Our minister for international embarrassment and diplomatic head kicking

In an article in The Age today Waheed Ali points out the difficulties of Tony Abbott’s latest ham-fisted and ill-timed incursion into international diplomacy.

At the heart of Abbott’s outburst was an assertion that Indonesia should in some way reciprocate for Australia’s $1b aid contribution following the tsunami by granting some clemency to Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.  This undermines the whole concept of giving aid in the face of humanitarian tragedy. It also adds to the perception that is widely held in Indonesia that Australia is an international and diplomatic bully boy.

What Abbott is saying is “We will give you aid when you need it but we expect a pay back down the track.”  Worse still, he is saying  “We will choose the time and the size of the payback.”

Indonesia’s diplomatic response has been “no one responds well to threats”  and the new Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsud has described the issue as one of ” law and order.” Hardly promising responses to the Prime Minister.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsud

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsud

This is a significant problem for Australian efforts for clemency for the two prisoners. There seems to be widespread support within Indonesia for the execution of drug smugglers and for Indonesian President Joko Widod to grant clemency, he’s going to be able to do so without losing a significant amount of political skin.

 Indonesian President Joko Widodo

Indonesian President Joko Widodo

Granting clemency has the immense downside of making him look weak on law and order and granting clemency to Australian drug dealers may be particularly unpopular amongst Indonesian public.

He may now be seen to be giving in to threat is from a nearby neighbour. There are significant political downsides, and almost no political upside, for him in granting clemency.

Another real problem for Abbott is that the Indonesians may now anchor responsibility for the execution of  Chan and Sukumaran back to his threats.

The problem for Australia  (and for Chan and Sukumaran and the considerable team of people working on their behalf) is having a Prime Minister whose main skill, apart from sledging, is head-kicking. Abbott’s sole reaction to the world around him is to fight.

His strategy for dealing with the Senate in 2015 is informative “We won’t pick fights with the Senate that we cannot win.” It’s not a matter of negotiating, consulting in compromising, its always a matter of fighting.

 Tony Abbott: everything is a fight

Tony Abbott: everything is a fight

So, his response to the Indonesian situation is to come out swinging, to the immense dismay of the people who have been negotiating with the Indonesians over an extended period of time.  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop must be furious with the new  “consultative and collegiate” Tony Abbott, after all this is her portfolio and Abbott shouldn’t be interfering.

 Julie Bishop will probably  a few words to say to Tony Abbott

Julie Bishop will probably a few words to say to Tony Abbott

Where is Peter Credlin when you need her?

  "Tony just stay out of it. Okay?"

“Tony just stay out of it. Okay?”

When I was in Jakarta some years ago, there was an interesting and informative diplomatic showdown between the World Bank and the Indonesian government over the disappearance of some billions of dollars in foreign aid. Clearly, the Indonesian government was embarrassed by this but the World Bank did not sink the boots in. There are a series of very delicately phrased staging  posts that de-escalated the situation and allowed a diplomatic compromise to be negotiated that did not lead to the Indonesian government losing face.

When you look carefully at the strategy that was being used to save Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran it follows the same pattern.

Rather than an outright confrontation, there is widespread public and diplomatic pressure being exerted through Christian and Muslim leaders, Australian jurors, Australian government diplomats, the families of the two prisoners and a wide range of demonstrations of public sympathy within Australia.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, the Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammad of the Australian National Imams Council and cleric Hassan Elsetohy

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, the Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammad of the Australian National Imams Council and cleric Hassan Elsetohy

All this would be to no avail without the critical ingredient of a series of diplomatic staging post that allow the Indonesian government t retreat to a position other than execution. These staging posts need to be small, progressive and persistent, allowing a series of concessions that appear reasonable and don’t involve losing face.

The first of these was to suggest that there may have been some administrative mistakes made in the processing of their case. Significantly this was followed by a decision to delay the removal of the two prisoners to the island where they would be executed. So the process appeared to be working.

What Abbott has done is to disrupt the strategy completely by reducing everything to a win lose situation.

This is the new collegiate and consultative Tony Abbott. He is clearly not consulting with his colleague Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and he may have undermined the best efforts of a group of dedicated people who wish to save these two foolish young men from a barbaric death.

Palmer sells out on ETS

Clive Palmer has secured an 18 month inquiry into potential benefits of an emissions grading scheme in return for letting the Direct Action climate change policy go through the Senate, something he promised he wouldn’t do.

 If Clive Palmer got such a good deal from  Greg Hunt,  why isn't he looking happier?

If Clive Palmer got such a good deal from Greg Hunt, why isn’t he looking happier?

That’s a great idea Clive, what we need is some more research and giving Bernie Fraser’s team 18 months to do it is also such a great idea. A good undergraduate student could knock this off a couple of weeks.

 Bernie Fraser looks  thrilled at  heading up 18 months enquiry into something that everybody except  Greg Hunt understands

Bernie Fraser looks thrilled at heading up 18 months enquiry into something that everybody except Greg Hunt understands

So in 18 months the inquiry is going to come back and say that emission training schemes work, they been working all round the world the last 15 years and they will work in Australia. But the government won’t be paying any attention

As Environmental Minister Greg succinctly put at

“It will never happen. This is not and will not be a carbon tax or an ETS. There is zero revenue in our scheme. We have no plans, no intention and no belief that that will change.”

The government is under no obligation to accept the recommendations of Frazer’s inquiry.  What they have effectively done is sidelined the issue for 18 months. The government line will be “We’ve commissioned an enquiry into the ETS. We are waiting on its findings.” In the meantime, the disastrously expensive Direct Action policy will be passed through the Senate.

The most depressing thing about Palmer’s latest backflip is that the Government now has the measure of this completely unpredictable and  irresolute politician. He has proved to be a hopeless negotiator and the government is running rings around him.

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Expect more scenes like this as the Government effectively sidelines Clive Palmer.

PM Tony Abbott must think we are all mugs

The trouble with having your political philosophy designed around three word slogans is that it becomes difficult for you to articulate any ideas that have any level of complexity. An increasingly incomprehensible and inchoate Prime Minister was on 7.30 last night.

Here is a transcript of what he said about the paid parental leave scheme

CHRIS UHLMANN: Is paid parental leave still a good policy?

TONY ABBOTT: It’s outstanding policy and it’s policy that the Coalition took not just to the last election but to the election before that. It’s good policy because it boosts participation. It will ensure that our economy is bigger over time because, you know, if we can get female participation up to the levels in Canada, our economy would be up to $40 billion a year, bigger and stronger and that’s surely a good thing.

The first point is that Abbott claims to have taken this policy to two general elections: one that he lost and one he one won. That looks like a draw on that policy, neither a yes nor a no. But I quibble.

The second point is that it is difficult to see how PPT will actually boost participation. Is going to be paid to people who are already participating so the participation boost for only come from people to make a decision to return to the work force based purely on the difference between the current parental leave provisions and the PPT. This is unlikely to be the main reason for people returning to work force and the numbers may be quite small.

The OECD has observed that

“Even though above the OECD average, the employment rate for [Australian] women lags behind the leading countries, particularly for women with children aged under 6. Effective labour supply is even lower than these figures suggest since part-time work accounts for over 40 per cent of total female employment, which is one of the highest in the OECD.” (OECD 2006a, p. 134)

This would seem to indicate that a better policy would be to subsidise childcare rather than maternity leave.

This is further supported by the strong bias towards part-time work on the part of the female work force.

It is difficult to know whether this trend towards part-time work in the female work force is result of choice all is a result of women filling the lower paid, casual jobs which should not have the security of full-time employment. It’s likely to be a combination of both. but there is no doubt that participation rates are increasing.

The changes in female workforce participation have been influenced by a range of factors, including:
• increased levels of educational attainment among women;
• greater social acceptance of working mothers;
• declining fertility rates;
• better access to childcare services and part-time work; and
• more flexible working arrangements (Australian Treasury 1999, Evans and Kelley 2004).

Governments can have an influence on some of these factors. Certainly government policies that increase the cost of tertiary education will have the effect of lowering participation rates across the board. Baby bonuses have some impact on fertility rates but have a number of unfortunate and unintended consequences in lower socio-economic groups.

But the greatest leveraged in female participation in the work force is going to be access to childcare services and part-time work and in this the government can play a major role.

However this discussion sidesteps the more important issue. It is only when the economy is expanding that participation in the work force either by men or by women can increase. it is pointless having a tertiary education policy that produces large numbers of qualified and skilled workers if there are no jobs. All this does is produce a surplus of labour which has the effect of driving wages down. It’s a subtle balancing act, governmental policies need to be explained in the economy and explaining the work force and a commensurate rate so that the supply and demand of labour is not distorted.

It’s a complex issue is becoming increasingly obvious that our Prime Minister is not capable of dealing with complex issues.

Amanda Vanstone and why it matters what people wear on TV

Most of the politically incorrect commentary on what people wear when they appear in public and, in particular on television is directed at women. This is probably because women’s clothing has got a greater range of variety than men’s and hence has greater potential to stir public opinion.

Commentary that seeks to denigrate public figures who do not conform to certain standards of attractiveness is at the shallow end of the swimming pool of political debate. However, television is a powerful medium for politicians eager to get their message across to the public and the way they manipulate this particular medium should be the subject of observation and comment. The thoughtful politician is always careful about how they present themselves and particularly how they dress

Tony Abbott is a master of the use of the medium of television and in particular dressing up for the occasion. Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. Abbott was able to shape the content of his TV message through the clothes he wore. His relentless attacks on both the carbon and mining taxes were dressed up by his appearing as the “ordinary working man.”

 Tony as pineapple man,  policeman,  truck driver,  Iceman, the bomb disposal man, fireman  builder man, mango man, miner man and fish man

Tony as pineapple man, policeman, truck driver, iceman, bomb disposal man, fireman, builder man, mango man, miner man and fish man

In each of these cases, Abbott is very careful to manipulate the message by the way he dresses. He very skilfully blends the medium of the way he dresses with the message. Personally, I think there’s too much emphasis on orange and lime, not his colours.

Amanda Vanstone appeared on the ABC’s 7.30 to discuss the National Commission of Audit of which she was a member. Here are some of the gems:

It’s a bit like a game of pickup sticks, the budget

And I’ll tell you what’s more costly that’s to sit on your backside doing nothing, taking your pay as a minister and not getting on and fixing things

Promises can be a little bit constraining, we almost ask that and the media demands that, what are you going to promise us we say…. It’s part of the political mileu in Australia that people try to corner you into locking yourself in, So that, so that they can come back later and say aha aha. Now all of that is very interesting it could be the subject of a Ph.D. The real issue is where you want Australia to go

Well, everybody is entitled to their view. You see, when I say I don’t care about people’s different views, I don’t mean that I’m not interested, I mean that this is a democracy and there will be different views on a whole range of things

So, as I say, the budget is a package, there will be, obviously, some savings measures in the budget, some spending measures… and maybe some revenue measures

We are all driven mad by endless reporting and overlap and duplication, now if you could get rid of that you would simplify government in Australia. One way to do that would be to raise the GST and give the states the ability to raise taxes…. One set of question is for you and I to answer and much simpler government.

As far as I could see, she gave absolutely no insight into the thinking of the Commission and no insight into the economic rationale of the Commission’s recommendations. From my side of the television, it appeared that despite the best efforts Sarah Ferguson to get straight answers to questions, the whole interview was a disorganised, rambling shambles. Which brings me to what Ms Vanstone was wearing.

Goldfish amanda.jpg

Amanda Vanstone and the riot of goldfish

If we accept that the way politicians dress can be a medium for getting their message across, then this was a wonderful example of the medium of dress reinforcing the message of the interview. Ms Vanstone came dressed as a pond full of very colourful goldfish, a confusing riot of colour. Her appearance reinforced her hopelessly disorganised explanation of the workings of the Commission.

Mind you, in fairness, she has got form in the sartorial stakes.

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Her shirts even have their own Facebook page.

The problem for a politician like Amanda Vanstone, whose style could be described as colourful and flamboyant, is that a discussion about the National Commission of Audit does not easily give itself to colour and flamboyancy. It is serious stuff and if you want to be taken seriously, you need to address seriously. Tony Abbott understands this because he is no longer doing joke pictures. Now that he is Prime Minister he has a serious message to get across and he doesn’t want the storyline being stolen by a fish, a pineapple or a mango or for that matter a pond of decorative goldfish.

mango man.jpeg

It may be boring, but it’s not a distraction. And some people manage to get it just right.

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Style, class and elegance: Dame Quentin Bryce