Why we should not expand our engagement in the Middle East.

Tony Abbott is seeking to expand Australia’s role in the war against ISIS by broadening the operational range of the RAAF into Syrian territory.

Tony Abbott pushed for US request to join Syria air strikes

In a practical sense, this probably doesn’t involve a great change to the RAAF activities especially as ISIS does not have defined sovereign borders in the way that most nation states do. So bombing ISIS in Iraq is not all that different from bombing it in Syria.

ISIS  controlled  territory in the Middle East

ISIS controlled territory in the Middle East

Every other aspect of this expansion of Australian involvement is intensely problematic.

Australia is fighting in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government and would regard itself as an ally of the Iraqi government. This is not the case with Syria who has not invited Australia to fight ISIS inside its borders.

Australia would certainly not regard itself as an ally of the murderous Assad regime in Syria, however both Australia and Syria are involved in a war against ISIS and that’s probably a pretty good definition of an ally.

Unless Australia is prepared to increase the number of Super Hornets in the Middle East, then simple arithmetic would indicate that every bomb that Australia drops on ISIS in Syria is one less bomb that Australia can drop on ISIS in Iraq. In addition, every bomb that Australia drops on ISIS in Syria is one less bomb that the Assad regime needs to drop.

So it would appear that expanding operations into Syria has no practical benefit unless Australia is prepared to increase the number of planes in action in the Middle East.

From a broader perspective, there’s been no argument advanced that supports a strategy that involves the broadening of Australian operations. If it were to be argued that the current operations had been successful in driving ISIS back inside the borders of Syria, then attacking ISIS in Syria would be seen as a positive step towards the conclusion of this war.

But this argument has not been advanced and there is no indication that the war in Iraq is proving to be particularly successful. So we’re left wondering what advantage is to be gained by extending operations into Syria.

This is a direct outcome of the situation where the engagement of Australian forces in the Middle East has not been subject to parliamentary or public debate. The Labor Party is so keen not to be branded as “soft on terrorism” that it agrees with everything that Tony Abbott suggests.

But maybe the time has come for more nuanced approach to the war in the Middle East and that we should be convinced that an expanded role will contribute significantly to Australian national security.

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Hockey announces tax cuts for 3% of taxpayers.

Treasurer Joe hockey has announced that he had “No choice” but to announce a new round of tax cuts. This is because 330,000 Australian taxpayers would be moving into a higher tax bracket in the next two years, a phenomenon known as “bracket creep”.

Joe Hockey prepares for tax cuts

Joe Hockey prepares for tax cuts

I don’t wish to be a killjoy, but I think we should shine the harsh light of reality on this particularly stupid idea.

People have been moving into higher tax brackets every year since a sliding tax scale was introduced but it suddenly become a compelling problem for the Treasurer.

So, why now?

It is not because he’s concerned about people paying more tax, it is because he’s concerned that the Abbott government has less chance than a snowball in hell of being re-elected. It’s part of the two pronged approach on the part of the beleaguered government: announce tax cuts and start a war.

Khaki byelection anyone? Abbott steps it up ahead of crucial test

Bracket creep has been a simple and relatively painless way of increasing taxation rates from time immemorial. People pay a higher rate of tax when they move into a higher tax bracket but the painless element of it is that it only applies to their marginal income. So their take home pay goes up, but slightly less than previously.

There are lots of issues that get people marching in the street and Australia, but bracket creep is not one of them.

This is a political stunt, but it’s a transparent and obviously stupid political stunt.

One of the reasons that bracket creep is not a pressing issue amongst the Australian voters is that wages growth is at the lowest it has been for a couple of decades. People’s wages are not growing and consequently very few people are moving into higher tax brackets.

If the Abbott government were serious about “talking about jobs and growth”, then it would be talking about ways to stimulate wages growth.

Not long ago, the Treasurer was frothing at the mouth over the budget debt and deficit crisis. He has been able to do nothing to address this particular problem and now is offering tax cuts, exactly the opposite of what you would expect him to do.

There are a couple more fundamental problems with the issue of these tax cuts.

The first is that the Abbott government has announced an inquiry into the taxation system but it is systematically undermining that inquiry by limiting the areas that it can examine by ruling out changes to taxation rates for superannuation contributions, negative gearing and now announcing tax cuts to minimise the effects of bracket creep.

The second issue is that Hockey’s move pre-emptives discussion of the nature of the current taxation scales.

What is so wrong with bracket creep?

The whole taxation system is based on assumption that as you earn more, you’ll pay a higher rate of tax on the extra that you earn. It’s a system that is regarded as equitable by most Australian taxpayers.

It’s is a system that is remarkably different from the GST. Under this regime everybody pays the same rate of taxation on spending. It’s time that we had the “conversation” about what form of taxation we want in Australia: tax on income or a tax on consumption, flat rate or sliding scale?

Unfortunately, the treasurer’s announcement of tax cuts does nothing to advance this particular discussion.

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Abbott’s leadership remains a national problem.

As Tony Abbott’s political leadership spirals slowly but surely out of control, there is increasing analysis of the reasons for his political decline.

Much of the answer lies in a headline in The Age where Abbott speaks of the candidate in the Canning by-election. Andrew Hastie, as “Someone who is more than capable of fighting for the people of Canning.” (my emphasis). Not “representing or “serving” but “fighting”.

This has been the problem that has bedevilled Abbott’s prime ministership: Everything is a fight. We’re constantly at war against forces that should be opposed by any means. His pugnacious and aggressive attacks on Julia Gillard in Opposition served to give warning of what his style would be when he came to Government.

The difficulty with drawing the battlelines on every issue in politics is that there can only be winners and losers. And when you do not command a majority in the Senate, approaching every policy debate as a war, is an extremely limited political strategy. Tony Abbott certainly lacks Julia Gillard’s political skills at negotiating as leader of a minority government. She won the support of, and continued to govern with, cross-bench support from people who were, or should have been, Tony Abbott’s natural political allies.

By contrast, Abbott can only see things in black or white, win or lose. It’s also indicative of a bizarre form of political laziness. If a policy issue cannot be solved by a slogan (Stop the boats) and an often draconian policy response, Tony Abbott is not prepared to put the hard work into solving the problem.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is now possible to see him demonstrating this shortcoming very early in his career as leader of the Opposition. His incessant demands that the Gillard government should resign, simply because he didn’t like it, indicated a complete lack of understanding of the democratic process in Australia and was typical of his pursuit of his own narrow personal agenda unalloyed by any consideration of political reality.

A good indication of this problem is the ” I don’t like wind farms” syndrome which has characterised his approach to climate change, energy generation, gay marriage, Aboriginal reconciliation, carbon emission reduction and a host of other issues.

George Orwell parodied this approach in Animal Farm with the mantra ” four legs good, two legs bad.” The problem with this approach to political, social and economic problems is that it doesn’t allow multifaceted solutions to multifaceted and complex problems.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Abbott’s support for the coal industry indicates the disastrous policy outcomes that such an approach produces. Two things appear abundantly clear. The first is that in the medium-term, Australia will remain dependent upon fossil fuels for the production of electricity. The second is that the rest of the world is moving away from coal as the primary source of electricity generation for some very practical reasons that are also relevant in the Australian context.

It is a situation that is a lay-down misere for national leadership: taking a long-term view of the need to shift to renewable energy at a national level, recognising the limitations of coal-fired electricity generation and easing the transition to renewables and ensuring economic growth and employment in the shift towards renewable energy generation.

However, providing leadership in the situation requires being able to think of more than one thing at a time Beyond that it requires being able to handle arduous and possibly fraught transition processes. Unfortunately, Abbott isn’t capable of this and Bill Shorten hasn’t been able to step in and fill the vacuum.

The same shortsightedness has bedevilled our approach to the conflict in the Middle East. Abbott’s single-minded sloganeering ”ISIS is a death cult” is, to him, sufficient justification for Australian engagement in this war.

Flying bombing missions against ISIS is a simple-minded solution to a problem whose complexity almost defies solution. The atrocities that ISIS has committed against civilian populations are truly appalling but then so are the atrocities of the Assad regime.

RAAF Sper Hornets

RAAF Sper Hornets

If Australian government has a genuine concern about the impact of war on civilian populations, It could devote more time and energy to finding more humane solution to the refugees who wish to come to Australia.

However, the”Stop Boats” campaign highlights of shortcomings of Tony Abbott’s political philosophy. In a world where you interpret everything as black or white, there’s no room for compromise or review that you need to sacrifice some of your self-interest for the betterment of others.

Solving the global refugee crisis is going to entail the “haves” giving up quite a bit for the “have-nots”.

It is a political message that will require considerable courage and leadership.

Attributes sadly lacking in contemporary Australian politics.

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Another bad idea from the Abbott government

Proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act should be opposed in both the lower and upper Houses of Parliament.

The government is arguing that the legal challenge mounted to the Carmichael mine in Queensland necessitates this change in legislation. They have made a number of outrageous claims in relation to this and these are debunked in the following article

Adani mine a $20b project creating 10,000 jobs? The Abbott government’s myths busted

In essence, the proposed changes seek to limit the number of people who can protest against large developments on environmental grounds to those who are directly affected. The definition of “directly affected” will be central to the extent to which environmental groups can take action against undesirable developments like coal mines.

If “directly affected” is translated to “living next-door”, then the rights of protest for a wide range of groups will be severely limited.

As our understanding of the interconnectedness of ecological systems increases, we understand that the direct effects of polluting activities may pale into insignificance against the indirect effects. Our understanding of the impact of carbon emissions on global warming is now technically complete, although not universally accepted within Australia.

Our understanding of the impact of fracking on water tables is also well advanced. A wide range of community groups will rightly be concerned about the degradation of the quality of water tables, particularly those who use the water. Presumably, they would come under the category of “directly affected”. However, the number of people who are indirectly affected is considerable: people whose livelihood is affected by the failure of crops reliant on the contaminated water, people affected by the crop failure, people whose access to the water is affected by shifting demand is result of the failure of water table supply.

Under the proposed legislation these groups would have no right of protest or appeal against development where at present they do.

Making the right of protest and appeal available to as many groups as possible allows the widest possible range of expertise to be brought to bear on the possible environmental consequences of industrial development.

There are many organisations, such as Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society which are not directly affected by any specific industrial development. Yet to lessen the right of such groups to appeal and protest would greatly limit the protection the public is currently afforded by the vigilance of these organisations.

There are encouraging signs that this proposed legislation will not be supported by the cross-bench of the Senate. And it is reassuring to know that the Abbott government has demonstrated absolutely no ability in being able to negotiate with its political opponents.

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Tony Abbott’s key strategy: When in trouble start a fight

Senator Glenn Lazarus would tell us that the the Abbott government’s response to the political debacle of last month is typical of the tactics of a team that is losing badly on the field: Start a fight, you might not win but it may disrupt the other side. It’s a short term strategy and not normally particularly successful, often because you lose the fight.

559218-fight-breaks-out

And so it is after the disastrous revelations of speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s travel expenses and the accusations of political bias around the Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon, that the government has decided to pick a fight with environmental groups protesting against the development of the Adani coal mine in Queensland.

But as the Brick with Eyes would be able to tell the government, if you’re going to start a fight make sure you’ve got someone who can throw the heavy punches. So Abbott got this wrong on the first count: he sent in Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane to argue the case on the ABC’s 7.30. Interviewer Leigh Sales made it clear that McFarlane was poorly prepared and much of his material was factually incorrect.

Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane

Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane

Abbott also made no effort to see if the legislation had any chance of passing through the Senate, let alone opening some negotiation with the cross-benchers to see what could have a chance of passing. So it appears that the idea is dead in the water.

This will not deter the government from introducing legislation and then berating everybody for standing in the way of “jobs and growth”.

They’ve already begun attacking Bill Shorten for being inter alia opposed to jobs and growth.

It’s hard to understand why the government is picking a fight with Bill Shorten. It can only be that they wish to mount the same kind of campaign against him that they mounted against Julia Gillard. That’s probably very little point in this as the opinion polls have pretty much found that most people don’t like him all that much but they like him much more than they like Tony Abbott.

This government is rapidly running out of options and its attempt to recover from the recent political scandals and the continuing run of disastrous opinion polls has already backfired.

The 35 members of the lower house who will lose their seats on the basis of the current opinion polls must be considering some pretty unpalatable options.

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Dyson Heydon and the dilemma of impartiality

In all the sound and fury that is being generated over Dyson Heydon’s role as Royal Commissioner, are two questions are being confused.

As the Government runs its defence of the embattled Commissioner, it argues that significant evils, particularly on the part of the CFMEU, are being uncovered by the Commission.

But this argument is an answer to the question “Do we need a royal commission into trade union corruption?”

It is not an answer to the question “Could the Royal Commissioner be perceived as being biased?”

It’s important that we keep these two questions quite separate in considering the position of Dyson Heydon.

On the first, there would be general agreement within Australia that Royal Commissions are an excellent way of uncovering deep-seated and extensive corruption in our society.

The Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption in Queensland and current inquiry into child abuse are two excellent examples of this legal mechanism working at its best.

And it is because this mechanism can work so well, that it is important to protect the integrity of Royal Commissions and the public perception of the impartiality of the Royal Commissioner is central to the maintenance of this integrity.

Heydon has made this statement on the question of bias: “It is fundamental to the administration of justice that the judge been neutral. It is for this reason that the appearance of departure from neutrality is a ground of disqualification. It is the perception of the hypothetical observer that is the yardstick.”

Ironically, Heydon will make the judgement call on his own impartiality. This suggests that he is the (unbiased) “hypothetical observer”.

Dyson Heydon examines himself

Dyson Heydon examines himself

It’s a Catch-22 situation.

If he were unbiased, he wouldn’t be in this situation of having to make this decision. So the very fact that he’s being forced to make this decision means that perceptions of bias exist and he should stand down.

A comment from shortleg2

A small point but … Garfield Barwick was NOT the G-G at the time of Whitlam’s dismissal, he was Chief Justice of the High Court from 27 April 1964 to 11 February 1981.

See this note: “On Sunday, November 9, 1975, two days before he dismissed Gough Whitlam, the Governor-General met with the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick. On November 10, Barwick, a former Liberal Party minister under Menzies, tendered this advice to Kerr about his constitutional powers.Nov 9, 1975.”

Thank you shortleg2

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Two views of Dyson Heydon

The charitable view

You have to feel sorry for Dyson Heydon on a number of counts.

He was, according to reports from those who know him (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott), an “imminent jurist”, not a household name, but then most high court judges don’t get to be household names. Now he has achieved rockstar notoriety with a lifetime of achievement swept away by a single incomprehensible error of judgement.

 imminent jurist Dyson Heydon

imminent jurist Dyson Heydon

He must be absolutely ropable. His only fault was not checking a speaking invitation carefully enough. But he has no one to blame but himself: a man internationally famous for his attention to detail.

In an article in The Age, Simon Longstaff cites Heydon on the question of bias: “It is fundamental to the administration of justice that the judge been neutral. It is for this reason that the appearance of departure from neutrality is a ground of disqualification. It is the perception of the hypothetical observer that is the yardstick.”

Longstaff draws the conclusion, as will all of his readers: by his own standards, Heydon must disqualify himself from the Royal Commission.

A wiser man would have realised that his membership of the committee that granted Tony Abbott his Rhodes scholarship would surely surface and that in the toxic political climate that exists currently, this would be used to damaging effect against him.

But the biggest mistake that Heydon made was accepting the job in the first place. A wiser man would have realised that accusations that the Royal Commission was a political witch hunt would inevitably surface and that accusations of political bias would follow as surely as night follows day.

He will now be left to reflect, as many people will, that respect the public institutions has declined and the public scrutiny of people who would normally have considered themselves to be, almost by definition, above approach, is increasingly pervasive and vitriolic.

The uncharitable view

Dyson Heydon is an ex-High Court Judge, he knows which way is up and as a Royal Commissioner, he is playing in the big-league. So he knows the rules.

He also knew that his speaking engagement was a Liberal party fund raiser because he sent out Liberal party flyers as invitations.

As an “imminent jurist”, he would be well aware of Sir Garfield Barwick’s history: he was the Governor-General who advised them Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, on the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Being a speaker at an event organised by the Liberal party in the honour of such a man can only be seen as participation in partisan politics.

The plain facts are that he thought he could get away with it or that no one would call him out for it.

Wrong on both counts.

He’s been mates with Tony Abbott for some time going right back to when Abbott received his Rhodes scholarship from a committee on which Heydon was sitting.

The judge, the footballer and the Rhodes scholarship

The judge, the footballer and the Rhodes scholarship

In his book Battlelines, Abbott comments “As much, I’m sure, through my role in student politics as through academic or sporting prowess, I was chosen as the New South Wales Rhodes scholar at the end of 1980.”

At the time, Abbott was studying law at the University of New South Wales. Heydon was the Dean of Law.

Too many coincidences to pass the pub test!

See also

Backed into a corner, Dyson Heydon’s options are finite

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