Doctrine vs Doctrinaire

The recent “debate” surrounding the Federal Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill was a staggering example of political overreach combined with poor policy management. It was also a stark reminder that although we live in a secular, pluralistic and liberal democracy, some politicians cannot refrain from bringing religion into the Parliament and on to the Statute Books, even where there was neither a strong mandate nor an overbearing need to change the existing law in the way the Government attempted.

As far as I can tell, the Bill was originally intended to give people of faith additional protection against discrimination on the basis of their religion. But when linked to related Sex Discrimination legislation, it would likely have given religious institutions some degree of protection against claims of discrimination in the areas of gender and sexual orientation, particularly in respect of children’s access to education and in relation to employment by faith-based organisations.

If that wasn’t worrying enough, the Bill was underpinned by a controversial “statements of belief” provision. As drafted, this would have granted a person immunity from prosecution for the consequences of their words or actions if such deeds were based on a “genuine” religious belief. I find this particularly troublesome, not because I think people should be vulnerable to persecution for their faith; rather, it sets a dangerous precedent for what religiously-motivated people may feel emboldened to do in the name of their particular faith, especially where their actions cause actual or genuine apprehension of harm (the “God told me to do it” defence).

The shift from doctrine to doctrinaire is all too palpable. It’s one thing to believe in Transubstination, yet another to use a public platform (including social media) to proclaim that “gays will burn in hell”  unless they renounce their ways. The problem with a very literal application of ancient religious texts (most of which are open to wide and sometimes contradictory interpretation) is that this approach does not allow for any concept of progress (scientific, cultural, societal). It also gives rise to extreme forms of fundamentalism, such as banning music or refusing to ordain women priests. History has also shown us that people purportedly adhering to the same religion frequently disagree, leading to turbulent schisms, violent sectarianism and untold bloodshed. Then there are the religious death cults that kill themselves and their children for the sake of achieving their own “beliefs” (in which their offspring surely couldn’t have been compliant or willing participants).

As Luke Beck wrote recently in The Conversation, “There is broad agreement a person should not be discriminated against on the basis of their faith or lack of faith. However, the extent to which religion should be a licence to discriminate against others remains enormously contentious.”

This putative “license” may be an unintended consequence of the Bill, but the implications, should it be enacted, could be far-reaching: archeologists being sacked for saying the earth is older than 6,000 years; anthropologists for saying that the first humans were living 2 million years ago; astronomers for saying the earth orbits around the sun…. And that’s just in the area of science.

I understand that a person of faith may have a deep-seated belief against birth control, or pre-marital sex, or alcohol, or tattoos, or marriage equality – but that doesn’t mean their faith should impose their choices on the rest of the population. (Just as people of faith aren’t being forced to consume booze or get inked against their will.) As it is, religious institutions enjoy significant tax benefits, public funding and legal exemptions, and this current “debate” is bringing some of these discrepancies into sharp focus.

The last time I looked, here in Australia we aren’t living in a theocracy, people of faith aren’t being fired from their jobs because of their religion, and secularists, agnostics and atheists aren’t calling for places of worship to be demolished. What the latter do expect is people of faith not to use their beliefs either as a pretext to justify any form of discriminatory, pejorative or harmful acts or statements, or as a protection against being accountable for their words and deeds.

Next week: When is a print not a print?

Federation. Is. Broken. Surely?

Why don’t we celebrate the Australian Federation? Logically, it would make more sense to mark the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia (January 1, 1901), rather than the highly contentious Australia Day (January 26). The former offers the notion of nationhood and a sense of progress; the latter is tainted with invasion and colonization.

Part of the problem is that we don’t really believe in the Federation (or more likely, we don’t understand or know enough about it). Queensland and New South Wales were initially cold to lukewarm about joining the Federation, and Western Australia only came around once the Constitution Act was passed in 1900. (There’s even a argument to suggest that New Zealand may have joined the Federation before or instead of Western Australia, but I’ll leave that to the historians.)

More significant is the fact that the past two years have revealed considerable cracks in the Federation. States have been taking very different approaches to the current pandemic, with both Western Australia and Queensland at times acting as if they had already seceded. We’ve seen huge inconsistencies in how each State and Territory has responded to Covid – there was little to no national consensus on defining “hot spots”, “red zones”, “clusters”, “complex cases”, “mystery cases” or “close contact”. The respective public health measures and administrative responses were also very different, leading to confusion, frustration and anger over external and internal border controls, hotel quarantine, home isolation, track’n’trace, density limits, social distancing and vaccine roll-out. Overlay that with cack-handed management by the Commonwealth itself, and it’s easy to see why many people feel no love for Federation.

The former Premier of NSW let the cat out of the bag when she referred to “our New South Wales citizens”. Last time I looked, Australian citizenship is conferred at the Federal level, not by individual States or Territories. This Freudian slip just confirms the many fault lines that exist as between the Commonwealth and the States, and as between the States themselves. About the only thing that unites Australians is when a national sports team is competing at international level…

In fact, there are many areas of public policy, administration and infrastructure where the States and Territories adopt different standards and models – for example, we don’t yet have a fully integrated national energy grid, daylight savings results in five different time zones during summer (as opposed to the three during winter), and there are differences in parliamentary structures (bicameral vs unicameral) and election cycles.

The issue of Federation is also fraught from a financial and budgetary perspective. States and Territories have limited options for raising their own revenue, namely payroll tax, land tax, stamp duty and licenses. While they can generate revenue from commercial ventures such as public-private infrastructure projects (and from mining and resources royalties), the bulk of their funding comes from the distribution of Federal income tax and GST (sales tax). (Or they borrow in the public debt markets.) And of course, there is always some aggro on these allocations at COAG meetings (now known as National Cabinet….).

It might also be the case that just as we have too many professional football codes (none of which are truly “national”), we have too many layers of government for a population of just 25 million people (Federal, State, Local). Given that Local Government is not actually provided for in the Constitution, and given the antagonism between States, perhaps there is a case to be made for change. Most people live within a few coastal conurbations. Moreover, many people identify closely with their city, region or rural locality, even more so than their State. Think of border twin towns such as Albury-Wodonga on the River Murray and Tweed Heads-Coolangata on the East Coast. So, why not abolish the States and Territories (as well as dismantling the current local government structure), and instead establish functional municipal, regional and rural governments that are more representative of their local communities, and which are charged with distributing resources and coordinating public services on behalf of the Commonwealth (especially in the areas of health, education, welfare and transport).

One thing is certain: Australia needs to sort out the Constitution before it can re-visit the idea of becoming a Republic. Apart from the issue of a Treaty for indigenous recognition and native title land rights (and resolving the anomaly that is Local Government), the structure of our political institutions also needs reforming. Having Federal elections every three years reinforces short-term policies. Consider also the negative impact the current state of the party political system has on the quality of policy debate and implementation. Look also at the wonky versions of proportional representation we have in the form of single transferable votes and dodgy preference deals, plus Senate party slates and “Captain’s picks”.

This all means that even though we may think we are voting for individual candidates to represent our interests in Parliament, we are in fact voting for party machines. Those party structures are rife with factional warfare, internecine disputes, branch stacking and shady backroom deals – hence, we don’t directly vote for the Prime Minister (who can be rolled by their own parties, as we know to our cost), and we can’t hold our constituent representatives accountable except at the next Federal election.

Even if we acknowledge that we are voting for a candidate based on their stated party allegiance, there is no guarantee that they will vote (or even stay) with that party, so we don’t get the representation we voted for. Add to the mix the continued problems with party donations, campaign funding, Parliamentary lobbying and electoral pork barrelling, and it’s no wonder we have given up on the party political system and have lost all respect for our elected representatives and their party leaders. Plus, the perpetual rent-seeking from entrenched vested interests (coupled with monopolistic institutions and cozy industry duopolies) means there is inertia in favour of this status quo.

The proposed model for a Republic seems to be predicated on having a President as the Head of State (to replace the British monarch and their local representative in the form of the Governor-General). Beyond that there seems to be little agreement on how the the President will be appointed, or what Constitutional and/or political powers will be vested in them. Recent proposals for a nomination and election process have been met with both support and opposition from former Prime Ministers. But until we define what role the President will perform, we can’t begin to think about the process for their elevation to the position.

For example, is the Presidency going to be a mere figurehead, with no decision-making authority apart from confirming the Will of Parliament? Should the President be directly elected via universal suffrage, under a single, popular vote and “first past the post” method (rather than via a fudged proportional representation model? If we have an electoral college system (as in the USA), who gets to participate, how are they appointed and how do they get to cast their votes? How long should the President hold office? Is the Office of President designed to “keep the bastards honest” in Parliament, or to intervene when the Parliamentary party system breaks down, or to sue the Commonwealth on behalf of affected citizens when the Constitution is breached? Will the President have any role in forming public policy, or negotiating international treaties? Or will the President be voted in under a popularity contest, and as a reward for past public service, kind of like a plebiscite for Australian of the Year?

Another thing may also be certain: the timing (and likelihood) of Australia becoming a Republic will depend on the politicians of the day, how they advocate for it, and the model they propose. Because wrongly or rightly, the form and substance of the Republic will be linked to the character of the Prime Minister who has to invoke the necessary Constitutional reforms, and the nature of the Government they lead to implement it. Which is a large reason why the Referendum on the Republic failed last time – the proposed model was not clear enough to the electorate, and Australian voters may have feared the outcome would result in a President who did not represent them, or who did not reflect the choice of the people. A bit like our recent run of Prime Ministers, and the revolving door at the Lodge!

Next week: Gratitude and the Great Recharge

 

 

 

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?