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The “feature”  of today’s media is the response by Henry Ergas to the letter by Gillard published last Friday in The Australian (see below). My apologies to those who have already received this excellent analysis.

As predicted, an opinion poll (by Fairfax) shows a slump in Labor’s position, as well as Shorten’s, following the latter’s continued support of unions and opposition to a Royal Cn.

There has been another awkward exposure of intelligence gathering in Indonesia during the Gillard government’s period in office. Presumably Snowden’s material does not extend to the period Abbott has been in office. US Secretary of State Kerry, who is visiting Indonesia (and who the ABC hopes will express criticism of the stopping-the-boats policy), may face a more awkward position than Australia on intelligence gathering.

Kerry, who has suddenly emerged from various policy failures in the Middle East, has been trying to promote the global warming cause and issued a joint statement on the 2015 UN meeting with China.  However, the press report (below) suggests little or no substantive progress there in terms of action by China, other than on measures of self-interested improvements in efficiency and reduced (real) pollution.

Meantime, there continue to be comments by UK political leaders on supposed climate change contributions to the heavy rains and floods. The UK’s Global Warming Foundation (established by former Chancellor Nigel Lawson) has quoted a number of counter-comments, including one by a senior official of the UK Met office. The higher rainfall appears to be from natural causes (the jet stream has become “stuck” away from its normal position).One suspects the comments suggesting climate change influences are in part excuses for the failure of politicians to take adequate preventative action (note in particular the comment by Christopher Booker).

Des Moore

Poll: Policy earns a tick, Abbott a half tick and Shorten a right ticking off

Editorial published in The Age, February 17, 2014

Australia is showing some appreciation for the Abbott government for the first time. But, curiously, the Prime Minister is getting no personal credit, the latest Fairfax Nielsen poll shows.

At the same, voters are turning away from Labor. But in this case, the leader can take full responsibility: Bill Shorten has been slammed.

After winning the election last September, the Abbott government had a cheerless five months in public support. Apparently adrift in search of a clear purpose, its poll support fell. That trend has only now started to reverse.

''Over the past week, the government's polling has started to move up for the first time,'' says the Fairfax pollster, Nielsen's John Stirton, looking across the results of all survey firms.

The Coalition's share of the vote has risen by 4 percentage points to give it a lead of 52 to 48 over Labor, on the two-party preferred measure.

But the Prime Minister has enjoyed no such boost. Abbott's approval rating fell a touch; his net approval is minus 2 per cent. And his standing as preferred prime minister was unchanged. How can the people re-rate the government, but not the man leading it?

Stirton offers two thoughts: ''Tony Abbott has always struggled with his approval numbers. They are usually negative, but not always, and they don't tend to move much.'' Most people formed a firm opinion of Abbott long ago.

Stirton's second thought: ''The government has started taking some big decisions, some hard decisions, that people notice,'' notably to refuse public subsidies to SPC Ardmona and the car manufacturers. ''There's just more of a consistency to what they are doing and saying and that's coming from the Treasurer, which he pithily summarised as 'the end of the age of entitlement'.''

A poll by Essential Media last week found that only 36 per cent of voters approved of continuing government subsidies to the car sector, with 47 per cent opposed.

So it may be that Joe Hockey is the one winning kudos for the government.

For Labor, it's straightforward. Shorten has sided decisively with the trade unions against the broader national interest and the people are responding. He tried to deflect the royal commission into union corruption. Only 23 per cent of voters are sympathetic to this view. And he argues for continued subsidies to failing companies, at least partly to protect the unions involved.

Hockey's hallmark is ending entitlement; Shorten is all about protecting entitlement, and the entitlement of the unions in particular.

This poll suggests that the government is winning this argument.

Itís only fair that Gillard shares blame for return to lawless ways

Article by Henry Ergas published in The Australian, February 17, 2014


The response by Ergas to Gillard’s letter published in The Australian is important because it goes further than simply rebutting the three points made by Gillard. Ergas also highlights some of the serious defects in the regulatory arrangements established under Fair Work legislation and applied by its administration. Note in particular his reference to:

These (and other) defects in the FW arrangements need to be corrected by recognising that, in modern economies, there is no imbalance of bargaining power between employers and employees. That of course is the major objective of the HR Nicholls Society.

Ergas Article

IT is an honour to be rebutted by a former prime minister. But Julia Gillard’s claim, (”Laws and Fair Work”, Letters, Feb 14) that I “misled readers” in describing Labor’s changes to the industrial relations laws does not stand up to scrutiny.

And even more important than errors in her claim are omissions which go to the heart of the current debate. Gillard’s contention is simply this: that she bears no responsibility for the industrial lawlessness which flourished under Labor.

As regards the building industry laws, she merely implemented changes retired judge Murray Wilcox had recommended. Far from doing “virtually nothing to police (the unions’) internal governance”, as I had written, she not only retained the relevant provisions of Work Choices in the Fair Work Act, but strengthened them in 2012. And rather than trample on freedom of association, her legislation provides “more effective remedies in relation to breaches (of that freedom) than ever before”.

Each of these assertions is incorrect, misses the point or both. I accept that the Wilcox review recommended that the Howard government’s building industry laws be modified. But even the review concluded that significant lawlessness remained and that strong powers were required to prevent it persisting.

Faced with that finding, a government which genuinely believed that (as Gillard had said) the industry needed “hard-edged compliance (with) no tolerance at all for lawlessness” would have monitored those changes to ensure they did not, in Wilcox’s words, “impede investigations of significant contraventions”.

Instead, as the lawlessness spread, Gillard made further changes, not recommended by Wilcox, preventing the regulator pursuing matters once the parties to a dispute had reached an agreement, regardless of the tactics by which that agreement had been secured.

The consequences were entirely predictable: the thuggery escalated dramatically, as extracting an agreement, even by extreme means, now provided far-reaching protection from the law.

With Labor then standing by as the building union was found guilty of 30 counts of contempt in the Grocon dispute alone, Gillard’s protestations of innocence can hardly be taken seriously. Gillard’s claims with respect to policing unions’ governance are no more convincing.

Yes, the Fair Work Act kept the relevant provisions of Work Choices; but Gillard’s appointments to the Fair Work Commission, and the way the commission was then managed, guaranteed they would never be effectively enforced, as the Health Services Union scandal shows.

That scandal’s facts don’t need restating. Nor do Gillard’s assertions of “complete confidence” in Fair Work Australia’s inquiries. Yet her assertions were made, and vigorously repeated, despite mounting evidence of flaws in those inquiries that an independent review by KPMG found gravely compromised their quality, timeliness and value.

It is true that, as the crisis peaked, Gillard introduced stiffer penalties against union officials guilty of wrongdoing. But that came three years after the problems had become apparent and was little more than an attempt to deflect a far stronger response.

For Gillard to present herself as a stern enforcer of good governance is consequently absurd. Rather, her message to the unions was, as she herself said, “crystal clear” - “unionism ... is what defines us as a Labor party”. And she would do whatever it takes to protect union interests.

Now Gillard maintains that far from imposing unions, the Fair Work Act enshrines Freedom of Association, including “the right to not be a member of a union and not to be represented by it”.

But as the New Zealand Court of Appeal noted, Freedom of Association must preserve the “integrity of choice of the individual employee, and in particular of that employee who seeks to remain outside collective action”.

Yet as well as gutting enforcement of the anti-coercion provisions, Gillard’s laws, by strengthening the award system and giving unions a crucial role in their determination, removed workers’ right to be employed on terms they chose. It was precisely so as to remove that right that Gillard made individual agreements virtually impossible; and it is thanks to that right’s removal that ACTU secretary Dave Oliver can proclaim unions “represent about 60 per cent of the workforce”, although union membership is barely one-fourth that.

Ultimately, that was the objective: to entrench a union movement whose position was crumbling as workers voted with their feet. Two parts Fritz Lang to one part MC Escher, Gillard’s byzantine Fair Work Act sought to privilege unions in everything from rights of entry to control over superannuation funds.

Not that the workers themselves derived much benefit. Gillard willingly paints the Howard years as a gulag; but surveys show job security and work satisfaction (see chart) increased then, only to drop on Gillard’s watch.

And rising unemployment and falling participation rates highlight the gap between Gillard’s rhetoric that “a job is an incredibly precious thing” and the reality she left behind.

Yet Labor is fighting tooth and nail to keep even the worst features of Gillard’s legislation intact. Under the tax laws, a taxpayer can be subject to compulsory examination, without protection against self-incrimination, if the tax office suspects a contravention; so too, under the competition and securities laws, can any company director or manager; but Labor wants union thugs to retain protections other citizens are baldly denied.

Our industrial laws must do better than that. They should slam the door shut on intimidation and corruption. Rather than empower a sectional interest at the community’s expense, they should facilitate efficient contracting between employers and employees, thereby promoting trust in the workplace and encouraging secure, high-quality jobs.

And rather than partiality, they should be administered with competence and integrity.

None of that will happen without serious analysis of the system’s objectives and design.

And Gillard is right, “public policy debates are best informed by the facts”. She would do well to heed her own advice.

New Indonesian spy claims put Jakarta relationship back in spotlight

Article by Brendan Nicholson published in The Australian, February 17, 2014


US Secretary of State John Kerry raises his hand after beating the call to prayer drum during a tour of the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. Source: AP

THE Abbott government faces a fresh test of its relationship with Jakarta amid new allegations an Australian intelligence agency spied on Indonesia last year and passed the information it gathered to the US.

In the latest damaging leak of top-secret information from former US security analyst Edward Snowden, The New York Times says an Australian intelligence agency spied on a US law firm representing Indonesia in a trade dispute with the US.

The report is expected to add to the ongoing tensions with Jakarta over the Coalition’s strategy for stopping asylum-seeker boats at sea and revelations last year that the Australian Signals Directorate, formerly the Defence Signals Directorate, listened to the phone conversations of Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and associates, including his wife.

While the earlier eavesdropping claims concerned events under the Rudd Labor government in 2009, the new document refers to activity under way just a year ago, in February last year, under the term of the Gillard government.

The new revelations forced the Abbott government yesterday to declare that it did not give secret commercial information gathered by its agencies to Australian companies to give them a business advantage.

Indonesia is preparing to draw the US into the asylum-seeker issue, with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa saying he planned to raise Australia’s border-protection strategy with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is visiting Jakarta. Mr Kerry is in Indonesia to highlight US concerns about climate change in talks with leaders including Dr Yudhoyono.

Tony Abbott said yesterday that Australia would not do anything to harm its allies.

The Prime Minister said he was very pleased the Indonesians and the Americans were engaged in discussions because it was right and proper that two friends of Australia should be talking regularly and deeply with each other.

He said the government was elected with a very strong mandate to stop the boats.

“We have gone almost 60 days without any illegal boat getting to Australia and I should point out that, in a comparable period last year, there were close to 1500 illegal arrivals by boat,” he said.

“So, we are determined to stop the boats. We are stopping the boats. We will stop the boats.”

According to the new Snowden documents, the ASD, which uses sophisticated electronic equipment to monitor communications across the region, notified the US National Security Agency that it was conducting surveillance of the talks, including communications between Indonesian officials and an American law firm, and offered to share the information.

The New York Times said the Australian agency warned American officials at an NSA liaison office in Canberra that “information covered by attorney-client privilege may be included” in the intelligence it was gathering.

The law firm under surveillance was not identified but the Times said Mayer Brown, a Chicago-based firm, was then advising the Indonesian government.

The document said that the US agency gave the Australians legal advice and ASD “has been able to continue to cover the talks, providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers”.

Mr Abbott said nothing that was gathered in ordinary security and intelligence operations would be used to the detriment of other countries. “We use it for the benefit of our friends,” he said.

“We use it to uphold our values. We use it to protect our citizens and the citizens of other countries and we certainly don’t use it for commercial purposes.”

A spokesman for Defence Minister David Johnston said Australia’s intelligence agencies had saved lives by helping prevent terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia.

“We do not provide intelligence information to Australian companies to give them a commercial advantage,” he said.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the investigation into the navy’s intrusions into Indonesian territory in January had confirmed they were accidental. He told the ABC’s Insiders program that Indonesia would be briefed on the investigation and a version of the report would be made public in Australia.

Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles said Mr Morrison must release the full report without delay, while Bill Shorten accused Mr Abbott of taking Australia’s relationship with Indonesia “from hero to zero”.

US and China join hands to address climate change

Article by Simon Denyer published in the Australian Financial Review, February 17, 2014

The United States and China have agreed to intensify efforts to address climate change and to work together to seek a common platform ahead of a global summit on the issue at the end of next year.

The agreement was announced on Saturday during a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry, as some of the worst air pollution in almost a year brought visibility down to two or three blocks in Beijing. In the past, efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions have often foundered because of disagreements between developed and developing nations over how the burden of adjustment should be shared.

Mr Kerry flew to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on Saturday, where he is scheduled to give a speech on Sunday urging the country to do more to tackle climate change.

If the United States could find common ground with China, it could potentially help to bridge that divide and make it easier to reach agreements with other developing nations such as India. But it was not immediately clear whether Saturday’s joint statement was a sign of meaningful progress.

“In light of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and its worsening impacts, and the related issue of air pollution from burning fossil fuels, the United States and China recognise the urgent need for action to meet these twin challenges,” the countries said in a statement. “Both sides reaffirm their commitment to contribute significantly to successful 2015 global efforts to meet this challenge.”

The two countries, which established a working group last year to tackle climate change, said they would “devote significant effort and resources to secure concrete results” by the time they meet for a strategic and economic dialogue later this year.

They also agreed to share information on their respective post-2020 plans to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. Mr Kerry noted that the United States and China contribute around 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions and said it was “imperative” they work together to ensure that the 2015 United Nations climate summit is a success.

“As the science that has been pouring in over the course of the last year tells us every single day, and as the facts on the ground with droughts, fires and disasters, and acidification of the ocean, and other things happening at an increased pace, it is more urgent that we join together to respond to this problem,” Kerry said at a news conference Friday.

Further steps

“We need to see if, working together, we could identify any further steps that we may be able to take, specifically with respect to arrival at meaningful targets with respect to the 2015 climate change conference that will take place in Paris in December of next year.”

Developing nations argue that the West bears responsibility for damaging the global environment and should bear the cost of cleaning it up.

In its pursuit of economic growth, China has inflicted enormous damage on its own environment, and greenhouse-gas emissions have risen astronomically because of the country’s dependence on coal.

Nevertheless, the government in Beijing is increasingly concerned about the social, economic and health impacts of pollution.

Last September, China launched a $280 billion plan to clean up its air, including limiting the use of coal and banning high-polluting vehicles. It also asked 15,000 factories to publish real-time data on their air and water emissions in an unprecedented attempt to bring more transparency to the issue.

Kerry flew to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on Saturday, where he is scheduled to give a speech Sunday in which he is expected to urge the country to do more to tackle climate change.

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