodity prices (mainly based on demand from China) hides the true nature of Australia’s balance of payments – we manufacture less than we used to, and our supply chains have been severely tested during the pandemic. And with international borders closed, we won’t see the same levels of GDP growth that resulted from immigration.

Our household savings rate as a percentage of disposable income has come down from its peak of 22% in July 2020, to less than 12% this past quarter, as people held on to their cash for a rainy day (or 3 months lock-down). The savings rate is expected to come down even further as consumers feel more confident and start spending again.

As with the GFC, home owners have chosen to pay down their mortgage debt – but the picture is more complex. Yes, interest rates remain low (and will likely stay so for at least another 18 months), despite commentary from another economist, Stephen Koukoulas suggesting that the RBA will have to raise rates sooner than expected. With property prices expected to increase 5-10% over the next 12 months, home owners will feel wealthier (but asset rich and cash poor?) as mortgage repayments reduce as a percentage of their home’s value. And while analysts at S&P expect banks’ credit loses to remain low while the economy recovers, the fact that two-thirds of banks’ exposures are to highly leveraged residential property could see increased stress when interest rates rise and if wage growth remains sluggish (more on the latter next week).

Australia’s sovereign credit rating is something of a badge of honour, and represents membership of an exclusive club – fewer than a dozen countries are rated AAA; no wonder it’s a big deal, and partly explains why the Prime Minister gets to attend the G7 (albeit as an observer). Comparatively speaking, Australia is doing very well when it comes to managing COVID (although we could be doing a lot better on a number of measures), and has an economy that continues to be the envy of many. Expect more on that AAA rating (“How good was that?”) as we head into the next Federal election…

Next week: Where is wage growth going to come from?

The Day That Can’t Be Named…

Today’s date, January 26th, has developed a deep identity crisis, much like the Australian psyche: who are we, how did we get here, and what does this day actually mean? A celebration of colonialism – or a day of indigenous mourning?

Leading up to this year’s public holiday, there has been: a muted response to suggested changes to the current National Anthem; a bewildering comment by the Prime Minister about finding equivalence in the circumstances of people sailing on the First Fleet and the impact those arrivals had on the indigenous population; constant bickering between the State and Federal governments about pandemic-related border controls (hardly an advertisement for Federation); renewed angst about the Australian cricket team (always a measure of the public mood); and an apparent drop in public support for an Australian Republic.

And there lies the nub of the issue. For some time now, it has felt that progress on a number of constitutional and cultural reforms has been hampered by the fact that Australia still hasn’t reached the maturity of declaring itself a Republic. The impediment to moving forward is the adherence to the post-colonial model of a Federation retaining the British Crown as the Head of State. The fact that we don’t formally recognise or celebrate Federation is in itself very telling.

Lack of maturity is endemic – from the habitual need to shorten words and phrases verging at times on baby talk (why on earth do the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition choose to refer to themselves by their nicknames, “Scomo” and “Albo”?); to the suspicion of anything subtle, sophisticated or successful (the tall poppy syndrome).

Another foil to constitutional progression is the disproportionate influence (and position of privilege) that religious institutions retain in what is supposed to be a secular society.

Then there is the inability or reluctance to celebrate national success (apart from on the sporting field). Yes, Australia does “punch above its weight” in many areas, but there is so much inherent conservatism (small “c”) built into the system. The combination of 2-party politics, 3-tiers of government, cosy commercial duopolies, complex taxation, rigid regulatory frameworks, the laggardly trade union movement (not to say timid public policies on the environment, science, technology, education and the arts) inhibits innovation and experimentation. This institutional inertia (or conspiracy) all adds up to on overwhelming sense of acceptance, complacency and “she’ll be right”.

What if we had to work from the basis of some alternative histories? How would that change our views about January 26th? For example, what if either the French, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese had colonised this land in the 17th or 18th century instead of the British arrived? What if the First Nations of Australia had developed metal tools and had fought back and won? What if Chinese fishing fleets or Indian trading vessels had established control of Australian waters and harbours long before the Europeans arrived? What if Indonesian or Malay tribes had settled here even further back than that? What if Japan had won the Pacific War?

This is not to excuse or justify the actions of the British in colonising the many nations that already existed in Australia, and all that followed from that. After all, the British Isles themselves had been invaded and conquered on many occasions over the centuries, so the First Fleet could be seen as a logical extension of that sequence of events. But perhaps this perspective can provide some additional context, helping us to reflect on the events and circumstances that have brought us to this point, and hopefully point to a way forward.

Next week: The Return of Cultural Cringe

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