28 January 2007

Working conditions

I have never understood this Rain Man-style focus at Catallaxy and elsewhere on the minimum wage at the expense of wider issues in the labour market. Abolishing the minimum wage creates more trouble than it’s worth and does not address labour shortages. I’ve posted there on this before and experienced the feeble flailings against blasphemers, so I’ll try posting here.

There is nothing quick or clean about reducing the minimum wage. A government committed to doing so would be unable to do anything else, and such a policy would be rapidly undone by the next government. Not only is it too hard politically, it isn’t worth it.

The reality is that in Australia today, you can’t get by on $2/hour. No-one can, and it’s not worth creating a job returning such a rate for its holder. One of the silliest features of the modern Australian workforce is illegal immigrants working at such a rate to make low-value clothing, with management fearful of government penalties: why managers don’t simply set up operations in a country where $2/hour is a living wage, attracting a broader and better slice of the workforce with the encouragement of authorities, who can create the sort of economic opportunities in those countries where their absence forces people to emigrate.

Show me a person whose contribution to a business is so low that it is only worth paying them $100 a week (before tax) for 50 hours’ work, and I’ll show you someone who’s not worth employing.

Many commentators tend to regard the creation of below-minimum wages as taking the unemployed off the streets, but there are too few unemployed for this policy to be worthwhile. There are bigger fish to fry on labour market policy. Besides, why should the unemployed take a job which costs them to perform?

The northern suburbs of Sydney is home to some of the nation’s wealthiest people. These communities experience shortages of schoolteachers, nurses and council workers, because the costs of living in or near this area is higher than wages will allow. Once you recognise these high and rising costs, a focus on minimum wages starts to look inadequate in facing the problems facing this country’s workforce. Neither the current government, nor a future government serious about addressing the problems of the economy, need pay any heed to minimum wages being too high.

Australia has a small workforce and a population with a high standard of living, one that seeks to maintain and improve that standard for those who do not labour: old people, children, and those who are not capable of labour. I accept that welfare payments are sins against economic orthodoxy, but the general principle of high and improving standards of living is sound and one against which economic policies should be judged.

The creation of low-value jobs will not help realise this aim. Policy should not encourage the creation of low-value jobs, it should encourage the creation of jobs which return sustainably high wages to employees (yes, I meant sustainably high) and high flow-on effects to the economy generally. Skill training and education are more important than allowing unsustainable jobs.

It is in high-value work that the Australian economy is suffering its greatest shortages. Almost all skilled trades and even professions such as IT programming are trying to fill shortages through immigration, and largely failing, as the principle of expecting people to be highly-trained in an economy depleted of training has also failed. Scrapping minimum wages will not alleviate these shortages. It does not even address these shortages. These shortages are much more important issues than minimum wage levels. Sound policy and limited resources would therefore be better targetted at addressing skill shortages than at addressing minimum wage levels.

The reason why nobody wants to program computers or unblock drains or cut hair isn’t because people dislike working hard. The reason is because wage levels in these are as are too low already. It is a fantasy that removing minima will allow wages to soar to meet unmet demand.

There is a large number of workers in Australia who are highly-skilled yet unemployed, and who often don’t show up on unemployment statistics. These people have responsibilities to care for children or older people. People also have responsibilities to their employers, and most employees can and do combine these effectively, but where they clash carers’ responsibilities override those to employers. A complex tangle of regulations and market forces makes it uneconomical for these people to (re-)enter the workforce - once you recognise that, turning away to focus on minimum wages starts to look like shirking the real issues and onsessing about an issue that doesn’t really matter.

In a low-unemployment economy, the numbers of skilled people excluded from the workforce in this manner is more significant than the small and diminishing cohort of can’t-work-won’t-work welfare-bludger stereotypes. Removing minimum wages won’t enable these willing workers to make a greater economic contribution than they already are. For the workforce to access the skills of the former group requires wide-ranging and detailed reforms to taxation and welfare systems, with the promise of a significant payoff for the economy generally.

Removing minimum wages misses the point.

25 January 2007

The changing environment

In the lead-up to the 1996 election the Coalition brilliantly reframed the environmental debate. A concern for the environment, said then-spokesman Ian McLachlan, doesn't just focus on beautiful forests in Tasmania/Queensland/southeastern NSW/southwestern WA, or whales, or other cute stuff like that. It includes a focus on dry-land salinity, of water flows in the Murray-Darling, and other unscenic but no less real problems affecting this country. Farmers who clear-fell aren't rapacious vandals, they have more of an interest than anyone in longterm sustainable land-use practices and they ought to be part of the solution. The latter principle grew out of a lot of work by the late Ric Farley at the National Farmers' Federation.

In eleven years there has been a fair bit of largesse for farmers in typical National Party style but no evidence of that initial vision in environmental policy. Clear-felling is still rampant and the environment is still framed in terms of one-off spot-fires like the orange-bellied parrot or the Patagonian toothfish. Global warming has inched its way from the fringes to the mainstream, but it's still a long bow to draw in linking a bushfire in the Gippsland and a water shortage in Perth to the smokestacks of Tianjin/ Düsseldorf/ Pittsburgh.

In other words: the Coalition had a great message on the environment and then stuffed it.

Robert Hill was the Environment Minister who went to Kyoto and secured a number of concessions for Australia, only to have the government decide they wouldn't ratify the subsequent treaty because the Yanks leant on Howard. He should have resigned. Sure, if he had he wouldn't be swanning around New York now (well, he might have, but he'd take a different route), but he'd have some honour that he now lacks.

David Kemp was smart enough to re-establish the original policy, but instead he saw environmentalism as the new left and sought to frustrate their knavish tricks, confound their politics etc. Ian Campbell took a Perth lawyer's brief: to go hard in the narrow areas where he could (e.g. parrot, fish) and to faff the wider issues where the mining lobbies had got in first (because in Perth, nobody messes with the mining lobby). Campbell is now effectively an IT project manager for the country's biggest data management project, and stays in Cabinet only as a sop to the chip-on-the-shoulder voters in the West. When that's over, so is his career in politics. His career doesn't give him much to show for in terms of landing the big jobs with the tall dollars, particularly in Perth; but we shall see and good luck to him anyway.

Malcolm Turnbull's role in spiking the recycled water initiative in Toowoomba was appalling and should taint him in the wider environmental portfolio. He could do worse than reframe environmental policy to the McLachlan principles: Garrett wouldn't be able to match him straight away and it would expose Labor's broader weakness in relating to Ruralanregionalaustralia (in this Labor have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing, since they lost in '96). Turnbull certainly doesn't have an alternative overarching narrative on Coalition environment policy, and he needs one: Peter Garrett pretty much is Labor's environmental policy. He could knock up something plausible and drag the entire press gallery on board in less time than you could sing Best of both worlds.

In this new political environment, it's unlikely that Labor will accept its weaknesses or just paper over them with press releases. It's more likely that a comprehensive policy on the environment will come from Labor, with a sweeping vision Turnbull doesn't have and can't fake. Bill Heffernan will toss shit at him. He'll take on the Nats because they're weak and getting weaker, and he'll lose because of the perception that mollifying the Nationals is crucial to retaining government.

(The Nationals will go backwards at this election and are the weakest link, electorally and in terms of government administration; mollifying them will do no good at all and you'd hope that maybe, just once, they might get the sort of kicking that makes them wake up to themselves. But I'll bet that such a kicking comes only from voters).

Turnbull will be vindicated in almost any fight he would pick with the Nationals, however by then it might be too late. 2007 is shaping up to be a real contest. Some journalists claim that all legal avenues have not been exhausted in examining Turnbull's walk-on role in the downfall of HIH; even if he's not found guilty, a drawn-out commercial legal case would distract one from affairs of state.

22 January 2007

Muslims in Australian politics

There are about a quarter of a million Muslims in Australia. There are about the same numbers of people living on the NSW Central Coast, or Hobart. If you can accept that people in those physical locations exert a modest impact on Australian politics, then it's clear that Muslim Australians will exert an influence on Australian politics going forward.

Al Hilaly may or may ot nominate for Lakemba against Morris Iemma. Both major parties have been courting Keysar Trad. I think there is a Muslim of Turkish descent in the Victorian upper house. It is only a matter of time before the Libs put Irfan Yusuf into parliament.

Yusuf is more likely into an upper house than a lower. Most members of upper houses are political hacks who would never, never get a paid career in politics if they had to come up against actual voters. One of the amazing things about being involved in party politics is watching people who are sought after and deferred to in party circles, who secure election to high forums and can marshal votes on the floor of State Council - yet when these titans secure preselection and are confronted by actual voters, they go to water.

That's not to say Irfan is that much of a power player: he isn't. Given the amount of money and effort applied to marginal seats, Liberal powerbrokers do not have the guts to put him into a marginal seat. If he set his cap at a safe Liberal seat he'd be trampled in the rush. He has done what you need to do in helping candidates from the party's right, and is Owed. He has built a public profile and hasn't used it to dump on the Liberal Party. He's tougher and smarter than Ibrahim Constantin; Clarke forced Constantin to change his name and has appeared to be brittle under the sort of pressure that is routine in public life. By contrast, Yusuf's "falling out" with David Clarke is not that serious, and next time Clarke lets some nasty race-based comment slip he will publicly embrace Yusuf as part of readjusting the masque. Yusuf will be a rightwing candidate for an upper house: he may even run against Senator Marise Payne. Otherwise, he'll go for state politics: not at the top of the ticket, not even at the top of the right wing ticket, but winnable enough to enable them to say: how can we be considered racists and Christian fundamentalists when we're endorsing a Pakistan-born Muslim for Parliament?

For all that, these toe-holds will translate eventually into a Muslim element in Australian politics. Look how the Greens have advanced a political agenda far greater than the numbers suporting it, with a combination of hype and backroom smarts. I wouldn't be surprised if there is an environmentalist reading of the Qu'ran. I would bet that now-jarring combination (collision?) becomes important at some stage, and others besides. It has massive implications for progressive causes (e.g. same-sex relationships or reproductive rights) and conservative ones (e.g. the notion of a single authorised Australian history or a Western canon, or rights to free speech). In the next economic downturn, look for publicity on Muslim economics over the harder-hearted version we know today. Is there a Muslim position on workplace relations? Find out! Is that compatable with non-family childcare and women in the workforce? If you think that debate is complex now, wait until this additional factor goes into the mix.

A balance of power situation, the diverting of crucial preferences in a crucial seat at a crucial election ("al-Killen, you are maginificent, praise Allah!"), it's hard to tell from this angle. Al Hilaly may be a joke and Trad a lickspittle, but a Muslim presence in Australian politics is coming.

People who believe that Islam=terrorism and thus Muslims in Australian politics funding organisations at war with the wider society also tend to believe that Australian troops should be put in harm's way for no good reason. There's no helping such people.

19 January 2007

Too much

In the run-up to the NSW State election, the Libs are promising more police, as always.

Neither they, nor the ALP, are explaining what an influx of police would do to a culture that is clearly already sick. Note that both the above links come from the same organisation: I wish that organisation would do some analysis of its own.

It is not clear how these numbers would be met in a period of low unemployment without a dimunition of the quality of recruits - imagine some qualified and conscientious police officer in the future having to work under someone who got in when standards weren't quite so high. The current government regularly limbos under its recruitment targets and it is not clear what the Libs would do differently.

For many years it's been said that the blunt instruments of police numbers and sentencing won't make much of a difference - especially if your justice provider is Magistrate O'Shane. After the hurlyburly leading up to the March election, perhaps, it will be time for a bit of thought about preventative strategies and a better-run policing and justice system. If Laura Norder was really worth all those votes, the Coalition would have held office in NSW since 1988 at least. Still, if the pollies must woo her, it'd be nice if the old girl made more of an effort.

18 January 2007

If you don't know me by now ...

After reading this, the operative phrase in Downer's third-paragraph quote is "from what I have heard". Downer has chosen not to hear any bad news about Hicks, and the media have chosen not to ask about his lazy information-collecting habits, or his credibility on any other thing on which he may choose to comment.

If the Yanks don't have the wood on Hicks by now, they never will. Who's going to rely on six-year-old hearsay? A good defence counsel should be able to windschuttle this testimony (are there several reliable witnesses and unimpeachable physical evidence for every instance? If not, no charge!). More access to visitors and phone calls may be the best way to gather the so-far missing evidence, not the silent treatment and unreliable torture/deprivation.

17 January 2007

Tied up in knots

When I first read this I was tempted to simply blast Greg Sheridan for Koutsoukis-style stupidity.

While Koutsoukis has a long record of stupidity, it's clear that Sheridan has had his thrust upon him. While Australian foreign correspondents in the late twentieth century were dismissive of the threat posed by communist regimes, Sheridan was the only foreign correspondent who took seriously the idea that a Soviet fleet was ready to invade Australia from Cam Ranh, Vietnam. He was wrong about that, but his coverage of significant figures in the Southeast Asian region like Lee Kwan Yew and Mahathir Mohammad was nuanced and wise, rendering complex people balancing divergent pressures in an intelligent way rather than the tabloid wacko treatment dished out by most journalists published here.

These days Sheridan is the local head cheerleader for the Bush Is Always Right crowd, a relay station for Fox News talking points. There's a whole lot of them in the US - a brigade, to use a Hendersonism. Really. Every indicator of failure over the past three years has passed Greg by: the WMDs, the endemic violence, the ineffective and partisan army, the puppetry conducted by al-Sadr and other Iranian agents within the elected government of Iraq.

He has the occasional go at "a typical arrogance of the liberal elite in Western societies", but you can safely ignore this as you would the barking of a tethered dog: sounds ferocious but he's not going to do much or move far from his position. Elites are people who sit around the Cabinet table, Greg. Elites are senior editors at national newspapers - even a senile old duffer like Frank Devine is more "elite" than [insert name of "liberal elite Australian" here].

No amount of redefining terms or even stone-cold proof will sway Greg from his transmittive function - unless it accords with White House Talking Points, Sheridan won't buy it, and he won't run it either.

This is what happens when two schools of thought collide - an inherent belief in human dignity and a commitment to Bush Is Always Right. The death penalty thing was a bit troublesome but lashing out at those imaginary elites clearly works for Greg.

Remember those scenes from 2003 where ecstatic locals ripped down statues of Saddam? The way that Saddam's henchclowns died was absolutely in keeping with that, and with their lives, brutal and ugly. If they'd been torn apart by stray dogs it wouldn't have mattered but it would have made the Iraqi government look even more stupid. And yes, it's the stupidity and political failure that's the issue here, not some effete wailing about the cruelty of it all.

Let's get this straight: someone who is definitely guilty of massive crimes can't be tortured, even after his life has ended - but lesser functionaries with a few tidbits of information are fair game, eh Greg?

Sheridan is wrong to go the crocodile tears, which is veering close to yer bleeding heart "I am involved in mankind" territory. He is wrong to label the manner of these deaths as merely "propaganda victories" - they are yet further indications that Iraq is governed not by huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but by factional hacks.

Great cost in blood and treasure - and the political credibility of the US-UK-Australian alliance - is being squandered on a bunch of hacks. This is the unpleasant truth from which Greg Sheridan has flinched. It is the central failure of his analysis. He has done Oz readers no favours and diminished himself as an analyst of foreign policy realities in his own right.

I do agree with him about the necessary preconditions about the death penalty, about the absence of doubt about crimes, perpetrators and accused - preconditions which haven't existed in Australian criminal trials thus far, hence why there ought be no death penalty here.

16 January 2007


The ultimate value in politics is winning office and the holding of it until one is ready to give it to someone else.

Before he became Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd accused Howard of being a "market fundamentalist", someone who supposedly adheres to harsh philosophies that line the pockets of the rich and which grind poor working stiffs into the ground. This has rallied the Labor faithful and propelled Rudd into the Federal leadership, and if Rudd was as dumb as Latham he'd flog this dead horse of Howard-the-meanie all the way to the next election.

Mark Bahnisch reckons that Rudd's position is being undermined by allegations from Labor frontbenchers of Howard's economic imprudence. Really? Looks like a pincer movement from this angle. Howard can be accused of both straying from "his" core principles (as ascribed to him) and being insufficiently flexible in meeting the needs of the economy. This sets Howard up as being lost, tired, out of touch.

Then there's defence, as explained earlier. Howard's strong defence rhetoric on one hand, stolen RPG launchers and a fixed commitment to a failed US strategy on the other: lost, tired, out of touch.

The economy and defence are Howard's two strongest issues. On what other issues would he run for re-election? To look conniving and unprincipled on either would be politically fatal.

Howard goes on about values, and it carries him over the tops of events where the finer details make him look bad. By making out that Howard says one thing and does another makes Howard just like any other politician. He'd lose his wider narrative and get bogged down in chocolate-cake level of detail on issues that just aren't on his talking points. It's a smart strategy if Labor can pull it off.

This strategy requires:
  • Rudd to be both ferociously disciplined and warmly appealling. The former would be a fair bet, the latter less so - unless the Coalition attack him and he gets the sympathy vote;

  • Labor to be equally disciplined. One of them will inevitably wander off the party line and into a media minefield; and

  • Rudd to balance the idea that he's a "safe pair of hands" with the idea that he can resolve some of the issues that Howard is no longer able to address in any meaningful way: creeping interest rate rises, infrastructure problems, David Hicks, you name it.

This "safe pair of hands" image requires playing up the successes of his time as Queensland Cabinet Office chief and playing down the tough-guy reputation that saw Goss go the way of Nick Greiner: a mixed message of compassion and fairness combined with the odd kick in the guts for demonstration purposes, which confused voters and led them to get rid of a good government as soon as practicable. Hawke managed it, but Kevin Rudd is no Bob Hawke.

Kevin Rudd is no Kim Beazley. The whole labour movement campaign against WorkChoices as framed by Beazley is that John Howard is working against Labor values, values he's never professed and spent his lifetime opposing. Yeah? So? What a waste of time.

A sign - and a necessary precondition - that voters are prepared to give Rudd the benefit of the doubt is that Howard gets and stays in trouble. By going Howard on values and impaling him on the horns of his various dilemmas Labor are giving themselves their best chance. They need plenty of luck to make it work for them.

12 January 2007

We're there because we're there

Much has been written about US involvement in Iraq, but not nearly enough has been written about Australia's participation independently of some wider western-alliance context, as though the reasoning that applies for or against aspects of US involvement also apply to Australia by default.

Clearly, Australia can't distance its involvement from that of the United States. The nearest thing to a justification of Australian involvement in Iraq from Australian commentators is that we have to humour the Yanks and provide them with a figleaf of internationalism in their crusade, and such comfort as comes from an offsider, a kemosabe, an Enkidu. The whole notion of "whither thou go, I goest" falls apart when the US is essentially engaging in a folly, waging a war that can't be won. Australians generally perceive the US alliance as generally benign and A Good Thing for the most part, with distance adding some allure without the cultural suffocation sometimes felt by Canadians.

Apart from supporting our great and powerful friend, what else is Australia hoping to gain from involvement in Iraq?

Australian frigates patrolled the Persian Gulf in between the Gulf Wars, to uphold UN sanctions against Iraq (while letting whole boatloads of Saddam-bribe wheat sail by). In the 2003 invasion Australian SAS troops went hunting for bandits in western Iraq. Currently, Australians control air traffic at Baghdad airport, protect a small Australian presence in the diplomatic compound ("Green Zone"), look for WMDs (stop that sniggering!), and about 500 Australian troops are in rural Iraq (i.e. far from Baghdad, where apparently 80% of attacks occur) guarding a Japanese engineering project. There's a frigate and an aeroplane in logistical and surveillance support, and some training of Iraqi personnel.

None of that can be said to be winning hearts and minds with Iraqi communities. Australian troops are not being strewn with flowers as they walk the streets of grateful communities, despite the pic in the above-linked brochure, with impressed natives imploring them not to leave and engaging in the kind of cultural exchange that might lead to them being inspired to emigrate here. The Iraqi government does not and need not care whether Australian forces stay or go.

The Japanese could look after their engineers themselves if they had to. The Americans could do the air traffic and other support tasks, especially with their surge. Why the Australian government has not outsourced embassy security in Baghdad, like it does elsewhere, is a mystery.

Australia's presence in Iraq is a token presence. Australians who complain that American media ignores our contribution have a point about the insularity of that country, but it is more than outweighed by two considerations. First, the number of Americans who have died in that conflict is almost four times bigger than the entire Australian force there, and this sacrifice must be respected even by those who are passionately against the whole shooting match (the appropriateness of that sacrifice is a matter for Americans themselves). Second, the absolute tokenism of Australia's presence: the US has 15 times the population of Australia, and even if you take that into account a force of 800 is a tiny proportion of the overall allied force there. It is not making the sort of tactical difference on the ground that Australia's small force made in Vietnam. It would not be missed if it were gone, and the fact that Australians are not required to boost our contribution in the I'll-see-you-and-I'll-raise-you rhetoric surrounding Bush's surge underlines the insignificance of Australia's contribution, and hence its impact on the alliance.

Then, yes, there's wheat. Iraqis are entitled to be upset with us over the whole oil-for-food scandal, without any obligation to be grateful for bellies filled years before at such enormous if unwitting cost. That bribe money has been spent on killing people, Iraqi civilians and Americans. You don't have to be a bleeding heart to be ashamed at that, a shame that winning the Ashes can't even address let alone balance. You'd think we'd tiptoe quietly away out of sheer decency, like Australian troops did from Gallipoli.

Australian forces are doing a great job in Iraq. They'd do a great job wherever they were deployed, really. They'd be better off deployed in and around Australia, as part of a sign that we are finally taking seriously the area in which we live. The threats Australia faces are mostly cultivated close to home. Australian forces are best deployed in addressing threats to Australia.

This is not an argument for Fortress Australia, nor even for the popular but farcical notion that countries in the Pacific (or even Southeast Asia) constitute the Australian "backyard". It is an argument for recognising that Australia has a role in its alliance with the United States, and we have done too little in warning them against folly in the first place. To that extent the Australian government was right to invest so little in the pending disaster, without the hurt of snubbing them altogether (though the small number of Australian casualties makes such warm feelings easier). Australia has a role in sending forces far from its shores to uphold that alliance and its values, in line with this country's military history. It will be all the more effective in doing so with a greater forward presence in Polynesia and Melanesia.

Australian policymakers can be forgiven for floundering on defence issues in the aftermath of the Cold War, and commended for resisting the butter-not-guns populism of those who thought that military forces had become largely unnecessary - a sentiment that dominates official thinking in New Zealand. They cannot be forgiven for maintaining a pointless, unjustifiable presence in Iraq that lacks legitimacy from locals or any recognition worth the name from the Americans. Australian forces have done a great job as always, but they are not needed in Iraq. They are needed elsewhere. What they - and we - need is a government with the sense to deploy them to best effect.