The Expansion Of Presidential Power

In the United States, many thought Barack Obama’s election would be the moment the rule of law reasserted itself in the fight against jihadi terrorism.

After all, that’s what he promised – ending the use of torture and extreme rendition, revising the Patriot Act, closing down Guantanamo Bay detention camp, eliminating warrantless wiretaps, and restoring the right of prisoners to challenge their detention.

So the debate whether the Obama administration has the legal authority to assassinate an American citizen without any due process is pretty unedifying.

The citizen in question is Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric. He’s probably holed up in Yemen. In April, the administration authorised his assassination.

Now his father is suing the government to prevent the government doing so. In response, the administration asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit because it involves state secrets.

There’s no doubt al-Awlaki is a bad guy. He’s reportedly called for American Muslims to wage violent jihad against the US. His sermons have been attended by an array of accused and convicted terrorists. He’s apparently the inspiration for the Times Square bomber and the Christmas Day bomber. The US government now claims he’s gone from encouraging terrorist attacks to actively participating in them.

American governments have long had the power to assassinate those waging war against the United States.

Yet assassinating a US citizen goes well beyond anything previous administrations have ever been able to do. A senior Bush legal official told the New York Times he couldn’t recall any similar case.

And, Barack Obama – or, at least, Barack Obama’s lawyers – believe the president has an absolute right to do so without limitation and without scrutiny.

As the legal commentator Glenn Greenwald wrote, the Obama administration seems to believe that “not only does the president have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are ‘state secrets,’ and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.”

One could make the case al-Awlaki has so abrogated his American citizenship he is effectively a foreigner, and that his threat to the US is so substantial they have no choice but to assassinate him. But that’s a case they should make to a court. Instead, the administration believes the government shouldn’t have to justify targeting the cleric.

This argument proposes the US president be given absolutely unlimited powers.

No matter how hawkish you are on the war on terror, that’s a bad idea.

In her 2008 book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, Jane Mayer laid out how the administration of George W. Bush fumbled its way into its security framework.

Guantanamo Bay, the renditions, the blurring of legal and illegal torture, and the augmenting of the president’s war powers were a result of panic after September 11 attacks and an escalating security machismo within the White House.

The urgency meant it took less than 12 months for these policies to be fixed in place.

That’s not an excuse for the Bush administration blundering – and there was a lot of blundering while the administration tried to reform criminal processes to fight a war against terrorists. And it’s no excuse for their utter disregard of due process, civil liberties, and individual rights. But it is an explanation.

By contrast, it is nearly incomprehensible that, a decade after the September 11 attacks, those powers are still expanding rather than contracting.

Certainly, terrorism remains a national security problem in the US and around the world. Recent warnings about threats in Europe and India remind us of that. But the direct political pressure over terror has been relieved – partially due to the global financial crisis, which displaced public fear of the risk of attack with a much more real fear of unemployment.

And many of the tactics deployed after 2001 have been, in retrospect, dismal failures.

The effort to prosecute accused terrorists through military commissions rather than the civilian legal system has been decidedly uninspiring: those who could have been jailed for life had they faced the full gamut of civilian charges have received peculiarly light sentences.

The recent expansion of presidential power is made worse by the fact that Obama specifically campaigned against legal abuses in the conduct of the war on terror.

This brazenness is unlikely to hurt the president. Many in the American left have been reluctant – even embarrassed – to admit Obama has doubled down on some of the most reviled policies of the Bush administration. Those who do point out a Palin administration would be far worse.

And conservatives are more eager to criticise Obama for being too soft on terrorism than being unprecedentedly bold.

In his new book Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward quotes the president claiming the US could “absorb” another terrorist attack. This has been described as a gaffe. And, from a political perspective, it is. But it’s also an uncommonly honest reflection of the nature of the terrorist threat.

If only that moderation was translated into policy.

Carbon Price Makes No Policy Sense

Gillard will need a big policy win this term. Even better if it’s a win on the policy that sank her predecessor.

So it was hardly surprising that the call by Marius Kloppers of BHP Billiton for a carbon tax was quickly affirmed by the new climate minister Greg Combet.

Julia Gillard announced the makeup of the oddly secretive climate change committee yesterday. She’s getting all her ducks in a row for a price on carbon of some description.

But domestic politics isn’t the main climate game. International politics is. And right now, the prospects for a global agreement on climate change couldn’t be lower.

Diplomats are pouring as much cold water as they can on hopes for securing an agreement in Cancun in December. “The likelihood of a continued deadlock remains significant”, said the director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change last week. George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian, “The closer it comes, the worse it looks.”

You don’t have to be a climate change sceptic, denier, pessimist, realist, optimist or scientist to recognise dealing with real or potential consequences of greenhouse gas emissions is the ultimate collective action problem.

As it’s a problem of collective action, it makes little sense for countries to “go it alone” – particularly nations like Australia, who would easily see their carbon emissions move to jurisdictions which aren’t playing along.

The government implicitly agrees. It’s why we have two proposed emissions reduction targets – an unconditional 5 per cent for now, and 15-25 per cent if there is a binding global agreement to do so. The difference between these two targets is an admission that reduction is substantially less meaningful without international action.

Treasury agrees too. Their modelling of the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in October 2008 assumed all countries around the world would implement the same scheme at the same time.

There’s a precedent for international policy action: the sixty year long quest for multilateral free trade agreements. Like emissions reduction, trade has been the subject of numerous international conferences and diplomacy.

But unlike emissions reduction, free trade is unambiguously in the self-interest of every nation. This is true even if other nations do not open their markets. In a world of high tariffs and subsidies, a country which unilaterally lowers trade barriers – as Australia did – is still better off.

Despite this, the fight for freer trade through global agreements is excruciatingly slow and now seems to be stagnating.

Those failures say nothing of the worthiness of the free trade project. Just that international politics is an ineffective and frustrating mechanism to pursue policy goals.

That’s not a good omen for a global treaty on emissions reduction, where countries can benefit by avoiding their emissions reduction obligations. Unlike free trade, it’s in their self-interest to cheat.

Recognising that is not being a sceptic about climate science, but a realist about politics.

Certainly, many countries are doing little bits of climate change mitigation here and there. We’ve had a national Mandatory Renewable Energy Target for nearly a decade now, and countless subsidies and programs.

We’re hardly alone. Even China is talking about imposing a domestic carbon trading scheme. And on Friday last week, a senior Chinese climate negotiator declared his country would seek a binding climate treaty by the end of next year.

Sounds definitive, but there’s more to that declaration than a headline may suggest. The Chinese blame the Americans for wrecking Copenhagen: “The biggest obstacle comes from the United States”, according to their negotiator. But after China’s calculated theatrics at the Copenhagen summit, it’s hard to take them at their word. Chinese statecraft is increasingly cantankerous and contrarian. Big statements have to be seen through that prism.

Yes, China is cleaning up its coal-fired power stations – as they should – but their average efficiency is still well below those in the developed world.

And the country has generous subsidies for renewable energy. There’s more to those than the headlines suggest too: a report in the South China Morning Post last week pointed out they badly underperform. Wind turbines turn for an average of 75 days a year, compared to 110 days in England. Few wind turbines and solar plants are even connected to the electricity grid.

In Australia, the Green Loans scheme was exploited by opportunists looking to make a subsidised buck, with negligible environmental benefit. In China, those green subsidies are much larger, in a much larger country, and embedded in a much more corrupt and opaque political system.

Yet as business writers keep pointing out, China has an “advantage” in the climate game. It’s a dictatorship. It only has to justify its policies so far.

The rest of the world will be even harder.

The International Energy Agency said last week energy poverty in the developing world is a big reason it doesn’t look like we’re going to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

1.4 billion people lack access to energy. Most of those are concentrated in Africa and on the Indian subcontinent. The health and wellbeing consequences are substantial. Those nations – 1 billion people in Africa, 1.1 billion in India – will be unlikely to go along with any policy that would restrain development. When you live below the poverty line, a ‘small’ price on carbon is not trivial.

China’s public relations blitz notwithstanding, the chances of a binding and meaningful agreement have diminished since Copenhagen, not increased. The European Union’s climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard said last month “These negotiations have if anything gone backwards.”

The Stern Review said “no country can take effective action to control the risks that they face alone”.

And it’s now clear we can’t rely on international action.

It makes political sense for Gillard to jump into a comprehensive carbon price this term. But it still it makes little policy sense.

Bankrolling Oprah: The New Tourist Strategy

Fifty per cent of all advertising is wasted, says the marketing cliché. The problem is figuring out which fifty per cent.

Last week we had a rare burst of honesty about the usefulness of the money governments spend on high profile tourism campaigns. The former Tourism Minister John Brown admitted, “We spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years without much effect, I must say that honestly.”

Brown was a minister in the Hawke government when he commissioned and oversaw the famous Paul Hogan “Throw another shrimp on the barbie” ads during the 1980s. That Hogan campaign is constantly held up as the greatest success story of Australian tourism. It’s the yardstick by which all other campaigns are measured.

So his admission it’s all been an enormous waste of cash is unlikely to feature prominently in Tourism Australia’s next annual report.

Brown was helping announce Oprah’s visit to Australia. Her visit is being heavily subsidised by Australian taxpayers: Queensland is chipping in $400,000, New South Wales between $1 and $2 million, and the federal government $1.5 million.

Oprah is personally worth an estimated US$2.5 billion, so clearly she doesn’t need the money.

But Brown doesn’t want us to be “cynical about the cost”. The current tourism minister, Martin Ferguson, is sure it is “money well spent”.

Special Oprah-in-Australia episodes will go to air next January alongside Tourism Australia’s G’Day USA campaign. And, the government hopes, American dollars will flood in.

Maybe millions for Oprah will succeed after millions for “Where the bloody hell are you?”, the Baz Lurhmann Australia tie-in campaign, and 2004’s “Australia: A Different Light” with Delta Goodrem and Richie Benaud, failed.

The Oprah effect can turn a book into a bestseller just by being featured on her program. Our tourism bureaucrats are hoping that scales to continents.

But I don’t want to dwell too much on the specifics of the Oprah visit.

The federal government’s thinking about tourism has always been woolly. Tourism promotion has been a swamp in to which the government has poured cash and consultants for decades.

In Crikey in June, Noel Turnbull pointed out the government is running two simultaneous marketing campaigns, with contradictory messages. The first is a branding campaign which suggests there’s more to Australia than people think. The second is a tourism campaign which suggests there isn’t; that we’re all about glossy surfaces and pretty landscapes.

One wonders how many marketing and public relations consultants are going to feed on the Oprah campaign.

But why are governments doing tourist promotion at all?

The overwhelming beneficiaries of tourism dollars are private industry: hotels, restaurants, transport, souvenir shops, pubs, cafes, barbecue manufacturers and shrimp farms. Tourism promotion does their marketing for them – the government spends millions of dollars trying find customers.

Certainly, the government gains a small amount of money from the GST levied on things tourists might buy. But the same holds true for all Australian industries selling products to Australian nationals – the government gains a little from every sale. So such logic would suggest the entire advertising industry should be subsidised by government.

If the benefits of promotion are so enormous, the tourism industry should be paying for it themselves. There’s no reason they can’t band together in another of their many peak bodies to sponsor international marketing campaigns. Let industry discover which half of advertising works and which half doesn’t.

Government policies designed to promote tourism almost always end in disappointment, as John Brown recognised.

But we don’t only push out ads. We also spend vast sums on events to try to lure in overseas crowds.

The major events strategies of Commonwealth and state governments are predicated on a belief that big sporting contests translate into big touristy payoffs.

This month is the 10th anniversary of the Sydney Olympics. We ran a good event. But we got a bad Olympic hangover. Visitor numbers to New South Wales actually declined relative to other Australian states. It’s not our fault: Beijing and Athens had the Olympic hangover too.

The Sydney Olympics was a bigger deal than Oprah’s tour ever could be. We earned a great deal of international goodwill and publicity in those few weeks in 2000. But tourism went backwards.

In Victoria, the Grand Prix – the pride and joy of the Victorian tourism lobby – isn’t even paying for itself anymore. It posted a $49.2 million loss this year, and was promptly bailed out by the state government.

Here’s hoping Australia doesn’t win the privilege of hosting the World Cup.

There’s good reason to be sceptical that Oprah is the tourism spend to buck the trend. The former tourism minister may be optimistic about Oprah’s visit but history tells us we shouldn’t be.

The state we’re in: redrawing Australia

The Force from the North, Bob Katter, doesn’t do anything by halves.

His independent compatriot Rob Oakeshott has spent the last week pushing out ideas about parliamentary reform, a new politics of consensus, and Team of Rivals-style cabinet government.

Katter’s contribution has been a little more out of the box. On Thursday he proposed a wholesale redrawing of Australia’s state boundaries.

The plan is as follows:

Queensland gets neatly split in two, from about Rockhampton. South Queensland gets everything from Byron Bay to Bundaberg. North Queensland gets the rest, including, of course, Katter’s own electorate of Kennedy.

The Northern Territory loses a fair chunk of its south to an engorged South Australia, but its western border gets pushed out all the way to the ocean, taking the Kimberley and Broome from Western Australia. The new state – it’d be a state – would be renamed North-Western Australia, leaving Australia with an embarrassingly unimaginative bunch of state names.

Katter reckons new states would allow the country to better exploit the resources of the north, to become a food bowl, and accommodate 100,000 extra people.

Perhaps I’m taking Katter’s plan more seriously than anybody should. But you know what? It’s not a bad idea.

In 2010, it’s extremely refreshing to see a politician stand up for the very existence of states. From all sides of politics we’re far more likely to hear states are anachronistic relics of the 19th century – frustrating barriers to good policy. Not everybody goes so as far as arguing states should be eliminated entirely, but most are eager for the federal government to intrude further and further into state areas of responsibility.

One of Katter’s arguments for his plan is more important than it first seems. “I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where people are governed by a government thousands of kilometres away,” he told the Northern Territory News.

Indeed, one of the key ideas behind a federal system is that the nearer a government is to the people it governs, the more likely it will govern in their interests. The needs and desires of citizens in Victoria and the Northern Territory sharply diverge. Katter is arguing the needs of those in Coolangatta and those in Mount Isa, nearly 2,000 kilometres away, can be just as different. There is little reason to doubt it.

So when Katter talks about living in a “North Queensland paradigm” instead of an “Australia paradigm”, it actually makes a bit of sense. Many in his electorate no doubt agree; Katter’s two candidate preferred result was a massive 69 per cent.

Katter’s antipathy towards free trade and the economic reform of the last few decades has become very well-known over the last week.

Not only can states tailor their policies to the needs of their electorate, they act as policy incubators. Policies can be tested in an individual state before being adopted elsewhere. If policies don’t work, well, at least the damage is limited.

So more states, more experimentation.

If Katter wants North Queensland to get back into the state intervention game, then that’s North Queensland’s prerogative.

Across the border, the expanded and empowered Northern Territory could be a low tax, low regulation zone. We’ll see which state does best.

Reconfiguring the federation would be complicated, sure.

But we have a habit of believing our existing political arrangements are fixed and therefore eternal. The Australian federation is only just over a century old. And while our constitution has barely changed, the Commonwealth is doing things that would have astonished its authors.

Western Australian secessionism keeps raising its head, and will likely get louder as the rest of the country tries to expropriate the gains from mining in that state.

The boundaries of Australia are not written in stone. Nor should they be. Giving Bob Katter a pen to redraw the borders is radical, but not revolutionary.

Rob Oakeshott’s proposal for “consensus” government has been given serious attention, even though the corollary to his idea – having no opposition – is patently absurd. Well, maybe it’s not a bad idea if you’re engaged in total war against the Hun and the Empire of Japan, but it hardly seems appropriate in 2010.

At the same time Oakeshott is calling for consensus, he’s calling for the adoption of ideas from the Henry Tax Review and the Garnaut Climate Change Review. In other words, the most divisive reform proposals in the last few years.

Bob Katter’s plan for new states has the opposite problem. His plan seems absurd upon first glance – the NT News titled their article about his plan as “‘Cut snake’ Katter eyes Top End slice”.

But it makes a lot more sense than some of the other proposals being canvassed as we wait for a government to form.

Informal ballots: blame compulsory voting

Don’t blame Mark Latham’s 60 Minutes spot for the increase in informal ballots last Saturday.

Blame compulsory voting.

The 2010 election saw the highest number of informal votes cast in more than 25 years. In seven separate seats the informal votes were higher than 10 per cent of the total – all in New South Wales.

Latham’s muckraking reflected the general sense of disillusionment with the political choice in 2010. He was not the cause of it. If his spot was broadcast during, say, the 2007 election, Latham would have simply been dismissed as a posturing clown.

Well, more of a posturing clown.

Those who deliberately spoil their ballot are indicating they are not simply frustrated with the choices, but are frustrated they are compelled to choose. The informal vote is as much an indictment of the system as a protest against this campaign.

Sure, many informal votes are only accidentally informal. Most people want to place a valid vote, even if they don’t have enough interest to figure out how to do so.

Yet that should be damning enough.

In 1924, a Labor Senator said that the “the opinions of the negligent and apathetic section of the electors are not worth obtaining”. A bit harsh. But certainly it seems counterproductive to force the negligent and apathetic to give an opinion on something they are not interested in.

Many voters themselves feel they are not well-informed enough to make a choice. The extremely high number of undecided voters up to polling day is a clear sign the parties completely failed to engage many voters.

Indeed, much dissatisfaction with Election 2010 can be traced back to our compulsory voting system.

In 2005, RMIT Professor Sinclair Davidson and two other RMIT academics, Derek Chong and Tim Fry, examined the political consequences of voluntary voting. (They may have telegraphed their punch in the title: “It’s an evil thing to oblige people to vote”. And Davidson is an Institute of Public Affairs colleague of mine. Take that as you will.)

Davidson and Co. found the biggest losers from compulsory voting are the minor parties.

In the four federal elections the authors looked at (2004, 2001, 1998 and 1996), the Democrats and the Greens could have had a substantially higher vote share, if voting wasn’t compulsory. Certainly in the Senate, but often in the House of Representatives as well.

In 1998 the Democrats could have received more than 15 per cent of the Senate vote share, compared to the 8 per cent they actually did get. In the 2004 election, the House Greens vote could have jumped from 6.8 per cent to 9 per cent, and in the Senate from 7.4 per cent to 10 or even 14 per cent.

The academics also argued a voluntary voting system might slightly favour the Coalition.

Nevertheless, we should take their conclusions with a grain of salt. The parties prepare their election strategies with the quirks and consequences of compulsory voting firmly in mind. You go to election with the system you have.

The obsessive focus on marginal electorates is arguably a consequence of our ballot system.

The major parties by and large favour compulsory voting because it is more efficient for them. Marginal electorate campaigns are the electoral equivalent of Roman divide-and-rule.

In a voluntary voting system, they’d have to work to energise not just marginal voters, but their base as well. You cannot expect unthinking loyalty from your supporters to get you into government. Your supporters might stay at home.

At the very least, all parties would be forced to rethink their strategies – and policies – to suit.

There’s another important argument against compulsory voting – we ought to have the freedom not to vote. In one of this country’s few libertarian classics, Rip van Australia, John Singleton claimed it is the “ultimate contradiction for a supposedly free and democratic society to be founding on a system of compulsory voting.” But Australia is a very utilitarian country. Arguments about rights and liberties don’t get very far here.

Many people claim that compulsory voting gives elected governments legitimacy.

Put aside for a moment the implicit belief that the majority of democratic governments overseas are therefore somewhat illegitimate. If legitimacy is what we’re seeking, then why not compel citizens to take turns running for parliament (like jury duty for Canberra) or insist they join a political party?

Absurd, of course, but the legitimacy argument is too vague to be useful.

The independents say the result of this election reflects a desire in the community for parliamentary reform. And the Greens claim the preferential system conceals their party’s electoral support.

They might all want to rethink compulsory voting.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review. Follow him at

Moving forward mantra Gillard’s biggest mistake

In retrospect, Julia Gillard’s big mistake wasn’t calling the election so quickly, or negotiating with the miners, or even announcing the climate assembly.

It was using the phrase “moving forward” 20 times at her election announcement.

The sense that Gillard is stage-managed and unreal has lasted almost through to polling day. You can tell the Labor Party is still concerned about it, and the Coalition is convinced Gillard’s public image makes Tony Abbott look very good.

It accounts for – although does not really explain – Labor’s bizarre decision to pretend Gillard’s campaign launch speech was off-the-cuff. That backfired when the press cunningly took a photograph of her typed speech on the lectern.

Off-the-cuff-Gate is completely inconsequential. But the fact that, as late in the campaign as the campaign launch, the ALP thought it had to deceive for Gillard to be seen as passionate shows just how damaging this initial impression was.

After all, it had been a good two weeks since ‘real Julia’ took over.

If Abbott initially struggled because the Liberal Party had spent the last twelve months preparing to defeat Kevin Rudd, Gillard suffered because it appeared ALP strategy consisted of the phrase “moving forward” underlined twice on the back of an envelope.

Perhaps as a consequence, the Labor policies announced in the first few weeks were gimmicky and easily ridiculed. Not just the climate assembly – an insult to the national intelligence, even considering the carnival atmosphere of the global warming debate – but also the $2,000 trade-in payment for gas-guzzling cars, which comes with its own derogatory nickname, cash-for-clunkers.

That’s not to say there haven’t been strong ideas from the Labor side.

Gillard’s education proposals are easily the biggest and most substantial of the campaign. It helps that they’re actually good too. Performance pay for teachers, devolving greater budget and hiring powers to principals, bonus funding for schools showing the greatest improvement – these are policies which push us closer to a dynamic and competitive education system. And, dare I say, a bit of a “market” one as well.

You get the impression Gillard is genuinely energised by education policy.

That, and WorkChoices was bad.

For a short time last year the causes and consequences of the Global Financial Crisis sparked a passionate ideological debate in Australia. But the sparring between Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd over the role of the government in the economy is a distant memory.

Abbott and Gillard were barely participants in the debate over the stimulus.

The two current leaders’ views about government aren’t that different. On many issues they converge. Abbott is a big government conservative. Gillard is a market-leaning social democrat.

The attempts during this campaign to revive the stimulus debate have seemed hollow. Abbott, for his part, is much more comfortable talking about pink batts and school halls than Keynesian fiscal policy.

And Gillard has struggled to fully adopt Kevin Rudd’s policies as her own. Moving forward provides little opportunity to look back. Not only the stimulus: we’ve heard very little about Labor’s expansive health reform plan.

One notable side issue of this campaign has been gay marriage.

Neither major party has altered its position at all, of course. But the consistency with which gay marriage has been pushed at the candidates at every stop shows it is now a mainstream question.

Both Gillard and Abbott have had to fall back on reminding listeners that their governments have made substantial progress removing lots of other discriminatory policies against gay people and gay couples. They’re right, but marriage has gained almost totemic status in this campaign.

It’s hard not to see Election 2010 as a turning point. The case against same-sex marriage is looking weaker and weaker, and opposition to it looking more like stubbornness than principle. International experience suggests that gay marriage can be legalised without complete social and moral disintegration – after all, doing so makes it legal, not mandatory.

Gay marriage is unlikely to swing many votes. But Julia Gillard’s atheism makes her hostility to altering the Marriage Act look somewhat insincere – a bit too politician-like, a bit too focus-grouped.

For better or worse, that’s not a charge you could level at Tony Abbott.

Abbott is a self-described weather vane, sure. But when he changes his mind on policy, even for purely political reasons, he’s the first to tell you about it. Abbott has always treated his political career as an opportunity to share his feelings and grow. It’s very odd. But it’s disarming.

All year, the Liberals had been planning to depict Kevin Rudd as a poser who was more interested in polls than effective governing. Abbott was to be the opposite: the more-real-than-real candidate.

Who’d have thought that plan would work just as well against Julia Gillard?

NBN: Crippling government regulation to blame

At the Labor Party launch on Monday, Julia Gillard made the National Broadband Network central to her pitch for reelection.

And if you were introduced to the broadband debate this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t really an alternative to the government’s plan.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy described the opposition’s broadband plan as a “failure of imagination”. The fact that this seems like a powerful critique shows how stilted the debate over broadband has become – apparently the problem with the Coalition’s broadband proposal is it doesn’t soar with the eagles.

But think back: just a few years ago Telstra was begging the government for permission to build its own super-fast broadband network. At no cost to taxpayers. Completely free of government subsidy. If the previous government or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission had allowed it, there’s a good chance the private sector could have been building the broadband network already.

After Tony Abbott’s performance on the 7:30 Report last week, you bet he regrets the previous government didn’t take broadband policy off the political table.

There was a stickler of course. Telstra was asking for a regulatory holiday – that is, to exempt its new fibre investment, for a time, from the requirement to share it with its competitors. Failing that Telstra wanted the ACCC to nominate the price that the company would be compelled to share its new network, before they built it. After all, telecommunications networks cost a lot of money. The ACCC sets the price competitors pay to access Telstra’s network, and Telstra wanted some assurance it would be able to charge a price sufficient to recoup its investment.

The ACCC refused to do so. The Howard government wouldn’t make any legislative changes. Telstra ramped up its rhetoric, attacking both the government and the ACCC chairman, Graeme Samuel.

Into this bitter quagmire stepped the Labor Party and Kevin Rudd’s open chequebook.

NBN boosters like to say there is a “market failure” in telecommunications. But the government’s regulatory framework is the problem. It’s not the marketplace which has failed to deliver broadband. Government failure has.

The NBN plan tries to sidestep the regulatory failure, by having the government assume responsibility for telecommunications investment now and into the future. That’s exactly what Telstra’s privatisation, way back in the 1990s, was supposed to leave to the market.

So Australia is still struggling to break away from a century of nationalised communications. And doing so will mean making peace with an independent Telstra.

There is widespread anti-Telstra sentiment – not only from the Labor Party, but also from rural Liberals and the National Party, who imagine the high cost of providing telecommunications services in the bush is just thinly disguised anti-country bigotry.

On the other hand, many Liberals are understandably reluctant to be brutal to Telstra because the Howard government encouraged everybody to dump their life savings in Telstra shares.

The Labor Party has taken to presenting broadband as if it is simply a giant present from government to its people, and anybody who objects to the NBN must hate the internet. And the opposition, afraid of looking too close to Telstra, is trying to ape Labor’s approach without completely surrendering its debt and deficits attack on the government.

At least it’ll be cheaper, I guess.

Here the absence of a cost benefit analysis for the National Broadband Network is telling. Does anyone doubt the government wouldn’t like such an analysis (if it was flattering) to help defend their policy? Or NBNCo? Or the many firms which will get some of the huge amount of money the government is about to dump into the telecommunications sector?

As the tech publisher Grahame Lynch said in The Australian last week, it is “astonishing that not one … has mustered the modest resources required to prepare a credible cost-benefit analysis that attempts to measure the claimed externalities for the NBN in areas such as telecommuting, e-learning and telemedicine that are bandied about ad nauseam.”

It seems certain at the very least Treasury would have made some effort to look at the costs of the NBN relative to its benefits.

If it truly hasn’t happened – if Treasury really haven’t bothered to investigate whether this investment is worth the money – then the government is extraordinary negligent. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and say they’re not, and the results just haven’t been released.

So the absence of the cost benefit analysis in the public sphere is a very strong hint the government’s broadband spend doesn’t really have much of an intellectual case. Julia Gillard and Stephen Conroy can talk all they want about how broadband will boost e-health, productivity, education, and things we haven’t imagined yet.

But if only the government had dealt with its crippling telecommunications regulations, the market could have been boosting all that already.

Telling it like it is

Who knows, perhaps deposing your leader, saying your government had lost its way, then rushing to an election, wasn’t the great idea it seemed at the time?

All the criticism of the campaign and the media during the campaign – justified and unjustified – has its origin in this bizarre plan.

So don’t blame the press. Blame the ALP soap-opera they are covering.

This weekend saw an intensification of the criticism of the media that has been a constant feature of this campaign. A Julia Gillard press conference on Saturday, where she offered $4,000 training entitlements for older workers – to compete with Tony Abbott’s employment subsidies offered earlier in the week – and new regulation on reverse mortgages.

None of the press’s questions after were about the policy. Only one was about any policy at all.

But could the Prime Minister really have expected anything less?

Gillard had just returned from a meeting with the man she deposed a few short weeks ago. All that was provided to the media was brief footage of the two awkwardly pointing at a map. It would be a fair guess that more things were discussed between the two than the topographical features of the Australian coastline.

And, to add to the carnival atmosphere, Mark Latham was skulking around in the back of the press conference, exclusively for 60 Minutes.

The Labor Party seems determined to eat itself. It’s sucked all the air out of its campaign from the first day.

Latham has clearly imagined himself to be a journalist for some time, regularly divulging conversations which he had with the current Labor team in his pieces – obviously without their consent. Mark Latham’s columns in The Australian Financial Review are witty and entertaining, but are rarely little more than bomb-throwing.

The campaign opened with a spat between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Blanche D’Alpuget couldn’t have timed her new book better.

The contrast with former Liberal leaders couldn’t be stronger.

John Hewson pops up on Gruen Nation comfortable in his role as the kindly old uncle with an amusing backstory for the rest of the panel to tell jokes about. Apart from a few sly and embarrassed jokes at Tony Abbott’s expense, it’s hard to see how Hewson could ever be portrayed as undermining the opposition leader’s cause.

Malcolm Fraser has that weird, peculiarly Tory sense of honour – try your best not to talk about religion, politics, or the fact that you no longer vote for the party which you led to victory three times.

It took nearly six months for Fraser to reveal he had left the Liberal Party late last year. When asked on ABC radio last week why he believed that the Coalition was not ready to govern, instead of explaining, Fraser told the interviewer to read his book. Gruff, sure, but not damaging.

And Malcolm Turnbull has managed an extraordinary balancing act during this campaign. He’s simultaneously not a threat to Tony Abbott and supportive of his election, while being open and comfortable with the fact that he a) opposes one of Abbott’s major policy planks and b) has all the intentions in the world to be the future leader of the Liberal Party.

Turnbull is even campaigning with candidates around the country – he’s a full blown leader in exile – but hasn’t yet impacted Abbott’s election strategy one bit.

It would be quite funny if 60 Minutes sponsored Brendan Nelson or Peter Costello to follow Tony Abbott around the campaign trail hurling abuse. But that isn’t going to happen.

Doing so is a peculiarly Labor thing, evidentially.

Here’s a further clue that the vacuousness of the campaign isn’t the fault of the press: not even the standard campaign gotchas are getting much traction. There’s no laughing about how some candidate doesn’t know the price of milk. Or that a senior candidate can’t explain the “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment” in a concise sentence. Or that some policy hasn’t been costed perfectly.

In less dysfunctional times, these are the sorts of flufferies that distract from the bigger picture.

It’s not that this campaign lacks the material: there’s much silly policy error this year. The government’s cash for clunkers program assumed, for some unfathomable reason, that the program would be undersubscribed. Of the 200,000 maximum buy-outs the program was to allow, the government assumed that only 180,000 would actually occur. This assumption seems to have been premised on the belief that Australians don’t like free money.

And it leaves cash for clunkers badly undercosted.

Similarly, there are serious questions about Abbott’s spending and savings commitments.

But the destructive personal relationships between Labor’s celebrities won’t even give enough space for either party to seriously pursue these sorts of failures.

Labor’s factional kings seem to think that eliminating a piece from the political chessboard means eliminating them from the political arena. Clearly, they’re wrong about that.

A rule of thumb in Australian politics is that every former leader, Labor or Liberal, eventually gets a weekly column, or a regular commenting gig.

But Labor’s internal culture means that when they do, they are so bitter and angry they are a major liability.

A speech for Tony Abbott

Kevin Rudd had happier times.

The former prime minister used to have great fun claiming that the Coalition was a crazed group of neo-liberal ideologues who would love nothing more than to ban the union movement, destroy the social safety net, and build leaky nuclear power plants in Western Sydney.

Rudd argued the Coalition, and 400 years of liberal and conservative thinkers, have sought to undermine the great institutions of community and society.

He said that “neo-liberals” idolised a world where individuals are self-sufficient and shorn of any personal connection to each other – at least outside the shopping centre. He called this a “Brutopia”.

But eventually Rudd dropped that overbearing rhetoric, just like he dropped so many of his other policy brainwaves.

Who knows? Maybe he realised he got it all wrong.

Peter Costello once said that he wanted to see Australia be everything it could possibly be.

I too have a vision of a diverse, pluralistic, Australia.

And I believe only the principled liberal conservatism of the Coalition – rather than the make-it-up-as-they-go technocracy of the Rudd/Gillard Labor Government – can deliver that.

The great conservative thinker Edmund Burke spoke of society being formed out of “little platoons” – families, clubs, sporting associations, non-profit organisations, political parties. And – yes – even churches.

These institutions build the trust necessary for a healthy, plural society.

Without a thriving non-government sector and community organisations, we will not be able to adapt to the changes of the future – the cultural and social changes brought about by technology and the global marketplace.

In the last few decades, political scientists have been calling this social capital. It’s the value that is created by our interactions in voluntary organisations – from the family to the sporting club to the church. Political scientists been pointing out that this social capital has been disappearing rapidly the Western world. We no longer join bowling clubs. Our sporting clubs are in decline. Our political parties are no longer representative – not enough Australians want to join them.

Social capital theory is a popular area of scholarship right now.

But liberals and conservatives have understood the idea behind social capital for centuries.

Kevin Rudd was wrong. We’re not becoming a less cohesive, less familiar, less networked, more individualistic society because of “neo-liberalism”.

We’re becoming a less cohesive, familiar and networked society because of ever-growing government.

The Coalition recognises that big government isn’t just bad because of debt and deficits.

Red tape, bureaucracy, and the nanny state are eroding away the institutions of civil society that have made Australia great.

Across Australia we have amateur sporting clubs which are dying because bureaucrats have told them they can’t serve spectators beer.

Volunteers with the Red Cross can’t help make lunches for volunteer firefighters, because they might breach the rigid and extensive food handling codes imposed by governments.

Jam can’t be sold at fetes without labels detailing every ingredient. Lemonade can no longer be sold by children on the side of the road.

Street parties are so over-regulated that they have virtually disappeared.

And no wonder. To host a street party you have to go through a mass of bureaucratic hoops. There is paperwork to be filled out, emergency plans to be coordinated, supervisors to be nominated, acoustic engineers to be hired to monitor the decibels of stereo systems, and qualified electrical engineers needed to plug the stereo in.

The Australian government needs to take a good hard look at itself.

That’s what a Coalition government will do.

There’s too much acceptance that every problem should be fixed by a new law or a new regulation. But those laws are stifling the development of the Australian community.

They’re preventing social capital from building. They’re forcing the little platoons to disband.

The Coalition will challenge this trend.

And, of course, we’ll act.

One of the first tasks of an Abbott government will be to commit to removing as many of these unnecessary, harmful and counterproductive laws and regulations which have built up over the last century. And we will work with state and local governments to help them do the same.

More than that, we reject the paternalism of the nanny state. We reject the plethora of health bureaucrats and activists who seek to limit individual choices, and erode individual responsibility.

A Coalition government will respect your right to individual choice.

I don’t believe Commonwealth bureaucrats know what’s best for you – the Coalition doesn’t believe how many slices of cake you eat is anybody’s business, but your own. We don’t want government bureaucrats leaning over you as you decide how many chips to eat with your fried barramundi.

I understand this is a controversial view.

We live in a world where trusting people to make decisions themselves about their own health, their own lifestyle, is controversial. Even radical.

Politicians of previous generations faced great challenges. They had to figure out how to jettison 100 years of protectionism. They had to figure out how to open their markets to the world – even as an army of special interests opposed it. They had to privatise and deregulate.

But our challenges are different to the challenges faced by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

The government no longer owns the great state owned enterprises of yesterday. Nor does it want to.

But instead it tries to manage them – to regulate, to manage, and to oversee every aspect of the economy and community.

We have to get the boot of government off the neck of society. We have to allow individuals to make decisions about their own lives free of government interference.

We have to get government out of the way. A Coalition government will let Australia’s little platoons flourish.

The dichotomy of Wikileaks

Does Julian Assange understand the significance of what he is doing? Perhaps not.

The Australian editor in chief of Wikileaks has published some extraordinary material in the past, but the release of the Afghan war logs is a big deal. The 91,000 classified documents – only 75,000 have been publically uploaded so far – cover six years of the War in Afghanistan.

The meaning of it all isn’t yet clear.

At Slate, Fred Kaplan has written “Just because some documents are classified doesn’t mean that they’re news or even necessarily interesting.” But if nothing else the documents provide a portrait of a war which hasn’t been going well. There may not be any smoking guns of conspiracy here. But there is a lot of murkiness.

This isn’t the way Assange sees it. On Thursday’s Lateline, Assange said the documents revealed “negligence that’s on a massive scale”. He told Der Spiegel the material “shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of [the Afghan] war”. It will “change public opinion”.

With Wikileaks Assange is trying to pursue two missions at once. And they clash.

The first mission is to provide a repository of data and documents. Wikileaks is where whistle-blowers can dump raw material – everything interesting and uninteresting.

But Assange is obviously trying to match that with political activism. In this case, activism against the war in Afghanistan.

He’s welcome to walk and chew gum if he can. But the editorialising necessary for his activism undermines Wikileaks’ integrity, and ultimately weakens the site’s power.

Nothing illustrates the perils of this two sided approach as well as the Baghdad air strike footage. Released in April, three months before the Afghan War Logs, the footage depicts a 2007 American attack against insurgents and what appears to be unarmed individuals, including two journalists.

Wikileaks released two versions of the footage.

The original, unedited version was 39 minutes long. The other version was an 18 minute highlight reel. Opening with a George Orwell quote – “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind” – the film, titled “Collateral Murder”, broadcast Assange’s opinion proudly. (The video’s provisional title, “Permission to Engage”, was discarded.) The audio was edited carefully to avoid viewers making an emotional bond with the American soldiers.

As they say: don’t telegraph your punches. Let the material speak for itself.

Instead, by editing it he made the video into a political football. Supporters of the war were able to dismiss the leaked video as nothing more than anti-war hype – they focused on what was edited out, not what was left in.

Wikileaks risks being dismissed as just another partisan media outlet.

It’s a shame because the site couldn’t be more important.

The biggest barrier to the scrutiny of government is their monopoly over information. Governments like secrecy a lot. It’s a precautionary thing. From a political perspective it’s far safer to claim something is confidential, or of too great importance to national security to be shared with the public. You never know how information, once released into the public domain, could create political problems.

So it’s easier not to release information at all, if you can avoid it.

Last month, the Australian Attorney General’s Department gave a very clear example of how pervasive this risk-averse, secrecy-first attitude is.

A freedom of information request focused on the federal government’s plans to have internet service providers monitor the surfing habits of consumers. The request was successful. But the document which was released by the Attorney-General’s Department had been almost entirely censored – 90 per cent of what was released had been blacked out.

In a supporting letter, the department claimed censorship was necessary because releasing more information “may lead to premature unnecessary debate”.

Obviously the government thinks it better to encourage uninformed speculation.

The South Australian government recently kept an embarrassing list of defective bridges secret, claiming that the information could be used by al-Qaeda.

Wikileaks has the potential to disrupt this habitual secrecy once and for all; an institutional counterweight to the government’s monopoly over its information.

Yet it seems that for Assange, Wikileaks is instead a new media venture, and comes complete with an editorial stance. Those 91,000 documents are the supporting material for Wikileaks’ investigative work.

Talking to The New Yorker, he described this practice as “scientific journalism”, comparing Wikileaks to academic scholarship: “If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required … to submit the data that has informed your research – the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it.”

But some commentators have pointed out Assange had to pitch his story to The Guardian, The New Yorker and Der Spiegel to get publicity, rather than rely entirely on his site.

Assange should take that as a compliment, not a criticism.

Wikileaks has done some amazing things since it was founded four years ago.

But its success so far shows how much the world needs an unedited, unfiltered, and above all studiously neutral, depot for data and documents, much more than it needs another new media editor with a political campaign.