A mumbling forgetful old man

Last night, I watched a mumbling, forgetful old man in front of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

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To begin with, he acknowledged that his recollections would be imperfect – that his memory might fail him in this hearing.

Then his evidence was punctuated with:

“I can’t remember.”

“I’m struggling to remember.”

“I can’t clearly recall.”

“I have no clear recollection of my knowing.”

“It’s difficult to answer that absolutely.”

“My memory is not infallible.”

“I don’t have perfect recall.”

“My level of recall is not sufficient.”

“It’s over 40 years ago and I can’t recall.”

It’s amazing that there is so much he can’t remember. It’s the same old dodgy tick, “I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I’m just saying I can’t remember that it did.”

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 Notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale with his friend Cardinal George Pell

I had to remind myself that this is the man who is the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy for the Vatican which makes them their top financial whiz and the third most powerful man in the Vatican. No one really knows how much the Catholic Church is worth but  the American Catholic church alone – which has the fourth largest follower base by country, behind Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines – spent $170bn last year. The Australian Federal government spent around $430 billion last year, probably well short of total Catholic Church spending worldwide.

So George is probably one of the most powerful people in the world economy. But how does he do the job when his memory is so fallible.

The saddest aspect of this testimony was that he blamed everybody else, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns and the Catholic Church in particular. No mention of the fact that he held the office of Archbishop, the place where the buck stops.

What George Pell should do is walk into the  interview room at Rome’s Hotel Quirinale, go up to the group of survivors of sexual abuse who travelled to Rome, take each one by the hand in turn, look them in the eye and say “I have failed you, I am sorry, please forgive me.”

Is that really too much to ask?

 

Donald Trump: the nightmare scenario for the Republican Party

It is becoming increasingly likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party nomination for the presidential election.There is clearly profound disquiet amongst the party about this possibility and plans are afoot to derail his campaign. But it’s a high-risk strategy.

The difficulty for the Republican Party in attacking Trump is that they may wind up alienating their presidential nominee and, potentially, the next US president. If he is elected to the presidency, Trump will not be beholden to the party establishment in any way and while the Republicans may be glad to have a Republican incumbent, he may not prove tractable to any form of control or influence.

Trump may also carry a fairly deep-seated resentment because the establishment of the Republican Party fought him so hard during the primaries.

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Donald Trump sends a message to the Republican Party establishment

The other part of the nightmare scenario is that a significant proportion of the Republican representatives in both the Senate and the Congress may decide to oppose (President) Trump, effectively handing control of both houses to the Democrats.

 

Transmissions from political Lala land resume

Clive Palmer is back in parliament and he is nothing, if not interesting. His latest transmission from political Lala land is that Malcolm Turnbull is just a seat warmer for Tony Abbott and he will stand down after winning the next election and let Abbott regain the prime ministership.

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 Another comic turn: Clive Palmer doing a Les Patterson impersonation

It’s another one of those ideas that are so stupid, it’s difficult to know where to start explaining why. But then, it got Clive into the newspapers yet again, not for any useful contribution to policy or public debate but because he’s a clown.

 In fairness to the man, he is not unpleasantly malicious in the way some members of the government have appeared this week. So give me Clive anytime of the day before Cory Bernardi, Luke Simkins or George Christensen.

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Nationals MP George Christensen who seems to think that being an MP is a license to say the most outrageously offensive things he can think of

Then there was this other little zinger, Fairfax Media revealed that

Faced with electoral annihilation, Clive Palmer has held a secret meeting with two Senate crossbenchers in which he proposed dissolving the Palmer United Party and forming a super-micro party. Mr Palmer met with Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm and Family First’s Bob Day in Mr Palmer’s parliament office on Thursday.

This is to try  to protect themselves against a double dissolution and political oblivion. We can probably safely assume that Palmer will stand for the Senate in the next election as his chances of being elected in his lower house seat are in the category of snowballs surviving in hell, so a coalition of cross bench senators  makes some sense in terms of political survival.

The bizarre aspect of this is that this group of people have nothing in common beyond the desire to save their own political skins.  The chances of them being elected in the first place are probably slim given the electoral changes that will probably be passed  through parliament, but not as slim as being able to have a coherent policy view on the issues that face the nation..

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 Not long for this life: the cross bench senators. Only Xenophon has a chance of re-election

 It’s been an interesting week, enlivened by news of the Prime Minister’s dinner for the cross benchers. Senator Jacqui Lambie stormed out of the dinner, somewhat predictably, as staying wouldn’t have got into the newspapers and then, Senator The Brick with Eyes left early because he wasn’t getting enough to eat and had to go to Macca’s for a decent feed.

Policy debate anyone?

 

 

George Pell: the conspiracy theory

This is just a theory: snatching straws in the wind.

Recently, there have been suggestions that George Pell may have been involved in the sexual abuse of children. This is mainly based on the claims of historic sexual abuse that were made against him in 2002.

Reports at the time said an investigation by retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell found the accusation could not be established.

The closed-door inquiry – organised via the National Committee for Professional Standards, which also oversees the abuse complaints processes for the Catholic Church, Towards Healing – concluded that both the complainant and the Cardinal were honest witnesses.
But what if it is true? And new witnesses have come forward to the Victorian police who may now be conducting a very secret investigation into the Cardinal.  Someone has leaked the information about the enquiry to the media and it may be fair to assume that someone will have leaked the same information to Cardinal Pell.

If the allegations are proven, or the police have sufficient evidence, then it is possible that Cardinal Pell could be arrested on his return to Australia.

Now that would be enough to give you heart problems.

Same-sex Marriage and Senate Voting Reform.

Malcolm Turnbull’s position: A plebiscite for one and a vote in the Parliament for the other. Stalling on one, rushing the other one through.

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 A gay couple discusses parliamentary reform

Malcolm Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott were both  trying to stall legislation of same-sex marriage with the idea of a plebiscite in the hope that the issue would go away.

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 Abbott and Turnbull trying to find a way out of the same-sex marriage question

While the Prime Minister insists we have a plebiscite on gay marriage when public opinion is quite clearly known, he is unwilling to allow the public to have a say on the way they elect their politicians.

Best to let the politicians decide that!

Reforming the system for voting for the Australian Senate provides an opportunity for a “conversation” on the kind of Senate we want, if we want one at all.

Changes to the system are likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event but they are being rushed through Parliament with very little debate and public discussion.

Unfortunately, the voting public has not been invited to the table for this debate.

There is a fundamental question that has not been asked.

Do we need a Senate at all?

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  Paul Keating was quite clear. He called the Senators “unrepresentative swill.

The fundamental idea underlying a bicameral system such as we have in Australia and in the US is that the upper house serves as a brake on the lower house. It is designed to slow the progress of change and protect people against the excesses and vagaries of elected governments.

 In both Australia and the US, senators are elected for six years in a series of staggered elections. In the US, members of the lower house Congress are elected every two years, in Australia it’s every three. So changing the lower house is much easier than changing the upper house.

This means that bringing about change in the upper house is a much slower process. It also means that the upper house may become out of touch with the political realities of the lower house.

So the question for Australians is whether we want an upper house that has the potential to frustrate the House of Representatives.  Before the rise of the Australian Democrats, the Greens, Palmer United and a host of independent Senators, this was not normally the case.

But as disillusion and dissatisfaction with the major parties grows in Australia, minority parties and independents are gaining increasing political traction and exercising increasing influence in the upper houses of state and federal parliament.

Part of the debate on the reform of the Senate voting should include an extensive and informed public debate on whether we want a Senate at all.

After that particular question is decided, then the debate on the nature of the Senate can begin.

When it comes to reforming the Senate, it’s worth remembering that there are what are called “frozen accidents” in the system. Frozen accidents are historical events and decisions that cannot be easily changed but which have consequences that were not intended originally.

The first problem is that the Founding Fathers meant the Senate to be the “States’ House.”  It was designed to protect the previously independent states from the power of the Federal Government.

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The opening of the Parliament of Australia, 9 May 1901, ushered in a system that has probably outlived its usefulness.

It no longer fulfils that function and is elected purely along party lines.

The second problem is that the distribution of Senate seats by state is dramatically biased towards Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory. Representation of the more populous main land states is biased in inverse order of population.

So the first question is: Do we want a system that is biased towards the smaller states given that the Senate’s function as the states’ house is no longer relevant?

Here of the voting figures by state for 2013 Senate election.

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If the fundamental principle underlying democracy is that there should be  equal representation, then this problem needs to be fixed

And then there is the question of party representation.

Here are the figures for the Senate  in the 2013 election.

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On the basis of votes cast, some parties do better than others. The ALP got its fair share in the last election. The Coalition, the Greens, Palmer United, Family First Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party all did better than their vote would justify.

The Liberal Democratic Party polled particularly well but its elected senator David Leyonhjelm admits that this is because he was first on the ballot paper and got the donkey vote and also that people thought they were voting for the Liberal party.

It is interesting that nearly 1.4 million voters (slightly over 10%) have no representation in the Senate. It is this large block of votes that the preference whisperer, Glenn Druery, is able to manipulate to elect members of minor parties.

These are the issues that are fundamental to reform of the Senate voting system. It is crucially important that the Australian electorate remains confident that its democratic system is serving the needs of the people.

The profound sense of disillusion with the political system in America, seen with the rise of the Tea Party and candidates like Donald Trump, represents a step towards political chaos that Australians need to guard against.

It is quite clear to most people that Malcolm Turnbull is rushing these changes through to improve his chances in a double dissolution election. Changes to the fundamental political structures in Australia are serious and have long-term consequences. They should be widely debated and discussed before they are implemented.

Currently, this is not happening and the Australian electorate deserves better.

 

Voting reform in the Australian Senate

The Turnbull government is preparing legislation to reform the voting system for the Australian Senate. The ostensible aim is to remove the possibility of Senators being elected as a result of preference distributions that the voters were probably not aware of.

The last federal election threw up some senators, whose election was the result of arcane preference deals done between minor parties, who could probably best be described as “gobsmacking”.  Many Australians would  probably feel that some of the current cross bench should not be in parliament.

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The  independents on the cross bench and the Greens have the ability to thwart government legislation by voting with the Labor Party. Given that these independents are, by almost any measure, undemocratically elected, this is probably not a good way to run a government.

At present, voters may vote above the line or below the line.

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Voting above the line means that your preferences are distributed according to the party that you vote for. Most people are not aware of the way that preferences are distributed so their votes may go to people they would normally not have voted for.

Voting below the line means that you have to number every candidate in order of your preference. Given the size of the ballot papers, most people choose not to do this.

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The proposed reforms allow people to cast six votes above the line which means that your preferences are not allocated beyond those six votes. But they are allocated according to the wishes of the party you vote for.

This means that a vote for the Liberal or Labor party means that the voters still has to accept the preference order of that party. If you don’t want to do that, you have to vote below the line.

One of the arguments against the present system is that minor parties and independent candidates have been able to “game” the system and be elected with very small numbers of first preference votes.

However, there is a deathly silence on the question of the proportion of votes that is needed to elect third-ranked candidates in the party blocs.

In Letters to The Age, Gary Heard writes  “The accusation that crossbench members are elected on a pitiful, first preference vote count ignores the fact Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos received fewer first-preference votes than did Ricky Muir. ”

Graeme Henchel wrote  “If the aim is to avoid obscure, back-room preference deals, then this should also apply to the preference deals within each party block.” He suggests that instead of six votes above the line voters should have six votes below the line.

It’s an elegantly simple solution and one which protects the right of Australians to vote for whomever they please and avoids preference deals done within the major parties and amongst the minor parties.

The Cardinal Pell Dilemma

It was probably only a matter of time before allegations would surface that Cardinal George Pearl had been engaged in child abuse.

Predictably Cardinal George Pell has vehemently denied allegations that he sexually abused minors while a priest in Ballarat and as Archbishop of Melbourne.

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 Cardinal Pell’s excuse that he is too sick travel looks like a smokescreen

The Herald Sun’s report on Friday evening claims Cardinal Pell is being investigated by Victoria Police’s Sano taskforce for committing multiple offences, by “both grooming and opportunity”.

Feeling is running very high in Victoria where Tim Minchin’s satirical song “Come home, Cardinal Pell”  has gone viral, the abuse victims are preparing to go to Rome to witness Pell’s interrogation by the Royal Commission and a crowd funding campaign to provide financial support for the trip has been wildly oversubscribed.

However, the accusations against Pell raise some important questions about the way enquiries such as commission conducted and more importantly the way the media shapes public opinion. The central problem with allegations of child abuse is that there are often no witnesses and it’s the child’s word against the alleged abuser.  This is the approach that the Catholic Church has taken for years. “You’re a mere child, how can you say that about a priest, a man of God!”

As has become apparent from victim statements at the Royal Commission, the people who have suffered the abuse are often scarred for life, both emotionally and physically and are often shattered by its social and economic effects. But the people who have been accused of child abuse are members of the most powerful, influential and wealthy organisations that the Western world has ever seen: the Catholic Church which is protected them.

In this situation,  where examples of  Catholic Church child abuse are now a global phenomenon, it’s not acceptable to cast doubt upon the allegations against priests. Every allegation must be treated seriously. In addition, people are often prepared err on the side of the victims and give them the benefit of the doubt. In all the cases so far, this has been justified.

So far the best defence that Archbishop Hart has been able to think up for his friend George Pell is “I have known George all my life and he’s not a paedophile.” Unfortunately, this is what Catholic priests have been saying about each other for generations.  At best, public opinion may see Archbishop Hart as sadly deluded, at worst, colluding to protect the guilty.

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But the dilemma is that while many people would like the latest set of allegations to be true,  we need to be very careful about developing the ethos that existed when McCarthy was running his witch hunts in America.

It’s so easy to think  “If Pell were a paedophile, it would make his protection of other paedophile priests all the more damnable.  His disgrace would be complete.”

In this situation, media reports that confirm our prejudices are unlikely to be given more credence than those that do not.

You’re tempted to sympathise with Pell’s situation. But then you think about it and decide ” No.”

 

Tax: Turnbull to “consider all of the considerations”

That is other than changing negative gearing, abolishing tax breaks for superannuation, increases in the GST, income tax cuts, increasing capital gains tax and probate duties.

The question is: “What else is on the table?’ It’s beginning to look a bit like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.

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The Prime Minister and the Treaurer search for ideas on tax reform

 Mr Turnbull went on to tell Labor’s Chris Bowen directly that the shadow treasurer’s place in Parliament would be at risk under the opposition’s changes. “I will leave the Member for McMahon with this sobering thought,” he said across the dispatch box. “There are nearly twice as many people in his electorate that are negatively geared as votes needed to change hands for him to lose his seat.

What Turnbull didn’t mention was how many people there are in the seat of McMahon who are potential first-time buyers. This group of people will benefit immensely by the removal of negative gearing and will probably vote for Labor.

Turnbull appears to be getting increasingly strident (and desperate) in recent weeks. His comment about the number of people who are negatively geared in Chris Bowen’s seat is a simplification that insults the intelligence of the Australian voter, something he promised he would not do when he was elected as party leader.

Turnbull also maintained that house prices will collapse if negative gearing is limited. This is probably nonsense.  But it begs the question of whether we need to have house prices as high as they are and housing unaffordable for most  first home buyers.

The only time that the value of your house is important to you is when you sell it. However, most people who sell their houses normally do so to buy another one. In this situation, the house you sell and the house you buy will both have increased in price. A more expensive house will have increased more in absolute dollar terms.

The other time when the value of the house is important is when you die and leave it to the kids.  Chances are, that they would use the money to buy a new/another house.

The cheaper that houses are, the more money people will have to spend other things: the children’s education for instance, investment in a business or consumer spending. All of which stimulate the economy. The more money that is tied up in the housing market, the less money there is for economic stimulus (except when people invest in building new houses).