The Poisoned Chalice – Chapter 7: The Legacy of Lazarus

David-Russell David Russell presents the seventh chapter of The Poisened Chalice.

Just when we had grown accustomed to not feeling relaxed and comfortable, an apparition emerged from the murky mists of the swamps of Bennelong. As we peered fretfully at this eminence gris we soon saw it was the track-suited strider himself. Yes, with the nation’s First XI languishing in a fifth-placed limbo, Wee Willie Winston marched purposefully forward – as ever – to the crease to remind us of former glories.

Forget finagling tea leaves to fathom the future, Lazarus has bequeathed us some 700 pages of portents. Have we not been warned that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to relive the lessons over and over again? So, unless we want another 13 years of middle-class melodrama, we’d better run the rule over this tome pretty damned carefully. And where better to start than the title. A propitious prognostication, perhaps? Lazarus is back. Yes, we get that. But Lazarus Rising? Holy shit, Batman, we might just be in trouble. This Boy Robin’s got a whole other costume he wants to fill out. Dear, oh dear, oh dear!

With Rudd run over, Gillard gasping and Abbott in abeyance the leadership lobby is languishing. Yes, Malcolm is mulling but that, truly, would be like a peacock rising three times. Does our former Dear Leader discern a dearth of adroitness; a vacuum that only a tried and tested titan could vanquish? Perhaps there is something even more Machiavellian afoot? What should we read into the photos of the eminence blue rinse, Janette, standing resolutely over his shoulder? Or the Cherie Blair photo op at Chequers with Janette brandishing, as only a former champion could, a massive cutlass quite capable of flensing any fink foolish enough to fall foul of her? Are there moves afoot to have her contest preselection against Tennis Elbow? Now that the glass ceiling has been ground underfoot for the very top job and the one just below it perhaps the former First Matron wants to assume the monarchy? These are vexatious vibes, indeed. Enough to give us the vapours.

But there are many other aspects to this autobiography that warrant attention. Payback is to the fore and The Smirk took a red hot poker to the derriere as Wee Willie refused to let bygones be bygones. And they say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Goodness gracious, what are we to make of this little spat, then? Are gender issues to the fore or just bitchiness? Given that the history books will for eternity record Wee Willie in the ascendancy, why did he feel the need to stick the stiletto in? Hard not to discern some insecurity there. Magnanimity generally accords with comfort but Wee Willie is clearly still discombobulated by what transpired between these two. Hard to escape a niggling nag that the one person who seriously claimed throughout Wee Willie’s career that he welshed on an agreement was The Smirk. And Wee Willie did like us to think that his word was his bond – even in the face of rancour over core and non-core and other minor wrinkles in the sheets.

Interesting that The Smirk played a fire hose on his no-doubt flaring frustrations and displayed a discipline that warranted plaudits for truly he could have commanded the airwaves for weeks if he had wanted to indulge in some Keating-Hawke rivalry, for example. But however one judges his failure to challenge for the crown, his contribution to the cause can never be denigrated. Forsaken promise perhaps, but a scintillating record nonetheless. And still mindful of the greater good. Go, you good thing, Smirk.

Wee Willie makes it very clear in his own words that he was the sole arbiter of his decision to remain as leader. Yet perhaps we can discern Lady Macbeth outing damned Spot as she saw daggers afore her eyes and urging that The Smirk be done down. In which case are we to dare ponder that the fury of the woman scorned was not Wee Willie himself but his consort? Oh, be still our beating hearts as we ponder such naked notions.

The climactic cadence which appears to have missed the microphone in this lengthy work is the ironic retribution of the electorate in not only dismissing the Wee Willie administration but ensuring our protagonist played no further part in the nation’s governance. And this from those who cherished his character for so many years. Remarkably, the people have a rare ability to discern hubris. They tolerate foibles and they forgive follies but they never nurture those who think they truly know best. Elevate you to the very tip of the totem pole, they will, but the mere moment you think you are there as of right they will dash you to the dust and stone you for good measure. And a measure worth pondering is some seven hundred pages of laudatory lather, justifying the anti-Fabian jihad. Such a flawed beast is democracy and yet the people so often get it pretty right. Those who seek miracles should ponder that at length.

Meantime those Fairfax fiends sowed a seed in the anti-Christ SMH that one of Emperor Murdoch’s family franchises had stumped-up some $400,000 to Wee Willie Winston for his thoughts in this stupendous saga. Perhaps the snide suggestion we were to assume was that such a payment was akin to Alan Bond’s offering of a similar 400,000 pieces of silver decades ago to the Hillbilly Dictator in the Shady State as settlement for a defamation action? A dreadful notion, of course, and quite beneath contempt. As if politicians and businessmen and large sums of money ever go hand in hand. Simply outrageous.

David M. Russell is a professional communicator with a passion for good governance. His personal blog can be found at davidmrussell.wordpress.com.

Budget bungling

David-RussellDavid Russell writes that the state of the NSW budget is highly concerning.

So adept are they at kicking own goals, it hardly seems fair to draw attention to any further stuff-ups by the Fabian fiasco in The Failed State that goes by the name of the Kenneally Government. Of course, it’s just as unfair to brandish her name since her predecessors (and there have been rather a few, eh?) conspired to tarnish the Labor brand in such a way that the North Korean administration appears a model of sanity and efficiency by comparison.

But enough of damning faint praise.

We are beholden to Lisa Murray in The Australian Financial Review who has shed some light on the socialist approach to financial management. Not a pretty picture so be prepared for discomfort if you are, by residential misfortune, a shareholder in the New South Welshian jurisdiction. Superficially there’s a pretty picture with Kenneally and Co reporting a surplus (wonder of wonders!) of $994 million for 2009-10. Just a year earlier, this lot were predicting almost exactly the same number as a deficit. But, no, their economic and management skills have not miraculously turned around in that time. Indeed, their slide down the slippery slope of fiscal imprudence continues not only unabated but perhaps gathering speed.

This is attested by the fact that the water-into-wine trick of deficit into surplus was produced by a federal stimulus gift of $3.2 billion. Which still leaves another $1.2 billion that appears to have simply disappeared into the mist. Albeit some of the gorillas inhabiting that space are those who belong to that rather generic genus known as consultants. Spending on these ubiquitous creatures soared from a still substantial $90 million or so back in 08-09 to a concerning $207 million this past year. Lots of snouts, lots of troughs.

Of greater concern, though, is superannuation. Unfunded liabilities have now leapt to nearly $35 billion and some very pointed questions should surely be asked about how this problem is to be addressed.

Indicative of the slapdash approach to management of funds is that no less than seven of 24 state agencies produced accounts which contained errors of more than $20 million. But what’s a few score million here or there when state net debt is approaching $10 billion?

The position is so parlous that it makes you wonder why anyone would want to put their hand up to sort out the mess. Clearly, altruism is not yet dead.

David M. Russell is a professional communicator with a passion for good governance. His personal blog can be found at davidmrussell.wordpress.com.

Hockey finally hits the target

Sean-GarmanRegulation isn't all bad – it's the scale of regulation that needs to be debated, writes Sean Garman.

Joe Hockey firmly put his foot in his mouth last week, but on Monday he made an extremely subtle and strong (not an easy combination) contribution on reforming the banking industry in Australia. Hockey was right to identify and discuss the extraordinary support that the RBA, Treasury and ACCC have provided to the banking industry.

Banking and finance has a long and checked history regarding both in providing stability and in how the public view the banks. Banking has never been a popular industry because by its nature it charges customers interest to borrow money and because it inverses the normal competitive paradigm of rather “the customer is always right” to “we have to say ‘no’ because they are not good enough”. This is an important issue to remember when the furore of banking is raised because at times rationality is put to one side and irrational anger can quickly rise.

Joe Hockey rightly brought up the broader issue of the competitive dynamic in our banking industry. Australia suffers from a lack of a diverse marketplace of banks. Instead of having a market – many specialist lenders without any one provider acting as a systemic risk – we have a supermarket-style banking system with a few large players who service multiple customers each with their own risk profiles. This might provide a “one stop shop” but ultimately hurts the long-term competition in the banking industry where it is preferable for multiple lenders providing competition in an appropriate framework.

Hockey was right to bring up the idea of a “social contract” between banks, government and the public. Banks have a special place in the economy and in our society. It is meant to be a safe haven for our money. Banks are meant to serve customers rather than view them as offering mere transactions. Banks that raise interest rates or charge exorbitant fees ignore that they have a social commitment to their customer base and have a moral obligation to reciprocate the support provided to them by showing self-restraint. If banks want lower regulatory burdens, they need to show that self-restraint which has been conspicuously lacking as of late.

Some people will be shocked about terms such as “social commitment” but banking is a unique industry, particularly when dealing with individual customers. People need banks to act as though they have a genuine relationship with the customer rather than looking at how much they should be charged. Customers might stay with a bank for their entire lives and might know the branch employees extremely well. Additionally, the bank is viewed as a save storage for their wealth.  This fundamental trust is a characteristic of banks that separates it from other sectors.

Banks that lose the trust of the public lose the right for government (therefore taxpayer) support. The moment bankers lose the trust of their customer base is the moment the bank moves from a relationship-based system to a transaction system and should not expect customer loyalty in response.

The centre-right must break loose of the bounds that any regulation is inherently bad or that there is no such thing as “market failure”. We need to operate in a free market system with appropriate regulation to reduce the risk of a complete breakdown in our financial and economic system. The question should be over the scale and nature of regulation rather than esoteric debates about whether or not there should be regulation as a whole. 

Sean Garman works in banking in the City of London. He was Vice Chairman of Macquarie University Student’s Council, President of Macquarie University Liberal Club and currently provides policy advice to Conservative Party MPs and MEPs on economic policy.

Water water everywhere, not a crop to grow

Paul-McCormackBy denying irrigators their right to use water we are foregoing an opportunity to grow and prosper, writes Paul McCormack.

On Friday 15th October, there was widespread flooding across the Riverina region that caused many road closures including the Hume Highway at Holbrook. Streets and homes were inundated with water. Shortly afterwards, New South Wales was officially declared to be no longer in drought. In the midst of all these rivers and creeks breaking their banks, the draft plan for the Murray Darling Basin Authority was released. It recommended a reduction of up to 37% in the water used for irrigation in the basin. It has become clear that we have moved from a situation of being in a natural drought to being in a “legislated drought.”[1] A natural drought is caused by a severe shortage of water. A legislated drought is cause by a severe shortage of intelligence.

The water issue should always be at the forefront of public policy debate in Australia. Regardless of whether we support or oppose proposals such as desalination plants, recycled water or new dams, the use and management of water should always be discussed and debated. John Howard understood the importance of an integrated response to the issues affecting the Murray Darling Basin. The decision by the Commonwealth Government to take responsibility for the basin was a worthy initiative that was typical of the former Prime Minister’s practical approach to policy. The Water Act explicitly states that economic concerns should be central to the planned management of river systems. However, as Professor Judith Sloan points out, part of the problem is that the Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDL) referred to in the Act give precedence to environmental concerns.

“The objects of the act talk about promoting "the use and management of the basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes". But when it comes to the principles guiding the determination of the SDLs, the environment has primacy, with residual flows available for other uses.”

Irrigation has been central to the development of many communities that now flourish in regional Australia. A central figure in this historical development was a politician named Alfred Deakin. Deakin was a visionary. He saw the potential for irrigation in the 19th century and travelled far and wide to study the possibilities for Australia to utilise our inland river systems. He invited two brothers from North America to this country and the result was a thriving region now known as Sunraysia. The main thoroughfare in Mildura is named in Deakin’s honour. Interestingly enough, the environment and the economy were able to sustain and prosper in that era and politicians had a deep appreciation for the value of irrigation.

Therefore, it is unfortunate and curious that we should reach a point in our political debate about water whereby there is a division between irrigators and the environment. It is a false dichotomy. It ignores the fact that irrigators are environmentalists. Irrigators have a vested interest in ensuring the environment is well preserved and protected. Furthermore, irrigators in Australia have not been guilty of neglect when it comes to efficient water usage; to use water inefficiently would be poor business practice on their part.

The question that underpins this whole debate should not focus on the environmental concerns of the far left Greens who can preach about water usage from their comfortable vantage points in metropolitan areas. They are the consumers in our society. The question, rather, should focus on whether Australia actually wants to be a nation that produces its own food and a sufficient quantity for export for a growing world population and one that is increasingly urbanised. Moreover, the question should be about the way that the government treats the people who perform this essential role in our economy, the producers in our society. Michael McCormack MP, the federal representative for Riverina, asked this question in his maiden speech to parliament:

“Do we, as a nation, now repay the farmers who have still managed to put food on our tables despite a dozen years of the worst ever drought by taking the precious resource with which they need to grow their produce? Can we, in all conscience, allow a situation whereby the very people who feed us and sustain us are coerced, encouraged or forced—call it what you like—into selling their right to use water?”

Country people, especially irrigators and those who work on the land, understand the cyclical nature of the climate. They’re aware of the importance of the environment, not least because of its importance to their livelihood. Australians have always believed in a fair go. Surely it is now time to start giving the people who feed this nation a fair go. In depriving irrigators of their rights to use water, we are starving ourselves of the opportunity to grow our own food and denying rural communities their chance to prosper economically and socially. One can only wonder what Deakin would be thinking of this situation if he were alive today. Perhaps he would simply shake his head in disbelief that, at the very time of wet weather, our irrigators are being hung out to dry.

Paul McCormack is a high school teacher in Wagga Wagga.


[1] Comment by Andrew Broad, VFF President, The Weekly Times, 20th October 2010 

Hockey Must Get The Stick

Tim-AndrewsMenzies House Editor and Co-Founder Tim Andrews pronounces critical judgment on Joe Hockey's recent comments:

It would be an understatement to say that I, like so many Liberals (and sound economists), was distraught to hear the latest pronouncement of Joe Hockey that we ought re-regulate the banks. A flashback to the failed policies of the past, to the days when radical Keynsian dogma led to stagflation and a destroyed economy, I can not deny that I felt great sympathy with Don Randall MP, who called it an idea from the “lunatic fringe”. Because, after all, this is a concept that even economists on the left would reject. Indeed, so discredited is this big government micromanaging concept, that it is little more than an academic humour, the punchline of cocktail party jokes. And yet it, apparently, has somehow become policy of the Liberal Party, a party ostensibly committed to economic freedom, and a party I love dearly.

As much as it fills me with dismay to admit it, for I genuinely do like the bloke, the conclusion from this debacle is inevitable: Hockey has got to go. Now, don’t get me wrong. Joe Hockey is a great guy. I love his stuff on civil liberties. In his Sunrise appearances he would always come across as jovial and likable and fun, and every time I saw him in person he was friendly, personable, and funny. I can say nothing ill of him as a person.

At the end of the day, however, politics is more than about who is ‘nice’. Rather, is about who makes the cut, and who 'gets it'. And, sadly, Mr. Hockey does not. With all due respect to the man, he has a litany of failures behind him. As Finance Minister he was more than a joke- he was a debacle. I remember well his disgrace in promoting the GST, and why he had to be demoted. As Tourism Minister, he was no better – really, we can find no way around the simple fact that he was an utter failure. And, while many of the Workplace Relations problems may not have been directly attributed to him, he was hardly a success. He can not hide from his track record.

More importantly though, let us just look at his performance at the last election. I think no-one can disagree that, for all his efforts, he was an abysmal, disgraceful failure. A total, absolute, and utter incompetent. He couldn’t get the message across, he couldn’t master the detail, and he just couldn’t connect with the electorate. When I visited Australia back in August, one refrain came through from every single one of my staffer friends: “f**king Hockey”. CHQ workers, State Office apparatchiks, parliamentary staffers – the refrain was unanimous (and cross-factional). He was the greatest disappointment. Words like “lazy”, “incompetent” and “ineffectual” were perhaps amongst the nicest ones used. Indeed, one of the most telling memories of my trip was sitting down for a drink with someone ideologically certainly not a friend of mine, and being told “Mate, you were right. I take it all back. Hockey’s a joke and he’ll lose it for us”. In politics, intellectual rigor does count for something. And, sadly, in this game, being a good guy is not enough. Mr. Hockey is clearly out of his league.

The Coalition is in a great position at the moment. Labor’s adherence to radical left ideology has created the space for Tony Abbott to do great things, as reflected in the polls, and so for an economically-illiterate Shadow Treasurer to threaten to undo all the good really chills the blood. Particularly when he is proposing to take us back to the economic dark-ages, and gives Labor an opening to shred our economic credibility, and destroy our reputation with the business community. After all, when the unabashed neo-Marxists, who explicitly state in their policy platform that economic growth is an anathema and wish us to all live in poverty (equally), endorse your agenda, then you know you have a problem.  

At the end of the day, as much as I may personally like the guy, it is clear to me, it is clear to everyone, that he simply lacks the intellectual weight and economic understanding to be Shadow Treasurer. Put him in a warm, fuzzy portfolio like Health, and he will shine. But the Treasury is not for him. And so it is time to be cruel to be kind, and arrange the reshuffle that is so desperately needed.

And look, I believe in Party loyalty. I have dedicated so many years of my life to the Liberal Party, and I have no regrets for it. I truly love the Party, and all the opportunities it has given me. And it is for the sake of the Party that I say these words. Because although, perhaps, in some quarters it will cause problems for me, I know that in the long term, it is for the Good.

He’s a great guy, but for the good of the Coalition, and for the long-term prosperity of Australia, from Treasury Hockey has got to go.

Tim Andrews is a Washington DC based political consultant, and is an editor and co-founder of Menzies House. He served as President of the Australian Liberal Students' Federation and as Vice-President(Policy) of the Young Liberal Movement of Australia (NSW Division) from 2006-2008. His personal blog is The Musings of an Australian Classical Liberal in Washington DC.

Great Aussie writer cruels Aussie writers

David-RussellDavid Russell asks why Australia's a-grade authors are still entering competitions for up-and-coming writers.

There is a view that some of the world’s best writing is that which explores human motivation and the mindsets of characters. The probing by authors of what pushes people’s buttons and how they respond has yielded some of the greatest literature – not to mention some ripping yarns.

Subsequent probing of authors’ own mindsets has prompted an entire industry of reviewers, critics and literary gadflies who keep the whole merry-go-round happening. It’s all often very self-congratulatory with the occasional outbreak of hostilities just to keep things in comparative balance.

But then along comes someone like Australia’s own literary genius, Peter Carey (so acclaimed by no less than that august English newspaper, The Times). Now Carey is by any yardstick a towering literary figure. But what to make of his overweening ego? Sorry, what was that? Carey has an overweening ego? That couldn’t be right, could it? Well, let’s look at his approach to literary prizes to see if we can gain some insights.

His website lists no less than 28 major prizes he has won. And some are not just your run-of-the-mill awards, either. Carey has claimed no less than five Miles Franklin awards, three Commonwealth Writers prizes and – beyond compare – three Booker Prizes. What a phenomenal achievement!

So…why the hell does he feel the necessity to enter himself in contests like the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards? Or the inaugural Randwick Award for Literature? This latter lovely little prize was instituted by Sydney’s Randwick Council to encourage Australian writers. And, fresh from coming second in the latest Booker Prize, Carey came up trumps in Randwick.

You just know this is going to earn pride of place on his mantelpiece, eh? It will push aside those Booker Prizes and the Miles Franklins might just break when they get squeezed off the edge.

Nor should we forget that this overcrowded mantelpiece just happens to be in New York where Carey has been an Aussie in exile for the past decade. So…why the hell does an expat feel the necessity to enter a literary contest in a little suburb of a city he left behind what must seem like a lifetime ago?

You’ve also got to wonder why someone who can pluck Bookers seemingly out of the air – at a paltry 50,000 English pounds a time – needs to get his hands on the munificent $10,000 Randwick prize money? Anyone care to figure how much Carey’s royalty cheques from his vast array of bestsellers would yield each month? Even if he were the most profligate, dissolute being on earth he could still not be short of a quid, eh?

So, tell us, Mr Carey, why you feel the need to steal sustenance from Australian writers struggling to make their way in the big, bad world of publishing? What further recognition do you feel you need in order to crowd out the up-and-comers who are desperate for the recognition such a prize might yield them?

Frankly, Sunshine, it does not reflect any credit on you at all. Indeed, quite the contrary. In fact, your approach is a form of bullying and is, by any yardstick, quite unAustralian. Perhaps it’s time you took a good, hard look at yourself, mate. Then again, it seems you have forgotten what mateship is all about.

Nor, strangely enough, is it just Carey who suffers this peculiar hang-up. The likes of Tim Winton and J. M. Coetzee also entered the Randwick contest. You have perhaps heard of these (could we possibly call them) up-and-coming writers? Maybe even have one or two of their works gracing your bookshelves? So, why can’t they just get over themselves and allow new blood to come through the ranks? You’ve made it, guys. Time for some selflessness instead of unfettered selfishness. You demean yourselves.

David M. Russell is a professional communicator with a passion for good governance. His personal blog can be found at davidmrussell.wordpress.com.