May 22 2014

Bust the budget 3: Federalism over education and health

This is the third part of a series arguing against the Abbott government’s first budget. Part 1 summarizes the overall unfairness and debunks the justification offered for this agenda. Part 2 examines how the budget affects climate, environment, fossil fuel subsidies, business, and science. This part examines how it affects the federation, education, and health.

Unless otherwise hyperlinked, budget facts are sourced from either Joe Hockey’s budget speech or Sally McManus’s “Tracking Abbott’s Wreckage”.

Starving the states

At the time of the last budget, I chastised the then-Gillard government for promising policies that would ramp up years in the future, arguing their delivery could not be guaranteed. This budget shows I was right: many of Abbott’s cuts are to planned growth in spending.

Federal funding to the states has been slashed by $80 billion over the next decade (about $50 billion in health and $30 billion in education). In doing so, the federal government is breaking agreements with the states to ramp up funding on hospitals, dental health, and preventive health; and cancelling the Gonski schools funding for the years when it was scheduled to ramp up. Instead future funding levels will be linked to inflation, a measure of household costs which has nothing to do with running a hospital or school. Because teachers’ and doctors’ wages rise about 1% faster than inflation, this effectively means hospitals and schools will shrink by 1% per year. Continue reading

May 21 2014

Bust the budget 2: Fossil fuel profits over fixing climate reality

This is the second part of a series arguing against the Abbott government’s first budget. Part 1 summarizes the overall unfairness and debunks the justification offered for this agenda. This part examines how the budget affects climate, environment, fossil fuel subsidies, business, and science.

Unless otherwise hyperlinked, budget facts are sourced from either Joe Hockey’s budget speech or Sally McManus’s “Tracking Abbott’s Wreckage”.

Cooking the climate, exterminating the environment

There weren’t many climate and environment policies left to cut, but Hockey managed to find some anyway. Together with cuts already announced, climate spending will fall from $5.27 billion in FY2013-14 to $1.25 billion in FY2014-15. Everybody loses from the cuts to climate policies, because a stable climate sustains our economy and society.

We already knew about Abbott’s crusade to abolish the carbon and mining taxes, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and Climate Change Authority. Now the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has been abolished, a broken promise which will kill $7.7 billion of investment; even existing projects could have their funding cut off. Similar to CEFC, ARENA says it will continue to operate until the Senate passes repeal legislation. Continue reading

May 20 2014

Bust the budget to avert a less equal Australia

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On Sunday I marched with tens of thousands of Australians against the Abbott government’s first budget. Why are we so angry? Because this budget continues Abbott’s agenda of protecting the rich, the privileged, and the powerful, at the expense of the poor, disadvantaged, and powerless.

I’ll start by debunking the justification offered for this agenda and summarizing the overall impact.

Climate change, not debt, is the real crisis

The narrative spun by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey is that Australia’s debt, spending, and taxation levels are out of control, and the only solution is to cut spending on welfare “entitlements” which we can no longer afford. In reality, Australia’s national debt as a percentage of GDP is smaller than that of most countries. Our tax-to-GDP ratio and welfare system are both small compared to other OECD countries. We also have the world’s highest tax-concessions-to-GDP ratio. Our spending-to-GDP ratio is roughly the same as it was a decade ago. And it’s not just the government budget; Australia’s entire economy is booming with the 5th highest GDP per capita. So Australia faces no fiscal or economic crisis.

The present budget deficit is caused more by lower revenue than higher spending, partly due to tax cuts made by the Howard and Rudd governments during 2004-2008. Hockey’s spending cuts and new taxes on the poor will not actually improve the overall budget position; they are only necessary to pay for the Coalition’s tax cuts and new spending, which mostly benefit big business. And as for Hockey’s claims about competence, the Fairfax newspapers have already identified a hole in the budget: it overlooks the need for redundancy payments to departing public servants.

While Abbott and Hockey peddle fear about the budget, Australia and the world do face a true emergency. Continue reading

May 02 2014

Abbott unveils slash-and-burn agenda… and a new tax!

Tony gbnt

This week Australia’s Liberal/National Coalition government has made two bombshell announcements that reveal their election-winning campaign was a con trick.

Firstly, Prime Minister Tony Abbott revealed that his government is considering a GREAT BIG NEW TAX to help repay the national debt. The “debt levy” would be set at 1% for income earners between $80,000 and $180,000, and 2% for income earners above $180,000. I’m not ideologically opposed to new taxes, but strategically Abbott’s decision to introduce one is mindboggling.

Abbott’s greatest strength in the public eye has always been his authenticity, or as Crikey more accurately put it, his “manufacture of authenticity”. Australians may not have liked his outdated, ignorant, elitist beliefs, but at least he believed in something and stuck to his guns – or so we thought. That appearance of authenticity is fast falling apart. Continue reading

Apr 26 2014

Palmer’s revolt leaves Abbott with no climate policy

Australian coal mining billionaire politician Clive Palmer announced on Tuesday that his party’s Senators will vote against the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), the Abbott government’s proposed replacement for the carbon price it wants to repeal. Palmer wants the promised ERF funding to be redirected to pensions, and says he is even prepared to block budget bills if necessary.

Undeterred, the Government has pressed on, releasing the ERF White Paper on the eve of Anzac Day (in the tradition of the Green Paper released on the last day before Xmas). But with Palmer offside, ERF legislation will struggle to find any support from non-government Senators.

Labor and the Greens oppose the ERF as too weak. The Motoring Enthusiasts will vote with Palmer United. The Liberal Democrats, Family First, and Democratic Labor are unlikely to support any climate policy because they don’t believe the problem is real. And independent Nick Xenophon won’t support the ERF unamended. That makes up to 43 votes against the ERF, and only 38 votes are needed to block legislation. So it is very unlikely that Abbott will be unable to pass the legislation. This leaves Abbott with almost no climate policy (except the soon-to-be-neutered Renewable Energy Target, and some other bits and pieces that won’t achieve much).

Whether or not Abbott is able to implement the ERF probably won’t make much difference to emissions, because the ERF is a laughable scheme which will pay polluters to (in theory) voluntarily act to avoid emitting CO2 they otherwise would have emitted. I’ve written previously about 21 reasons why Abbott’s policy won’t work, including some issues which have received little attention – and almost all of what I said then remains essentially accurate.

Another thing which will make no difference is the “safeguard mechanism”, the penalty for polluters who exceed their baseline emissions levels under the ERF. Too many people are withholding judgment until the details are announced, when in fact we already know all we need to know. All ERF policy documents have made clear that both the fund itself and the supposed safeguard will allow emissions to increase wherever production increases (even if historical absolute baselines are used they will not apply to new companies or significant business expansion). In other words, the ERF is designed to cut emissions intensity (emissions per economic output), not absolute emissions. This is pointless as emissions intensity will fall automatically even if emissions rise; the problem is that those efficiency gains are being cancelled out by the exponential growth of the fossil fuel economy. The Government is budgeting zero revenue from the safeguard mechanism because they know it will never come into play.

What’s new in the White Paper? Continue reading

Apr 06 2014

Protest votes, mandates, and entitlement

Last night I watched the ABC TV coverage of the Western Australian re-election count.

It was an interesting result. With 68.7% of the vote counted, the governing Liberal/National Coalition won 36.8% (a swing of -7.5%), Labor 21.8% (-4.8%), Greens 15.9% (+6.4%), Palmer United 12.5% (+7.5%), and others 13.0% (-1.6%). In other words, there were significant swings against both major parties, strong swings toward the second-largest parties on the left and right, and a slightly reduced vote for micro-parties. With a vote almost rivalling Labor’s, the Greens have made an impressive comeback from the nadir last September (when many journalists wrote them off as a dying party and stopped bothering to cover them). The count will continue over the following weeks, but it looks like the Liberals have won 2 seats, Labor 1, Greens 1, and Palmer United 1, with the final seat up for grabs (another likely win for the Liberals).

But my excitement at the Greens’ success was dampened slightly by the arrogant attitude of Liberal Senator Eric Abetz on the ABC panel. Abetz spent the whole night grasping for excuses to dismiss the views of the 63% who chose to vote for someone other than his party. They were “protest votes”, he insisted, with a heavy implication that this somehow renders those votes insignificant. This is a specious and tiresome argument that betrays an entitled attitude.

Furthermore, when you think about it there is a glaring contradiction in the Abbott government’s message. Abetz’s rationalizations are at odds with the government’s argument that they have a “mandate” to implement all of their policies. If you vote for the government, it’s a “mandate”; and all non-government parliamentarians, despite having received a nonzero amount of votes, must acquiesce to the government’s every wish. If you vote for a non-government party, it’s a “protest vote” that should be ignored, and the people your protest has elected must acquiesce to the government’s every wish. Heads they win, tails you lose. Continue reading

Apr 04 2014

Why the WA re-election matters

The Australian Solar Council’s solar scorecard.

Western Australia will go back to the polls tomorrow for a rerun of last year’s Senate election (due to the count having been bungled in that state). The re-election will be critical in deciding the makeup of the new Senate from July this year, and is a key opportunity for the Greens.

To pass legislation in the Senate requires 39 votes. The original election delivered 41 of the 76 Senate seats to anti-climate forces: Liberal/National Coalition 33, Palmer United 3, Motoring Enthusiasts 1, Liberal Democrats 1, Family First 1, Democratic Labor 1, and independent Nick Xenophon 1 (note Xenophon, like the Coalition, claims to accept the science of climate change, but supports only incentive-based policies). The only genuinely pro-climate party, the Greens, won only 9 seats; while Labor, who at least oppose the repeal of their own weak climate policies, won 26 seats.

In WA, the Liberal/National Coalition won 3 seats, Labor 2, and Palmer United 1, with the Greens losing their WA Senator Scott Ludlam. That’s 4 seats for anti-climate parties and only 2 for anti-repeal ones. The re-election could shift the balance to 3-3 or even 2-4, which would reduce the dominance of anti-climate forces, and increase the chances that the Abbott government could run into opposition from some of the more unpredictable crossbenchers on certain issues. At the very least, it should save the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, whose abolition is opposed by Xenophon and Democratic Labor. (On the downside, it might force the government to negotiate with Xenophon, who would greenwash rather than improve climate policy.)

Several leftish micro-parties, bruised by the controversy about their preferencing right-wing parties last year, have reverted to preferencing other left-wing parties. The Wikileaks Party has scored first place on the ballot paper, and this time around is directing preferences straight to the Greens. On the other hand, many others are preferencing Labor before the Greens, and Labor is preferencing several leftish and libertarian parties ahead of the Greens. It’s been suggested that Labor may be intentionally trying to sabotage Ludlam’s chances of being elected. Continue reading

Apr 01 2014

Tony Abbott learns what causes global warming

The following is a transcript of a secretly recorded conversation between Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt in the Prime Minister’s office.

Abbott: Come in, Greg.

Hunt: Good to see you again, Tony.

Abbott: Yes – sorry I haven’t been available much. I’ve been busy talking to the important ministers.

Hunt: Oh.

Abbott: Greg, you know I’m not exactly a tech-head. I’m more of a big-picture thinker. But now we’ve ditched the witch, we’re axing the tax, we’re stopping the boats, we’re ending the waste and debt, we’re building the roads of the 21st century, we’re creating a stronger economy so that everyone can get ahead, we’re cutting red and green tape, and we’re improving the environment, I think it’s time to start thinking about some of the smaller details – just in case journalists start asking us hard questions for a change. So, you’re the Environment Minister. I have a technical question for you: what exactly is a “fossil fuel”?

Beat.

Hunt (blankly): What is it?

Abbott: Yes, what is a fossil fuel? What does it do?

Hunt: Actually I would have to look that up. Continue reading

Mar 28 2014

Senate inquiry bogged down in party lines

A Senate inquiry into the Australian Government’s proposed climate Direct Action Plan reported on Wednesday. The report says nothing new, and I’m fed up with the inane narrow positions which each of the three parties has manoeuvred themselves into.

First, the good news. The main report, authored by Labor Senators Lin Thorp, Louise Pratt, and Ursula Stephens and Greens Senator Christine Milne, correctly found that the Direct Action Plan is a piece of crap (see here for 21 reasons why it won’t work). In a nutshell, it consists of solely voluntary incentives, allowing Australia’s emissions to go up for the next 20 years. Not that it deterred the governing Liberal/National Coalition’s Senators Anne Ruston and John Williams from writing a dissenting report insisting, against all evidence, that it will work and should replace existing climate policies. The dissenting report backs up each of its claims by quoting business lobby groups.

But the Direct Action Plan was always an easy target. More important is that the majority report by opposition Senators failed to advocate the urgent action that is needed. They adopted the Climate Change Authority (CCA)’s recommended emissions targets: 15% below 2000 by 2020 and 40-60% by 2030. These targets look positively active compared to the measly existing 5%-by-2020, and I congratulate Labor for shifting a little closer to reality (though apparently it is still not official Labor policy). However, CCA’s targets are based on special pleading which I have thoroughly dissected, ignore Australia’s responsibility to lead, and remain laughably lethargic in comparison to the urgent action required to have any hope of preserving a safe and stable climate.

The majority Senators further concluded the optimal set of policies to deliver these targets just happens to be the existing deeply flawed hodgepodge political fix negotiated in 2011 between Labor and the Greens. Most of these existing policy elements (Carbon Pricing Mechanism, Renewable Energy Target, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and CCA) are okay albeit terribly inadequate, and Labor and the Greens are right to oppose the Government’s crusade to abolish them. But the central mechanism, an internationally linked Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) due to start in either 2014 or 2015, is a time-bomb that threatens to sabotage the rest by flooding the system with international offsets, devaluing the Australian carbon price and allowing Australia’s domestic emissions to go up for the next 20 years. Continue reading

Mar 25 2014

If 100,000 protest and few report it, did they make a sound?

Last weekend I participated in the March in March (MiM): on the order of 100,000 Australians marching in 33 locations around the nation to express our dissatisfaction with the Abbott government. My dissatisfaction increased when the mainstream media largely ignored, downplayed, or ridiculed the protests.

This will be an extremely long and heavily illustrated post, to cram in as much documentation as possible of the marches the media ignored, but feel free to skim. Continue reading