Friday, 18 July 2014

Abbott appointments are trusted class warriors | The Saturday Paper

Abbott appointments are trusted class warriors | The Saturday Paper

Abbott appointments are trusted class warriors

With an unprecedented fervour, the government is filling boards and commissions with old cronies.

REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Prime Minister Tony Abbott

It was nothing personal. New attorney-general
George Brandis made that quite clear on October 25, announcing the
forced resignation of ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy from his new job as
chairman of the Old Parliament House Advisory Council.
It was a matter of principle. Cassidy understood that, Brandis said
in his media release, and “accepted the importance of the Museum of
Australia [sic] Democracy [in Old Parliament House] maintaining its
apolitical and nonpartisan character”.

To have someone in the job currently engaged in politics, even if
only as a political journalist, was “not consistent with that
character”, Brandis said. The Insiders host, appointed to the non-paying gig just a couple of months earlier, was out. Sacrificed to high principles.

So it was portrayed. Then, on December 12, Brandis put out another media release, announcing Cassidy’s replacement: David Kemp.

Not only is Kemp a long-time spear-carrier for the Liberal Party’s
dominant right wing, he’s a former Liberal minister and continues to
practise politics through his work with the right-wing think tank the
Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

Even at the time of the announcement, he was working for the
Liberals, putting together a report on the party’s senate performance in
the 2013 election.

Along with Kemp, two others were appointed: Heather Henderson, the
only daughter of Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies; and Sir David
Smith, whose place in history was assured on November 11, 1975, on the
steps of Old Parliament House, when as official secretary to
governor-general Sir John Kerr he was required to read out the
proclamation sacking the Whitlam government. Smith is a crusty old
conservative, monarchist and stalwart defender, over the subsequent
decades, of Kerr.

The appointments made a mockery of Brandis’s excuse for dumping
Cassidy. They also served as one of many examples of the pettiness of
the new government in its rush to install its own people.

Of course, the make-up of the advisory board for Old Parliament House
is hardly a big deal, except as an iconic – and ironic – indicator of
the Abbott government’s narrowness. The Museum of Australian Democracy,
set up to document and celebrate a vigorous, diverse young democracy, is
now overseen by three insular, Anglo partisans whose average age is 80.

Indeed, the board is atypical in only one way: it includes a woman.

And that’s the real point here. Not so much that the new government
rushed to find jobs for the boys, but that the boys were selected from
such a small and homogenous pool of people. Overwhelmingly they were
older, male, heavily ideological, and closely affiliated with either the
Coalition parties, right-wing think tanks or vested interests in
industry. Or all three.

Donnelly and Shepherd

A good example is Kevin Donnelly.

Donnelly, the IPA-aligned former chief-of-staff to Kevin Andrews, is a
cultural warrior. In a slew of books, opinion pieces and other writings
over the years, he has argued that the Australian school system is
failing. And the reason: schools have been taken over by radical
educators who see their role as being to “liberate students by turning
them into new-age warriors of the Cultural Left.”

He was just the man, in the view of Education Minister Christopher
Pyne, to co-chair – along with another conservative, Ken Wiltshire – a
review of the Australian school curriculum.

We haven’t seen the results of that review yet, but it’s probably
fair to say most reputable educators are dreading it. In the meantime,
Donnelly made news on Tuesday by opining to the Fairfax media that
corporal punishment, properly used, was a very effective way of
disciplining kids. Even Pyne had to walk away from that one: Donnelly’s
were personal views, not endorsed by him “in any form”.

Consider also the National Commission of Audit, chaired by the former
head of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Tony Shepherd, aged

Such commissions have become something of a tradition for incoming
governments, a tool used to portray their predecessors as fiscally
unsound and to lay the groundwork for unpopular cuts. They are mostly
bogus exercises, although the original template, conducted in 1992 by
the Kennett government in Victoria, was a genuine – if tough – response
to a genuine crisis.

The Shepherd audit commission was not like the Kennett one, though.
It came out like a wish list of BCA/IPA policy prescriptions, neatly cut
and pasted, but not very well backed by facts.

To cite just one example: there was a recommendation for a $15
co-payment for patients visiting GPs, justified on the basis that the
average person went to the doctor 11 times a year. Shepherd notably said
he couldn’t believe Australians were “that crook”.

And Australians are not, in fact, that crook. On average they go to the doctor about half that often.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the government’s intent in
appointing its heavily ideological commission was to soften us up, so
when the budget included a Medicare co-pay of $7, rather than $15, we
would be relieved. Former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone and Liberal
staffer and Chicago-school economist Peter Boxall were on the
commission’s panel. Peter Crone, director of policy at the BCA, was head
of the secretariat.

But if the purpose was to scare the populace into accepting tough
budget medicine, it didn’t work. The Australian public was still
appalled by the budget’s cuts.

The commission report quickly disappeared from view, at least until
this week, when Treasurer Joe Hockey, miffed at the senate’s refusal to
pass large parts of the budget, suggested he would be forced to look for
other cuts. The Labor opposition immediately dusted off the more
extreme suggestions of the audit commission and challenged Hockey to
endorse them. The whole exercise was a spectacular misfire.

The audit report was also a sloppy piece of work in the assessment of
one of Australia’s better-respected economists – a former Liberal and
one of the architects of the Kennett audit commission – Saul Eslake.

“I didn’t think it was particularly impressive, in a number of ways,”
says Eslake, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Australia. “First, there were no costings. It’s extraordinary that they
could make a report like that without numbers. Second, while some
recommendations, such as lifting the aged pension, were thoroughly
argued, there were a lot that were simply assertions.”

Referring to his time doing a similar job for Kennett, Eslake says:
“We were very careful to argue the case on the facts. But a lot of the
things that were in the [Shepherd] audit commission report were just
ideology, taken as givens.”

Climate sceptics

You could sum up the attitudes of many of the Abbott government’s
appointees with the old joke: “My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with

And in no area is this truer than in the matter of climate change.

Shepherd is a climate sceptic. So is the head of Tony Abbott’s
12-member Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, aged 76, a former
head of the stock exchange and the ABC and a founder of another of the
right-wing think tanks, the Centre for Independent Studies.

David Murray, 65, the former CEO the of Commonwealth Bank, and the
head of the government’s Financial System Inquiry, is another outspoken
non-believer in human-caused global warming, though his inquiry’s first
report has shown rare independence of thought.  

Of course, these people, being agents of the government but not
actually part of it, can freely express their denialist views.
Scientific reality and public opinion dictate that those in the ministry
can no longer dismiss climate change as “crap”, as Abbott once did. But
that does not prevent sly action to try to ensure nothing much is done
about it.

Which brings us to the panel announced in mid-February by environment
minister Greg Hunt and energy minister Ian Macfarlane to review
Australia’s 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target (RET). It is being led
by another outspoken climate change denier, Dick Warburton, 72, the
former chairman of the petrochemical company Caltex, among other
corporate affiliations.

Of the remaining three members on the review panel, none was from the
alternative energy sector. Apart from Warburton, Brian Fisher is the
most interesting. Under his leadership, the efforts of the Australian
Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) at
climate modelling were heavily funded by industry. Since leaving that
job, he has furthered his connections with the oil and gas industry.

Renewable energy advocates have called for his removal from the
review panel on the basis that he is hopelessly conflicted. Modelling
done by his firm has been presented to the panel by the oil and gas
sector, as part of its campaign against the RET.

Such apparent conflicts are commonplace among Abbott government appointees.

Cultural warriors

Perhaps the most glaring is another Brandis appointment. In his
previous employment with the IPA, Tim Wilson called for the abolition of
the Human Rights Commission. Now he’s Human Rights Commissioner,
pulling a salary of some $400,000 inclusive of perks.

There are a couple of other Brandis specials. As discussed in The Saturday Paper
in more detail a couple of weeks ago, he appointed Gerard Henderson,
68, founder of the Sydney Institute, former chief-of-staff to John
Howard and indefatigable culture warrior, as chairman of the judging
panel for the nonfiction and history category of the Prime Minister’s
Literary Awards, Australia’s richest book prize.

Brandis was apparently untroubled by Henderson’s long, deep and
public animosity towards many of Australia’s foremost practitioners in
the field. Also appointed was another former Liberal MP, Peter Coleman,

The latest manoeuvres in the long right-wing campaign to nobble the national broadcaster further illustrate the point.

The ABC is particularly problematic for Coalition governments. While
they and their supporters in the Murdoch media hate it, the public
overwhelmingly supports it. The ABC is by far the most trusted media
organisation in the country.

John Howard tried effecting change from the top, appointing a Liberal
chairman, Donald McDonald. But McDonald turned out to be a fair-minded
defender of the organisation. In 2006 he was replaced by the
aforementioned Maurice Newman. Still, the right was dissatisfied. Indeed
the godfather of climate change denialism, Lord Christopher Monckton,
publicly decried Newman in 2011 as “a shrimp-like wet little
individual”. A badge of pride, perhaps.

The previous Labor government, in an effort to entrench the ABC’s
independence, set up what was supposed to be a new, arm’s-length system
for appointing board members, under which a four-member nomination
panel, appointed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, would
present a shortlist of recommendations to the government for ABC and SBS
board positions.

But if you can no longer directly stack the board, you can do so
indirectly. Thus a couple of weeks ago, two new members were added to
the nomination panel. One was Janet Albrechtsen, News Corp columnist and
strident critic of the ABC’s alleged left-wing bias – she thinks it a
“Soviet-style workers’ collective”. A woman, and only 47. The other was
former Liberal federal minister Neil Brown, QC, 74, who has previously
declared that the only way to finally fix the public broadcaster is to
sell it off.

The secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt, reportedly decided the appointments himself.

Says Saul Eslake: “The people who run this government, as you will
have noticed, like picking fights. In a sense they’re like the old NSW
[Labor] right. They have long memories and they’re good haters.”

Even compared with the Howard government, he says, they are “very tribal”.

Indeed. An old, rich, white, blokey tribe of culture and class warriors. And they look after their own.

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