Labor’s vision of Melbourne’s transport future: putting people first

The following is a speech I wrote but was not ultimately required to deliver at the Victorian Labor State Conference at Moonee Valley Racecourse, Melbourne on Saturday May 17 2014. Delegates, Victorian Labor understands that Melbourne’s growing population is putting huge strain on our metropolitan transport infrastructure. Congestion on our roads and longer than necessary public transport commutes effectively rob us of precious time we could otherwise spend with friends and family and drive down our collective productivity. I’m here today as Secretary of the Melbourne Labor FEA. The Melbourne electorate is perhaps the biggest consumer of public transport in the whole country. People in Melbourne rely on sustainable and efficient public transport to go about their busy daily lives. However, our inner city neighborhoods withstand the worst of traffic bottlenecks while our urban train network suffers from overcrowding and routine delays. Delegates, my own experience catching a train into the city every day at Newmarket Station is an example of this. Newmarket Station is located in the state seat of Melbourne in the heart of the Flemington/ Kensington area. All too often, morning commuters at Newmarket face lengthy, often unexplained delays. And often when trains do finally arrive, they are overcrowded and while some of us may be lucky to squeeze in the door, the less able bodied are forced to wait for the next service.. and wait and wait they do. For too long, transport infrastructure under this Liberal-National Government has been treated as a second class priority and public transport users as second class citizens. Public transport has been a political football for the conservatives, impeding the development of long term, strategic infrastructure policy.   We in the Labor Party understand the need for a train system that is more reliable and can carry more passengers. Delegates, our Melbourne Metro plan is designed to do just that.  Our former Federal Labor Government established Infrastructure Australia to provide independent and transparent advice about the economic, social and environmental costs and benefit of particular projects and to consider the best way to get value for taxpayer investments. Infrastructure Australia identified Melbourne Metro as a priority to meet Melbourne’s future transport needs. Labor’s Melbourne Metro is a nine kilometer rail tunnel that will link the Sunbury and Pakenham/ Cranbourne rail lines. Under our plan, there will be five new underground stations at Arden, Parkville, CBD North, CBD South and Domain. The rail tunnel will join the Dandenong corridor to the east of South Yarra Station and the Sunbury line west of South Kensington Station. Stations where people need them, not where gambling interests want them. Our transport priority is to put people first.

Artists impression of Melbourne Metro CBD North station

The vision behind Melbourne Metro is relatively simple: ·         simple timetables ·         modern signaling to maximise the number of trains that can operate on each line ·         higher capacity trains ·         better integration with connecting buses and trams The project would “untangle” our current rail system and create four independent rail corridors. Services operating along these corridors will be able to run at higher frequencies without interfering with other routes. Delegates, Labor’s Melbourne Metro would provide 19 extra services on our passenger rail networks across Melbourne. This translates to up to 20,000 more passengers on our trains each hour.  It is also a necessary first step in other critical transport projects such as a train line to Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport. I am immensely proud of the fact that I am a member of a political party that has been a long-term supporter of the Melbourne Metro project. Our previous Federal Labor Government in its first term allocated $40m to the Melbourne Metro project. In May last year, Federal Labor allocated a further $3 billion towards the cost of building the link. We did this because Labor understands the important of public transport to nation building and nation-building is what Labor Government’s do best. By contrast, the stale, visionless conservatives on our right do not understand the need to invest in our future. Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Government will never fund any urban rail projects. Further, Dennis Napthine’s State Liberal Government has walked away from its earlier position supporting Melbourne Metro. Instead, they want to build an $8B East-West tunnel to nowhere that will do nothing to ease Melbourne’s congestion problems. Shame delegates, shame! The Liberals East-West tunnel was not even on the radar when Infrastructure Australia identified Melbourne’s transport priorities. They have plucked it out of thin air, presumably due to some neo-liberal ideological disdain for public transport infrastructure, to the detriment of all Victorians.  On all available evidence, the economic, environmental and social costs of the Liberals East-West project significantly outweigh any benefits. By committing to this project, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his mate, Premier Napthine have failed to listen to the expert advice of Infrastructure Australia and turned their back on the hundreds of thousands of Melburnians who rely on public transport to go about their daily lives.  Despite frequent requests, they have also refused to release their figures for public scrutiny. The little we do know about their dud tunnel suggests that taxpayers will be left to carry all the risks in building and operating the road. Surely, there are better uses of $8 billion of taxpayers’ money?  Delegates, Labor is categorically opposed to the Liberals East-West project.  Our vision of Melbourne’s transport future is backed by the experts. We understand that Melbourne Metro is essential to Melbourne’s transport future and we know only an Andrews Labor Government will build it. The fight for a better transport future for all Victorians begins now. Thank you. Brenton Baldwin

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My Socceroos Squad for Brazil 2014

Allow me to daydream for a  moment that I am the head coach of the Australian national football team, the Socceroos.

Today I will be announcing the most important team selection of my career: the Socceroos squad who will compete at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, less than two months away.

My selection policy will be guided by the principle that in order for players to be considered for selection, players must be playing regular football for their clubs at a strong competitive level. However, I also need to be conscious of the fact that some positions on the park and in the supporting squad may need to be filled by players who are of a high calibre but may not be necessarily earning consistent pitch time at their club. This has always been a conundrum in Australian football. I will not however under any circumstances pick a player on past reputation.

I am also acutely aware of, but undaunted by the fact most pundits have declared that Australia’s chances of progressing past the group stage of the World Cup are extremely remote. Spain, Netherlands and Chile are all excellent football nations. Spain in particular is a World Cup favorite. Realistically, Australia will aim for a second place finish in the group, allowing for progress to the next round. However, the prevailing attitude will of course be to win every game.

I must select an Australian World Cup squad that is consistent with the FIFA approved amount of 23 players. In addition, I will need to consider an additional 7 standby players in the event of injury/other withdrawals from my squad of 23. This brings the total number of potential players to 30.

I am picking the best team possible to compete at the world’s biggest sporting event, but I also want to ensure we build a strong foundation for next year’s Asian Cup tournament (of which Australia is host) and the 2018 World Cup in Russia. I firmly believe that the squad I select for this World Cup will defy expectations and do Australia proud.

I present my selection of Socceroos for the 2014 Australian World Cup squad.

BRENTON’S 2014 AUSTRALIAN WORLD CUP SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Mat RYAN, Adam FEDERICI, Mitch LANGERAK

Defenders: Matthew SPIRANOVIC, Curtis GOOD, Jason DAVIDSON, Ivan FRANJIC, Alex WILKINSON, Lucas NEILL, Nikolai Topor-Stanley

Defensive Midfielders: Mile JEDINAK (C), Mark MILLIGAN

Midfielders/ Wingers: Massimo LUONGO, Matt McKAY, Mark BRESCIANO, James HOLLAND, Tommy OAR, Michael ZULLO, Tom ROGIC

Attacking Midfielders/ Forwards: Tim CAHILL (VC), Matt LECKIE, James TROISI, Brett HOLMAN

Reserves: Brad JONES (Goalkeeper), Sasa OGNENOVSKI (Defender), Luke Wilkshire (Defender), Aaron MOOY (Midfield), Josh Kennedy (Striker), Dario VIDOSIC (Attacking Midfielder), Mile STERJOVSKI (Winger/Forward)

(See below comments for an updated squad as at 13/05/2014).

Formation The team should look to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, with both roving wing backs and at least one, possibly two defensive midfielder’s. While individual strategy will undoubtedly exist to counter each opponent Australia faces, the focus of this formation will largely be on a counter-attacking style of football, deploying attacking midfielders and wingers in a versatile manner with regular switch play, as match conditions allow.

PLAYER PROFILES

Goalkeepers: World Cup squads traditionally consist of three goalkeepers and this squad is no exception. With the retirement of long-term custodian Mark Schwarzer, there is a great opportunity for one of the three players selected to take the number one position for the Socceroos, not only in this tournament but in the longer term.

Name: Mat Ryan, Position: Goalkeeper, Club: Brugge (Belgium), Age: 21, Socceroo’s appearances: 5

Ryan

Ryan completed the move to Belgian Pro League side, Club Brugge in June 2013 after a successful stint at the Central Coast Mariners and has not looked back since. Likely Socceroos #1.

 

Name: Adam Federici, Position: Goalkeeper, Club: Reading (England), Age: 29, Socceroo’s appearances: 8

FedericiFederici plays his club football at English Championship club, Reading where he is the number one goalkeeper. He is an experience gloveman who would have played more games for Australia if it weren’t for the long custodianship of Mark Schwarzer. Alternative #1 to Ryan.

 

Name: Mitch Langerak, Position: Goalkeeper, Club: Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Age: 25, Socceroos appearances: 3

LangerakLangerak made the big move from Melbourne Victory to German giant, Borussia Dortmund in May 2010. Langerak has struggled for game time at Dortmund making just 8 senior team appearances. Likely 3rd choice Goalkeeper at  this tournament but future #1.

Defenders: This has been a problem area for the Socceroos over recent years with inconsistent selection policies mostly to blame. A settled central pairing remains a key issue. The players selected represent some of our brightest prospects as well as reliable, senior veterans.

Name: Matthew Spiranovic, Position: Central Defender/ Defensive Midfielder, Club: Western Sydney Wanderers (Australia), Age: 25, Socceroo’s appearances: 17

SpiranovicBack home after stints in Germany, Japan and the Middle East, Spiranovic has been a consistent performer for WSW this season. Likely starting CB at World Cup.

 

 

 

Name: Curtis Good, Position: Central Defender/ Left back, Club: Dundee United (Scotland) on loan from Newcastle United (England), Age: 21, Socceroo’s appearances: 1

Good Good is a bolter in this World Cup squad. After a successful season at Melbourne Heart in 2011-12, Good signed with EPL side Newcastle in 2012 before going on loan, firstly at Championship outfit, Bradford City and more recently with Scottish PL side, Dundee. Likely substitute/ reserve player at World Cup.

Name: Jason Davidson, Position: Left Back/ Wing back, Club: Heracles Almelo (Netherlands), Age: 22, Socceroo’s appearances: 5

DavidsonDavidson is a bright prospect who has been playing regularly for his Eredivisie team. A product of Japanese football academy whose father (Alan Davidson) was also a former professional and Socceroo. Davidson will likely start for Australia in a crucial wing back role.

 

 

 

Name: Ivan Franjic, Position: Right Back/ Wing back/ Winger, Club: Brisbane Roar (Australia), Age: 26, Socceroo’s appearances: 7

FranjicFranjic has had an excellent season at A League Premiers, Brisbane Roar. Franjic is a bolter into the World Cup starting 11 where he will likely feature in a crucial wing back role. One to watch.

 

 

 

Name: Alex Wilkinson, Position: Central or wide defender, Club: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (South Korea), Age: 29, Socceroo’s appearances: 1

WilkinsonAfter a successful period at the Central Coast Mariners, Wilkinson has excelled as a centre-back in the K-League. His good form and regular playing time at Jeonbuk should ensure he will challenge for a starting spot at the World Cup.

 

 

 

Name: Lucas Neill, Position: Right back/ Centre back, Club: Doncaster Rovers (England) on loan from Watford (England), Age: 36, Socceroo’s appearances: 96

Neill Former Socceroos captain and without doubt the most controversial selection in this squad. Neill is a highly decorated player who has struggled for consistent football in recent years. However, his determination for selection has surprisingly seen him earn a contract with Watford in the English Championship. A recent short term loan opportunity to fellow outfit, Doncaster Rovers should see Neill earn at least one month of regular football. Neill must accept his role as a squad player and mentor for young defenders. Unlikely to be a default starting player.

 

Name: Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Position: Central defender, Club: Western Sydney Wanderers (Australia), Age: 28, Socceroo’s appearances: 2

Topor-Stanley A solid option for the Socceroos in the heart of defence. Topor-Stanley has had an outstanding season with Western Sydney Wanderers and will battle the likes of Wilkinson and Neill for a CB spot partnering his club team-mate, Spiranovic.

 

 

 

Defensive Midfielders: Two selected, just one certain to be a starting player. Possibly one of the most important positions in the Socceroos line-up.

Name: Mile Jedinak (c), Position: Defensive Midfielder, Club: Crystal Palace (England), Age: 29, Socceroo’s appearances: 43

Jedinak Jedinak is the new Socceroos Captain and the only player in the entire squad playing regularly at top flight level in the English Premier League. A strong, consistent and reliable midfielder who is also more than capable of scoring spectacular, long range goals.

 

Name: Mark Milligan, Position: Defensive Midfielder/ Central and wide defender, Club: Melbourne Victory (Australia), Age: 28, Socceroo’s appearances: 27

Milligan A natural leader and fierce competitor who has proven himself capable of playing at a higher level. After a successful spell in Japan, Milligan returned to Australia and has led from the front for Melbourne Victory, attracting interest from a number of European clubs including in the EPL. Won’t start ahead of Jedinak, but could play alongside him or in defence ahead of other candidates.

 

 

 

Midfielders: The Socceroos midfield is without doubt the engine of this Socceroos line-up. It will feature both attacking and defensive minded central midfielders and wide players who will need to bring the wing back’s into the game. How they fare will be crucial to Australia’s overall performance in Brazil.

Name: Massimo Luongo, Position: Central Midfielder, Club: Swindon Town (England), Age: 21, Socceroo’s appearances: 1

LuongoLuongo is a product of EPL side Tottenham having featured for them at under 18 level. He has since enjoyed a successful stint at Championship outfit, Swindon Town and is playing good, regular football. Not yet a starting player but will possibly get pitch time.

 

 

 

 

Name: Matt McKay, Position: Central Midfielder/ Left Back, Club: Brisbane Roar (Australia), Age: 31, Socceroo’s appearances: 45

McKayMcKay is a solid A league midfielder but owes most of his Socceroos experience to the fact he has filled a Left back position for an extended period following the retirement of Scott Chipperfield and fading David Carney. His experience and versatility is good insurance for the tournament though he is unlikely to be a preferred starting player.

 

 

Name: Mark Bresciano, Position: Central Midfielder/ Wide Midfielder/ Attacking Midfielder, Club: Al-Gharafa (United Arab Emirates), Age: 34, Socceroo’s appearances: 73

BrescianoA talented and hugely experienced veteran of the Socceroos. Bresciano is no longer at his peak. However he provides leadership and class for an inexperienced team. A lack of match fitness is possibly the only hindrance preventing Bresciano from starting in midfield for his third consecutive World Cup.

 

Name: James Holland, Position: Central Midfielder, Club: Austria Wein (Austria), Age: 24, Socceroo’s appearances: 12

Holland Holland has established himself as a consistent performer, beginning in the A-league before signing contracts in The Netherlands and now Austria. Holland is playing good, regular and will be a certain starter for the Socceroos.

 

 

 

 

Name: Tommy Oar, Position: Left sided Midfielder/ Winger/ Left back, Club: FC Utrecht (Netherlands), Age: 22, Socceroo’s appearances: 13

OarOne of the standout players in the squad. Tommy Oar is a consistent performer at club level. Fast, agile and able to provide a constant crossing threat. Oar will most certainly start for the Socceroos.

 

 

 

 

Name: Michael Zullo, Position: Left Winger/ Left back, Club: Adelaide United (Australia) on loan from FC Utrecht (Netherlands), Age: 25, Socceroo’s appearances: 10

ZulloZullo is a versatile left-sided player who possesses speed and creativity. A solid season on loan at Adelaide United has enabled Zullo to build match fitness and he deserves late game pitch time in Brazil.

 

 

Name: Tom Rogic, Position: Central Midfielder/ Attacking Midfielder, Club: Melbourne Victory (Australia) on loan from Celtic (Scotland), Age: 21, Socceroo’s appearances: 9

Rogic A technically gifted play-maker. Rogic has been loaned to Melbourne Victory to allow him to gain match fitness with the World Cup in mind. He has however failed to sparkle to date despite several promising displays. He should however, be fit to play a big role in Brazil, either as a starting player or impact player off the bench.

Forward’s: Playing a 4-2-3-1 formation means there are less opportunities for centre forward’s and out and out attacking players. The players selected are a mixture of attackinf midfielders/ false 9’s and out and out strikers.

Name: Tim Cahill (vc), Position: Attacking Midfielder/ Striker/ Central Midfielder, Club: New York Red Bulls (USA), Age: 34, Socceroo’s appearances: 67

Cahill The most recognisable face in this Socceroos squad. Cahill is Australia’s all time leading goal scorer and can still be regarded as one of the best Australians players. He will be a leader on the field and a certain starter who will look to emulate past heroics on the world’s biggest stage.

Name: Matthew Leckie, Position: Striker/ Wide Right Forward, Club: FSV Frankfurt (Germany), Age: 23, Socceroo’s appearances: 6

Leckie Leckie is the in form Australian Striker, playing at a quality level. A product of Adelaide United, Leckie has made a big impact on the Bundesliga, together with injured Socceroo, Robbie Kruse. Likely starter.

 

 

Name: James Troisi, Position: Attacking Midfielder/ False 9/ Striker, Club: Melbourne Victory (Australia) on loan from Atalanta (Italy), Age: 25, Socceroo’s appearances: 9

TroisiTroisi has lit up the A League this season with consistent high performances and a proven goal scoring record. He is a creative player and versatile in attack. Expect him to get minutes as an impact player for the Socceroos and good form may help force his way into the starting team.

Name: Brett Holman, Position: Attacking Midfielder/ False 9, Club: Al Nasr (United Arab Emirates), Age: 30, Socceroo’s appearances: 63

Holman Holman starred at the 2010 World Cup and was looking at bigger and better things, signing for EPL side Aston Villa after the World Cup. However, Holman failed to establish himself in the team and went elsewhere in search of regular football. Unlikely to start ahead of Leckie/Cahill.

 

Reserve list: The following 7 players are officially on stand-by as injury-replacements for the above list of 23 players.

Name: Brad Jones, Position: Goalkeeper, Club: Liverpool (England), Age: 32, Socceroo’s appearances: 4

JonesThe Liverpool FC number-two goalkeeper is a proven, reliable choice to replace any of the three selected goalkeepers.

Name: Sasa Ognenovski, Position: Central defender, Club: Sydney FC (Australia), Age: 35, Socceroo’s appearances: 22

OgnenovskiPlayed a pivotal role for the Socceroos in the post-Craig Moore era. Unlucky not to be picked ahead of fellow veteran, Lucas Neill.

 

 

 

Name: Luke Wilkshire, Position: Right back/ Right Midfield/ Central Midfield, Club: Dynamo Moscow (Russia), Age: 32, Socceroo’s appearances: 79

Wilkshire Another experienced Socceroo who continues to play regularly for his Russian club and is unlucky to earn outright selection. Wilkshire can also play as a Right sided midfielder and centrally and has in the past taken long crossing set pieces for the Socceroos. Would be a reliable choice to fill either a defence or midfield injury holes.

 

 

 

 

Name: Aaron Mooy, Position: Central Midfield, Club: Western Sydney Wanderers, Age: 23, Socceroo’s appearances: 3

Mooy Mooy is an intelligent and creative midfielder with a bright future. Another player who is unlucky not to gain outright selection but one to watch for the 2015 Asian Cup and 2018 World Cup.

 

 

 

 

 

Name: Josh Kennedy, Position: Striker, Club: Nagoya Grampus (Japan), Age: 31, Socceroo’s appearances: 33

KennedyKennedy is unlucky to miss out on selection outright, however his aerial prowess in the J-League will be less effective against Australia’s confirmed group opponents.

 

 

 

Name: Dario Vidosic, Position: Attacking Midfielder/ False 9, Club: FC Sion (Switzerland), Age: 27, Socceroo’s appearances: 20

VidošićVidošić is a strong, creative player. If not for the evergreen Bresciano and Cahill, Vidošić would be a confirmed final squad player. He would also be the first on the plane to Brazil if Rogic is proven unfit.

 

 

Name: Mile Sterjovski, Position: Attacking Midfielder/ Winger/ Striker, Club: Central Coast Mariners (Australia), Age: 34, Socceroo’s appearances: 43

Sterjovski For all intents and purposes, Sterjovski’s career as a professional footballer will be over in the next few weeks. However, such has been in form and prowess of late, it is impossible to ignore his credentials and versatility on the pitch for a shock Socceroos recall.

 

 

(See below comments for an updated squad as at 13/05/2014).

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Former Governor-General exhibited modern Australian values

*Submitted to the Bendigo Advertiser on 03/04/2014 and published on 15/04/2014*

Dear Editor,

I write in response to the letter by Mr Alan Howard of Strathfieldsaye on April 3 on the matter of former Governor-General, Quentin Bryce.

Mr Howard alleges the former Governor-General is a hypocrite for accepting the title of Dame and for being a Republican.

I suspect that Ms Bryce would share the view shared by the vast majority of Australians that Knights and Dames are anachronistic and their reintroduction helps to foster a culture of elites, completely at odds with our democratic values and modern identity as Australians. However, Ms Bryce probably had little choice but to accept the title of Dame from the Prime Minister. In her final days in office, it would have been churlish not to do so, given the title is now embedded into the office of Governor-General.

Mr Howard then goes on to provide crude commentary on the former Governor-General’s appearance. Frankly, I am disappointed the Bendigo Advertiser saw fit to publish. Ms Bryce’s elegant style is almost universally admired. The irony of Mr Howard excoriating Ms Bryce for her clothing is that Ms Bryce is a past sex discrimination commissioner. Perhaps Mr Howard needs to, in the words of former Prime Minister Gillard, “look in the mirror”.

Quentin Bryce was Australia’s first female Governor-General and a dignified presence in our public discourse. She was also a powerful advocate for the less fortunate and champion of many charities and social causes.

I think one thing both Mr Howard and I can agree on is a mutual hope that Quentin Bryce will also be Australia’s last female Governor-General. She is an extraordinary Australian and would make a fantastic President in a future Australian Republic.

Sincerely,

Brenton Baldwin

Melbourne

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Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370: a pawn in the US-China geostrategic battle for South China Sea supremacy

School students light candles for passengers of MH370, in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, China

School students light candles for passengers of MH370, in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, China

I am reluctant to entertain conspiracy theories surrounding the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, yet it is becoming more and more obvious that this is not your typical aviation disaster.

Behind the scenes of the ongoing and seemingly fruitless search for MH370, a complex, geostrategic intelligence ‘Cold War’ between the US and China appears to be furiously raging, with neither side willing to reveal to the other its surveillance capability in the South China Sea region. The stubborn refusal to cooperate and share satellite information has severely impacted the effectiveness of regional search efforts and caused anger and frustration for all, not least the Malaysian Government.

It is a high-stakes power struggle between the US, as the incumbent global superpower and its up and coming rival in China. Now, for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, US naval supremacy is under serious challenge in the Asia-Pacific region. The South China Sea is the focal point of this geopolitical struggle and has been at the epicentre of the world’s attention due to the disappearance of MH370. The missing Malaysian Airlines plane is just a pawn in this long-running and highly complex power play.

Yesterday it was revealed that China had taken three days to release satellite imagery purportedly showing three large pieces of plane debris in the ocean (this was later investigated and subsequently dismissed). Further, today’s comments from the White House indicate previously undisclosed intricate knowledge of the missing plane’s communications status following its disappearance from radar with some suggestion the plane flew on for a number of hours after radar communication was silenced.

There are also other reports that distraught relatives swear they were able to succesfully call the mobile phones of their missing loved ones, only for the calls to ring out, long after the plane was officially declared missing.

Authorities are most likely searching for a wreckage, however the possibiliy of a hijacking cannot be discounted.

While the US and China and its satellitte allies refuse to blink, friends and relatives of the missing passengers are anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones. We may never know the full story.

*Update – here is a good piece in The Diplomat on ASEAN intelligence gathering and cooperation in light of missing flight MH370.*

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Audit Commission should focus on Australia’s long-term future

Shortly after coming to power the Abbott Coalition established a Commission of Audit which according to its broad terms of reference is tasked with reviewing existing federal programs and expenditure and making recommendations to Government of where savings can be made to the national budget in the face of sliding revenue. This is a normal process for a new Government to undertake, irrespective of its political affiliation. However this time it seems the Abbott Coalition Government hopes to use the Commission of Audit (CoA) as a political vehicle to redefine its policy platform, moving from the compromised version it took to last year’s federal election, toward a more traditional ideological footing. The perception is that the Abbott Government intends to use the CoA to justify making lazy cuts to essential services to the detriment of some of our most vulnerable.

Members of the Commission of Audit answer questions at the recent Senate Select Committee hearing.

Members of the Commission of Audit answer questions at the recent Senate Select Committee hearing.

As part of the broader review of federal programs and expenditure, the Abbott Government has proposed an “all options on the table” overhaul of Australia’s Disability Support Pension. This has caused significant anxiety for many Australians who live with a disability and rely on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) for their everyday living needs. In flagging the review, the Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews failed to rule in or rule out any measures, including the shifting of some current DSP recipients across to the Newstart unemployment payment. The net result of such a change would see the already modest income of DSP recipients slashed by hundreds of dollars a fortnight.

DSP recipients already do it tough. As Paralympic gold medalist, Kurt Fearnley laid out in his Australia Day speech in early 2013; unemployed people living with a disability live in or near the poverty line; this is more than double the OECD average of 22%. Surely, there are other Government programs and areas of expenditure, which can be reviewed before we begin stripping money away from our most vulnerable. Why would the Abbott Government want to make a very difficult situation even worse?

Making lazy cuts to welfare payments like the DSP rather than taking a longer-term structural approach to reform would be made all the easier by certain sections of the Australian media who appear intent on spreading misleading reports suggesting there is a welfare crisis in Australia created by a surge in welfare recipients, with too many people accessing payments like the DSP that should not be eligible. Too often, we read and hear about welfare recipients in a negative light and typecast as fraudulent maligners. Coupled with the old stereotypes which present many welfare recipients as “bludgers” and “cheats”, makes the task of slashing welfare payments like the DSP easier for politicians to sell to an ill-informed Australian public. Conversely, this also makes the task of achieving meaningful welfare changes all the more difficult.

Why would the CoA look to make cuts in the Australian welfare sector when all available evidence suggests things are in good order?

Focusing on the DSP specifically, Government backed reports confirm a rise in those accessing the DSP over the last decade has mostly been due to a combination of; Australia’s ageing and growing population, the rise in the age pension, eligibility age for women, improvements in treatment of previously categorized traumatic health conditions, better disclosure of mental illness, the closing off of other welfare payments such as the widows allowance and crucially, sadly, there has been a significant reduction in the employment rates of people with disability, partly due to structural changes across the labour market.

Despite misleading media reports (as recently as this weekend), the last two years has actually seen a reduction in the rate of successful new grants of DSP cases. Due to the deliberate tightening of eligibility criteria there has actually been a 1.2% decline in the number of people accessing DSP. *For more on this, see Matt Cowgill’s piece: ‘DSP reform a solution in search of a problem’.*

Contrary to what’s often reported, many DSP recipients are able to work and many in fact, do work. In the absence of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (which is only just beginning to roll out around Australia), many Australians with a disability still lack the basic support and access to services they need in order to find a job. As well as practical barriers such as transport and building access, there remain other social barriers associated with living with a disability that still need to be overcome. Too often, the existence of entrenched stigma around disability employments exists within the community. This is particularly the case for those who live in regional and remote communities, where job opportunities are often harder to come by.

Rather than looking to shift vulnerable people onto lower welfare payments, the CoA (and the Abbott Government) should divert its energy toward recognising the enormous economic potential Australians with a disability can bring to the labour market and invest more funding in disability job placement services. Australia ranks 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment participation rates for those with a disability. Worse, we rank 27th out of 27 in terms of the correlation between disability and poverty. Both Government and the private sector can and must do more to increase employment participation. The Abbott Government must establish a jobs plan for Australians living with a disability (a jobs plan of any sort would also be welcome!) while ensuring that those who are unable to work can still receive the social safety net they need in order to live a fulfilling and dignified life.

For example, in the Australian Public Service employment of people with a disability has fallen significantly, almost halving from 6% in the early 1990’s to just 2.9% today. The latest State of the Service report showed that the Australian Public Service is losing three times as many people with disabilities as it is hiring.

In 2012, new measures were introduced by the Former Gillard Labor Government, which strengthened participation requirements for eligible DSP recipients with capacity to work as well as the expansion of disability employment services and the creation of new incentives for employers who hired Australian workers with a disability. The Abbott Government should put politics aside and look at expanding the former Governments disability employment reforms. The Government should begin by redefining the CoA’s terms of reference and adopt a more strategic economic outlook, prioritising long term economic benefits such as those associated with increasing workforce participation among people with a disability over any short-term political motivation to reduce expenditure by shifting vulnerable people further into poverty.

The Abbott Government can also ill-afford to repeat the mistakes the former Howard Government made early in its time in office, where welfare reform involved little more than shifting vulnerable people to lower payments or in poorly targeted training programs which failed to teach participants the skills they needed to lead on to paid employment.

The CoA must address long-term challenges facing the Australian economy as well as deliver achievable goals that focus on improving the machinery of Government. The Commission should not be looking to make quick-fix cuts to Government programs like the DSP and other welfare payments that are essential components of our national social contract. Rarely in public policy do occasions exist where the economic imperative and the moral imperative are so neatly aligned. The CoA should be allowed the opportunity to identify the big challenges we face for the future and forge a new consensus on how we move forward together as a nation. It would be a real shame to see this opportunity wasted by short term political fixes and conservative narrow-mindedness.

This blog draws from a fusion of two earlier Op-Ed pieces I helped to develop while at the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS). Two op-ed articles were published in Fairfax and News Limited national newspapers and you can check out both pieces here and here.

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PNG and Nauru agreements will stop the boats, but what about the human cost?

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The recent debate concerning Australia’s immigration policy has been challenging, emotive and occasionally toxic. As Australians, we are extremely fortunate to live in a country where public policy only rarely carries life or death implications. Traditionally such policy matters exist exclusively in Australia’s defence and national security discourse. More recently, immigration policy has shared this burden. Contemporary immigration policy is complex and fluid. Designing and implementing Australia’s immigration policy has proved an immense challenge for all stakeholders. Making these tough decisions is an unenviable task for our national political leaders and the public servants employed to implement them. No more is this evident than with the issue of maritime asylum seekers arrivals. Too often, innocent people have drowned in the oceans to our north while attempting to reach Australia. This situation is unacceptable and urgent action has been required to prevent ongoing unnecessary loss of life. Yet as a responsible international citizen and signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Australia cannot simply turn its back on asylum seekers. With an estimated 45 million refugees worldwide, Australia must continue to do its fair share as part of a solution to this growing global problem. Finding a way forward, which strikes a fair balance between deterring people from making the dangerous boat journey to Australia, while still maintaining our international obligations to support those in crisis, is a fundamental challenge for us all.

“I tell you what mate. Rudd may have just got my vote if his asylum seeker policy with PNG works”.

I received the above text from an old school friend while driving back from Canberra a few weeks back. The text message was the first I heard of Prime Minister Rudd’s asylum seeker deal with Papua New Guinea announced earlier that afternoon. I switched on the radio and listened intently to the ABC news coverage. In essence, the policy outlined that Australia would no longer be accepting asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat, period. Asylum seekers arriving by boat would be liable to transfer to Papua New Guinea (PNG), for processing and resettled in PNG or another ‘participating regional state’. Even if asylum seekers were found to be genuine refugees, they would not be resettled in Australia. The message from the Prime Minister was simple; come by boat, end up in PNG. Not long after arriving home that night, I watched a repeat of the Prime Minister’s press conference. Surely, the Government was not proposing that Australia would deny the right to seek asylum simply because they had come to Australia by boat. After all, seeking asylum is not illegal. In fact, it is a human right.

At this point, I replied to my friend’s text: “I haven’t had much time to get my head around it all properly, but I have to say that I am not a fan”.

By way of background, my friend is an experienced serving member of the Royal Australian Navy. His reply: “Anything that deters them coming by sea is a good thing… it’s too dangerous. I have no issue with them coming here, I welcome it. But, they are dying at sea, losing infants. I am sick of my mates pulling bodies out of the water…” It was a compelling argument, yet denying the right of asylum did not sit well with me. The PNG agreement and the recently announced agreement with the Government of Nauru may ‘stop the boats’, but will doing so also cost us our humanity?

As a significant and considerable nation, Australia has a moral responsibility to uphold and adhere to international rules and norms that underpin the human rights of those who seek asylum. Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Refugee Convention is the key legal document that provides an international definition of what constitutes a ‘refugee’, their rights and the legal obligations of all nation-states to them. The Convention has been a pillar of international governance, conceived out of enlightened self-interest. It is literally the wall behind which refugees have sheltered for over 60 years.

“A refugee is a person with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…” – Article 1A (2).

While some articles of the Convention are absolute, others are flexible enough as to allow the treaty to live and evolve through interpretation as circumstances change. Indeed, circumstances have changed dramatically over the last 60 years. When the Refugees Convention was established in 1951, there were approximately 1.5 million refugees worldwide. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, at the end of 2011 an estimated 42.5 people worldwide were considered forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution, including 15.2 million refugees, 895,000 asylum seekers and 26.4 million internally displaced people. Australia’s immigration issues form part of a much wider global problem requiring a global solution. At present, such a solution does not exist. The reality is that as long as war and persecution exists, there will always be people who seek a better life elsewhere.

Current figures estimate that 96-99% of all asylum seekers arriving in Australia, come by plane, have a valid visa and later apply for residency while already living in the Australian community. The other 1-4% of asylum seekers is mostly made up of boat arrivals. In terms of volume, the asylum seeker issue is disproportionate to the saturated attention the issue gets in our national media and on radio talkback. Yet by simply focusing on these statistics, it is easy to ignore the harsh reality that; though the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat is small, too many of them are drowning at sea before reaching Australia. These are innocent people; men, women and children, each with thoughts, feelings and aspirations of their own. Many of whom have fled war, violent persecution and famine. They are often people who are prepared to take huge risks in order to find safety. Why would they so readily take these risks? The answer is brutally simple; at worst, they have nothing to live for, and at best; they have lived a miserable life of displacement, poverty and indignity. Many spend long periods of time (sometimes many years) in transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia waiting on a formal refugee application process that is fundamentally flawed. In such situations, they are unable to work, travel or go to school. The hopelessness and indignity asylum seekers must go through is hard for us to fathom. When confronted with desperate circumstances, people tend to do desperate things. For many asylum seekers, boarding a boat to Australia is just the latest in a series of calculated risks they have taken since they first fled their homes. Many who seek asylum in Australia have not known peace or freedom in their entire lifetime. To them, Australia offers the security, opportunity and lifestyle that has only existed in their wildest dreams. In today’s toxic debate of grand solutions and empty 3 word slogans, the human context described above is sadly often missing.

In August last year, the Federal Labor Government announced it was increasing its annual refugee quota from 13,750 per year to 20,000. The decision was a key recommendation to Government by an expert panel on asylum seeker policy in a report handed down by former Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, Professor Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle (The Houston Panel). The Houston Panel provided the Government with 22 recommendations to reform immigration policy in the wake of the SIEV 221 tragedy that claimed the lives of up to fifty asylum seekers. The increase to Australia’s refugee quota was the largest to Australia’s humanitarian program in over 30 years. The idea behind the quota increase was to deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous boat journey to Australia by reassuring them that there were now more resettlement places available in Australia. However, increasing the quota would not work on its own as just one recommendation of twenty-two. The Houston Panel stated unequivocally that all twenty-two recommendations (including the much-maligned Malaysia Solution) would need to be implemented in order to allow a tangible effect on the flow of boats and to prevent more asylum seeker deaths at sea. True to form, the Coalition opposed the Houston recommendations. Similarly, the Greens decision to ignore reality and abstain from cross-Party negotiations completely was morally reprehensible. As Bernard Keane eloquently editorialised recently, “Let them all come is ‘stop the boats’ for unthinking progressives”. Despite the best efforts of various MP’s on both sides (acting independent to their respective party rooms) to strike a bipartisan deal, the 43rd Parliament remained divided and could not reach agreement to pass the Houston Panel’s recommendations. Since then, maritime asylum seekers arrivals have periodically continued, as have further tragedies at sea.

The Rudd Government’s PNG and Nauru agreements will most likely ‘stop the boats’, as both agreements remove the incentive for asylum seekers to undertake a dangerous maritime journey, knowing that even if they make it into Australian waters, they have zero chance of gaining asylum in Australia. In one swift move, the Rudd Government has effectively ended the cycle of maritime asylum to Australia. It is a drastic line for the Government to follow, but it will achieve its main aim; deterrence, and more importantly; the preservation of innocent life. This aspect is a welcome development. As someone on Twitter recently said in defence of the PNG agreement: “I’m sick of waking up in the morning and hearing on the news another boat’s sunk and little kids have drowned” – too true. Yet real questions remain about the fate of asylum seekers who go to PNG’s Manus Island or to Nauru for processing. What sort of capacity will the PNG and Nauru governments have to provide an appropriate level of care to asylum seekers? What about woman and children in detention? Will access to health and mental health services be adequate? The mental health implications of ongoing, long-term mandatory detention are particularly concerning. As Lenore Taylor lamented in her Guardian opinion piece: “This “PNG solution” might “stop the boats” – its only real aim – but it could also do real human harm in the process”.

Personally, the only way the PNG and Nauru proposal is acceptable on a humanitarian level is if both agreements are implemented in concert with a host of other measures. Such measures must be consistent with Australia’s international obligations and designed to encourage those seeking asylum in Australia to do so by less dangerous means. Under the auspices of the UN Refugee Convention, Australia has clear responsibilities to provide protection and asylum to those with proven refugee status. I want to see (as some within the Labor Caucus have called for) Australia again increasing its humanitarian intake from the 20,000 agreed in August last year, in recognition of the fact that we now have a greater capacity to take more refugees. I want to see a renewed funding investment in the UNHCR and enhanced cooperation between Australia and transit countries to improve the application process. Australia cannot simply shift the responsibility of maritime asylum seeker arrivals by outsourcing to small Pacific neighbours. Both PNG and Nauru processing centres will require a long term funding arrangement and resource allocation from the Australian Government. Now that these arrangements are in place, providing ongoing assistance and support is the least Australia can do.

I remain concerned about the conditions that asylum seekers will face on Manus Island and Nauru. Australia has an ongoing moral obligation to ensure that asylum seekers are treated humanely and their human rights are respected. Working to strengthen mechanisms of good governance, health and social infrastructure in both countries will help to underpin the success of a regional processing agreement. As part of the PNG agreement, the Australian Government has committed to substantial funding for a new hospital in Port Moresby together with other infrastructure projects throughout PNG. Similar infrastructure spending is vital in Nauru also, starting with rebuilding fire damaged facilities on the tiny island, destroyed in the recent detention centre riot. Nauru is a tiny nation with little infrastructure and is largely dependent on external powers. Australia needs to invest in Nauru on similar levels to what it has pledged for PNG, and help build Nauru’s capacity to achieve a previously unattainable level of economic self-reliance.

This issue has been a moral conundrum which I have spent the last few weeks grappling with. Finding a way forward requires a strategic multi-pronged approach across the whole of Government. Australia’s immigration policies must be versatile to adapt to changing circumstances. I cannot support a policy where those fleeing war and persecution are denied the right to apply for refugee status in Australia. The PNG and Nauru agreements does not deny this right exclusively, however it does cancel out one method by which asylum seekers can seek refuge, this does not sit comfortably with me. However, I do believe these new arrangement will stem the flow of boats and thus prevent unnecessary loss of life at sea. The policy will likely encourage more people to pursue their asylum claims through less dangerous means. The preservation of human life should be the foremost priority.

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Why I am supporting Kevin Rudd for the Labor Party leadership.

Let me preface the following by acknowledging the fact that under current rules, leadership of the Australian Labor Party is a matter entirely for members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Caucus. Nevertheless, as an active and passionate member of the Australian Labor Party, I feel compelled to state my opinion on the matter as this question goes to not only who is the leader of the political party I love and believe in so strongly, but also to the leadership of the nation, Australia of which there is and nor should there be, no more important consideration.

Can I also admit that this is actually my fourth attempt in as many days to sit down and put my thoughts to paper. I have struggled with this question recently as I am sure have many others like me. It has undoubtedly been an incredibly difficult period to be a Labor member and supporter. Those who know me well will hopefully emphasise with, and I hope they may even understand, that writing this piece is personally very difficult for me. The easy option (indeed; the smarter one) would be to simply say nothing, hedge my bets and await the outcome. However, with a ballot due to be held around 7pm tonight, the time for sitting on the fence on the question of the leadership of Labor and the nation has well and truly passed.

The Gillard Government has faced unprecedented challenges from all directions. From an incredibly hostile and relentlessly negative Opposition on its Right. A white-anting two-bob each way party of protest on its Left.  The constant undermining and bickering from within. A one-way media narrative with a clear agenda. And not to mention, an incredibly complex legislative environment which has required patience and careful negotiation with Independents with their own pet priorities and agenda’s.

It has not been an easy time to govern for Labor.

When I wrote about the leadership issue previously (during the last spill which the Prime Minister won convincingly, I argued then that a victory for Prime Minister Julia Gillard would allow her to finally gain a clean slate and fresh momentum for Labor’s fight against the extreme forces in Tony Abbott’s negative and policy-weak Coalition. It can be argued with merit that the Prime Minister has not been allowed to enjoy that clean slate thanks in large part to further undermining of her leadership from Labor colleagues. This was disappointing and reflected poorly on Labor, particularly as a party of Government. However, blaming those within the Labor Caucus who have backed Mr Rudd as well as sections of the media (however repugnant some of them have behaved in recent years) for all of the Government’s woes would be simply passing the buck. Frankly, such a simple prognosis is incorrect and overly simplistic.

Many of the problems the Gillard Government has faced have been of our own making and have nothing to do with Kevin Rudd or others. It wasn’t Kevin Rudd or his supporter’s decision to make an iron clad commitment to delivering a budget surplus at all costs. It also wasn’t Kevin Rudd or his supporters who cut the single parents allowance. Kevin Rudd and his supporters were not involved in the Prime Minister’s “captain’s pick”, ending the career of Senator Trish Crossin to parachute in Nove Peris against the wishes of the rank and file. These (and a few others) are all poor political decisions that have had a detrimental impact on Labor’s chances of re-election in a few months time.

As things currently stand, Labor faces the very real prospect of being wiped out at the next Federal election. Labor’s entire public policy agenda, the reforms we have fought hardest for, are at risk with the election of an Abbott led Coalition Government. This cannot be allowed to pass. Therefore, it is my position that Labor cannot sit idly by and allow Mr Abbott to take power and undo much of what Labor has achieved in its five and a half years in Government.

The only viable option now is for a return to Kevin Rudd.

I have consistently said (including following the June 2010 leadership coup, where it was more or less taboo within Labor) that the removal of Mr Rudd from the Prime Minister-ship should never have taken place. How could Labor stand up and proclaim to be ‘for the fair go’ if it had been unwilling to give its own leader a fair go? A leader who did so much to bring Labor victory in November 2007 after almost 12 long years of stagnant, conservative rule. For this same reason however, I have stubbornly refused until now, to consider further leadership change, arguing that Labor should not make the same mistake twice. However, months before an election and with instability surrounding the Gillard Government, my feeling is that holding a ballot now cannot cause any further negative reaction from the public than has not already taken place.

Things need to change for Labor to have a chance of retaining Government and continuing to deliver for the Australian people. The time to act is now.

Although I am 100% convinced of this argument, I propose change this deep regret and sadness. I have strongly supported the leadership of Prime Minister Gillard at every opportunity since her election as Prime Minister. Truly, the Prime Minister does not deserve this fate. Julia Gillard has led a remarkable Government through extremely difficult circumstances. This situation is not fair for her. Politics is a cruel and twisted game that carries a heavy consequence on all of us, but most of all, on its most central figures.

What guides my change of heart on this matter is my resolve to protect the many hard fought reforms won under both Prime Minister Rudd and Gillard’s leadership. The achievements of Labor over the past five and a half years are worth fighting for, tooth and nail. Everything Labor has done, everything it stands for, is under threat should an Abbott Government be in power by the end of this year.

Labor cannot stand idly and allow Tony Abbott and his Coalition to walk into the Lodge without putting up the biggest fight of our political lives. Kevin Rudd is the best person to lead Labor to an election and prosecute the argument for Labor’s re-election.

Right now I feel rotten, treacherous and hypocritical. I am sure some who I know and respect may find they may now respect me less for taking this position, I accept that. I also feel, however painful, that this is the right decision for the sake of this reforming Labor Government that has done so much to improve the lives of all Australians.

I believe Kevin Rudd will win tonight’s ballot. Labor will be the stronger for his return and we must now move forward together. Disunity is death and this is a Government that has been close to life support for too long.

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