Trivial Pursuits Distract A Nation In Crisis


It’s been an eventful week in Australian politics.

The last days of Parliament for the year saw Labor ram a series of important bills through the supposedly unfriendly Senate, scoring massive wins on schools funding, industrial relations and infrastructure.

The scale of the victory for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard can be seen by the trouble Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop are now in. The Coalition has all but imploded, with the near-term departure of the Nationals and the emergence of a rump of disaffected Liberal hardliners led by Nick Minchin becoming distinct possibilities. The future of the Liberal Party itself may even be in jeopardy next year on the issue of climate change, as it seems unlikely some Liberals would vote for any type of emissions trading scheme.

Meanwhile, the general decay of serious news media in Australia has meant almost no discussion of the content of these important pieces of legislation, and enabled Penny Wong to avoid even announcing an emissions reduction target before leaving for the critical international climate change conference in Poznan.

I’ll return to the increasingly dismal performance of Penny Wong as Climate Change and Water Minister later in this article. But first, let’s look at some of the bills passed by the Government late last week.

The biggie is of course Labor’s Fair Work Bill 2008 — the legislative implementation of their 2007 election policy on industrial relations, "Forward with Fairness". This massive piece of legislation finally kills off WorkChoices. In its place is a new set of laws that rolls back many of the workplace "flexibilities" created during John Howard’s reign.

Instead of the minimal protections afforded by Work Choices, the Fair Work Bill reinstates a system of award rates and minimum conditions and creates a new federal body to oversee working conditions called Fair Work Australia. It also introduces a concept called a "modern award", which is essentially an updated version of the old centralised system of awards as they existed prior to 1996.

The new bill reinstates protection from unfair dismissal, the right of workplace entry for union representatives, and compulsory bargaining for the low paid. Importantly, the Fair Work Bill also creates a set of minimum "National Employment Standards" that will apply to everyone, whether they are on a contract, award or workplace agreement. Last but not least, it builds on Labor’s earlier abolition of the Howard Government’s Australian Workplace Agreements, which were private contracts between workers and employers, hated by unions and loved by union-hating corporations.

Labor’s Fair Work Bill re-regulates the Australian workplace. It places a legal requirement on the minimum pay and conditions that employers provide for workers, and means that employers will no longer be able to ignore unions who wish to negotiate with them. It creates a "one-stop-shop" for employers and workers to check their conditions and address their grievances.

It restores some of the power of unions in the Australian workplace, despite their declining membership. But it also sees a continuation of the HR red tape burden for business, preserves a role for lawyers in settling workplace disputes. This may be the price we pay in a democracy for fair and civilised working conditions.

As Ross Gittins (one of the only commentators who bothered to look at the Fair Work Bill) observed last week, the act "establishes a reasonably even-handed treatment of employers, employees and their unions."

Labor’s other big bill was for schools funding. $28 billion will go to non-government schools over four years, making it the Commonwealth’s biggest single spending item in terms of education. In fact, the Federal Government now spends more on private schools than it does on universities, owing to the perversities of the "SES" schools funding formula.

Because of the way the formula works, elite private schools have reaped huge increases in federal funding simply by enrolling students from middle and low-income suburbs — irrespective of the wealth of the family involved.

In 2004, Labor under Mark Latham pledged to change this formula to exclude the wealthiest, highest fee-charging schools. The result was a highly visible campaign from the private schools lobby which many Labor insiders think cost Latham seats.

So when the 2007 election came around, Labor under Rudd and Gillard moved to neutralise the issue. Rudd committed to funding all schools under the existing formula until 2012. In other words, Julia Gillard’s schools funding policy is actually John Howard’s. The private and Catholic schools lobbies were overjoyed, as well they might be.

But in return for keeping the funding sluice open, Gillard cleverly wrote some telling reforms into the bill. Schools will have to accept a national curriculum, which is still being drafted. This worried many private schools, championed by Liberal education spokesman Christopher Pyne, who threatened to vote against the legislation. It was a massive miscalculation. Julia Gillard called his bluff. Suddenly the Liberals were wedged on one of their signature issues, with Gillard triumphantly announcing that Pyne would be held responsible for blocking $28 billion in funding to private schools.

The Coalition rolled over the very next day. No wonder Tony Jones was moved to ask the Deputy Prime Minister if she was "starting to feel invulnerable".

"No Tony, certainly not," a laughing Gillard replied. "What I try and do is get up each and every day and do the things that we promised." Five days later, the latest Newspoll had the Coalition trailing Labor by nearly as much as it was during the Nelson months.

But if Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are feeling the need for a reality check, all they have to do is examine the growing dismay over the performance of some of their Cabinet colleagues. A thorough dissection of Stephen Conroy’s year in the Communications portfolio will await another article, but for now let’s turn to Penny Wong, currently in the Polish city of Poznan for the big UN conference on climate change.

According to those at Poznan, Australia under Wong is bringing precisely nothing to the negotiations. No near-term emissions reduction target — that announcement was delayed until after the conference. No clear negotiating position either. It’s like we didn’t show up.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a disaster for the future of Australia. It doesn’t really matter how much progress Kevin Rudd and his team have made restoring workplace rights and securing private schools funding if the planet cooks in 30 years time. Australia’s inability to lead on this issue harms the future of our nation more surely than any terrorist attack or infrastructure backlog. Time is running out.

Climate change is one of those really big issues which makes a massive difference to the future of all of us. If Kevin Rudd gets this one wrong, no-one will remember his cunning parliamentary tactics or how far ahead he was in the polls. Even on a humdrum political level, if Rudd and Wong can’t deliver strong action on climate change, they may soon find large swathes of Labor’s constituency abandoning Labor for the Greens

In the longer term, climate change is an issue that can’t fail to radicalise citizens and voters — possibly violently. It’s impossible to imagine a more serious issue, after all. If politicians felt political pressure earlier this year when petrol reached $1.50 per litre — and they certainly did – then what will they do when most of southern Australia turns to desert, when the Barrier Reef bleaches forever and Adelaide runs out of drinking water? How long can it be until a significant eco-terrorism threat emerges from radicalised engineers, doctors and scientists? Or a hot war in East Asia fought over dwindling resources?

If we worried about a few hundred boat people in the early 2000s, what are we going to do about millions of environmental refugees from Tuvalu, the Maldives and Bangladesh?

These are the really big questions that dwarf Kevin Rudd’s extended political honeymoon. And yet most of the mainstream media is still obsessed with Malcolm Turnbull’s showing in the polls. Poznan shows that there are some slightly more important issues currently at hand.

Oh, and I forgot: the first world is in deep economic recession. Australia will probably join it next year too.

Challenges? Kevin Rudd’s got ‘em. The time for "decisive action" is now.

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