May 25, 2017
Dennis Richardson, one of Australia’s most respected federal public servants, has just retired after an illustrious career. He served as head of the foreign affairs department, the defence department, and ASIO, and was Australian ambassador in Washington. He was also once chief-of-staff to then-prime minister Bob Hawke.
Richardson was never afraid to tell ministers what he believed they should hear, and any grudges they had as a result they apparently got over very quickly.
He urges bureaucrats to be forthright with their political bosses, but also to be strategic in how they go about trying to persuade. “Providing frank and fearless advice is not about getting something off your chest, it’s about seeking to influence for an outcome that you think is the right one.”
In this interview with The Conversation he reflects on trends in the public service, and discusses the implications of the Trump presidency and the future of China. He also recalls as a very young public servant being sent to play squash with Billy McMahon – and beating him. Not long after, he handed out how-to-vote cards for Labor in the “It’s Time” election.
May 24, 2017
Labor has come under fire for some of its budget responses, including its opposition to the schools package, and only partial support for the Medicare levy increase.
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen rejects the government’s argument about the schools plan being more “needs based” than present arrangements, telling The Conversation its “one-size fits all” approach will put pressure on families and the public system. “Being needs-based is a bit like being pregnant, isn’t it? You either are or you aren’t.”
Bowen defends targeting the Medicare levy rise only at higher income earners by saying Australia’s low wage growth and other factors mean the circumstances are different from when Julia Gillard raised the levy across the board.
Small and medium-sized businesses – with a turnover up to $50 million - are waiting to find out whether a Labor government would cancel their legislated tax cut. Labor is “taking a bit of time” before announcing its position, Bowen says, to look at “all the implications.” He’s commissioned work from the Parliamentary Budget Office. “There’s all sorts of stuff on the public record that I carefully sift through so that when I make a recommendation to shadow cabinet it’ll be a good one and a firm one and enable a good discussion.”
On the controversial Adani Carmichael coal mine, which is dividing Queensland Labor and is publicly opposed by several federal ALP MPs, Bowen stresses the project’s future must rest squarely on its own merits, without government subsidy. “If it stacks up, it stacks up.”
May 8, 2017
The shadow assistant minister for schools, Andrew Giles, says the strong opposition from Catholic schools to the government’s education package is because they were given “almost no notice” of the funding changes.
“What’s different in the Catholic system from the independent sector is the practice of making systemic decisions. And that’s something that has been fundamentally ignored by the minister in the manner in which this has been outlined.”
Giles says that “people will be waiting a long time … a lifetime” to see tangible resourcing outcomes from the government’s package.
As to other measures to tackle inequality in Australia, he says: “if we’re serious about tackling inequality we need to think really hard about taxes”.
A member of Labor’s left faction, Giles is an advocate of a Buffett rule, a proposal that would see high-income earners paying a mandated minimum rate of tax. However, this remains a side debate within the party at this stage.
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has ruled out the idea for a Labor government, and says it wouldn’t be pushed at the ALP conference next year.
As Giles says: “The challenge for those in the more radical wing is to get the balance right between discipline and dissent.”
May 4, 2017
This week, the government made big announcements about the future funding of schools and universities. Haunted by the unpopular 2014 budget, it is treading more carefully with its new education policies.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham says one of the challenges of the 2014 budget was that there were “a lot of different pieces of policy reform all announced simultaneously”.
Birmingham - who took on the education portfolio after Christopher Pyne - is at pains to emphasise the government’s preparation this time around. “We’ve gone through, in university reform, a very methodical process - putting out a discussion paper before the last election that aired, if you like, all of the different options and scenarios very openly,” Birmingham says.
“In terms of schools funding - I’ve met with David Gonski, members of his panel, I’ve had numerous discussions with state and territory ministers, with independent and non-government Catholic school representatives.”
May 3, 2017
Professor John Hewson, a former Liberal leader and chair in the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the Australian National University, describes the uncertain economic climate into which Treasurer Scott Morrison will deliver next week's budget.
"I think it's an occupational hazard for treasurers that they're always optimistic - always try to put a better gloss than is the case," Hewson says.
"I've been analysing and forecasting economies since the late '60s and I picked up most of the big turning points over that period, but I'd have to say that right now I think it's harder than it's ever been to say what might happen next."
Hewson nominates the after-effects of the global financial crisis, geo-political tensions and environmental challenges as some of the factors driving his doubt.
There is also the matter of Donald Trump.
"He's quite unpredictable and his capacity to govern in the United States is really quite limited. Although he might have been a reasonably succesful property developer, it's not easy to run a government off that skill set in Washington and he's finding the reality of that."
_This podcast is co-published with the University of Canberra's [Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis](http://www.ausbudget.org/)_
May 1, 2017
Jane Halton, a former finance department secretary and an adjunct professor, appeared at cabinet’s expenditure review committee over nearly 30 years. Halton describes the inner workings of the federal budget in what’s known as “the razor gang”.
The razor gang, comprised of the treasurer, the finance minister and then a couple of senior ministers, scrutinises the government’s spending and savings in the budget process, Halton says.
“They would scrutinise – and sometimes it’s seen as interrogate – the ministers who bring forward proposals, things that they would like to do. And they will either agree with them or ask for more information or say ‘no, we’re not doing that’. And they do exactly the same with savings proposals as well.”
In the process, if a minister wants to bring a spending measure forward, they also have to propose a savings measure. Whether or not it gets through depends a little bit on personality and a bit on the circumstances, Halton says.
As to the upcoming federal budget, Halton says things are a “little tight”.
“We know there’s very little wages growth and there will however I expect, be slightly more revenue than they were expecting.”
This podcast is co-published with the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis
April 26, 2017
As North Korea continues to antagonise the US and its allies, the prospect of war hangs in the air. But Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says he doesn’t think we’ll see armed conflict with North Korea any time this year.
“I think the US has now resolved that it’s going to exhaust all diplomatic options first before it thinks about pre-emptively striking at the North’s missiles and nuclear facilities.
"And really what that means is – one more try to see if the Chinese are prepared to apply the type of sanctions that would hurt North Korea sufficiently,” Jennings says.
Weighing up North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Jennings says that up until about 18 months ago, their nuclear program was “going nowhere fast”. “But in the last 18 months, what we’ve seen is a significant acceleration of the North’s nuclear testing.”
“The different calculation the Americans have to factor in is that the North is getting close, and it now sees itself within a decent sprint of being able to weaponise a missile that could hit Los Angeles.”
With Malcolm Turnbull’s New York meeting with US President Donald Trump now confirmed for next week, Jennings has some words of counsel for the prime minister.
“My first piece of advice to the PM would be to say ‘you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. We’re actually an ally in good standing’. The next piece of advice would be to say ‘but don’t wait for president Trump to come to you with a list of things he’d like Australia to do’.
"I think we’d always be in a much better situation if we could go to the Americans and say ‘now here are the things we want to do that will strengthen our alliance’.”
April 19, 2017
This week, the government announced it would abolish the 457 visa and replace it with a new temporary skill shortage visa program. The change has met a mixed response from businesses.
Jenny Lambert, director of employment, education and training at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the key issue for the business community is to “try and reset the button on confidence in the temporary skilled migration system”.
“We really have accepted that we have to get rid of the 457 visa and put in place arrangements that the community can be more confident in. That said, we’ve got some issues about the detail and we’re willing and wanting to work with the government on that,” Lambert says.
Lambert maintains that rorting was never a big part of the 457 visa program.
“When you look at the bigger picture of use of the 457 over the last few years, the predominant users are state governments in their health portfolios, universities and academia bringing in specialist researchers and scientists … and also highly skilled CEOs and managers of multinational corporations. So 75% of the use of 457 over the last five years has been in that high-skilled end. So when we talk about rorting, we’ve always seen it as more at the margins, at the lower-skilled end of the program.”